The Gopher King: Chapter 14

Malindra retreated down the spiral stairs and the Viceroy used his new staff to push the trapdoor down with a loud thud. He then used his staff to push open the upper trapdoor in his room and walked up the steps to the open top of the tower. The sun had not yet come up when the lich, still clutching his new prize, transformed into a small falcon and his clothes as well as the staff and his jewelry were magically melded into his new form. Anyone would have mistaken him for just a falcon. An expert on birds would have mistaken him for a hobby.

A hobby is a slender falcon native to many parts of Domum, especially across the continent of Partum. The bird is native to the land of Karinthia and the Viceroy could at times recollect in his mortal life having been mindful of the quick little birds that were fast enough to catch swifts and sparrows on the wing. Unlike the hawks and eagles that many viewed as the greatest predators in the skies the Viceroy had always marveled at the speed and agility a smaller, more innocuous hunter utilized to bring down their prey. In some ways perhaps the lich viewed himself as a sort of hobby; flying quickly and striking fast whereas his bigger and stronger peers were eagles and buzzards, drifting in the sky aloof and self-important. Whatever the case the Viceroy was in this form a speedy little flyer and he hopped up on the parapet and with a little jump took to flight.

The distance from the winery to the little state of Chute de l’Ombre wasn’t very far at all. It probably didn’t even amount to a dozen miles. All of the so-called “little states” that comprised the Wenigzustand region were all comically undersized in the opinion of the Viceroy. He could maintain this current form for several hours so he took advantage of it and flew around taking stock of the entire picture as near as he could see it. The lich was confounded by the stark differences between the two countries. The border with Maelonbourg was as clearly defined as it could be. Building a wall between the two places wouldn’t have defined the two better than they were in this curious and magically altered condition.

On the Maelonbourg side of the border there was virtually no signs of plant life. Only dead and dying trees could be seen in what had once been groves and forests. The dark and evil nature of the night hags had been draining the life from Maelonbourg itself. Even the soil had become stale and lifeless through the neglect of the resident hobgoblins and the creeping horror of the night hag’s sorcery. Animals were just as infrequently encountered because where flora failed to thrive the fauna would quickly dwindle out as well. It looked as though the land had been cursed from the core outwards.

In Chute de l’Ombre the scene was dramatically different. Plant life of all descriptions had been given free rein to an extent that swaths of the countryside were all but impassable. Animals abounded to a degree that the place felt overrun. The ecosystem was clearly out of whack in a way that if Maelonbourg and Chute de l’Ombre were to somehow merge their ledgers the balance would work out just about right. The Viceroy realized that if the lands of this overgrown mess were being monitored properly then a small falcon flying in from Maelonbourg would have been instantly suspicious. The lich made a mental note of this mistake on his part and continued scouring the area nearest the border for any sign of sentient life.

The border guards under the apparent employ of the ubiquitous Marquis of this wild and unhinged land were easy to spot for the Viceroy. The keen eyes of the hobby form were hardly needed. Some of the watchmen, and women as well for that matter, had taken great pain to blend into their surroundings in order to more effectively monitor the devastated lands of Maelonbourg. Others were more casual in their approach, looking less like rangers and more like clerics and warriors ready to combat any of the night hag’s minions that should blunder into their territory. It was with some bemusement that the Viceroy noted that all of the protectors of Chute de l’Ombre were in fact gnomes. Small, cheerful folk that spent their time tinkering and making merry songs. These were what stood in opposition to the schemes of the night hags. Gnomes.

Landing in a convenient tree, the Viceroy hopped down to a low hanging limb and watched a group of gnomes carefully. There was a cleric among them and five that appeared to be archers. They did a passable job of monitoring the border, taking turns peering through the underbrush and having set out some traps to raise an alarm should anyone try and sneak across. These safeguards were pointless to defend against the Viceroy but there had probably never been a need to defend this place against the powers available to an undead mage of almost staggering strength. The Viceroy hopped from his branch and landed on the ground. In the same instant he transformed into his natural form and raising the staff above his head he cast another spell.

The surprise among the gnomes was terrific. They never stood a chance against the magic of the Viceroy and even if they had there would have been little they could have done to lessen the effects of his craft upon their little gnomish selves. In an instant all of them fell to the ground in crumpled heaps, victims of a simple sleeping spell that in the hands of the Viceroy was as potent a conjuring as could be imagined. They wouldn’t wake for many hours and when they did they wouldn’t remember anything that had happened.

Surveying the little bodies slumbering on the forest floor at his feet the Viceroy moved swiftly to the one he was able to determine to be a cleric. These warrior priests were a constant thorn in the sides of the Diosian Lodge. Even though this fellow had never been a threat to the Viceroy, and likely never would be, it was with a personally harbored malice that the lich removed the armor from the gnome’s left arm and pushed his sleeve up to reveal the skin of the gnome’s forearm. Chuckling to himself, the lich took his right forefinger and pushed the claw-like nail into the flesh of the gnome’s arm. Deliberately and with unnecessary glee the Viceroy carved a phrase into the hapless demihuman’s skin. The blood from the wounds was pulled into the fingernail of the lich like a fountain pen draws ink and the lich could feel a connection being formed with the now restlessly sleeping gnome as he struggled against the vile enchantment of the undead fiend. When he had finished his gruesome work the letters on the gnome’s arm were blistered, red and angry and pulsating with the unfathomable cruelty of the lich. The Viceroy replaced the sleeve and the armor and stood up. Now all he had to do was plumb the depths of this cleric’s mind to get the answers the night hag sought.

The Viceroy stood over the pile of gnomes and concentrated on the mind of the cleric. There was fear in abundance foremost in the thoughts of his victim, and the lich savored it for a moment before pressing on. Terror made it difficult for anyone to resist the mental intrusions of the Viceroy, or for that matter any lich, making it easier for the inquisitive undead to find the information which they sought. Rarely did the Viceroy ever need to push for the information, though. More often the surface thoughts of the sleeping individual were sufficient to allow the Viceroy access to that which he wanted. But this was a different situation altogether. The gnome cleric had no earthly idea what the lich desired from him and therefore the Viceroy had to straight up demand answers.

Telepathy is a wonderfully wicked tool when wielded properly. Because actual language isn’t employed it is possible to transfer thoughts freely without linguistic barriers hindering the process. Unless the victim of an unwanted telepathic link has mystic defenses in place prior to the mental assault or is well versed in psionics to counter any such intrusion, they will find it impossible to confound the manipulations of the person seeking out that which they know. Being under the enchantment of a magical sleep spell and suffering from the effects of the Viceroy’s blood drawn curse made the gnome even more open to the wiles of the lich and the Viceroy took full advantage of it.

Unhobbled by language and devoid of concern for the mental well-being of the cleric now fully under his sway the Viceroy began demanding answers from the gnome. “What is your name?”

The gnome fidgeted in his spell-induced sleep and responded with a mix of horror and helpless anger. “Zedem Malroy.”

“Whom do you serve?” asked the Viceroy.

“The Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre.” Replied the gnome.

Angrily the Viceroy asked again, “Whom do you serve?”

There was a momentary pause before the gnome managed to say, “You, my lord. I serve you.”

Satisfied with this response the lich continued pressing his inquiry. “Did the Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre play a hand in the death of Colldrenia?”

The gnome said in telepathic response, “Yes, my lord.”

“Describe to me the role he played in this act.” The Viceroy was thrilled with the information provided by this wretched creature. So much more detail could be had from tormenting living beings than questioning the spirits of the recently departed or even the ancient souls that lingered in this plane.

The gnome responded with, “The Marquis has potions that polymorph people into other specific races. The ones he uses the most often are orcs and hobgoblins. He gave these potions to some adventurers in order that they could freely travel in Oublier and Maelonbourg in order to further their interests and his. He also provided access to armor and clothing appropriate to such races in order that they could blend in more easily.”

The Viceroy tightened his grip on the golden staff and leaned in closer to the sleeping gnome. “Who are these adventurers?”

The gnome was reluctant to reply but powerless to prevent the answers from flowing forth all the same. “A human ranger named Xan, a blind human druid named Selena, an elven rogue named Joss, and a half-elven bard named Nessa. There were two others, an elf and a human, but they haven’t been seen or heard from in weeks. They are likely dead.”

The lich stood back up and pondered this insight. While he doubted that the two missing individuals were in fact dead and out of the picture altogether, he decided to press on. “Who is the shape-shifting orc?” he asked the gnome.

“There are two swamp orcs, they call themselves jors, that serve the Marquis as his eyes and ears in the land. They are both able to assume the forms of animals for prolonged periods of time.” The gnome’s answers were still cloaked in terror but the responses to the lich’s questions were flowing more naturally.

The Viceroy then asked, “Who were the dark elves that helped these adventurers?”

“An old man named Selkirk and his granddaughter Evantha.” Replied the gnome.

“Are they wizards?” the Viceroy asked.

There seemed to be an even greater amount of confusion and anxiety in the mind of the gnome as he replied, “Not to my knowledge, master. They are just dark elves.”

There didn’t appear any attempt on the gnome’s part to deceive or obfuscate. While the lich didn’t really believe any part of this it was conceivable that the cleric simply didn’t know the truth but could only speak to his own perceptions. But why then would a powerful mage, much less two of them, want to masquerade as anything other than sorcerers? It then occurred to the Viceroy that he frequently had to disguise who and what he was in order to get things done. Maybe that was what the dark elves had been doing. Then what were the dark elves up to? Clearly this gnome wouldn’t know and a question that needed answering would plague the Viceroy, but he needed to get back to those adventurers.

“Where are these adventurers now?” asked the Viceroy.

The gnome answered, “At Castle Cambion, master. They are in between quests for the time being.”

None of this made much sense to the Viceroy and it took him a few minutes to gather his thoughts together. “What of the tapestry that Colldrenia sought? Does it play a role in this?” he asked the gnome.

The gnome replied, “The tapestry is for the dark elves to guide them to Havre d’Anges. The King of Fanolania had intended them to be sent to the dark elves hundreds of years ago but they were waylaid and only recently came to light. Colldrenia and the orcs both wanted the tapestry for their own purposes, as did the green dragon that rules Forêt Verte. But the dark elves won out and now have a pathway home.”

The Viceroy stood silently staring at the sleeping gnome. He then said to himself, almost offhandedly and without any clear purpose, “Green dragon, you say? How interesting.”

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