When Foruk and his one surviving henchman returned via the scroll Luga had given him to the boglands, healers had been sent for immediately. The troll vindicator had stood toe-to-toe with the Gaedling Goblin, and paid the price. Vindicator he may be, but the Gaedling was a war machine.
He'd been burned and buffeted and thrown around the clearing where they'd fought like an impudent apprentice, until his henchmen had attacked the Gaedling physically. One had been crushed to death for the effort, while the survivor lost his good hand to the smaller man's scimitar. A lucky glancing blow to the temple with a kick sent the Gaedling flying, and Foruk had followed up with punishing blasts of ice and fireballs. He didn't believe the Gaedling Goblin dead, only unconscious.
The decision to let the old goblin live had been born of respect for his power. Foruk had never faced such a capable goblin in all his years. He only hoped he wouldn't regret that mercy later.
Healed up and awakening on his cot in his tent several hours later, he'd been greeted by a face of all darkness, save two enormous, bloodshot eyes and blindingly white teeth surrounded by a halo of oily, unkempt hair. He gasped and rolled aside, falling off the cot with a thud, hand pressed out to conjure air magic. But it was only Casey, the taomen.
She looked more and more like a madwoman, less human by the day. She smelled like animal musk and machine oil. "The master requests a task be done," she said, her voice raspy, almost reptilian.
"I am in no condition to go on another mission right now," Foruk said with a grunt, holding his bruised left side. Healers could work some wonders, but there remained injuries which required time to heal.
"I see this, and he knows it. He sends me to confer with you and receive recommendations."
"Five men, any five men, from this camp are to go with me. You are to choose them. Master Luga senses that my source and the hated High Knight, Sir Daggeuro, are soon to arrive at the home of the Gaedling Goblin. We are to give them understanding of what they're up against."
Foruk considered her words, his knowledge of his master's habits and mindset. Yes, this seemed like something he would do, but sending only five armed men with the taomen against Daggeuro was foolishness. He should send twenty if they want to do any damage to that kennin. But it wasn't his place to question such things. He understood well enough what his master was doing. The taomen, Casey, looked the part of magic-wielder, and in training had already given everyone in the camp a decent scare.
But you aren't battle-tested yet, and though he hates the risk, Luga understands well he must test you this way. It is wise of him, wise and just. Foruk named for her two orcs, two gotrin and a goblin to take, then climbed back onto the cot to rest.
He drifted back to recouperative slumber moments after she left.
Neither spirit nor human source had sensed her or her companions as the woman gathered apples, and when they were out of eyesight, Casey let down the shadow veil she'd cloaked herself and her allies with. The taomen, free of the constraints of her master, reveled in the fullness of magic available to her.
"That was pretty neat, boss lady," said Feder, a pinch-faced rat-man whose mutated left arm, covered in a kind of green hair, dragged on the ground. "My own shadows tend to waver when I try such things."
"You are flesh and blood given control of some magic," she replied. "I am magic given flesh and blood as a vessel of will. There is a difference." She looked at her motley little crew. Foruk had stuck her with cast-offs, men whose absence would cause no noticable blip on anyone's radar. But Casey had seen potential in each of these, including Marra, a gotrin woman whose random fits of temper made her ill-suited to camp life. But she was a killer, and Casey knew she would be useful here.
"So, what now," asked Banzai, a Lunig Clan goblin with a propensity for acting impulsively. "Do we chase 'em? Chase 'em and kill 'em?"
"No," she said. "Orson, Petra," she said, calling to the orc man and woman behind her. "You two go raise some ruckus. Only enough to draw someone out, I care not who. Do not engage them. When they're busy looking for you two, we three will move under veil closer to the cottage." The orcs saluted and tromped off into the woods in order to cause a diversion.
A minute passed before she turned and hunkered down on a fallen log, hands resting palm-up on her knees. Feder stepped next to her, his heavy cologne stinging her nostrils. "What gives?"
"They alone of the five of you are least useful in the future to me, but they have a use right now. I sealed several spells of explosive force upon their cloaks, back at the camp. When the knight or the human, or even the voodoo man gets close enough, I'll sense it, and detonate the spells. Then we'll be on our merry way back."
The gotrin both chuckled, and Banzai sneered wickedly. "Can you imagine how pissed they'd be if they survived," the goblin asked between chuckles.
"They won't," Casey said with a grin that stretched almost back to her ear. "They won't."
Daggeuro had spent decades honing his senses, ever alert for danger. He'd sent Dimanche with Kathy because he'd detected something off in the woods, a barely restrained hostility begging for release. What specifically it was, he couldn't say, only that it was powerful, and close to he clearing where Kathy and Dimanche would be going.
However, they'd returned without incident. He still sensed something amiss, but for the time being, he would let it go. Daggeuro finished one more cord of wood and got the voodoo spirit to help him haul it inside of the Gaedling's cottage. When they were depositing the wood in a wire container for the fireplace, Dimanche leaned close and whispered to him, "We were being watched de whole time."
Daggeuro looked over his shoulder, waiting to reply as Kathy followed the Gaedling's directions to the bathroom. When she was inside, he whispered back, "Did you get a look at what was eyeing you?"
"No, dere was shadow magic being used nearby," the Baron said. "Who or whatever it was, it wasn't sure enough of itself to attack bot' of us." Daggeuro made a 'hrrm' noise in his throat and set wood in the fireplace. As Kathy came out of the bathroom, a loud 'boom', followed by a rumble in the ground, pulled everyone's attention to the cottage door.
"A tree been felled," the Gaedling said quietly. He began to rise from his chair, but the kennin High Knight stayed him with a gesture.
"Nay, let us deal with this," Daggeuro said, looking to Dimanche. Together they exited the cottage, leaving Kathy standing in the middle of the living room, axe in hand and mind clear, except for one thought- I knew I felt something back in that clearing, just as we were leaving. It was like being watched by a predator.
With the windows all open and the Baron's summoned air spirits making no noise, the only sound was of the Gaedling sipping at another graf. All remained still and quiet for three, maybe four minutes. Then, there came an explosion so huge she felt both its force and its heat from inside the aging goblin's home.
"Daggeuro," she muttered. Kathy was out of the house before the Gaedling could try to protest. To the north she saw smoke rising in a column, felt scorching wind blowing down from some unseen point further off. She charged into the thicket, mindful of her footing and the itch in her hands, the weapon's history of being used to defend against ambushes flying through her mind.
But there was no ambush, at least not one that had been laid for the purpose of harming her. As she came through tall, heavy bushes close to the smoke, a scorched, lumbering figure wrapped her up and carried her screaming back through the tangle, followed by something coughing and wheezing. When the figure finally set Kathy down, she realized it was Daggeuro. His dark blue armor was dented and blackened from the blast, much of his fur was singed to tight curls, and he had a gash along his snout that revealed his teeth and gums along the left side of his face. There was something else on him, sliding off of his body in places- charred meat and blood.
Baron Dimanche looked like an extra from a George Romero film, face bloodied, a chunk of scalp hanging down over the left side of his head. His right arm hung at an angle unnatural to humanoid physiology, two fingers missing from the hand. A rib protruded from his torn abdomen, splintered. His right foot was rotated 180 degrees, fractured ankle bone jutting out of torn flesh.
Kathy shrieked at the sight of him. He tried to smile at her, two teeth falling out of his bruised face. "It looks much worse den it is," he slurred, wobbling to and fro. Kathy and Daggeuro both quickly stepped forth when Dimanche pitched forward, eyes rolling up into his head. Together they caught him, easing him to the ground. Remarkably, his top hat remained on his head all along, utterly unscathed. The little card in the hat band was glowing. She plucked it out, turning it over to reveal an animated dancing jester.
She blinked as the jester winked at her, then slowly, with exaggerated motions, pulled its bell-hanging tri-horn cap from its head. It then gestured down at the Baron. "Daggeuro," she said. "Pull off his hat." The kennin knight asked no questions, but simply did as she said. When the top hat came clear, the Baron disappeared with a 'pop' noise echoing in the air.
"That's new," Daggeuro said, looking around for some sign of the Baron. "Come along, this might have been naught but a trap to get the Gaedling." The pair began walking back toward the cottage, Daggeuro limping slightly in favor of his left leg. When they entered the yard, they found Baron Dimanche standing with a solemn expression by the front walkway, arms folded over his narrow chest. He looked ashen, even more gaunt than he'd been before.
The price of quick recovery, Kathy, Ivy said in her head. It had been a while since Kathy'd heard anything from the otherworldly presence residing in her mind. All such unique or rare powers cost the wielder. Kathy tried a faint smile on the Baron, which he only replied to with a nod. "De Gaedling is safe," the voodoo spirit said in a rough, dry voice. "De air spirits told me so before dey left."
"Left," Daggeuro asked.
"Dey were no longer bound to my will once my physical manifestation returned to de Spirit Plane," Dimanche explained. "But dey were benign creatures. Dey wanted to give me an assurance before leaving."
"Well, at least there's that," Daggeuro said, shaking his head. Small crumbs of scorched fur fell off his head when he did. "This wasn't random, that's for certain. Someone sent those orcs at us, strapped like suicide bombers with fire magic."
"Luga, maybe," Kathy asked.
"No, I've had several encounters with the shade. It didn't smell or feel like his magic. Honestly," he mused aloud, giving her a curious glance. "It smelled a little like your power."
"The taomen," Dimanche said.
"Yes, I think it was," Daggeuro said, leading the trio back inside, where the Gaedling Goblin was preparing a bedroll near the fireplace. He looked up, saw Daggeuro's scorched, dented armor, and made an angry face, pinched and wrinkled. "Honorable Gaedling, for your safety, it may serve best if you sent us back to the capital now. More danger may arise if we remain here."
"Yar, I sees there may be wisdom in that," the Gaedling replied. "Lemme get the inks and oils," he said, shuffling off toward his small kitchen area, rummaging loudly in a lower cabinet. He returned a few minutes later to the center of his den's sitting area, setting aside several jars and brushes on his chair. "Sir Daggeuro, if you would be so kind as to help me move these rugs," he said with an impish grin. The kennin grabbed the end of the largest one and began rolling it up, revealing the Gaedling's reason for grinning.
Underneath the rugs he'd layered on the floor, years before, the Gaedling Goblin had painted a fabulous and detailed map of the kingdom of Amermidst. Kathy watched, fascinated, as several small green, red, and black dots, as well as a couple of white ones, moved less than an inch in several directions.
"What are those," she asked, meaning the dots. The Gaedling took her meaning right away.
"The green are the goblin clan leaders friendly to me. The red are those opposed to me. The black ones are very powerful and dangerous specters, the sort what can wipe out entire battalions or villages. The white are humes, ye ken, such as yerself." Kathy counted the black and white dots more carefully, noting that of the four black dots, only one was anywhere near them, situated west of the woods. There were, besides herself, seven other humans in Amermidst at the time.
"Intriguing," said Dimanche, clearly impressed. "Not many red dots."
"Nay, but more every time I turn around," the Gaedling groused, taking up a brush and a jar of some bluish ink. He proceeded to make a series of sigils in blue, then took a different brush and gold colored ink, inscribing more sigils around the capital. Finally he took the third jar, in which sat purple dust that he sprinkled over the map, setting it aglow with hazy light and smoke. "Grab your gear," he said.
When they were kitted out, the trio stood together, holding hands as the Gaedling Goblin chanted in a deep, guttural tongue. The purple dust began slowly swirling around them, picking up speed as the Gaedling's chants became louder, faster. At the apex of speed the dust blurred out Kathy's view of the cottage, and the sound of a tornado whirring around them drowned out the Gaedling's voice.
She had no idea how long the maelstrom lasted, but when it faded away, she, Daggeuro and Baron Dimanche stood together in a narrow alley between two brick buildings. Daggeuro, still holding Kathy's hand, led the way cautiously to the mouth of the alley, peering out into the late afternoon cityscape.
He turned back to Kathy and Dimanche with a weary smile. "We're back."
Leaving Kathy and the Baron at the Phoenix Inn to bathe, dress, and rest, the kennin High Knight of Ovin's court made the trek to the king's manor. Several Royal Guard gasped at the sight of him, battered and scorched as he was, but none questioned his right or urgency to pass.
Inside the manor's entry chamber, he was met by Sir Endridge, the golem-like Royal Guard who'd been manning the inner wall when Kathy was first brought to see the king. Endridge, ever the stolid ally, made no comment on Daggeuro's appearance, instead just leading him past the other sentries into the king's throne hall.
Daggeuro was struck right as he entered by a powerful sense of sadness, emanating from the diminutive monarch seated, wings still and flat at his back, upon his throne. The kennin High Knight approached the throne and knelt down, bowing to hs king.
"My liege, I bring news of my mission. We failed to arrive in time to secure the fragment of the Great Door left in the care of the Gaedling Goblin. Earlier today we were ambushed, and Baron Dimanche and myself were injured. I beg mercy and forgiveness for my failure." The king said nothing for what felt like a long time. Finally, he turned eyes filled with gravity upon his High Knight.
"You hardly need ask forgiveness, honorable Sir Daggeuro," Ovin said softly. "After all, they say ill news comes in threes. The battalion I ordered to march north has been decimated, slain all but a lone survivor. He was sent to us to serve witness to what happened. He arrived this morning on a horse at death's door, himself raving and ranting about some kind of demon that was like a tornado with weapons, cutting down all of his allies. The creature let him live, with a message to deliver- 'great pains and suffering for you and yours, in the name of Luga, my current master'."
Daggeuro felt his stomach turn knots. A full battalion, slaughtered all save one, left not out of mercy, but to act as a grim messenger. There could be no doubt in his heart that of all of the shade's campaigns against the court, this was already the deadliest.
He stood up, hands balled into fists at his sides. "My lordship, I must ask, do you have any idea how Luga knew to send his people at the Gaedling Goblin?"
"I do have a theory, and it grieves me to speak it aloud. Sir Daggeuro, I fear there is a spy in Celia, one with access to information available to either the Watch or the Royal Guard." As I had feared, Daggeuro thought.
"Could any of the Rangers have known," he asked, merely trying to narrow his suspect pool.
"Only Commander Ramsey, and he is above reproach on such subjects," said king Ovin. "He promised to keep all missives private in the matter. We've had too many Rangers go rogue on us these last two-hundred years. The entire recruitment process needs to be reviewed, something I should have tended to long ago."
"Your majesty, you can hardly be expected to personally visit every recruiting officer in the kingdom," said Daggeuro.
"Mayhap not, but someone should. Inform the Royal Guard that a new function is to be established for such purpose. Any candidates off the top of your head that you think would be suited to the task?"
"Sir Edden, my lordship. He knows many rituals for swift travel," Daggeuro replied swiftly. "He's currently on Watch assistance duty, along with Sir Flarek and Lady Juris."
"Excellent. Make the task title official and give Edden his assignment. Now," Ovin continued, hovering up over the seat, "we must turn our attentions to the Temple of Korant. This will be far more complicated than simply sending the three of you in to retrieve the fragment."
"Because of the tolos," Daggeuro said, narrowing his eyes.
"Yes, because of them. The easiest way to deal with them would be to use the Horn of Palchis, that they may be neutralized."
"Where is the Horn, then? The artifact repository?"
"No. To keep it safe from theft and abuse, it was offered as a gift of goodwill to the Manchis Clan of fellins, they who live in the southeastern plains of the kingdom." Daggeuro groaned aloud, pinching the spot between his eyes.
"Sire, they'll never let me just take the Horn. They likely won't barter for it, even. You know how they feel about the court, and as a kennin, I may as well try to sneak into their territory like a thief in the night."
"Ah, but this is where we show cunning, my good knight," Ovin said, grinning like the cat who got the cream. "We let it be known to the Watch that you'll be going to retrieve the Horn, even send your group south for a day. Luga's spy will report it, and the Manchis Clan will be eager to hand it over to his emmisary when he comes calling. You, Kathy and Baron Dimanche will meanwhile be waiting for said agent and his or her allies just south of the Temple."
"Our turn to use ambush," Daggeuro said, nodding. "I only worry the Manchis will clash with Luga's people and cause unwanted bloodshed."
"It's my plan, Sir Daggeuro. If that happens, the fault shall lie with me, not you," said Ovin. "Take a few days to rest. When you're ready to proceed, come tell me." Daggeuro bowed to his king and headed back into the outer town, for now only in search of a hot meal and a cold ale.