Friday, October 31, 2014

Day Seven-Seventy-Six: Let's all go for a ride

The trip to the plains east of Goblinoster were both exhilarating and tense.

Staring over the edge of the Sky Bitch but keeping his eyes fixed on the clouds, Jeffrey realized that he had not been so close to his castle in a long time. In the grand scheme of his life it was really not that long - a little over two years - but after everything that had happened since his expulsion from Castle MineMineAllMine… two years stretched. Two years became an eternity.

Bracing himself against the railing, listening to Libby bark out orders to the crew behind him, Jeffrey sighed. Home. My bed. My bedchamber. My tower. My dining hall. My throne room. My dungeon. My kitchens. My library. My baileys, and walls, and moat, and horrible executing machine… all of it is gone. Or, at least, pretty gods-be-damned wrecked. Inhabited by… things…

Jeffrey reluctantly conjured an image of a Non sitting in his chair, eating his pie, wiping its mouth with his napkin, and sleeping in his bed. A Non with a crown on its head. It was, he thought, a surprisingly funny image… until the Non slowly morphed into Kierkegaard. He quickly shut the image down, hurling it out of his brain with unsurprising force. He couldn’t get rid of the shudder that followed quite so easily, however, and he tried to stunt it instead with thoughts of his wife… but they got clobbered by the heat of breath on the back of his neck.


Jeffrey spun, staring wide-eyed. The captain of the vessel stared back.

Libby sneered, looking Jeffrey up and down once. She seemed born to wear a captain’s uniform, even if it was a relatively plain coat with a distinct lack of officious buttons. “You’re on watch, stupid. Spot anything?”

Jeffrey gulped. “Uh… no, ma’am… nothing.”

“Just ‘cause I like Daena doesn’t mean you get a free ride,” she said, contemptuous. Her hands balled into fists. “We’re deep in enemy territory. Get your head outta your hairy ass ’n start looking.”

Though frightened, Jeffrey felt a twinge of irritation as well. Once upon a time, Libby had worked for him. She’d been his lead carpenter, true, and she’d never tolerated much crap, but back then she’d shown him respect. The kind of respect due a king. And he wasn’t much of a king, true, but… well… it sure beat her constant condescension.

But I bet I could take her, Jeffrey thought, arm muscles tensing. I’ve been training hard. Antonio said I had promise. Libby’s probably stronger than me, but she’s an undisciplined brawler. I bet I could show her a thing or two. Maybe then, she’d stop riding me so damned - 

“OUT THE WINDOW!” Libby bellowed, cutting Jeffrey’s internal monologue short. She punched him hard and fast on the arm, forcing him to stare out the Sky Bitch’s glass front. “STOP FUCKIN’ DAYDREAMING WHEN SOMEBODY’S TALKIN’ TO YOU!”

Boots slapping the floor, Libby strode away. Jeffrey grumbled several choice words to himself, wondering if he’d ever share another civil word with Libby again. Then he remembered that he’d kept the details of her son’s death from her, and he decided he’d best just keep his mouth shut and avoid her as best he could. Yes, that seemed just fine, thank you.

“Heh, you got told,” Gok tittered from a few paces away. He too was on watch, balancing atop a crate to peer out the front window, and judging by his constant reports he was doing a much better job than Jeffrey.

Jeffrey didn’t say anything. Growling, he turned to stare out at the plains, determined to be the one to find their objective first.

The plains didn’t offer anything of interest for almost two hours. The Sky Bitch had been slowly prowling the skies for half a day already, fixedly avoiding the west as it skimmed close to the massive, almost featureless stretch of grass between its occupants former home and the ruins of Goblinoster. Accompanied by two rat-controlled dragons that glided high above the airship, the Sky Bitch was constantly on the lookout for flying Non, and the crew fretted over their inevitable appearance. It would take only one scout on patrol to bring the entire Non army down on Dragomir’s expeditionary force.

Mercifully, the Non did not find the Sky Bitch before a member of the crew spotted their target. Which is not, of course, to say that the Sky Bitch avoided trouble entirely.

Riding high in an observation bubble perched atop the Sky Bitch’s command deck, Morris was the first to see the telltale signs of the plain’s inhabitants on the horizon. His shouted word echoed down to everyone on the deck, both happy and triumphal, and Jeffrey let out a little groan of defeat. He couldn’t deny Morris his prize, though, as they’d all soon spotted the curls of smoke, and the Sky Bitch hastened to land at a safe distance from the cluster of moth-eaten tents.

Nodding gratefully from his wife as he emerged from her cabin, Pagan and Evangelina at his sides, Dragomir braced himself as the Sky Bitch thumped onto the ground with a sustained groan. Clutching his stomach as the landing gear descended and planted itself in the brown grass, Jeffrey wondered if Dragomir would call on him to accompany the party to their little parley. He was only slightly miffed, and mostly grateful, that Dragomir asked no such thing of him.

“Everyone else stay here,” Dragomir said, gazing askance at his shoulder as a rat climbed into view and settled into the fabric of his tunic. “We’re gonna go talk to ‘em.”

Her frown intense, Libby planted her gloved hands on her hips. “You sure you don’t want more backup? Only three people is a bad idea.”

Dragomir shrugged. “We’ll be fine. I have experience; Pagan’s got advice; Evangelina can cover the magic. Right, guys?”

“Right,” Pagan said.

“Sure,” Evangelina said.

“You ever gonna tell me how you got rid of that seal?” Dragomir inquired, cocking his head.

“I licked it off in a moment of passion,” Gok offered, making an obscene gesture. He shut up when several of the floorboards began to lift out of place around his feet, no doubt prompted by the orange glare in Evangelina’s baleful eyes.

Saluting, Dragomir led his small team off of the command deck and down to the boarding ramp, their faint footfalls echoing through the ship as the engine sputtered to a slow stop. Slumped over the railing, Jeffrey watched them walk slowly but confidently across the grass towards the sizeable camp, wondering how in the hell Dragomir would ever convince a bunch of zombies to join his war effort. Weirder things had happened, but… not many.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Day Seven-Seventy-Five: We're all adults, right?

The expression on Dragomir’s face as they talked said it all. He clearly had not known that the three lords he’d pulled into this meeting, hoping they’d help him build an army, were a bunch of assholes. Or at least he’d not known that they were diplomatic assholes, which, in a way, was even worse than normal.

Jeffrey went first, and his only response was a curt laugh. “Me? Allies? Nope. You saw my castle, Dragomir. Best friend I had is sitting to my left right now.”

“Why, Jeffrey, I didna know ye cared so much,” Gok said, fluttering a hand daintily in front of his nose.

“Trust me, it doesn’t say much for you,” Jeffrey replied, sighing. I need to socialize more.

Gok took the lead next, though his offering was no better. “We goblins have nay a reason te harbour good relations with folk, Mr. Mayor. I only got close te this one because I thought his kingdom would be ripe for pluckin’ one day. I wasna wrong in that, neither. Had a few feelers out te other kingdoms, but they were less trustin’.”

“Smarter, you mean.” Dragomir set his puffy hat aside, clearly frustrated.

“Aye, that too.” Gok elbowed Jeffrey. Jeffrey elbowed him back. They tussled for a moment.

“Okay. Great.” Dragomir turned to the last of the lords. “Pagan? Know anybody worth knowing?”

Pagan nodded, but it was a grim gesture. “I’ve fought for many kings and feudal lords over the years. Unfortunately, I think most of them are either dead of old age or fled from the Non. The last I heard of was Duke Barksome, maybe ten days south of Pubton, and I believe his small kingdom was swallowed by the Non while you were on your sojourn. My contacts will be little help to you, Dragomir.”

Dragomir’s hopeful face crumbled, replaced by irritation. Jeffrey sympathized. Despite the good Dragomir had done over the last three years, he’d managed to gather few truly reliable allies. His wife was one; Jeffrey’s own son was another. The guys in charge of armies, though… not so much.

There’s gotta be someone, Jeffrey mused, thinking back on his years as a king. Someone I didn’t piss off that much. Someone who visited the castle that I didn’t… uh… insult. Or execute. Or have executed. Or chase away. But I’ll be damned if I know who it is. Uhhhh…

“If that’s all,” Gok said, hopping off of his chair, “I’ll be headin’ to my quarters. Let yer wife know she can join me, if she likes, Mr. Mayor.”

“You don’t have quarters on the Sky Bitch,” Dragomir barked. The rat on his shoulder bristled. “Sit your ass down. And shut up about my wife. One word and she’ll throw you off the deck.”

“Ooooo, aye, and how useful that’d be, eh?” Gok pretended to totter back and forth on a precipice, dancing on one foot. Jeffrey had to admit he was impressed, as the Sky Bitch was already rocking quite a bit. “Old dead Gok, sent te his doom. Splat he goes. ’n then how useful is he to yer campaign, eh? My goblins won’t follow a human. They’d sooner kneel te my corpse, flies and all.”

Jeffrey rolled his eyes. “You’re so helpful, Gok. Really. You act as though we’re not in a fight for our lives against the Non.”

“Better te fuck around when doom is comin’ down on ye than to give up ’n sulk,” Gok retorted. His grin was yellow and sour. “Or so I hear certain people have done in this very room. Eh? Are my reports accurate, ye great yellow-belly?”

Anger surged in Jeffrey’s skull. He wondered, not for the first time, how Gok had learned such things - and he knew all too well that the goblin could just be making a clever guess. Jeffrey would look bad either way, but he didn’t care. “Just a damned minute - “

Still standing on his tip-toes, Gok danced away from the table, following the tips and turns of the ship. “Ye always were such a pansy, Jeff-o. Ne’er could stand up on yer own two feet. Always lettin’ other people do all the hard work. Ye didna deserve anything ye had. S’pecially that fiiiiine tree-bound woman ye had. Now she was a ruler. Shame me goblins never managed to abduct her proper, I’d have given her branches such a climb - ”

Jeffrey was now on his feet, face red. “Abduct her?! Those were your goblins, you little son of a bitch? I’ll kill you - “

Gok stuck up his middle finger. “I’d love te see ye try - “

Pagan jumped between the two, shouting. “Hold on, for fuck’s sake! My gods, Dragomir, bring this to order - “

But Dragomir wasn’t adding anything to the conversation for the moment. Though he was focused almost entirely on Gok, wanting to throttle the goblin’s neck with his boxing-toned muscles, a small part of Jeffrey seemed to realize that Dragomir hadn’t spoken for a while. At first the tiny part of Jeffrey that was paying attention thought Dragomir was about to explode - but when he took a quick peek over at Dragomir, wondering when he would receive backup against Gok’s sexism, he saw only a thoughtful expression on the man’s face. It was enough to shut him up.

When Gok realized that Jeffrey was no longer taking the bait, he stopped taunting. Pagan, too, abandoned his position of mediator, and all three of them focused on Dragomir. Even the rat, head cocked, seemed perplexed by Dragomir’s silence.

“Tree,” Dragomir eventually said, scratching the side of his head. “Tree… climbing trees… goblins… and corpses…”

“What is it?” Pagan tapped his sword cane on the ground, as if trying to attract Dragomir’s attention. “Are you going to share with the rest of us?”

As if waking from a brief dream, Dragomir shook his head. He focused on each man in turn, ending with Jeffrey. He grinned a little… but the humour in it was rueful and dark.

“Trees, climbing trees, goblins, and corpses.” He sighed. “I know some people who like me well enough. Assuming you can call ‘em ‘people’. Fed me dinner and everything.”

Monday, October 27, 2014

Day Seven-Seventy-Four: Kings (Or Somebody Like Kings)

“Ye know, I think ye’ve gotten a mite bit bigger, lad. Your arms don’t look half so scrawny as they did before.”

Jeffrey rolled his eyes, though the motion didn’t feel half so much as dramatic as the churning of his stomach. He was sitting in the half-finished lounge of the Sky Bitch, a small, ten-person eatery that seemed more like a dispensary than a proper restaurant. A few spartan decorations aside - an empty tankard clumsily affixed to the wall, a picture of a duck, a basket filled with rocks that liked to empty itself on the floor - the lounge looked like an oversized wooden box. The only food on order at the moment was beef jerky in a variety of different forms, none of them terribly appetizing, and anyone set on remaining in the lounge was forced to sit at one of four narrow tables. Jeffrey was at one such table, and across from him…

“‘course,” Gok continued, picking a near-invisible something out of his sharp teeth, “you always were hidin’ under those hefty clothes, weren’t ye? Even when we played tennis ye kept yer damned robes on. Never the wise one, Jeff-o, never the wise.”

“You’re not one to talk about wise, Gok,” Jeffrey admonished. “Try to take over the only town that managed to repel the Non? Stupid move.”

“I didna try, lad, I succeeded.” Gok shrugged. “S’not my fault someone came back ’n took it away from me. Still a successful campaign, all told - I was just complacent in the aftermath. Maybe with my advisor on my side, I’d have done a wee bit better.”

Jeffrey flinched. Someone - Jeffrey didn’t know who, but someone - had tipped Gok off to Grylock’s death earlier in the day. Since then the goblin had been insufferable, as though someone had borrowed his favourite book and not brought it back on time. Jeffrey seemed to be getting the worst of Gok’s jabs, though there was no way the king could know that Jeffrey was, at least partially, responsible for Grylock’s death.

Not you, Jeffrey insisted, and far from the first time. Not you. He was dying already. He made a choice. Don’t forget that, idiot, don’t forget.

“You had an advisor,” Jeffrey pointed out curtly. “She appears to have disliked you. Just a little.”

“Aye, sad day, that,” Gok admitted, curling one half of his drooping moustache. “Still. We had fun. Care te hear about it?”

Jeffrey bristled. “Absolutely not. You always were disgusting, Gok.”

“Yet you were always, somehow, worse,” Gok replied lightly, sipping a canteen. “Amazing, that, no?”

Jeffrey scowled. He and Gok had been trading barely-civilized barbs for twenty minutes, now, waiting to be called into a meeting in Libby’s cabin. She’d dubbed herself captain, having spent more than enough time at the helm of war machines over the years, and she kept insisting that they spend as much time as possible on the Sky Bitch. They would, after all, soon have to depart to build an army, and Libby figured it would be best for everyone to familiarize themselves with travel by air.

By air. Jeffrey gulped. For some reason he couldn’t get used to wafting about on the breeze in a giant wooden tub of a ship. The Sky Bitch seemed a worthy vessel, of course, and Libby knew her engineering, but every time he went up on the main deck… every time he looked at the clouds, caught a glimpse of the land, or so much as dared to approach the railing…

“Ye look grey, Jeffrey,” Gok commented. He didn’t appear to give two figs about the Sky Bitch’s location. “No great love of actin’ like a bird?”

“Hush,” Jeffrey insisted, gripping his stomach. “Just hush up. Why they kept you out of jail I’ll never know.”

“It’s the face,” Grylock insisted. “The captain o’ this tub can’t resist a pretty mug, I figure.”

Jeffrey wanted to argue the point some more, but his stomach got the best of him, and in mid-sentence he lurched to his feet and staggered towards the nearest privy. Gok’s cackling laughter followed him all the way to the bucket, and when Jeffrey returned, the jerky he’d eaten speckling the landscape far below, Gok was still mocking him. He was not, however, alone, and the man who’d joined him did not much improve Jeffrey’s ill mood.

“Former king,” Pagan said, inclining his head. His mail clinked with the shifting of the Sky Bitch. “I see you’re not enjoying yourself. Didn’t you ride back to Pubton on dragons?”

“Dragons… are… steady…” Jeffrey wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow, seating himself again. “This thing bucks around… a lot…”

“Hmph. I can’t see there’d be a huge difference. But, then, I haven’t flown on a dragon before. Oh, no, wait, I suppose I did…” The old knight tapped his chin thoughtfully, then shrugged. “At any rate. Dragomir’s ready to see you both now. He’s waiting in the captain’s cabin.”

“Is the captain with him?” Gok asked, eyebrows wiggling. “I’d like te see that one again. Mmmm, nice hips.”

“You never learn,” Pagan grunted, shaking his head. “You know, I’d thought to use a girl to get at you, Gok, back when I was a rebel. Get her to stick you in the guts with a shiv. Robert persuaded me that a king would never be so lecherous as to fall for such a ruse; clearly he had his head up his rear.”

“That’s me,” Gok agreed, amiably enough. “Though if I’d found out her head would’ve been sent back to ye in a jar. Shall we?”

A thin set of stairs led from the guts of the Sky Bitch - a cacophonous collection of gears, pulleys, and steam vents - to the main deck, a bubble of glass reminiscent of the command deck of the Dauphine. Emerging from the stairs, Jeffrey peered up at the massive balloon over his head, inflated by heat and gas and held in place by three massive brackets. Staggered by the movement of the ship, he nevertheless wondered how in the hell the thing remained as still as it did, considering the shudder of its propellors and the clunking of the gears below deck.

Pagan led the two former kings to a pair of double doors, set into the rear of the main deck, beside a series of work stations manned by pilots and engineers. Inside the doors they found a long table affixed to the floor, surrounded by static chairs and headed, as expected, by Dragomir. He was speaking to the captain of the ship in hushed tones, and when the trio entered, led by Pagan, Libby addressed them first - with a salute. She was dressed in light leather armour, and a no-nonsense captain’s hat rode proudly on her head.

“Hey hey hey!” Gok cried, shooting her a randy salute of his own. “Long time, no see! I like the hair! A bit shaggier ’n last time, but it goes well with the cap. Mmm, women in uniform, I can get behind that.”

Surprising Jeffrey, Libby didn’t say anything. Instead, she looked askance at Dragomir. He motioned with one hand, and a rat appeared on his shoulder. This shut Gok right up, and when Libby walked by them to attend to her ship, Gok didn’t say a word.

“Have a seat,” Dragomir offered, pointing to the chairs. “We’ve got some work to do, and not a lot of time to do it.”

“What’s… up, Dragomir?” Jeffrey asked, dropping gingerly down into the nearest seat. He hoped it would have something to do with his wife, though he knew the chances of that were practically nil. “What can… urp… we do to help?”

“Hold your lunch down, for starters,” Dragomir said, half smiling. “Then pull out your address books. I need to form some alliances right pronto, and I figure a lord and a couple of ousted kings can help me with that.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Day Seven-Seventy-Three: Unleashed

When night came, Dragomir went for a walk.

Upon returning to Pubton, Dragomir had found a city that was foreign to him. At least four times larger than before and filled with a mixture of familiar faces and strangers, Pubton was home… but not home, at the same time. He recognized the old pub, the first building in town; he recognized the remains of Pagan’s manor, now being slowly rebuilt; he recognized the wreck of the Matriarch, still used as a command centre or sorts for the city’s defences. Most important, he still recognized his old house, which had been commandeered by a family of goblins. (Needless to say, they’d been promptly evicted.)

Yet so much of Pubton was unfamiliar. The city had a town hall. It had several marketplaces. It had expansive fields, much larger than before. It had stores, each belonging to people Dragomir did not recognize. It had restaurants, and playgrounds, and a bank, and a graveyard… all bore a distinct, worn, wartime look, of course, but Pubton was nevertheless a city, a veritable metropolis, and between the new locations and the influx of goblin architecture Dragomir felt like a stranger in a strange land whenever he left his house.

On this particular night, that’s exactly what he wanted. The moment he caught wind of Libby’s tired snores, he became a stranger.

Sneaking into the cramped back yard of his home, Dragomir looked around for any sign that he might be followed. When he saw nothing, Dragomir seated himself on the grass, beneath a cedar tree…

… and he looked up at the moon…

… and he concentrated…

… and when he checked his palms, they were as black as the shadows beneath the back porch.

Taking a deep breath, Dragomir pulled a mirror from his pocket and looked at himself. At first, he looked no different than usual: vapid expression, pale cheekbones, unruly, dirty blonde hair, two gaps in his teeth. But lines of ink seemed to be running out of his temples and across his forehead, and soon they’d criss-crossed over his eyebrows, his cheeks, his tiny nose, his mouth. The process panicked him, and he dropped the mirror, breathing hard - but by then, his hands were already pointed claws. 

“No.” Dragomir looked down at his clothes. They seemed to be sinking into his skin. “No, no, no. Stop it. Not that much.

As if responding to his demand, the sleeves of his undershirt stopped sinking. The white fabric along his arms popped back into view, and with it, the pale pink of his skin. That calmed Dragomir a little, and he stared at his arms for a while, not sure what to do. His breathing slowed.

He concentrated again. This time, the oil oozed into his skin… but his clothes remained. Picking up the mirror, he focused it on his glowing green eyes. They stared back at him, deep, lacking pupils, and utterly alien… but most definitely his.

“Fuck me,” Dragomir whispered, tossing the mirror aside again. “Fuck… fuck me.”

Rising to his feet with a springy bounce, Dragomir skulked into the house. Tiptoeing gently, he retrieved a cloak and pulled it tight around himself, covering his face and hands. Then, gulping so loudly that he feared he might wake his wife and son, he stepped out into the streets of Pubton.

At this time of night, Pubton was empty. Only nighttime guards seemed interested in walking the city, bearing heavy lanterns and heavier arms, yet Dragomir had no trouble avoiding them. He seemed almost to sense their presence, knowing in advance which streets to use - and which to avoid. Soon he was striding boldly through alleyways and across small courtyards, vaulted on strong, elastic legs into small hops, then jumps, then leaps.

Logan must feel like this, Dragomir thought, suddenly elated. I’ve been missing out.

His senses of timing and balance now unnaturally keen, Dragomir didn’t have to think twice about taking to the rooftops. When he reached the old pub he leaped onto the roof in a single bound, heedless of the lights inside, and used the second floor to jump to the top floor of town hall next door. He almost didn’t make it, his foot slipping on a broken tile, but his arm stretched as he reached for safe purchase, and as his claws sank into the stone he pulled himself to safety quite easily.

Standing atop city hall, silhouetted by the moon, Dragomir felt the odd, primal urge to howl. He didn’t, but it was a difficult impulse to quash.

Dragomir leaped, and leaped, and leaped again, landing nimbly on each building in turn with the greatest ease. No height, no ledge, no distant wall seemed to be out of his reach, and his heart pounded with exhilaration and terror at his sudden power. He was so thrilled by the experience that he failed to notice his nudity, as his body had absorbed his clothes again - though even if he had noticed, he probably wouldn’t have cared. Only two creatures saw Dragomir anyway, and those just barely.

The first was a rat. It resolved, in the morning, to give Dragomir a stern lecture on acting responsibly. Its eyes twitched violently as it did so, and it wished, like so many others wished, that it could simply kill the man and be done with it. But, no - he deserved far worse than that. It didn’t know why, exactly, but it also didn’t care.

The second was a boy. This boy was far larger than most boys, standing just over ten feet tall, yet he tracked his father as silently as the reaper tracks mortality. His eyes glowed a deep green, though his confused tears were as clear as ever.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Day Seven-Seventy-Two: You're out of the family

Oswald the Farmer awoke to the sound of his wife’s voice.

Gruffly shaking away hours of sleepy fatigue, not to mention a horrible pain in his back, Oswald yawned. He’d been dreaming of the old days, back in Villeinville, when he was still a whole person: two arms, two legs, and a manhood that could satisfy any woman. Though he would never admit as much to anyone, he missed those days rather fiercely. That’s why he slept so much - the best times always came in dreams.

“Os? You awake? Come on, lazy, up and at ‘em.”

Grunting a few curses, Oswald opened one eye. He’d expected to see a courtyard surrounded in carts, the same thing he’d been forced to view for the past four months, and his estimation was not incorrect. He was also not surprised to see his wife, gorgeous as ever in her plain cottons and simple bonnet. What he did not expect was the sight of his son standing beside her, as dopey-looking as ever.

“Look who it is, hon!” Martha hugged Dragomir. “He’s back! He came back!”

Oswald smacked his lips, repressing any urge to greet Dragomir with kindness. Ya be nice ’n they get a fat head in no time. “Well, fuck me, look who came crawlin’ back. Get tired of those pansies in the west, boy?”

Dragomir nodded, but said nothing. The smoothness of the motion surprised Oswald; it was so unlike his gangly, uncoordinated son to display any kind of controlled movement. Dragomir was normally a mess of limbs, prone to accidents and constantly on an unerring path towards fucking everything up. It made Oswald immediately suspicious.

“Huh.” Oswald frowned. “Well, we’ve been doin’ peachy since ya fucked off. Can ya tell? Little goblin bastards took my legs. You beat the shit out of ‘em for me?”

“He did.” Martha beamed, hugging her son all the more tightly. “He was so fantastic, Os. I’m so proud. You would be too, if you’d seen ‘im.”

Dragomir shrugged. “Wasn’t that much, ma. I had help.”

“Yeah, bet you did.” Unleashing a long, unapologetic fart, Oswald shifted in his heavy restraints. The cuff around his waist had long chafed his skin, though he refused to so much as wince. “Get me outta here, will ya? I’m tired of bein’ the prettiest ol’ thing in this shitty square. I wanna have a nap in a real bed.”

Dragomir bit his lip. “Er, I’ll have to go get some help, dad. Maybe Fynn - “


The blast of noise caught all three family members off guard, though Dragomir in particular seemed to freeze up. The abrupt rigidity of his arms and legs struck Oswald as more interesting than the noise itself - though that changed when the source of the noise bounded into view, careening across the square and knocking Dragomir off his feet. 

“MR. LIBBY!” the shaggy man cried, hands raised into the air. He was nude from the waist up, his torso covered in criss-crossing scars. “WHERE DO THEY SELL BOOTS HERE?! I NEEEEEED BOOOOOOOTS!”

“God DAMMIT, Traveller!” Clutching his head, Dragomir scowled fiercely at the new arrival. “I dunno! Go look for a fucking tanner! Or a shoemaker! Or… something! JUST GET OUT OF -

It was too late, though. Traveller was already on one knee in front of Dragomir’s mother, introducing himself in grandiose fashion. Though initially tutting at the man’s weird behaviour, Martha seemed to warm to Traveller quickly, blushing a little as he roughly kissed her hand.

“You hafta introduce me to this babe, Mr. Libby!” Traveller continued kissing, though the frequency of the kisses slowed gradually. “I would love… to… actually, no, I wouldn’t wanna do that, for some reason. Why is that? Hey, I like your bonnet! Where can I buy a bonnet here?”

Dragomir attempted to drag Traveller away from his mother, but the gesture was little use. Soon Traveller had lifted Martha into the air and was swinging her around crazily, as though playing with a newly-found puppy. She squealed, cried, and laughed, demanding he put her down - but not sounding all that convincing. Dragomir battered at Traveller’s legs with his fists, face as white as a cloud.

Oswald the Farmer was a pervy man. He knew it, his wife knew it, the women he hit on really knew it… just about everybody knew it. But he loved his wife more than anything, and Oswald never took kindly to strangers manhandling his lady love. Arms or no arms, legs or no legs, he would normally resolve to beat the shit out of anyone who touched Martha in such a manner on his watch.

But… not this time. For some reason, Oswald just didn’t mind. And this odd little fact, this strange truth, perplexed him into silence. He didn’t yell at Traveller; he didn’t laugh at his wife’s jolly misfortune; he didn’t even repeat his demand to be removed from his embarrassing public pedestal. He just… watched.

Eventually, after extracting a promise from Dragomir that he’d receive a new pair of boots at the earliest convenience, Traveller set Martha down. He gave her a big hug, then, turning, he flashed his one, happy eye on Oswald.

Then he frowned. 

Traveller scratched his head. “You’re… kind of a jerk, aren’t you?”

Oswald furrowed his brows. “Damned of a way to introduce yourself, ya fuckin’ hobo. Get a haircut.”

“But I like long hair. It goes with my long everything else.”

Oswald let a few beats pass. Then, smiling a little, he chortled. “Heh. That’s pretty dirty. Maybe you’re not so bad.”

“I know, right?” Traveller waved his hands in the air again. “I think I’m pretty awesome, whoever I am!”

With a bit of coaxing, Traveller snapped the restraints off of Oswald - one-handed, no less - and carried the quadruple-amputee back to his farm, his first visit to the place in months. He and Traveller bantered back and forth in crude fashion while Martha followed, laughing at their terrible jokes. They fit together with startling precision… though there always seemed to be an empty spot beside Martha. Room for one more.

Dragomir did not fill that spot. It didn’t belong to him. He followed at a distance, watching, doing his best to hold back vomit and tears. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Day Seven-Seventy-One: Info Dump a la Mode

Pubton changed substantially over the next couple of weeks.

King Gok was informally stripped of his title in a small, private ceremony. Formally he ‘stepped down’ of his own accord, recognizing the sovereign rights of the original owners of Pubton. In exchange, the goblins were allowed to remain living in Pubton - though all those they had enslaved were immediately freed. To ease tensions between the goblins and the rest of Pubton’s inhabitants, a new, goblin-only section of town was established in the eastern quarter. Relations between the two segments were never friendly, often breaking out into arguments, brawls, and, occasionally, hushed-up murders.

Freshly released from prison to raucous applause, Harold was instated as mayor of Pubton. Evangelina, absolved of her crimes by Dragomir, promptly stepped down from her post as co-mayor. Everyone involved agreed this was by far the best idea, as Evangelina’s reputation in Pubton had suffered greatly. She refused to apologize for her actions, however.

“You threw people you knew off of a tower,” Dragomir noted, deadpan, during a private moment. “You killed Lonnie. Don’t you regret that?”

“No,” she responded, though she kept her eyes on her whip as she untangled its coils. “I did what I had to do. I didn’t take my job to be popular.”

“I bet you didn’t take it to become a murderer, either.”

“Executioner,” she corrected. “There’s a difference.”

Dragomir knew there would be a reckoning in the future, and Evangelina could very well end up in jail again - and perhaps never see the light of day. He secretly hoped she would flee Pubton long before that happened.

The rats, their work done, departed Pubton en masse. Only a few remained behind to monitor the situation and relay commands to Dragomir. The collective gave him only one instruction to start: “Build an army.” He suspected there would be many more commands to come, and he didn’t relish dealing with the regulators, even if there plan would save the world from Kierkegaard and his Non.

The bare-bones hull of her ship having served its purpose, Libby set about completing the Sky Bitch with her team of engineers. She was surprised it had flown in the first place, given its half-assed initial construction, and she wanted to set the vehicle to rights before it flew again. After three weeks of overhauls the great flying machine had almost doubled in size, tripled its flying speed, gained some significant creature comforts, and turned into a potent machine of war. Libby suspected they would need it sooner rather than later.

Logan and Jeffrey helped Libby with her airship, though neither man was an engineer. They knew the Sky Bitch was not only their best chance for finding Daena, but to quickly return to the desert to resurrect Celine. Jeffrey continued to train as a boxer under Antonio; Logan sought out all manner of information as Dragomir’s informal head of intelligence. That included spying on Dragomir himself.

Fynn, who’d largely stayed out of the limelight during the recapture of Pubton, kept to himself. He only used magic when he was alone, constantly frightened that his green aura would brand him an enemy and a traitor. He knew very little of his brother and sister, but he didn’t want to depart his mother’s good graces any time soon, and admitting to a potential bond with the Non might just cast him out of the family.

Bora watched.

And Dragomir… when he wasn’t busy with logistics, or turning down mayorships, or defending witches, or considering whom he might turn into an ally, or telling people that, no, the trip was not a big waste of time, though he couldn’t share the details just yet, so sorry… Dragomir was forced to introduce a long-lost son to his estranged parents.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Day Seven-Hundred-Seventy: ... go!

Seconds later, Gok was pinned to his throne by a web of vines. They killed his amorous mood at once.

All cynic once again, Gok lowered his eyebrows in mock sadness. “Evangelina, me beauty, did I say something wrong? I thought I was fine in bed, meself.”

“A bit small for my tastes.” Evangelina shuddered, her eyes glowing a brilliant orange. “Let me know if you want him dead, Dragomir. I’ll pitch him off the tower for you.”

“Thanks, Eva. I’ll take it from here. Go change into some armour, you might need it.” Dragomir raised an eyebrow. “Unless you wanna walk around like that some more…? Ah, a middle finger. Okay. Was just asking.”

Ordering one last vine to wrap tightly around Gok’s neck and give him a cautionary tug, Evangelina left. Grabbing the steaming plate of food from the nearby dinner table, Dragomir seated himself in front of the goblin king, leaving a large wet mark on the pristine rug leading up to Gok’s throne. He smelled of swamp, reminding Gok of home. 

“Before we start,” Dragomir began, scratching his chin and peering at his meal doubtfully, “how’d she get her powers back? I’m almost afraid to ask.”

Gok tried to shrug. With his arms pinned, it was more an awkward wriggle. “I didna know she’d lost ‘em. Was a witch from day one.”

“Ah. Guess I’ll do some investigation when we’re finished here, then.”

“Aye, ye’d best.” Gok sighed deeply. “So, the party’s over, I take it?”

“Yep.” Dragomir shoved a handful of beans into his mouth. “Fuck me, that’s nasty. You eat this crap? Tastes like goat turds.”

“One o’ my favourites.” Guess she lied about that, too. Bitch. “Do ye think ye’re gonna take over just because ye’ve caught me? One solid bellow ’n you’ll be outed. T’ain’t the best plan in the world.”

“Maybe not. But I’ve got more than that. Mmm, chicken’s not bad.” Dragomir shoved a heap of meat into his mouth and chewed. “I set up some trump cards ‘fore I came up for our chat. Wanna see what I’m holdin’?”

Gok rolled his eyes. “Do I have much choice, lad?”

“Nope.” Dragomir snapped his fingers, and at once a rat appeared on his shoulder, emerging from a pack on Dragomir’s back. “Call ‘em up, little guy.”

The rat nodded, but was otherwise motionless. Gok cocked his head, at first quizzical… but then, over the light tap-tap-tap of the rain on his apartment’s windows, he heard the heavy chugging of an engine. It closed rapidly, and soon the entire tower was swaying slightly, buffeted by some external force. Staring out the rain-soaked front window, Gok caught a quick glimpse of a huge shadow prowling around the tower.

“The fuck is that?” Gok squinted, trying to catch a few details, but the shadow had moved behind him again.

“I’m pretty sure Libby called it the Sky Bitch,” Dragomir replied, almost nonchalant. “She says it’s an ‘airship’. I can’t wait to ride in the thing. You remember Libby, right? My wife? Lotsa sexual harassment the last time she visited you?”

Gok cringed. “Aye. Comely lass. Ye’re a lucky man.”

Dragomir watched the shadow round the tower again before he continued. “She planned to set up a dozen cannons on either side of the ship. Even if she didn’t get ‘em finished, which I bet she did, she’ll have a few ready. Her orders’re to blow some bigass holes in your glass box, here, unless you agree to our terms.”

Gok laughed, but he refused to take the negotiations bait just yet. “Ye might think ye’ve got me over a barrel, boyo, but ye’re mistaken. Fancy flyin’ ship? Pfft. I have an army o’ goblins. ’n this tower’s more stable ’n ye think. We’re at a stalemate, at best.”

Gok thought Dragomir would at least pale, but the man simply took a few more bites of chicken. Tossing a bone onto Gok’s rug, Dragomir shrugged. “Thought you might say that. I’ve got a bit more to impress you, ‘boyo’. Ready for round two?”

Gok cringed. “Round two?”

Dragomir snapped his fingers again, and the rat nodded. Almost at once Gok’s tower swayed dangerously to one side, away from the roving shadow of the airship, tipping the contents of Gok’s apartment over. An old cabinet, a hand-me-down from Gok’s grandfather, smashed through the eastern glass and disappeared into the grey darkness. The tower wobbled a few more times, the foundations creaking so loudly that they drowned out Gok’s frightened squawk.

It took several moments for Gok to find a proper voice. “WHAT THE FUCK? HOW... HOW THE FUCK - ”

Dragomir snapped his fingers yet again, and the vines binding Gok to his throne yanked the throne off of the floor. Twisting around, they pulled Gok’s throne through the nearest window, smashing it wide open and exposing the old king to the cold of the elements. The Sky Bitch, an enormous, floating tub of wood and steel buoyed by an enormous gas bag of a balloon, flew insanely close to Gok as he dangled in midair, the beat of its propellors chilling his bones - yet he could tell at once that it wasn’t responsible for shifting the tower.

The throne tilted, forcing Gok to stare down, straight down, to the base of the tower. There, standing alone in the streets, was a single man. He was clutching one of the tower’s enormous supports, tugging on it like a child tugs on a parent’s leg - only the tower moved every time the man shifted his weight. Pieces of the superstructure were already crumbling away, smashing into the roadwork far below. Even in his terror, Gok thought he saw a brilliant, happy smile aimed up at him.

“HIS NAME’S TRAVELLER!” Dragomir yelled. He was bracing himself against one of the supports holding up the roof of Gok’s apartment, looking a little panicked. “HE CAN BRING THIS WHOLE THING DOWN! TRUST ME! YOU DON’T WANNA FUCK WITH THAT GUY!”

A few moments later, the vines deposited Gok back in his tower. Chilled, drenched, his pants filled, the goblin was on the verge of giving in without further fuss - but the expression of complete success on Dragomir’s face filled Gok with the fire of anger, and with fire came logic.

“Y… y… you wouldn’t…” Gok squealed, straining against the vines. “This… this thing… goes over… ’n… ye’ll… go with… it…”

“And we’ll kill a whole lotta people when it lands, too.” Dragomir nodded. “I know. It’s not the best idea. Not worth the trouble it took gettin’ that loudmouth in here in the first place. But I’ve got something else for ya, too, and this will take you down a few more pegs.”

Dragomir snapped his fingers one last time, and at first nothing seemed to happen. Gok took the opportunity to shiver against the vines, trying to warm himself. He liked the rain just fine, but this experience was a bit much even for a lifelong scout. He was on the edge of warming himself, despite it all, when the door to his apartment opened… and a man with opaque white eyes walked into the room. He was holding a goblin in both arms, the drooping sentry unconscious and pathetic.

Another man followed. He, too, bore a goblin.

And a woman. Another goblin.

Another man. Another woman. Two children. Three teens. Five more men. Ten woman. A dog. All were carrying, dragging, or otherwise detaining, an unconscious goblin. Murmurs from the corridors beneath Gok’s apartment hinted at dozens more people, milling about nervously, perhaps wondering if the man at the base of the tower would accidentally kill them all.

Dragomir moved in close, standing over Gok. He popped one last piece of chicken in his mouth, chewing it thoughtfully as he inspected the king. Gok did his best to return the steely gaze, trying to comfort himself with the knowledge that he’d known something would end his rule of New Gob, but failing. He’d never thought it would all be so… abrupt.

“Your goblins are alive. Every one of ‘em. They’re prisoners, not corpses.” Dragomir spat a piece of chicken fat on the floor. “You’re gonna live, too, as long as you stop fuckin’ around. I need your help with some shit. You help me ’n we’ll get you your kingdom back. That probably sounds good enough that you don’t need to say anythin’, so keep your mouth shut, yeah?”

Gok did.

Dragomir leaned in close. His breath was a mixture of unclean teeth and delicious bird meat. “This ain’t a negotiation, Gok. It’s an order. You’ve just been recruited. You’re an army man. You don’t leave the army ’til I say you leave the army. And if you try, well…”

Dragomir motioned to the roving Sky Bitch, now fully visible through broken windows. He pointed outside and down, to the mighty man at the base of the tower. He pointed at the vines holding Gok in place. Last, he pointed to the rat on his shoulder, and to the humans behind him, blank-eyed and terrifying.

“… you get the idea?”

Gok nodded. With that tiny gesture, New Gob died forever.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Day Seven-Sixty-Nine: ... waaaaait for it...

Gok prided himself on his observation skills. He, like so many goblins, had worked a long time to hone his senses to a razor’s edge. Nothing got past him. So it was perhaps a small irony that the fall of his kingdom came, not because Gok and his goblins were overpowered, but because they missed so many small signs that hinted at their inevitable doom.

The first mistake came when one of Gok’s captains, a stalwart goblin named Gormack, failed to notice an extra slave in his first relocation of the day. The man, shaggy but cheerful, blended so neatly into the rabble that Gormack never realized he’d never seen the dude before. All humans looked alike anyway, and so the fifty-human-squad-plus-one was sent to work on the foundations of Gok’s tower.

The second mistake the goblins made, as a whole, was ignoring the sudden, inexplicable influx of rats. Only the few cats to accompany the goblins seemed perturbed, and the rats silenced the felines with disturbing rapidity. Moving independently the vermin fanned out in the streets, seeking every former free inhabitant of Pubton they could find. Every member of the rebels quickly discovered that they’d been joined by a rat, regardless of their hiding place, and they felt greatly empowered by their companion - a sensation that left each person with a vague sense of instability, and unease.

The third mistake, one made by Gok, was allowing himself to be distracted by Evangelina. Had he been of a normal mind, the goblin king might have asked enough questions to pull the whole scheme apart.

Evangelina seemed to be everywhere, tantalizing him. Whenever Gok needed to send a message to one of his slaves, she was there to do the job. Whenever Gok called for a meal, she brought it to him on a silver plate, a happy smile on her beautiful face. Whenever Gok needed someone to take a memo, sign his name on paperwork, or provide details on current events, she was there. The only thing Gok wondered was whether Evangelina’s witch powers allowed her to split into multiple, identical copies, a prospect he found delicious.

Despite her poise and composure Gok knew Evangelina must be exhausted, and so he ordered that she sit down with him for dinner. She often did, ever attentive to his demands - though this time Gok fed her personally, and not the other way around. She smiled her way through the meal, making appreciative noises whenever offered a bite and flirting with the king constantly.

“Mmm, try this, lass,” Gok insisted, a pair of braised beans on the end of his fork. “Foglish in the kitchens made ‘em special fer me tonight. One o’ my favourites. Even ye humans should appreciate ‘em.”

Licking her lips, Evangelina accepted the beans. She chewed, raised her eyes to the ceiling, and swallowed. “Mmmm. They’re delicious. I’ll have to get the recipe.”

Gok chortled. He was seated on her lap, snuggled against her chest, and he offered Evangelina another forkful. “Wouldna want ye to lose yer job, love. Ye’re too important for kitchen work.”

“It never hurts to learn a bit of everything,” Evangelina pointed out. She winked. “I never said I’d be a chef. That would remove me from the action.”

Gok shivered at the word ‘action’. It came out so innocently seductive. “Ye’re a gem. So, tell me: what other… skills… have ye got locked away in that brilliant brain ‘o yours…?”

Smiling wickedly, Evangelina stroked one of Gok’s ears. Then, raising it slightly, she dipped in close and whispered to the king. His delighted laugh boomed throughout his glass apartment, frightening several servants on a lower floor.

“Ohhhh, ye’re a fiend!” Gok touched Evangelina’s face. “I’ve half a mind te make ye my queen, lass! Ye’d look grand on a throne ‘side mine!”

Evangelina laughed. “Oh, you wouldn’t want that, m’lord. Give me a taste of power and I’ll turn into a shrew. Never share majesty with the lower folk.”

“Sage advice,” Gok agreed. “My subjects’d never allow it anyway. Marrying a human… heh. I’d have an insurrection on me hands. Still… doesna mean we canna have some fun, in these dark times, eh…?”

Evangelina responded with a kiss to Gok’s head. Then, taking the plate out of his hands and setting it on the table, she massaged the goblin’s shoulders. He purred contentment, leaning into her fingers as they soothed his tired bones.

“Ahhh, another of those vaunted skills.” Gok sighed. “I dun know where we’d be without ye, lass. Ye brought us so far. Probably… hells, we’d probably be dead in a ditch, somewheres. Blackie claw marks in our guts. The world… it’s so dark, these days… aye, I half wish I’d been taken, too, before all this happened…”

“Don’t say that,” Evangelina chided. “You have so much left to do. You need to retake Goblinoster, and show me just how wonderful it is in your homeland. And then…”

“And then…?”

Evangelina leaned in close again, licking the edge of his ear. “Crush the Non. That’s what.”

The thought gave Gok pause, even though he smiled outwardly. He’d seen enough of the Non to know that his goblins couldn’t face them in open combat. They were too strong, too quick, too resilient, and too numerous. Rumours that they could change their shapes also hinted at more ways they could bring the goblins to heel, without the need for a siege. The idea that some of the slaves might be Non in disguise… even worse, some of Gok’s goblins

A sudden rapping on the door leading up to Gok’s apartment interrupted Gok’s thoughts. Startled, he growled deeply. “Bloody fuckin’ hells, I told those twits not te - “

Evangelina stalled him with a quick peck to the cheek. “Apologies, m’lord. This is my fault. I… put in a special order for the two of us. Allow me a moment and I’ll fetch it.”

Grin slowly returning, Gok touched Evangelina’s chin. “’n if I don’t let ye go?”

Evangelina leaned in close, twirling Gok’s hair in her fingers. Her whisper lit a fire in Gok’s chest. “As m’lord wishes… though he will be missing out on a most delicious experience.”

The goblin trembled. “Ye… ye promise?”

Cradling the king, Evangelina set Gok down gently on his throne, lips full and sincere. “Truer words have ne’er been spoken. One moment, m’lord, and even you will be surprised.”

Winking again, Evangelina strode away from Gok. He admired the strength of her body and mind, utterly beguiled by her poise, charm, and willingness to backstab anyone and everyone to get her way. This last point somehow attracted Gok the most, and he knew, all too well, that this could be an elaborate setup to bring him down. He would much rather be killed by a creature so attractive as Evangelina than by a shadow creature, lurking in the cold corners of the world.

Gok was so caught up in the anticipation of the moment, so eager to see this surprise in action, so ready to bed this dangerous woman, that he didn’t notice the thin, brown vine creeping around his throne, gently pinning his midsection. It had grown inexorably up the side of his tower the previous day, hidden by the rain, and poked through the superstructure.

When Evangelina returned, she looked the same as before. She was not wearing some fantastic new piece of lingerie, as Gok had anticipated. Nor was she naked, another possibility, though one that may have disappointed Gok for at least two seconds. She was not carrying a new toy, covered in whipped cream, dripping drizzled chocolate sauce, or wearing a braised chicken bra. In fact, she was covered by her cape, only the skin of her face showing.

The surprise was standing beside her. His face was covered by a fine dusting of blonde stubble, his hair was a bit longer than last time, and his finer clothing had been replaced by sodden green rags. Nevertheless, Gok recognized Pubton’s former mayor at once.

“Ach, shit,” Gok said.

“That’s an understatement, asshole,” Dragomir replied.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Day Seven-Sixty-Eight: ... wait for it...

Gok awoke from his nightmare screaming. He always awoke from the nightmare screaming, and because he had the nightmare virtually every night, his anguished howl was a constant fixture of his tower. It was, in essence, a call to start the day, because the king was now up and about.

Gok’s nightmare was not rooted in subconscious fear. It was not a jumbled assortment of memories, compressed into weird, terrifying imagery that only a psychiatrist could untangle. It was not a scene of intense embarrassment, one so vague and horrifying as to frighten the goblin. This nightmare was specific, and vivid, and so unyielding in its execution as to feel like clockwork.

The nightmare always managed to segue brutally into one of Gok’s more pleasant dreams. On this particular night he’d been ruminating blissfully over the thought of a massive chicken dinner, the phantasmal scent of the grilled birds enough to make Gok drool on his pillow. But when Gok bit into his first chicken wing, a glut of foul blood spurted out of the tender flesh - 

- and, seconds later, the wing had morphed into an arm, and it was no longer held by Gok, but by a penguin in an officer’s uniform. Eyes glowing an evil green, the penguin licked spatters of gore off of its beak and took another bite. The arm spasmed gently as a sharp tooth pierced a muscle, the hand appearing to wave at Gok. A huge, rock-like diamond ring glinted on the end of one goblin finger.

“She’s saying hello,” the penguin whispered between bites. “She wants you to know she’s doin’ okay, Gokky-poo. She wants you to come join her, too… where I sent her is so fucking nice…

As the penguin’s face slowly transformed into a bleach-white skull, Gok screamed and woke up. His bed was soaked through with sweat, a constant casualty of every night’s sleep. The sheets smelled terrible.

Rising moodily, Gok peered out the windows of his tower. Since arriving in New Gob he’d insisted on bedding down in the upper chamber every night, enjoying the security of watching over his new kingdom whenever he liked. He knew the Non could reach him easily up here, as many of them were winged beasts, but he was fine with that. He could handle normal Non. He’d already killed a few.

Penguins can’t fly, he thought, shivering. I’ll get someone te check that. But I don’t think they can fly.

Legs and arms popping, Gok grunted his way out of bed and stretched. He spent his first half an hour exercising, performing a series of complex flips and feints against a shadow opponent who could do him no harm. His attendants didn’t intrude on his space until they knew he was done - and, as ever, Evangelina was the first to attend her king. The sight of her helped Gok’s mood immensely. Sweating hard, Gok slapped her backside as she strode past him, a bundle of parchment in her hands.

“Mornin’, my girl,” he said cheerfully, motioning her to his throne. “Care for a toss in the hay, eh? I’m feelin’ randy.”

Evangelina’s mouth curled into a smile, though Gok saw the distaste behind the smile. It was always there. “We can if you wish, m’lord, but you may want to attend to the latest news first. One of your scouts brought word early this morning of a Non force in the south.”

Gok’s smile drooped, and he tensed. “Blast it. Those ruddy darkies nay give up. Ye think they’d have learned they canna break us. How many?”

“At least four hundred, m’lord, all ground troops. Possibly more. It’s always difficult to tell with Non.”

“Aye.” Gok used Evangelina’s flowing cape to wipe his face. “Redouble the force on the walls. Get some slaves up there te help keep watch. I want a task force te engage the Non in the field, as well. Have ‘em lead the bastards back here, ’n get ‘em to go for… erm… which wall, ye think…?”

“West, m’lord,” Evangelina replied at once. “We have been working on a new set of defences there. The tar wall. This may be the opportunity we need to properly test it against the Non. Though Tarmaq has doubts that it will work against their skin.”

“He hasna tried it on their damned corpses?” Gok scowled. “I thought ‘e had a few in storage.”

“Non bodies appear to degrade rather quickly after death.” Evangelina shrugged, unapologetically apologetic. “We won’t know for sure until they’re climbing the walls, trying to get in. Not the best set of circumstances, but…”

It was Gok’s turn to shrug. He understood. It had been a long-standing order in New Gob to try and capture at least one Non so Gok’s engineers could study their biology. So far, though, the Non had either escaped or died in battle. Trying to catch one was insanely difficult, given their flexible skin, and very dangerous. Only the trolls could go toe-to-toe with Non in sheer strength, and even they were overmatched if the Non in question was one of the hulking, muscle-bound commanders.

Gok and Evangelina spoke a while longer, mainly regarding domestic affairs, and Gok was both relieved and disappointed to learn that there would be no executions today. Once Evangelina completed a report on their crops yield she excused herself, promising that she would ‘attend’ to Gok later in the day when she was finished with her duties. Gok looked forward to the moment eagerly, mesmerized by the shape of Evangelina’s legs under her cape as she departed.

Once Evangelina was gone and he’d spoken to several other attendants, Gok took a few moments to stare down at New Gob. Ignoring the blatantly human buildings, he drank in the spiked architecture of his kin, admiring the curve of the rain as water droplets slid down spires and cascaded off rooftops. It was almost - almost - like being home.

There is no home anymore, he thought, suppressing the urge to cry. Kings don’t cry. There’s only the place ye live. Thinkin’ that you’re home -

where I sent her is so fucking nice

- is like te get ye killed.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Day Seven-Sixty-Seven: Ready, set...

A lot of things happened in a short period of time.

Calling together what remained of the rebels, Pagan ordered his men and woman to disperse into key, targeted positions around Pubton. His speech was short and efficient, but just inspirational enough to light their grimy faces. Logan liked the man a little more… though the thought of Pagan judging his father weighed heavily on Logan’s mind.

Working together, Libby, Jeffrey, Antonio, Fynn, and the crew of the Dauphine managed to cut off communication between Pubton and the remote mining colony of Pubtwon. Staffed by a dozen goblins, two trolls, and a hundred angry human labourers, Pubtwon fell easily. Libby began work on a secret project, one that had been percolating in her brain for over a year, and with plenty of raw materials and experienced hands at work, they had it up and running in short order.

Evangelina massaged Gok’s feet while he signed reports and gave orders to his men. Every goblin to see the woman hunched in front of Gok secretly loathed their king’s perverse attraction to ugliness, but they said nothing. Gok’s wrath aside, they feared Evangelina’s power as a witch, and her orange eyes warned of terrible retribution.

Far away, Kierkegaard also gave orders. He was playing with a half-dead orc as he did so, forcing the man through glowing green portals that dropped him onto a hard stone floor, over and over. Orc blood speckled Kierkegaard’s clawed toes, and he commanded his aide to lick them clean.

Even further away, The Baron helped one of his people plant winterweed. He prayed quietly to his god for the weed’s survival, as the coming snows promised to be harsh.

At the other end of the world, Plato suffered. His rat was no better off.

Somewhere in the middle, Daena ran, and ran, and ran. She felt good about her life, all things considered. Not far away, Nagi entered a city that would, eventually, be populated by werewolves.

Back in Pubton, Logan sneaked away from the great city, moving under cover of rain. The goblins seemed too happy to finally get rain to notice his escape. When Logan returned to Dragomir, in the swamp, he found an army waiting - and one far more frightening than Logan might have admitted a year prior.

Dragomir was surrounded by a veritable sea of rats, at least five hundred strong. Perched on logs, laying on tree limbs and resting on Dragomir’s legs, they watched Logan unflinchingly as he approached, their tiny white eyes moving as one. Dragomir’s diary was the only creature to greet Logan with any sort of enthusiasm, as Dragomir himself seemed utterly drained. The diary pushed through the rats without reservation and danced around Logan’s legs, forcing a laugh out of the young man.

“Little bugger.” Logan patted the diary on the spine and scooped it up. “Hey, Dragomir. I’m back.”

Dragomir nodded passively. “Got something for me?”

“A ‘hello’ would be nice,” Logan grunted. He carefully picked his way through the rats, ill at ease as they parted to create a path for him. They did it grudgingly, and swarmed up onto his legs when he sat down. “Yeah. Uh. Report. Let’s… let’s do this.”

Logan told Dragomir everything he knew. He spoke of early Pubton; of the Non attacks; of Gok’s arrival, and betrayal; of Evangelina’s even greater betrayal; of the enslavement of the populace; of Pagan’s rebellion; of Robert’s persisting habits. Dragomir nodded at everything, his expression blandly grim, though his frown deepened substantially when Logan mentioned Oswald’s lost legs. Logan wondered if Dragomir’s bond with his father was deeper than expected.

Dragomir didn’t say much until Logan made it clear he was done talking. “So Pagan’s people are in place?”

Logan cocked an eyebrow. “More like your people, dood. You were mayor. But, yeah, I guess they are.”

“Co-mayor,” Dragomir murmured. He tried to brush a rat off of his shoulder, but it refused to move. “Just co-mayor. Where are they set up?”

Logan thought back to the meeting of Pagan’s rebels. “Uhh… there are at least ten hiding on - and in - the walls. A couple are in the western fields. One in a mill… two in the smithy’s, waiting to break out weapons… several in an armoury… and at least five in Gok’s tower. No clue how they’ll manage to get in there without being caught, but there you go. The rest I’m not sure.”

“Okay. Guess that’ll do, then.” 

Dragomir nodded, and as if on cue, the rats surged into motion. Moving as a massive cloud of brown, grey, and the occasional spot of white, they scurried away from the swamp and into the fields surrounding Pubton. Their numbers, Logan noticed, were much more substantial than he’d realized, at least two thousand strong… though they disappeared quickly. Only one remained, the rat on Dragomir’s shoulder, ever watchful.

Logan swallowed. “So… I take it the reconquering of Pubton has begun?”

Sighing, Dragomir shook his head. “Not yet. Libby needs another day, and the rats will take some time getting into position. We also have some smuggling to do.”


Bounding quickly to his feet - a little too quickly, Logan thought, given how tired he looked - Dragomir motioned Logan further into the swamp. Logan wasn’t sure why, at first… at least not until the honking sound of familiar snoring began to fill the air. Eventually, arriving before an impromptu bed made of mud and leaves, Dragomir pointed.

“Oh. No.” Logan shook his head vigorously. “You can’t be serious. I can’t do that.”

“I haven’t even told you what I mean yet.”

“Pfft, I know what you want.” Logan slapped his cheeks lightly. “No. No. It can’t be done. The smell alone will tip them off. I can’t get him in there, dood, it’s too hard. They’ll spot us before we get to the walls. His rampant fuckery is just too strong.”

“Oh, it’s better than that.” A hint of Dragomir’s former stupid cheer appeared in his smile. “You have to get me in, too.”

The two men shared a laugh, though Logan’s was incredulous. They had, for the first time in a while, a moment of mild happiness… one watched from the shadows by a creature that even the rats had failed to detect. As ever, though, she said nothing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Day Seven-Sixty-Six: Storytime

The Non came for us again a mere three weeks after the Dauphine left Pubton. It was a simple expeditionary force, so we managed to fight them off, but the difficulty of doing so… left us reeling. We knew, with or without Dragomir, that we were in serious trouble.

Coordinating with Bernard and Evangelina, I set about turning Pubton into a fortress. I’d missed out on much of the attack on Pubton, having been injured during the defence and bedridden, and I wanted to make up for my absence. I helped Evangelina train a fresh cadre of soldiers, turning them into the most elite force we could get, and Bernard took several key suggestions into account when building and improving the outer wall. 

The Non attacked us every few weeks, setting our improvements back each time, but we held our own - and we learned how best to psuh them back rather quickly. But they weren’t the only visitors.

I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the Indy Plains of late, but they have been virtually emptied. Every village, town, and kingdom of note has been attacked by the Non, and I would say ninety percent of them have been reduced to rubble. We have no idea what happens to the poor souls captured by the Non… though given what we know of the Non’s leader, we have our suspicions.

Not everyone is captured, however. Many folks, those either brave or cowardly enough to flee their kingdoms, started to come here. News somehow got out that we were one of the last great bastions of security in the Indy Plains, as we’d managed to drive the Non out of our territory twice. Most defenders do not get two chances for survival. In short order our population doubled, and tripled, and quadrupled. Those who came brought materials for new buildings, new sections of wall, food and supplies… and, occasionally, trouble. The troublemakers were driven out, and, for a while, we were at peace.

Then Goblinoster fell. That was four months ago.

Goblinoster was renowned as one of the other kingdoms holding strong against the Non, but not one anybody was like to visit. The goblins are well-known for their racial prejudices, and non-goblins who dare to visit typically wind up slaves. I’m not one to say much on this score, I suppose, but the way the goblins conduct themselves towards slaves… abominable. Needless to say, fleeing humans did not expect a warm reception in Goblinoster. So they came here instead.

The goblins did, too. In force.

I suspected from the start that Gok might make a play for power. He was too willing to bow and scrape when he arrived, too eager to please. I’ve only met him once before, but he immediately struck me as a shrewd politician. I did not realize that he was also a solid military commander, and that was very much to our woe, because as soon as the goblins negotiated passage into Pubton and set up their residences… they took over.

We did our best to be ready for trouble without. Indeed, we focused so much on repelling enemies from the walls that our internal security became somewhat lax. The goblins took advantage of that fact, hiding over five hundred soldiers, hunters, and combat experts among their civilians. They sneaked into key positions, and, led by Gok, they conquered Pubton in a single night. Almost seventy-five of our defenders died during the coup, and the rest were press-ganged into dangerous defensive positions. I suspect that less than half of them are still alive.

Gok wasted no time installing himself in a seat of power. He attacked and levelled my manor, leaving me for dead in the flames. He imprisoned Harold, one of the co-mayors, and used his capture to quell the rebellious attitudes of the human populace. He executed a dozen nobles who tried to speak out against him, hurling them off of his gods-be-damned tower. And, predictably, he turned everyone else living in Pubton into slaves. Only the very few goblins who’d come here before the mass exodus were spared enslavement.

He also fought Oswald, Dragomir’s father, in one-on-one combat. Gok nearly died. That man is a tough son of a bitch, I know from experience… but once he lost his left leg from the calf down, Oswald was finished. Gok’s soldiers compounded the insult by hacking off the rest of the left leg, as well as the right, and chaining Oswald in a courtyard as an example. You may have seen him? Yes? He’s difficult to miss. I don’t know how he’s still alive, really…

And that is how matters stand at the moment. The goblins own Pubton - Gok has renamed it New Gob, but I refuse to acknowledge such an ugly pairing of words - and most people living here are powerless to stop him. He can say what he likes about ‘striking back’ and ‘massive expansion’, but Gok surely knows that he’s been trapped in a corner, here… and, so, we’re all just waiting for the Non to really turn their eyes towards Pubton. Once they do, I fear we’re done for.

Finally done, Pagan stole Logan’s cup and took a swig of water. Robert tutted loudly from somewhere in the library, but otherwise did not raise a complaint.

“Okay.” Logan sat back. “Sounds… bad. I have two questions, though.”

“Fire away,” Pagan offered. He stifled a yawn.

“Gok said something that hinted at rebellion. What’s that about?”

“Ah.” Pagan smiled, though grimly. “Yes. The ‘glorious rebellion’. You’re in the company of its leader, in fact. I started it the moment Gok burned down my manor, forcing me… us… into this cellar. I had it built in anticipation of hiding from the Non, though I’d not counted on living here for four months. It’s a rather wretched space, after a while…”

“How many people?” Logan hunted around for doors leading to adjacent rooms. He didn’t see many. “And what have you been doing to bring Gok down?”

“Thirty,” Pagan said, frowning. “And admittedly not much. It’s difficult to incite terrorism with goblins lurking over your head. They’re not strong in a fair fight, but goblins never fight fair. Gok’s managed to root out five of our hiding places since our inception, killing half our original number in brutal midnight raids. He’s also executed at least two dozen supporters - or even suspected supporters - during publicized events. We’ve fought back, even managed to bring down a granary a few weeks ago, but… even if we could, we can’t do much.”

“Because of the Non,” Logan said, face grey.

“Exactly.” Pagan sighed. “We can’t compromise Pubton’s security in any substantial way, just in case the Non come back. Gok must know this, too, as I’m sure he knows our main base is here. He lets humans hold on to a shred of hope… but not too much. The little bastard has castrated us, and that’s almost worse than being outright destroyed.”

“Yeah.” Logan rested his head on his fist, thoughtful. “Okay. Second question. Evangelina?”

“Ahh. The traitor co-mayor.” Pagan leaned back in his chair, looking a thousand years old. “Yes. Evangelina jumped ship on humanity the night of Gok’s coup. We don’t have solid reports, but I’ve heard that Evangelina ambushed Harold and knocked him out. She may also have provided details on the nightly rotations of Pubton’s guards. Now she’s Gok’s personal bootlicker and eye candy, performing most of his executions.”

“Disgusting,” Logan growled. “How can she do that to people? If she was co-mayor, people must’ve trusted her…”

“She’s even more hated than Gok, these days,” Pagan admitted. “I’ve heard many reports of grumbling from the enslaved. They want her dead. Or worse.”

“You?” Logan asked.

Pagan took a moment to answer. The cloud of hate Logan expected never appeared. “No. I think she’s as much a member of our resistance as anyone living in this husk of a mansion. She probably prevented much more widespread bloodshed by helping Gok from the start, and we haven’t a clue how much good she’s done on the inside, sitting at Gok’s side. For all we know she’s saved more lives than she’s taken. No, that woman is waiting…”

“For what?”

Pagan didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his cane and tapped Logan’s chest with the tip. 

Taking a breath, Logan nodded. It seemed logical enough, assuming you ignored or downplayed the executions. Polluting an organization from the inside was always more effective than attacking it from the outside, and Evangelina could very well be stalling for time. Logan probably wouldn’t be alive now otherwise, as Evangelina had to have spared him. Still, even if that was the case, her days were numbered if New Gob ever became Pubton again. Even well-meaning traitors didn’t get off lightly in civilized company, never mind when attacked by a populace enslaved for four months.

“He is back, correct?” The steely look on Pagan’s face cracked the tiniest bit, hinting at a reservoir of misery and hope that Pagan normally hid away from the world. “This isn’t just a social call?”

Though he held certain key reservations about the man, Logan allowed himself a sly grin. “He is. And trust me, he’s pissed.”

Monday, October 6, 2014

Day Seven-Sixty-Five: On the cusp of storytime

Logan woke up in a hard, cold bed. It was, after a moment’s confusion, more than he’d expected - given his most recent memory, he’d expected to be dead.

Sitting up and rubbing his head, he looked around. He was in a small, darkened room, apparently storage for a collection of busts, covered paintings, and bits of old furniture. The room was so crammed with junk that only a narrow path between the bed and the door provided space to walk. Logan’s things lay at the foot of the bed, piled neatly, and he quickly dressed himself. Who’s been looking at me half nude, eh?

Pausing a moment to try and peek through a boarded-up window - the boards were so tight that the gesture proved largely futile - Logan tiptoed up to the door, wincing a little as his head buzzed with a dull headache. He still felt a little weak, and his lungs burned uncomfortably. Pressing an ear to the door, he listened for sounds on the other side.

No sense being stupid, he thought, gripping his sword. Yeah, sure, they left all my pointy stuff behind, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in trouble. Could be they’re just really stupid jailers. Like that one time in Cramston, when that old woman tried to lock me up for -

Logan’s reminiscence came to an abrupt end as the faint shuffle of footsteps floated through the door. Fingers tightening on the pommel of his sword, Logan stepped away, looking for a good spot to hide. The room was so full that he couldn’t find anywhere, however, and he was hunting for somewhere to perch instead when the door clicked open. Only the familiar voice kept Logan’s blade in its sheath.

“Well, now, how’s our patient?” it asked, old and friendly. “Hmmm, is he awake yet? Let’s see, now, maybe I should read him another… oh my. Hello!”

Though the figure beyond the open door was silhouetted by candlelight and indistinct, Logan recognized the hunched posture at once. He took a deep breath. “Robert! Holy hells, it’s you!”

Tottering forward on his cane, Robert the Librarian nodded politely. He looked a little older than the last time Logan had seen him, the fringes of hair on his wide head even less pronounced, but aside from that the elderly librarian appeared as healthy and helpful as ever. The only real change Logan noticed was the hunk of grey masonry, dangling from a piece of string around Robert’s neck, and he suspected what it must be based on Robert’s personality alone.

“It has been a long time, my prince.” Robert bowed, ushering Logan out of the storage room and into a wide, dusty library. “I’m sorry we couldn’t provide more adequate accommodations, but m’lord’s manor has not been treated kindly over the past year.”

Taking stock of the library via what little light was available, Logan cocked an eyebrow. “S’okay. I’ve slept worse places, dood. How you been, Robert?”

“Very well, thank you!” The librarian pulled Logan to a table nearby, one laden with a small plate of cheese and bread, as well as a cup of fresh water. “I have kept busy. M’lord’s library requires constant tending.  He is much cleaner than your father’s subjects, but I still need to reorder his stock on a regular basis. He likes to read, bless him.”

Seating himself and grabbing a hunk of bread, Logan bit and chew. Crumbs tumbled down his tunic. “Who’s this ‘m’lord’ - “

“Hunch over your plate, please,” Robert said.

“Oh.” A small part of Logan’s old rebellion bubbled inside him, and he grinned. “What if I don’t, eh? Must feel like right blasphemy to let somebody eat in your library - “

Robert’s face darkened, which, given the lack of light, was quite a thing. His eyes bulged, turning into fierce moons, and his fingers tightened dangerously on his cane. “I am making an exception. Do not test my patience, young man.”

Logan’s smile vanished. He quickly hunched over his plate, mumbling a quick ‘sorry’. That was enough to put Robert back in a good mood… though he scoured the ground for crumbs, plucking up three with a pair of tweezers. Logan remembered why he’d so seldom goofed off in Robert’s library, or at least compared to most other places in Castle What’sThereToDoToday.

“Quite a taskmaster, isn’t he? I’ve known military commanders with slighter backbones than this fellow.”

The voice surprised Logan, and he turned to face it. Across the library, seated in a beaten wingtip chair, was a suit of armour. Logan thought he’d simply looked in the wrong direction - at least until the armour’s helmet tipped upward, revealing gaunt cheekbones, a long, white beard, and cold, piercing eyes.

“M’lord!” Robert cried, clutching his heart. “You shock me again! I do wish you would announce yourself!”

“That’s no fun at all.” Rising from his seat, the old knight hobbled towards Logan on a cane - though Logan could tell from slight variations in the man’s movement that he didn’t really need a crutch. “My name is Pagan. I trust you’ve heard the name before?”

Logan nodded, swallowing a hunk of bread. “Yeah. Dragomir told me about you. Raised a bit of a ruckus over land. You were the judge for my dad’s trial, too. Can’t say I’ve been wanting to meet you much.”

Pagan chuckled, seating himself in a chair beside Logan. “Could you fetch me some apple cider, Robert? I’m parched.”

“I believe we’re out of apple cider,” Robert replied. “And you will have to drink whatever you get outside the library.”

Pagan arched a busy eyebrow, then pointed at Logan’s mug. “Why is he allowed to eat and drink in here?”

Robert’s smile skittered away, replaced by a brief frown. “This is a one-time exception,” he hissed, then wandered away to sort books.

“That man frightens me at times,” Pagan mumbled, watching Robert go.

“Imagine hearing that when you’re a kid,” Logan replied. “Where are we, anyway? Last time I saw Robert I was in a library a hundred miles away. Kinda doubt we walked all the way there, in the last… uh… however long I was asleep.”

“Half a day.” Pagan shrugged. “Robert found you dumped in the library this morning. I can’t honestly say how you got here, and I was anxious to hear your side of the story. I have… suspicions.”

“Mmmm. That’s two of us.” Gulping down a mouthful of water as carefully as he could, Logan drummed his fingers on the table. “First, answer my question. Where are we?”

Pagan sighed. Setting his cane against his thigh and rubbing his cheeks, he began to talk. “We’re in the corpse of my poor old manor.”

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Day Seven-Sixty-Four: Always watching

“No. I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it,” Logan growled, exasperated and still chilled. “I watched her do it, Dragomir.”

“You saw someone do it, and Gok said her name.” Dragomir folded his arms. “It wasn’t her. I know her, Logan. She wouldn’t do that.”

Logan rubbed his cheeks. He’d returned to Dragomir’s hiding place in the swamp three hours after infiltrating Pubton, choosing a very careful route through the city to avoid the populace as they went back to life as usual. By the time he returned his father and Libby were both gone, off to investigate the mining colony of Pubtwon. Dragomir was conferring quietly with his diary when Logan returned to the muck and the trees, and he’d stubbornly refused to believe this most crucial point in Logan’s report.

I know her too, Dragomir,” Logan insisted. “I knew her a lot better ’n you ever did while I was growing up. Woman was a damned snake. Polite enough to me, I suppose, but I was the prince, for fuck’s sake. She was no better than her boy-toy Driscol, that’s for sure.”

“They’re brother ’n sister,” Dragomir muttered.

Logan’s eyes whipped open, and he pursed his lips. “What? Really? Since when?”

“Since ever. That’s how it works, I figure.” Dragomir shook his head. “Couldn’t have been her. ’n are you sure the guy’s name was Lonnie? Sure that he’s even dead?”

“You don’t fall six or seven storeys without dying, Dragomir.”

“You could.”

Most people can’t fall six or seven storeys without dying.” Wiping sweaty hair out of his eyes, Logan lightly punched a nearby tree. “The hell’s with you? I know what I saw. Doesn’t matter what you think, man, I know the facts.”

“Facts are never as simple as what you see and hear,” Dragomir replied. His face tightened, seemingly on the verge of betraying a fact of its own. “Anyway. Nevermind. Thanks for that. Now I need you to do somethin’ else, if you don’t mind.”

Logan laughed. Seating himself on a fallen log, he reached into a pack on the ground and grabbed a stale bagel. It went down well enough with a bit of mead from a wineskin. “This oughta be good. What?”

Dragomir didn’t answer at once. He flipped his diary shut, staring at the cover. It beamed up at him, its smile both reassuring and creepy. Its little legs kicked at his arms, and it wiggled in obvious delight. He seemed to take refuge in the expression, dipping into its happiness to gird himself for what he had to say next.

“I want you to kill Gok. Make it look like an accident.”

“… what?”

Setting the diary aside, Dragomir covered his face. “You heard me. Take… take him out, Logan. That’ll screw up their whole… command structure, or something… ’n we can use the confusion to slip in.”

Logan slowly drew away from Dragomir, rising off of his log and into a protective crouch. He couldn’t stop his eyes from forming into wide, lidless circles, and his lips twitched in horror. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”

Dragomir shook his head, and as Logan watched, the rat that had accompanied them slowly climbed up onto Dragomir’s shoulder. It looked no more unsettled by Dragomir’s words than if he’d ordered Logan to throw a surprise party for Gok, and Logan knew where the request was coming from. Him actually saying it, though…

Mouth dry, Logan quickly found a counterargument. “I… don’t think we need to go that far.”

The rat’s snout dipped in obvious disapproval. Dragomir didn’t look up. “You got something else in mind?”

“I… uh… well, Gok mentioned… rebellion.” Logan cleared his throat. “It sounded like that Lonnie guy was helping rebels. So… I figure… I can slip back in, and try and find them…? Bet they could help us retake the town, without… you know…”

The rat shook its head, quite adamantly. Dragomir, however, seemed to embrace the idea - at least in part. His eyes appeared between his fingers. “You think you can find ‘em?”

“I can try. Just give me a bit of time.” Logan offered a fake smile. “Maybe I can find a way to help your dad out, too. Maybe.”

The rat shook its head again, pointing to the diary. But Dragomir nodded, and without a word he waved Logan away. The look on the rat’s pinched face as Logan gathered his things hinted at a terrible conversation to come, one he was glad he’d be missing.

The return trip to Pubton took longer than before, as Logan was forced to adopt an alternate route. The guards he’d knocked out during his previous trek had obviously been found, and their numbers were redoubled. It took several hours of careful scaling and dangerous feints to get back into Pubton again, though in truth Logan relished the exercise. It felt natural, and far less cloak-and-dagger than his previous conversation. He could kill, yes, but assassinate? That was another thing altogether.

Logan was so wrapped up in avoiding goblins, as well as his plummeting opinion of his ‘leader’, that he completely failed to notice the birds observing him almost every step of the way. Their eyes twinkled a faint orange, and through them, a witch watched. She didn’t confront Logan until he was safely inside the city, planning out his next move behind a dilapidated granary.

“Hello, prince.”

Hunched over a barrel of tepid water, deciding whether he should drink some or not, Logan froze. His hand dipped to the sword dangling at his side, the motion so slight beneath his ragged cloak that it should have been imperceptible.

“Don’t bother,” the witch said, tapping one boot impatiently. “I can see you from every angle. You certainly grew up, didn’t you? Stand and turn around. Slowly.”

Cursing under his breath, Logan obeyed. He let his impromptu hood fall away from his face, putting on as charming a smile as he could manage when he spotted the woman standing nearby. “Oh, my darling, I’ve missed you. Such a beauty, as always, ma’am.”

Evangelina rolled her glowing orange eyes. She was dressed in a suit of leather armour, in the same dull green colour so typical of goblin ware, though much of her chest, belly, and legs were bare. Judging by the cut of the leather, Logan suspected that her backside was covered only by her flowing emerald cape.

Logan looked her up and down. “That’s… practical. Do you always dress this way for intruders?”

“I always dress this way for his majesty,” Evangelina replied, voice as dry as a drought. “He insists. And no, I don’t mean you, so don’t bother with a witty retort, o unruly son of the monarchy.”

“The goblins must love you,” Logan said, hands rising at a gesture from Evangelina. “Fetching. Bet you make a killing down at the ol’ whorehou - “

Logan’s crude comment died halfway out of his throat when something smashed into his head from the left. He let out a short yelp - and then another, when something else struck him from the right, then the left, then above and below. He clutched at his face, attempting to pry what felt like planks of wood from his skin, but they remained firmly fastened through some unknown force. Soon his head was encased in an unwieldy ball of twigs, branches, and sawed-up bits of lumber. He staggered and fell, unable to see, his breath choked out of his lungs.

“For your information,” Evangelina countered, now standing over Logan as he writhed at her feet, “most of the goblins find me repulsive. So this outfit isn’t a big deal. Still, I’ve been wanting to do this to someone for a long time. Always fun to reverse a familiar spell.”

Logan struggled, fingers clawing at the wood, but none of it would budge. Even the weakest branch seemed invincible compared to his waning strength. His body soon ran out of air, and when it did, he blacked out.