Under New Management

The Drow was silent. Three beasts stood upright in front of him, towering over his elven frame, but each keeping a respectful distance – as if a circle containing some unseen danger surrounded the place where their master’s boots met the cavern floor. The beasts wore bands and scraps of leather armour that crisscrossed the dirty brown fur of their bodies, and large, crude clubs of dark wood and iron hung from their belts. However, the Drow was not fooled by the clothes, or the weapons, or even by the fact that the bugbears were in thrall to coin and gemstones; these creatures were animals. Feral, brutal and, as it turns out, stupid.

The Drow raised a hand to his brow, a faintly pained expression on his face. ‘So, let’s go over this again. What happened at the manor?’

H’ruk, the largest of the three bugbears, looked left then right at his companions, then turned back to the Drow. ‘We ready told you. The New Man came.’ His tone was somewhere in between annoyance and confusion.

‘Yes, you did already tell me. But tell me again. And this time, don’t leave anything out.’

The beast shrugged, then noisily flopped down to the rough stone. The other two bugbears unceremoniously followed his lead, sitting down, stretching out. The dark elf remained on his feet, patiently waiting for the pointless and impotent show of defiance to complete. H’ruk took a bent goblin dagger from his side and started scratching idly at the rock.

After a moment, he cleared his throat and spat something thick and black into the remains of the fire. ‘We was in the cellar, having some fun with that Cragmaw runt…’

+ + + +

As the goblin’s head hit the flagstones, there was a noise like a pot breaking. Lo’Gak started laughing wildly, pulling the limp body up again. A gurgling sigh escaped the goblin’s lips, along with a few dark red bubbles.

H’ruk lifted his gaze briefly, then went back to twisting another iron spike into the head of his club. ‘If you kill the runt, then we got no slave, you idiot.’

Lo’Gak paused, and glanced over at Shragg, slumped on one of the bunks. ‘Do you want a slave, Shragg? H’ruk wants a slave.’

‘Can have one of the humans in the cells. The female. Or the little one.’

H’ruk interrupted. ‘No. The wizard decides that. We do what he says.’

‘He didn’t say we can’t,’ protested Shragg.

‘And he didn’t say we can. The wizard is paying.’

Lo’Gak waved a clawed finger back and forth. ‘No, no, the Black Spider is paying.’

‘Same thing. You wanna argue with the wizard about money? Or what he does with the ones in the cells? You do it on your own.’

There was a muffled crash from beyond the north door, then shouting.

‘They’re fighting again,’ observed Lo’Gak, then listened intently. Somebody was screaming. A man. He shook his head, dismissively. ‘Humans.’

Each returned to their previous efforts. H’ruk to his club. Lo’Gak to the unconscious goblin. Shragg to his half-slumber. After a minute or two, the noises from the room to the north ceased.

‘They drink and they fight. It’s what humans do,’ mused H’ruk, then after a moment added ‘and dwarves.’

There was a click and the north door swung smoothly open. H’ruk stood abruptly and Lo’Gak let go of the goblin, who crumpled to the floor, folding in places a humanoid shouldn’t fold.

The visitor stepped across the threshold and regarded them, coldly. He was broad-shouldered for an elf, strong looking rather than lithe and spindly. His scarlet cloak was stained and torn, but hung from his shoulders with the casual grace of lordly privilege. The elf’s leather bracers, shoulders and chest-piece were soaked with what must be blood – streaks of it were splattered up across his smooth chin and neck. His stance betrayed no injury – the blood was surely somebody else’s? Clutched in his right hand was a familiar staff of cut glass.

H’ruk’s fingers tightened around his club. ‘Who the hell are you?’

The elf sneered. ‘I’m here to replace Glasstaff.’ The word ‘replace’ was annunciated with a menace most often reserved for threats of war. ‘The Black Spider is most disappointed in your progress.’

Shragg slowly manoeuvred himself to a sitting position, exchanging glances with Lo’Gak. H’ruk puffed out his chest, but even though he was a head and a half taller than the visitor, he had the distinct impression that the elf was looking down at him.

‘Where’s the wizard? That’s his staff.’ H’ruk’s gestured at the ornate implement.

‘He is no longer is command of this operation.’ It was a statement of fact, uttered without emotion.

‘We weren’t told.’

‘The Black Spider does not have to explain himself to those in his charge. He deals with those that fail him more… directly. He is far from pleased with how things have unfolded, thus far.’ For half a second the elf smiled – a chilling, humourless smile. A glint of red danced in his eyes – perhaps from the torchlight, perhaps not.

H’ruk relaxed his grasp on the club. The Black Spider’s agents were not chosen for their good temperament or diplomacy. Offending this one would not go unpunished.

‘Now, where is the dwarf? The prospector.’ The elf’s question was sharp, pointed.

‘They took him to the mine, to Wave Echo Cave.’

‘That is… unfortunate.’ The elf tapped the glass staff on the stone, considering this new information. ‘I’ll have to go there. The cave – how do I get there?’

Lo’Gak had nervously hauled the goblin to its feet, holding him upright like a puppet, in case damaging one’s slave was looked upon unfavourably. ‘But… but… he said we can’t tell nobody!’

‘I don’t have time for that. The Black Spider is expecting me to speak to the dwarf.’

H’ruk nodded, ‘Gak is right. The Spider would have us killed us if we spoke to anyone about the mine. You can ask him yourself if you don’t believe us.’

‘Hmm. And where’s the Spider, now?’

Shragg piped up from his bunk, ‘At the Castle. At Cragmaw Castle.’ His voice was a nervous whisper at odds with his bestial appearance.

‘Okay. And where do I find this place?’ The elf sounded exasperated.

‘You don’t know where Cragmaw is, either?’ This was starting to make less sense to H’ruk. Why didn’t the elf know about Cragmaw?

‘The Black Spider has brought me in from another operation, to fix the mess being made of this one.’ Exasperation was turning to anger. ‘Now. Stop. Wasting. My. Time.’

H’ruk swallowed. ‘Neverwinter. South east of Helm’s Hold and north of Stone Shard. Old human place.’

The elf cocked his head to one side, thinking. ‘South east of… yes, I know it. Of course. The keep at Brugwood.’ He gazed around the room one final time. ‘Await instructions. The Black Spider has a new task for you.’ And with that he span and strode from the room, slamming the door shut behind him. The Manor was suddenly silent.

Lo’Gak let the goblin fall to the floor again. ‘Are we, um…’ the bugbear looked at his companions, warily. ‘Are we in trouble?’

+ + + +

‘So then you found the door was locked, and after you broke it down, you discovered that the Redbrands were all dead and the prisoners were gone. And this ‘agent’ of mine – he was nowhere to be found?’

H’ruk began to feel a growing sense of discomfort. ‘They weren’t all dead. Some of them ran off into the hills.’

‘And the elf?’

‘I don’t… I don’t know. He went to Cragmaw, I reckon.’

‘I see. Well, the elf was right about one thing. I am most disappointed with how this has turned out.’ As the Drow spoke, large dark shapes began to move out of the shadows and up onto the cavern’s fire-lit ceiling.

H’ruk spluttered, ‘We weren’t told about all this. We want more gold…’ but as he rose, something wet and tendrilous fell upon him, gagging his mouth, choking him, pinning his arms to his sides. The other bugbears shouted out – deep guttural cries, that ended abruptly as the sharp, smothering shadows descended.

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