Scouting duty in modern day semi-rural-almost-suburbia had to be amongst the most boring tasks in the world. Honestly, when he signed up to join a dark lord's conquering force Jack had expected more... well, more conquering for a start. And pillage. There was definitely supposed to be a decent amount of pillage. Not this 'native scout' crap.
"Anything new to report?"
And why the hell did they have to stick him with this bloody euro-trash toady? The way the bloke acted you'd think he was part of the elite royal guard, instead of a two man team watching a rundown farmhouse. Still Jack knew he had to be careful; this idiot was better connected than he was. Third cousin to the fourth in command of the second brigade. Or something like that. More importantly, he was petty enough to use his minor connections to repay any perceived slight. Time to pour on the charm.
"Sorry mate. I think I caught a glimpse of the third one an hour or so ago, but haven't seen a thing since then. They are slippery little buggers, for sure."
"We've been here for six days. Methinks it is time to report back."
Methinks? Who uses methinks in a sentence? Tosser. Jack scratched at a particularly itchy patch of fur, the ridges of his webbed toes bringing temporary relief to the irritated skin. He'd been too long away from the water.
"Right you are mate. Just let me get my stuff."
As he packed, Jack gazed at the object of their weeklong scrutiny. It seemed like an ordinary farm. Not for the first time, he wondered could have possibly attracted his new lord's attention to such an unremarkable target. Maybe someone really important and very clever was hiding in plain sight. If so, it was a bloody good disguise.
The whistle of the kettle set Jennifer's heart racing. How long had she been sitting there? New shadows had reshaped the room, rendering it almost unrecognisable. Her hands gripped the arms of the recliner tight enough to send shooting pain through the joints of her fingers.
The soothing sounds of the radio swam into her awareness. The distraction of classical music, deep and sonorous, slowed the rapid fire thudding in her chest and allowed her to get her bearings.
She didn't remember putting the kettle on, but a cup of tea would be nice.
She rose and levered herself along towards the kitchen, sleep still numbing her limbs. As she reached the door her foot caught on the unseen edge of the lino, but somehow she managed to move her cane fast enough to stay upright. Her heart recommenced its adrenaline fuelled staccato. It wouldn't do to take a tumble at her age. Where on earth were her glasses?
A pot stood on the benchtop, tea already nestled in its bulbous depths. She must have laid it out when she put the kettle on. A stop at the fridge yielded the usual fresh milk. Jennifer hadn't been able to summon the energy to go shopping for a few weeks, but generous neighbours kept dropping food over in the evenings while she slept. She left money out when she remembered.
As the tea steeped, she gazed out the window across her spacious lands with all its kennels, chicken runs and fenced off pens. Her property was on the edge of a city that crept relentlessly outwards. Already developers had started sniffing around, silver tongues carrying offers to make her land part of the next suburban paradise. Even worse, her lack of immediate family had attracted distant relatives, their greedy eyes marking out future windfalls. The thought of them profiting while the creatures in her care were left homeless made her sick to her stomach.
With a shake of her head, Jennifer dismissed her morbid thoughts. For the time being she still had both room and health enough to look after her adopted wildlife. Her eyesight wasn't what it was, but it seemed like they'd all been fed and watered. That Daniels boy must have come around again. He was usually a lazy one, it was good to see him taking his work seriously. She must remember to leave some money out for him too.
Cup of tea in hand and unable to think of any chores that might need doing, Jennifer shuffled back towards her recliner. Perhaps a nap was in order.
"Bring me my damn armour!"
The demand echoed around the cavern, sending minions scurrying like ants. Misthrado, self-styled Lord of the Underworld, sighed. He could only hope that what his Fae legions lacked in intelligence and coordination, they could make up for with unprecedented variety. Royal families throughout the rest of the world had found it convenient to exile their undesirable elements to this isolated landmass at the bottom of the world. Creatures that would have ripped each other apart on sight in the hinterlands of Europe had bonded here over a sense of shared hardship. Hundreds of boggarts, gnomes, trolls and more seethed and swirled in the space before him. Even a couple of local bunyips had joined his growing ranks. The Fae world had never seen an army such as his.
He turned to a group of his lieutenants and kept his voice menacing. "Have you found a target for our first attack?"
A cyclops stepped forward. Sandrath's place in the inner circle had been won by a combination of cruel efficiency and a talent for expressing public reverence for his leader's prowess. He gave an elaborate bow. Misthrado found this attempt at a rage-averting display of deference... gratifying.
"Of course, your majesty," Sandrath began. "Our scouts have confirmed that the old woman who runs the animal shelter on the edge of the city has kobolds in her service. She has taken in so many strays over the years, it was inevitable that she attracted a few household spirits. Even though kobolds are almost always invisible we've managed to identify three distinct individuals."
Misthrado frowned. "Three kobolds don't sound like much of a challenge."
Sandrath bowed again. "As you say, your majesty. However, kobolds are fierce in the defence of their chosen households. And you were... adamant that we should only arrange a brief live training exercise for the untried members of the third brigade before we move on to crush the light Fae that live in the city."
Misthrado smiled as he contemplated his glorious campaign. Once he had taken a few suburbs, the dark Fae would flock to his banner. Soon, the whole country would be his. The humans, with their technology and stubborn blindness to the supernatural world, would not last long once he controlled the sources of power buried deep in the bones of this ancient continent.
The windowpanes shuddered as if a truck was racing past on the nearby highway, though Jennifer couldn't hear any engine noise. She lay back in the recliner, a blanket covering her lap. She must have fallen asleep.
The shutters were all closed against the twilight streaming through her open front door. As she rose she felt an all too rare stability. Tentacles of cold evening air curled across her bare arms, making her shiver. She closed the door and made her way to the kitchen, where a cheerful fire was already burning. She drifted across the kitchen and sank into a chair beside the fireplace with an audible sigh.
The house began to creak as the wind picked up. A frown settled on Jennifer's face. It was unusual to have storms at this time of year. She contemplated getting up to look outside, but the stabilising force that had supported her moments before now seemed to have abandoned her.
Outside, a dog began to howl. One by one the other animals joined in and the noise built until a veritable cacophony assaulted her ears, vying with the wind for decibel supremacy. She struggled up and made her way towards the front door. Something was spooking them and she needed to find out what it was if she was going to have any peace this evening.
The closer Misthrado got to the old residence, the lower his already rock bottom expectations sank. The house was unassuming, the polar opposite of the kind of grandeur to which he aspired. Not a fitting location for his first conquest. Still, no one would criticise his early battlegrounds when he achieved his ultimate victory.
His army coiled around him like a spring ready for release. Grizzled sergeants kept troops in line, and Misthrado grinned at their barely restrained desire to do damage. The ground rumbled with the vibration of his Fae army moving into position.
Nothing moved in the house, and a single source of light shone out from the edges of the front windows. It was so still he could almost believe the scouts had got it wrong, except for the state of repair of the dwelling.
It was good. Suspiciously good. By all accounts, the old woman lived here by herself. There should have been signs of disrepair, of small jobs gone unnoticed and undone. Instead, every part of this should-be-decrepit property shouted, 'thorough maintenance routine'. The grass short and healthy. The front porch in solid and serviceable condition. Doors hung neatly on their frames and windows polished to a shine.
Yes, they were here, Misthrado was sure of it. He stepped to the front of his army and pulled out his sword.
"Come out little kobolds," he yelled. "Surrender and your deaths will be fast and clean."
He hoped they would put up a fight. A surrender followed by a quick slaughter would not teach the army anything. Still, he had to practice his ultimatums as much as his army formations.
For a moment nothing stirred, then the front door squealed open.
The door fought against Jennifer, the handle slippery in her grip. She didn't understand what was wrong. It had always opened so smoothly before. She wrestled it into submission and stepped out into the dying light. Swirling dust brought tears to her eyes. Indistinct shapes moved before her as she pawed at her face. She leaned back against the doorframe for balance.
"Is anyone there?" she asked, hating the frailty of her voice even as it escaped her lips. The frantic whining of her animals continued to swell and merge with the wailing of the wind. Their fear was contagious, and Jennifer began to tremble in response. What was going on? She'd never seen the animals this riled before, and certainly not by the wind no matter how fast it came up.
Half heard sounds, like the mutterings of a distant crowd, slid around the animal noises. Jennifer strained to hear, trying to decide whether her ears were playing tricks on her.
She was about to retreat inside when a clear voice rang out.
"Show yourselves now or the old lady dies!"
Misthrado was out of patience. He was the future ruler of this continent and probably the world, and a few pathetic kobolds would not appear at his command. He summoned three of the unblooded warriors from the third brigade and sent them towards the house with a gesture. He'd see how long the kobolds would stay hidden once he put the head of their bonded household in real danger.
His henchmen materialised onto the mortal plane and he watched with pleasure as the old woman fell to her knees.
Jennifer stared in horror as three misshapen monsters resolved out of the dirt cloud and lurched towards her. The strength bled away from her legs and moments later the rough surface of the front veranda scraped against her knees. As deformed and individually hideous as they were, all three wore a common uniform like they were members of some mutated army.
The lead mutant drew a long knife, his warped teeth lending his grin a particular viciousness. "Never killed a human before," he slurred.
Fear lent Jennifer's mind a clarity of thought that had eluded her for years. She knew she should run, should get back into the house and lock the doors. But the shimmer of the fading light of the sun along the knife's quicksilver blade held her attention for the few vital seconds where she might have escaped. The hideous trio mounted the stairs. Jennifer knew that the day where her charges would need to fend for themselves had come even sooner than she had expected.
At that exact moment, all the animals stopped their bleating.
The creatures paused, concerned by the sudden absence of sound. They looked around before resuming their approach, albeit more cautiously than before. The arm holding the knife rose high in the air. Jennifer closed her eyes.
After a few moments she opened her eyes again. Between her and the attackers stood three new figures. They were small, about the size of the Daniels boy. Their bodies seemed thicker than was entirely normal, with big ears that stuck out in a way that would have been comical in any other situation. Reddish skin confirmed her suspicion that they were not entirely human. Dressed in old clothes that had seen better days, they held in their hands a variety of farm implements fashioned into makeshift weapons.
"Our home," one of them said.
Misthrado's heart quickened as the kobolds made their last minute appearance. He watched in glee as his minions launched into action. The resulting fight was short, fast and bloody. The kobolds were on home ground and fighting for their household. No quarter was sought or given. At the end of the exchange, two of his henchmen lay still on the ground and the third was scrambling back towards the main army. One of the kobolds nursed what looked like a broken arm and the other two had scrapes and cuts, but nothing life threatening. They were also better armed now, having abandoned their amateur weapons and recovered the knives of the fallen.
Even though his soldiers had lost the initial encounter, he was perversely pleased. At least this would provide a challenge for some of his troops. Misthrado motioned towards Sandrath, who bowed as he came forward.
"Send in the third brigade," said Misthrado. "I want those kobold heads laid out on the ground before me by the time the sun finishes setting."
"It shall be done, your majesty," replied Sandrath.
Misthrado watched in satisfaction as his troops began to line up.
Jennifer looked at her saviours. They shuffled their feet and seemed incapable of making eye contact. Up close, the odours of the shelter hung thickly on them, of manure and fur and feed. With her distress induced lucidity still intact she made connections that would normally escape her.
"So, you're my domestic helpers, I assume?" she asked.
The largest of the three glanced at his companions before responding. "Errr, yes, Miss," he muttered.
"What are you? And what are you doing in my home?"
The creature coughed and ducked its head. "Kobolds, Miss. We're called kobolds. And you see, Miss, us kobolds, we attach ourselves to households. Like to keep useful, see?"
"That's nice dear, but it doesn't actually answer my question. Why me?"
"Ummm, the head of the household has to be worthy, Miss. And one of the ways we work out who's worthy is to see how they treat stray animals."
The kobold paused and for the first time looked at Jennifer directly. "No matter how many animals we left out for you, you kept taking them in and giving them shelter," he said in a softer voice.
The other two kobolds muttered their agreement, seemingly happy to let their friend do all the talking.
"After a while, word got around. It's a nice place, close enough to the city for a day trip. Plenty of fresh air. Over the years you've become a bit of a tourist attraction. Some of us from the old country, we come out, attach ourselves to your household for a few months and see a bit of the countryside before we head back."
Jennifer thought for a moment. "Are you telling me I'm some kind of a kobold backpacker hostel?"
The talkative one waved his hands in a placating gesture. "We help out around the place, Miss. Make sure the animals are looked after, keep the house tidy. It's more like a working holiday".
"Well I never," said Jennifer. She looked at their injuries. "You better let me see to that arm young man. I've looked after enough animals to know when someone needs a splint."
The kobolds looked back at her with serious eyes. "No time for that, Miss. There are more than three of them I'm afraid. It looks like a bloody army out there, and they're massing for an attack".
Jennifer felt a stab of panic. "What do we do?"
"Get back inside, Miss. Perhaps go upstairs and stay out of sight. We think they're after us. Hopefully they'll leave you alone once they've got us."
"Don't you give yourselves up for me," said Jennifer. "I've never deserted anything in my care before, I'm damned if I will now."
"Oh, don't worry, Miss, we'll fight," said the lead kobold. "But still, it'll be easier if we don't have to worry about you out in the open."
Jennifer couldn't deny the logic of that. She went inside and closed the door. Her cane forgotten, she went to the mantel and grabbed the trophy the local council had insisted on giving her for 'contributions to civic amenity' a few years back. The thing weighed a tonne and even with her aged muscles she should be able to do some damage with it. After turning off the light, she sidled up to the window and peered out. Her three protectors stood in loose formation around the front door. In the yard, she saw the dust resolve into shapes. There must be over one hundred creatures out there. What hope did they have?
As if sensing her thoughts, the chatty kobold looked back over his shoulder at the window. "Oh, I forgot to mention, Miss. We don't take up a lot of room when we visit. And like I said, your place is very popular."
All around the front veranda kobolds began to appear. After she got to fifty, Jennifer lost count.
With a roar the two forces crashed together.
"By all of hell's fiery pits, where did they come from?" Misthrado spun around and grabbed Sandrath by the arm, pulling him across and forcing him to his knees. "You bloody well told me there were three of them!"
Sandrath looked as confused as Misthrado felt. "I don't know, your majesty. The scouts watched for days and only saw the three, I swear it."
"Bah," spat Misthrado, lifting Sandrath and throwing him to the side. He turned to his other lieutenants. "Bring up the other two brigades. We'll show these kobolds that a few house spirits can't get the better of us. And bring me my sword while you're at it."
He hadn't intended on giving his troops a full-blown battle. In fact he hadn't expected any serious opposition until he reached the first of the major cities. The Fae were so predisposed to individuality that all his reconnaissance had told him that a concentrated force of a couple of hundred would be more than enough to pick off individual pockets of resistance. He had planned to seize the sites of power long before anyone could organise against him. And here he was, the first engagement of his new army and he was fighting off the largest gathering of kobolds he'd ever seen. Even if he was victorious, there would be survivors who'd escape to the city. The element of surprise would be lost and his enemies would have time to prepare.
Misthrado's dark wings stretched out, twitching and stirring in automatic response to his anger. He dealt a therapeutic backhanded blow to a nearby cowering servant and strode forward to lead the second wave of his troops into battle.
Jennifer stared through the glass into a scene that was equal parts wondrous and terrifying. Creatures she'd only read about in stories flickered in and out of existence, joined in a chaotic battle royale. Her kobolds were on average much smaller than their foes, but what they lacked in size, they made up for with... well, she would've liked to have said with tenacity and pluck, but really it was sheer bloody ferocity. The battlefield had degenerated into a shambles, any attempt at an ordered assault crumbling as her kobolds encouraged the opposing force's natural tendency towards bedlam. It was hard to tell, but it seemed to Jennifer that her kobolds were getting the upper hand.
A horn blasted in the distance and the attacking force disengaged, retreating to the edge of the property. The kobolds regrouped, dragging their injured and dead back towards the house. Jennifer opened the front door and began shepherding the wounded into the living room, which had started to resemble a field hospital in a war zone. On reflection Jennifer supposed it was. Using skills acquired over a lifetime of caring for sick and injured animals, she started helping where she could.
A few minutes later the horn sounded again. Jennifer looked outside, and saw a much larger force approaching the house. At its head stood the largest man she had ever seen. Her eyesight wasn't the greatest but it looked like a giant with wings, holding a ludicrously big sword.
The talkative kobold, who had apparently been appointed as her liaison officer, was the tongue twistingly named Grallazenphof ("call me Gral"). He blanched at the oncoming horde. "Bloody hell, Miss, that's Misthrado. He was banished from Europe years ago. Never knew he'd ended up here. Most people think he's dead."
Jennifer could see that they were outnumbered. She turned to Gral. "Any suggestions, young man?"
Gral stood, the lines on his face screwed up into mazes of uncertainty. "I sent some of the younger lads into town to try and round up some reinforcements, Miss, but I don't think we can expect much help from that quarter for a while. We could try to run, but they'd catch us pretty fast out in the open, especially with you tagging along, Miss. No offence"
Jennifer's running days were well behind her. "None taken," she muttered. She straightened as she came to a decision. "Well then, there's nothing more you can do for me. You should all go now while they are regrouping. You'll be able to slip away. You seem pretty good at concealing yourselves."
Gral's face twisted in revulsion. "But, Miss, we're bound to your household."
Some of the old confusion slipped in behind Jennifer's new certainty. "I thought you said that was only temporary? That you were here for a visit."
"Sure, it's fine to leave when everything is going well and there are plenty of other kobolds around to look after things," said Gral. "But to leave when you're in danger and the whole household is about to be overrun? We'd never be accepted in kobold society again. It's unthinkable."
Jennifer paused to digest the not altogether sensible mores of the kobold community. From the look on Gral's face and the incredulous muttering of those in earshot, she could tell she wasn't going to have a lot of luck convincing them to leave. She thought about what she'd witnessed in the previous fight.
"They seem like a pretty unruly lot, Gral."
"Oh yes, Miss," he responded. "I'm surprised he can hold them together. No one has ever had much luck forming a Fae army. It's why humans rule the world. We're too bloody disorganised."
"And I'm the head of the household? That makes me your leader?"
"Ah, yes, Miss. I guess that's true, technically."
"Well, quickly young man. Give me the cliff notes version of Fae battlefield etiquette," said Jennifer.
She settled back and listened as Gral went through a beginner's guide to Fae rules of engagement. As she listened, a plan started to form. She doubted the kobolds would like it, but it was the only thing she could think of that might save lives. She waved over a few of the more focused of her new followers and began her spiel.
Misthrado marched towards the house, determined to cut down these upstarts straight away. The kobolds weren't in good shape. One decisive thrust should wipe them out.
He was half way across the yard when he noticed the old woman stepping off her front porch, a gaudy statue of some sort in hand. A small group of kobolds stood behind her, a fidgeting and scowling honour guard of sorts. Battered kobolds leaned out of every window of the house, watching the scene playing out before them.
"Misthrado, isn't it?" The woman's voice carried thinly across the yard. "What brings you to my home?"
He raised his hand and his army stopped behind him. What a fantastic opportunity. As frail as she was, the old lady was the mistress of this forsaken hellhole and she had addressed him in parley. This provided him with a chance to engage in a bit of awe-inspiring speech making to impress the troops. She was human and was not covered by the law of the Fae, so any terms he agreed to would not be binding. He could secure her surrender then butcher the damn kobolds once they stood down and no one would gainsay him. Indeed, his reputation for ruthlessness would only be enhanced.
He drew himself up to his full height and projected his voice in practiced cadences designed to daunt.
"I am Misthrado, Lord of the Underworld and Destroyer of Nations. My armies will conquer this puny continent and soon I will take my rightful place..."
"Yes, yes," the woman broke in. "So, since you're the leader of this invading army, I understand I can challenge you to a trial by single combat. Is that right?"
No one interrupted him. No one! Off balance, Misthrado looked at her with suspicion. There must be some trick here. In a flash of insight, he thought he saw it.
"Ah, you've found some kind of champion to fight on your behalf, have you old woman? I counsel against it, there is no kobold alive that can match me. And if your warrior were to lose, both you and your whole army would be mine to do with as I pleased."
The old woman smiled. "No champion, Misthrado. Just me. You can use a champion if you like." She hefted the golden figurine. "If it's all the same to you I'd like to keep the trophy though."
Misthrado heard sniggering in the ranks behind him and realised the situation was fast spinning out of his control. Destroying this old woman would be easy. Too easy in some ways, it would reduce his standing with his troops. But still, not accepting the challenge would be even worse.
"Keep your idol, human," he snarled. "I'll even leave behind my sword. Tearing you apart with my bare hands will be the highlight of my day."
He slammed his sword point-first into the ground, then strode forward into the now empty circle of grass that lay between his army and the house. The old woman tottered forward, her trophy held before her like a talisman.
Misthrado screamed his displeasure at this humiliating scene for all to hear. The faster he removed this impudent woman's head and put this whole damn day behind him the better. He crouched in preparation for an eviscerating leap.
It was then that the first knife pierced his thick skin. As he twisted towards the source of the pain, kobolds appeared all around him, stabbing, clawing and biting. The kobolds at the window had been a ruse, a small part of her force left to give the impression the house was fully defended. The remainder had snuck out and lay in wait to catch him once he was separated from his troops.
Within seconds his wings had been punctured and he was bleeding all over. He swung his arms, trying to find enough space to fight back but the numbers were overwhelming. His own army stood paralysed, watching as he collapsed under the weight of so many kobolds. No matter how good an individual fighter was, anyone could be taken down if enough enemies were piled on.
"This is a violation of Fae law," he hissed while trying to protect his vital organs.
Even above the noise of battle, the old woman must have heard him.
"Well, I don't know anything about that dearie," she said. "I'm not Fae."
"My armies will destroy you," he gasped.
"I don't think so," she replied. "They don't seem like the type to follow orders, and with you brought down I see quite a few of them leaving. I suspect you're going to have to find yourself another army."
Misthrado didn't have to see his horde to know she spoke the truth. Even at the height of his powers, keeping this many Fae under control was difficult. "It's not fair," he yelled.
The old woman didn't seem sympathetic. "Yes, well a seven foot half-demon warrior taking on a little old human lady isn't exactly punching in your weight division is it? Fair is as fair does, if you ask me."
Misthrado was losing blood quickly and knew that if he didn't leave now he may never do so. With a roar so loud it shook the house on its foundations, he managed to dislodge enough kobolds to leap into the air. His damaged wings barely held him aloft as he retreated, the remnants of his army streaming away beneath him.
It would be years before he'd recover from this. He shrieked his frustration into the night sky as he flew back towards sanctuary.
Dawn's golden light found Jennifer and Gral sitting on the front porch. Her kobold guests had spent the night cleaning up, and only some trampled grass and a few broken windows showed that anything special had happened at all.
With the excitement passed, Jennifer felt the old lethargy seep back into her bones. She let the sunlight warm her as she sipped a hot cup of tea.
"Will he be back?" she asked.
"Not for a long time, Miss," replied Gral. "Although you'd better watch yourself. He'll want his revenge."
After setting her tea aside, Jennifer closed her eyes to settle in for a short doze. "Then it's lucky for me I run the best kobold backpackers lodge south of the equator."