GRIMWALD KEEP FELT COLD and empty. But only because it was cold and empty. The lower floors, the servant’s quarters, he was sure were warm and cozy, and he could smell the distinctive scent of roasting beef from down in the kitchens. But the main area of the Keep, the rooms he would frequent, were lonely and lacking of heat. The Dread Lord Hob, thanks to the traveling spells of his wizards, had arrived home before the bulk of his retinue would. Those, along with his army, he had made to walk as punishment for running from a single man with a sword.

Though, Hob had to admit, the arrival of the One had given him a bit of the bubble guts. The only reason he’d finally made his move on Gund had been the complete and total lack of the One over the last hundred years or so. The fact that he had returned foretold of ill tidings. Hob would have to escalate his time line, or abandon the invasion altogether. He didn’t like the idea of the latter, though the former didn’t make him smile either.

Once arriving at the Keep, the Dread Lord Hob had gone immediately to his study to think things through. And, as he sat in the high backed chair before the cold fireplace, his armor strewn about him on the floor, he shivered. Though from the cold or the situation, he did not know.

Hanging from the ceiling, next to the chair, was a long, velvet rope. He gave it a pull and knew that somewhere deep in the bowels of the Keep, a bell sounded. Three minutes later a small man in black livery entered.

A Cloyne.

He hated the cloynes. They were all a little too obedient. Bending to his every whim. But there was something in their eyes, a dark sparkle that bespoke of sudden and uncontrollable violence. He always felt, whenever he dealt with one of the cloynes, that while they were smiling, while they were bowing and scraping, they were always within a hair’s breadth away from going for his jugular.

He’d inherited the cloynes from his former master. They ran the day to day here in Grimwald Keep. The Dread Lord Hob, however, would prefer them out on their collective tiny behinds. But he had quickly found the task impossible.

He’d cleared them from the Keep, of course. A number of times. And they had left. Or so he’d thought. The problem was that he had no idea how many of the creepy little bastards were actually taking up residence in the Keep as they all look exactly the same.

Each one of them was precisely four feet tall and ninety-eight pounds. Their skin was white like chalk. Their hair as red as blood and cut like an inverted bowl. They had red, full lips that always seemed to be smiling. And their eyes, their damnable eyes were solid black like globes of obsidian. When they looked at you with those dead black eyes you got the impression that they were looking at their next meal. It was all rather disconcerting.

They were also all one gender, at least that’s what Lord Hob had come to assume. They all looked male, but he’d never taken that one particular step necessary to make sure. It was as if they were all just one person that had been duplicated over and over.

The first time he had dismissed them from his service, they had gone. The next morning, however, he woke to find them back. Or it was a new group? Or maybe they all hadn’t left? He had found it all more than a little frustrating. Trying to suppress his rage, he had dismissed them again, ordering them from the Keep on pain of death.

By morning they were back.

So, being the man of his word he’d had them all put to death.

But once again, the very next morning, they had returned.

In the end he’d had a group of ogres go through the Keep and arrest every cloyne they found. Forty-two in all. They were all loaded into carts and taken ten days south and dumped off deep within the Sea of Grass. He figured the elves would make short work of them. During the twenty days the carts were gone, Lord Hob had hired all new servants. Chamber maids, cooks, sculleries, butlers, the works. And humans, the lot of them.

The morning after the carts had returned, empty but for their drivers and the ogre guards, the cloynes were back to work in their black livery. Furthermore, the human servants that had just taken up residence within the Keep, were nowhere to be found. They’d just disappeared overnight. Further investigation found nothing. The staff he had hired were never to be heard from again.

After that Lord Hob had given up. The cloynes did have their uses, after all. They kept everything within the Keep running on schedule. They made sure everything was neat and orderly, two things Lord Hob prized above most others. And they had proven to be useful in other, rather dark, ways as well. So he had decided to put up with their off-putting nature and their go-for-the-jugular eyes.

“How may I be of service, Dread Lord,” the cloyne said as he bowed.

“Light a fire, would you, Douglas,” Lord Hob said.

Of course the cloyne’s name wasn’t Douglas. He had no idea if the little creeps even had names. But he didn’t like addressing any of them as ‘Cloyne’. It felt a bit rude. So they all had become Douglas.

“At once, My Lord,” the thing said and then went to work.

Hob watched as the cloyne gathered the wood from an alcove to the left of the fireplace, added kindling, and set the kindling to flame with a long, wooden match. Douglas worked efficiently with no unnecessary steps. Under normal circumstances the Dread Lord Hob would applaud such work. But he just couldn’t find it within him. The way the cloyne moved was fluid, like a snake, or an eel, and it was all Hob could do to keep his skin from crawling.

Creepy. Little. Bastard.

To be continued . . .

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