It was a cool autumn day in the Lands of Night, with a gentle breeze blowing on the Plains of Dread. A pale white banner flew from the ramparts of Castle Terribel, the great fortress of House Cthonique which dominated the area.
There were many banners that could be flying there, and they all meant something different. A red one meant the castle was under attack. A blue one meant all was well. A green one meant to be on watch. A black one meant that it was a time of celebration.
A white banner meant it was time for a troop review.
Lord Mansemat Cthonique looked over the rows upon rows of soldiers, all standing at attention before his podium. Many were Erls of the Dread Plains and the Accursed Marsh, of course, but some were Ogres from the Mountains of Sorrows , others Goblins from the Shadow Woods, and a few even belonged to the Ghouls of the Blasted Heath--and they all served him and the cause of House Cthonique. Ten years ago, when his father died, it looked as if House Cthonique would collapse--yet now it was more powerful than ever. A smile spread over Mansemat’s lean, pale face. To think--he had not only equaled his father--but surpassed him. Even Mansemat was surprised.
His troops were gazing at him eagerly. It was time to speak. Raising a gauntlet-clad hand, the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel motioned for silence. “Soldiers of House Cthonique! The day of our ultimate triumph draws ever NEARER! The day when the hordes of Darkness cast down the proud denizens of the Lands of Light, and usher in a new age of TERROR! The day when--”
Suddenly, his hand went to his forehead, a distracted expression playing across his face. “Ummm--pardon me, gentlemen--it’s my wife. This will just be a moment, so--well, hold on.” His eyes shut tightly. “Ahh. Hello, dear.”
There was a slight pause as if Mansemat was listening to a speaker unheard to the onlookers--which was, in fact, the case. “No, no, darling--just telling the men of our inevitable victory over the forces of all that is holy. You know the drill, Viviane. Shop talk.”
Another pause--this one slightly longer. “Of course, dear. I always have time for you, nightshade petals. Now what’s the matter?”
Mansemat’s eyes snapped open in shock in response to the unheard reply. “She’s--WHAT? Why didn’t you tell me this immediately?”
Another pause. “Well, I’m worried now, dear. There was really no way to tell me without getting me worried. It’s worrying news.” Mansemat took a deep breath. “No, I’m not angry, Viv. Disturbed maybe, but not angry. And not at you, but with you. I’m troubled because you are troubled, dear. When you’re happy--I’m happy. When you’re sad--I’m sad. That’s all. Okay?” A slight smile spread over his face. “Love you too, sweetie. And don’t worry--I have it covered. Kiss-kiss!”
Mansemat took a deep breath, and regarded his troops again. “Umm--right. I--have to get going. Family matters.” He coughed slightly, and glanced away awkwardly. “So in summary--we’re going to kick the ass of Light.” He raised a clenched fist, “Hurray for us. Woo.” He lowered the fist, and silently cursed his inability to improvise speeches. “Anyway--I’m leaving the--uhhh--training part of this--thing--to my brother, Nisrioch, Lord of the Screaming Waste!” A tall figure with a shock of white hair, wearing a grey robe embroidered with mystical symbols, ascended to the podium. Nisrioch stood a head taller than his brother--and Mansemat was tall for an Erl, which was tall for just about anybody. As he neared his brother, he briefly lowered himself on one knee, then stood at attention at Mansemat’s side.
Mansemat gave Nisrioch an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Yes, yes--you’re in good hands with Nisrioch. So--while I’m gone, I want you to show him the same respect you’d give me.” With that, he leapt down from the podium, and jogged briskly away.
Nisrioch regarded the troops for a moment in utter silence, his strange rainbow-colored eyes moving over them dispassionately. Finally he spoke. “Gentleman, my plan can be summed up in one word--GROUNDHOGS!” Warming to his subject, Nisrioch raised his arms emphatically. “Yes, groundhogs! Brown! Furry! DEADLY! The key to VICTORY!”