Chapter 1: Oops
The crash made the Netherworld Tower shake. That would have been bad enough, but the sound of minion voices singing very drunk minion voices, singing very, very badly made Gnarl wince. He had to force himself not to look at the throne. More particularly, he had to work at not looking at the occupant of the throne.
Never mind that this Overlord, having been raised by minions from the age of seven or eight Gnarl had never been good at estimating human ages was more tolerant of their antics than most. There were limits, and a Master who'd been going over the business of his realm since he returned from eliminating the Glorious Empire wasn't likely to appreciate minion partying.
Another crash, and more singing. It was just as well the Master had never learned the minion dialect. He was still young not much more than a boy, really, for all that he'd been remarkably successful and he didn't take well to his... well... exploits in the private quarters being fodder for minion gossip. There were very good reasons Gnarl hadn't mentioned the incident with the stolen fabric and the melons. Some things were better handled by the Overlord's trusted Minion Master.
"What is going on down there, Gnarl?" the Overlord growled.
Gnarl couldn't help himself: his ears dropped flat to his head. "I believe the minions are having a party, Sire." He didn't dare look. Particularly not when a crash with a rather damp undertone made the tower rock so much he had to work to keep his footing. There was no way the wine 'liberated' from Imperial store rooms could get his fellow minions this drunk. It sounded awfully like poor Mortis was getting dive-bombed by over-excited blues.
Other sounds drifted to Gnarl's ears. He really hoped his Overlord didn't hear those. The old Minion Master had no doubts anymore someone had found and retrieved the wreck of the Dwarf brewery from the wasteland, and got it repaired. Gnarl was going to tie Giblet's ears in knots for that. Multiple knots. Behind his head. Unlike the sickly sweet Imperial wine, which minions couldn't stomach in quantity because of the sweetness, they could get very drunk on Dwarf beer. Drunk enough that they'd start humping anything that looked like it might be the right approximate shape.
This was why it was a good thing there were no female minions. The Netherworld would be overrun in no time if minions could breed with their own kind. As it was, they managed to procreate with some surprising species. The human-brown hybrids were robust and intelligent, and the one time a green had managed to... If Gnarl could have blushed, he would have with elves it just wasn't seemly with an elf, the hybrid minion ruled the greens for several hundred years. Then there was that green with the Everlight spiders... what was his name? Oh, yes, Ramul. The green hive still produced the occasional web-spinning green.
At least there would be no hybrids from anything in the minion barracks this time. Gnarl was going to have a hard enough time avoiding grievous bodily harm as it was.
"That is not a party, Gnarl, it's a bloody Abyss-spawned riot."
Gnarl's ears couldn't get any closer to his head, but they tried. "They are minions, Sire. Minion parties do resemble Abyssal riots." He tried a slightly more wheedling tone. "In any case, Lord, it's been a long time since they had a victory like this to celebrate. Why don't you spend some time in the private quarters. You know, clean up, relax a bit, entertain your mighk!" The gauntleted fist around his throat was never a good sign.
The Overlord gave him a shake before letting go. "Look at me, Gnarl."
Oh, dear. I hope he's not going to throw me off the Tower again. Climbing back up is such a nuisance. Gnarl picked himself up and turned to face his Overlord.
The glowing amber eyes had narrowed to slits, and the Overlord wasn't slouching in the throne as he usually did: he sat upright, leaning forward. He held his mace in his right hand, tapping the head into his left. "Now, explain."
Gnarl sighed. This Overlord wasn't terribly talkative, but when he spoke, you listened. And you obeyed. "As I said, Sire, they're partying. Enthusiastically. And... drunk." He winced at another crash. "Very drunk."
"They'd be throwing up by now."
Not for the first time, Gnarl wondered if it had been a good idea to raise the young Overlord himself. Master Thorn knew a lot more about his minions than most of his predecessors, simply by virtue of having lived in the minion burrows until he'd grown too large to squirm through the caves. "For that, Lord, I believe you can thank Giblet." It was quite safe to blame the minion Master Smith: Giblet was too valuable to be killed out of hand. "Someone must have found the ruin of the Dwarf brewery in the old tower, and brought it back but it would have taken Giblet's abilities to fix it."
Gnarl risked rubbing his neck. "Indeed, Sire. Your minions adore it and I don't mind admitting I'm partial to a drop or two myself but they do get rather... raucous."
The Overlord sighed. "Make sure they don't destroy the Tower. We'll discuss this later."
Meaning he hoped to catch Gnarl with a horrendous hangover, which would provide a certain amount of payback. Although... Gnarl watched his Overlord leave for the private quarters. The throne would need to be cleaned again. The man would come back from weeks in the field, covered in blood and magical goop, and just drop into his throne.
Gnarl's initial assumption that Master Thorn didn't care about the state of the upholstery proved false. Catastrophically false: that was the first time he'd thrown Gnarl off the Tower. He seemed to treat that as a kind of game there was no surprise when the old Minion Master returned to the throne room, just a comment that he'd taken long enough and when was he going to get the cleaning done.
Well, as masters went, this one was a long way from the worst. He was quick witted, cared enough about the minions that he resurrected most of those who fell in battle, and tried not to lose any. The minions adored him.
Even Gnarl had to admit that he was rather fond of the boy. After all his years of service, this one was something of a son to him. He was going to hate having to make the inevitable arrangements for Master Thorn's successor.
"You, stop chasing that rat and get the throne clean," Gnarl snapped.
The cleaner-minion looked resentful, until he added, "When you're done you can go to the barracks and tell them I said they're not to destroy the tower, and they're to clean up before the Master wakes. After that, you're off duty, you hear." The cleaner-minions were always among the youngest and weakest of the browns, which got them the worst jobs.
Gnarl hobbled over to one of the shadowed alcoves, where a concealed minion tunnel led into the maze of minion-ways honeycombing the Tower. The glowing crystal he used as a lantern provided all the light he needed, although he did stop more than once to check that he wasn't being followed or seen. At his age, he couldn't be too careful.
He came to a small cutaway in the tunnel, and traced a symbol on the wall. An old symbol, vaguely serpentine. The symbol glowed for a moment, and the wall faded.
Gnarl stepped through with an agility at odds with his extreme age, to a ledge that opened directly to the Netherworld. If he looked down he'd see lava falls, and far, far below a dull red glow. Once the Infernal Abyss had opened to this place, but that entrance was long gone, sealed by the Mother Goddess when she'd defeated her faithless consort... who was he again? Age must be getting to him, Gnarl decided.
The youngest minions would have been astonished to see Gnarl scurry across the narrow rope bridge connecting the ledge to the walls of the Netherworld cavern, except that Gnarl had made sure when the Tower was first built that there was no way anything could see this bridge. It was his secret. He maintained the bridge himself, just as he'd built the ledge and the hidden entrance to it.
He had reasons. His loyalty to Evil meant that he had to maintain information which his Masters would likely not appreciate. That and it was often more convenient to shield them from the dirty work of managing an Evil domain. Gold didn't enter the Tower by itself, and slaves didn't just arrive to be put to work. No, someone had to see that slaves were fed and clothed and housed, and content enough to keep working since not even the most powerful of Masters could magically control their whole population. Someone needed to bring food in and see that it got cooked to the Master's tastes, Masters being rather more fussy about what they ate than minions, someone had to keep up a steady supply of pretties for the Mistresses, and someone had to keep the minions trained and battle-ready... That someone was Gnarl.
He didn't slow down until he was through a twisting tunnel and into the large space beyond. There, his crystal lit shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls, the oldest so fragile they'd fall apart unless he used magic to read them. Gnarl's favorite iron maiden sat in one dark corner, the once-lethal spikes worn down by use to a brisk massage.
He relaxed. This was his real home, the heart of every Overlord's domain since the first although what with one thing and another he'd never actually mentioned this library to any of his Masters. They'd never needed to know, really.
The shadows grew together into a familiar shape. Familiar, and shocking.
Gnarl took a step back, raising one hand in a futile warding gesture.
"Hello, Gnarl. We have rather a lot to discuss." The voice was as familiar as the shape, and as impossible.
Gnarl's senses told him that the impossible had indeed come to pass, in his library no less.
"Did you think I'd never find you here?"
Gnarl did something he'd never done in his entire life: he fainted.