When Gnarl woke, he wasn't entirely surprised to find himself staring up at a three-horned helm that hadn't been in this world in close to twenty years. The glowing white eyes that were all the helm let him see of its owner only proved that his memory was correct.
Well, that's going to put a crimp or two in Master Thorn's style. "Apologies, Lord. I'm not as young as I once was, and after so many years, we'd thought you must be dead, with all the wraiths after you." Gnarl climbed to his feet. He knew he was rambling, but for some reason he couldn't stop the words tumbling from his mouth. "Pity, really, I rather like the boy, but there it is. I can only serve the most senior candidate as it were. I do regret that I never could serve you properly before."
The Minion Master swallowed. "Master?" He couldn't be mistaken. This could not be anyone but Master Doniel, miraculously returned from the Infernal Abyss.
"I know." A little amusement crept into the Master's voice. "If you'd had a choice, you would be 'enjoying' the consequences."
Gnarl couldn't help but shiver. He was a loyal servant of Evil, yes, but that didn't mean he particularly wanted to experience the wrath of Evil personally. He preferred to deliver it.
Master Doniel gestured. There was no magic that Gnarl could sense, but between one eye-blink and the next, there was a book in the man's hands. One Gnarl recognized too well he'd waited close to five years before finally giving up and accepting that Master Doniel's chronicle should be shelved with the tales of all his other Masters.
He held the book open. "You had incomplete information. Read."
Gnarl couldn't disobey. This wasn't even the loyalty he, as Minion Master, had to give. Rather, the command bypassed his mind and compelled his body to follow. He stared, open-mouthed, as a script which wasn't his filled the page at about the same speed as he read the words.
Overlord Doniel slew the Forgotten God, forcing the God's mouth open with his mace then pouring magical flame through the God's weakened body. The God's death shook the Abyss, breaking the connection between Overlord Doniel and his Minion Master.
Overlord Doniel fled through the Abyss, and reached the Abyss Gate in time to see the Jester pass through the Gate. The traitorous creature saluted mockingly before vanishing from the Overlord's sight. The Gate collapsed upon itself with the Jester's passage, and the Abyss expelled his minions.
Alone, he turned, prepared to sell his life dearly. Rank upon rank of wraith stood before him.
The first wraith knelt and bowed its head, offering its sword to his service. The others followed suit, acknowledging Overlord Doniel as the Master of the Abysses, and their God.
The book snapped closed and vanished.
Gnarl had to try several times before he was able to force sound past his teeth. "I really should have staked that miserable creature out for the crows years ago."
"Then Overlord Mardis would have been sharing your body." For reasons beyond Gnarl's understanding, Master Doniel appeared to find the prospect amusing.
Gnarl didn't: he shivered. "Master, please. There's only so much a minion of my age can handle."
The response was far from reassuring. "And you are far from reaching that limit."
The Minion Master winced. "Perhaps, Lord, but I assure you it feels differently from my body." He shook his head. "What do you require of me, Sire?" Service and obedience were simple, and now Gnarl knew exactly why he'd obeyed Master Doniel without thinking. In the presence of one's deity one could hardly do otherwise.
"You will serve my son as though you served me, with one exception." Master Doniel was definitely amused by this. "If he decides to invade any of my Abysses, you will discourage him."
He couldn't even object, Gnarl thought resentfully. He couldn't ask for more information, or even try to wheedle it out. So there was a reason for his dislike of deities. If all of them did this just by their presence, no wonder he didn't like them. Gnarl had spent too long controlling events around him. Being forced into the role of a subordinate didn't sit well at all.
His Masters didn't count: most of them had no difficulty trusting reliable old Gnarl's advice, and allowed him to guide them in the service of Evil.
"And guide them you will, Gnarl."
That was another reason to avoid the Gods. It was bad enough without them reading his mind.
Master Doniel chuckled. "Gnarl, you have served faithfully for many thousands of years. Would it help if I showed you why?"
He blinked, looked up. "Yes, Lord. It would. I don't ask questions, you know. Evil is as Evil does and all that. But after a shock like this I could use a little support."
A nod, then Master Doniel gestured with his right hand. The air between them glowed, showing a city that left Gnarl gasping. Mortals, humans flew with winged contraptions, and spires Gnarl would have sworn none of the races could produce glittered in sunlight.
"This was the greatest of the human cities before the War of the Gods," Master Doniel said in a flat voice. "And this --" the image shifted to show a treetop city with winged elves flying alongside dragonkin but dragonkin were long gone and the trees themselves altered to grow into the houses. "-- this was Evernight."
Master Doniel closed his hand, and the images vanished. "The Goddess's pique cost far more than the war, Gnarl. Back then, life and death good and evil if you wish to look at it that way were in balance. But once She had banished Her faithless suitor to the Abysses, the Mother Goddess retreated to her realm. No amount of entreaty from Her worshipers suffices to bring Her back." A shrug. "Death remained: the Forgotten God's son was the first Overlord, and you minions his faithful servants. All part of the God's plan to win his way back from the Abysses."
Gnarl had the distinct impression Master Doniel was smiling, and not in a good way.
"It is time to restore the balance."
Thorn leaned back against the wall of the bathing pool in his private quarters. With one arm around Kelda, the other around Juno, and Fay snuggling against his chest, he was perfectly content. The... activities preceding their relaxation now certainly helped his mood.
Not that he planned to tell Gnarl that: the old minion was entirely too knowing sometimes. It did him good to be off balance now and then.
Thorn let his thoughts drift. He wasn't often out of his armor, much less entirely nude: he'd spent most of his life with his face and body hidden by furs, concealing his magic-marked skin. Since becoming the Overlord, he'd all but lived in his armor, removing it only in his private quarters, and then only for... entertaining his mistresses. He slept armored in the field, so sleeping armored in the Tower was no great hardship.
He still felt uncomfortable when he wasn't fully clothed and armored, even with Fay tracing one of the spiral markings on his chest with one delicate finger. The former Queen she was technically still Queen of all the Elven realms, but since he'd drained her magic to recharge the old Tower Heart and in the process filled her with his own power she couldn't leave the Netherworld unless she was with him was the most needy of the three women. Her very existence depended on his magic. While he lived, his link to the Netherworld allowed her to survive his absence on campaign, but she was always greatly relieved by his return.
Juno's attachment was simpler. He was strong, powerful, and wealthy. A steady supply of expensive gifts and frequent visits to his bed sufficed.
As for Kelda... Thorn smiled. Kelda was his First, his only friend in those bleak years in Nordberg. She cared for him, not the Overlord, not the Overlord's magic, and certainly not the Overlord's wealth and power. From her, the epithet 'Witch Boy' was an endearment: she'd never revealed his name to anyone. He appreciated that.
His name was a remnant of a past best left behind, from a mother who had abandoned him to the not at all tender mercies of the Nordberg villagers.
Nordberg was his now. All the villagers had been enslaved, and spent their miserable lives working for his glory. He made sure any representative of a new possession toured Nordberg, so they knew their fate if they were ever foolish enough to defy him. So far, the lesson had been heeded: only the elves of Everlight had tried to resist. Now they labored in his service as well.
His eyes drifted closed: it had been a hard campaign, and the exercise which had followed, while welcome, wasn't precisely restful.
Soft laughter echoed through the private quarters.
Thorn's eyes snapped open and he launched himself to his feet.
Across from where he stood, the shadows took shape: the shape of a man Thorn's size, in Overlord armor. The design wasn't familiar, and the man had glowing white eyes.
With a flicker of magic, Thorn called his clothing and armor to him. His eyes narrowed: the minion attendants had prostrated themselves at the feet of the interloper.
"Oh, do relax." The intruder's voice had power: Thorn could feel the pull of it, the demand that he obey.
He fought it. No-one ordered him to do anything.
The intruder's laughter did nothing for Thorn's rapidly rising anger. "Perhaps I should introduce myself?" Neither did the amusement lacing his voice. "I am Doniel, your father, and your God."
Thorn growled. "My father died in the Infernal Abyss before I was born."
"Not precisely. I was trapped there, not dead." Doniel shrugged. His armor vanished, replaced by plain clothing: not unlike the clothing male slaves in the Tower wore. Brown pants, a shirt of undyed linen, soft leather slippers. He had dark hair, and a face that would have been handsome without the old scar running from his right temple to his left jaw.
Thorn had no doubt there were other scars.
The man sat on one of the benches, leaned back against the wall. "The Mother Goddess sealed the Abysses long ago," he said calmly. "For thousands of years the Overlords had been weakening the barriers. If I had died in the Abyss, they would have broken. Instead, I had to wait for Solarius to die his corruption was more than enough to end the separation of the realms." He grinned. "You may be assured that he is suffering appropriately for his actions."
"Good." Thorn didn't shift his stance one iota.
Doniel spread his hands. "You've done well, son. The Glorious Empire was a greater foe than any I faced with the possible exception of the Forgotten God. Gnarl can tell you that tale."
"What does he have to do with it?" If he stayed angry, Thorn could resist this creature... his father.
"More than you might think." Doniel's lips twisted into a wry smile. "Ask him about what happens when there's more than one possible Overlord." He certainly wasn't amused now. "That one bit me, and very nearly killed me at least twice."
"You control him, don't you." It wasn't a question.
"Now, yes." Doniel shrugged. "I've ordered him to serve and obey you as though the order came from me. Yes, even if you choose to attack me." Another shrug. "Although if you're foolish enough for that, I'll be dreadfully disappointed. And you will be dead shortly after."
He wasn't even making a threat, Thorn realized. It was a simple statement of fact. "That isn't helpful."
"It isn't meant to be." A quick smile, then Doniel said, "In any case, I am delighted to finally see you with my own eyes. It's not the same looking out from the Abyss. I apologize for startling you: it's going to take me a while to reacquaint myself with the norms of the living."
That helped even less. "What do you want of me?" he demanded in a growl.
Doniel's grin was anything but reassuring. "Only that you be yourself, my son. Nothing more than that." He faded into the shadows, and when Thorn stomped over to the seat there was nothing there, not even the tingling after-taste of magic recently used.
He snarled and headed for his throne room. If he wasn't going to sleep, neither would bloody Gnarl.