Chapter 10: The Brave and the Stupid
Kaff smelled sleepy-stuff. He knew the smell from when the Mistresses used it, only never this strong. He rubbed his eyes, then grabbed a spare rag from the pile meant for the Master's spawnlings and wrapped it around his face, over his mouth and nose. That made him not so sleepy.
He took one of Mistress Juno's thin scarf things from a different shelf in the storage room, and draped it over his head so he wasn't getting sleepy-stuff in his eyes but he could still see, mostly. He remembered Horde minions talking about that trick, for when the air got stingy in nasty places.
Kaff crept out of the storage room, and peeked into the main room of the private quarters. In time to see a nurse-slave put Master's spawnlings in a big basket and hurry from the room. The nurse-slave had a rag around her mouth and nose, too, and all the other nurse-slaves were asleep.
This was bad.
Kaff followed the nurse-slave, and tried not to make any noise at all even though he wasn't a green and couldn't hide like they did.
There were slaves in the Master's throne room, all with their faces wrapped up, and all the guard minions and even Gnarl! were sleeping. The sleepy-stuff had got them too.
The slaves never said anything, but they hurried the nurse-slave over to Master's Gate. Kaff followed them as quiet as he could. They were stealing Master's spawnlings, and the whole Netherworld could be asleep, there was so much sleepy-stuff in the air.
They came out by the cold water place, where Master made all the big fires. That got the last of the sleepy out of Kaff's mind, and he burrowed into a pile of snow, fast, so he wouldn't be seen.
There was an Empire Shiny there, one of the big Shinies, and lots of regular Shinies, and an Empire boat, a big one with all the rowy things and the stripy sails and the big smashy thing in front.
"Did you get the brats?"
The nurse-slave nodded. "Got all three."
One of the other slaves looked around, all nervous. "Can we get out of here, Centurion? There wasn't enough gas to put them out for long."
"You two, get on board," the big Shiny said. "You, go back and make like you don't know anything. We'll contact you."
They hurried to obey, and Kaff watched the slave the big Shiny sent back. He had to tell Gnarl about that one
when Gnarl woke up. So he had to know which slave it was. It was so hard to tell the slaves apart.
The slave man ran into the Gate, and the big Shiny and the other Shinies took the nurse-slave and the other slaves on the big boat. Kaff wailed inside: they were taking Master's spawnlings! Master would be so mad!
But he was just one minion, and not a strong one. If he could tell Gnarl everything and find the slave, Master could get his spawnlings back. That was smart, like Gnarl said minions should try to be.
The big boat floated out into the water, and out of sight.
Kaff raced from his snowbank, shivering, and threw himself at the gate.
"Eh? What in the Dark?"
Kaff had never been so happy to hear Gnarl's voice in his whole life. "Bad stuff, slave stole Master's spawnlings with sleepy-stuff so we all sleeps, other slave come back, me know which one, quick!" He rolled to his feet and raced for the hallway the slaves used.
Gnarl trailed orders as he followed, bringing guard minions with him.
Kaff sniffed. He could smell old sleepy-stuff, and cold, and under it, human. That had to be the slave. No-one had used this passage since the slave came through it, then. That was good: Kaff's nose wasn't as good as a green's.
He followed the smell through halls to the slave quarters, where sleepy slaves were yawning and picking themselves up from the floor, to one who was still cold and smelled right. He looked and smelled right to Kaff. "That one!" He jumped up and down. "Him!"
"What are you " He wasn't sleepy like the others, either. Kaff knew for sure he'd got the right one.
The guard minions knocked the slave back to the floor with their pikes, adding a few extra hits for good measure.
All the other slaves stayed out of the way, watching.
"Back to work, all of you," Gnarl snapped. "You boys, take this to the dungeons and strip him. Kaff, wait for me by the throne."
Although that meant more time with Gnarl asking questions Kaff wasn't sure how to answer, he went quickly. Gnarl would be in the dungeons, making sure the bad slave was properly ready for Master, and smart minions didn't get in Master's way down there. He might decide to play with you instead, and that would get you always-dead.
Master's throne room was full of wailing when Kaff got there. All Master's Mistresses were awake, and panicking. Kaff pulled his ears down to protect them from the noise, and cowered behind the throne. He almost wished Master would come back, just to make things go quiet again. This wasn't the fun kind of noise, not like parties, and Master would be really mad if he came back and there was only Kaff who knew what happened.
As if the almost-wish had done something, the Tower Gate crackled into life, and Master was there.
All three Mistresses ran to him, all babbling at once.
Kaff pressed his ears harder against his head.
"ENOUGH!" When Master roared like that, everyone in the Tower heard.
At least it was quiet, just little whimpers from the Mistresses.
"Now, what happened?" Master's growl promised that someone was going to hurt lots. Lots of someones.
"Ah, Master, apologies."
Kaff nearly fainted with relief when he heard Gnarl's voice. Gnarl being here meant Kaff didn't have to face Master himself.
"It seems we had some traitors slip in with that batch of slaves from Aquilonis." Gnarl sounded angry, too, but it wasn't the same kind of angry. Gnarl would wait and figure it all out before he started killing. "They've made off with your spawn, Lord, but we did catch one of the traitors. I was securing the prisoner."
Kaff shivered a bit.
"What do you mean, 'made off with my spawn'?" Master snarled.
It sounded like Gnarl was backing towards the throne, fast. "If you'll let me explain, Sire
Now, where did that young minion get "
Kaff hurried out from behind the throne, before Gnarl could start looking. "Me here, waiting like you said." It was better to look at his feet than at Gnarl, and much better than looking at Master, whose glowy eyes were narrow and angry.
"Good. Now, what happened?"
Kaff swallowed. "Me getting new rags for Master's spawnlings when me smell sleepy-stuff."
"That sleep gas the elves use, Lord," Gnarl said.
"Go on," Master demanded.
"Me 'member greens say if there bad air, you wrap rag around face so it not get you, so me do that." Kaff added. "Me got thin stuff too, so eyes not go funny." When no-one objected, he kept talking into the horrible quiet that made him want to run. "Me see nurse-slave with rag on face, and she put Master's spawnlings in big basket and take them away."
Master growled, but he didn't say anything.
Kaff shivered. "Me follow. Lots of sleepy-stuff all over. More slaves in here, and they use Gate. Me follow to cold burny place and hide in snow. Big Shiny there with lots of shinies and big boat. Big Shiny send slave back, and they all go in big boat and big boat goes away. Me come back here and tell Gnarl, and we go get slave. Me not in horde, me not want to die, me want Master to find bad slave and get spawnlings back."
Master didn't say anything for a long time. Kaff shifted nervously on his feet, waiting for Master to decide his fate.
"You caught the traitor, you said, Gnarl?"
"Yes, Sire." Gnarl sounded almost happy about that. "Young Kaff led us to a slave who was pretending to sleep and who still had unmelted snow on his clothes. I took the liberty of securing the scum in the dungeons for you, Sire."
"Good. Every ship at every port is to be inspected. Including Everlight. No ship enters or leaves without being searched. Arrange it, Gnarl." Master turned away and hugged the Mistresses. "I'll find the babies," he said in a softer voice. "Now please, let me deal with this."
Kaff shuddered. He was glad he wasn't what Master was going to 'deal with'. It sounded like Master would make them want to be always-dead.
Master shoed the Mistresses up the stairs to the private quarters, then turned back to Kaff. "You, learn from Gnarl. Everything he can teach you."
Kaff's eyes got wide. Master wanted Gnarl to teach him? "Yes, Master!"
"Back to your duties for now, Kaff," Gnarl said, much to Kaff's relief. "And not a word of any of this to anyone, you hear?"
"Yes, Gnarl." Attending the Mistresses might be noisy with them wailing for their lost spawn, but it couldn't be as terrible as Master's attention.
Gnarl frowned after the young brown as he fled the throne room. "What did you want me to do with him, Lord?"
Master Thorn shrugged. "Anything you can teach him. He's brighter than most and if he can hold his own in a fight he'll make a good leader. A competent and loyal guard captain might have prevented this." His eyes flared brighter at the oblique reference to his stolen spawnlings.
The Master's anger was enough that Gnarl had to step back. He knew better than to try to excuse himself for what was inexcusable. He should have checked those slaves more thoroughly: they'd seemed compliant enough and he'd let that be enough. If not for young Kaff's quick wits by minion standards, anyway they might still be wondering what had happened, and the traitor might be undetected. "Of course, Lord." The fighting part mattered: no minion would take orders from a minion they could defeat in combat.
When his Master didn't respond, Gnarl added, "I er... I took the liberty of summoning Slyce, Sear, and Storm to the dungeons, Sire." Those three minions served as the Netherworld's torturers or rather, Slyce and Sear did the torturing while Storm delighted in it before he healed the victims so they could endure more.
Slyce was possibly the only green who didn't poison his wrist blades, which wasn't something Gnarl found comforting. That minion was disturbingly precise about where his blades went, and how deep. Gnarl was quite certain that if Master Thorn did decide to nail his hide to the throne, it would be Slyce who detached it from the rest of him. That wasn't a prospect the old Minion Master relished.
Sear's flame was weak and the reds would have considered him useless if not for his remarkable control over it. With most reds, you didn't want them doing more than lighting fires in well ventilated, stone fireplaces. They'd melt candles most of them would melt glass. Sear could light candles, or leave pinpoint burns on a subject's body.
Judging by the screams that emerged from the dungeons when the Master was amusing himself down there, he was at least as capable of causing suffering as Slyce or as the Master himself, come to that.
Storm was a powerful healer, but lacked the combat skill to serve in the horde. For the most part, Storm served Mortis, but when the Master needed a prisoner kept alive, the blue was delighted to assist. He also had the knack of knowing just how much more a prisoner could endure before dying, and was quite willing to perform just enough healing to keep the captive alive while the Master had use for him. Most blues couldn't do that they had to heal everything. The few who could hated to do it: it was one of the disadvantages of healers. They took it as a personal offense when they couldn't finish a healing.
Master Thorn gave a single curt nod. "Good. I'll be down there directly. You see to making sure no ships go anywhere without a thorough search. Stop anything with Imperials and hold them."
Gnarl bowed, more than a little relieved that he wasn't going to suffer for this particular failure.
Screams echoed off the stone walls of the Netherworld dungeons, making the bars of the cells vibrate. Shackled prisoners awaiting the Overlord's attention cowered as far from the bars as their chains permitted, huddling into the smallest bundles they could in the hope that it would not be them screaming next.
The few who still believed their deity would answer them prayed silently, mostly for death. Not that it would be granted: the Overlord allowed his prisoners the mercy of death only on his command. Until then, blues would heal any illness or injury, ensuring the prisoners were ready for the Overlord's questions.
Unlike many prisons, there was plentiful light from torches in the hallways, and clean if bare floors. A team of browns pushed a heavy trolley along the hall, stopping at each occupied cell to shove a loaf of rough-baked bread through the bars. Water ran through the back of each cell, enough to keep a prisoner alive if not comfortable, a trickle that never stopped.
For once, none of the prisoners hurried to snatch their daily rations.
At the cell from which the screams came, the minions paused, taking in the Overlord's actions with obvious relish until a harsh, guttural command sent them scurrying away.
"Bloody pervs," the voice muttered in a brief moment of quiet. "Put me off me stroke."
Burbling laughter followed, then, mercifully, more screaming.
Thorn watched Slyce and Sear work, a silent, forbidding presence. Despite having dislocated both shoulders in his futile struggles, the slave had yet to start begging. Brave, if stupid.
He'd paled when the minions had hauled him to his feet, using the wheel positioned out of the captive's reach to wind the chains onto a capstan, until he was stretched tight between the ankle shackles bolted to the wall and the wrist shackles attached to the long chain. He hadn't said anything though, even when Thorn had gestured to Slyce to begin with a whip.
The simplest tools were often the most effective when it came to breaking a recalcitrant prisoner.
Now, despite blood running down his torso, despite the swelling from his shoulders, and screams so harsh the man would likely need his throat healed before long, he still resisted.
Thorn gestured to Sear.
The red grinned, and a tiny lick of flame played on his right foreclaw.
A silent command brought an even bigger grin from the minion.
The man's hoarse breathing took on an edge of panic as the minion wrapped the claws of his left hand delicately around his penis, lifting the organ to expose the real target.
Thorn was impressed: it took control for a red to damp fire. To damp fire in one hand while channeling it in the other was a feat he'd thought was impossible.
The tiny flame brightened with Sear's grin. Where it touched, it left dark, puckered burns.
The man bucked in his chains, shrieking. Blood ran down his arms from where he lacerated his wrists in his struggles.
Slyce licked his wrist knives clean, looking thoughtful.
At a sharp gesture, Sear backed away, the little flame vanishing. His grin didn't.
It was time to increase the pressure a little. Thorn called Storm over and set the blue to healing the slave.
The man's breath caught in something that was almost a sob as his flesh restored itself in response to the blue's touch. His joints knit themselves back together as though he'd never pulled his arm from their sockets in his frantic struggling, and before long, his naked body was as unmarked as though none of the suffering he'd endured had occurred.
Thorn stepped forward, caught the man's head in one gauntleted hand, turned it so the slave had to meet his eyes.
There was no defiance there now, no sullen determination. Only fear. Good.
He released the man, and turned to Slyce. "Flay him. Keep the hide as intact as you can, and send word when you're almost done."
The slave gasped. "No, wait... please... I'll tell you everything!"
Thorn laughed softly. "Yes, you will. After I hold your worthless hide in my hands." He turned and walked out.