Chapter 18 When Good Rescues Go Bad
The beach sands could have been used to cook a sheep. Thorn sweated in his armor, and tried to ignore the way his feet were slowly roasting. It seemed the extra fire resistance Giblet had forged into it didn't count when standing on sand so hot that the reds had to carry the blues, greens and browns to the shade at the edge of the beach.
To be fair, the browns had taken the brunt of two days miserable rowing in increasingly hot, humid weather. The blues had revived fully half of them at least once, and some of the weakest browns twice. The reds were the only minions that seemed happy: minions that would dance in lava weren't going to be put off by mere hot air.
The shade did help, although the air remained sticky-hot and hard to breathe. Thorn was tempted to strip off his armor just for the slight relief of movement against sweaty skin. Not that he did: the armor was more than just protection for him. It was a symbol of who and what he was, of the Overlord.
This Overlord was going to investigate personal cooling spells once he was back in the Netherworld. It would be a drain on his reserves, but that could be managed. Just as he could use the suffering and death of his enemies to heal himself, he could use their blood to restore his magical reserves. Not, unfortunately, both at once, but he could restore himself at need.
Grubby is deploying a gate near your current location, Lord. You're a little south of the target location, so he's had to adjust his digging. Gnarl's voice was as clear as ever, unaffected by distance.
Good. Thorn focused his thoughts on the old Minion Master. How long? Are there any changes?
He should be there within the hour. Gnarl answered the questions in the order they'd been asked. Your spawnlings sleep with their attentive toothy guard.
Precisely how the slave girl tending the babies had been able to tame one of the giant man-eating lizards was a question that could wait for later. He need not worry about anything harming his children.
Hopefully he wouldn't have to resurrect any minions because the toothy bodyguard ate them. Minions that had been cut out of something's stomach were usually not fit to serve in the horde again, even if they'd been fortunate enough not to lose limbs in the process.
Fay drifted across the sand, her feet not touching the ground. "So close," she murmured. "I can feel him now."
He wrapped an arm around her waist. "Soon, beloved." She seemed more solid, as though proximity to her son was restoring her. "Even if I have to tear this place apart to do it."
That would be... inadvisable, Gnarl said. Something is watching.
Not at present. Gnarl sounded as though he wasn't entirely certain of what he was sensing. It seems to be reserving judgment. Under the circumstances, Lord, I would advise retrieving your spawlings with the minimum of collateral damage.
Thorn rolled his eyes. Gnarl could just as easily said not to smash anything he didn't have to, but no, the old minion had to show off how learned he was. The damage happens later, to the filth that planned this. He planned to enjoy that part, and to be quite leisurely about it. They hadn't just stolen his children, they'd hurt Fay, and come horribly close to killing her.
There were times when vengeance was more than merely appropriate, it was necessary to show people that he would not permit anything to threaten any part of his realm. If that meant a bloodbath to rival the Cataclysm, he would cheerfully provide it.
The sand started to shift.
Ah, Grubby made better time than he thought.
Black, sparkling Netherworld rock erupted from the beach, unfolding itself like a spiked flower. Minion gates followed, then minions led mounts from the new gate.
Someone had the sense to wrap the wolves' paws in cloth so they didn't burn their paw pads on the blistering sand. Good.
The spiders chittered happily, and the salamanders hissed and rolled in the hot sand with every appearance of being delighted.
It was time to move on. "Scouts. Find a path." There would be one: the kidnappers had used it.
When the giant lizard's warning hiss penetrated Maiala's sleep, she rolled to her feet, putting herself between the babies and whatever had mama lizard asleep before she was fully awake.
A group of people stood on the other side of the stream, doing their best to look non-threatening even though they were carrying enough weapons for a small army.
Strange people: some were paler than Maiala's mother had been, others darker than the Ruborians she'd grown up with. One was only half the height of the others, and looked as though he was all muscle and beard. Elves, men and... dwarves? Maiala thought the dwarves had been exterminated by the last Overlord, the one who'd killed half the northern sandworms.
One of the elves spoke, with words that sounded half-familiar but didn't make sense.
The other elf clicked his tongue, then she heard a voice in her head.
Be easy, little mother. We mean you and your krok guardian no harm.
Maiala blinked. Confused thoughts chased each other through her mind. Who were these people, why did they care about her, what did they mean by 'her' guardian, and what was going on here?
The voice sounded in her head again, amused this time.
We are trying to rescue you. We started here when the Watchers alerted us to your predicament.
A flurry of images: these people had lived here for so long they'd forgotten any other land existed until the Empire arrived to colonize the land. They hadn't been able to keep the Empire out, but they kept the colony small and did anything they could to disrupt Empire plans.
This cave was far enough away from the colony that they didn't keep scouts here, so they'd had to travel to her. And they really didn't mean any harm.
"I'm not the mother." She blinked. What she'd said didn't sound right. It sounded more like what the first elf had said.
Apologies, little one. The elf's voice in her mind was a little embarrassed. It seemed needful to give you our tongue. The headache will come later, I fear.
That made sense, sort of. "The babies were stolen from their parents. I just look after them."
All of the strangers recoiled. The taller elf turned to the dark-skinned human and said something Maiala didn't hear clearly, was answered with a sharp-sounding word.
They could argue in whispers if they wanted. It wasn't as though Maiala could do anything to stop them. She turned to mama lizard. "I think they mean well."
The giant lizard's tail twitched, but her hissing subsided, and she turned to growl reassuringly to her babies.
Maiala sank to the ground and sighed. She was no more than a speck of dust in whatever sandstorm the Centurion had stirred up, but that didn't mean she had to like it.
Pale stirred, and whimpered. He turned his head towards the beach, reaching his arms that way as though he wanted something there.
"What is it, Pale?" Maiala picked him up and turned him the way he seemed to want to go. "What are you needing?"
He made an insistent sound, and she glimpsed... a massive armored man and an elf woman who was impossibly beautiful.
"Your mama and papa?"
Another sound, this one more urgent.
That brought the other two awake, both of them turning towards the beach the way their brother had.
Thorn smashed his mace down on a snake, taking grim satisfaction in the way the mace head shattered the animal's body. Cursed thing shouldn't have tried to bite him. The venom running down his armored boot told him it was a good thing it hadn't succeeded.
So far it seemed like everything in this wretched place was trying to kill him and his minions. Blues had revived three scouts who had been poisoned, a green that got almost cut in two by a trap, and an unwary red who'd managed to trigger a shower of spines from an animal that shot cursed needles everywhere.
At least the fiasco had his minions a whole lot more careful now. Sometimes they needed to see one of their own almost bifurcated to realize that racing around was a bad idea. Even by his less than high standards minions weren't subtle.
Gnarl's voice sounded alarmed. Sire! There are others...Curse it, I can't see them clearly enough. They're on the wrong side of the stream.
Stream? Thorn frowned. He could see water through the trees. "Blues. Reserves, to that stream, go inland and find my children."
Half the blues flickered through the trees, their innate ability to blink through anything in their way when they focused on something making them immune to whatever poison or otherwise lethal surprises the forest hid. He heard them splash into the water.
"Faster. Reds, scorch the path. Try not to set anything else on fire." Being in the middle of a forest fire wasn't Thorn's idea of fun. He had no intention of testing his armor's fire resistance in such a dramatic fashion. "You and you, behind them, cool it down. Move."
They moved on, a little faster, but not fast enough for Thorn's liking.
Mama lizard wasn't going to move from her watch position, so Maiala gave the baby lizards meat from the supplies she'd been left. The little ones were chirping their hunger, and running through her legs in search of food until she laid the meat on the ground for them. Watching them sink their teeth into the dried meat and wrestle each other for the pieces was cute and funny in a way.
Those teeth that were so fearsome in their mama were good for seizing something and holding, but not so much for tearing it loose or chewing. Maiala ended up tearing the meat into bite sized pieces just so the little lizards could have their supper. She supposed the way they wrestled their dinner and rolled with it was how they'd take prey as adults. It would tenderize it and make it more likely to fall apart.
The more or less human babies stayed focused on the beach even while she fed them. She got more images from their minds, mostly the armored man and three women. One was the beautiful elf, another a dark-haired beauty and the third a redheaded woman who wasn't the equal of the others in appearance but had something else... Although that could just be the memories of the babies.
She wasn't sure how that worked, but she couldn't do anything about it, so she fed the babies as she usually did, then changed their rags. It was remarkable how smelly baby rags could be: even though nothing but milk was going in, what came out the other end could chase off a dragon.
The stream seemed to boil with turbulence, then Maiala was staring at little blue demons. They stared back with big yellow eyes.
"Ooh!" One of the little demons pointed at the baby lizards. "Pretty biteys."
Another one hit it in the back of the head. "Get Master's spawn first. Then we play with biteys."
An arrow hissed through the air, knocking one of the demons over. It pulled the arrow out with a grin. "Ouch."
"Not hurt Master's spawn." That sounded like the demon thought the elves were a threat.
The elves had more arrows ready, but weren't firing them.
Mama lizard hissed, but not at the little demons.
Maiala gathered the babies in her arms and backed up towards the cave wall. Whatever was going to happen, she didn't want the babies in the middle of it. She didn't think anyone would hurt them but in a fight, well...
The blue demons looked from her to the people on the other side of the stream, apparently unsure what they should do next. They gathered close, positioning themselves between her and the stream, muttering to each other in a burbling language.
The tall elf frowned. "You will not harm the children." He kept his bow ready, aimed at the demons.
One of the demons said, "We not hurt Master's spawn. We protect."
The elf's voice sounded in her mind. I am going to make that collar and chain... vanish. Maiala caught an image of rust, then dust. When it does, come to us as quietly as you can. We will protect you and your charges from these creatures of Evil.
The plants screening the entrance to the caves caught fire.