Chapter 21: Allied Issues
Allies Thorn reminded himself for what seemed like the hundredth time. These westerners were more useful to him as allies than as enemies or dead.
It didn't help that the minions were bored and at least as irritable as their master: he was no longer sure whether he was being affected by their mood or they by his. Either way, it was a constant challenge to keep his temper in check.
Traveling on foot through a network of caves and tunnels that were mostly sized for normal humans and elves wasn't appealing. While he could fit through most of them, there was so little spare room he felt cramped, confined.
Added to that was the constant presence of the westerners' magic. Unlike Evernight's diminished and corrupted magic or the insubstantial fluffiness of Everlight, this was pure light magic, and it set Thorn's teeth on edge. He couldn't even say what bothered him about it.
Finally, they emerged from the cave system into a large room. A dozen men in armor that mixed the best of human, elvish and dwarfish artifice stood guard before heavy metal-clad doors. All of them drew swords when they saw Thorn and the minions.
He silently ordered the minions back. There'd be slaughter enough for them – and him – later.
The grumbling wasn't too bad: minions weren't bright, but the horde minions had learned enough to have a certain street-smart wisdom.
The elf prince, Oberal, spoke quietly to the guards while the rest of the group removed their travel packs and set equipment on shelves lining the walls. This room must be a supply drop as well as entrance and exit to the city. One of many, as Thorn hadn't seen many connecting tunnels in the region they'd crossed.
Have Grubby look for a suitable location for a small gate he thought in Gnarl's direction. It would need to be small – a full Netherworld gate would be problematic – but Thorn had no desire to repeat the trek through the caverns and tunnels. Once was quite enough for that.
Of course, Sire. Gnarl's quick agreement suggested he was as eager to see Thorn out of this place as Thorn was to leave.
At least the room was large enough to allow him to stretch and swing his mace to take the stiffness from his joints.
One of the guards opened a small hatch in one of the doors, and spoke to someone on the other side. Thorn didn't catch what was said: it sounded half-familiar but was too soft for him to make out the unfamiliar accent.
The sound of metal grating on metal was followed by the doors swinging open. The hinges didn't creak. Thorn saw massive bars on the city side, large enough to be weapons in their own right. They looked to be wood reinforced with steel.
Oberal gestured. "This way, if you would, Overlord."
Thorn nodded, and followed.
The stone-lined hallways were large enough to march armies through, twice Thorn's height, with murder holes set in the arched ceilings. Pillars carved to the likeness of trees helped support the ceilings, positioned so they offered minimal cover to a possible invader. The pale stone was polished until it could be used as a mirror, making any invaders nothing more than convenient targets.
Thorn's boots rang on the stone floors, at least until they reached halls that rated carpeting.
Twice they stopped while Oberal convinced wary guards that Thorn and his minions were not a threat – something that made Gnarl snigger. Thorn wasn't inclined to mock. The overwhelming light magic was one thing, but this was a place built to defend, and built well. More than that, the guards, a mix of human, elf, and dwarf, were all alert despite what had to be a tedious assignment.
"This gate will take us from the underways into the city proper," Oberal said.
Thorn gave something a little deeper than a nod, but not quite a bow in response. If the city was half as well defended as these underways, it was a target he wasn't prepared to consider. Places like this it was better to corrupt from within.
That decision was proved correct within moments of leaving the underways: not only was the city larger than he'd expected, it was more crowded than Imperialis Gloriae, wealthier, and every adult Thorn saw was armed. Men carried swords, axes or bows, women bows and long knives, and all of them moved with the relaxed grace of someone familiar with their weapon.
Wealth hadn't become degeneracy here.
Stone buildings lined the stone-paved streets, all from the same pinkish-gray stone which glittered in the fierce sunlight. Many places had covered porches deep enough to provide shade year-round, protecting the main structure from the heat.
Colorful vines with thorny branches twined around pillars and spilled over the top of porches, and great domed trees with scarlet flowers stood in the larger squares, offering welcome shade. Fountains formed the center of smaller squares, to the relief of the blues who were fading in the heat.
Oberal's path was far from straight: the road itself climbed around the mountaintop city, doubling back almost as often as it was flanked by gatehouses. Judging by what Thorn could see past the other buildings, the palace occupied the top of the mountain, and was equally defensible.
He wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the palace had its own set of tunnel exits.
At least in the open air the light magic wasn't so overpowering. The smell of people mingled with the flowers and plants to make the city feel less like a bastion of light magic, as did the spirited arguments he heard between merchants and buyers when they passed shops and market stalls.
The stares and whispers, Thorn could deal with. That was normal. He'd had that as long as he could remember. It came with standing head and shoulders above anyone else he'd met, and the eyes. Glowing eyes scared people, and these ones were no exception.
They seemed to think that their prince's presence was sufficient to protect them, since many relaxed after looking to Oberal and seeing him apparently relaxed in the presence of the foreign giant with the demons and glowing eyes – Thorn recognized enough to the local dialect to pick that out. The translation his father had gifted seemed to work less well at a distance.
The palace was as huge as it appeared, and as well protected. By the time they finally entered the immense throne room Thorn was convinced he'd made the right decision trying to ally with the westerners, if only because he doubted he could build an army capable of defeating them.
Better to work with them and allow his nature to corrupt them, even though that would take years.
The elf king rose as Thorn approached, and took three steps to meet him at the foot of the dais.
Thorn crushed a spike of irrational jealousy. Not only was the elf king ridiculously attractive by human and elf standards, the robes he wore and the jeweled coronet were almost as intricate as the ancient workmanship he'd seen in the Evernight vault. Gemstones that flashed different colors every time the king moved adorned the robe, forming patterns that resembled the growth of trees in an ancient forest.
"Overlord." The king's voice was oddly deep. "Be welcome in my home."
The formal welcome left Thorn with little choice in his reply. "I thank you, Majesty."
Behind him, the minions grumbled. Thankfully, their complaints about light magic and no blood weren't being translated by his father's magic.
The king's hands traced an odd shape: not the sign of the Mother Goddess, but not something Thorn recognized either. "We have much to discuss, but this is neither the place nor the time."
Which meant more cursed waiting.
Patience was a virtue Thorn really wished he didn't need.
Kaff stood in the practice arena and wished he was somewhere else. Somewhere with lots of beer would be good. Beer and Mistress Juno's pillows would be better, even if those were getting gummed by Master's spawn.
He knew he'd been getting better at fighting, but he never expected to have Gnarl say he was ready to face him.
"Cheer up, youngster." Gnarl rubbed his hands together and cackled. "I'm not going to hurt you. Much, anyway."
If that was supposed to make Kaff feel better, it didn't.
Mortis standing nearby didn't make him feel better either. He didn't want to need healing, and he really didn't want to need Mortis bringing him back from dead.
He would need it. Gnarl was so fast Kaff couldn't see him move in a fight, ever, and he'd watched Gnarl lots since he'd started the special training.
"Ready?" Mortis asked.
At least no-one else would see him get smashed into the arena. Everything was empty, just him, Gnarl and Mortis. "Me ready." His armor and sword would get some more dents and scuffs. Better it not be shiny, anyway, but Kaff didn't like losing.
Gnarl nodded. "Ready."
Mortis looked from Gnarl to Kaff, then he said, "Begin."
Kaff closed his eyes. He couldn't see Gnarl move anyway, and if he didn't try to be smart he might not be hurt so bad.
Wind brushed his face. He brought his sword towards it, heard it hit wood, hard, and spun away from the wind. Wind was Gnarl moving.
He caught leather with the claws of his free hand. Without thinking, Kaff bounced towards the leather, jumping onto Gnarl's back, where he dug his toe claws in and swung his sword.
Gnarl twisted and spun around, making Kaff fall. The air whooshed out of him when he landed, and the old minion's kicks hurt, until he rolled out of the way and got up again, still gasping.
Now he watched Gnarl, so when he moved too fast the old minion's eyes might show him where Gnarl was going. Hurt didn't matter, not until the fight stopped.
When Gnarl turned into wind, Kaff got his sword to where Gnarl's staff was, but not fast enough. The wood thumped into Kaff's side, making breathing hurt even more. He tried again, but now Gnarl was hitting him where he wanted, faster than Kaff could make it stop.
There was the other way to make it stop. Kaff swung again, this time right at Gnarl. Maybe Gnarl wouldn't see it.
Gnarl backed away, slowing down so Kaff could see him again. He looked tired, like he sometimes did when he practiced with Mortis. "Well done."
Mortis laughed. "Oh yes. He nearly got you there."
Kaff stayed where he was, trying to breathe. It hurt bad now. Real bad. Maybe bones broke.
Mortis touched him lightly, making the hurt go away. Kaff felt stuff inside him move and fix itself. "Thanks."
"Good fight, Kaff." It sounded funny, Mortis's rough voice saying nice things. "You're learning."
Kaff coughed, and shook his head. "Me lucky. Can't fight Gnarl."
Gnarl only grinned at him. "Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that, young one." He showed Kaff his staff, and the cuts in the wood where Kaff's sword had got it. Some of them were deep. "Smart beats fast. You'll keep me on my toes, I think." He tilted his head, the way he did when he was listening to the Master. "Hm. I'm needed in the magic room. Meet me up there, Kaff."
Gnarl scurried away too fast for Kaff to see, but he left dust swirling on his way out.
Kaff already knew he'd take longer. Gnarl could get to places without anyone seeing him, and without taking any time at all. If he wasn't a minion, Kaff would have thought he did magic, but minions didn't do spells, and anyway the tingly magic-feel of the Tower was everywhere so it would take a really big spell for anyone to notice it.
"Me better go," he told Mortis while he put his sword away.
"Go on, young one." Mortis made a shooing motion.
Kaff raced for the minion-ways, taking the shortest ones he knew to get to the magic room. Other minions got out of his way, which still scared Kaff a bit, him being a minion other minions avoided running into. It had to be because Gnarl was teaching him.
The sounds and smells of all the minions mixed up in the ways, lots of interesting stuff.
Kaff heard minions trying to get food from the cooks, and smelled a green making happy times with a human – the green must like this human, because Kaff smelled soap and the green smell was much smaller than normal greens. He heard grumbles from the guard minions being bored because nothing happened in the Tower with Master gone, and giggles and more happy-time smells from humans in storerooms.
Gnarl was in the magic room when Kaff got there, but the showy pool wasn't looking at Master. It was looking at... other Master, the one Gnarl said was minion God. Other Master looked at Kaff, and he dropped to his knees because it was just right to do that with Other Master.
"You will not be away long, Gnarl." Other Master had a deep rumbly voice, like Master, only stronger.
Gnarl sounded mad when he said, "Yes Lord."
"Your apprentice will do what needs doing." It was all there, in Kaff's head, what he had to do. Some of it was easy, like watching the showy pool so he could send more minions to Master if things got bad. Other stuff made Kaff's head want to go like the boom barrels. Gnarl knew so much. It was too much to fit in Kaff's head.
There was no flashy blue light when Gnarl vanished, just dark that got darker.
Kaff nearly squeaked with panic when he realized he was alone in the magic room and the showy pool still had Other Master in it.
Other Master's voice rumbled in Kaff's achy head. "I will help you, young one. Just pretend you're Horde Leader." That came with a feel of strutting around like Gloob, all full of how good he was and knowing he could beat any minion except Gnarl or Mortis. The feel was important. If he had that feel, other minions would believe he was that good.
Kaff hoped Other Master was right. He hoped even more that Master never found out about this.