Chapter 5: Wasted
The haze of magic from a Netherworld gate had barely faded from Thorn's vision when Gnarl said, "I do apologize, Lord, but there is something of a situation in the wasteland."
So much for relaxation. "Explain." He strode to his throne, dropped into it.
Gnarl's ears dropped. "It's the gate nearest the old tower, Sire. It ceased to be accessible while you were conquering Aquilonis."
Thorn frowned, and called up the Tower map. The magical device showed him all the Netherworld Gates in his lands, and allowed him to see what lay in the area immediately around the major gates.
He focused on the wastelands, glaring at the map when he saw that the minor gate less than a day's march from the old tower was indeed no longer present. The other minor gate, close to a week's march distant, seemed intact, and he could see no change in the ruined lands near the major gate. "Have there been any other reports?"
The old minion frowned. "None that suggested any problems, Sire. Southern Ruboria still struggles, the last vestiges of Evernight continue to fight the corrupted magic amazing that those elf ghosts would turn out to be useful for something and the settlements around the edges of the wasteland are still sending oddities."
It wasn't as if the pathetic huddles of humanity clinging to existence in the wasteland had anything else they could offer as tribute. By sending anything unusual including their dead, since anyone who died in that forsaken place and stayed dead was an anomaly the villagers earned their Overlord's protection.
If he could find a way to purge the tainted magic from their bodies, he'd resettle them. Until then, he allowed them to regard themselves as his people.
"Have the horde ready. No mounts, and the reserve blues. We'll leave once I've slept." Mounts were useless in the magic-tainted land. The larger group of blues would be needed to keep the rest of the horde from being twisted by befouled magic, and so that they'd be able to rest. He'd come close to losing his whole horde because his blues had been at the point of collapse from exhaustion when he'd first encountered the pooled magic not a mistake Thorn was prepared to repeat.
"Of course, Sire." Gnarl looked happier, although still not happy.
Since the old Minion Master wasn't likely to be seeing carnage or orgies at any time in the immediate future, Thorn doubted Gnarl's mood would improve.
Shattered little houses with green paint flaking of the broken ruins of round wooden doors were all that remained of the zombie-infested village Thorn had destroyed. There were no more zombies, which he hoped meant he'd destroyed enough last time.
Corpses were one thing, but animated corpses fueled by magic were far worse, especially when they reformed themselves after being cut down. Seeing scattered body parts flow back together and the ruined creature rise back up... He'd nearly lost the contents of his stomach to that.
The sheer wrongness of the magic pulling the things back together was as much to blame as anything else. Thorn couldn't remember not knowing the feel of magic, the way it ebbed and flowed around him. The twisted, soured magic of the wasteland knotted his gut at the best of times.
It looked as though having the reds burn everything to fine ash was enough to destroy the creatures.
Not that Thorn planned to stay anywhere near the wretched place. He'd rather chance his fortunes with giant slugs.
His minions seemed to agree: none of them spoke and they drew closer together as they hurried through the ruins.
Beyond the ruins, a narrow twisting path led through broken mountains. The path was empty. Too empty.
Thorn expected slugs at least, but there was nothing.
Two days of trudging along the twisting path, and nothing. Not a hint of danger, only the distortion the twisted black rocks with their glowing veins of magic worked on his senses.
Finally the path opened to the valley.
Thorn just stared. Where there had been a massive lake of soured magic he saw bare stone without even a hint of the twisted, ruined magic of the wasteland. Just... stone. As he advanced past the jutting cliff to his right, he understood why the minor gate had ceased to exist. A huge wall of stone covered it.
"Ooh. Dark Tower come back."
Thorn looked up. And up. And up. He swallowed. The Dark Tower stood as it must have been at its prime, a marvel of stone built into the mountains, dominating the land for miles. Had he taken any other path to this spot, he would never have missed it: he'd chosen the only route where mountains blocked the view.
It was easily as large as the Netherworld Tower.
"So it has, Gloob." Even Gnarl sounded shocked. "So it has."
There was no doubt who had rebuilt it: only one being existed with that ability. The magically cleansed area around the Dark Tower must have provided the magic for the construction, or part of it.
Skeletons emerged from somewhere beyond Thorn's sight, armed skeletons.
His minions drew close, preparing for attack.
"Wraiths, Sire," Gnarl said. "I would advise restraint unless you are actually attacked."
Thorn sent a silent acknowledgment, readied his mace, and waited. If the skeletal creatures approaching were hostile, he'd know soon enough. There were only a dozen of them, enough that his horde should be able to eliminate them if needed.
The wraiths marched to within six feet of Thorn and his group, then bowed, and stepped to the side. One of them gestured the way the group had come.
"Hm... an invitation of sorts, by the look," Gnarl said.
Thorn had worked that much out himself. He started forward.
The two lead wraiths moved to lead the way, while the rest followed him and his group.
His minions muttered nervously to themselves, but they stayed in formation while they marched along the massive wall, then into an alcove partly concealed by boulders.
That in turn led to a darkened tunnel with wraith guards stationed every few feet. Anyone who tried to use this entrance to attack the new Dark Tower would not enjoy the result.
Thorn couldn't tell how the wraiths communicated among themselves, but something passed between the ones leading him and the pair guarding a heavy doorway, because the guard wraiths bowed, and opened the door.
Beyond that was more tunnel winding through the bowels of the Tower and past many more guard wraiths, before opening to a large cavern.
The lead wraith turned to Thorn and gestured.
The vague bone-wave in the direction of the minions should have been meaningless: instead Thorn knew he was being "requested" to leave his minions in the cavern. His eyes narrowed, but he gave a single curt nod, and ordered the minions to wait until he returned.
To Gnarl he sent a silent order. Send them after me if I tell you.
From the cave, he was led through a maze of stairs and twisting passages, gradually going from cave-like tunnels to fully paved hallways with decorative stonework depicting the iconic three-horned helm.
Finally the wraiths led him to a room that was a mirror of his throne room. It had more straight lines, and the balconies were supported by pillars, but the throne stood at one end, and the other looked out over distant mountains.
Wraiths stood guard at every entrance, and lined a pathway in black marble edged with white marble.
The shadows around the throne drew close together, then the throne was occupied. Beside the throne...
Thorn snarled. He'd been prepared to face his sire, but his cursed mother was another thing entirely.
"Welcome to my High Temple." The God sounded amused, although since he wore his version of the Overlord armor it wasn't easy to tell. "As my son, you are of course always welcome here."
Thorn stalked toward the throne. There were too many wraiths for him to consider an attack. That didn't leave many options. "Really."
"I have no need for lies." He shrugged. "I did inadvertently damage one of your portals, I believe. The magic here is so warped it fouls the senses, and my gatherings had already drained the portal before I realized it was yours and not rancid magic spitting forth a semblance of something it had destroyed."
It was hardly an apology, but it was also as close to one as Thorn expected to receive. Not that he'd trust any apology this being chose to offer. "Try to catch the others before then, if it isn't too much trouble," he suggested instead. "It upsets Gnarl."
The God laughed. "Oh, upsetting Gnarl is a bonus, I assure you."
"Not when I have to deal with it."
His mother rolled her eyes. She wore her silvering red hair loose, a simple crown holding it back from her face. Her gown would not have been out of place in the Imperial court. "This is not a competition. Really, you should both be trying to discuss things in a civilized fashion instead of snarling at each other."
The God rested his gauntleted hand on hers. "I know my son's temper, dearest. Some thorns must be pulled."
Thorn's eyes narrowed. He forced himself to breathe in, slowly. Out. Slowly. There were too many old memories, too many times he'd longed to hear his mother's voice again.
"Your mother didn't exactly abandon you, Thorn," the God said in a conversational tone.
"She knew the Empire was coming and that the minions had found you. Your eyes marked you, you know. The Empire would have killed you for that alone."
The tone should have been soothing, but it wasn't. "And Marius?"
His mother's expression twisted, for a moment revealing hatred he wouldn't have thought she could feel. "He had to be watched. Controlled. And hobbled."
Memories flooded back, being cold and hungry and wondering why his mother had left him. Thorn's eyes narrowed. "I'm glad someone thinks that makes a good enough excuse." Attacking either of them might be suicide, but there was no reason to hold his tongue.
Rose winced. "I couldn't take you with me," she said. "Not with your eyes, and not with you already showing magical ability."
"You didn't have to tell Marius about me," he snarled.
She sighed. "He never knew who you were, beyond that wretched name." She shook her head. "I wasn't the one who told him: he learned it from his brother, after the Empire took Nordberg." Another flash of raw hatred. "Had he known you are my son, I would have been in the Arena with you."
Thorn blinked, shocked out of his fury by that simple statement. "Then why --"
"Why marry him? Why stay with him and support him?" Rose made a gesture Thorn couldn't interpret. "The magic he and Solarius collected. I was going to use it to break through the the Abyss and find out what happened to your father." She smiled at the God. "That wasn't quite how things worked."
The angle of the God's glowing white eyes changed a little, as though he smiled beneath his helm. "No plan is ever perfect." Amusement laced his voice. "Not that I object: from my perspective things turned out quite well despite not having the pleasure of being rescued by my Lady."
It was best if he kept his opinion on that matter to himself, Thorn decided. He doubted the God would appreciate it although he was quite certain his sire already knew what he thought.
"Indeed, but your politeness in not saying it is appreciated." That comment could have frozen Everlight.
Thorn considered replying before deciding that there wasn't anything he could say that wouldn't make matters worse. Instead, he asked, "So, you've restored the old tower, and you're cleaning the fouled magic from the wastelands. What did you intend to do with it?"
His sire inclined his head, acknowledging what Thorn hadn't said. "This will be my center of worship. I will of course direct those who come to me that their worldly master is the Overlord, and I attend to matters after their death."
The horned helm would help to make that link, no doubt. While the design changed over the years, there were always three horns, always in the same arrangement. Thorn nodded slowly.
"It will take some time to clear out the damage from the cataclysm," the God added. "That is progressing faster than the damage is spreading, so you should be able to resettle elves in Evernight within a year."
Which would be another reason for them to serve him, Thorn mused. They might even choose to worship the deity who had restored their ancestral forests rather than the one that ignored their pleas and allowed their race to be all but exterminated.
"The Golden Hills will be clear by then as well, so the dwarves are likely to emerge from their deep fortresses."
Rose frowned thoughtfully. "They will be hostile," she said. "The Empire enslaved some of the northernmost Dwarf lands, before they rebelled and the passes were closed." She glanced from the God to Thorn. "They have no magic: that was enough for the Empire to let them live."
"Their gold, arcanium, and skilled artificers had no part in the decision, I'm sure." Thorn couldn't have suppressed sarcasm if he'd tried.
His mother shrugged. "Oh, not at all. It only made them valuable slaves."
"Ruboria will take longer," the God continued. "Between the Ruborian Great River and frequent sandstorms, the taint has spread further there, and is poisoning the ocean. That will need possibly as much as two years, followed by the extermination of the mutated creatures there before the area can be resettled."
"No-one would want it." A land of giant sandworms, where the only safe method of travel was along narrow ridges of rock? Thorn wasn't going to encourage anyone to live there.
The deity laughed. "Oh, you might be surprised."
The place did have useful resources, if Thorn remembered correctly. There were durium mines in the ranges, and the sands themselves had once been traded to be made into glass. Then there were the opalized bones of the sandworms. It wasn't somewhere anyone sane would choose to live, but then there were reasons to doubt the sanity of Ruborians at the best of times.
He hadn't even bothered with the handful of fishing villages scraping out a bare existence on the Ruborian coast. They had nothing to offer him, and posed no threat.
He shrugged. "And long term?" So far, the God had been less than open about his plans.
The God's glowing white eyes narrowed to slits. "Long term, my son, this world will be mine. You, the Overlord, will be its worldly master. All else will answer only to me."