Chapter 8: Gnarl Shaken
Gnarl expected the Master to visit the forge early, but not to go directly from there to the library the official library or to be summoned to his Master's presence. Usually Master Thorn preferred to be alone in his library.
Seeing him waiting with his arms crossed and eyes narrowed did nothing for Gnarl's state of mind. "Lord?" It was odd enough Master Thorn not wearing armor. Gnarl had half expected the Master to return via the Armory wearing one of his older suits of armor.
Instead, Master Thorn wore the dark red pants and white shirt he'd worn when he returned yesterday, and a pair of sealskin slippers that had seen better days. He hadn't even tied his hair back as he usually did, so the auburn mass curled around his shoulders in a way Gnarl hadn't seen since the Master had been a boy.
Strange times, Gnarl thought. He didn't like that: strangeness was unpredictable and ruined the nice orderly advance of Evil across the world. Chaos was supposed to afflict the forces of Good, not his realm.
"Tell me about the library." Master Thorn said in a flat voice.
"Ah... this library, Lord? You know it as well as I."
The Master's eyes narrowed to glowing golden slits. "The other library, Gnarl."
Gnarl froze. So that was what had beetles gnawing on the Master's tail. He wished fleetingly that he could curse Master Doniel for telling the Master about that and had the definite sense that Master Doniel knew exactly what he was doing and found Gnarl's predicament amusing.
He would, too. Master Doniel might have protected the so-called innocents who claimed they were loyal to him, but he had a malicious touch with his enemies that Gnarl remembered quite well indeed.
"Erm... Lord? Minions aren't much for books, but I did manage to salvage most of the contents of the old Dark Tower's library before the cataclysm." Distraction might work. Although Gnarl doubted it.
The touch of lightning that sent Gnarl tumbling proved distraction wasn't going to work.
When he picked himself up, the Master hadn't moved. His glare was more intense: enough that Gnarl had to try not to wince.
"The other Netherworld library, Gnarl. The one you sneak off to whenever you can. Where you hide your treasures."
Gnarl tried not to wince. He was quite certain he failed. "Ah. That library."
"Yes." There should have been ice dripping off that. "That library."
The best tactic Gnarl had found in situations like this was to start with apologies and then try to find something that would keep his Overlord sufficiently busy that he'd forget his loyal Minion Master's slip under the press of other obligations. That was rather more difficult to do when the Overlord in question had conquered most of the known world and didn't even need to show up to claim the rest. By Gnarl's reckoning there were only the relatively sparsely populated farmlands of the eastern Imperial lands and the handful of fishing villages on the Ruborian coast that had yet to succumb to the spreading corruption from the Wasteland. Hardly enough to distract an angry Master.
The apology part would probably be a good start, regardless. "Apologies, Sire. It never occurred to me you would be interested... It's mostly account ledgers and the like, which I would never disturb you over."
It wasn't working. Master Thorn's eyes only got narrower, until Gnarl would have sworn they were almost closed if not for that golden glare.
He gestured for Gnarl to follow, then turned and stalked deeper into the library, into the dark tunnels lined by shelves of mostly useless books, books that had all but aged to dust, or whose ink had faded beyond readability. At the end of the tunnel, a magical lamp glowed, showing...
Gnarl's black heart made a creditable attempt to exit his body through his toe claws. He'd known the Master was studying magic, but to make his own scrying device and use it to spy on Gnarl... that was just wrong.
The certainty that the watching presence of his deity was laughing didn't help Gnarl's mood in the least.
While he watched, Master Thorn shifted the view, moving through shelves of books and scrolls to some of the other caves. Gnarl's collection of torture devices got no more than a brief look, his iron maidens little more, but the Master lingered more than a little on the magically imbued devices, and when the view reached Gnarl's private treasures, the old minion wondered if his heart was going to give out.
It probably wasn't the gold and gemstones, either. Those were... well, perks of the job, as it were. The carefully carved statue of Mistress Juno scaled to be the perfect size for a minion in an improbable pose, and the half-completed one of Mistress Kelda were more likely to be the cause of the Master's wrath.
At least, Gnarl hoped so. The fact that minions tended to be attracted to the kind of female charms that attracted their Master was a simple thing to explain.
"When were you planning to tell me about this, Gnarl?" Master Thorn spoke softly, but with clear menace.
"Actually, Master, I had no idea you would be interested in how we minions occupy ourselves when not on duty, as it --"
"You eat, hump things, sleep and fight."
The Master in a rage was easy to deal with. Provide a target and let him kill or torture it. This cold fury was different, more controlled. And worst of all, aimed at Gnarl. "Not necessarily in that order, Sire, but yes." Gnarl could have cursed his mouth for the flip comment.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't have you flayed for this." Master Thorn indicated the image.
Gnarl swallowed, and didn't try to hide his instinctive reaction. Normally he tried not to cringe, even though minion instincts were to grovel when the Master was angry, but this was definitely time to grovel. And possibly even beg. "Master, I... none of your predecessors cared to know about the details of managing an Evil realm. They preferred me to deal with it and tell them only what they needed to know. And, well, naturally I kept notes about my Masters so I could serve them as they desired. There's far too much to remember it all, you know, and since it was just for me, I perhaps wasn't quite respectful, but it really was for my Masters, Lord."
Gnarl suspected that just asking Master Thorn what offended him so much so he could grovel about that would be a bad idea. "The... erm, the statues, well... Master, we minions are rather attuned to our Overlord, and tend to... find the same things... attractive, as it were. Something no-one else was going to see seemed a harmless way to release tension, Lord."
Master Thorn was losing patience, fast. "The magical devices, Gnarl."
And he'd confessed all the rest for nothing. "They're stored for research, Sire. Once I fully understand what something is intended to do, it comes to the Tower proper for your use. I wouldn't want something possibly dangerous in here, Lord, no."
That earned him another blast of lightning that slammed him painfully into the wall. Gnarl was sure he heard ribs crack. The way breathing hurt when he picked himself up suggested he was right.
"One more lie, one more evasion..."
Oh, rat dung. Since when had the Master known truth from lies? And what else had that triple-blasted nuisance of a deity taught him?
Gnarl was sure he heard laughter, too soft for human ears. His shoulders and ears sagged. "I do research them, Sire." He spread his hands, although he doubted the Master would believe any attempt he made to look either helpless or innocent. "There's also a certain amount of the old brown instinct to collect anything that might come in handy later." He hated having to admit how much like other minions he still was. "Maybe not put them on my head, but certainly keep them, and... well, hoard them."
Master Thorn's glare didn't soften any. "And... most of my Masters were more interested in smiting their enemies than magic, Lord."
That didn't help either. Gnarl sagged a bit more, and finally, admitted the rest. "I can use human-style magic, Lord. Mortis and I both. It's not easy we're not built for it but we can do it. The devices I've studied make it a little easier. I don't know about the ones I haven't been able to work out yet."
The silence that followed that admission stretched out until Gnarl was ready to start gnawing his ears, just to have something to break it. It wasn't supposed to be this way: he guided his Masters, and they were grateful for old Gnarl's helpful advice. And sometimes even rewarded him with a little gold, or one of the Tower slaves, or... Best not to think about that, in case he started drooling.
Master Thorn dismissed the image, restoring darkness to the tunnel. The only light now came from Gnarl's crystal and the Master's eyes.
The old minion master flinched when the Master plucked the staff holding his crystal from its bindings and leaned it against the wall. Carefully so it wouldn't break.
Gnarl's bones weren't so fortunate.
After entirely too much time later, Master Thorn let Gnarl fall, sending even more pain through broken bones.
He was too busy trying not to scream to pay much attention to the new round of pain.
"I want a full list of everything in your collection." Master Thorn wasn't about to give any concessions. "The books, all of it."
"Of... of course, Lord." The words were dragged out of him by what he was. He couldn't ignore an order from the Master. Even if obedience meant an agonizing and humiliating crawl to the barracks so Mortis could heal his wounds.
He heard Master Thorn's footsteps, fading as he walked away.
Minions healed quickly, but there were limits, and Gnarl was old. Injuries that a young brown could recover from within a day left him in pain for several days. He tried dragging himself to his crystal, and groaned when the attempt led only to another wave of pain.
New footsteps, padding towards him, sounding a little like damp leather, then to Gnarl's utter relief Mortis's harsh voice. It didn't matter that the ancient blue was laughing.
"I told you you'd catch it for hiding things," Mortis said. "What was it the Master caught you at?" He rested his hands on Gnarl's shoulder, taking the pain away.
The feel of his bones reforming themselves was something Gnarl would prefer not to need to experience again. It still beat healing the slow way. "Everything," he groaned.
Mortis chuckled. "Let you babble at him, did he?"
Since that was exactly what the Master had done, Gnarl couldn't really object. "Easy for you to say. You're not the Minion Master." Not that he expected any kind of sympathy from his old colleague.
He didn't get any. "Tsh. All you had to do was tell him about your little stash."
Not that Mortis knew anything more than that Gnarl had collected an assortment of interesting items over the years and didn't tell his Overlords about those or about the Tower ledgers and the like. Nor would he know anything more if Gnarl had anything to do with it. "Oh, yes. I'm sure that would go over well. "Oh, and by the way Master, I've got some magical devices my other Masters weren't interested in, would you care to see them?" No Overlord worth his gauntlet would let me get a claw on them again."
"Better than broken bones," Mortis pointed out. "And much better than having your hide nailed to the throne."
Gnarl sighed. He couldn't argue with that. Even without his armor, Master was quite capable of beating a minion to a pulp. At least he'd kept this session private. Bad enough that by now every minion in the Tower knew the Master had threatened to skin him. He was going to have to have that session in the practice arena soon, or he'd lose control.
Gnarl knew very well none of the minions liked him. Browns tolerated him, but the other tribes actively distrusted him, and would rebel at the first opportunity. None of the tribes cared much for the other tribes, as a rule. Browns thought the others were weaklings, reds despised everything else for not being able to handle fire, greens thought the rest were incapable of fighting sensibly by which they meant sneaking around and backstabbing their enemies and blues... well, blues thought all the other tribes were stupid, and had little use for minions who couldn't swim. They'd sit and laugh while another minion drowned, then revive him.
When there was an Overlord, the tribal rivalries stayed simmering, below the surface, but without one, the other tribes would usually take their hives and find a location more to their liking. Gnarl, like Mortis, kept the tribes from turning on each other. If either of them lost the respect or fear of the younger minions, not even the Master's presence would keep them from each others throats.
"There." Mortis made an odd, burbling sound somewhere between laughter and irritation. "Try not to anger the Master again. I'd rather not have to regrow your hide for you."
"I'd rather not have to have it regrown." Gnarl climbed to his feet, and flexed arms, then legs. Everything seemed to be in order, and nothing hurt any more. Aside from anything else, he had no doubt that if the Master did nail his hide to the throne, he'd feel everything that happened to it as if he was still being skinned. Maintaining a sympathetic magic link like that was trivial, and this library had everything Master Thorn needed to know both that he could do it, and how.
He retrieved the bent staff with his crystal, and nodded to Mortis. "How many beetles is it now?" It was as close to thanks as Gnarl was prepared to go.
Mortis shook his head. "The Master's orders, this time, old friend." He grinned, showing sharp teeth. "But I'll take four for not telling anyone else about this."
"Done." There were usually a few good specimens scurrying about the Tower: he'd be able to catch and bag enough that Mortis would count the tally squared, at least for now. "Well, I'd best get on with it." He made a sour sound. "Master wants lists."