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The Minion Mistress

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The wild water swept her along. It foamed like the maw of a rabid wolf and it pushed her down with a furious force if she tried to gasp for breath. The darkness didn´t improve matters either.
The underground river was just as ferocious as they´d said. And it seemed like the rocks were getting sharper. She didn´t dare guess how deep below the earth's surface she already was. The water was freezing and the strength to claw herself up rapidly disappeared from her body. She hit the rocks with her shoulder, her head, her hands trailed along a rough surface and the pain immediately got drowned by the cold... Then her leg hit a protruding spike of underwater rock and she felt something snapping. This pain couldn´t be drowned. She wanted to scream, but held back just in time - if she opened her mouth now, the water would ram in with the power of a starving sandworm tracing the smell of blood. She didn´t have much hope, but she´d rather bear the agony than drown.
Then, without warning, the seething ceiling of water opened in an explosion of foam and flung her away, almost incensed, as if the river had spat her out. For a split second, she had a clear view of her surroundings. Not that it pleased her.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Because the tunnel was on fire. Quite literally.
Far ahead of her, multiple lava flows gleamed in the darkness. She´d descended that far! But apparently, she was able to go deeper still...
Below her was a waterfall, and she was about to follow its course.
She opened her mouth to finally scream, but before she had a chance she was already falling, amongst white foam, black water and even darker rocky spikes. Her shoulders and back grazed some of them, but she miraculously wasn´t injured any further. Then, with an enormous splash she could hear even above the roar of the water, she was back in the more or less horizontal river.
And hung there.
Dazed, numb with the cold, painfully aware of her broken leg, tired beyond belief and scared out of her wits she looked about her. The icy water kept beating her with full force, roaring as if screaming in rage of a lost prey, but it flowed past her through the stitches in a -
- Net? Here, at this depth? She was nearly in the heart of the world...
She made out a voice above the noise of the river. It seemed to float above the other sounds, because she could hear it quite clearly.
"What did we catch today?"
A dark form appeared, silhouetted on top of the river´s high and rocky shore. A short, stooped form with a long stick at his side... a scythe...
And, convinced Death had caught her in his fishing net to collect her soul, she finally, blissfully lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

Part 1: Welcome

There was a hazy image. It wasn´t exactly clear what it was, and neither was the fact who did the perceiving. There was mainly pain. After that, there was mainly darkness. That was quite an improvement, really.

When there was a hazy image for the second time, things had slightly improved. This time some more information made it through, such as the little yellow lights all over the image. There also seemed to be joyful sounds. And there seemed to be a dark form, approaching her through the yellow lights. The voice didn´t seem. The voice was there, loud and clear, even if it sounded like it came from underwater – muffled and gurgling in a strange way.
“I see it´s awake,” the voice spoke with a quite depressed tone.
“Not it! Her!” sounded another, far more cheerful voice. This voice was similar to the watery voice. “Is female. Like Mistresses!”
“But this no Mistress,” a second cheery voice chittered. “This more like trash rats… tangly and fluffy and wet.”
“But this one not wet from blood.”
“No, this one wet from water.” Several voices giggled with this.
“Then we call her Trashrat Mistress!” New giggling. But it stopped when another voice came into the conversation.
“No. You´ll call her Jinx.”
Jinx sat up and, not sure if she should be angry or not, wiped her short black hair from her eyes. It was still wet, so she couldn’t be out of the water for long.
Now she could see she was surrounded by several small creatures with brown skin, large bat-like ears and equally large, glowing yellow eyes. Some distance away was another one, with a rubbery bluish skin and webbed ears. He wore a dark, hooded cloak and held a large scythe. She recognized the silhouette she’d seen on top of the rocks.
“You’re the one who fished me from the river!”
“Yes, Mortis did!” one of the brown creatures chittered. “He did good job. Now we bring her to Gnarl, yes?”
Jinx quickly looked about her. “Gnarl? What? Err… come to think of it, what are you, exactly?”
But it was useless. Before she could even think of getting to her feet, the creatures had gotten hold of her. They were far stronger than they looked and before long they had hauled her, struggling and all, onto their shoulders. They carried her along a rocky trail, which after a while revealed itself to lead to the edge of a gigantic chasm. Jinx stretched her neck and saw, over the shoulders of the creature in front of her, that the abyss was miles deep, if it had a bottom at all. They were in a cave, large enough to house hundreds of even the mightiest palaces of the Glorious Empire.
There seemed to be at least one palace housed here, but not in the traditional way. In the middle of the vast void a stalactite jabbed down. Jinx estimated its length to be around two kilometres. The humongous protruding rock was surrounded by an aura of light streaming from thousands of tiny, pinprick-like windows and a larger gate halfway down its length. Hundreds of streams of molten lava flowed down over the outside, into the heart of the world.
Someone lived in that stalactite. And it was quite obvious that someone wielded a lot of power.
Gradually her view had become clearer and the haziness had passed. She could now see that the creatures holding her were clad in various pieces of armour and other clothes, all the way from helmets seemingly belonging to Empire soldiers to ragged tuque hats. There was even one with an ancient withered brown pumpkin with eye-holes on his head.
She began to recognize these creatures. She’d heard descriptions of them, long ago. She couldn’t remember so well at the moment, but she would...
More importantly, they were still carrying her to the abyss. She continued her struggle. “You were going to bring me to someone! Don’t throw me in there!”
One of them looked back at her, his sharp but small teeth bared in a cheerful grin. “No worries, Jinxie! Not yet, that is.”
“Not ‘fore Gnarl makes decision,” another spoke up.
“Oh, that’s really great,” Jinx sighed. The abyss kept coming closer. Eventually the horde marched up a last steep flight of stairs to a plateau surrounded by sharp rocks, looking out over the upside-down tower and the entire void. It wasn’t until then that Jinx noticed the floating rock.
It was round, with a flat top and a diameter of several meters. A few rough stalactites made up the bottom. It swayed slightly, like a docked boat, and it was undeniably floating. Jinx stared at it. “Magic,” she whispered.
“Oh yes,” the creature wearing the pumpkin grinned. “What else?”
She realized something else. “Is that the same thing that healed my leg?”
“No. Was just Mortis.”
“Oh.”

Once aboard the floating rock, the strange vehicle departed immediately. It held a swaggering course, more or less in the direction of the tower. Jinx was still in the grip of the brown creatures. so she couldn’t peer over the edge to see how deep the gorge exactly was, but she wasn’t too sure if she wanted to know at all. Eventually, after a short eternity of swaggering and swaying above a certain death, the rock slowed and stopped at the edge of a protruding platform jutting from the tower, close to the large gate she’d seen earlier.
While they carried her onto the platform and through the gigantic gate into the tower, Jinx didn’t know where to look. On both sides of her there were three pairs of armoured creatures, looking considerably neater than the ones holding her. Further on, an immense blue glow shone on the high ceiling, surrounded by ragged red banners. Jinx noticed she wasn’t afraid at all. This seemed more like a distant memory than a threat. And...
“They call you Minions, isn’t it? I remember the tales of Lord Vessperion. Murdering and looting across the Old Lands with you at his side...”
The creatures visibly righted their backs. The one wearing the tuque hat looked back at her, a wide grin plastered across his face. “You remember well! But quiet now. This is throne room.”
Jinx looked up. They were directly beneath the blue light on the ceiling now, and she could see it flowed from a slowly revolving crown of black stone spikes. It seemed to be some sort of magical portal. Straight ahead of them was a large throne, draped in blood-red cushions and surrounded by two broad lava flows slowly dripping to the floor. The effect was impressive. But the throne was empty.
There was, though, a figure sitting on the flight of stairs leading towards it. He was intently looking at the floor. Jinx followed his gaze. There, beneath the portal, was an opening in the floor where images were being projected in a pool of hazy mist.
The Minions put her down. Jinx didn’t know why, but she didn’t feel the need to run away.
The figure studying the images raised his head. He was a Minion too, but he had a grey skin and wore a rough cloak over his hunched body. Above his arched back hung a glowing rock on a stick.
The front Minion saluted briefly. “Greet, Gnarl. Mortis fished her from river. What to do with her?”
The old Minion, Gnarl, looked at her for a moment. Jinx was shocked at the intensity of his gaze. He seemed to X-ray her in five seconds, and give her the additional feeling he’d seen similar things thousands of times before. This was one Minion with experience.
“I have no idea how you managed to survive the river, human,” he spoke, “but you won’t survive much longer.” He addressed the brown Minions with an amused smile. “Get rid of her and save the entrails for Quaver. Maybe he’ll stop annoying me if he can make that harp of his.”
The brown Minion nodded and turned to face Jinx. He wasn’t grinning that wide anymore. With her slowly returning memories of what she knew about the Minions, that seemed strange, because although she knew little of them she did know they loved murder.
She managed to stop the quivering of her lips long enough to utter a question. “Why is the throne empty, Gnarl?”
The elder Minion had already turned back to the images in the mist pool and only had the time to look up. It was another Minion who answered her. “We waiting for new Master. Young Sayron lives with us in Netherworld for thirteen years, proving himself now.” Then he leaped towards her, his lust for blood not in the least lessened by the fact his weapon was a blunt pitchfork.
Jinx jumped to the side and ducked. The Minion flew over her head and landed some distance away on the stone floor of the throne room. Some others hurried to obey Gnarl´s command, but only one of them – the one wearing the tuque hat – managed to grab hold of Jinx and wrapped his arms around her neck. She barely prevented him from slitting her throat or breaking her neck. “So there´s no Overlord of this tower,” she choked out. She was aware of the fact that Gnarl was now very carefully dividing his attention between the mist pool and her struggle with a now growing number of Minions.
“And if there will be one, he´s only just proven himself. Won´t it be useful…” She panted when breathing became more difficult and she prevented a knife from reaching her vital organs at the same time, “…to have someone else around?”
“A slave?” Gnarl mused with one and a half eyes on the images, wondering why she wasn´t dead yet but also considering her offer. “It´d be a beginning…”
Even now all sorts of things inside of Jinx rebelled against the word ´slave´, but even that would be better than death. She was very stubborn when it came to dying. “You´re working on a new Dark Domain, aren´t you?” She was talking very fast now, all the while fencing off the Minions. “Like the old days? Vessperion?”
Now Gnarl looked at her with a pondering yellow eye. “You know his name? I thought he´d been removed from every writing in this Empire-ridden world.”
“I know his name,” she confirmed, holding the Minions on her back still for a split second – long enough to see the images in the mist pool. There, in a white haze, walked an immense man wearing heavy armour and a crowned helmet, hiding his entire face save his smoldering orange eyes. He carried a large axe and was travelling through a snowy landscape, accompanied by fifteen or so Minions.
“Why…” she gasped for breath and was forced to spin around, still trying to pry the Minion from her throat, “why did you let him live with you for all those years? He´s not just another candidate, is he?”
Now she had Gnarl´s attention. “Hm. Maybe I´ve underestimated you. You´re not the average human wench.” He nodded towards the Minions. “Let go of her, you fleabags. Conversations are slightly easier without one of the talkers fighting for their life.”
To Jinx´ enormous, but hopefully well hidden relief the Minions immediately let go and slid off her back. Some of them seemed disappointed, but others briefly tipped their helmets and, in one case, tuque hat. It was as if they´d expected they wouldn´t be asked to kill her after all…
Jinx walked out from amongst them and towards Gnarl, rubbing her throat. Surprisingly enough, she almost didn’t have any real wounds. She was sore all over, but there were only a few cuts on her back that were actually bleeding.
The Minions that had attacked her walked along, but she didn’t feel threatened. She furiously wondered why. But she knelt down next to Gnarl anyway and looked at the moving images of the would-be-Overlord. She waited for Gnarl to speak. It didn’t take long.
“It is true, he´s not the average candidate. We shouldn´t have kept one of those with us for all those years,” he chuckled, reliving fond memories of what had become of lesser candidates. “No, Sayron´s something different altogether. It isn´t very difficult to recognize his eyes. We have him from Nordberg. No idea how he got there though.”
“A son?” Jinx asked.
Gnarl bared his sharp, irregular teeth in a grin. “As I said, it wasn´t very difficult to see. His eyes and character betray him. True evil runs in the blood and I saw it immediately. By the way,” he pondered, “I´ve got the same thing with you now, strangely… It´s like I´ve seen you before…” He stared straight at her for a few seconds and Jinx shivered slightly. Those large, yellow eyes of theirs were something she needed to get used to.
“Anyway,” the elder Minion shrugged while abruptly turning back to the mist pool, “we haven´t had a proper Master for far too long. The New Lands have never felt Evil´s iron grip – time to do something about it!”
Jinx looked at the future Overlord as well. He´d found a camp of seal hunters in the mean time, and he and his Minions were busy with what they did best. “Stupid peasants,” she muttered. “No backbone whatshoever and the loyalty of carrots.” Indeed some of the hunters had thrown themselves at Sayron´s feet.
“Well spoken,” Gnarl chuckled with his eyes on Sayron. “Smash those igloos, Master!” he suddenly yelled. “Otherwise you´ll be standing knee-deep in hunters!”
Clearly there was some kind of connection with the outside world, because the future Overlord turned and, with mighty blows from his axe, shattered the igloos, destroying the hideouts for the surviving hunters in the process. “Good one, Gnarl,” his voice resounded. “Though I´m standing knee-deep in them anyway.”
“At least they´re very dead,” the old Minion grinned. He seemed to re-notice Jinx. “All right, you´re hired. If you don´t satisfy, your entrails are on their way to Quaver´s harp. Let Kniff fly you back with the floating rock and go clean out the barracks.”
The brown Minion wearing the tuque hat jumped, grabbed her arm with a sharp-clawed little hand and dragged her along. Behind her she heard Gnarl again, giving Sayron his advise, and she pondered the fact that the elder Minion was, for this moment at least, the driving force behind the new Dark Domain.
“Kniff,” she started, and her Minion looked up at her, “did he advise Lord Vessperion as well?”
Kniff nodded. “Yea, and many ´fore him. Gnarl is most oldest Minion here.”
“Hmm.” Jinx through about it. She suddenly was out of the boring upper world and into the action, in the churning start of a newborn empire… if she saw things right. And she had already made her profit: she was still alive to see it all.
So Gnarl had been advisor to all those Dark Lords. Especially in the beginning, with young and uncertain Lords, he was the brain… and at the moment the Overlord was young and uncertain...

“Up there are Master´s private quarters,” Kniff informed her when they´d reached the jutting platform with the floating rock again. The Minion pointed up, to a collection of larger, elongated windows high up in the tower, all ablaze with light. “We not supposed to come there.”
“How come? Sayron hasn´t got anything to say about the tower yet.” It hadn´t been very hard to see that the future Overlord hadn´t actually seen the tower from the inside yet. He had to get inside through the blue portal on the ceiling, and he could only do so if the Netherworld accepted him as Overlord. “He doesn´t live there yet. Let´s take a look.” Jinx tested her decision by taking a few steps along the platform. There wasn´t an answer from Kniff, so she stopped and asked: “How do we get there, exactly?”
Behind her, she heard Kniff give a small chuckle and a heartbeat later, he´d grabbed her arm again. He was in for it. That meant she was right. This was interesting. As long as an Overlord hadn´t proven himself, his will didn´t mean much to his Minions…
The small Minion with the tuque hat led her from the platform and into a tunnel curving its way along the outer walls. They soon were ascending some stairs and Jinx could see a blue light again; they were directly above the throne, on a balcony overseeing the large hall and the mist pool where Gnarl was still busy. Jinx and Kniff hurried even further up until they´d reached the very back of the throne room and a steep, spiraling staircase.
It seemed to go on forever. Kniff ran up the steps fast enough, but Jinx had soon concluded that this staircase was designed to be the first line of defense for the Overlord´s privacy.
“Kniff,” she panted.
The Minion looked back. “Yea?”
“The Netherworld… is ablaze with magic.”
“Yea. Will grow when Master gets here.”
She huffed. “But the Empire… condemns magic. It´s a… tool of…” She wanted to say, ´evil´. That was quite true. But it wasn´t what she meant. The Empire made it look like magic was unnatural, but it wasn´t. The floating rock, the mist pool, the portal on the ceiling… they all fit into the picture, they were where they should be. Part of the world. In sharp contrast to some of the Empire´s contraptions, like those Sentinels… Jinx shivered while thinking about them.
“Magic´s normal,” Kniff announced from three windings above her. And that was it, in his opinion.
Jinx smiled to herself. She liked the way the Minion looked at things.
After another short eternity on the winding stairs she finally set foot on solid rock again. Kniff was loyally waiting for her. “So this…” she struggled to get hold of her breathing again, “is the private quarters?”
In front of them was a large… well, cave. There was clearly work in progress. All over the walls, Minions were at work, hacking and polishing with surprising speed. The floor was full of debris. In the middle of the room, work was started on some kind of hollowing, like a pool. Traces of mosaic were visible among the dust and shards of rock. Shimmering light of torches and fire bowls illuminated the rough, half polished walls.
Kniff walked out in front of her and greeted the working Minions. “Much to be done. Tower still young, far from ready…”
Jinx looked about her in curiosity. She could see much beauty was hiding underneath the rough walls. Beyond a large, half blocked arch of rock lay another room, but Kniff walked past it. He clearly knew that really was forbidden terrain.
In the corner of her eye, Jinx caught a glimpse of a fiery glow and she turned her head. From round the corner, a lava flow illuminated its surroundings and she approached it. Soon she saw her path was leading her to the outer wall of the tower, and another trail that led along the outside. She had a clear view of the entire void from here. From far above her head the stream of boiling lava threw itself into the immeasurable abyss. She walked along the balustrade. Still further ahead, a jutting balcony mirrored the platform far below her. Jinx walked towards it and leaned over the tip.
Below her, below the level of the throne room, hundreds of floating rocks tumbled around the tower in some sort of slowmotion, like asteroids in orbit. In the distance, foaming rivers and streams of lava traced their way along the outer walls of the Netherworld into the very heart of the planet.
“If I´d known something this amazing was directly beneath my feet…” Jinx whispered. “If I´d known magic looked like this…” The balustrade was the only thing between her and certain death, but she kept leaning further over it until she suddenly felt a familiar claw around her arm.
She turned to face Kniff. “Don´t fall,” the Minion said with what could have been a concerned smile without all those pointy teeth.
He pulled her away from the edge and led her along the outside of the tower until there was a way inside again. The half-polished walls arched over them once more.
“This is magic room,” the Minion announced. “Where Master´s spells will come.”
The magic room consisted of a deep well with a bridge halfway over it, and a second path curving its way around it. Jinx stepped on the bridge and looked down. In that depth, nothing was visible exept a blinding white light. It was impossible to make out more. But she knew the well wasn´t connected to a lower level of the tower – another dimension was more likely.
Their path took them in a wide circle past another room with a pool of lava in it. It was to be removed, according to Kniff. This was the place where the Master would leave his commands regarding the design of his tower, for the Minions to take care of it.
From the lava pool, a path led away from the tower, over a bridge and to a separate building. Kniff wouldn´t say anything about it, just that it was part of an idea Gnarl was quite contented with.
They didn´t cross the bridge, returning to the first chamber with the working Minions instead. Kniff silently took her back to the winding stairs. Jinx tried to muster some courage – the way down had to be easier…

Chapter Text

The way down was easier. For Kniff. The brown Minion slid his way down the stairs for most of the way, while Jinx followed at a much slower pace – but running and tripping when she realized how far she was behind on him.
Still, when she got down she wasn´t as out of breath as after she´d gotten up in the private quarters. However she did gasp for breath as soon as she got back into the throne room. This time it was of surprise.
When both her feet were on the black marble, the entire hall exploded before her eyes – a soundless explosion of blue light. Pure bolts of azure magic played along every surface, and the girl and Minion – Kniff´s ears and the jagged edge of his knife, Jinx´ hair and clothes. Then, just as suddenly as it´d started, it was over. But something had changed, down in the great hall.
There, directly beneath the portal and in a wide circle of Minions, was the armoured man Jinx had seen earlier in the mist pool.
Lord Sayron had arrived to claim his domain.
“MASTER!” the Minions yelled, and Jinx jolted when Kniff did the same and hurried down the stairs to his Lord. She followed him as though she´d been hypnotized. Sayron was an impressive sight up close. The final traces of magical energy flickered around his armour and fingertips and illuminated the blue, intricately tattooed skin of his arms. His eyes were ablaze with a fiery light from within the darkness of his helmet. The Overlord let his gaze trace through the hall and Jinx realized he was just as baffled as she´d been – he´d almost dropped the mighty axe he carried in his right hand.
Kniff had reached the foot of the staircase and stood next to the throne. Jinx stopped next to him. Gnarl, who had been sitting in front of the throne, at first kept looking at Sayron with a very satisfied grin on his face, but then he noticed the two of them. He stared at them for a second. “Where did you two come from?” he hissed. “Not the private quarters, I presume?”
Kniff ripped his exhilarated gaze from his new Master, realized his disobedience and visibly shrunk. “I´m sorry –”
“A disobedient Minion, the day the Master returns?” Gnarl´s voice was like a dagger in Jinx´ heart, and she could see the same applied to Kniff. The elder Minion didn´t raise his voice, but that only made it worse.
The Overlord didn´t notice anything of the commotion at his throne, still being surrounded by overjoyed Minions.
“Well, there is a traditional solution for disobedient Minions,” Gnarl continued, suddenly cheerful.
Kniff trembled. “No…”
The elder Minion didn´t seem to notice him anymore. He turned back to Sayron, his eyes gleaming. He gestured at Jinx. “As for you, I know what I said, but Quaver doesn´t seem to have made it back from his little voyage with the Master, so the same applies to you. Be never seeing you again!”
With those words, a thin tentacle of blue light whipped down from the portal on the distant ceiling, and Jinx felt herself being raised into the air. She barely made out Gnarl´s voice: “You are indeed our true Overlord! It´s a bit of a relief, Sire. We didn´t want to bury another candidate…”
No, she thought to herself, while the entire world was being swallowed by a blinding blue glow. But you don´t seem to have any problems with others at all…

Cold. A blinding light that forced her to shut her eyes tight after the cozy darkness of the Netherworld. Something sharp, prodding her from all sides. And some more cold, by the way.
Had she already noticed the cold?
“Uunkh…” she groaned, miserably.
This really wasn´t her day. Where did she get herself this time?
A soft whimpering to her right made her slowly open her eyes. She gravely considered closing them again, because everything was white and it badly hurt her retinas. But the whimpering continued and she could eventually make out the fact she´d landed in a bush of holly, the cause of the sharp prodding. She screwed her eyes to tiny slits and struggled out of reach of the pointy holly leaves. At the same time, she let her eyes grow accustomed to the light, until she dared open them fully.
She was surrounded by snow on all sides, even above. Large white flakes sailed down on the soft, but painfully cold breeze and muffled everything, sight and sound, in a thick white blanket. After having looked about thoughtfully for a while, Jinx could see some skeletal trees not very far away, but as they too were covered in snow they were practically invisible. The only truly visible things in this white world where Jinx herself, the forcefully un-snowed holly bush and Kniff.
It was Kniff who was whimpering, lying in the snow on his stomach with his hat pulled tight over his ears in agony. Even as she looked, there was less sound coming from his little body and he was trembling badly, but he obviously didn´t care anymore. He´d been separated from his Master, and nothing would ever be worth the effort for him again.
Jinx approached him and knelt down. She carefully laid a hand on his back. Kniff didn´t respond. His trembling and whimpering stopped.
“No, don´t freeze,” she muttered. “Don´t,” she spoke, louder this time. She grabbed the Minion round his waist and pulled him from the snow. His large yellow eyes were half shut. She imagined Minions could survive the cold for quite a while – if they were marching behind their Master with the occasional bloodshed. It was out of the question for Kniff. And, as far as she knew, it could be possible that Minions quickly died without a Master.
Still, she wasn´t going to abandon him. If the situation called for it, she could even make a nice meal out of him if he did freeze – presuming she didn´t.
Jinx threw the Minion over her shoulder, stood up and looked about her. She had a rather powerful hunch they´d been dropped in the wilderness of Nordberg, the name that´d been given to both a wintry village and a vast area around it, reaching from the northern mountains to the western polar seas.
Nordberg…
The town where Sayron had been found.
Well, that could be useful information, too.
And, she thought while she started walking, she was, unbelievably enough, still alive. She´d been really lucky Gnarl was that distracted by Sayron´s arrival. But then again, she and Kniff could have sneaked round the back and flown to the barracks either way, if Kniff hadn´t been so fast in running down the stairs towards his Master an into Gnarl´s view.
Good and bad luck, her day seemed to consist of it. Bad luck when she´d fallen into the river, good luck when Mortis fished her out and probably pumped some magic into her to save her life while he´d been at it. Bad luck when Gnarl found out about them being in the private quarters, good luck when he´d only banished them instead of ripping her entrails out. He might be old, but Jinx didn´t doubt the fact he could kill her in a heartbeat.
She looked back. Her footprints were already snowing full. She turned and continued walking. She was already losing the feeling in her hands and feet. She wasn´t clad to be wandering around Nordberg. She was wearing a thin tunica, like everyone where she came from, and she foolishly enough even had taken it in. Her trousers weren´t much better and her shoes were already full of icy melt water. Kniff was wearing a rough pair of black fur pants, and a short poncho of the same material around his shoulders. As for the rest, he only wore his hat and the jagged knife at his belt. Jinx pulled it out and put it into her own belt. She needed it harder than he did at the moment.

She felt like she´d been walking for hours and the sun was low above the hills, red and wobbling, when Kniff opened his eyes again. Jinx didn´t even notice he was awake at first, because he didn´t move. He just hung over her shoulder, facing backwards, staring at the growing line of her footprints. Then he started to struggle.
“Kniff,” Jinx smiled with half-frozen lips. She stopped and put him down. “Welcome back.” She walked on. Kniff stood there, while the snow gathered on his shoulders and head. His ears hung limp beneath his hat.
Gnarl had banished him. He´d been separated from his Master. The very worst that could ever happen to a Minion. He really wanted to die as soon as possible, but…
Jinx looked back at him. Kniff saw how pale she was, the ice on her eyelashes, her blue lips. She didn´t have much time left.
He hurried to catch up with her. Then he pulled his knife from her belt and ran on.
“Kniff!”
The Minion didn´t look back, but ran off the path Jinx´d been following for so long and on towards the snowy, skeletal-forested hills. Soon he was a disappearing brown speck.
Jinx stayed where she was, trembling with fatigue, hunger and cold. He was gone. Just like that. She took him with her out of pity, and now he was gone. She was alone.
Then a wolf´s howl resounded through the icy air, from the direction where Kniff´d disappeared. Things were getting better with the second.
The howling continued, and before long she could see fast grey bodies leaping from the hills towards her. Still, she stayed where she was. The snow gathered in her hair and it didn´t even melt anymore. She couldn´t go any further.
They were so large. She´d heard about the Nordberg wolves. The seal hunters always made sure their fires kept going all night, because there were always the wolves prowling around the camp, trying to get their teeth into the seal meat… and the hunters. Nothing had ever tamed them.
Then why did she think there was something brown riding the back of the first wolf?
The enormous grey beasts reached her, but didn´t surround her. They growled and yelped, but didn´t harm her. Because there, riding the back of the front wolf, was Kniff, sitting like it was the easiest thing in the world.
He gave her a broad grin, his ears delightedly pointing upwards. “Wolfies are Minions´ friends!”
Jinx gasped and nearly burst into tears. Her shoulders drooped and she staggered, but just before she could collapse into the snow face-first, the brown Minion dragged her onto the back of the wolf running next to him.
Then, with her face and arms buried into the rough but surprisingly warm fur, the pack bounded off towards the hills again.
On the spot where they´d disappeared, the steadily falling snow gathered in their tracks and erased them until there was nothing left at all.

A bit later and a bit further, in a pleasant warm darkness filled with rough hair and the smell of wet dog Jinx came to her senses again. A tiny bit of light streamed in, just enough to see she was in an underground burrow full of wolves. There were some cubs, too.
She didn´t move. She was broken. Still there was an irremovable grin on her face.
“I thought I´d lost you, Kniff.”
The Minion sat with his back against the side of the wolf he´d ridden and rubbed its snout. The wolf growled contently. The glowing yellow eyes of the Minion were turned to face Jinx and Kniff grinned. He kept silent, and Jinx was left to guess why he´d saved her life – even after she´d saved his. Even banished Minions remained loyal to their Master… why did he help her?
She wasn´t in the mood to ask. She sighed deeply and reveled in the incredible fact she was regaining the feeling in her hands and feet.

Even later still, she awoke from a sleep she hadn´t known she´d fallen into. Something wet and warm was pressing against her cheek. She curled out of the tight ball she´d been lying in and looked up.
Inches from her face, the largest wolf she´d ever seen was lying, his paws stretched out in front of him and blood all over his snout. Between his claws, a piece of incredibly bloody meat lay steaming. The snow still covered it, but it was already melting in the warmth of the burrow. The wolf pushed it into her direction with his nose.
She was used to more civilized meals. But the blood didn´t bother her as much as it should have, and the meat even seemed tasty, despite the clear teeth marks the wolf had made. Even the bit of white fur still left didn´t spoil her appetite. Her stomach noisily agreed, and that was all that was needed. Jinx attacked.
When she was finished she affectionately rubbed the wolf´s now clean nose, wiped the last blood from her own face and crawled outside, where the sun had risen again. She expected to meet Kniff there, but she didn´t expect to be suddenly bombarded with a pile of fluffy white skins.
“Hey!” she cried out, muffled by the fur. She pulled the skins from her face and looked up. There, sitting on a low branch in a leafless tree, Kniff was busy with his knife. More skins hung over his branch, and a few pieces of meat and rough material were shoved into a forked twig nearby.
“Hi, Jinxie!”
She came closer. “Where does that all come from? …Is that seal?”
“Yup,” the Minion answered. “Stupid smelly furballs, but useful for meat and skin.” He grinned and pried some meat from between his pointy teeth.
Jinx chuckled. “You went out hunting! Without me!”
“Were still asleep. Strength needed here.” Kniff gave her some strips of furless skin he´d cut from the seal fur. “Good clothes needed too. Put fur on the inside.”
“You´re busy,” Jinx remarked while climbing to the branch next to him. “You´re up to something, aren´t you?”
A barely noticeable shadow crossed his face. “Maybe.” He pulled something from the bark behind him and handed it to Jinx. It was a large dagger, a sword almost, jagged like Kniff´s and with a bone handle. It was clearly from the Nordberg area. “Raided lone hunter. Clothes were unusable when wolfies were done,” Kniff chuckled.
“Thanks,” Jinx said, a bit baffled. Then she got to work with a small smile, carefully making holes in the fur through which she could weave the strips of furless skin. After a while, she and Kniff had produced rough clothes, and with the fluffy white fur on the inside, things were a lot warmer.
Strangely enough, an idea was still playing through her head. It was the idea to get to know more about this empire that was soon about to rise from underground. Until now, only a few people in Nordberg knew about it – the ones Sayron had terrorized to prove himself. And she herself, of course…
Strange as it was, she still felt attracted to the Netherworld. She wanted to return, and it was rather obvious Kniff wanted nothing more either.
Jinx put it out of her head. Everything in the Netherworld would kill her on sight, and probably her companion as well.
She straightened her new vest. “What now?”
Kniff jumped down from the tree. “Think we –” he started, but he abruptly fell silent. His ears flew upwards. A heartbeat later he sped off. “Follow,” he hissed over his shoulder.
Jinx followed without questioning him. Not a second too soon. The moment she and Kniff had hidden in some thick bushes behind the hill, something came marching into sight. And it wasn´t good.
It was a group of twenty or so men, clad in green tunics and metal helmets Jinx had also seen on some Minions back at the tower. They carried round shields and short swords. At their head marched a single rotund man wearing a gold-coloured breastplate, a red cape and a red plume on his helmet.
“Empire,” Jinx hissed, full of disgust. Kniff nodded. His eyes were glowing brighter than ever and his ears stood straight up. His clawed hand was opening and closing around the handle of his knife, and it was obvious he wanted at them as quick as possible, despite his odds. Jinx pushed him down into the bush again. “You won´t survive that,” she whispered urgently. “Stay here.”
“And what is this?” an unpleasant voice sounded. The two of them turned back to the formation again. It was the red-cloaked man that had spoken; the centurion.
“Our tracks,” Jinx whispered. She pulled Kniff´s arm, but the Minion stayed put and shook off her hand.
“Wolf tracks,” the centurion spoke. Several of his men muttered uneasily. “The mounts of evil.” The centurion prodded the snow with his longer sword. Before long, he´d discovered the wolf burrow. Kniff was as tense as a bowstring.
Soft yelping sounded from the burrow, quickly turning to growls. Jinx noticed something happening in the group of soldiers. Then, she saw they´d gotten out bows. “Kniff, we´ve got to do something…”
“Won´t survive,” he echoed her own words with a hollow voice.
Then the wolves had had enough of the centurion´s poking. The large wolf that had offered Jinx his kill leaped to the fat man´s throat first, followed by the others. But behind their centurion, his men had readied their bows and a moment later it was raining burning arrows. The wolves didn´t stand a chance. Shortly after the snow was no longer white, and the stench of burning fur reached the bushes where Kniff and Jinx were still hidden, both frozen to the spot in a manner that had nothing to do with the cold.
“That´s rid some allies of magic from this world,” the centurion spoke, contently brushing the snow from his clothes. “Now to make sure there won´t be any new ones. Without doubt, there are cubs in there.”
Kniff growled like he´d become a wolf himself, but he was helpless while one of the soldiers threw a piece of burning wood into the burrow. A few minutes later the smoke drove out the remaining wolves. They, too, were killed to the very last cub.
Jinx felt tears coming up. “Mother Goddess´ blood,” she swore. “Plague-ridden sadists…”
“Nothing we can do,” Kniff replied in a hollow voice. He climbed out of the bush and walked off over the hill. Jinx followed. The Minion was walking fast, so fast she couldn´t catch up with him. She couldn´t see the expression on his face, and didn´t know if she wanted to.

For some time, they silently walked through the snowy wilderness. They followed a trail that was clearly used often, probably by hunters. On both sides of the path the growth was thorny and impregnable, and often their way led along deep gorges and high cliffs. They travelled for most of the day and only stopped a few times to rest and take in the white rabbits Kniff caught without much effort.
Eventually the sun was sinking again. Here in the north, it was a very fast process and it didn´t take long before the world was dark and the snow acquired a silvery glow. An enormous, nearly full moon floated above their heads, accompanied by thousands of icy stars. Jinx was very grateful for her new warm clothes.
Then suddenly a small red light appeared between the bushes alongside the path. Jinx screwed her eyes, but it was already gone. “Kniff,” she began, but the Minion nodded and gestured for her to be silent. He crept forward and knelt. His white clothing made it difficult to make him out on first sight.
After a while the red light returned, accompanied by several others. Some were red as well, other were gold-coloured or green. Now that Jinx was closer to them, she could see the lights were attached to the pointy hats of very small creatures, considerably smaller than Minions. They were almost entirely covered in black hair, save for their large noses. They were jumping from right to left, up and down, and all the while squeaking softly.
Kniff was listening intently. “They´re talking about…” he muttered, “big metal man… they´re at war with…”
Jinx´ eyes widened. “Sayron´s been here!”
“The Master,” Kniff whispered. His eyes were glowing in the dark. More creatures were appearing, and the squeaking grew louder.
“What are they saying?”
“They attacked him!” The Minion was no longer whispering. He sounded offended and angry. The squeaky voices silenced and the creatures looked in their direction for a while. Then, they started squeaking again, while bouncing towards the sealskin-clad duo.
“Stupid bloody gnomes!” Kniff yelled, charging at the advancing creatures with a battle cry. The gnomes threw themselves at him, but it soon became clear they were very overconfident. Even alone, the Minion could easily overpower them, and many of the creatures were unable to get away from him as he kicked, stomped, hit about him and generally raged his heart out among them. As he let his anger and frustration out on them, the lights on their hats seemed to disattach themselves and float to the ground. Eventually no living gnomes remained. Kniff let himself fall on his back amidst the loose lights. His shoulders shook.
Jinx carefully approached him. Soon she could see his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter. She laughed herself as she saw it. “Amused yourself, have you?”
Kniff sat up. “Amused, yea.” He chuckled and rubbed his eyes. “Needed it.”
Jinx smiled and reached for one of the twinkling lights around them. It was warm to the touch as she picked it up. It didn’t slip through her fingers like she´d expected. She raised it towards eye level and curiously studied it. It seemed to consist of a shining golden core with a glowing haze around it. But the core wasn´t solid, because it was lying on the haze on her hand palms.
She looked at Kniff, to see her own surprise mirrored on his face. His eyes were shooting from her to the light and back again. “Jinxie…”
“Kniff, what is this stuff?”
The Minion prodded the light. “Life force. Comes from any living thing. Minions get born from it in Hives. But only magical creatures can touch it…”
Jinx stared into the light. It already started fading, like all the lights around them. “But…” she stammered. “I´m not… I mean, I can´t… The Empire would…” She thought about it. The Empire had its methods to track down magic, like the Sentinels. If they found magic, Eradicators came. That was the end of the story, every time again.
But the Sentinels had never noticed her. It was true they only turned up if strange lights or the like had been seen, and she´d never shown any. “…I´m not like Sayron. I´m not magical. You´ve got to be mistaken.”
“Magic not just blue lightning, Jinxie,” Kniff said. “Many sorts exist. Yours is just well hidden.”
Jinx smiled weakly at those words. “You think?” Maybe that´s why he´s following me. But she didn´t ask.
The Minion gave her a lopsided grin and stood up. Without another word he walked off in the direction the gnomes had come from. “Ha!” it sounded shortly after.
Jinx looked round the trees. There, in the dark hill, was an even darker spot. “Another wolf burrow?”
“No. Gnome hole,” Kniff answered in a muffled voice, his head stuck down the hole. He pulled back and looked back at her. “Abandoned. Smelly, but have no other place to sleep.” With those words he climbed inside. It was a narrow opening and he barely fit through. When Jinx followed him, she had to widen the hole a bit, and her seal fur got smeared with earth all over before she was in.
Inside it was smelly indeed, a nauseating mix of rotten fruit and small, dead animals. But it was warmer than outside in the icy night.
“Good you killed them all,” Jinx remarked.
“Killing gnomes always good,” was Kniff´s answer. “´Specially if they´re at war with the Master.”
“Always the loyal servant, eh?”
“Always,” the Minion replied with a serious face. “´Till after death, if I can.”
Jinx lay down as comfortable as she could and folded her arms behind her head in the earthy, smelly gnome hole. The second day in the wilderness had been tiring with the constant travelling and the neverending cold. It didn´t take long for her to fall asleep. The last thing she consciously saw were Kniff´s watchful glowing eyes.

Chapter Text

The next morning dawned cold, shivery and way too early. When Jinx opened her eyes Kniff was already gone from the burrow, just like the previous day. There was an advantage attached to it; the thick blanket of snow that had covered the entrance during the night was already broken.
She crawled outside, but he was nowhere to be seen. His clawed footprints were still visible and they led into the woods, so she presumed he was out hunting. She stayed there, blowing on her hands for a moment, but then her gaze fell upon a couple of white bunnies beneath the trees some feet away.
She licked her lips, grinned and slowly drew her knife.

When Kniff got back with some birds and other small animals he’d caught, he found Jinx sitting next to a fully prepared meal. She even managed to find enough unfrozen wood to make a small fire, so this time their meat didn’t have to be raw.
The Minion threw his kills in the snow next to the fire and chuckled delightedly. “Well done, Jinxie!”
“No, you well done with keeping me alive long enough to finally make me do something useful,” Jinx laughed. “I think I´m going to learn how to survive.”
Kniff lowered his head, but his ears stayed where they were – high and joyful. Then he looked about him. More than ever, Jinx had the feeling he had a plan and was driving them in a certain direction.
After breakfast – in Jinx´ opinion the best she´d had in ages, but that was probably the effect of the hunger – they immediately departed again.
That morning and afternoon, almost nothing made any effort to block their path, save some bothersome gnome colonies alongside the trail. Jinx knew Minions were brave and bordering on suicide, but gnomes topped it all. However the creatures were more annoying than dangerous and it wasn´t difficult to reduce them to small trampled spots in the path. Kniff told her some of his kind liked to take the hats with them as some kind of trophy, but he himself didn´t do so – he already had a hat and he was proud of it. He had taken the tuque hat from Nordberg years ago when he and his horde members had taken Sayron with them. That was quite the story. Sayron had lived in the village for as long as he could remember, but everyone knew about his magic and hated him for it. Every other child bullied him, except one, whom Sayron often thought about: Kelda, a girl with red hair and green eyes.
Then, on Midwinter´s Eve, now thirteen years ago, the Minions had found him and recognized him as their new Master. They´d entered the village and aided him and the young Kelda in ruining the Midwinter party. The villagers had originally shut the gate in front of Sayron´s nose, but the Minions had hunted down some children and stolen their clothes to disguise themselves and help get their Master inside. The only piece remaining of those clothes now was Kniff´s hat.
The Midwinter party had been completely taken apart, the Minion told while walking. Jinx grinned while she listened to tales of lanterns becoming rather more useful as projectiles, used by the seemingly ´overtired´ children, decapitated snowmen and huge amounts of stolen fireworks granted a whole new purpose altogether. Eventually Sayron had managed to reach the two truly huge pieces of professional fireworks and sent them hurling towards the Midwinter tree. That´d been the best part of the evening, but the joy of the Minions and their new Master hadn´t lived long, because then the Empire had sounded their horn outside Nordberg´s gates. Kniff explained the Empire had decided that had been the time to add Nordberg to their possessions. They had a governor at the ready: Borius, a fat, ugly man who was always looking like he smelled something nasty. They also had Sentinels with them: hooded figures that could trace magic. Jinx shivered when Kniff described them. It had been the Sentinels that had traced Sayron´s presence, and Borius had demanded Nordberg´s magic user to be brought out. After Sayron ruining the party, Nordberg´s mayor of that time didn´t have to think long before throwing the boy over the city walls.
The Minions hadn´t hesitated and had gone after their Master as fast as they could. They´d protected the boy against the soldiers and led him into the wilderness, and from there to a remote corner of the Netherworld, where he´d been raised until he was ready to truly become their Master.
Jinx made the story come full circle by calculating the date: it was exactly Midwinter.
She wondered if Kniff had only told her the story because the conversation had brought them on his hat.

Late in the afternoon they reached the first of the clearings. The trees had been cut down and when they brushed the layers of snow away, they found holes in the frozen earth, like those made by tent poles. Kniff had a good laugh about it. “Must have been cold,” he said. “Stupid Empire sleeps in tents… here!” He kept chuckling about it. Jinx was surprised the soldiers hadn´t all frozen to death in this icy land.
When they went on, they stumbled upon more spots where the Empire´d been camping. They had recently traveled through Nordberg, perhaps only a day ago. Jinx thought about it for a while, and eventually came up with an explanation for what was going on.
“That Master of yours went to Nordberg to prove himself, didn´t he…”
Kniff nodded. “Showed strength, magic and tactics. In Nordberg.”
“And that´s an Empire town, now. Under governor Borius. So they don´t want him barging in with that axe of his.” Jinx thoughtfully tapped her dagger against her hip. “If they know about Sayron´s existence now… they don´t even have to know he escaped them earlier… they´ll want his head. The troops around Nordberg are being strengthened. Right now.”
“Good,” was the only thing Kniff said. His sharp teeth were bared in a fixed grin and he kept looking straight ahead.
“And that also means we´re travelling towards Nordberg Town.” Jinx half playfully slapped the Minion against his hat. “You! Maybe you had a plan, eh?”
Kniff kept walking. Jinx kept next to him. “We´re walking towards our deaths, you and me.”
“Yea,” the Minion said, “or the Master.” He turned to face her. “Midwinter, thirteen years later.”
“You think he´ll return.” Jinx saw the look in his eyes. “You know it,” she corrected herself. She stared ahead with empty eyes. What had gotten into her? She was tailing a Minion still loyal to his former Overlord, who was dragging her to a heavily guarded city which now knew about the Minions and would kill her, too, for travelling with one…
But Kniff had dragged her onto the wolf´s back. He had taken the wolves with him to hunt and had returned with meat and skins. He´d saved her life.
Jinx sighed, her breath leaving her mouth in a large plume of steam. She already knew she´d follow him. Even if it was to keep up the illusion he was following her. She had to confess it hurt her, to know that wasn´t the case after all. The entire time, he´d been planning to take a last leap in his endeavor to return to Sayron´s side. Even if he knew the other Minions would kill him.
Oh well. She should have expected it. He was a Minion. He was just a Minion.
Jinx looked down on the ragged tuque hat with the large bat-like ears underneath. Then she knelt, grabbed Kniff around his waist, hugged him tightly, put him down and walked on through the heavy snowfall.
It remained silent behind her.
Jinx raised her fist. “Well, to Nordberg it is. Onwards towards certain death for the gods, nation and apple pie!”
She walked on for some time. Suddenly a snowball exploded against the back of her head.
She whirled around. Kniff had hurried to follow her and was already making a new snowball. The Minion looked at her with large yellow eyes. “And the Master!” he yelled.
Jinx laughed and bent down to defend herself.
“And the wolfies…” He was very fast in making the projectiles, and every word was emphasized with a white explosion that might or might not have reached its goal. Before long they were bombarding eachother like lunatics, running along the path that would take them to Nordberg. The time seemed to speed up, and Jinx suddenly realized he wasn´t just a Minion after all. He hadn´t died. He´d lived after she´d taken him on her back. Just like that, she saw there was more to him than slavish loyalty to his Master…
The freezing, crystal clear afternoon flew past, and soon the sun was already sinking.

It got dark early that evening. It was, after all, Midwinter, the night darker than most. The stars seemed to be veiled above the sharp, leafless branches of the trees and the silent snow was falling slowly. The enormous moon was completely full now and floated just above the horizon.
There was something else floating above the horizon. There seemed to be a column of blue light rising from beyond the next hill. Jinx only noticed it when Kniff was already storming towards it. She followed him in a slower pace and out from between the last few trees. There, on top of the hill, was a remarkable sight waiting for her.
It seemed to be a crown of great black spikes, curved and reaching for the dark skies like a huge claw. At the front, a low flight of stairs led to the center, from which a steady stream of blue light was rising towards the heavens. It did have something in common with the northern lights. The thing was enormous, at least five meters across. Around it were another four miniatures, every one of them about a meter across, with lights of their own in golden yellow, red, green and light blue. The golden and red ones were the only ones that were fully ablaze; the green and blue ones were merely twinkling and barely visible.
Kniff stood there staring at them. As Jinx approached he turned, his eyes glowing fiercely and his ears perked. “A Tower Gate!” he pointed, excitedly. “Master´s been here… and Minion Gates!” He turned towards the shining objects again. He seemed to hesitate, but then ran for the golden gate and jumped into the light.
And disappeared.
Jinx ran after him, but stopped when she heard voices coming from the gate.
“Who´s that?” a raspy voice clearly belonging to a Minion sounded.
“Tuque hat… is Kniff,” another invisible Minion answered.
“Kniff! Away with!” A short yelp of protest was heard, and then Kniff came sailing out of the light with a high arch. He landed in the snow with a muffled thud, and the way he lay there made Jinx think of his reaction to being dropped in Nordberg two days ago. This time however, he got to his feet himself.
They don´t want him back, she thought. Even if we find Sayron and the horde, they don´t want him back.
The Minion looked at her, and to her surprise he was still cheerful. “Expected that,” he shrugged. He walked over to the red gate. “So the Master´s found the Reds…” He stared into the red light and gestured for Jinx to come next to him. When she outstretched her hands towards it, she felt the light was hot like a bonfire, very pleasant even with her new warm clothes.
She peered through the falling snow. There were more lights. They´d reached the gates of Nordberg Town… but they were firmly shut. However, between them and the enormous wooden doors lay a trail of destruction: broken fences, a ripped and scorched Empire tent, an abandoned ballista…
Suddenly a muffled explosion sounded to their left, beyond the hill. Immediately, Kniff diverted his attention from the red light and sped away from Jinx and the Gates. “Reds! Reds and explosives get on like a house on fire!” he yelled while running through the slowly descending snow.
Jinx sprinted after him. At the foot of the hill Kniff dived to the right and into a deep gorge that had split the cliff face in two sharp halves. There were recent footprints in the snow on the bottom, so many they weren´t clear anymore, but in some places at the edges of the gorge a hint of sharp claws was visible…
Jinx also noticed, in certain places where all the snow had been brushed away, some kind of tracks were running through the gorge, like there was some kind of vehicle that needed to pass through here.
Suddenly a rattling sounded from further on. At the same time, a wolf howled nearby. Kniff grabbed her arm and ran on. The gorge took a sharp turn, and beyond it lay an opening in the frozen cliff face. There, in the safe darkness, the girl and the Minion pressed themselves against the freezing walls next to the opening and carefully peered outside. Soon, the rattling came closer and eventually a small cart came into view, stacked with several red barrels. Fuses were sticking out at all angles and it were the most obvious explosives Jinx could think of. As the cart rattled past, she could see it was being pushed by four Minions. But not Minions like the ones she knew.
These Minions´ skins weren´t brown, but red. They seemed to glow from the inside, because their ribs were silhouetted on their backs. Instead of large bat-like ears they had curling horns sprouting from the sides of their heads. They also had tails, short and with arrow-shaped points at the ends. They didn´t seem to be cold, because all they were wearing were loincloths.
Kniff jumped up and down, grinning like an idiot. “Reds!” he whispered furiously while pointing at the new Minions. “Were lost since…”
Jinx pressed a finger against her lips. Then she looked back outside. There was something else to be seen now, and it wasn´t anything less than Lord Sayron. He strode after the cart with great purpose, his enormous axe in hand and leaving deep footprints with his heavy boots. Behind him came the rest of the Minion horde, some of them red, others brown and riding wolves. The Nordberg wolves really did have some kind of friendship with Sayron and the Minions, then. Jinx wondered how it´d got this way.
“Was great!” one of the wolf riders sighed. “That what bombs for. Not for digging.”
Jinx nodded slowly. They´d gotten the gunpowder from a quarry. That explained the cart. She now recognized it as a mine cart beneath all those fuses. She suppressed a chuckle. Then she had to do it again with even greater force, because she remembered the tracks leading towards the Nordbergian gates when they´d disappeared below the snow… the mine carts clearly were normally used to transport the ore into the town, but now that would be going slightly different…
“Kniff, I have to see this,” she said, shaking with silent laughter. She grabbed the Minion and stepped out of the cave. “They´re far enough, come on!” The two of them hurried along the tracks and after the horde, leaving the gorge just in time to see the four reds pushing the cart off the hill so it could roll to Nordberg´s closed gates. Then they quickly rejoined Sayron and the horde. Not a moment early, for a dozen arrows already buried themselves in their footprints.
Jinx looked up. There, high upon the city walls, a legion of archers was placing new arrows on their bowstrings. They were clad in blue tunics, helmets and armour.
“Empire,” she spat for the second time in as many days.
Kniff pulled her elbow. “Look!” he whispered.
Jinx slightly lowered her attention. There, in front of Sayron and out of the archers´ range, all of the reds had raised their arms. A fiery glow played around their claws, and when the first of them made a throwing movement a ball of fire flew towards the gates and the cart.
“Oh, yes,” Jinx muttered, filled with glee as the others followed his example and gradually lit all of the fuses from a safe distance. “Yes…”
The Minions in the horde covered their ears. Kniff and Jinx did the same.
It wasn´t enough to shut out the explosion.
There was a flash of brilliant light and a mighty roar, echoing for a sure ten seconds amongst the gorges. A gigantic ball of fire mushroomed up through the falling snow, and half a dozen archers was thrown up in its wake. A wave of heat smacked even Jinx and Kniff in their faces. A fountain of snow, ice and splinters of wood sprayed up. When the dust had settled, nothing was left of Nordberg´s sturdy gates. A great part of the city walls was gone as well, and a gorgeous crater marked the spot where everything had been.
For a while, the crater was the only thing between the ruined walls, but it wasn´t to be that way for long. Soon, gleaming shields appeared in the night. This city was still under the reign of the Glorious Empire and they´d do anything to keep it that way. Sayron tightened the grip on his axe. Behind him, the Minions were cheering and shouting.
Kniff´s ears were raised higher than ever and trembled with excitement. Jinx had never felt as sorry for him as at this moment.
Something growled behind them.
And then, things were suddenly happening very fast.

Lord Sayron threw himself between the shields and swords of the first legion with all his force. All around him, his Minions were doing the same, hacking, jabbing, strangling and even biting, while the reds stayed their distance and used their fire to set the tunics, and soon the flesh, of the soldiers ablaze. Blood sprayed across the snow. The little Minions worked their way through the formation and attacked again from the other side, so the men had to turn around and bare their backs to the rest of the horde and their Master. On their way through the snowy land, they´d defeated many legions already, and the conquest of Nordberg started out very well indeed.
The wolves were also playing their part. They struck the soldiers with even more fear than Sayron himself; like Gnarl said: a drooling wolf looking at you like you´re a giant ham can send the most brave of men fleeing for his life while screaming for his mother…
Then his red-hot eyes fell upon a couple of wolves without riders. At first, he thought some browns had gone on without them, but then he saw the Minions were all still on wolfback like he´d said they should when they´d come across the burrow. These wolves were new.
And one of them was carrying a girl with short black hair, dressed in white fur.
Lord Sayron raised his eyebrows beneath his helmet, but was forced to turn around when he was attacked in the back.
He´d find out later…

Kniff cheered like a lunatic while he and his wolf raced through the legion. He stabbed everything that moved with this jagged knife, cutting and slicing wherever he could, and several soldiers fell into the snow screaming as he slit their knee tendons or wounded them more severely still. He saw other Minions looking at him with surprise, and gave them all a wild grin. He´d prove he deserved his spot in the horde!
Above the clashing of battle he heard Jinx screaming, a feral war cry. He looked around and saw her raging between the soldiers from the back of her own wolf. His eyes flashed. Jinxie should have been born a Minion, from the life force she held as easily as he did.
Sayron and the Minions fought with the spirit of a tornado and it barely took them ten minutes to chop the entire legion to pieces. The soldiers further up the snow-covered streets backed away visibly, but the Overlord didn´t waste any time and continued the pursuit.
Kniff egged his wolf on and ran past his Master. Another wolf and Minion followed and came running next to him. “Kniff, bugger off,” the Minion snarled.
“No, Rasp,” Kniff shook his head. “Not again.”
“Stripe´ll skin you alive,” Rasp warned with a gesture to the horde behind them. There, next to Sayron, ran the largest wolf with the largest Minion on its back. He carried a long sword and wore the red-plumed helmet of a centurion. His eyes weren´t glowing yellow, but a fiery orange. As he aggressively snapped out towards the door of one of the houses, which had been carefully opening but now banged shut again very fast, the white stripe on his back became visible.
“Stripe´ll take me back into the horde,” Kniff replied. And with that, his wolf sped up and he was the first to throw himself into the retreating second legion.
Rasp found himself grinning and ran after him.

Jinx caught the Overlord´s gaze from her position on the large wolf next to him. She was lower than him, but he was far larger anyway. His glowing orange eyes turned away from the enemy ahead for a moment and fixed her instead. “What are you doing here?” he asked her in a booming, but not overly threatening voice.
“I´m helping you, Lord,” Jinx yelled above the wolf´s panting and the noises of battle ahead.
Sayron raised a hand and looked at his heavy metal gauntlet in surprise. At his wrist, an amber-coloured jewel was set into it, glowing softly. “Did I use a domination spell on you? I don´t remember doing so.”
“I´m helping you because I want to,” Jinx said. “I´m –”
A voice interrupted her. “I have banished this wench together with a disobedient Minion, Sire,” it sounded from the empty air. Jinx knew that voice. It was Gnarl. “They should have perished in the snow. But it seems they will still do so.”
Sayron and Jinx looked at eachother for a second. Then Jinx urged her wolf on and sped forward to the chaos that was the second legion.

The second legion soon was as dead as the first one. Bodies and large pools of freezing blood lay in the trampled snow by the time Sayron and the Minions were done. There was time for a short pause to catch their breath. Some Minions had fallen, and others had lost their wolves. Sayron used the moment of rest to step over to a small alley and call up a golden gate with a broad gesture of his hand. The jewel in his gauntlet flashed the same colour as he waved his hand again, and Minions came tumbling from the gate. They landed on their feet and hurried towards their positions in the horde. Jinx realized these were the same Minions that´d kicked Kniff out of the earlier gate. She was satisfied to see their baffled expressions as they saw the grinning Minion atop the wolf.
When Sayron had replenished his horde, the hunt continued. A couple hundred yards from the alley, a small river crossed the town, and the only route over it was over a stone bridge. The Overlord and Jinx cursed their luck together as they saw the Empire knew a thing or two about explosives, too. As they watched, five fuses burnt up until they reached the red barrels, and while the green-tuniced men hurried a safe distance away from the reds´ fire, the entire bridge went up in smoke. That way was shut. Jinx urged her wolf on and looked down from the crumbling edge, but the water was flowing very fast and swept along ice flows, too. None of them would survive that, even if Minions would be able to swim.
She turned. Sayron and the horde had turned left, where the streets were steeper. She started going after them, but then caught movement in the corner of her eye. She looked harder. There, on the rooftops, was a group of people; not of the Empire, but Nordberg villagers. They were holding something…
“Look out!” she yelled. At the same time, the men and women threw the lit sticks in front of the Overlord.
It turned out to not be dynamite after all, because it cracked and sizzled in far smaller explosions of red and blue on the cobblestones. But still there was screaming of some all too hasty Minions as the fireworks scorched them badly. Jinx hissed and sprinted back to them.
On many of the rooftops, villagers were standing with their fireworks. There was also another Empire legion waiting for them, blocking their path.
The roofs, however, were decked in straw and many of the reds had already made their conclusion themselves. To Jinx´ surprise, they ran straight through the crackling fireworks and towards the houses, where they started lobbing their own fire at the villagers. Soon, the roofs of the entire street were ablaze and the way was clear. Some reds climbed the burning roofs and seemed to glow and sizzle themselves – the fire filled them with new energy. They also had a great spot for throwing fire at the legion ahead.
Down in the street, Sayron and his horde were raging towards the legion as well and ploughed through it with new strength.
Jinx shivered for a moment while listening to all the screaming – the people trying to get off the burning rooftops, the soldiers of the third legion, the Minions – but then she remembered the wolves. The brethren of the animal she was riding now, slaughtered to the last cub by soldiers like the men she was fighting now. And the people – thirteen years ago that Empire governor, Borius, claimed this town against their will.
And she remembered all too well what the Empire had done to her mother, all those years ago.
So she sat up straight on the back of her wolf and let her dagger have its way.

Kniff was very aware of the other Minions´ disapproving gazes, hard though he might be fighting. He´d acquired deep cuts on his chest and back, some of them still bleeding despite the cold, and there still was a broken arrow sticking out of his shoulder he couldn´t reach. His face was scorched with the fireworks he´d thrown himself at as one of the first. But he bit through the pain, because he knew he´d had to do his very best to be accepted back into the horde.
He kept an eye on Stripe at all times. The large Minion with the scar on his back had been the leader for years, and he´d be the one to make the decision – after the Master, of course…

Sayron cleanly cut the last trembling man of the third legion in half and wiped his axe on the already bloody green tunic. He hadn´t had a second to catch his breath before Gnarl´s voice bombarded his ears. “That wench and Minion are not to be trusted, Sire –”
“Gnarl,” Sayron calmly spoke, “shut up for a second, will you?”
Shocked silence. Then: “…Of course, Sire.”
Sayron stepped forward and swore. There was a new group of shields further up the hill already. But those shields were trembling as a single first wolf stormed at them, carrying a Minion full of cuts and scorches. There was even a broken arrow sticking out of his shoulder. The Minion was wearing a tuque hat.
“That untrustworthy Minion of yours is the best fighter so far. If you´ve banished him, I´m taking him back.”

Jinx was the second to plunge into the new legion. For a moment, she and Kniff were the only warriors, then a new Minion on wolfback followed. The Minion ran to Kniff. “The Master took you back,” he called towards his fellow combatant, whirling a small axe above his head as he did so.
Kniff let out a wild cry of joy and urged his wolf on so hard he spontaneously flew out of the legion, between the soldiers´ legs, and emerged on the other side. Jinx grinned widely. He made it, he´d been taken back!

Kniff shot out of the legion and was about to turn round again to attack their backs, but then something caught his eye. There, on a wooden platform, a rotund man in golden armour and a red cape was standing.
For a second, Kniff´s yellow eyes stared into the centurion´s. He recognized that fat face. This was the man who´d given the order for the wolves to be killed. And also the one throwing all those soldiers at them throughout Nordberg´s streets. And here he was, without his last legion to defend him…
Kniff looked back. Stripe was busy with the legion. He knew he had to time this carefully. The Master might have taken him back, but browns still lived by the survival of the fittest, and he hadn´t proven himself to Stripe yet.
The men at the back of the legion were archers, as usual. Kniff turned and let his wolf jump at the throat of one of them. The man never knew what hit him, but he did feel something pry his bow and arrow from his limp fingers.
Kniff struggled to draw the bow, eventually succeeding. But he wasn´t ready yet. A quick glance at the houses on his right made him notice some pieces of not yet exploded fireworks, and the many sparks still fluttering from the burning rooftops. He egged on his wolf and ran towards them. While doing so, he tore the feathers from the back of his arrow and stuck a piece of firework on it, which he lit with some help of a burning piece of straw falling from the roof above his head…
The centurion saw his legion being ground to dust and started getting afraid. He turned, slowly and glancing backwards, and then made a run for it as fast as he could.
“Governor Borius!” his voice sounded. “Governor Bo-”
He faltered, then clawed at his back. Something horrible had pierced his cloak.
One explosion later it was raining red shreds, not all of them originally cloak fabric.

Without their centurion, the soldiers made headless chickens look composed. They let their despair get the better of them and dropped their defense in the most incredible of ways, and not five minutes later there was nothing left but wolves, Minions, an Overlord and a girl, panting and laughing amongst the bodies.
Some distance away, an even worsely scorched Minion turned his wolf. Kniff called out in triumph, raising his way too large bow. “That one for wolfies!” he yelled, picking up a ragged red piece of cloak and tying it around his shoulders. With his bow in one hand and his jagged knife in the other he looked straight at the leader of the horde. “What you say now, Stripe!?”
Stripe stared back, his enormous wolf slowly approaching Kniff´s. Then, suddenly, the ears of both wolves flew up and voices sounded through the snow-, blood- and ash-covered street.
“You´re rather disappointing me, Borius.” This voice sounded very stuck up and snobbish, and contained a good portion of contempt.
“Marius, brother, you can´t expect me to be used to demons…” a nervous, but equally snobbish voice answered.
“You know Emperor Solarius sent you here to let you prove you´ve got a backbone beneath that blubber, don´t you?” the first voice mocked.
“He hasn´t,” a new voice rang out. This one was very different, defiant and impudent, and more importantly belonging to a woman. “It´s blubber all the way through.”
Lord Sayron seemed to snap out of some kind of trance and sprinted towards the voices as fast as he could. At the end of the street, three people were standing, but even as the Overlord and his horde approached they seemed to disappear downwards. As the first Minions arrived and looked down, it became clear the hill ended in a sheer cliff with a wooden lift attached to it – which the three had acutely used to get out of the horde´s reach.
Jinx inspected them, as they quickly crossed the square deep below to make sure the reds´ fireballs couldn´t reach them. One of the men was very fat, and as he looked round she could see his upper lip was curled in a permanent look of disgust. That had to be Borius, the appointed governor of Nordberg. The Empire´s weak effort to claim the city.
The second man was considerably skinnier and had a balding head. As Borius, he was dressed in a white toga lined with fur. That´d be Marius, Borius´ brother… Jinx knew that name. Marius was the Speaker for the Emperor – who never spoke in public – and the head of those horrible Sentinels. In one way or another, he stirred a deep disgust within her, but the reason seemed to slip her mind.
The third figure was a slender woman in a practical dress and thick fur coat. She had short, flaming red hair and because she furiously kept looking back while the men dragged her along, Jinx could make out her brilliant green eyes even from this distance.
Red hair. Green eyes. She looked up at Sayron. “Lord…”
He seemed frozen to the cliff´s edge. His glowing eyes seemed misted over. That confirmed Jinx´ hunch: that woman was no one less than Kelda, his only friend from the Nordberg days.
Even as she looked at him, the Overlord seemed to righten himself and he looked round, always searching for the next way. He pointed to the right. “That way,” he ordered with grim pleasure.
To their right lay a Nordbergian villa on top of the high hill. Here, Borius had spent his days as the town´s governor. In front of the villa lay a small square with, overlooking the rest of the city, a large marble statue of its inhabitant on six pillars. The statue was idealized, but still very, very heavy.
“Destroy that,” Sayron ordered. Immediately, the Minions jumped at it and started attacking the statue´s support. The Overlord himself also stepped in and started banging away at the slender pillars. It didn´t take long for the statue to collapse on the shattered square stones.
“Over the cliff with it,” the next order sounded. The Minions chuckled while pushing Borius´ image over the edge, where it shattered on the larger square with an enormous crash. From the empty air, there sounded suppressed laughter from Gnarl, back at the mist pool in the tower. “I like your style, Sire,” he remarked. “Nice move.”
“Thanks,” Sayron said. He stepped back across the square and started descending the hill. “Let´s go down and remove all traces of Empire from this town…”
As they left the square, Jinx noticed two little, frail old men who´d fearfully been hiding in a shadowy corner. “You think that´s imposing?” one of them asked in a quivery voice.
“Oh yes, very imposing,” the other answered. “I used to impose like that, you know, back in the day…”

Back at the exploded bridge, they took the right trail, leading along the city walls. It soon became clear there were quite a lot of archers around. For a while, they had to run along a wall too high for any of them to climb, until there finally was a wooden staircase up towards the platform where the archers were standing. There was, however, some bad news too. There was an enormous ballista at the ready to defend the stairs.
It was a large wooden structure, firing long arrows with fear-inducing speed, and it was one of the Empire´s most deadly weapons. It was demonstrated as a single arrow hissed through the air, impaling a red Minion and burying itself into a wall several meters away. The Minion hung there, steaming red blood pouring from his glowing chest. The wooden arrow burst into flames as he raised a hand, but a heartbeat later he was dead.
Sayron turned back to the reloading ballista. “We´re hijacking that thing,” he shouted. The Minions – and Jinx – screamed their agreement and stormed up the stairs, all the way being shot at by the individual archers, but gradually less by the ballista itself as the large war contraption had trouble firing close by. The red and brown Minions put their strengths together to dispatch the archers, and eventually only the ballista remained. There were sixteen Minions left in the horde and the ballista was unable to fire.
Sayron dragged one of the five men controlling the contraption from his seat and let him dangle on glowing eye level. “What now?” he asked with an invisible grin.
The man whimpered, clearly about to faint. Sayron brought his helmeted face even closer to his. “Boo,” he whispered. The soldier fainted.
Sayron threw him to the ground for the Minions to deal with, and dispatched the four others as well. The ballista was theirs.
“Minions, on it,” he commanded. Five Minions took the places of the soldiers; two for aiming and firing, two for reloading, one to hand new arrows from the storage. Sayron stepped onto the main platform and peered through the whirling snow. He suspected something. He knew this town. And yes: from here, he could see Marius, Borius and Kelda. The two men had taken the woman with them and were now hiding behind Nordberg´s last soldiers, at the back of the large square. Sayron´s gaze traveled along the city walls. Then, he grinned. Near to the group, on a watchtower, there was another marble statue of Borius. There were probably more, and he would destroy them all, but he had a special purpose for this one.
He gave the order to fire the ballista and the huge arrow impaled some soldiers to Borius´ left. The fat man fled to the right.
Sayron turned to the rest of his horde. “Go to the statue,” he said, gesturing to the marble abomination. “Wait for my command.” Then he turned back to the fleeing governor and continued driving him along the city walls to the spot he wanted him to be. The soldiers had scattered into all directions. They had no moral left whatsoever, circumstances being what they were.
Even while Jinx was watching, a blue flame seemed to be combusting where Marius stood, and he disappeared in a flash of light. She widened her eyes in surprise. From the empty air, Gnarl agreed with her: “Considering the Empire condemns magic, that looked awfully magical to me…”
Sayron didn´t answer him. He was completely focused on Borius. Eventually he raised his hand and the Minions stopped firing. The fat man stayed where he was, panting at a spot near the city wall, not very far from them…
“Now, lads,” Sayron´s booming voice rang out.

Governor Borius of Nordberg, shivering, terrified and exhausted, heard something scraping above his head. He slowly looked up. There, staggering on the edge of a watchtower, was a large, very heavy marble statue. It depicted himself, arms raised in blessing.
Borius threw up his arms in the same gesture and screamed.
It didn’t help him in any way.

Sayron, Jinx and the Minions left the ballista and casually picked their way to that fatal spot at the city walls. There, half buried beneath his own statue, lay Borius. He´d almost made it to safety, but his head lay crushed beneath one of the statue´s raised arms anyway. He lay in the exact same position as his marble reflection.
Sayron looked at the scene for a second, his axe laid over his shoulder in a relaxed manner. His eyes rippled. Then he burst out laughing. Jinx couldn´t contain herself any longer either and laughed with him, full of relief she´d survived it all, the throwback of the last days, and the pure genius of the situation.
Stripe and his wolf calmly stepped towards Kniff, who finally managed to reach backwards far enough to pull the arrow from his shoulder. The scarred Minion looked at his fellow combatant for a second. Kniff seemed to want to back away. Then, Stripe took off his golden, red-plumed helmet. “Was beautiful, Kniff,” he spoke in a rough voice. “Should have taken the helmet though.”
Kniff laughed exhaustedly and lowered his head. “Already have helmet,” he answered, plucking at his hat. Stripe slapped his good shoulder.
Across the square, a figure came running through the softly whirling snow. It was Kelda.
“Sayron? Is it really you?” She laughed. “You came back!”
“Kelda,” the Overlord spoke uncertainly.
“You departed rather quickly, thirteen years ago,” Kelda chuckled. “Are you taking me with you this time?”
“Yes,” Sayron answered. “Yes, I´m certainly taking you with me now.” His eyes rippled again as he grinned wider than he´d ever done before.
With those words, something huge clawed a way up through the cobblestones of the square. It unfolded itself like a black, spiky flower. A blue light drifted upwards.
“Grubby´s set up a Gate, Sire,” Gnarl´s voice sounded. “Return to the Netherworld and we´ll celebrate!”
Sayron and Kelda looked each other in the eyes. Kniff, on his wolf next to Stripe, turned to face Jinx. He grinned. “On to the Netherworld for gods, nation…”
“And apple pie,” Jinx grinned back.
And they left Nordberg behind them and stepped into the blue light, laughing.

The two little old men had carefully picked their way downhill, through the streets filled with debris until they´d reached Borius. In the meantime, doors were opening all over the city and people were carefully poking their heads out. The city was a mess, but the soldiers were gone… after thirteen years, they were free again…
“I was once crushed by a statue, you know, back in the day… not completely, of course…” one of the old men mused.
His companion thoughtfully examined their former governor and scratched his chin.
“You think we can steal his shoes?”

Chapter Text

The rest of the night passed in a haze. Jinx remembered Sayron, Kelda, the Minions and herself descending in the throne room with a flash of light, at the exact spot they´d departed from three days earlier – and she sure remembered the sudden gust of warmth.
Gnarl, the ancient Minion, immediately came hobbling towards them from his spot next to the throne, wiping away tears of evil joy. He clasped his wrinkled hands together and made a low bow. "Oh, well done, Sire! I rarely saw Masters manage this sort of thing this early!"
Next to Gnarl stood another brown Minion, sporting a fools’ hat and a glass eye. He turned out to be Quaver, the one who’d been about to receive Jinx’ entrails. He appeared to have a harp of his own by now however, stolen by Sayron from the same spot where he’d found the red Minions: an elven sanctuary beneath Nordberg’s icy hills. The Overlord had conquered it in the three days when Jinx and Kniff had been away.
"There was a boy from the Nordberg Town
Who sent the locals screaming,
But now the boy’s become a man,
He’ll start his evil scheming!" Quaver sang, dancing around the battle party with the rhythm of the harp and a drum. "Congratulations, Sire, I knew you had it in you."
Large quantities of elven wine had been looted from the sanctuary as well, so the Minions – appreciators of a bit of alcohol – were in the right mood in no time. Jinx, too, was cheerful very soon and she saw with surprise that Kelda was partying with them, dancing right in the middle of the throne room with her dress whirling about her. She also saw quite a lot of scars on the red-haired woman’s bare arms now she’d taken off her heavy coat, casually throwing it over the throne itself. Sayron didn’t seem to mind at all.
Later, approaching dawn, fifty brown Minions of average experience were sent to Nordberg to defend the city. It belonged to the Netherworld now, and Gnarl said that Sayron was to impose his influence on it. Sayron didn’t pay much attention. It was clear the Nordbergians were more than happy to be rid of Borius and his men, and to visit now and again would be enough influence if the Minions would be patrolling as well. Some Minions returned with large casks of mead, a traditional Nordbergian spirit; a clear sign of gratitude – or fear – from the villagers. It made the night a bit hazier, too.
From then on, Jinx didn’t remember much. As the sun started to rise in the outside world, she collapsed and knew nothing more, except for the amazing warmth and the slightly off-key tones of Quaver’s harp, while he sang, as from far away:
"Feisty Kelda’s come to join us,
She looks handy in a brawl,
I hope she won’t cut off my head
And mount it on the wall..."

She didn’t exactly know what woke her the next day. Maybe it was the soft creaking of wood, or the even softer rocking, or the faint sound of Minion voices close by. But one of those had been the cause, and Jinx was awake and looking about her to see where on earth she’d been sleeping.
She was lying on a blanket in some sort of small, round room with a low ceiling, a pointy roof by the look of it, and small glassless windows all around. The walls seemed to be made of a rough, brown, papery material. She lay curled around... She looked down and smiled. Kniff had curled himself in an even tighter ball than her and lay against her stomach. She saw his knife and the red shred hanging on the walls. He still wore his hat. She figured heavy equipment was needed to separate him from it.
Jinx recalled the amount of alcohol that´d flowed last night and stood as quietly as possible. Her own head ached, too.
She crept across the room on her toes. The ceiling was just high enough for her to stand straight. Across from her was a small door, which she opened.
She hadn´t expected the abyss to be that close.
In front of her feet lay a thin wooden board, maybe fit to support a light Minion, but for her the abyss might just as well remain uncrossed; glistening dark rock walls in the Netherworld´s halflight, stretching down into the gloom for miles... where a hint of red was visible, probably the heart of the planet itself...
Yes. She was, indeed, back in the Netherworld. And they´d taken her to the place where the Minions slept.
The soft creaking came from the wooden beams that´d been rammed into the rock, hung with many small round houses, each with its own link to solid ground. The brown Minions had an entire hanging city to live in when they weren´t raging on the battlefield!
She was still hesitating at the door of the swinging barrack when she heard soft humming. She knew that voice. And yes, on one of the walking boards Quaver approached, half dancing to the rhythm of his own song. As he saw her and came closer Jinx noticed one of the extensions of his fools´ hat was smouldering.
"Jinx!" he called out. "Greetings on this fine morning... or afternoon, that´s never certain in here. The red Minions have no appreciation of my company, so I came back here." For a Minion, his voice was surprisingly clear, and he spoke articulately in contrast to the others. Gnarl was the only other one capable of doing it. And to Jinx, the habit of turning everything into small rhymes didn´t seem characteristic for a Minion either. She smiled. "Hi, Quaver. Be quiet, I think we´re in for something when Kniff wakes up."
Quaver looked past her and inside. "Kniff, eh?" He winked with his good eye and crept around the curled Minion. Next to Kniff´s head he stood up straight.
"Kniff the Minion, loyal and strong," he started with his composing voice,
"was banish´d to Nordberg´s icy hills
But on wolfback he returned
And made a great many Empire kills!" He grabbed Kniff´s shoulder. "Kniff my friend, wake up, the world awaits you. The Netherworld, that is."
Kniff growled and turned. Then his glowing eyes blinked open and he turned back to look at Quaver. "Song? For me?"
"Yup," Quaver nodded.
Kniff punched the air and stood up. Jinx was again surprised by the toughness of Minions; he didn´t seem troubled by a hangover like she was. She chuckled. He seemed to take the poem well.
"Come along, fair lady," Quaver bowed, "I´ll show you the barracks now you have your eyes open."
Jinx blushed. She thought that the other Minions avoided and bullied Quaver – last night she´d caught the fact he, like Kniff, was sometimes kicked out of the Minion Gates – and she understood why. He really wasn´t like the rest.
The poet was already standing on the walking board. Jinx followed, but hesitated with one foot on the narrow bridge. Quaver looked back. "Have no fear, Jinx."
Behind her, Kniff pushed her on the board. "Is alright," he said. "You won´t fall, Jinxie."
Jinx looked at him for a second, then back to Quaver. She stepped onto the board. It wobbled and bent slightly, and she breathed in sharply, but the wood held her weight. She quickly but very carefully walked over the other side. She was grateful for the fact their barrack was built so close to the cliff face. There were others hanging lower, with rickety stairs leading to the edge. As she foolishly cast a glance downwards she saw countless brown Minions scurrying about, tiny as insects…
Some eternal seconds balancing above certain death later she reached the other side and sank to the dark, gleaming rock, trembling. "Can´t they make that thing broader or something?" she muttered, her head low and her hair hanging before her eyes. Kniff stood next to her. "Can´t, all wood goes to scaffolding in the Tower. Is being built. Private quarters being decorated and polished for Mistress Kelda…"
Jinx righted herself. "Kelda! That´s true…" A woman had entered the game, and not just any woman. She wanted to meet as soon as possible with this Nordbergian lady, once Sayron´s only friend, then governor Borius´ slave and now a Tower Lady…
…but right now, something else was claiming her attention.
It was mainly made of fire. There, maybe a hundred meters away from her across the sloping black rock, gigantic lava flows gushed down into a river of molten rock. But that wasn´t nearly all. There was something crowning the sloping terrain, on a base of glowing stone, shaped like a huge beehive. It was black, but a fiery red glow flowed from several openings. It was strangely organic. Jinx, Kniff and Quaver walked towards it, the poet staying his distance eventually. The reason soon became apparent as countless glowing specks emerged from the overall haze of light. This was where the red Minions lived. Above the river of lava hung many stalactites, ablaze with red lights. They lived inside the rock…
"Our fiery friends are back with us
When will the fairies learn?
In fighting reds you´ll end up dead
And something´s gonna burn!" Quaver called behind them. He laughed as the reds lobbed fireballs at him and then quickly ran off.
Kniff greeted many of the reds. Jinx heard that these Minions had been away for a long time, since the fall of the previous Overlord. They´d gone into the world on their own, but had been tricked by fairies and trapped inside the elven sanctuary. They hadn´t been able to leave it until Sayron had found them. Some of the reds had seen the previous Lord, Vessperion, but most of them had come into this world after his fall. Jinx wondered how, for she hadn´t seen a single female Minion. Then she recalled what Kniff had told her, the night he´d fought the gnomes: Minions were born from life force. And then a red addressed her.
"Welcome to Red Hive, Jinx!" a voice sounded from above her head. It was higher-pitched than Kniff´s, and slightly hoarse. As Jinx looked up, she saw a small red Minion, hanging from a thin stalactite. His skin was the colour of blood, except where his inner fire shone through. The red´s skin was at its thinnest on his stomach, because there was only white-hot light to be seen, as was the case with this particular Minion. The inside of his arms was glowing as well, and the skin on his back was partly see-though with dark stripes to signal his ribs. His eyes were glittering like sparks. The Minion wore only a loincloth with his pointy tail sticking out, a tail with considerable strength, for it was with his tail he was hanging from the stalactite.
"Hi," Jinx said, her eyes screwed tightly against the fierce glow the Minion was emanating. "The Hive? What´s that? That thing over there?" She nodded at the black object on the stone base.
The Minion nodded. "All reds born from it, when there´s enough life force." He gave a flick of his tail and pushed away from the stalactite with his clawed feet. He made a somersault and dived into the lava river. A second later he launched himself out again and landed next to Kniff in an explosion of liquid fire.
The brown Minion backed away. "Cut it out, Parch! Still healing from fireworks, idiot!" But as he took his hands away from his face he was grinning.
"Don´t fear fire, Kniff!" Parch laughed. "Won´t kill you…"
"Fire´s almost worse than water," Kniff shivered. "Haven´t got light in my veins like you."
"You´re agile," Jinx remarked as they walked on. "I can learn from you," she added with a glance back to the browns´ cliff.
Parch looked up to her and then back to the lava flow. He shrugged, emanating a flash of fire as the inside of his arms became visible. "Is easy." Then he dived down, back into the lava. Jinx bent over and gasped for breath as the heat smacked her in the face. Her eyes felt as if they were shriveling up like raisins in their sockets. Directly below her lay the river of fire, and she had to look hard before she saw Parch´s little head with the curling horns sticking up.
Kniff had backed away. As Jinx looked at him, his expression was one of worry. "Fire isn´t good, Jinxie. Come on…"
"Not yet," Jinx said. She turned back to the river, fascinated despite herself. Parch was swimming like a fish, with powerful strokes of this clawed hands and feet – even if the reds hated swimming through water as much as the browns. With them, it clearly wasn´t the drowning, but the extinguishing…
As she watched, Parch jumped straight up, in a fountain of glowing droplets, and grabbed a protruding spike of rock above the river with his feet. From there he seemed to run along the vertical wall – grasping with his hands, feet and tail. He looked back briefly, and his glittering eyes flashed. Then he was gone in a curve of the river.
Jinx turned back to Kniff. Her eyes were streaming with the heat, but she felt like they were gleaming as well. Parch and his acrobatic antics did have something.

Some time later, her eyes weren´t gleaming that bright anymore, because she was told she, Kniff and some other Minions had been tasked with cleaning the throne room. When they stepped off the floating rock she could see why. The entire hall was up in scaffolding and everywhere along the high walls, Minions were busy hacking, polishing and decorating. The entire floor was covered in dust and debris. So brooms were gathered from the lower levels of the Tower and the sweeping could begin.
It wasn´t such hard work. The trick was gathering as much dust as possible and sweeping it all at once to the exit of the hall, where it could be thrown over the edge into the abyss. Mainly the Minions put their backs into it and soon the floor was almost clean. Most of the Minions had left the hall already.
During the sweeping, Gnarl had been fixating Jinx with some truly piercing looks from his spot next to the throne. She´d remembered Kniff might have been accepted back by Sayron and the horde, but nothing had been said about her. On the other hand, she wasn´t dead yet, so there was a chance Sayron had hired her back after all.
The Overlord hadn´t shown himself yet. Jinx assumed he was still up in the private quarters, probably with Kelda. She grinned and stopped sweeping for a moment. Right then, heavy metal footsteps sounded from above the throne, were the entrance to the private quarters was situated. Lord Sayron was coming down.
Gnarl turned towards his Master as he approached the throne. "Lord," he bowed. "It´s good to see you again. There are matters requiring your attention in Nordberg."
Sayron lowered himself onto the throne and laid a hand around the grip of his axe, which had been resting against it. "Bring it on."
"Let him in!" the elder Minion called out. The slowly revolving crown of spikes on the ceiling opened and a tiny figure floated down into the blue light. "This one´s got information for you, Sire," Gnarl muttered to the Overlord. "I thought it would be wise to not kill him on sight." With those words, his yellow eyes flashed in Jinx´ direction, still busy sweeping a corner of the hall. Jinx caught his gaze and Gnarl´s eyes narrowed. She quickly turned away and continued sweeping furiously.
The Nordbergian man completed his descent and landed on the throne room floor. He nearly collapsed onto his knees, shaking as if he was standing in front of the devil himself. After the events of the previous night in his city, that wasn´t strange nor far from the truth.
"Begging you pardon, Dark Lord," he trembled, "but there are some troublemakers in Nordberg…"
Sayron rose on the throne. His eyes seemed to ignite. "Rebels? What, with the Minions that have been sent?"
The man shrunk visibly. "Yes, my Lord. They´ve stolen food supplies and are planning to sail out of Nordhaven in one of our… I mean your ships."
Gnarl bent over to Sayron. Jinx strained her ears to make out his voice. "This is useful, Sire. That ship´s our ticket out of Nordberg."
"Out of Nordberg?" Sayron muttered with one eye on the Nordbergian. The man was standing up slightly taller now, clearly with the growing hope this was going the right way for him.
"Yes, Sire. We have to find the missing Minion clans before we´re able to deal with the Empire. I have well-grounded suspicions the green Minions are hiding out on an island far offshore."
The Overlord´s eyes started glowing slightly brighter. He turned back to his visitor. "Thank you for this information."
The Nordbergian nearly fainted with relief. A broad grin spread across his face. "You´re welcome, Lord!" Then, with the adrenalin making his tongue slightly too loose: "You wouldn´t be able to lend me Mistress Kelda, would you? The nights in Nordberg are very cold and lonely, you know…"
This time, Sayron´s eyes shot from orange to a bloody red. He rose from the throne. The Nordbergian realized what his flapping mouth had made him say and his grin melted away. "No! No, I didn´t mean that! Lord, forgive me!"
Sayron didn´t answer, but gave a flick of his arm. The jewel in his gauntlet traced a fiery trail through the air and the floor beneath the Nordbergian´s feet opened. The man fell screaming through the lower regions and on to the heart of the planet.
Jinx grinned and swept on. She heard Gnarl chuckling. "He asked for that. But it seems wise to me to intercept that ship as fast as possible, Sire. If only because it´s your property and those thieves´ll have to learn who´s boss in Nordberg now.."
"I´m going immediately, Gnarl, be sure of that," she heard Sayron say. Heavy metal footsteps moved to the heart of the hall, where the floor had closed by now.
Jinx knew what was coming and didn´t turn to look. She was right; the bright blue light filled the entire hall, not a moment later.
She swept the last of the dust and debris along the walls of the throne room to the precipice outside and leant on her tool there. So there were new lands to be discovered. She cast a glance over her shoulder into the hall and then nonchalantly walked back. In the middle of it, the mist pool had reappeared and she could see Sayron arriving in the snowy city where they´d departed the previous night, at the Tower Gate in the square. He called the Minions from their gates. Jinx recognized Stripe, and Rasp… and then a small Minion wearing a tuque hat tumbled from the golden light.
Kniff was in.
Well, then so was she.
She looked up to the revolving black crown. She´d be needing magic to trigger the thing. She glanced at Gnarl; he had all his attention at the mist pool, but she still hid behind a pillar before stretching out a hand and thinking of how it felt to touch life force.
It was surprisingly easy.

Gnarl, Master of Minions and advisor to countless Overlords, jolted and looked up from the pool as he heard the crack of lightning. He saw a single blue bolt disattach itself from the light of the portal above him and dart to a dark corner on the left side of the hall. For the briefest moment, the corner lit up and he could see the silhouette of a girl in seal fur with a raised arm…
Then the lightning struck and she was gone. A broom was still left clattering to the floor.
In the mist pool, Jinx staggered out of the Tower Gate and after Sayron.

Despite her better clothing and the fact she now knew where she was heading, the cold still resembled a blow with a sledgehammer to Jinx. A shiver ran through her entire body and she closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she could take in her environment better.
Sayron and the Minions were nowhere to be seen, but their tracks were fresh in the snow. So she ignored the startled Nordbergians, who´d thought the unexplainable events from the Tower Gate had ceased already, and followed the tracks, across the square, to the outskirts of the city and beyond, back into the snowy wilderness. It felt strange to be back, so soon after last time, and above all, alone…
Then suddenly the wind changed direction and she realized these hills weren´t the same as last time. This wind had a salty smell to it. Jinx had never seen the ocean in her life, but she was pretty sure she was close now.
She continued following the tracks until she stood on top of one of the last hills, looking out over an enormous mass of ice. After a few seconds she recognized it as a river, frozen solid. The tracks were leading her downhill and downstream along the river. She followed them, until she had a steep grey rock face to her left.
She strained her ears and recognized the clash of weapons and rough screaming. She grinned; she was heading the right way.
Some sweeping curves in the path later, the rock face allowed the path to broaden and Jinx looked upon a chaotic scene. She recognized Sayron – he was high above everything else. Some more staring, and she could make out individual Minions. They were at battle with a group of robust seal hunters. It didn´t look like they needed help, because the hunters were mostly on fire or already dying. The horde was too far for her to reach in time, too. Still she sprinted to catch up with them.
As she´d predicted they fought too fast and as she reached them, Sayron was already wiping his axe on the furs of the last killed hunter. Jinx ran on for a bit, but the Overlord chose that moment to turn around and step in her direction, resulting in the two colliding.
She backed away and tried her best to make herself smaller. She looked up and saw his eyes, as from immense height, staring back at her like glowing embers from within the darkness of his helmet. At that moment, he was truly fearsome.
From behind his back, on the height of his waist, two glowing yellow eyes beneath a tuque hat appeared. Kniff seemed very worried, but Jinx knew he wouldn´t help her this time. She tried even harder to shrink away. "Lord…"
"Gnarl told me you were coming, slave." His voice was like the blow of a whip. Jinx knew he´d have spoken to the uncouth Nordbergian like that, if he´d chosen to waste words on him. "You´re disobedient, girl…"
"You didn´t give me an order to stay behind," she flapped out. Sayron´s eyes widened slightly. He wanted to reply, but Jinx was too fast for him. "I helped you at the Nordberg siege, I have just as much right to be here as Stripe, Rasp or Gloob… or Kniff."
"You´re rambling, wench," Gnarl snapped from the empty air. "Head back to the Netherworld and we´ll see which one of your limbs stays attached to your body."
"No," Jinx stubbornly maintained, surprising even herself. "None of you can make me. I´ll fight for you like a Minion."
Sayron growled and laid his axe over his shoulder. "Don´t talk nonsense. You´re not a Minion. I can´t just…"
At that moment, another voice sliced through the air; a cool, impudent voice. "Let her stay if she wants to. Don´t deny her the pleasure of hunting."
"Kelda?"
"Don´t be an idiot, Sayron. She fought well yesterday, and she´s still awake to do it again." Gnarl made a short sound, but Kelda must have elbowed him away from the mist pool, because she went on without being interrupted. "You can use all the help you can get. Or is it because she´s a woman? In that case you can just tell me, you know." With these words, her voice sounded as innocent as a purring cat – for a given value of sabretooth tiger.
Sayron remained silent. His eyes had cooled to an uneasy yellow. The yellow eyes behind his back narrowed with silent joy.
The Overlord didn´t hold Jinx back in any way as she walked around him and took her place in the horde next to Kniff.

Kelda nodded, satisfied, and exchanged glances with Gnarl. The elder Minion didn´t dare to use his witty remarks against her.
The ginger-haired woman turned away from the pool and returned to the private quarters, humming. She still had to free some spots for her hunting trophies.
Back at the pool, Gnarl sighed wearily. A moment later however, he shrugged and his ears rose again; there was profit to be made everywhere and maybe he could even work with this girl – however it would be difficult to get a solid grip on her…

Her spot in the horde was at the back, as was Kniff´s. A lot of the Minions had much better weapons and armour than them, especially Stripe who was at the front with Sayron.
Luckily, she´d been able to get to know many of the horde Minions last night, and now she knew names and faces: sturdy Gloob with the ragged ears and bone mace, nervous Nails with his long spear, skeptical Rasp, surprisingly rational for a Minion. The horde welcomed her quite warmly, but Kniff tapped her on the shoulder as they went on along the river.
"Back in Netherworld, you´ll have to fight," he warned. "You´re part of the horde now but your spot not clear."
Jinx looked at him. Something strange was gleaming in his yellow eyes. "You didn´t have to fight them," she remarked.
"They know my spot," he answered. "You have to show how strong you are, so first fight weak Minions, Jinxie…"
Her eyes widened as she understood what he meant. She and Kniff were both at the back of the horde. He was the weakest of the battle Minions at the moment. She´d have to fight him first. "Oh, Kniff…"
"He´s here!" a voice rang out in the freezing air. Jinx jolted and looked up. A small group of men was running away from them. "Let´s get out of here!" she could make out.
"They´re the ship thieves!" Jinx shouted. "After them!"
It wasn´t nessecary that she said it. Sayron quickened his pace to intercept the men, and the Minions also hurried forward, faster than their Master could. Jinx also knew what was expected of her. Maybe, if she proved herself, she didn´t have to fight her friend…
The Nordbergians were fast, however, and none of the horde members managed to make their head start any smaller. Further bad luck included the fact that, in a curve in the rock face, some wooden platforms were attached, a group of seal hunters standing on them. Jinx stopped running just in time and dragged Nails away, just at the moment a huge spear came sailing through the air and buried itself in the frozen ground, inches from their feet. The Minion stared at it for a moment, tense like a bowstring and with his own spear gripped tightly in his claw, while they backed away together. Jinx patted his shoulder. "Careful, Nails. Look first, barge in later, okay?" She looked up to the hunters. They seemed to have some kind of deal with the ship thieves. This was going to be tricky – the hunters knew every corner of this land.
Sayron caught up with them. Jinx looked back and grinned. The Overlord had raised a hand and his entire arm was crackling with blue lightning.
"Any last words?" he shouted up to them. The hunters growled from behind their protective masks, which let only their dark eyes and rough eyebrows remain visible. The lightning flashed, but stayed at the Overlord´s arm. "Speak up! Or die!"
"The proud people of Kiret will never bow to you, demon from the bowels of the earth," one of the hunters called back with a heavy accent. "We will stop you! If you kill us there are so many others!"
Sayron let loose his lightning. As it hit the hunters, they jolted, their eyes lit up as the deadly energy burst out of them, and they slumped forwards, dead like bricks. Sayron lowered his arm and walked on. "So much for you," he muttered.
Then, the trees next to the river started thinning and the Overlord stopped walking. Jinx came next to him and saw why.
"That´s got to be the ship," Gnarl spoke thoughtfully as he let his gaze wander across the river, through the eyes of his Master. Indeed, on the other side of the broad stream lay a wooden ship with a single mast, large white sails, an ivory-imbued bow and eight strong oars. Also, there was so much food on board that it wasn´t merely stacked in the hold, but tied on top of the deck, too. It seemed seaworthy. Still, there was one small downside, and Gnarl didn´t hesitate to attend them to the obvious. "Pity it´s frozen in the ice."
Sayron stood and looked for a moment. "That can never be thick," he said with a glance upstream. There, the ice was cracked, and even further up the river the water was even flowing, though it swept along ice flows. "I won´t be able to stand on it, and even if the Minions can, the ship can´t sail…"
"…So we need to get to the other side," Gnarl concluded cheerfully.
"Yeah, and melt the entire river while we´re at it," Jinx snapped. Sayron gave her a stern look. She shrugged. "It´s not like we can sail away like this…"
"We´ll see when we get there," Gnarl parried. "There´s a rock bridge over the river, so we´ll get to the ship either way. If we have to we´ll get dynamite from the quarry and blow the ice away with that."
"Ah," Jinx muttered. "That´s another way, yep."
"Subtlety is a waste of time, girl," the elder Minion spoke, amused. "World domination won´t just come to you."
"I´ve noticed, dammit," Jinx swore as she saw a new group of hunters stepping onto the trail ahead to block their way. These had mean-looking spiked maces, next to the spears. She looked at Gloob; it was clear where he´d got his mace.
The Minion tightened his grip on the weapon and ran forward with a battle cry, as did the rest of his horde. Jinx followed as part of the horde.
Fighting the seal hunters turned out to be harder than fighting Empire soldiers, and not just because they didn´t have the help of the wolves this time. The hunters were bigger and more powerfully built than the soldiers, and most of all used to the Nordberg lifestyle. Jinx knew many of the soldiers´d been sick, not having anything near the right equipment.
All that didn´t mean it didn´t shock her when suddenly, in the middle of a jab with her dagger, a spear was stuck deep in her left arm. On the contrary, she gasped for breath with pain. Shockingly red blood streamed across her white furs, and all she could do was stare. She gave a short scream as something pulled the spear from her arm and stabbed her attacker in the chest with it. It was Stripe. The large Minion turned around and jammed the spear in the snow before her feet, but she didn´t pick it up. She clutched the wound with her good hand and staggered backwards a few paces while the horde raged before her eyes.
A few heartbeats later it was over. The hunter who´d attacked her had done so blindly, because five Minions had been on his back by then, hacking and stabbing. Few Minions were wounded and none were killed, and Jinx´ wound wasn´t life-threatening either, but still the girl was swaying on her feet.
Sayron came standing next to her and gripped her good shoulder. "This is exactly what I mean. You´re not a Minion."
She looked up at him, while the blood was still streaming between her fingers and she started to feel lightheaded. However, the pain kept her head clear to some extent. "Let go of me. I…" She made a grasping motion towards the bloodied spear still sticking out of the ground, a few meters away. Sayron didn´t let go, and it was a good thing.
"You don´t heal as quickly as they do. You´re not as tough as them. I believe you´re brave, but you´re fragile. You´re not cut out for the battlefield."
Kniff came to her, tearing at his shred of cloak. He tore off a piece and tied it tightly around her arm. Jinx clenched her teeth as the pain got worse, but then she started losing much of the feeling in her arm and the bleeding lessened. The cold helped, too. She gratefully nodded to her friend and shook off Sayron´s hand.
Stripe looked at her with an unfathomable expression on his face while she staggered towards the spear and pulled it from the snow. Then she turned, a shaky smile on her lips. "Guys, we can move forward."
Sayron took a step in her direction. "What did I just tell you…"
"No, we can move forward," Jinx interrupted. "To the ship. Smell that air."
Despite himself, the Overlord did so. There was a strange smell indeed – sharp and unpleasant. "Is that…"
"Tar," Jinx grinned. She exchanged glances with one of the reds, one with large, ridged horns whom she knew was the leader of his clan at the moment. "And Hoarse… that´s very flammable."

After the next row of trees, Jinx was proven right. Their path lead them along a large depression in the landscape, next to the river and filled to the brim with gleaming black tar. That happened often in Nordberg. It was in the ground, and in some places it spontaneously came up. Jinx had heard of remains of prehistoric animals being found in it, and scientists had much interest in these pits, but this specific pit wouldn´t be examined. This specific pit would be set aflame. With a little luck, the heat would be sufficient to melt this part of the river, and if there were more close by… Who knew, maybe there even was enough tar to clear the way for the ship.
Gnarl sighed with glee. "This might just be better than dynamite. This is great. Sire, I have to confess I can barely wait until you let loose your reds."
Sayron chuckled. "Alright then. Back off, everyone who isn´t fireproof."
The browns and Jinx stepped back, together with Sayron himself. The group of reds however stayed where they were and even approached the edge of the pit. They raised their arms and started forming fireballs.
One spark turned out to be all that was needed to transform the entire landscape in front of them into a screaming sea of fire. Jinx shielded her eyes and stepped back so fast she nearly tripped as the heat engulfed her. It felt like being back in the Netherworld, at the edge of the lava flow – she felt the skin on her face grow dry.
The fire raged like a hundred demons, its roars and shrieks resembling a hurricane. The trees along the trail caught fire and split open with deafening cracks as their frozen sap thawed too quickly. Splinters of wood flew all around them like projectiles.
Then the hissing started. Jinx looked to her right, to the river. As she watched, the hisses changed to bangs, and large cracks flew across the white surface. Loose ice flows started swaying as the ice lost its grip. The cracks slowed soon, however, and they didn´t reach the ship nor the rest of the river. This method worked, but they´d need a couple more pits before they´d be able to leave Nordberg…
Sayron and the horde hurried along the trail and further into the hills, their arms raised to protect themselves against the heat. The hot, rising air pursued them for some time, but eventually they outran it and were able to turn around. A gigantic column of black smoke was rising to the ashen white sky. The effect was quite something.
"Very well then," Sayron panted while the smoke started to catch up with them. "Find us another couple of tar pits, girl."

Their trail gradually took them in the direction of the natural bridge Gnarl had spotted, and none of them could sense any tar at their side of the river, so they followed the rock formation to the other side. They´d achieved one of their goals – they´d reached the shore where the ship was docked. They hadn´t confronted any hunters, but as they descended the snow-covered rocks it became apparent why. A wall of spears was waiting for them, a small village not far behind them.
Right in the middle of the hunters´ village stood a large totem, draped in wolf skins with the heads still on them. The mood in the horde swung round like a leaf in the wind.
"Not just helpers of ship thieves…"
"…but also murderers of wolfies!"
"Only path is through village," grinned Stripe. "Follow!" He raised his sword above his head and ran at the hunters.
Jinx hesitated. She couldn´t use her arm – it was stiff with pain and cold – and she didn´t want to get wounded again. She hated not being able to join them, but…
She sniffed. She smelled tar…
"Lord Sayron," she began, but the Overlord was looking about him as well, searching for another pit filled with the sticky black substance. He gestured. "In the village."
"That´s possible, they use it to make their boats –"
"Airtight, yes." Sayron strode to the entrance to the village – the hunters were reduced to loose limbs and puddles of blood – and looked about him, always ready for an ambush. But it seemed the hunters had run out, or they´d pulled back.
Behind the huts and igloos was a tar pit indeed, but it was way too far from the river to be of use. Luckily, there was something else as well. Behind the village, a deep channel lead away from the pit. The pit itself was locked with strong wooden hatches, and it was clear the tar´d been moved closer to the village. As they followed the channel, it was revealed to emerge in another, empty pit close to the river.
"Marvelous," Sayron said. He looked at his horde. "Go and lift the hatch so the tar can flow back."
Ten or so Minions hurried back to the tar pit. Sayron looked at them for a moment, then turned back to the empty pit.
Some minutes later, the tar flowed back where it had come from, thick and gloopy. And one magical spark later Sayron and the horde were hurrying away from a second inferno. Downstream, the river had been melted as well. Ice flows broke off and began their descent to the lower and deeper parts of the river, where the salt of the sea also merged in. The water around the ship was the only still frozen and stubbornly clinging to the shore. Their way was clear…

Hoarse, leader of the red Minions, felt his skin tingle with all the fire in the air. The sky behind them was darkened by smoke. This icy land where his clan´d been trapped for so long was getting more enjoyable by the minute, thanks to the Master.
Not only in the air, but also underground he could feel all sorts of things burning. The tar was flaming beneath the snow as well, and the white blanket was melting in many spots already. On his left hand, the ice flows cracked and wailed as they scraped along eachother, melting and dissolving in the warming water.
Hoarse chuckled. His voice had a sizzling undertone, like a muted inferno. His inner fire flashed for a moment and shone right through the skin on his stomach and arms. Yes, he could appreciate this.
Red Minions normally were a bit nervous. They weren´t as tough as the browns. Once wounded, they didn´t heal as quickly, they were less sturdy and their claws weren´t made to hold weapons. The arcane fire was the only weapon they needed.
But now it was the brown clan that was nervous. They feared fire as much as they feared water. It was his clan, the reds, who held the advantage in this land where fire sizzled through the air and flames flowed through the soil.
The black-haired girl seemed nervous, too. Hoarse recalled her name – Jinx. He didn´t quite know what to make of her. She´d fought well the previous night and the Master had accepted her, but he felt fear in her heart. There was something else too, though. There was magic within her, slumbering and hidden, but clearly present. And it seemed like one of the browns had gone to some extent to save her life, instead of leaving her behind or killing her. Not a human like the others. The normal type of human – or elf, or dwarf – was fit only to set alight and cherish the flames. Jinx was different.
Despite himself, he was disappointed as she backed away from a collumn of flame suddenly shooting out of the ground to her right, even as half a dozen browns did the same. He caught himself thinking: One day, she’ll walk on…
Then he continued searching for traces of tar.
And found them, just before Jinx smelled them.

Birr determinedly gripped his spear and planted his feet apart on the platform behind the town wall. He glanced backwards briefly, at the village of Nordhaven – his village. His, and his kin´s. No crazy dark ruler should dare get the idea of conquering it in his bony head, even if he´d succeeded with Nordberg!
"How are those explosives coming along?" he called to the men at the river. The part of the river where the ship was docked was unreachable if you were outside the walls – made of huge pointed tree trunks.
"Not so well," one of them called back. "They´re soaked. That damned idiot Kivner! Leaving them in the snow, the entire night!"
Birr growled. He´d get his hands on Kivner. If he´d be able to find him, that was. The ginger-haired man – the local fool, quite frankly – was nowhere to be seen.
But they´d succeed! They would break the ice and sail the ship down the river and to Everlight! The elves there were at least as strong as that armoured lunatic, they´d offer help before it´d be too late…
Even if it seemed like even the strongest seal hunters of the Kiret tribe had failed to protect Nordhaven and their own villages…
Birr breathed in deeply. He noticed the cold didn´t bite as deep into his lungs as usual. He knew for certain it´d got something to do with those two enormous plumes of acrid smoke along the river, and the creaking, melting ice. The Overlord was approaching. But before he got to them, they´d be on their way… or would they?
The tropical island of Everlight hadn´t ever seemed this far away.
"May the gods curse your wicked soul, Overlord!" he growled. "May the demons drag you to the abyss!"
His family´d lived in Nordberg. Until last night. They´d burned alive on the rooftops.
"And may they take Kivner with them!" he shouted. "Where is that halfwit?!"
Then, suddenly, something black appeared between the trees next to the river. It seemed to float at first, but then Birr saw it was a black-haired girl, clad in seal furs which fell away against the snow. She was carrying a bloodied spear in her right hand. Her left shoulder was covered in blood as well, so much in fact it made the cloth tied around her arm seem as red as the cloak of an Empire centurion.
The girl staggered towards Nordhaven´s gate and looked up. She was pale and her expression was one of pain and exhaustion. Birr instantly felt sorry for her.
"Permission to enter, please," she called up to him. Her grey eyes pierced his with intense pleading.
Maybe she´d come across the Overlord and his dogs… maybe she had information?
In any case, she was wounded. Nordhaven was careful, but not overly so… he couldn´t leave her out until the demons came…
Birr exchanged glances with the men at the gate. They shrugged. He nodded at them.
"Thank you, merciful lord," it sounded from outside the walls.
But instead of grateful, the girl sounded like she had a chuckle. Birr looked back at her – and froze. There, too fast to be able to still keep them out, countless brown and red creatures were running from between the trees. And there – was it a shadow? – something huge…
The Overlord!
"Close the gates!" Birr hollered. "Close – umph."
He looked down. There was a spear sticking out of his chest, just like that, flung his way by one of the brown demons.
Below him, Jinx casually strolled towards the open gate, using her own bloody weapon as a casual crutch.

Kelda descended the stairs, still humming, and with one nonchalant eye fixating the mist pool. She bent over Gnarl´s stooped shoulder.
"Told you she´d be useful."
Gnarl harrumphed, but quietly admitted to himself it was true.

Kniff chuckled and hopped over the half-lowered gate of Nordhaven. "Nice throw, Jinxie!"
Behind him, the rest of the horde streamed into the village, followed by the huge armoured form of Lord Sayron. Hoarse, the largest red Minion, went at the head of his clan while lobbing fireballs at everything that moved. "Tar!" his voice sizzled. "Smell much tar…"
It was true; the sharp smell filled the air. There was an enormous tar reservoir close by.
"Find it!" Sayron roared after them. "Set it aflame and free the river!"
At that moment, while the Minions spread across the small streets and the screaming, terrified people of Nordhaven, a ginger-haired man ran straight towards Sayron and knelt down. Then he looked up. To the great surprise of the Overlord, he was smiling.
"Sorry for the fuss, Sire," he said with a nod at the hysterical mob. "People around here are a little allergic to death. Perhaps with a little persuasion they can help you with that river?" He stuck out a hand. Sayron looked down and saw the man was holding a large stick of dynamite. He could see more in his belt. "With these, we´ll have broken the ice in no time. My name´s Kivner, at your service, Lord," he added.
Sayron stared at him for a moment, his gaze travelling from the dynamite to the open, smiling face and back. "Gnarl," he muttered from the corner of his mouth.
"Clear case of worship, Master," his advisor informed him. "And entirely without a domination spell! This one here will do everything you ask of him, but you won´t defeat the river with one bomber. Brainwash some others if you´re going with this method. But," Gnarl chuckled, "I think Hoarse and the other reds won´t be happy if you do…"
Sayron grinned darkly within the security of his helmet. "I feel where you´re headed." He walked on and left Kivner behind. The ginger man remained sitting kneeling in the snow for a moment, but then stood up and looked after the Overlord. "I´ll take that as a yes," he said to himself and hurried to the ship with his explosives.

The inhabitants of Nordhaven were putting up little to no resistance. It was more a case of getting past them. For the Minions, that wasn´t too difficult – they were small enough to slip between the running legs – but Jinx was having more trouble. Also because some were mistaking her for something she wasn´t, and trying to drag her along to the relative safety of their homes. She had had to free herself twice already – and it might or might not have been in a violent and pointed fashion – but now a sturdy woman had grabbed her wounded arm and the grip of that giant fist had been developed by years of Nordberg´s tough life. Jinx tried to free herself with all her strength, but the pain and the confusion around her made she couldn´t do much more than be dragged along backwards.
She could see some Minions, behind her. They were sprinting between the people, whacking and stabbing, and in the reds´ case throwing fire at the houses, the people and the sky itself.
She buried her heels into the ground.
"Child, I understand you´re afraid, but why are you making it so difficult?" the woman shouted at her. "Come with me! Out here –" She faltered and screamed as the Minions caught up with them and one of the browns jumped on her back. A rusty dagger flashed across her flabby throat, a gurgling sound escaped her and Jinx was free. She sighed with relief and rubbed her painful arm. "Rasp!" she laughed. "Thank you."
Rasp saluted her and then ran on. Jinx turned and looked to see where he was going.
The running mob thinned. Now she could see what was waiting for them.
"Ah, dammit."
Again those seal hunters – an entire flock of them, strenghtened by the strongest men from the village. They really seemed to have some sort of agreement with Nordhaven to keep Sayron out. It also was a sign they were headed the right way. The men had a reason to protect the tar pit, for when that one caught fire…
The first Minions had flung themselves onto the men already, but there were too few of them. The horde had spread through the village too much in search of the tar pit. This way, Rasp and the others didn´t stand a chance.
But, as she looked harder, she did see a shred of a gleaming black surface between the gathered men.
Jinx turned around and ran away.
"Lord Sayron…!"

The Overlord in question was having a bit more trouble than Jinx. The people might be terrified of him, but it was still quite difficult for him to find a way through the streets of Nordhaven. He now wished he´d listened to Kivner – he hadn´t had to enter the village at all if he´d just chosen for the dynamite. But then again, one had to be willing to put some effort into it to go into history as the one to commit the darkest deeds, wasn´t it? World domination wouldn´t just come to you, and he didn´t want to be remembered as the one using the villagers to free the ship – the one taking the easy, gentle path.
On the one hand, he wished he´d listened to Kivner. But on the other, he thought while hacking himself a bloody way through the streets, he really felt in the mood to see Nordhaven burn like no city had ever burned before.
A voice rang out above the general screaming. It was a familiar one.
"Lord Sayron!" Jinx shot out from behind a corner, tripped, regained her balance and looked up at him, panting. "We´ve found the tar pit. But it´s being defended by hunters. We´ve got to have the horde together, and you´re needed, too."
Sayron looked at her for a moment and then raised his red-hot gaze over her head. He could hear the ring of the weapons already, a couple of streets away.
"Minions!" his voice rang out, so loud it was clearly audible above every other noise. "To me! NOW!!"

Kivner lit his sixth stick of dynamite, lobbed it at the solid mass of ice surrounding the ship and covered his ears. Razor-sharp shards flew up as the explosive went off. The ice showed quite a lot of damage and cracks, but it was too thick and hard to break through it properly. If only he had help. But those fools in that village of his just didn´t realize how wise it´d be to aid the Overlord.
Kivner snorted. As if it was so smart to run around like beheaded chickens. And, strangest of all, in the end they´d beg for their lives anyway! After they´d resisted as long as they could! What was logical about that? No, if it was up to him, he wouldn´t obey the rulers of Nordhaven nor those of the Empire. He obeyed… no, he belonged to Lord Sayron.
And Lord Sayron would let him live for that. And he, Kivner, would make sure others would think his way, the survivors of Nordhaven, those of Nordberg and further…

Jinx followed the Overlord as he stomped through the streets towards the tar pit. Along the way, more and more Minions joined them. Stripe was one of the first, mainly because he never took the trouble to go around people but just went through them. Gloob and Scabies made some commotion by running over the heads of the crowd towards their Master, wobbly but surprisingly fast thanks to their three-toed, clawed feet. Smoky and Blister, two reds, jumped off the rooftops where they’d relived the great memory of the previous night – every single straw-decked roof of that street was ablaze.
After some time, the only ones still missing were the members of the party already in battle – among which were Rasp, Hoarse, Nails and Kniff. And that was only two streets away. Jinx stayed right behind Sayron, who cut through the chaos purposefully like a scythe, and heard the noise grow faint already – the Minions were losing…
Then, Sayron suddenly stood still. Jinx peered around his broad back. There were the hunters. Two of them were just shaking a dead Minion off their spears, one each.
Jinx swallowed. It was the first time she saw Minions dying since she’d got to know them. She recognized the impaled duo as Rasp and Nails. Further away, a couple of others was lying, both red and brown. Hoarse and Kniff were still alive and hurried back to them with a small group of others as soon as they saw Sayron. Kniff came standing next to Jinx and she had to restrain herself from picking him up and hugging him to death with relief, despite his expression being one of white-hot hate towards the hunters.
One of the fur-clad men kicked Nails’ dead body. The Minion rolled over. He was still clutching his own spear, just as tightly as when he was still alive. "Back, demon! This land belongs to us, the proud Kiret!"
"Do you believe it yourselves?" Sayron taunted. "You´re the last. Your people are defeated. Nordberg is mine and so is Nordhaven!" His eyes were flaming blood-red again and the hunters backed away visibly as he slowly and menacingly raised an arm. A jolt went through the line as the blue lightning came to life, crackling and sizzling.
Then, so suddenly Jinx clasped her hands to her mouth in shock, his arm was beaten down. An arrow, at least one and a half meters long, was sticking out from between Sayron´s metal arm- and shoulderpiece. Dark blood was rising along the edges of his armour like a macabre tide. The Overlord growled, but left the arrow where it was to prevent further bleeding.
Something hissed through the air for a second time. This time, Sayron backed away, faster than one would expect of something his size, and the new arrow smacked in the churned snow without doing any damage. Then he looked up.
At the top of the cliff, directly above them, something he was developing a fierce hate for was visible. A ballista. He stepped back a bit further.
"The Empire is aiding us even now!" one of the five men controlling the contraption jeered. "Even they´re better than you, demon!"
Jinx groaned – they needed an Empire legion like they needed a hole in the head – but then she recalled the abandoned ballista at Nordberg´s gates. They probably´d taken that one here and meant nothing more than that. She had to confess it was a smart move. They had no way of reaching the thing.
She feverishly glanced backwards. The people behind them seemed less hysterical already. Before long they´d lose the fear caused by the chaotic Minions and burning houses, and organize themselves. When that would happen, they´d be in for something.
They´d have to be quick. And the fastest way to end this…
Jinx remembered Parch and his acrobatics, earlier that morning. She knelt next to Hoarse. The red Minion´s glittering eyes widened after her first three words.

Sayron stood on the edge to a remarkably rough tirade of swearing as he suddenly saw all of his reds run off without his command. He whirled round. "Hey…!"
"Forgive me, Lord," Jinx said next to him, with far too little regret in her voice for his liking. "I had an idea."
"And since when do they listen –" Sayron´s eyes widened. Were those reds running straight up the rock face or were his eyes pulling tricks on him?
"Red Minions are very agile, Lord. Didn´t you know that?"
Sayron was speechless for a second. "…No."
Gnarl chimed in. "I didn´t know either, Master. They probably developed it during their imprisonment beneath Nordberg. They never did this earlier."
But there they were, eight glowing figures rapidly working their way up the cliff with their hands, feet and tails. Thin blankets of snow melted and dripped down where they passed, icicles broke off and fell tinkling to the ground. The eight reds were climbing up on both sides of the ballista, at a safe distance from the swords and spears of the five men controlling it, but close enough for the contraption to be unable to fire at them. The thing remained aimed at Sayron and the rest of the horde anyway, just in case they´d return in range.
The first of the reds hauled himself over the cliff.

Hoarse pulled himself up in the hissing, melting snow that dripped from his claws as freezing but soon warmer water. He righted himself on top of the rock wall and looked at the ballista. The wooden ballista. The red grinned from ear to ear. Pity he’d have to hold back.
He waited for his seven brothers to pull themselves up and then raised his claw to form his fireball. "Remember!" he shouted to the reds on the other side of the ballista. "Just men!"
The men were very nervous, he could sense it. But their leader, he was good. "Stay where you are, lads," he heard him say. "If we draw back the Kiret won´t stand a chance against that lunatic."
Hoarse gnashed his teeth. "Throw!" he shouted. He lobbed his fire to the men himself, aiming for their leader. No one insulted the Master!
The snow-covered furs the men were wearing took some time to catch fire, but eventually the first flames sprung to life. By that time, they’d obviously left their stations. The five of them jumped off the ballista screaming, and ran off over the cliff, while three reds ran after them in, quite literally, a hot pursuit.
Hoarse nodded towards the four others that’d remained with him. With a grin just a bit wider, the top of his head would have slid off.
The five of them climbed onto the contraption – two for aiming and firing, two for reloading. Hoarse lowered himself into the storage, distastefully careful not to set things alight. He picked up an arrow longer than himself and climbed back up. There he put the arrow into the mechanism.
But first he tightened his grip for a moment. Sparks shot off his claws and the arrow ignited in wonderful fire along its entire length.
Then he let go. His four brothers took care of the rest, and the arrow was sent hissing through the air…
…and towards the humongous tar pit behind Nordhaven.
"Ah, that’s a fine example of evil thinking," Gnarl admitted, making no effort in hiding the glee and pride in his voice for a change.

Kivner wiped the soot off his face and took in the damage he’d dealt to the ice. It was, at least, weakened. He’d been working tirelessly, because he was working for the new ruler.
Heavy footfalls crunched through the snow behind him. He turned and his face split in a broad smile. "My Lord! Look what I’ve already done for…"
He fell silent. His face clouded over while Sayron, the Minions and Jinx ignored him and hurried past him – and he saw what was coming his way with them.
A column of smoke like it had never been seen before in Nordberg was rising from just behind the town. The flames were reaching so high they were visible above the rooftops. Above the rooftops, and on the rooftops, and between the rooftops…
Then the inferno burst out of the streets on the riverside, the first trees caught fire, Kivner felt an enormous heat and a force picking him up and flinging him away like a ragdoll, and then he felt nothing at all.

At the river’s shore, there was nothing that could burn. Still, Sayron held the sparks away from the ship with a shield of very fine lightning. After a while, the reds joined them. Hoarse briefly bowed his head to Jinx.
Jinx was busy with Kniff for a moment. The brown Minion refused to stop bouncing around. "Genius! Genius, Jinxie!"
"You’ve got to know, Kniff, I got the idea because of you and your centurion," she laughed. "Burning arrows… Multifunctional."
Lord Sayron had called up a small Tower Gate in the meantime, healing himself with the magic supplies in the Netherworld. Then he turned around. "That was a good idea indeed… Jinx."
It was the first time he called her by her name. Jinx stood up straight and grinned.
Sayron´s next words didn´t make it through at first. "But you´re not coming with us."
"…What?!"
"Look at yourself," the Overlord spoke.
Jinx looked down. Despite herself, she breathed in sharply. The blood was trickling down her arm and from the fingers of her left hand, dripping into the snow. The fur on her entire arm was red. The wound was much deeper than she´d thought. As she realized it, the pain suddenly came back and she cringed. She got a strong message from her body: it didn´t want to sail right now. "But…"
Kniff grabbed her good hand. "Jinxie." His eyes were very serious. Jinx remembered what she´d have to do if she came with them. If she fought now, she´d probably be kicked right out of the horde.
She frowned, furious with herself, Sayron and the tears she was trying to keep at bay with all her strength. "…Right then," she heard herself say.
Sayron nodded. Then he turned and stepped onto the broad deck of the ship, the ship she´d fought hard for to claim as well. The Minions followed, all surviving twenty. Sixteen of them went below deck to the eight oars, three climbed into the mast to be lookouts, and one came standing next to Sayron and began signalling the rhythm for the rowers on a leather-spanned drum.
Jinx stood on the river´s shore and watched the ship glide past, remaining deathly still.
From the ropes, Kniff looked at her. "Be seeing you, Jinxie," he called to her. He was waving frantically. "Beat them all! Beat me too! Your spot is above me!"
From the empty air Gnarl sounded, fainter already: "Splice the main thingy! Raise the wossname! Throw out the…"
"Shut it, Gnarl."
"…Sorry, Sire."
And Jinx looked and looked until the ship disappeared into the white fog and there was nothing left to be looking at at all.

Chapter Text

As Jinx descended to the smooth throne room floor she immediately ran over to Gnarl, a stream of swearing flowing from her mouth. "You! You wouldn´t defend me, would you! Now they´re off to that island and I´m left here and they´ll have all kinds of adventures…"
Gnarl groaned and gripped his ears tightly. Only then did Jinx realize there was someone else yelling at him as well.
On the other side of the throne, Kelda was standing, and her green eyes nearly glowed with fury.
"You let him sail away! Without giving him so much as five minutes to attend me to it! One night – one night, Gnarl! And now he’s gone for the gods know how long…"
Gnarl silently pulled his ears behind his head and tied them together. Then he turned around and disappeared down a corridor, to descend from there to the lower levels of the Tower. Kelda stared after him for a moment, the utmost surprise merged with her fury. Then she looked at Jinx. Jinx looked back.
As if they´d planned it, they fell into each other’s arms, crying their eyes out.
Atop his high harp, his clawed feet dangling in front of the strings and deep in thought about a new composition, Quaver looked up. "Ah, women," he sighed with compassionate incomprehension.

The sea!
Sayron raised his head, enjoying the freezing wind he knew so well, but still slightly different – he could just smell the adventure. He felt a little bit of regret about leaving Kelda behind like that, but such was his life. He was an Overlord! He was made to experience everything the world could throw at him!
The eight oars ploughed through the waves and the sail creaked in the wind while the ship took them out of the frosty fjords. Sayron looked back and grinned while beholding the huge plume of black smoke rising from Nordhaven. If things went well, the tar pits would never stop burning again!
He looked forward again. Everywhere around the ship, ice flows drifted along, but they were already melting thanks to the warmer water the river now poured into the sea.
And there was the horizon, just like that. A rare sight around Nordberg, where most of the time it snowed so fiercely you couldn´t see your own nose, and in most other cases you would be in the middle of a forest. But now, there it was, all around him and completely visible.
"Bring me that horizon," Sayron whispered, not sure where he´d heard those words before. He turned the wheel and felt the ship reacting. He grinned and did it again, with more force this time.
Two seconds later he scrambled back to his feet and decided to be gentler from now on.
From the rigging, a Minion´s voice sounded. "Black-white fish!" he called out. "There!"
Minions didn´t see the use of left or right, and they wouldn´t bother with port and starboard either. Sayron followed the pointing claw. Indeed, in the distance a large black and white fin was charging at them… he gripped his axe.
Half a minute later a gigantic fish-shaped creature leaped from the water, right next to the ship. The killer whale was six meters long, possessed three rows of teeth and had such a thick layer of blubber that even Sayron´s axe wouldn´t have dealt much damage.
But it didn´t matter. The browns had already recognized the twinkle in the eyes of the largest predator of the polar seas, and the five others of its kin swimming in from open sea, attracted by the promise of blood and dark magic, possessed that twinkle as well.
They already had found friends with the wolves of the sea.
"Baby seals, here we come," Sayron grinned.

Balance was both of great importance and extremely difficult. She wished she´d brought one of the Minions along.
But Jinx was part of the Netherworld now, so she could control the floating rock by herself. And as neither Kelda nor Gnarl had wanted to come along – both busy treating wounds of their own – she indeed had to do it by herself.
"I´d see Mortis with that," Kelda´d said as she wiped away her tears and nodded to Jinx´ arm. "I always let that sort of thing heal on its own, but it´s useless to walk around with it while there´s a healer close by."
And so she was on her way to where it´d all started: Mortis´ corner of the Netherworld, next to the subterranean river.
Eventually, after a great deal of wobbly trouble, she managed to dock the rock at the spot she´d departed in the Minion´s clutches a few days earlier, jumping off as soon as she could just in case it´d depart again immediately. It didn´t.
She stared at it, with the faint feeling the rock was staring back at her. "Oh, so now you´re suddenly cooperating, eh?" She sighed and turned. Ranting to herself she stomped through the confusing labyrinth of plateaus and hanging bridges to where she thought the river was.
The weird thing was, her wound didn´t hurt anymore. She´d expected the pain to grow worse as her arm warmed and she regained her feeling, but instead it just was a faint pounding.
Still, she was reluctant to untie the cloth to see where all the blood was coming from.
After some time floating around amidst Minions she didn´t know – all familiar faces were away with Sayron – she was suddenly looking out over the river, foaming and roaring like she´d just been pulled out again. Right next to the stream, a large stalagmite rose to a height of nearly twenty meters, the base sporting a small door. Also, there was a stone well nearby. Jinx wondered why, because one could just get water from the river, wasn´t it? With a bucket on a very strong rope, that was.
She uncertainly approached the door, bent over and knocked.
After a moment or two she heard a complaining voice with a familiar gurgling undertone. A while after that, Mortis opened.
Jinx had become used to browns and reds by now, and she jolted slightly at seeing the blue Minion again. Mortis was very different from the rest. His head seemed larger and rounder, and his webbed ears continued all the way down to his chin. His hands and feet were webbed as well, and a strong tail protruded from his cloak.
"Yes?" he said, looking at her near-sightedly with round frog eyes. "What more do you want of me, air-breather?"
"Uh. I´d like you to heal this, please," Jinx said, slightly baffled and very aware of being polite to a Minion. She outstretched her arm.
"I need bare skin," Mortis said.
Jinx grimaced and reluctantly began winding the fabrics off her arm. She untied Kniff´s shred of cloak and carefully put the bloodied cloth in her pocket. Then she took off her vest and pulled the sleeve from her arm.
The wound had healed.
Jinx stared at it for a while. "Wow! That´s amazing, Mortis! Thank you!"
Mortis expressionlessly looked at her arm for a moment, his webbed hand raised as if he was about to place it where the wound had been. Then he nodded silently. He was about to disappear inside his stalagmite again, but Jinx stopped him. "Wait a minute. I heard you healed my broken leg when I –"
Mortis turned back. A joyless smile stretched his rubbery face. "Oh, more than that. You were dead when I fished you from the water, air-breather. The river had taken your life."
Jinx froze. She stared into Mortis´ glassy eyes, not sure if she´d understood his words.
"Do not be so surprised. We blues are not just healers. Mainly I am more of a resurrecter." Mortis clicked his fingers, and there, in a whirl of blue sparks, was a collection of small bones. "That is my task here in the Netherworld. When fighters fall and the Master wishes to have their skill and experience back, I can take care of that."
The thought of Rasp and Nails battled her confusion and shock with the recent revelation. Dead? She´d been dead?
"Only when the Master wishes so," Mortis added as if he´d read her mind. He chuckled. "Do not have any illusions about that, air-breather. To the Netherworld, you are barely a Minion."

"You´re not a Minion."
Jinx excitedly ran beneath the spiky crown towards the throne. Oh, if only Gnarl had some experience with knots…
It had all started that morning as she – after having conquered her fear and walked from her barrack to solid rock across the narrow bridge – ran into Parch and started ranting to him about how unfair it all was. The red Minion was one of the few familiar faces still present in the Netherworld, and he´d been a welcome listener. Jinx had lowered herself against a boulder and had complained: "What do Minions have what I haven´t, Parch?"
And then she´d remembered.
"You´re not a Minion. You don´t heal as quickly as they do. You´re not as tough as them. I believe you´re brave, but you´re fragile. You´re not cut out for the battlefield."
"…Oh… we´ll see about that," she´d muttered softly. Then she´d looked up into Parch´s glittering eyes.
"Teach me to climb like you do, Parch."
And so now she was running through the throne room towards Gnarl´s chosen spot with a long rope trailing behind her. She had gone to see Mortis about it first, but he´d looked at her and said: "I tie ropes for my nets in a way they´ll never come loose again. Do you really want that for your purpose?"
And then there remained only one.
She ran past the mist pool – a quick glance told her Sayron was standing at the helm alone, on a calm ocean – and stopped next to Gnarl. She fumbled with her rope.
The elder Minion ignored her, but he did so in a very pointed way. He continued studying the huge sea chart he´d unrolled next to him.
"Please, Gnarl."
He stubbornly continued staring at the chart.
"I need some advice. You´re the only one in this Tower capable of helping me right now."
"Oh, all of a sudden?"
"Yes!"
"Hmm." Gnarl turned to face her. "With what, may I ask?"
Jinx stuck out the rope to him. "I´d really like to have a knot with which I´ll get some kind of lasso."
"And why do you think I could have knowledge of such a thing?"
Jinx silently nodded towards the mist pool. Sayron hadn´t sailed before, but he didn´t seem to have any kind of trouble. "You´re the only one capable of helping him with his ropes." She bent over the surface of the pool. "Isn´t that right, Lord?"
Sayron looked up. "What?"
"Nothing, nothing," Gnarl quickly called out. "Oh, all right! Yes, I know about knots, that´s what you get if you have to rebuild the entire tower every time a new Overlord arrives. Every single time the previous one departs the entire domain gets wrecked, which is one of the reasons the Netherworld is hidden so well."
"I got in," Jinx remarked.
"Yes, and that might just be a greater disaster than all Seven Heroes put together," Gnarl snapped while yanking the rope from her hands. "A square knot it is." His long fingers danced around the rope in intricate maneuvers, seemingly going right through each other several times over. Eventually, he handed it back. A strong loop had been formed. "Try this one on anything protruding. It´ll close like a bear trap."
Jinx looked about her. Her gaze lingered on a spot on the ceiling. That didn´t mean her eyes remained still.
Gnarl followed her gaze. He opened his mouth to discourage her, but shut it again, with a hint of a sly smile.
Jinx whirled the rope above her head and towards her goal. The square knot was yanked shut, the rope tightened and Jinx was lifted off the ground. She yelped with surprise, but then let herself be dragged along, dangling from one of the spikes of the crown portal, laughing like an idiot. The knot was strong enough to hold her weight, and to keep holding it.
"Gnarl! Aren´t you exaggerating a bit with the strength of this thing?!"
"Not for the purpose I think you have in mind with it," the advisor answered.

The seas were no longer calm, but that was their own fault.
Hoarse chuckled while dropping another fireball from his fist into the gaping hole beneath him. A gust of humid, salty air rushed up and he backed away for a moment, but he knew the enormous beast wouldn´t harm him.
Then he looked back, towards the ship which seemed so small, tied to the gigantic aspidochelone like that.
The turtle had managed to lure many preys by acting like an island, but Sayron had seen through its disguise even before coming ashore. The seas had been warming up the last couple of weeks and the killer whales had left them days ago, but Everlight wasn´t supposed to appear on the horizon yet. The Master had known perfectly well this was no real island. They´d overpowered the sea monster and tied the ship with a great lot of rope to a spike on its shield. And to be sure the beast kept going with a good speed and in the right direction, Sayron had put him, Hoarse, and some other reds on the head… at the nostrils.
Who needed a fair wind when being an Overlord?

"You don´t heal as quickly as they do."
Oh, what fun it´d be if she was right.
Jinx stretched out in the entrance to her barrack, threw her right rope around the short pole she´d hammered in the rock on the other side of the bridge with an experienced movement, pulled tight and let herself fly. In the air, she threw out her left rope around a protrusion in the rock face, and with both ropes pulled tight she walked right up the vertical wall and pulled herself up. She´d left her barrack this way every morning for the past few weeks, and every morning she got better at it.
Once on solid rock, she sprinted to the first bridge in the direction of the river, grabbed both poles on the other side with her ropes and flew across the bridge with her stomach inches from the rough wood. She landed crouched on her feet. And grinned.
She was faster than Nails had been. And she got faster every day.
She walked the rest of the way, her ropes slung around her shoulders. If she didn´t, she had the risk of accidentally choking Minions or knocking them unconscious. Her horde members greeted her as she passed, and she greeted them back, occasionally head butting them or trying to scythe their legs away. Jinx was completely integrated into the Netherworld.
As she reached the river, Mortis was already outside, busy stirring the water with a long stick. As she approached him he turned holding a net full of big-eyed, exceptionally slimy fish. Jinx wasn´t disgusted in any way – she knew the fish looked far tastier when roasted, and they were. As were carcass rats and mushrooms, by the way. Those wusses up in the outside world were completely wrong on them, especially those of the Empire with their quails and stuffed dormice, yuck!
"Climber," Mortis greeted her. He still didn´t call her by her name, but he did with no one and this was better than ´air-breather´, which Jinx suspected to be an insult. "What brings you to the Well? Convinced you can command me today?"
"No, Mortis," Jinx answered. She sighed. She´d given up trying to get him to resurrect Rasp, Nails and the others. She´d seen her dead horde members, floating around inside the Well. It wasn´t there to bring up water, but souls. Sometimes one of them came up and floated around on the air. Jinx always found it eerie and unpleasant to see the lively Minions like this, deaf and blind to the world and just as solid as mist.
Mortis, however, only obeyed Sayron. Only when he´d return, so would the dead Minions. Jinx had some talking to do to the Overlord when he got back.
She looked into the resurrecter´s round frog´s eyes. "I think you´ve been hiding something from me."
"Ah." Mortis averted his eyes for a moment. "That."
"So…?"
"I wanted to heal you, the day you got back from Nordhaven. I had the magic at the ready. But you were already healed. You had done it yourself."
"You´re kidding me." Jinx grinned broadly and pulled her dagger from her belt. "I only needed your confirmation. So if I just concentrate hard enough, and I did with the last wound, it was the very reason I´m stuck here…" She pulled the knife across her arm. Her grin didn´t falter, though it did stiffen a bit as she clenched her teeth. Blood came rising and the drops traced red trails down her arm. She continued staring at the cut intently.
The drops reached the underside of her arm, but they didn´t fall off. The stream had stopped.
Then, the edges of the cut pulled together a bit. The wound still hurt and certainly wasn´t healed, but it had faded a little – maybe the result of two or three days in wrapping.
Jinx was ashen, but still grinning.
"Exceptional, Climber," Mortis said. "Exceptional."
Jinx turned and raised a hand. "I´m going to be good at this, Swimmer!"

The being dragged along by the aspidochelone had only lasted a few days, what with the Minions falling off and the incredible seasickness. The beast had done exactly what was wanted of it – it had been swimming fast. Sayron kept telling himself that was the only reason the turtle had come out of it alive.
Now, the Overlord wished the rope at the bow was still pulled taut. Something had appeared on the horizon and it interested him greatly.
It was a red sail with a golden sun on it. The emblem that´d been fluttering all over Nordberg for the past thirteen years… the emblem he hated. Emperor Solarius´ banner.
There, on their heading, was a huge Empire galleon, apparently on its way to Everlight just like them.
They´d been sailing for three weeks now, and the seas had become warmer. The Minions – aquaphobes at heart, every single one of them – actually dared letting their feet dangle in the water now and then, when they´d been relieved of rowing duty. The furious storms of Nordhaven had made way for trustworthy winds they could catch with the sails, so rowing was of diminishing importance as well. Sayron hadn´t known what was happening to him the first few days, being born and bred in Nordberg. But by now he´d become used to it and the life at sea was pretty much routine. He still missed Kelda, but they spoke over the mist pool. Gnarl made sure he kept the right course with the help of his sea charts, the people of Nordhaven had involuntarily supplied them with enough food to keep them going for months and even without the turtle they held a steady speed with sail and oar.
Even enough to eventually catch up with the galleon. He hoped.
Sayron tightened the grip on both the wheel and his axe. He wanted to catch up with that ship.
He turned to a Minion in the rigging behind him and recognized Kniff, the rebel with the tuque hat. He´d started to like that Minion. "Kniff, tell the Minions below that Stripe´s to take the two front oars with another Minion on each of them, okay? And have Stripe direct the pace from now on."
"Yea, Master," Kniff nodded and let himself fall directly below deck. A short while later Sayron could just feel the slight acceleration. He also heard Stripe’s rasping voice yell directions concerning the pace. Long ago, the Overlord had discovered it was very useful to let the Minions, in fact, be commanded by Minions. Of course, they listened to and obeyed his every word, but Minion leaders really spoke their language. So he let Stripe direct the pace, instead of using the drum – which was probably introduced on the Nordbergian ships by the Empire.
Ah, yes. Now they started catching up with the red-sailed ship.
Half an hour later the galleon lay right in front of their noses, and dozens of glistening spears were pretty much stuck up their noses. The ship was defended, something Sayron had been expecting. He calmly let his gaze travel along the length of the ship. It was defended, but not as well as it should have been. The Empire’d grown lazy, not counting on risks anymore. Such powers were just asking to be overthrown.
"W-who are you and what are your intentions?" their leader called at him, clearly startled by Sayron’s appearance, and that of his Minions. It was a skinny man with a red-plumed helmet and a sunburned face. He was casting nervous glances at Stripe, who was just coming on deck and gave him a big grin with lots of teeth while righting his own helmet. "Identify yourself!"
Of course. Maybe Marius had made it out of Nordberg, but these men had been out at sea before anyone had ever heard of him. Sayron laid an armoured hand on the rail of his own ship. "My name is Lord Sayron of the Netherworld," he spoke without raising his voice – it wasn’t necessary for him. "And I’m here to bring the Empire a message."
"What kind of message?" the commander called back.
"This message," Sayron said calmly, and flicked his wrist at the galleon. The jewel traced a fiery trail through the clear ocean air, the Minions cheered with joy and a wave of chaos jumped over between the ships.

The soldiers who’d been sent to defend this galleon hadn’t expected to actually need their weapons. The sea routes to Everlight were safe and free of pirates. Everlight was a sanctuary, not a trading harbour. The route trailed between the reefs, so even the large sea monsters were no threat. They’d considered themselves lucky to escape from the heavy training the centurions were putting them through, back at the Empire – during this voyage they’d done little more than fishing and sunbathing.
And now, suddenly, this.
The Minions were in top shape. No longer troubled by the extra clothing they’d needed around Nordberg, strong thanks to the continuous rowing and enthusiastic because of the first fight in weeks they threw themselves onto the galleon with the force of a tsunami. They might not have the help of the wolves, but that didn’t diminish their spirit. Several reds flung themselves into the rigging and aimed for the soldiers from there, often throwing several fireballs at once. Stripe had gathered himself a private pile of bodies and threatened the bravest men from atop it.
As with all things fun, this fight was over way too soon. There simply weren’t enough soldiers. The Empire had truly become lazy.
Now that the screaming and the clash of battle had died down, Sayron could hear another sound. He grinned. He liked that sound. It was the sound of people in terror. He turned and started moving towards the voices. On their way across the enormous deck, there were the running footsteps of the crew, rapidly trying to hide. Some of them weren’t fast enough or just stupid enough to climb up into the rigging, where the reds awaited them. Sayron let the Minions decide their fate. One terrified man, reeling in a sail rope while mumbling like an idiot, he simply shoved aside and strode on.
They reached the back of the deck. The Overlord looked about him in surprise – it was teeming with lounging chairs and small tables. Why would you put those on the deck of a galleon?
A single, bloated man with far too little clothing for Sayron’s liking was lying on one of the chairs, fast asleep with a cloth over his face. The Overlord raised the cloth. The man continued snoring.
Gloob came standing with them and poked the man’s lard. "Wake up," he chittered. "Too late for running, blubberguts!" He poked again, a sharp jab this time. The man squealed and dazedly opened his eyes. He gave a muffled squeak as he saw Sayron bent over him.
"W-what’s happening?" he stammered. "Where is everybody?"
"They ran off to a place they thought safe," Sayron answered. He winked and raised his axe.
Gnarl chose that moment to call out. "Wait a minute, Sire!"
"Gnarl? Where were you all this time?"
Back at the Tower, the advisor grimaced. He’d spent all morning having the throne room fixed after Jinx and Kelda had come barging in, returning from a hunt in Nordberg together with a gigantic live polar bear, trying with all its might to free itself from all of the nets, ropes and throwing hooks wrapped around its paws and snout. The bear had been dragged off to the private quarters where Kelda was now turning it into a nice carpet, but it was only now that Gnarl had clear sight of the mist pool again. "...You wouldn’t believe me, Sire." He coughed. "But let that bloated sack of wine live for a moment. I’ve got a suspicion it could be useful. Instead of your axe, maybe you could use your gauntlet, hmm?"
Sayron laid his weapon on his shoulder. The man followed the huge jagged blade with wide eyes and fast breathing. Then his eyes shot to the Overlord’s hand, gradually squinting, for Sayron was bringing his finger to the man’s forehead. "Yes, Gnarl," he spoke. "That’s a good idea indeed."
The blue lightning ignited around his gauntlet, but instead of jolting, smoking and dying the fat man reacted differently altogether. His eyes didn’t flash as the deadly energy shot out of them, but slowly rolled upwards. For a brief moment he became entirely limp as the magic took hold of him, then he seemed to come back to life again.
"I’m your devoted slave, Master," he mumbled.
Sayron laughed softly. He hadn’t used this spell that often yet. Actually, the sole time he had was when he was proving himself as the next Overlord. Back then he had forced some Nordbergians to submit themselves to him, but he assumed they’d been killed by their fellow townsfolk the very same day. Humans were that merciful sometimes.
It really did feel good to dominate Empire people. "Gnarl, you’re right. This is going to be fun." He watched as the fat man stood from his chair and came standing behind him. The Minions reluctantly parted to let him do so.
"It certainly is," the advisor agreed. The elder Minion laughed for a moment. "I have the idea there are some more potential slaves waiting for you behind those doors, Master."

They were.
The doors in the towering aft castle lead to a broad corridor, completely lined with gleaming wood, beautiful carvings and luxuriant red carpets. On both sides, there was a door every couple of yards. From behind the doors sounded fearful voices and soft whimpering. This ship was carrying passengers.
Sayron kicked in the first door. There, a corpulent couple was waiting for him, fearfully holding each other and trying to hide in a corner of the beautifully furbished room, just below a large porthole. They tried to push their fat a little further into the wall as the Overlord approached them.
"B-back, demon," the man stammered. "This ship is well protected and the captain won’t let you..."
"Oh, I do think so," Sayron chuckled. He raised his hand and let the blue lightning fly in two directions at once. Before long, the two had joined his horde.
He could just hear how Gnarl, back at the Tower, rubbed his hands together in glee. Sayron stepped through the corridor wearing a large grin and pointed at the next door. "Break it."
The Minions started running already, but he raised his hand. "Not you. You."
The three Empire citizens stepped forward and started beating at the door with their fists and feet.
Sayron threw back his head and laughed.
A while later all doors in the aft castle were wrecked, as were the rooms behind them. Sayron had looted everything he thought useful or pretty, and his horde not only consisted of twenty Minions but also of quite a lot of civilians from the Glorious Empire. The Overlord amused himself for a while by giving them all kinds of weird commands and let them fight each other – something especially appreciated by the Minions. Half an hour later however, some new figures came towards them through the corridor there’d been earlier.
The one at the front was wearing a dark, oiled overcoat, covered with a magnificently embroidered sash around his shoulders. That had to be the captain. His teeth were clenched as he strode closer in front of his remaining crew. He opened his mouth to speak up, but Sayron beat him to it. "You want to know who I am and what I’ve done to your soldiers, passengers and most of your crew?"
The captain nodded while most colour drained from his face. However, he stayed where he was. Sayron caught himself slightly impressed.
"I’ve killed them or submitted them to my will," the Overlord smiled. "And you have to consider yourself lucky I answer with the truth instead of my axe."
"Release them," the captain spoke with a surprisingly steady voice.
"No," Sayron answered calmly. "They’re mine now."
One of the crew members behind the captain laid a hand on his superior’s shoulder. "Captain, can’t we..."
"No," the captain spoke, shaking off the hand. He kept looking at Sayron, still deathly pale with fear but determined nonetheless. "I won’t abandon my ship and passengers."
Much later, Sayron would still think of that day, and even as he sent his Minions running towards the men and the captain’s blood splattered his axe he was full of surprise – and maybe even a bit of admiration – with the determination the captain had displayed.
He carefully untied the magnificent sash from the man’s shoulders. Behind him, the passengers were looking on without emotion. For a moment he held the cloth in front of him, then he untied the red, fur-lined cape off his own shoulders and laid it over the captain. Then he tied the sash around himself, turned away from the corridor and stepped out on the deck.
Having such a bond with your people... being prepared to fight for them... would it have its advantages? He briefly looked back at his Minions and recalled how Gnarl had reconstructed the journey of Jinx and Kniff through Nordberg.
Maybe. Maybe not. It wasn’t him lying dead in a wrecked aft castle.
After having resupplied their food storage with the galleon’s, he left the passengers with the command to navigate the ship back to the Empire. They could have a good laugh about it.

"You’re not as tough as them."
"Who’s the strongest Minion here now that Stripe’s gone, Gnarl?"
Gnarl looked up. He wasn’t surprised to see Jinx hanging upside down above his head, her ropes firmly tied around two stalactites above the throne. "Don’t even think about sitting on it," he said calmly. "And good morning."
"Morning, Gnarl." Jinx let herself fall in front of the seat of power. The Minions kept the cushions free of dust, but if the throne had had a voice, it’d have been calling for its rightful inhabitant. Sayron had been gone for two months now. "I repeat my question."
"No, you don’t."
Jinx blew. "Word games. You’re just as bad as Quaver." She grinned at a corner of the hall. "No offense."
"None taken," Quaver grinned back. He pondered for a moment. Then, plucking the strings of his harp with his feet, he muttered:
"Many ships the Empire has,
They’re docked in every harbour and their captains had no fear
But none of them is really able
To resist Lord Sayron, world’s darkest buccaneer..."
In the mean time Gnarl pointed at the exit of the throne room, where the jutting platform stuck out into the void and the floating rock was docked. "The strongest Minion of them all isn’t here or at the barracks. He’s hanging around in the forge. You can’t miss him. He’s the second oldest Minion in here."
"Who’s the oldest then?" Jinx saw his face and laughed. "Something tells me I have to fly to the forge fast. Ta!"
Gnarl grumbled as she went off, half running and half grasping everything protruding with her ropes. "Sire, sometimes I wish you hadn’t found that harp..."
Jinx was already sitting crouched on the floating rock, her head down. She’d discovered it went its fastest this way. To slow down, you just had to stand up. With most Minions the thing was quick as lightning.
She was aiming for a place she’d never been to before – the lower regions of the Netherworld. The caves there were red-hot with lava. It was the place where unusable pieces of armour and weaponry were turned into things the Minions could use, and also where Sayron’s new armour and weapons were forged. Jinx knew there was a forge there, but she was already practicing with Parch above the lava flow at least once a week and she didn’t need any more heat.
By now she’d also changed her clothing. The seal furs now hung from the walls of her barrack, she didn’t need them anymore – except when she went out hunting in Nordberg with Kelda, something she did frequently. But here in the Netherworld there was a new, brown shirt fluttering in the hot air, as was a red sash tied around her waist which she’d nicked from one of the collections of the Tower. And instead of shoes she’d wrapped a thick cloth around her feet. Those made her noiseless on the stone floors of the Tower. On a fine day, Jinx had climbed the outside of the Tower to the private quarters to see what they looked like now. She’d made it, and no one had heard her, but as Kelda saw her when she looked up from one of the many books that were stored there she’d smiled broadly and asked what had taken her so long.
Gnarl might disapprove, but she was now authorised to be upstairs. It had been a fine day indeed.
The last part of her new outfit consisted of a red cloth tied around her head. She’d carefully washed all of her own blood from the shred of cloak Kniff had torn from his, and had taken it with her ever since. She couldn’t use any loose hair right now – any distraction could be lethal when working with the ropes.
On top of that, she missed Kniff immensely. The other Minions were nice enough, but Kniff...
She looked forward. She was busy ticking off a list. Maybe she’d meet him again soon.
The rock swooped further down, into the real scorching heat. She was surprised a brown Minion worked in the forge – normally those shied away from fire.
As the rock docked she could hear a steady beating above the roar of the lava, like hammer blows.
It were hammer blows.
Jinx descended down a broad flight of stairs, shielding her eyes as she did so. Everything was quivering in a haze of blazing heat. But there, hammering out a piece of brilliantly shining metal on an anvil five times his height, was a brown Minion equipped with a steel welding mask, thick gloves and a leather breast plate. His hammer was huge, certainly for a Minion.
More Minions were scurrying about, both red and brown. The reds were running between two enormous pits where the lava flowed down and kept the heart of the forge going. The browns were busy with less fiery tasks. But it was clear who it was Gnarl had spoken of.
Jinx slowly approached the anvil. The brown Minion kept on hammering. "I’m sorry," she shouted above the noise. "I need to talk to you!"
The Minion continued beating the metal. Jinx glanced at his work. It was a sword, a rough version of a gargantuan blade. It was long, jagged and very pointy and there was no doubt of who was going to wield it. Jinx caught herself admiring it. There were faint traces of snarling horrors at the base of the blade, and this sword was clearly going to be a real gem when it would be finished, more than worthy of replacing the axe Sayron was now working with.
Being this close, she could really see how large this Minion was. She found it hard to believe, but this one was bigger and stronger than Stripe. Not many Minions were wiry, but this one was truly muscular. Now she knew what Sayron had meant when he said she wasn’t as tough as a Minion...
He raised his mask, lifting it on top of his head. His eyes were gleaming yellowy brown. "What?!" he shouted.
"I need to talk to you," Jinx repeated.
"What for?!"
"I want –" She hesitated. "This won’t do," she said to herself, inaudible to the Minion. She stepped behind the anvil and dragged him off his platform. He might be the largest Minion she’d ever laid eyes on, but he was still smaller than she was.
The next instant, the entire world exploded into the void, starting at the back of her head.
When she was able to see something again, it were two yellowy brown eyes full of shame. Jinx focused and made out the rest of the Minion. The world around her was quiet, however that might just be her being deaf after the incredible noise in the forge.
"I’m sorry," the Minion spoke. Ah, not deaf, then.
"For what?"
"He whacked you in the back of the head," another voice sounded, with considerably more than just a hint of evil glee. Gnarl stepped into her view. "I’m surprised you’re still alive. Most whacked into the back of the head by Giblet won’t do anything more interesting than drool, in the best case."
"Ah. Thank you for that piece of information," Jinx said, glaring at the advisor angrily. Gnarl chuckled darkly.
Giblet shifted his feet. "Gnarl says you want to learn from me…"
Jinx returned her attention to the forger. She was surprised by his calmness. She’d seen Stripe in action and she’d heard how he’d raged during the fight on the Empire galleon, and Giblet was bigger and stronger still. But he seemed friendly and even a bit passive. "Yes, I’d really like to. I’d like you to teach me how to fight, Giblet."
"Giblet hasn’t fought in years, except with his apprentices," Gnarl spoke up. "And aren’t you quite skilled already, Jinx?"
"I’m whacking around a lot at the barracks, yes, but I keep on losing," Jinx reluctantly admitted. "I’ll never be able to claim a spot in the horde if I..."
"I understand," Giblet nodded. Gnarl turned to face him. "Are you sure, Giblet?"
He nodded again.
Gnarl exchanged a glance with Jinx and the two of them distanced themselves from Giblet a bit. "This is unique," Gnarl muttered as soon as they were out of range for the large Minion to hear. "You have to know, Giblet has turned away from the outside world and the fighting as he became forge master. He was quite a good warrior, and he served Lord Alcazar, Vessperion’s predecessor, very well, until he was chopped to pieces by the Seven Heroes. He helped retrieve the old Tower Heart for Lord Vessperion – which we’ve unfortunately lost again – and then it became clear he was the one destined to bring the old forge to life again. He never looked back and he never fought again. Until now. Be a bit careful with him."
"Me?! With him?!"
Gnarl nodded. He seemed to be serious. "He’s the toughest we’ve got, but I always suspected there was a reason behind his dedication to the Netherworld. Even I would return to fight if..."
"...if only you were a couple of centuries younger, yes."
Gnarl cast a sideways glare at Jinx, his eyes narrowed to glowing slits. "One of these days, lady, I’m going to suspend you in oil, have you dried with sandpaper, put in my Iron Maiden and have the thing thrown off the stairs from the private quarters."
Jinx grinned. "Already looking forward to it."

Two days later, she was still in her barrack, every couple of hours sending a painful surge of healing magic to her broken arm, splintered kneecap, strained neck, swollen ankle and bumped skull, all thanks to Giblet. She refused Mortis’ help, because she could now tick two things off her list at once.

Two weeks after, she managed to pry Giblet off her back for the first time, flinging him against the throne room wall by his leg, ruining a magnificently carved dragon’s head. Gnarl was furious, but she was too cheerful to notice.

A week after that, she had to let Kelda go out hunting by herself considering Giblet had hit her on the head so hard she’d become temporarily half-blind. Parch came to visit her sometimes, regretting the fact she was now wounded so often she could barely practice above the lava flow anymore.

As her vision was restored three days later, she managed to grab Giblet at his throat with one of her ropes, which she wasn’t supposed to bring but had done so anyway. But the Minion laughed and said his kind never played fair either. However, she did leave the ropes from then on.
The next time they fought, she jumped over him, grabbed his feet and wiped the entire throne room with him until he turned around and broke three of her toes with his hammer. She didn’t let go, but jumped head over heels with a somersault which surprised her more than Giblet. She managed to whack his head into a pillar. After that, the forge master didn’t move anymore. She pulled him towards her and noticed the front of his helmet was dented inwards so far she could barely get it off his head. This time, it was Giblet who needed healing.

As she, two weeks after that, removed a couple of his teeth with one blow and the blood came trickling down his chin, Giblet cancelled the training.
Jinx looked at him, the familiar adrenalin coursing through her entire body. "But we’re just starting!"
"Jinx..." Giblet said, futilely trying to wipe the blood from his mouth, "...not much left to teach you."
"Not much?" she asked, incredulously.
"Nothing."
Jinx gasped, a grin plastered across her face. "Giblet…"
"Go. Beat Stripe. You’re strong enough."
She fell silent. "So you know."
"Not difficult to see what you’re up to, Jinx," the powerful Minion smiled while bending over to the shadows and spitting the blood out of his mouth outside of Gnarl’s vision. The elder Minion strained his neck to see what they were doing, but couldn’t hear them as they’d been fighting on the other end of the throne room. "You’re going back up top..."
"And you’d like to do the same, wouldn’t you?" Jinx bit her tongue as those words left her mouth. She’d never spoken of this after what Gnarl had told her.
Giblet remained silent for a moment, his back still turned to her. Then he faced her. He shook his head. "No."
"Why not? All Minions live to be out there, the fight, the excitement…"
"Not for me."
Jinx leant against the wall. "You’re the most powerful Minion that ever lived. I don’t believe I can take you on, not even after nearly two months of non-stop training. You could lead them, you could be the one who beats Stripe..."
"Do I look like a leader?" Giblet interrupted her. "Young Stripe fares way better than old Giblet with the rusty head. Strength isn’t everything, Jinx."
Jinx stared at him. So that was it. He knew he was the strongest of them all – he’d already known during Vessperion’s reign – and he’d turned away from the world because of it. He knew he’d become the leader if he continued, and he was afraid he’d make a mess of it... He preferred to put his enormous strength to use in the forge rather than on the battlefield.
That testified of much more understanding than she’d expected from a Minion. They kept surprising her.
She offered her wrapped hand. Giblet gripped it with his sharp claws and pressed so hard she could hear several of her digits snap. Despite the pain in her now broken fingers, Jinx laughed and took a fling at him, but he ducked and ran straight through the hall to the jutting platform, jumped onto the floating rock and let himself be flown back to his chosen, red-hot, noisy home.

The sun was sinking in the west. The deck was already dark, but in the top of the mast, a small strip of blinding light was still visible on the horizon.
Kniff stared at it and wondered when Everlight would appear on that horizon. He’d wondered that often during the past months, and some other things, too.
He wondered how Jinx was faring.
During their voyage, they’d fought sea monsters, they’d attacked several ships, they’d discovered islands not even marked on Gnarl’s charts – but Jinx had never spoken through the mist pool, or at least, not when Kniff was around Sayron and able to hear her. Coincidence had kept them apart for a long time. He missed her, and he knew the same applied to the black-haired girl deep below the earth.
She was human, but not like the others. He’d started liking her even during the travel through Nordberg, and it had only grown in the short while after.
How severely would she have changed during all those months when the ship had been on its way? Who would he meet as he returned to their shared barrack?
Or, more likely... who would meet him as she returned to the upper world herself, to fight with them as soon as she could?
There was something dark on the horizon, just like that.
Kniff looked up, putting his thoughts aside, and raised a clawed hand above his eyes. Could that...?

Scabies, the Minion taking the helm when Sayron wasn’t commanding the ship, slightly loosened the bandana he’d tied over his ears as he made out a yell from the mast. "Wha?" he shouted back.
"...and!"
"Who’s being branded?"
"LAND!"
"Land? Land!" Scabies followed Kniff’s angrily pointing finger, saw the dark spots on the horizon and shouted excitedly. "Land!"
"Everlight!" Kniff laughed, swinging towards the deck like a monkey. "Jinx," he added silently.

"I believe you’re brave, but you’re fragile."
Jinx ran along the jutting rock spike towards the precipice and took a jump. For several heartbeats she let herself fall free through the gorge, towards the lava flow which ate its way through the stone underground of the Netherworld, then she cast out a rope and swapped her downward flight for a swooping forwards motion. She pulled the rope free and threw out her other, came closer to the gorge wall, put her feet on it and ran along the vertical rock face, faster than she’d ever done before. She kept on casting ropes so she could keep on running, blinked past the red Hive, caught a flash of a beaming Parch and saluted him, immensely grateful for his lessons. She flew on over the lava flow, so fast she missed a sharp spike of rock and couldn’t prevent faltering for a second. She acquired a deep cut on her ankle.
Then the gorge opened and she had a magnificent view over the Netherworld – the Tower, all of the rivers and lava flows, and the browns’ barracks. She pulled her ropes free and jumped into the void with spread arms as if embracing the abyss. She enjoyed the warm wind blowing her hair and clothes backwards for a full five seconds. Then she threw out both her ropes and swung down to the barracks, fixated her own, carefully calculated the distance and flew in through the open door in one smooth movement.
Jinx rolled over once and climbed to her feet. She slung her ropes around her shoulders and walked through the swaying little building to the stool she’d taken from the Tower. In the meantime, she sent magic to her ankle, almost without consciously noticing. The wound healed within moments, leaving a faint scar.
She sat down and took her bandana from a hook on the wall. For a moment, she just sat there holding it. Kniff’s cloak shred.
"You’re not cut out for the battlefield."
Jinx sighed. She’d done everything she could. She was new…
"They’re ashore!"
Her head flew up. "Parch?" she yelled.
The red Minion tumbled into the barrack like a shooting star. "Quaver’s running around like maniac – they’re ashore!" He’d followed her so fast his glowing chest was rising and falling rapidly.
"They’re ashore. They’re ashore!" Jinx stared at him, her eyes wide with joy. "Oh, finally!" She grabbed him and jumped around the entire barrack with him. "Thank you, Parchie!"
"Welcome," the red Minion grinned as she jumped out of the barrack so fast he had to grab hold with his tail against the rocking.

As the floating rock docked at the Tower and she wanted to run in through the gate, something pulled her into the shadows to her left with enormous force. It was Giblet, and he was standing next to something huge and glittering on the ground.
"Take this," he muttered, picking it up and handing it over to her. It was the large sword she’d seen him working on. It was completed. It was at least one and a half meters long, jagged and with a diamond-shaped end. The handle showed multiple growling creatures with bared teeth. Jinx held her breath while taking it. She sheathed it with some trouble. "It’s magnificent, Giblet."
"Give it to the Master," he spoke. "He’s not coming back."
"Not?" Jinx said, confused. "But… Kelda… he…"
"No time for talking! Go!"
She jumped and quickly strapped the sword to her back with the leather belts attached to the sheath. The weapon didn’t trouble her moving that much.
Then she ran off, with a last glance at the forge master and the barracks in the distance.

There was a lot of commotion in the throne room. Gnarl was sitting at the mist pool without even blinking his eyes, but Kelda was circling around him with uncharacteristic anxiety. "He’s got to return! Tell him to return!" There were excited Minions scurrying around everywhere. It was so crowded Jinx could sneak off to the shadow of a pillar without much trouble. She raised a hand to the portal.
"To Everlight!" she shouted, and for a moment everyone stopped talking. She could just hear Kelda: "Take him back with you, Jinx!"
Then the blue lightning flashed and she was yanked up to the portal – and through, back to the upper world at last.

Chapter Text

In one of Nordberg Town’s houses, a man was busy waking up. He didn’t look like a standard Nordbergian, dressed in thick fur and a hood. The furs weren’t necessary anymore anyway, and not just because Midwinter had come and gone. The tar pits close to Nordhaven had burnt on beneath the snow and the fire’d reached the reservoirs deep within the earth. The average temperature in Nordberg had been raised. Many of the seals the people depended on had moved north, to the real pole where it was still cold enough for them. The wolves, however, had just shed a lot of their fur and still felt perfectly at home.
Nonetheless, this man still didn’t look like the average Nordbergian. He was wrapped in bandages from head to toe.
Kivner, the sole survivor of the Nordhaven inferno, coughed away the stinging tickle in his throat and sat up. The one eye that wasn’t milky white acquired a puzzled expression. Then a voice sounded, rasping like a demon’s: "I can talk..."
His mangled vocal cords, destroyed by the fire, had finally healed again.
The bandages around his mouth wrinkled as his mutilated face stretched in a smile. Now he could finally start on his task.

An entire continent to the south, a blue light flashed up and a small figure stepped out of the Everlight Tower Gate. Immediately, a rope flew up towards the branches of a tree nearby and the figure swung itself into the canopy.
Jinx perched on the broad branch, gasping with surprise and lack of experience with this new, unfamiliar air. This was incredible...
Open skies. Blue waters.
The temperature barely differed from the Netherworld’s – if there was any difference, it was warmer here. The most striking was the enormous humidity. The water was just floating through the air. She could already feel the drops forming on her forehead. Screams and shouts of invisible birds and beasts echoed in a neverending cacophony and caused the tropical air to vibrate even more.
From beneath the thick, gleaming leaves, dripping with water, she had a good view of her surroundings. The tree she was sitting in was growing on a small island. Further away laid more islands of varying form and height, right next to eachother and only separated by narrow streams of salt water. Every single one of them was covered with lush, blindingly green vegetation.
Jinx let her gaze travel around. This was a towering jigsaw puzzle of islands.
She doubted this was really Everlight.
But there, disappearing behind a curtain of hanging plants across a narrow stream, was a white sail. The splashing of the oars still resounded, muffled by the quivering, thick air and the sounds of the animals.
Sayron had to have called a Tower Gate while sailing past this small island. Maybe he’d briefly replenished his horde, but in any case he had sailed on almost immediately. Jinx looked back. There, half obscured by the outrageous amount of trees, plants and vines, was the open sea. They’d only just arrived.
Well, it was a good thing she’d be able to manage herself here.

Back at the Tower Gnarl pondered the possibility of attending his Master to Jinx’ presence, but chose not to. There were more important things requiring attention.
This, indeed, wasn’t Everlight yet. It was nearly invisible on the huge sea chart, but all around the tropical island was a wafer-thin chain of reefs. The current location of the Overlord was right in the middle of those reefs. The atoll formed an almost impregnable barrier around the sacred island. The advisor stooped over the chart so low the glowing rock above his head came to lie on it, to the great shock of a black rat gleefully gnawing at one of the parchment’s ragged corners.
Yes. That was it.
"Master," Gnarl spoke to the mist pool. "You’re currently in Everlight Reef. The elves believe it’s Nature’s blessing, keeping trespassers out of Everlight itself. I believe it’s a blessing keeping the wet sops in one place, but that aside – you’re close to the Reef Gates leading to the island itself."
Sayron nodded shortly, at the helm as always. "In which direction are those gates?"
"East, from where you are now. I trust they’re open." Gnarl looked into the pool intently. "Is that a green tunic over there? My eyes aren’t what they once were."
In the Reef, Sayron peered forward through the swirling mists rising from the water’s surface. And yes; there, stone dead on a piece of driftwood, was an Empire soldier. "It’s a soldier. So the Empire’s trying to reach Everlight..."
"Yes, and they’re fighting the elves to keep the gates open, I suspect. Good, let those idiots kill eachother off without us... it’s a pity, but it’s useful." Gnarl hummed. "I think the Empire were winning until the waters started to rise." He snickered. "I’ve got the faint feeling Nordberg didn’t hold its water, Sire..."
"Yes, and I’ve got the faint feeling the elves are far more on their guard than you say, Gnarl," Sayron answered with a glance towards the suspicious rustling jumping through the treetops, on the invisible shore behind all the vines to their right.

The gloom below the deck of the ship was suddenly hellishly lit as a red Minion let himself fall down. Parch was excited and nervous in an exhilarated way; all the training in the Netherworld had finally made him strong enough to be allowed to fight in the horde! He’d joined his clan members in the red Minion Gate, and as he arrived at the Reef, Sayron had called him out.
He looked about him and found what he was looking for. He ran for the Minion with the tuque hat. Kniff was busy rowing with all his strength, in the back of the starboard side. He looked up as Parch approached him and grinned broadly. "Parch!"
"Jup!" the red laughed. "Finally got in!" He lowered his voice. "Kniff… she’s here."
Kniff shut his mouth and it was clear he immediately knew what Parch was talking about. His eyes gleamed.
"Has changed though," the red warned him. He winked and ran off before the other rowers could ask him anything.
"Thanks, Parch," Kniff called after him. He rowed on, with enough new force to let the ship sway to port slightly.

Jinx had rarely felt this alive.
Impressions stormed her senses. It was all so strange, so different from everything she’d ever experienced! You really got somewhere if you crossed over to the Dark Side!
A million scents were queuing in front of her nose, from rotting vegetation to the salt of the sea. Explosively coloured flowers shot past her as she soared through the treetops. The chattering of innumerable birds and beasts sounded through the air, echoing back even louder than before. And the temperature! She’d never felt this heat outside the forge!
She swung through it all, agile like a monkey, building bridges for herself between the trees and across small parts of sea between the islands. Luckily, there were always overhanging branches, so she didn’t have trouble in any way. She was even more grateful to Parch now. Without him, she’d never have been able to follow the ship.
She was very aware of the sword on her back. It was barely smaller than she was, and sometimes the sheathed point pricked into the back of her knees as she threw up her legs. But overall, it went well. She knew it was probably forbidden, but she was planning to try the weapon sooner or later. A real sword... she was quite content with her dagger, but still...
She clasped a hand to her mouth as laughter escaped her. She was going faster than the ship now! She swung past it with ease, threw herself over a stream between two rocky islands and drew back between the feathery leaves of a huge segmented tree. From there, she peered at the ship, waiting for it to catch up with her.
It seemed like they were having some difficulties. The water was shallow here, and filled with fallen branches, leaves and round green things Jinx took to be unripe coconuts. If she strained her ears, she could just hear Gnarl pour his advice out over the deck.
She strained her eyes as well. They were having more trouble than just fallen branches. Something was clinging to the side of the ship. It was fleshy, and partly covered in scales, but bigger than most fish. Plus, it had arms. A deformed mouth full of sharp teeth spouted water at the Minions like a high-pressure sprayer, resulting in the Minions panicking and starting to jab at the creature with their weapons. A second creature hoisted itself up next to the first.
Jinx stared at them, slightly nauseated. And she’d been thinking mermaids were beautiful... She suddenly laughed as she saw a Minion jump up towards an overhanging branch, after which he knocked the mermaid senseless with his coconuts. The reds also started attacking, and before long the fish creatures were forced to let go.
She couldn’t make out Kniff yet. He probably was rowing right now. Pity, she’d have loved to give him some kind of sign to let him know she was close.
Then her eyes fell on Parch, right next to Sayron on the deck. He was suspiciously checking the undergrowth on the opposite shore like he expected something to pop out.
Kniff did know she was close. She grinned and swung over to the next tree.

As the two mermaids had been thrown back into the water, Sayron focused on the streams ahead. To keep on sailing east wasn’t as simple as it sounded. Right now, in fact, they were going straight to the north, something he could easily check basing himself on the sun and Gnarl’s chart. But according to the elder Minion, they were close to the Reef Gates already.
Sayron noticed his Minions were more active than back at Nordberg, both the reds and the browns. He felt strangely excited himself. Maybe it was the heat, or the combination of smells – sharp and spicy with the numerous flowers and weeds, faint with rotting vegetation. Everything went faster here, was so much more alive than in the eternal, constant snow of Nordberg.
The growth parted.
Sayron briefly held his breath. Before his eyes, a green curtain seemed to open to a huge mirror of water, reflecting the blinding sunlight. This had to be the edge of the reefs. But that wasn’t what had made him hold his breath.
The Reef Gates were at least a hundred and fifty meters tall.
They seemed to be made of an ancient, overgrown kind of stone and curved inward between two natural walls of the reef itself. Where the plants didn’t have grip on it, traces of carved decoration were visible: a growling, stylized jaguar, a feathered snake, two staring eyes without pupils...
More importantly: they were hanging wide open.
"I told you so!" Gnarl cheered triumphantly. "The elves have had so many troubles with the Empire they haven’t taken the trouble to close them yet, the bunch of ignorant carcasses!"
A muted rumbling resounded, so low Sayron felt it rather than heard it. A shiver ran across the misty surface of the water and the ship rocked slightly.
Slowly, impossibly slowly, the Reef Gates started swinging forwards and towards eachother.
Sayron flung the wheel around. "No!" he roared. "Row! Row like you’re getting paid for it!" The Minions obeyed his words immediately and the ship shot forwards, but even now the Overlord could see they’d never make it in time. The gates were closing way too fast.
Long before the ship reached them, the gigantic stone doors came together with a booming, most definitive bang. A high wave raced away from them and towards the ship, and Sayron could feel his stomach rise as the ship was lifted. The currents caused the ship to drift away from the gates, spinning slowly.
When they’d stopped moving, he sighed deeply.
He heard Gnarl hold his breath sharply. "Sire."
Sayron looked up. "What is it?"
"There…" The advisor let his gaze travel around through Sayron’s eyes. "And there… those glowing rocks… You have to be quick, the elves are taking them away! There’s another two!"
Sayron saw what he meant. On two high platforms on both sides of the gates, two glowing rocks had been standing, green and yellow, but they were now being rolled away by teams of green-clad figures... elves. Opposite the gates, on the other side of the bay, the same thing was happening to a red and a blue stone. Gnarl growled. "Those stones were keeping the gates open. They know what we’re up to, Sire. Get back those stones, or you’ll be hanging around on the elves’ doorstep like a large, evil milk bottle…"

Jinx heard a resounding boom and felt a shiver run through the tree in which she was sitting. Birds were exploding out of the trees in flashes of brilliant colour all around her. She looked around, couldn’t see where the noise had come from, and swung over to the top of the highest tree she could see. There, on the highest point of the small island, she peered into the direction the ship had sailed past her.
The Reef Gates had closed.
"Oh, crap."
She balanced on her branch, thinner than she was used to. Fifty meters below her lay the forest floor, invisible beneath layers of bright green leaves and vines. She eventually cast out her right rope as well to keep herself up.
They had closed. Why had they closed? If only she could hear Gnarl, she’d know what was going on! He always seemed to know everything...
"...dock, you probably can..." A familiar voice gasped right next to her ear. For a moment, all was deathly silent. Then: "Jinx, what in the name of the Unholy God are you doing in my mist pool?"
"Gnarl?!"
"No, the tooth fairy! Of course it’s me! Question is, why is it you?"
Jinx stayed still, no expression on her face, trying hard to keep squatting on her branch. "I was just thinking... I’d like to hear your voice," she forced herself to say.
It was briefly silent again. "...WHAT?!"
"For information about those gates!" Jinx shouted, so loud birds flew up around her again. "Mother Goddess, what are you even thinking!"
Gnarl gnashed his teeth. "None of your business."
"Come on, I’m far more agile than that hunk of metal. How do we get them open?"
"There is no ‘we’! Get out of my mist pool!"
"Like I’ve got the faintest idea how! You’re controlling the thing!"
"You’ve gotten yourself into it by thinking how much you’d like to hear my voice," Gnarl parried with a mocking imitation of her own voice. "You can think yourself out as well."
"If you tell me how to open those gates again."
"..."
"Come now, I think Sayron’s wondering where his advice is hanging out..."
"Oh, right then! There are four glowing rocks, yellow, green, red and blue. Take them back to their slots around the bay and the gates will open. The elves are trying to make off with them. Get out of my pool!"
"Thank you graciously." Jinx strained herself. Out of the mist pool, out of the mist pool…
After a while, she opened her eyes. "Gnarl?" she cautiously asked, trying not to think of the advisor.
It remained silent. Jinx let her breath escape. It might be useful to hear him, but it made her nervous. It wasn’t right. What was going on here?
Soft voices sounded below her. She looked down and saw nothing. She pulled her ropes free and let herself fall through the vines to a point from where she could see the forest floor.
There were five figures standing there, human but not entirely. They were taller and more elegant, with large, almond-shaped eyes in brighter colours than normal for humans. Their long hair had been magnificently braided, and pointy ears were sticking out. Their clothes were entirely green, blending into the forest.
Jinx gagged.
Elves!

"...if you sail back just a little and dock, you probably can get to those elves, Sire," Gnarl hurried himself to say, fiercely hoping the Overlord wouldn´t make too much of a problem of his short absence.
"Gnarl, what just happened?"
Damn.
"A short interference, Sire," the advisor lied. "Maybe it was caused by your immense distance to the Netherworld."
"I never noticed it during the voyage," Sayron spoke, suspiciously.
"I´m not sure, Master. It won´t happen again. I think that´s a good spot to dock," Gnarl tried to distract him as he furiously sought himself for a reason to be… protecting Jinx?

Elves… creators of music and poetry, constructors of elegant tree cities. The source of everything beautiful and useful, an example for every other living race.
Jinx had heard everything about them and her opinion of the pointy-eared people had swung round completely during her time with the Minions. Just like with mermaids, the stories were far from the truth.
Elves… huggers of trees and protectors of the cute and fuzzy. Winos, good-for-nothing weaklings! Even their immortality was a lie!
She had to restrain herself to not fling herself at them. She wanted at their throats! But she knew elves were strong, probably even stronger than Nordbergian hunters. If she´d played it cleverly, she could get away with total victory. If not, she wouldn´t get away at all.
"He´s the one who destroyed the sanctuary!" one of the elves whined. "Florian told me all about it. He hunted the little white ones!"
Jinx chuckled. Baby seals. The elves were just the types to take those into protection.
"If we can get the Key Stones over the Reef Gates and ship them to Everlight, we´re saved. Then no one will get through anymore, Empire or demons. Then we can finally start healing the island…"
Jinx slightly cramped on her branch. Over the Reef Gates? How were they planning to do that…?
"I´ll see you at the high platforms, Morvan, Jared. Nadir, Chador, you go help with the red and blue Stones."
"And you, Kamáel?"
"They need me at the Gates."
The elf who´d asked, addressed as Morvan, nodded. Then he took such a jump Jinx´ eyes nearly rolled backwards in their sockets. In one flash he was sitting in the topmost branches, and with another he launched himself over a stream to a neighbouring island, probably on his way to the heights as Kamáel had told him. Jared followed, and the three others also flew off like living lightning, with such speed it seemed there were coiled springs inside their long, outstretched legs.
Jinx gasped for breath. So they were capable of quite something, too!
Oh, she´d teach them a lesson about jumping. The treetops would be hers!

A ragged shadow stumbled out of the door opening and into the wet streets. The beautiful white landscapes of Nordberg were no more. Mud and water were all that was left of them. Spring had come, with murderous force and way too early.
Not that it did anything to him.
Kivner stepped onto the low balcony overseeing the large square and spread his bandaged arms. "Friends!" he called out. "Friends, hear me!"
His voice resounded through the streets and the people who heard him looked up. Not so much because of what he said, as because of the voice with which he said it. Kivner´s vocal cords weren´t fully healed and they never would do so either. His voice was low and rasping, not so very different from an exceptionally low-pitched Minion´s. The couple of Minions patrolling the square laughed and nodded in appreciation as they heard him speak.
"What do you want?" someone yelled. There was a buzzing of voices across the square already: "That´s the bloke who came crawling from Nordhaven…" "Did you see his face?" "No, but my cousin knows someone who…" "He´s completely mad!"
But in the meantime, the Nordbergians were starting to group, whether they wanted to or not.
Kivner waited for a moment. Then he leaned forward over the stone balustrade of the balcony. "I´m here because I can finally speak again and I want to ask you a question." The people cringed as his inhuman voice reached their ears. "It´s a simple one."
"Ask it!" "Did you call us out for this?"
From one of the streets, a woman came running. She had a basket full of groceries hanging from her arm, swinging as she came to an abrupt standstill at the square´s edge. She silently shook her head, a pained expression on her pale face. "Kivner…"
Miraculously, the mutilated man caught her gaze, even if she was nearly out of his sight. "Thank you for making this possible, Estua," he spoke softly. Then he turned back to the now fully formed mob.
"What do you think of the Overlord?"

The leaves flashed past her as if they were the ones with rockets strapped to their backs.
Jinx gave everything. She was furious. That elf! That damned elf! It was Nadir she was tailing now, as Kamáel and Jared had taken a different turn early on and Chador had also bounded off so fast she hadn´t been able to follow him. Nadir was the slowest. He was also standing out the most because of his red hair. It was a funny thing he eventually landed next to the red Key Stone, already in the safe hands of a group of elves on a small beach in the middle of the reefs. They´d chosen a good spot, Jinx had to admit. She wouldn´t have found it if Nadir hadn´t led her to it. The beach lay on a small stream of seawater, completely overgrown and invisible from the outside, as were the surroundings. They were enclosed on three sides by overgrown rock cliffs. The elves had constructed a couple of bamboo platforms against them, where some of them were vigilantly watching as Nadir let himself fall from the cliffs. Jinx stayed up, but did notice an overgrown opening in the rock. Hopefully it lead somewhere close to the spot where Gnarl was directing Sayron to.
The Stone was a bit imposing. It was cylinder-shaped, two meters tall and made of the same stone as the Reef Gates themselves. A mysterious red glow was emanating from eight wide eyes without pupils, four pairs circling the Stone´s outside, and four gaping mouths. Unintelligible tokens were carved over the entire surface.
Jinx was sure it´d be easy to steal if five Minions put their shoulders under it.
But first there was the matter of the elves. There were ten of them, all fully alert for intruders. If they all stayed here, there would be deaths, and she didn´t want that. Even if Mortis and his Well were present back at the Netherworld, she wanted to minimalize the number of Minions dying.
So…
"Yoohoo! Elfies!"
Ten pairs of almond-shaped eyes immediately turned into her direction as she elegantly swung down from the cliffside and landed lightly on the sand. She slung her rope over her shoulder and stepped at the elves, looking Nadir straight into his brown eyes, red with the glow from the Stone. He looked back, to Jinx´ surprise uncaring. Were they really that naïve? Then again, she was just a scrawny girl in a shirt…
She reached backwards and pulled Sayron´s sword from the sheath.
Now she had their attention.
"I´ve been sent by Lord Sayron of the Netherworld to claim the Stone," she spoke, the most vile smile she could manage plastered across her face. She drew a line in the sand with the gargantuan blade, trying hard to not let it slip from her fingers. "Any who has problems with that, come across this line and try to stop me! And let´s make that a test in agility while we´re at it," she added as she cast out a rope towards a young tree halfway up the cliff behind her.
Five elves ran forward, among whom Nadir himself.
She pulled the rope taut and let herself fly.

Sayron spun the wheel around and docked along the rocky shore of a small island. It seemed like nothing special, but Gnarl maintained there were probably two of the Stones hidden here. So the Overlord and his horde went ashore and began hacking themselves a path through the undergrowth.
Eventually, they came across a solid rock wall.
Sayron opened his mouth to complain to Gnarl for not reading the map right, but the advisor beat him to it.
"Don´t fear, Sire, your axe won´t break on that wall. You´ll see."
Sayron reluctantly raised his weapon and swung it at the wall.
His axe and entire arm disappeared in the undergrowth. There was no wall there. It was a tunnel.
He hacked on until every vine and hanging plant was gone and then stepped into the darkness, which spontaneously lit up as the reds followed him. He slightly jumped as a small bit of the dark came loose and flapped him into the face while squeaking angrily, but then realized he´d just disturbed a nest of bats. You didn´t have those in Nordberg. He waved the bat away and walked on. His Minions were making excited little sounds.
Green light was filtering through from the other side. Three swings of his axe later, and he had clear sight of the red Key Stone.
Five green-clad elves gasped for breath.
Didn´t he just send his messenger?

Jinx panted with strain as she explored her limits in her flight through the treetops. She´d lured the five away from the Stone, but she didn´t have the faintest clue if it would be of any use to the Overlord. To be completely sure of that, she had to get rid of the elves.
They were right behind her, but they didn´t have experience with her unpredictable way of moving. In the blink of an eye, she could be meters away to the left or right, all thanks to her ropes.
Those ropes were very useable for other purposes, too.
Jinx let one of them flick out to an elf who´d nearly caught up with her and grabbed his throat. He was moving with such speed he flew into the undergrowth head over heels. Jinx just caught a glance of a bush with thorns at least half a meter long, on which the elf now lay skewered, bleeding from at least twenty deadly wounds.
One down, four to go.

Sayron cursed, furious. He swung his axe time and time again, but the elves he was at battle with kept dodging, quick as lightning. His Minions had more success – to bring down an elf, you had to attack from all sides at once. The fight was long and tiring. Eventually he managed to dispatch his own two elves, the first with a simple beheading and the second with a stroke of his axe leaving the weapon embedded in the elf´s chest.
"May the Mother Goddess curse your black soul," the last one whispered as he died.
Sayron chuckled, fatigued. "May my father teach your goddess a lesson," he said, sending a respectful thought to Lord Vessperion, now ruler of the Infernal Abyss.
"Right, lads, grab that Stone."
Five Minions hauled the red Stone up and grabbed the underside. Not at all too stable, but surprisingly fast, they went after Sayron with it.
"The slot has to be somewhere close," Gnarl spoke.

Jinx managed to get rid of two more elves by returning the way she´d come from and waiting for them with Sayron´s sword. As they leaped at her, the elves skewered themselves onto the razor-sharp blade. Now it was just Nadir and one other elf chasing her, but they were all the more furious.
There was the sound of a horn calling.
The girl perked her ears. She knew that tone.
Come to think of it, there had been green tunics floating along between all those coconuts…
She altered her course and went north, in the direction of the horn. Very soon she could see white, spanned surfaces, just visible between the parting leaves, and wasn´t that a gold-coloured glittering…?
She landed with a thud on the churned, deforested soil.
She was stared at from all sides by Empire soldiers.
Jinx turned around and looked up expectantly. Yep. That´d be Nadir, pouncing down like a hunting jaguar. And the other elf, too.
She cast out a rope and shot back into the trees as the two threw themselves into the Empire camp without looking. This time, the soldiers were on their guard.
One elf leader down, four to go!

For a short while, everyone in Nordberg´s great square was silent. The people looked about them nervously, their eyes lingering on the present Minions. There seemed to be more of them than just a minute ago.
"Well… he´s great, of course, getting rid of Borius like that…"
"Yeah, yeah!" someone else hurried to say. "We have to consider ourselves lucky with him…"
Kivner looked out over the heads for a while. "You´re all lying."
He didn´t speak loudly, but everyone silenced again in an instant. "If you´d really find him that great, you´d be actually helping him."
Again, everyone held his tongue. Then a large man with a black beard raised a fist. "Indeed, they´re lying! And who are you trying to fool? He´s just as bad as Borius, if not worse! Those creatures of his watching our every move, the ice melting away, one of our women kidnapped to his domain… what´s next? At least Borius left us alone…"
On the edges of the square, one of the Minions put two clawed fingers in his mouth and whistled softly. From the streets more came running.
Kivner nodded calmly. "I´m glad you´re honest with me. If you´re honest, I can make you see the truth…"
More people started to get uneasy. The buzz grew louder, and all of it was against Sayron.
In the alley, Estua was still looking on, rooted to the spot. She didn´t want to see where this´d end. "Oh, Kivner, what has become of you…"
Another woman came standing next to her. Short black hair peeked out from underneath a dark hood.
"He´s hopeless, love. But then again, all men are."

A sandy path, covered with dead leaves, led up along the small bay and from there along the vertical cliff. But as the huge Key Stone brushed past the growth, Sayron could see this was no natural wall. There were separate stones visible. This wall had been built.
And yes, soon they came across a second tunnel. On the other side, behind a curtain of vines, a stone pier could be seen, looking over the Reef Gates themselves. They´d come full circle. On the end of the pier was a round hole. It did resemble a keyhole.
As the five Minions lowered the Key Stone into it a red light blazed along the length of the pier, and a shiver ran through the gates. Gnarl hummed contently. "Well done, Sire. Three more. I advise the stairs to your right. That temple looks like a good spot to hide a second Stone."

Halfway up the overgrown wall Jinx had watched the Stone being set into place. She rubbed her hands. If she could continue helping them unseen, they´d be almost invincible.
She´d acquired some wounds during her hunt with the elves, but she´d healed them already. The magic had fatigued her, but she could fix that, too, by eating something. There were three hands of ripe bananas tied around the sword´s handle. She chuckled. Sayron apparently didn´t trust the fruits of Everlight, because the only supplies on the ship still consisted of dried meat, fish and hardtack. He hadn´t added any fruit on any of the islands along the way. Those poor Minions. She was surprised they didn´t all suffer from scurvy.
"…to hide a second Stone," Gnarl´s voice sounded in the wind. Jinx looked down. They were climbing the stairs to the right of the pier. She followed their path with her eyes. There, on the very top of the island, lay an ancient, weathered temple. She could hear faint elven voices from here.
Chador! He was on this island, too. He hadn´t been able to get the blue Stone away, so he simply had it brought to a well-defendable place.
Jinx cast a glance at the sky. The sun started setting already. That might take eternity here in the tropics, but she hoped she could use it to her advantage anyway. In the Netherworld, she´d become used to the dark, unlike those light magic maniacs of elves… she hoped.
She climbed the cliffs straight towards the temple. Halfway, there were some statues of an elegantly built elven woman wearing a high, angular hat and holding two knives in her slender hands. That had to be the Mother Goddess. She made a welcome foothold.
Two leaps and she was standing on the temple roof.
Suddenly a rope was pulled taut around her neck, just like that.
Three elves with slender swords jumped onto the roof. One of them held the rope and pulled her towards him. His eyes were bright blue and she recognized him as Chador.
Jinx growled at them and unsheathed Sayron´s sword. She swung it in lethal circles, but she couldn´t handle it and the elves avoided the blade with ease. Before she knew it, she was all tied up and Chador raised her chin with his own sword.
"You´re just a child, so I´ll spare your life," he said. He pushed her into the arms of the two others. "Lock her away in the back of the temple and then get back immediately. We´ll be needing everyone."
"Just a child!" Jinx raged as she was dragged into the temple. "I´ll show you, bloody elf! This child will singlehandedly bite your head off if the Minions won´t!"

Several Minions perked their ears, halfway up the stairs. That hadn´t been a bird or monkey. That voice sounded familiar to them.
The ears that had risen highest belonged to Kniff and Parch. The two exchanged glances. Parch nodded quickly. Kniff´s eyes flashed. "Problems…"
"We´ve got them too," Parch parried. He had a fireball at the ready in both of his hands, just like the rest of his clan.
Sayron didn´t seem to have heard the scream, because he continued climbing the stairs at the same pace. He looked up expectantly. Behind the canopy of trees growing on the cliff, the temple rose. He didn´t doubt the fact the blue Stone was located there.
Without warning, five elves launched themselves out of the growth on both sides of the stairs. Sayron immediately lashed out with his axe. The Minions were momentarily dazed with the speed of their attackers, but then they also drew their weapons and the familiar noise of battle resounded across the bay.
The entire stairs had become a battlefield. There were only five elves, but they were all at the centre of a whirlwind of destruction. They fought elegant and swift, and with far more fire than the five at the red Stone.
Kniff jumped back to avoid a deft jab with an elven sword, but still acquired a deep cut across his chest. Then he bent over and ran between the elf´s legs. A moment later he was on his back and pulled the hat of his pointy-eared enemy over his eyes. Then he nodded to Parch, higher up the cliffs. The red Minion began throwing fireballs with both hands and before long, the elf was ablaze. He screamed and whacked at his clothes, but Kniff made sure he couldn´t see anything. Just before the elf ran over the cliff, towards his death, he jumped off his back. He laughed and threw himself back to the stairs.

The stone door slid down and reached the smooth floor with a definitive bang. Jinx ran forward and threw herself into it, but it was no use – the mechanism was solid… like stone.
Stone, stone and more stone. Very imaginative.
"Sayron will chop you to pieces and he´ll get the Stones back! And then he´s going to sail on to Everlight and murder your entire race!"
Light footsteps distanced themselves from the door. Jinx slid down against the wall. Above her head, the light streamed in through a small glassless window, but she´d never fit though there. On top of that, her hands were still bound.
They´d let her keep the sword.
She swore. That was of no use either. It was still sheathed, and it was stuck. The leather was so new she couldn´t shake it out. She tried to pull the rope loose or break it, but it was tough and strong.
Would a simple piece of rope and a stone door keep her in here until Sayron had sailed on and she was left to rot? It wouldn´t, right?
She´d seen the blue Stone standing in the temple, of the same design as the red one but with a magnificently azure glow. But if Sayron came to get it… would she dare call out to him? How would he react to her barging in again this time?

There were three elves remaining and that was enough to be able to go on, so Sayron did, climbing the stairs and battling them at the same time. The temple appeared from behind the trees.
Higher and higher they climbed. Sayron was now bleeding from several deep sword wounds on his arms, but with the entire horde around him, no elf would get the chance to do any real damage. Fifteen Minions fell before they finally reached the temple.
A new wave of elves, led by an individual with brown hair and blue eyes, came rushing down the stairs to meet them. The blue-eyed elf ran straight for Sayron, but the Overlord had raised his axe and forced the elf to break off his attack. As he ran past him, Sayron let his magic fly and the elf´s legs were scythed away from under him. His head smacked onto the hard marble of the stairs.
Sayron strode towards him through the chaos and grabbed a leg. For a few seconds, he swung Chador around above his head, then he tossed him over the cliff. A nauseating smack was heard as the elf hit the rocks below. The Overlord laughed softly. As with Empire soldiers, elves needed a leader. Now Chador was dead, they started getting doubtful, and that was fatal even for elves.
After a few minutes of fighting the entire horde could afford amusing themselves with the last elf´s struggles, whose head was on fire while six browns decorated his back. Finally, after a surprisingly long fight, he fell down.
The temple was theirs!
Sayron called his Minions to him and strode inside. There, the blue Key Stone was waiting for them. Azure light played over the many statues of the Mother Goddess. For the briefest moment, the Overlord thought he could hear pounding, like fists to rock, but then it stopped.
Five Minions hoisted the Stone onto their shoulders.
Outside, a strange platform stuck out from the stairs. On the end was a strange hole, which´d fit a Key Stone by the look of it. As Sayron tested it, the platform sank down.
"An elevator, Sire. Who´d think elves would think it up?"
As the platform rose again, all Minions had the chance to step on.
All, except two.

The large square in Nordberg was no longer full of people. Most of the people were lying, often in pools of blood. Some were stumbling off into the alleys. Some were still standing, and all of them were around a man whose former visible skin was bandaged to the very last centimeter.
Kivner looked around the small group. "I´m sorry it had to be this way."
"No. That was fine. Now we finally saw who still needed to be persuaded."
"You´re right. I hope everyone now knows what they´re supposed to do," the ginger man said with a glance around the square. The moon glistened on the remains of the bloodbath. Fifty Minions could do gruesome things to an unarmed group of people.
One of the others nodded curtly. "I think Nordberg could use a little change. The ice disappearing was a sign we have to adapt, too. I propose we send a message to the Overlord we´re really going to help him. Ore, food…"
Kivner nodded vigorously. "Yes! That´s the thing!"
Running footsteps resounded across the moonlit square stones. A small figure threw herself into Kivner and punched both her fists against his chest, crying. "How could you, Kivner! All those deaths… all that murdering…"
He grabbed her wrists as gently as he could and then wrapped his arm around her. "It was necessary, Estua."
"I don´t recognize you anymore!" Estua tried to pull herself loose, but her body was shaking with sobs. "You´re not yourself…"
"I didn´t cause this," Kivner said. "They brought it upon themselves. Estua, you´re not telling me you agree with those who lay here dead, are you?"
A hooded figure who´d been following Estua in a calmer pace reached the group. Several of the men looked up and nudged eachother, chuckling. The woman ignored them. "He´s right, love. A new power has risen, and where you served the Empire in the past, you´re now to serve Lord Sayron." She winked. "Of course, there are rewards for those starting with that. You´ve got some future ahead of you, Kivner."
He looked at her. "I´m not after that."
The woman rolled her eyes. "Come with me. I´ve got to talk to you."
Estua ran after her as she walked off with large steps. "Who are you?"
"Call me Nessuna."

Kniff and Parch silently sprinted back into the temple. Past a couple of elven corpses was a large statue of the Mother Goddess, her arms crossed and her hands holding the two knives.
Kniff carefully approached the statue. "…Jinxie?"
"Kniff?" a muffled voice sounded from behind the wall. "Is that you?"
"Jinxie!" the Minion laughed. "Yep! Parch here too!"
"You´re in the horde! Well done, Parch!" Behind the door, Jinx felt her heart rise in her chest. Two of her friends had come for her. She´d see Kniff again. "Kniff, the goddess´ knives are the key. You have to…"
On the other side, Kniff didn´t wait for her to finish and jumped to the knife in the Mother Goddess´ left hand. Her arm sank.
A gigantic axe whirred from a hidden opening and nearly decapitated the brown Minion.
"What was that?!"
"Not that knife," Kniff said sheepishly while scrambling back to his feet and rubbing his throat. He jumped again and grabbed the other knife. Jinx rammed her shoulder into the door. "No, Kniff! Don´t!"
The right arm sank. This time, enormous steel spikes shot out of the ground where the brown Minion was standing. Fortunately, Parch rapidly wrapped his tail around the now risen left arm of the statue and grabbed Kniff´s shoulders, dragging him to safety. A few seconds later, the right arm rose again as well and the spikes disappeared into the ground. The two Minions let themselves fall to the ground.
"Both?" Parch proposed, grinning at Kniff.
"Both," Jinx agreed with a relieved sigh, glad they were both still alive.
"Right then," Kniff chuckled. He and Parch both took a jump at the knives. The Mother Goddess´ arms sank both at the same time, and the stone door rolled upwards. Jinx staggered out.
"Tadaa," she grinned.
"Jinxie!"
"I´m happy to see you too, Kniff," she said, slightly choked by the Minion´s grip around her neck.
Parch snorted. "Is still bound, idiot! Cut ropes!"
Kniff let go and drew his dagger. He started slicing away at the ropes. However, Jinx stepped back before he could complete his work. "Not those. Those are mine."
"Ropes?"
"Yep." Jinx looked at Parch. "And I can´t thank you enough for that, friend."
Parch beamed. Kniff was still confused. "What they for?"
"Come on outside."
The three of them walked through the temple and back to the cliffs. Deep below them, Sayron´s ship sailed past, on its way to a safe place to spend the night. It was no use to try and search the jungle for Key Stones at night. And by the look of the threatening clouds, the elves wouldn´t be able to do much either. There was a shred of rain season coming their way.
"Watch closely, Kniffy." Jinx cast out a rope to a thorny tree growing out of the cliff beneath them. She wrapped the rope around her wrist tightly and let herself fall.
"Jinxie! No!"
"Hahahaa!"
Kniff looked on, wide-eyed, as Jinx came flying back up, winked at him and swooped down again. She made another two vertical circles around the tree, landed on the cliff and pulled her rope free.
Kniff stood yawning at her for a moment. Then he punched Parch´s shoulder. "Changed! Ha!"
Parch spread his hands in apology. "Wanted it herself, Kniff. She learned more. You were gone long…"
But the brown was jumping around in joy. "If you not get spot in horde… I´m eating my hat!"
"I´m keeping you to it. I´ve had training with Giblet."
Kniff stood still, so abruptly he almost fell over. "Giblet…"
"Yup," Jinx nodded with a grin. "And Parch can tell you how many times that brute completely beat the living..."
An enormous roar rolled across the bay and cut off her words. The three of them cringed. Parch looked at the sky, where the dark clouds closed in, grumbling menacingly. "Going to rain," the red spoke, a quiver in his voice.
Jinx looked down. The ship still was close to their island. "Go. Go back to Sayron before you´re extinguished!"
Parch climbed down along the cliff. He looked back up. "Kniff."
The brown took a step back.
"Kniff…"
"Tell them I got killed by last elf."
"Disobedient!"
He grinned. "Coming back from the grave tomorrow."

On the south side of the bay, high on the cliffs above the water, a tiny light flashed through the darkened sky. In the north, something blinked back.
Morvan, keeper of the green Key Stone, let himself slide down with his back against the rock. "Jared´s leaving his Stone where it is. He´s afraid it´ll fall and break if the soil changes into mud and the cliffs get slippery."
"He´s got a point," another elf agreed. "It´s useless to try and get the Stones over the gate now, and besides, the Overlord has to sleep sometime…"
Morvan looked down from his vantage point high above the bay. He couldn´t see the ship anywhere. The red and blue Stones glowed with a challenging light from within their slots, weakening the Reef Gates. "I doubt that, but don´t try to get those two back. If he´s hiding somewhere, it´s there, watching them. We have to focus on what we do have."
"We trust in you, Morvan."
"Let´s go and find somewhere to shelter from the rain."

On the west side of the bay something dark jumped through the tree tops like obscure lightning. It consisted of two creatures, the both of them fully aware it´d be wiser to keep quiet. Still the reefs resounded with laughter and cheering, so loud the birds getting ready for the night felt themselves forced to take flight again, and the early creatures of the night chattered angrily wherever they went.
Kniff grabbed Jinx´ shoulders and the leather sheath on her back fiercely with all his claws. He let himself be swept along, wide-eyed with excitement, feeling like he finally wasn´t jealous of the reds anymore.
Jinx flew through the canopy, for the first time with no other purpose than just having fun.
She swung around a broad, parasite-covered tree, avoided the dangling air roots attempting to hit her in the face and climbed to the top with three jumps, where the branches were thin and the trunk was swaying gently. There, she let her legs down and sat on a branch, looking out over the bay. Kniff let himself slide off her back. He looked straight ahead for a moment, to where the final rays of the setting sun illuminated the Reef Gates and a pale moon rose above Everlight.
"Every sunset is the beginning of a magnificent night," Jinx spoke, peeling a banana. She handed one to Kniff as well.
Kniff nodded, a broad grin appearing on his face. "Missed you, Jinxie."
"Me too. That´s why I´ve been training. Now no one will ever get me out of the horde again, and I hopefully won´t have to fight you. Unless you´re leader already, of course…"
The brown Minion laughed. "Not by long shot. But I´ve been fighting and now Cleft and Raw are beneath me!"
"Well done!" Jinx slapped his shoulder. "Keep it up!"
Another thunderstroke ripped the sky above the reefs apart. Immediately, the rain came pouring down and within two seconds Kniff and Jinx were both soaked.
They looked at eachother. Then they both burst out laughing.
"Climb on, I´ll get us back to the temple where we can shelter."
Kniff did as she asked and hooked his claws around Jinx´ back again. She threw out her ropes in the whirling rain, trusting the position of a thick branch she´d spotted in the light of the last lighting. As they soared through the air, Jinx noticed it was trickier than she´d thought, because the wind had risen by now and the branches weren´t always where she thought them to be. Kniff tightened his grip.
"Don´t worry, buddy. I won´t let us fall."
Their way to the temple led them across a broad stream close to the bay. Jinx knew she´d have to watch out here, so she aimed for a statue of a hooded elf that couldn´t move in the wind. She shivered. After such a hot day, she hadn´t thought it could be as cold as this in the reef, but with soaked clothes and pouring rain it could perfectly well.
The rope pulled taut. Jinx jumped off their branch and swung to the island where the temple was situated.
Halfway through their sweeping arch, they were swinging up again, and that was when it happened. The square knot that had served her faithfully for months was now wet and slippery and most of all old. The rope had thinned around the knot already, and now it had had enough. Jinx´ left rope snapped.
The two fell down to the bay, some meters lower, and hit the hazy waves with a splash inaudible above the roar of the rain, wind and thunder.
Jinx disappeared below the surface for a moment, but then came up again, gasping for breath. The water was suddenly cold as well. Kniff´s claws were now gripping her with such force she knew she´d end up with some new scars. "Hold on, Kniff!" she yelled. "I´m swimming to the shore. It´ll be all right."
Kniff´s ears lay close against his head. The Minion clearly was afraid. Water was one of few things able to really terrify a brown Minion. He looked about him, his eyes darting over the waves surrounding him on all sides. "Quick then!"
Jinx swam to the angular piers of the temple island as fast as she could. It shouldn´t be hard to haul them on it, and then it´d be a matter of going up and making a fire in the temple…
Kniff´s grip tightened even further. Then the brown Minion was dragged off her back.
"KNIFF!" she roared. She turned with a kick of her legs and looked around wildly. Then she saw a glitter above the waves, and an orange fishtail hit the water with a loud slap. A mermaid.
"Give him back, overgrown mackerel!" She threw herself forward and dived into the salt water, furiously searching for a trace of glowing eyes in the darkness and hoping Kniff still had them open. Inside, she was screaming in rage. Why did everything she came across have to be a nuisance?
Something fleshy rammed her in the chest and she shot back to the surface like a cork. As she blinked the salt from her eyes she could just see an orange tail disappearing, but this couldn´t be the same mermaid, because she couldn´t see Kniff anywhere…
He had to be alive!
Something occurred to her. Would Sayron bother to bring the lower Minions from his horde back from the Well?
No! It wouldn´t get that far. She breathed in deeply and dived again. The moonlight shining from beneath the clouds glittered on the surface above her and formed a pale fan in the dark water.
A bloated form silhouetted itself against the fan.
Jinx kicked her legs and swam towards it. The form stopped and turned. The light shone on a deformed face with a broad mouth and black eyes. The pudgy hands had closed themselves around the arms of a brown Minion with closed eyes.
Jinx lowered her shoulder and swam into the mermaid. The fish creature raised her tail and tumbled forward, opening her mouth and closing it around Jinx´ arm. The broad lips parted to reveal razor-sharp teeth.
Jinx trashed with her good arm. The mermaid´s bite grew deeper and a cloud of blood floated up. Then a larger cloud followed, paler now, almost pink. The mermaid became limp. The diamond-shaped tip of Sayron´s sword was protruding from her back.
Jinx pulled the sword back, pleasantly surprised she´d been able to find enough strength to deal a deadly stab in water, and grabbed Kniff before the mermaid could drag him with her in her descend to the bottom.
Some moments later, Jinx threw herself on the stones of the temple island, panting. The rain was still beating down, with such force it hurt her head and bare arms. Kniff lay next to her, and he still wasn´t moving.
A splash sounded from the water behind her.
Jinx rolled over, to see the second mermaid jumping at her, her maw open and her hands ready to grab her and the Minion again and drag them below the surface forever.
In some way her hands managed to find the remaining rope and she snared the fish creature at the throat. The mermaid´s leap became an inelegant flight ending against the rock face. Before the stunned creature could regain herself, Jinx had placed a foot on the bloated stomach and Sayron´s gargantuan blade separated the misshapen head from the torso.
Jinx panted and let the sword clatter from her hands.
The raindrops crept across the glistening steel and reflected the moonlight. The sword was still lying there as she scooped Kniff up and carried him up the stairs.
Parch let his heartbeat calm down below deck, where the Minions slept. He had been standing far too close to the deck for some time, where the rain was now pounding the wood with the force of a sledgehammer. Sayron had regretted the fact Kniff was dead.
The red Minion pressed himself into the back wall as far as he could, where some more wood distanced him from the rain in the form of the aft castle, where Sayron slept. He shook his head wearily. Kniff, you´re crazy to stay outside.

A dripping silhouette staggered up the last steps and cast a dark shadow into the temple as the lightning flashed once more. Once inside, Jinx let herself fall to her knees immediately and laid Kniff on the stone floor. He did have a pulse, but it was irregular. His breathing was barely noticeable either.
Jinx stood up again and staggered out of the temple. Outside, she cast out her remaining rope and swung up into the trees.
A few minutes later, she landed again. She almost fell, but she was holding the limp body of a small monkey. Its neck was broken. Jinx carried the animal inside and laid it next to Kniff. Then she used her dagger to cut open the monkey´s chest. A soft golden light illuminated the temple in an eerie way. Life force.
She plucked the glowing core of the light from the monkey´s body, laid it on Kniff´s chest and pushed.
All the time, her own breathing had been rapid. She hadn´t taken the trouble of healing her own wounds. The mermaid´s bite was a circle of angry teeth marks on her upper arm. A misty haze was hanging in front of her eyes. Weren´t many tropical fish poisonous?
The life force disappeared into Kniff´s chest. For a moment, all was quiet.
The Minion sighed, then gasped and rolled over. His eyes opened slowly.
Next to him, Jinx fell over to her side and stayed that way. Her eyes were staring into nothingness and her breathing remained way too fast.
Kniff pushed himself up and laid her on her back. He bent over her and looked into her eyes.
"Jinxie…?"

"Jinxie."
Yellow eyes swam in front of hers. She was faintly aware of the fact she should answer, but everything was strangely hazy and her mouth didn´t work properly. She´d been able to save him. That was enough. Now she could do nothing anymore.
"Jinxie!"
The glowing eyes disappeared into a whirlpool of dark water. An enormous monster with blue eyes and the pointy ears of an elf tied her hands together and to her feet and then threw her into the depths, where she was swept along immediately. Along the shores of the river, people in white togas were standing, jeering at her. A man and a woman looked at her, silent and satisfied. Another woman, barely visible, outstretched her hands to her, crying.
"Witch! Witch!"
She tried to scream, but she couldn´t do that either, because a mermaid dragged her below the surface and hit her with her tail so she gained even more speed. The wild water swept her along to an immeasurable darkness full of fiery stars, where a stalactite jabbed down. A black dragon with three heads flew circles around the stalactite and then soared towards her. Enormous claws plucked her from the river and threw her down, where an orange glow was emanating up from the heart of the world.
Orange eyes in invisible faces were staring at her from all sides. She knew she had to hide, she couldn´t allow the eyes to see her, but how could she hide if they were everywhere and she was falling to her death?
The eyes flowed together and became elongated and yellow, in a pitch-black face.
"Find me."
And she tumbled down, with bound hands and feet, and there was no river and no net to catch her, and no blue Minion to save her if she died.
"Jinxie."

In the captain´s cabin, in the bed he barely fit in, Sayron´s impressive body rolled over. He growled for a moment. In the gauntlet of his armour, taken off and lying some meters away, the amber gem lit up.
For the briefest moment there seemed to be two yellow eyes staring at the sleeping Overlord. A shadow passed through the cabin and the rushing of leathery wings resounded; then it was gone and the Overlord´s dark dreams returned to their usual state.

Back at the Tower, Gnarl watched the mist pool fade out. He turned away, a strange hollow feeling in his stomach. Two Key Stones in place. Then why did he feel this way?
Kniff wasn´t dead, he knew that much. Something had been set in motion.
Something had been set in motion as soon as Mortis had laid his eyes on the drowned girl with the black hair, the girl Gnarl still knew he recognized something about.
He descended the stairs to the lower regions, feeling as if someone was watching over his shoulder.

At the base of the rocks, the sword still lay glistening in the pale rays of the enormous tropical moon.
Something jumped to the ground, silent on bare feet. Violet eyes flashed and a jump later the sword was gone.
Some more jumps, and the two Key Stones were standing a few centimeters further up the piers. The Reef Gates closed entirely again, with an almost inaudible click.

The rain had stopped.
In the pale light now hesitantly pouring into the temple, a little brown Minion was nervously walking circles, making his stretched shadow play across the inside of the cold stone building. From the jungle, a massive blanket of mist was rising up, the result of all the fallen water now warming up. Much of the world outside was white, and the bay and Reef Gates were barely visible.
In the most sheltered corner of the temple lay a stiff form, one arm laid across the chest. The arm was black and swollen, and rust-coloured drops crept down from a circle of teeth marks halfway. The sick tissue went on across Jinx´ chest and it was creeping up her neck as well.
Kniff glanced back and continued walking circles, trying hard not to look down to what he was holding in both his claws. It was his jagged dagger. He hadn´t had the courage all night. Now Jinx still wasn´t awake. Maybe he´d have to do it after all, before it really was too late.
Strange. He´d cut off limbs so many times without even giving it thought. But now it´d be like amputating his own arm.
Mutilated Minions were thrown out of the horde most of the time, and in most cases they died soon afterwards. Quaver was an exception. After he lost his eye he´d become a bard, as the position was vacant and he was quite the Minion for the job.
Kniff felt nauseous with the idea of mutilating Jinx. But if she´d live it´d maybe be worth it.
He turned and approached her. Her breathing was shallow and her breath smelled strange. Kniff noticed a moving haze on her arm, like gleaming northern lights. He looked at it for a moment, hoping it might be magic, but it hadn’t made any difference for the entire night.
He took his dagger in his right hand and swallowed. Then he knelt next to her, laid her arm next to her body and tied her remaining rope tightly around her shoulder to cut off the bloodstream.
He looked at the dagger. It was very jagged, made to slice seal meat in Nordberg. It would be messy if he tried amputating her arm with this. But Jinx’ own dagger was just like it, and the sword was gone. Kniff shivered. Both the Master and Giblet would have them drawn and quartered for that.
He took a firm grip on the tainted arm and put the dagger to Jinx’ shoulder, just below the rope. And pushed, with a sawing movement.

Nessuna’s house was, on the outside, like any other in Nordberg – low, with a thick straw roof. On the inside however…
It was dark. The heavy curtains only let in a tiny chink of light, giving the place a suffocating atmosphere. The walls were dark and hung with strange objects. On a large table, some black candles stood burning. There was no fireplace, very strange for a Nordbergian house, but still it was very warm, and in some way Kivner knew it’d been warm during the winter, too.
There were dried plants hanging from some of the ceiling beams. He was certain they weren’t Nordbergian. Some stuffed animals stared at him and Estua with glassy eyes. As he looked harder he could see it weren’t common animals. There were humanoids among them, some gnomes, but also a fairy with leaf-like wings and black eyes. They didn’t show any signs of violence like stitched arrow wounds or the like.
Kivner caught a glimpse of a large four-poster bed through a half-opened door. It was round, there were three metal spikes sticking up at the foot, and above the head was a horned skull of hammered steel, hanging from chains. The cushions and blankets seemed to be remarkably soft and expensive, however.
He turned to the woman, who’d taken off her hood. He estimated her to be in her forties, but she was very pretty. "Who are you?"
She threw her cloak over a chair. "I’ve just told you, darling. My name’s Nessuna."
"Where are you from?"
She looked at him and pursed her lips. "Ask no strange questions, receive no strange answers. Now, the reason I’ve invited you here is simple. You’re headed for a nice spot at the Overlord’s feet, but you have no idea how to handle this sort of thing."
"And you do?"
Nessuna smiled, a cold smile that made shivers run down even Kivner’s back. It was the smile a snake would give a rabbit. "More than you’d believe."
For the first time since they’d entered, Estua opened her mouth. "Forgive me, but how could a whore help us with this?"
Nessuna looked at her, her grey eyes glistening. "Oh, I might be a practiser of the nightly arts, but I’m more than just a whore, darling. Now, sit."
The two obeyed her immediately. Nessuna lowered herself in a velvet-lined chair and crossed her legs. "For a start, you can’t speak to the crowds like this."
Kivner brought a hand to his bandaged face and lowered his eyes.
Estua sat up straight in her chair. "You mean..."
Nessuna smiled thinly. "People aren’t supposed to fear you, Kivner."
"But it was Lord Sayron who did this to me..."
"Being his loyal servant I’m sure you can accept help if it’s offered you. Stay with me for a while and I’ll make sure you regain your full powers of... persuasion."

There was a red parrot, sitting on the very tip of the mast, even above the ragged red flag he´d tied to it after they´d looted the precious fabrics from the Empire galleon.
The bird cawed softly and fluttered its wings, but it stayed where it was. For a regular animal, that wouldn´t be that smart when a brown Minion with a rather large sword between his teeth was climbing towards it.
Scabies´ claws pulled grooves in the mast as he hauled himself up. A moment later, he swung his legs around the tip of the mast and reached out to the parrot. The bird examined him for a moment, the black bandana tied over his ears, the other sword that was tied to his back. And hopped over to the Minion´s tanned shoulder.
Scabies sheathed his second sword on his back and laughed happily.
From the rigging, a coconut came whirring towards him, hitting him square between the eyes and causing him to come crashing down from the mast. The parrot elegantly took flight and followed its new owner down in a rather calmer pace. It landed on a rope which Scabies was now hanging from by one foot and a knee, shaking his fist at another Minion, higher up in the rigging.
"Get that one back! Stuff it in yer trap, Gloob!"
"Good luck," the other large Minion grinned.
"Oh, you…"
A sharp growl made the two look up abruptly. They immediately obeyed that voice. Stripe was looking on intently from the rigging at the ship´s prow.
Scabies carefully untied himself from the ropes. After some seconds of struggle, he smacked down to the deck, looking up to the leader of his horde. "What you see, Stripe?"
The biggest Minion turned. "Straight ahead. Mast," his voice rasped.
They were sailing right in the middle of the bay now, in front of the Reef Gates. Before their prow lay the stretch of land supporting one side of the doors, forming a natural cave at water level, but it was blocked with several big rocks. They seemed like they´d been placed there on purpose.
As Gloob and Scabies were watching, something thrust aside those rocks. They both recognized it to be a dragon´s head, but this one was made of elven steel and attached to another ship´s prow.
At the helm, Sayron tensed. And in the Tower, Gnarl suddenly was all attention.
"Look, Sire! The yellow Key Stone! They must have thought we wouldn´t be here this early!"
"Why sailing?" Gloob asked. Next to him, Scabies rubbed his claws together. "Doesn’t matter! We hijack ship, keelhaul elfies, make off with booty!" He grinned something deserving the rare title of a monstrously big grin.
Gnarl studied the ship for a moment. It was large and elegant, befitting of the elves, and it had large dark sails and a battering ram at the front, shaped like a dragon´s head. It still was rather far away from them and it was sailing fast. If they weren´t careful, it might just succeed in escaping them. "I don´t think they´re trying to sail through the gates…"

Jared turned the magnificently carved wheel sharply. Something was approaching from the mist, and it wasn´t good. The blond elf knew he ought to fear the Nordbergian ship far more than whichever enormous Empire galleon.
He whistled. From the rigging, other elves let themselves fall down to the deck. "I see," one of them nodded.
Jared clenched his teeth. "I didn´t hear from Nadir or Chador anymore."
"Morvan was signaling last night."
"Yes, and that´s why we have to give everything we´ve got to get the Stone to him. He´s guarding the only place where we can get the Stone over the gates." He looked back, to the Stone with the gold-coloured glow emanating from the eyes and mouths, firmly tied to the deck. Then he turned back to the approaching Nordbergian ship with the clearly visible heathen demons jeering at them from the rigging, and the even clearer shadow at the helm.
"If the Mother Goddess is with us, the Horizonbreaker fulfills the purpose she was built for, and she´ll outrun that demon."

"The Unholy God is with us, Sire, you´ve got enough red Minions with you."
Parch beamed. He´d be in the spotlights, already! He was standing on deck with the rest of his clan, fireballs at the ready, looking on expectantly at the elven ship sailing past them and waiting for it to be close enough.
"Show me burning sails," Gnarl snickered. Sayron gave the command.
Parch lobbed his fire like he´d never done before. His sparks landed in the carefully tended and dried sail, lighting up like small, deadly stars. The sparks thrown by Hoarse, Smoky, Blister and the others joined his. The elves, however, whistled rather than screaming, and jumped to the sails like one to extinguish the starting fire. The ship sailed on, and Sayron had to turn the wheel as fast as he could to keep up.
"Row, guys! All to the oars, you too, Scabies!"
Scabies jolted. He´d been standing at the prow, his head full of sails, flags and nautical chases. He pulled his bandana over one eye and quickly ran to the oars below deck, the parrot fluttering behind him.
With just Sayron and the reds on deck, an exhausting pursuit started. The elven ship was fast, so fast the Nordbergian often could barely keep up. From time to time, the Overlord thought they´d never succeed, when the dark, bat-like sail almost disappeared in the rising mist or behind a curve in the unpredictable maze of islands.
But the elves were far off-course. They simply tried getting away from Sayron now, and after a while they didn´t work with enough caution anymore.
Before their prow, the reefs opened up. They´d returned to the bay.
The elven ship tried turning around to plunge into another stream at the west side of the gates, but before they could do so the Nordbergian ship was upon them and the reds finally could throw all the fire they wanted. It was raining magical sparks, and now the browns also came up from below deck to keep the elves occupied. The sails finally ignited. The elven ship wouldn´t be that swift anymore.
The Overlord waited until the Minions had pulled the two ships together close enough, and then stepped over himself. He brushed away two elves, both hung with fighting Minions, and stepped straight towards the blond elf at the helm.
Jared swallowed and drew his sword. He knew very well he didn´t stand a chance anymore. He glanced at the waves nervously. Was that an orange tail?
Sayron gripped the elf´s throat. "Fleeing for me is useless. So is fighting back."
With those words, he threw the elf overboard, where the mermaids raged out their anger for two lost sisters. Very soon, there was nothing left to be seen, except a couple of ominous bubbles in the misty water.
The Overlord turned around to the rest of the broad deck. The last burning elf sunk down and got thrown into the sea by four proud Minions. The yellow Stone gleamed in the morning light.
"Well, well. You seem to have a talent for piracy, Sire."
Gnarl´s gaze was drawn to a single Minion, sheathing his two blades on his back and coaxing his parrot to return to his shoulder with a loud ´arrr´. "But what´d you expect with Minions like that in your horde."

A scream echoed around the top of one of the islands. If you looked hard enough, you might make out a temple on it.
The scream went on for some time, then it died away in a series of feverish sobs and moaning.
Then it went silent.
Then a very soft sound could be heard. It was creaking, slightly nauseating. It was the sound of healing bone that might have been sawed in.
In the temple´s interior, Kniff sat on his knees, watching with wide eyes as patches of healthy skin appeared on Jinx´ black arm. Blood flowed from the wound he´d inflicted upon her, but the wound was busy closing up – bone, muscle, flesh and skin. Jinx herself barely seemed to notice anything of this. Her eyes were half-open, but only the white was visible. She was entirely limp.
The last of the black disappeared from her skin. The wound closed up to a gash several centimeters wide, still slowly leaking blood. The rope he´d tied around her arm fell to the stone temple floor.
Kniff bowed his head. His ears pointed down respectfully. "Mistress," he muttered with a quivering voice. "Forgive me."
The rope flicked out and wrapped itself around his throat. He choked as his head was pulled down.
When he was at her eye level, Jinx opened her eyes and looked at him. "Don´t you dare say that again, Kniff. Ever."
"J…Jinx?"
"That´s Jinxie to you..." She closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed to a rhythm telling him she was unconscious again.
Kniff carefully untied the rope from this throat and stood up. He picked up his dagger and looked at the sleeping body.
He´d keep watch over her as long as he needed to.

The elven ship obeyed him as if it was a dream. Sayron was standing at the helm, a big grin on his face, letting his gaze travel along the white sails they´d taken off the Nordbergian ship and attached to the bat-like side masts of the Horizonbreaker. This ship was swifter, more maneuverable and stronger. He didn´t like to admit it, but the elves knew a thing or two.
Right now, he was navigating the ship back to where Jared had come from – the overhanging rock on the south of the bay. He could already see the slot for the yellow Stone, overlooking the water from high above their heads.
Then the view was obscured by a ceiling of rock, overgrown with upside down vines and flowers. The light reflected by the azure waters played over the leaves mysteriously.
He could see a stone dock, crumbled but useable. He steered the ship to the shore cautiously and docked. Five Minions took the Stone.
Sayron looked around. He knew where the slot was, but how did he get there? On his left, where they´d come from and where the slot was overlooking the bay, was a steep rock face. On his right, a barely visible trail led into the jungle.
Even if the reds could climb the rock face, they wouldn´t be able to take the Stone with them.
The Overlord chose the path and walked into the jungle. A moment later the rustling undergrowth closed around the Stone.
Five minutes later, Sayron had to admit he could very well be completely lost. Everywhere around him, walls of green rose, and the path was barely visible. More often than not, thorny plants grew over it, and he knew there could be an elven ambush waiting for him any moment now. He´d never admit it, but he felt vulnerable.
He looked back. The Minions carrying the Stone were still following him. There was a red parrot sitting atop the Stone.
Just as he was about to look forward again he slipped and fell face-down in the sand.
Wait... sand?
He pushed himself up on his arms and looked up. Straight into the black eyes of a mermaid sunning herself on the small beach. The beach and water ahead were teeming with more. The Overlord swallowed.
So that was the reason they hadn´t run into any elves yet. This island was defended by something else.
"Oh, the world for a pile of potatoes and a bucket of vinegar," Gnarl sighed.
"Not funny, Gnarl!"
"Excuse me, Sire."
The mermaid snapped at him. Sayron quickly scrambled to his feet and cut her in half with three strokes of his axe. The tail end continued to wriggle for several seconds.
The other mermaids screeched an awfully high cry of fury. They swam to the beach and started to haul themselves onto the sand. The red Minions threw fire at them, but they refused to ignite. The browns approached them carefully. Being pulled under was the last thing they wanted. Swords, daggers, axes and clubs were swung at the fish creatures. In the end, it were Scabies’ twin swords doing the most damage, and his parrot pecking at the mermaids’ eyes. Sayron waded into the water and made sure not all of them could reach his Minions at once.
He caught a flash in the corner of his eye, green on green. He turned.
Four elves were using the confusion to try and make off with the Stone.
"Minions! Back to the Stone!" he yelled. He turned back to the water, just in time to whack a jumping mermaid aside. His axe got stuck in the rough scales and he fell into the water as well. A moment later he hauled himself to his feet, dripping wet and still wrestling the mermaid.
A couple of Minions hurried after the Stone. They jumped onto the elves’ shoulders, and one of the reds climbed over their backs to the flat top of the Stone, where he could aim for the tops of their heads. Before long, the elves were forced to let go of the Stone.
"Hey!"
Raw looked up, his long knife gripped in his claw. High in a tree, almost perfectly camouflaged save his black hair, was an elf with a bow.
One second later, the Minion didn’t see anything at all because of the arrow that’d buried itself between his eyes and into his head.

Mortis pulled himself out of the river, dripping with icy water. He shook himself, dry within seconds thanks to his smooth, waterproof skin. He pulled his cloak on and raised the hood.
A lighting form drifted past him and dived into the Well. Mortis went after it and looked down.
"Raw," he said, shaking his head wearily. "I think I’m going to install a revolving door, just for you."

Sayron ripped his axe from the mermaid’s carcass and waded from the water, his feet sopping in his heavy boots. He was walking as fast as he could, however.
"You there! Let go of that Stone!"
The black-haired elf stopped winching in the rope for a moment, attached to a wheel on a higher branch and supporting a net containing the yellow Stone. Violet eyes pierced Sayron’s. "Why should I?"
"The thing’s mine." Sayron let the blue lightning ignite around his arm.
"I see I don’t stand a chance," the elf spat, his voice dripping with poison. He let go of the rope and jumped away, just as the lightning struck on his branch. A faraway rustling and he was gone.
"Good. Get the Stone and let’s get out of here."

Beyond the beach, the path miraculously continued. It led them up across the island in a wide arch, and gradually closer to the spot they wanted to get to. Eventually, they reached an elevator much like the one they’d encountered with the blue Key Stone. The Minions placed the Stone in the hole and let themselves be taken up with their Master. From there, the slot was clearly visible. A minute later, a golden light flamed across the length of the overhanging rock and illuminated the bay.
Sayron looked out over the water. Straight in front of them was another overhanging rock where the slot for the green Stone was located.
"Hmm…"
"Do you see what I see, Sire?"
"The light from the red and blue Stones is gone."
"One of those reckless elves must have given them a shove. Let us go and do something about it."
"I’m going to go and do something about it. You’ll continue sitting next to the throne."
"You mustn’t take me so literally, Sire."

A red flash lit up the fading mists. Kniff saw it happening from the temple entrance.
Behind him, crouched but sitting up, Jinx was looking on. "They’re back. You have to go to them, Kniff."
The brown Minion silently looked down. A few minutes later, a blue flash followed.
"Come on. Last chance." Jinx shifted. "I’ll be okay. I’ll get home. But you, Kniff… you have to go with the horde. Go."
He looked back. His yellow eyes gleamed from underneath his hat. "Sure?"
"Hey, don’t feel bad because you nearly sawed my arm off." She snickered. "I’m fine. I command you to go, lunatic!"
Kniff nodded with a lopsided grin. He raised his hat for a moment, turned and sprinted down the stairs.
Jinx sighed and rubbed her arm. Her plans didn’t quite work out as she’d thought. But luckily she was conscious again, though the Minion had had to nearly saw her arm off to break the poison sleep…
A golden light was playing over the south side of the bay. With the red and blue Key Stones in place, only one was left. Then the ship would be able to sail through the Reef Gates. Without her.
Jinx painfully pulled herself to her feet.

The winds and waves effortlessly took the elven ship to the north side of the bay, where the empty slot was overlooking the water. The problem was, there wasn’t such a nice entry as at the south.
So Sayron and the horde sailed through the reefs, searching, close to the slot’s island but further and further away from the bay in their attempt to gain entry to a piece of rock without beaches where they could dock, but with incredible amounts of sheer cliff.
Sayron looked about him. His eyes came to rest upon two pointy ears sticking up above the prow. He stretched his neck. "Is that a Minion standing on the dra- Ooo…"
Scabies looked back and climbed back on deck. He´d been standing atop the dragon´s head, looking out over the water. He started to realize he wasn´t such an aquaphobe as the rest, a fact confusing him greatly. Now he was looking up to his Master expectantly.
Sayron scanned his surroundings again, but with new eyes now.
Yes, those rocks over there…
He turned the wheel and sailed straight to the rock wall, consisting of relatively loose rocks, piled together to a height of one and a half meters above the water.
The dragon´s head trust itself between them and wrenched the rocks apart. After half a minute of wrestling and furious rowing, the Horizonbreaker sailed on without problems.
However, at the spot where it was easiest to dock, a straight-out war was going on.
"Well, well," Gnarl said, amused. "And we didn´t even have to enter…"
One side of the war consisted of elves. The other of Empire soldiers.

Kniff rowed himself silly. The Master hadn´t taken it well, him being reported as dead while he´d spent the entire night having fun on another island without so much as crying out across the water. So now, the little Minion was manning an oar all by himself.
He couldn´t say he enjoyed it. He didn´t feel quite so good after being nearly – no, all drowned last night. He could imagine how Jinx felt right now, alone at the temple.
Then someone yelled for them to stop, and Kniff crossed his oar. He sped to the stairs and climbed on deck. There a true storm of weapons was raging. Kniff had to look twice before he realized none of them had gone ashore yet.
Ooo… these were the shinies against the pointy-ears…
This was something a Minion liked to see. Two groups of enemies trying to rip eachother apart. Kniff rubbed his claws together and bared his pointy teeth in a grin.
Sayron didn´t grin, because he was estimating the situation. It seemed the Empire was still winning. Their weapons were new, and made in large quantities, in contrast to the ancient elven swords. The soldiers were also wearing far better armour than the elves.
"Look there! It´s the Demon Lord of Nordberg!"
Ah. They´d been noticed. It wasn´t strange, really, as all Minions were on deck cheering for one of the fighting parties. That didn´t take away the fact the entire deck was bristling with arrows within two seconds, bearing both the red feathers of the Empire and the vivid parrot plumage of the elves. Scabies´ parrot cawed in disgust.
"Sail a little way back into the bay, Sire. The only thing you need to do is watch," Gnarl snickered. "They tear eachother’s throats out where you´re standing!"
Sayron let the Minions use the oars in reverse, so the ship pulled back out of range of every archer. He scanned the fight again. "It seems like the elves are defending something," he remarked.
Gnarl was silent for a moment. Then: "Maybe they´re trying to make off with the green Stone…"
"Over the Reef Gates?"
"If I were an elf," the advisor shivered with disgust for a second, "I´d try to get that last Stone to Everlight."
"We can send the reds down the cliff if we´re too late."
"It´s unlikely they´ll want to climb above the ocean, Sire. They´ll be very nervous and won´t stand much of a chance in a fight."
Sayron stared at the fight on the shore for a moment. "In that case, I hope that lot hurries murdering eachother."

However much the Overlord thought of trying it, it would be utterly impossible for a Minion, or even a horde of them, to enter the fray and survive. When both the Empire and the elves would turn against them, as they would, the little creatures would get chopped to pieces in no time. The fact most of the horde now consisted of reds didn´t improve matters.
What didn´t improve matter either was the fact that everyone was busy cutting all the others to tiny pieces on this small beach because they couldn´t go any further. Further in the jungle was a narrow path between two cliffs, both hung with bamboo platforms with elves on. The elves were busy keeping all unwanted trespassers away by throwing a strange fruit at them, certainly not coconuts, because as they hit the ground they erupted into a sickly green cloud, emanating an awful smell and causing even the most hardy soldiers to run the other way coughing, panting and with tears stinging their eyes. In most cases, they immediately impaled themselves on one of the many swords.
Beyond the bottleneck the cliffs rose steeply, marble stairs leading up in their middle to the spot where Morvan was standing next to the green Key Stone. He peered down to the bay. There lay the Nordbergian ship. He didn´t see Jared´s ship anywhere. He was still waiting for the yellow Stone. But it wouldn´t take long for him to realize the Overlord was already on the island, and then he´d lower the Stone, whether Kamáel´s ship would be waiting or not.
Morvan turned sharply. There was some commotion with the poison throwers. The elves on the platforms didn´t have their attention with the soldiers trying to fight themselves up anymore, but with… yes, what was it, exactly? It was too fast to follow properly. It was a hazy brown flash swinging through the trees on a thread, letting loose green poison clouds without warning as it tossed the stolen fruit everywhere…

"Sire! Look!" Gnarl called with urge. Sayron blinked. The screams of battle had changed tone. He narrowed his eyes.
"What is happening there?"
"Fleeing, cowardly landlubbers!" Scabies shouted. He laughed. "Gotten scared!"
"All of them?" Gloob asked himself.
Scabies turned to him. "What?"
"Shinies and pointy-ears running away."
Scabies took a closer look at the fight. "…"
On his other side, Kniff was leaning on the rail with a grin. It was invisible to the untrained eye, but his eyes were trained. As he was watching, the barely visible figure of Jinx came sailing back to the trees at the shore with a new supply of poison fruit. Green clouds mushroomed up and elves and soldiers ran apart or jabbed around blindly.
Sayron gave more sail. The ship drifted back to the shore. "I think we can dock safely…"
"It´s a miracle, but you won´t hear me complaining, Sire!"

Jinx held a straight course for a second. She could feel herself wobbling on her rope. She wasn´t stable with just one, but she´d have to make do. Luckily she could spare her wounded arm, but the healing process continued just the same and she felt better and better. And those poison bombs were utter brilliance. She laughed as she chased another group of soldiers apart, swearing to every god they knew and just to be sure, Jinx heard, some Nordbergian gods and the Mother Goddess with them. She had the faint feeling another god was still missing out, but then she lobbed another bomb in the foolishly raised face of a brown-haired elf who clawed at his eyes a second later, bawling like a child.
This was fun! She hadn´t had this much fun in ages!
She looked ahead. "…Oh, shit."
The Overlord was coming ashore.
She flew into the canopy, found herself a broad branch and stayed there. Sayron could watch his own back from here.

The Overlord in question strode straight between the soldiers and elves, surprised but glad. Almost all of them were coughing, moaning and crying without watching their step and totally unaware of him and the Minions. The ones still able to see were ridiculously easy to kill.
"You´ve got yourself a fan, Sire."
"It seems to be so," Sayron muttered. He racked his memory for someone capable of swooping around invisibly, rapidly throwing poison fruit from above, but couldn´t think of anyone. Gnarl could, but he kept silent. To his own surprise, the elder Minion was smiling slightly.
They reached the bottleneck. The elves on the platforms had all been strangled, with a rough rope by the look of their necks. Kniff had to clasp both his claws to his mouth to not burst out laughing.
"Halt, demon!"
"Why does everybody call me that?" Sayron asked himself as Morvan jumped out of the undergrowth, brandishing his sword. "Are you the guardian of the green Stone, elf?"
Morvan bounced from one foot to the other nervously, his green eyes darting between the Overlord and the Minions. "Yes! Back or I´ll…"
"And how many accompany you?"
Morvan stopped bouncing and tried to look confident. He knew his last reinforcements were running around on the beach, howling in pain.
Sayron raised a gauntleted hand and aimed for the elf´s forehead. A stream of blue sparks hit him between the eyes, Morvan became limp, and…
"…I´ll do anything for you, my Lord," the elf spoke as he stood up straight again.
"Good! Put the green Stone in place!" Sayron commanded triumphantly. "Four of you, go help him," he said with a gesture to his Minions.

An emerald flash lit the mists on the north side of the bay.
The Reef Gates, whose opening and closing were memorable and rare events, shivered. The gigantic stone doors scraped together, rumbling with such a low sound it was felt rather than heard. The light of the passing morning played over the jaguar, the feathered snake, the blank eyes. Sixteen pairs of similar eyes looked on as the doors parted, glowing in four different colours. Sixteen gaping mouths sang a soundless song.
The gates opened.
Atop the overhanging rock in the north the Overlord looked on, the numb body of Morvan standing beside him. Sayron patted the elf on the shoulder. "Well done," he laughed.
"You did it, Magnificent One!"
"Thank you, Gnarl! I couldn´t have done it without you."
Or me, Jinx thought, higher up the cliffs. She watched as Sayron and the horde turned and walked underneath her, back to the ship. She continued looking out over the bay for a second. She´d contributed more than before. Thanks to her, Sayron had been able to claim the red Stone without effort, as Nadir lay dead in the Empire camp. She´d beat the battle for the green Stone apart. She´d almost died, too, but that aside…
She smiled as she heard the splashing of the oars. She ought to get going. She wanted to try and hide on the ship, to postpone the moment Sayron would discover her some more. She had to confess she didn´t have a plan concerning that…
Sayron.
The sword!
Jinx felt her heart skip a beat. Her hand flew to the empty sheath on her back. She´d been so distracted by her fast recovery and Sayron´s success she hadn´t even noticed she´d forgotten the sword on the pier…
In the meantime, the ship was sailing to the Reef Gates. She hurriedly stood up and wanted to cast out her rope.
Light footsteps resounded on the overhanging rock beneath her. A black-haired elf came out from underneath the rock.
Jinx gasped. There, tied to his back with still green vines…
…was the sword.
"Kamáel!"
The elf´s head jerked up and he saw her. He bared his teeth in a grimace of surprise. "Who are you?"
Jinx threw out her rope to his throat, but the elf swiftly dodged it and smashed his shoulder into the green Stone. It wobbled.
"No!"
Jinx looked about her in surprise. She hadn´t called out…
Morvan shot out from beneath the rock and grabbed Kamáel´s arms. The two were wrestling so furiously they both nearly fell off the cliff.
Then the sound of steel to flesh resounded and Morvan faltered. The jagged blade of Sayron´s sword was sticking out of his back, in the exact same way it had done with the mermaid. Jinx looked on wide-eyed. Kamáel´s face was expressionless. His violet eyes were cold as ice.
He walked back to the Stone, as a large pool of blood spread around Morvans body. He put his shoulder against it and pushed.
"No."
It was her this time. Jinx let herself fall off the rock and stepped towards the elf. "No, you won´t do this. Not after all that´s been done to get things this way."
The ship was sailing between the gates.
Kamáel gave the Stone one last shove. It staggered, spun and slid out of the slot. The green glow faded.
The Reef Gates shivered again. And started closing.

The waves closed in on the ship from all sides. Sayron looked around wildly. "Vessperion´s name, what´s happening now?"
"The Stones, Sire! The green Stone!"
The Overlord looked up to the slot. The green light was gone. But there, atop the overhanging rock, were two struggling figures.
Sayron looked at Kniff. The Minion seemed nailed to the deck.
He realized.
"Jinx…"
"No time, Sire! Get out of there!"
But even Gnarl could see the ship wouldn´t be able to get past the gates in time, nor could they turn back. They´d be crushed between the ancient stone doors.

Kamáel hit Jinx in the face and she stepped back. He towered over her, the gargantuan blade in his hand. She let her rope shoot out, snared the hand and pulled, but he didn´t let go of the sword.
She looked down in panic. The gates kept closing! If she didn´t hurry…
Her gaze lingered on the waters of the bay.
She ran across the rock to the edge and leaped.
For a second, Kamáel stared after her, then the rope pulled taut and his hand was yanked down. The rest of him followed. He staggered to the edge, struggling to keep upright as the sword clattered to the rock. "Let go, girl! I won´t kill you!"
"I know! I also know the Overlord will!" Jinx called up.
Kamáel flailed for a little bush growing out of the rock and tried to stay on. "Then why are you doing this?!"
Jinx kicked herself away from the rock and jerked and pulled like her life did depend on it. The gates were almost scraping the sides of the ship.
Atop the rock, Morvans fingers trembled. He hauled up his upper body very slowly, blood gulping from his mouth, and let his fists descend on Kamáel´s fingers.
The black-haired elf let go and fell down to the bay. Jinx let go of the rope just in time, smacked into the rock face and clung to it with her hands and feet. She scrambled up very quickly and sprinted for the Stone. She started banging her shoulder into it until it was one big bruise – and it clicked into the slot.
Morvan lowered himself and sighed for the very last time.
Jinx let her breath escape.
Then she took the sword and climbed up over the rock face even further.

The wooden sides of the Horizonbreaker had been stuck between the Reef Gates, but now the stone maw was opening again. The rock pulled back from the deep scratches on the ship´s prow. The wind filled the sails, and they sped up…
At the Tower, Gnarl and Kelda breathed out.
Sayron looked back to the small figure climbing the rocks and running over the open gates to the ship. The bright sunlight glinted off something tied to her back.
Jinx jumped off the Reef Gates with spread arms and dived to the ocean in a free fall. A loud splash caused the water next to the ship to spray up.
"Throw out a rope," Sayron said without looking away. A second splash told him the Minions had obeyed him. A moment later, they pulled her up, dripping, panting and grinning.
"Greetings, Lord Sayron," Jinx said with a bow.
He turned to face her. "What´s that on your back?"
She reached backwards. "Your sword, Lord. Giblet´s forged it and I´ve come to deliver it. You´ll need it when we…"
"You came after me again. You meddled with my business and my Minions. You have fought with a sword forged for me."
"Um… yes, but…"
"I´ve grown a bit tired of you, Jinx." Sayron raised a hand. Blue sparks whirled around it as he outstretched a finger to Jinx´ forehead. "I think I´m going to make you a bit easier to live with."
"M-Master," Kniff muttered. Sayron ignored him. His orange eyes pierced Jinx´ as he let loose his magic.
Jinx went limp and her eyes rolled upward.

Chapter Text

Part 2: Conquest

Blue energy flamed from Jinx´ eyes. She slowly sunk to her knees, her arms hanging limp and her face raised to Sayron.
Next to the Overlord, Kniff bit his fingers, hard. He felt torn. The need to help Jinx was almost as strong as the urge to obey Sayron.
Jinx closed her eyes. Kniff knew that, when she would open them again, she would no longer be the one he´d known.
And he was right.
As Jinx opened her eyes it seemed as though the magic was still streaming out. They were bright blue and devoid of pupils; just two spheres of pure blue light.
"No, my Lord," she spoke with a voice not at all like the one she was supposed to speak with.
Sayron froze. In the Tower, Gnarl did the same. The advisor bent over the mist pool so low he almost fell into it, but at that moment the pool went black. However, he was able to make out two pinpricks of yellow.
Jinx stood up and looked Sayron in the eye. "You can´t dominate me." Her eyes were still glowing as bright as his, and her voice was strange, very strange.
"Why not?" Sayron asked, trying to hide his surprise. The girl suddenly emanated a feeling of power…
"This magic is already flowing through my veins. I am at least as dark as you, Sayron, son of Vessperion, as dark as all those before him." She smiled and for just one moment, Sayron heard the sound of gigantic wings above his head, and he felt as though he was having a déjà vu. He shook himself, unsure what to do.
At that moment, the glow of Jinx´ eyes faded and they took on their familiar grey colour. She fell to her knees again and gripped her head in both hands. "Aai…"
"What just happened?" Gnarl asked, flustered. "Your signal fell away, Sire!"
Sayron looked down on the crouched girl. Then he hit her against the side of the head with enormous force, his metal gauntlet knocking her over. She fell to her hands, her dark hair obscuring her face. Blood dripped to the deck.
"You´re going below deck and you´re going to row," Sayron growled. "On your own on an oar, and if you try this again on two."
Jinx unsteadily climbed to her feet and went below deck, without raising her head.
Sayron half turned to his Minions. Some of them were staring at him with wide eyes. "What are you looking at? To your stations!"

The image in the mist pool was still disturbed. It seemed like the pool was hesitating, trying to show two images at once.
Gnarl thoughtfully dipped a long finger into it. Now he knew what it felt like when others knew something you didn´t. What had just happened on deck?
Sayron had really seemed startled. Not that it was a bad thing, of course. An Overlord had to be kept alert, and Gnarl often took care of that himself. He was more than happy if he could give his Master a challenge.
"But you do know who´s really handing out the challenges, don´t you, Gnarl?"
The advisor looked up. The portal on the ceiling had changed. Instead of blue, it was now shining with a dark glow which hurt the eyes, even his. Three pairs of elongated yellow eyes emerged from the shadows.
Gnarl bowed, deeper than he´d ever done for any Overlord. His spine creaked for a moment. "Unholy Lord. You honour me. Was that you, just then?"
"Yes," three voices whispered together. "The girl´s head is an interesting place."
"Good to hear that," Gnarl said with uncharacteristic nervosity.
"Keep an eye on her, Gnarl. And never forget… to watch your own back."
"Certainly not, Lord!"
"I think I´m going to please this world with a little visit soon," the three dragon maws spoke. "This can be quite fun…" With those words, the voices died away, and the portal regained its normal blue glow. Gnarl let his breath escape. He shivered – he suddenly felt very mortal. He always had that when he saw the one responsible for both his creation and his impressive age.

Jinx grumpily eyed her oar and did her best not to row too hard. From the outside, it was clearly visible which oar was hers – the one trailing loose in the waves every couple of seconds.
The one moment she handed him the sword. Another, he tried to brainwash her. And the next he whacked her in the head!
"Well, I learned an important lesson today," she said to herself. "I´m not helping him ever again!" And with those words she crossed her oar and stood up from her bench. She wanted to walk to the stairs leading up to the deck as she suddenly felt the tip of a sword prodding her back.
She turned. The sword pointed at her had a gold-coloured handle with dark spirals, and it was firmly gripped by a claw belonging to Stripe. The strongest Minion of the horde was looking at her intently, his eyes glowing in the gloom.
"What?" she asked, her hands spread in incense.
Stripe narrowed his eyes, but he was smiling. "Heard that."
"Yeah, and? This is ridiculous!"
"Heard more," the Minion with the centurion helmet continued. From behind his back, Kniff popped up, a guilty expression on his face. "Sorry, Jinxie! Flapped out…"
Stripe poked his sword a little further in Jinx´ direction. "Fought Giblet, hm?"
"Kniff, what did you tell him?" Jinx asked with a growing sense of discomfort.
Kniff shuffled his feet and looked down.
"Kniff!"
The Minion looked up. "Bet for six bottles of rum you´re leader of the horde ‘fore nightfall," he blurted out.
Jinx´ heart sank. "Oh, no…"
"Sorry, Jinxie."
"Sun´s setting already," Stripe grinned, his sword still pointing forward. "On deck?"
"Why not here?" Jinx shrugged.
Stripe lowered the sword for a moment. "If you lose, have to fight Kniff. Elseway you´ll be thrown out of horde."
"Why Kniff? Cleft is the weakest now."
"Part of bet."
Jinx looked at Kniff. His eyes were glistening. "Now or never. He had to take it, Jinxie."
"Oh, great. Why not just leave me for the mermaids? I don´t even have my ropes anymore…"
"Parch says you not use those against Giblet either."
Stripe walked away from her. Jinx turned away from Kniff and looked at the large Minion, standing in the dark. For a moment it seemed like Giblet was standing there, with his steel helmet and breastplate, ready to teach her another lesson.
The other Minions edged away from them, closer to the sides of the ship.
Jinx tied the red cloth firmly around her head and slightly bent her knees. "Come on. But without the sword."
Stripe growled.
"I´m the one who´s challenged. I get to have something to say, right? You´re so sure, you´ll win anyway."
The Minion threw the sword away. One of the rowers just dodged it as it buried itself in the side of the ship, trembling. Then he stormed at Jinx.
Before she knew it he was upon her, all fists, claws, teeth and a rock-hard skull. He fought more fiercely than Giblet had ever done, and the fact he wasn´t as strong was more than compensated by pure aggression.
Jinx kicked one of the benches and rolled over, so that she could get on top of the Minion. She clasped her fists together and hit him against his head, his shoulders and his back. The Minion seemed to falter as she hit the scar, but he kept fighting. His claws traced deep scratches over her shoulders and cheeks. A moment later he changed his claws into fists and hit her against her head, still sore with Sayron´s whack, so hard she heard her skull creak.
She remembered the hit with which Giblet had blinded her. That one had been way harder.
She punched him in the mouth, but he dodged her so she laid her knuckles open on the rough wood of the ship. He was faster than Giblet had been.
Jinx jumped to her feet to prevent Stripe from getting on top of her and protectively raised her fists. Only then did she notice the Minions around them were no longer rowing.
All around, glowing yellow eyes were staring at them. The buzz of raspy voices filled the gloom below deck.
Stripe jumped on her back and wrapped his arms around her neck. Jinx choked and tried to pry him off, and for a moment she seemed to succeed…
She bumped into the side of the ship and felt something pressing into her hip. She remembered she´d taken a small supply of poison fruit from the reef. If she´d close her mouth and eyes…
But the glowing eyes were staring at her, expectantly. She and Stripe were standing almost still now, wrapped in a furious embrace.
"My kind never plays fair, Jinx," Giblet spoke in her memory.
She could win…
A yell escaped her and she flung Stripe over her head and away. He smacked into the floor, and before he could get up Jinx´ foot was placed on his chest.
The Minion grabbed her foot and buried his claws into her flesh. Jinx didn´t move, and also stayed still as small red spots started appearing on the cloth she´d tied around it. Because of the pressure she was putting on his chest, he couldn´t muster enough strength to get her foot off.
It seemed to her like she was standing there for a long time, as Stripe moaned and struggled beneath her foot on which she was standing with her full weight. She wanted to let him go, but she remembered what she was fighting for. After all she´d done for this, she didn´t want to lose, not for even one moment of weakness.
Finally Stripe fell silent and still. The glowing eyes below deck were all focused on her.
"Leader," Cleft whispered.
"Leader," Scabies muttered. "Leader," Gloob agreed with a big grin.
"Leader. Leader," it resounded, growing clearer and louder. Kniff´s ears were raised high as he stood amidst the rising chant. "Leader!" he shouted out.

At the helm, Sayron noticed the ship slowing down. Eventually the white sails on the side masts, full of wind, were the only thing that kept them going.
Then a chant rose from beneath his feet, growing louder with every second.
"Leader. Leader. Leader!"
He froze. Then he strode away from the helm with large steps. As he went below deck, the voices of the Minions bombarded his ears. When his eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom he made out the figure of Jinx, in the middle of the group of Minions who were supposed to be rowing. Right in front of her, also in the circle, was Stripe. Just at that moment he took off his helmet. The Minions fell silent. Stripe bowed his head and lowered his ears. "Leader," he spoke.
Jinx turned to the stiffened form of Sayron at the bottom of the stairs. She didn´t say anything, but he saw her eyes glistening.
He turned and stomped back to the helm.

Unbelievable, Gnarl thought to himself. A human? Leader of the horde? If he´d heard that a year ago, he´d have made a whole lot of fun of the one who´d proposed it – as he hung roasting above the lava pit at the forge.
Jinx, leader of the brown horde and with that, placed just below Sayron and himself in ranking. Well! Well well!

"All right, guys, keep on rowing. Everlight won´t come to us," Jinx said, uneasily. It was strange when the Minions obeyed her – Stripe as well. She sat down at her oar herself, and for a while it seemed as though nothing had happened, though Jinx´ head was pounding with the stroke Stripe had dealt to the side of her head. Her foot hurt like hell as well, the Minion hadn´t given in without nearly tearing it apart.
She kept thinking of Giblet.
Stripe manned the oar behind her, on his own as well because of his strength. She turned to him. "Stripe," she muttered. "I may have beaten you, but I´ll always treat you like a leader."
"What?"
"You´re experienced. You can lead them. I can´t, I´m a human, for Vessperion´s sake! I´m going to mess up!"
A glimmer of recognition appeared in Stripe´s eyes. "Ah. Also taught by Giblet?"
"Do you know why he´s working in the forge?"
"Was his apprentice."
"His best, I imagine," Jinx nodded with a smile. "Okay, Stripe, I hereby ask you to be my advisor. Sayron has Gnarl, I need you."
Stripe hesitated, then nodded curtly. Then, he turned and continued rowing, but with a great deal more enthusiasm. As Kniff triumphantly returned with his six bottles of rum the large Minion grabbed one from his arms and pulled the cork out with his teeth – grinning.

Later that evening some soldiers of the Glorious Empire rubbed the tears from their eyes, back at the Reef where the poison clouds had finally evaporated. They simply couldn´t miss the fact the Reef Gates had opened again.
They could finally ship men to Everlight again!

Everlight.
Scabies stood on the dragon´s head at the prow and allowed the wind to blow his ears back. The azure water raced beneath him, glistening like priceless treasures, and straight ahead of him finally lay the island, rising high in razor-sharp mountains, and fully overgrown.
Unnoticed by the pirate Minion, two others crept towards him. Gloob and Kniff exchanged some gestures, simultaneously jumped at Scabies and kicked him into the water, shaking with laughter.
Scabies broke through the surface, gasping for breath and furiously treading water. "Hey!"
"Wanted to see if you really can swim!"
Scabies spread his arms. His parrot was worriedly circling above his head. "Yes! Need more proof?"
Kniff outstretched a claw and pulled Scabies back onto the dragon´s head. "No. But just funny."
In the meantime, Gloob stared at the green vision before their prow. "Whaa…"
"Going to have fun!" Scabies agreed.
At the helm, Cleft picked up the telescope he´d found earlier in the hold and passed it on to Sayron. As he put it to his eye, the mist pool at the Tower filled itself with what he saw. White beaches. Green forests. Parrots…
"Everlight is where elves go when they get sick and tired of the world," Gnarl informed him. Simultaneously, the image shifted to a large group of tourists, clearly hailing from the Empire, wildly dancing to inaudible music. In a corner, some of them were shamelessly vomiting. Sayron looked away quickly.
"It is rumored to be an island paradise, where the elves go to meditate and be spiritually at one with the earth," Gnarl continued, the humour clearly audible in his voice as the telescope showed him some morbidly obese men lying on their backs on the beach. "Hmm, it seems the Empire have got here first!"
Then, Sayron´s telescopic gaze returned to the party, where a woman was now to be seen. She was clad in a white toga with a purple stripe – a sign of great wealth. Around her, a group of men stood gaping at her, and with reason, for she was very beautiful. Her long, curling brown hair was piled high atop her head and her eyes were large and dark. "Ah yes, Everlight has some wonderfully stimulating examples of natural splendor!"
"Don´t distract him, Gnarl!" Kelda´s voice rang out.
Sayron looked away, feeling slightly caught. Coincidence had it that he looked straight ahead of the ship.
And coincidently, that was straight into the maw of a monstrous creature with eight red eyes.
Sayron jolted and lowered the telescope. He then saw the prow was meters away from a dangerous rock formation. And the Minions were still rowing with full force! The monster turned out to be a spider, half a meter tall and quickly disappearing into a hole in the rock. It was harmless… but the rock…
"Stop rowing!" Sayron roared as he flung the wheel around. But he was too late, far too late.
The Horizonbreaker rammed its prow into the rock formation with crushing force.
"Master!... Master… Mast-"
Gnarl´s voice died away as Sayron was sent flying amidst pieces of wood, rock and rope, and with him the Minions that´d been on deck and below it. The Overlord landed in the shallows, his head on a rock, immediately unconscious.
All around him the spiders swarmed out of their hiding spots in the rock formation.

As Sayron opened his eyes again, he was aware of a number of impressions battling to be first.
Wet.
Bright.
Green.
...Alone.
He climbed to his feet in the cool seawater, grateful for the fact that steel forged by Giblet would never rust, and looked about him. The ocean breeze lifted his sash as he let his gaze travel along the coastline.
No trace of partying Empire folk. Not of spiders, either.
Or of Minions for that matter. And it took Gnarl an alarmingly long time to treat him to some witty remarks...
He put his hands to his mouth. "Minions!"
No answer, save an alarmed chittering from the jungle ahead.
"Stripe! Scabies! Gloob!"
Ugh. Why not? "Jinx!!"
No answer.
He was alone.
Alone, stranded on an unknown and hostile island… and without a link to the Netherworld. He turned. There, completely beaten apart against the rock, was the wreck of the Horizonbreaker. He couldn´t even sail back to the Reef Gates.
Well, then. This was what he was an Overlord for.
He squared his shoulders and tightened his grip on…
His axe was gone.
For a moment, he was speechless. That axe had faithfully served him for years. He felt a sting of loss.
Then he saw something glittering from the corner of his eye. He turned, and saw the sword, sticking in a piece of wood from the wreck further into the ocean. He waded towards it and pulled it out. He weighed it in his hand, swept it around, testing, and smiled.
"Thanks."

The spiders hurried through the jungle, sometimes running on all eights, sometimes throwing out threads of silk and jumping through the trees with a speed which wouldn´t be outdone by an elf. They climbed steep cliffs, lowered themselves into abysses and floated over gorges and rivers by a thread.
They were on their way, and nothing could stop them.
In cocoons on their backs, the prey started to wake and struggle. Here and there, the tips of knives or claws appeared from the silk, but the holes were quickly mended. Some spiders did have trouble, however, so they hung their prey from thick threads in the trees to pick them up later, when they´d been weakened. Some of them stayed behind to keep watch, others ran with the group to help them with their own prey. They were fighting fiercely… except the one bigger than the others, strangely that one didn´t struggle at all…
It was a real pity they hadn´t been able to take the really big one with them.
It didn´t matter. Soon, they´d be with the Queen to satisfy her hunger…

Sayron climbed the steeply sloping beach to the jungle´s edge. He´d already poured the water out of his boots, but he didn´t feel in top shape after the shipwreck. He stayed still for a moment, the wall of green right in front of him, filled with darkness, mysterious noises and loads of danger.
"Let´s have it." He stepped in and disappeared into Everlight´s impregnable jungle.
Miles, miles ahead the spiders climbed over a mountain range like it was seen nowhere else in the world. Even further, the Queen was waiting in her lair.

"Are you sure this is going to help?"
"Trust me, darling. This´ll heal you."
Kivner nervously glanced at the candles that stood burning all around him. He was lying on a long bench, clad in nothing but his bandages. The bandages Estua had taken care of.
"Who is that girl, anyway?" Nessuna asked as she lit a couple more candles.
"Estua?" Kivner closed his eyes. "She saved me. She took me into her house when I came out of Nordhaven. I´m eternally grateful to her and I love her."
"That´s clear," Nessuna muttered with a sarcasm that was completely lost on Kivner. "But she hasn´t succeeded in curing you like I can, Kivner."
The man slightly moved his lips, but didn´t answer. His eyes remained closed.
Nessuna released her breath with a smile. The smoke from the candles had finally done its job.

Along gorges with slowly dripping streams of water, along huge, strange flowers, along burrows he didn´t want to know what occupied them. Across bridges hung long ago, between the remains of ancient statues. Sayron wandered through the jungle, cut himself a path through vegetation growing between trees seventy meters tall. He tried to keep a straight course, but didn´t succeed.
He knew it were situations like this that could help an Overlord to the Abyss. Cut off from the Tower, without Minions, in unknown territory. You could get eaten by a giant weasel just like that…
"Mmm!"
He stopped. Only then did he realize he´d been walking faster than normal. He smiled by himself – he really was nervous.
"Mmm!!"
That sounded… like a Minion? Sayron slowly approached the sound. There, halfway up a tree covered in fungi, hung a strange white thing. Further examination revealed it to be a cocoon. Sayron carefully prodded it, in case it´d contain a gruesome insect, but the noise it made really was in a Minion voice.
He chopped the thread with which it hung from the tree. Then he carefully cut away the cocoon threads.
"Mmf!" Two ears shot out of the cocoon. Some good slashes of his claws, and the Minion was free and yanked his centurion helmet from the remains of the silk. Sayron realized he´d never been happier to see Stripe.
"Master," the Minion rasped with a bow. "Thank you."
Sayron looked at him for a moment. "Do you know where the rest is?"
"Taken by spiders, Master."
"Why were you hanging in that tree?"
Stripe shrugged. "Kept fighting until they left me. Maybe rest does too."
Something lowered itself from a nearby tree. Stripe immediately turned, wanted to draw his sword and pulled it from the cocoon a second later. At that time, the spider was already on top of him. Sayron swung his own sword and cut the spider in two. The creature screeched and collapsed, leaking bluish goo. Instantly, six more came down, and before the Overlord had a chance to kill them they were upon him, feeling around for a weak spot into which they could sink their mandibles. Sayron roared as one of them found his neck, and another injected its poison between his arm- and shoulderpiece. He thrashed wildly, with such force two smaller spiders were flung off his back so Stripe could behead them. After that, the Minion leaped to his Master´s shoulder and pulled the spiders off, so they could dispatch them together.
For a moment, the two stood panting. Then they looked at eachother.
Stripe lifted his helmet and grinned. He walked around Sayron to stand behind him, as a one man horde. Then his eye fell on something different. "Look, Master!"
Sayron looked down. There, inside the carcass of one of the spiders, was a green glow. He knelt down and cut the arthropod open further. The glow spread.
"Green life force!"
"Thought I smelled something," Stripe noted.
"That´s the jungle, Stripe." Sayron tapped the glowing core and let the life force be absorbed into the amber gem. "So it´s true… there are green Minions here."
Stripe looked about him, his ears swiveling round as though he was trying to pick up a sound. "Finding be difficult."
"I imagine, if what Gnarl´s told me is true. Their camouflage is terrific…" Sayron looked forward for a moment, then focused. Was he having a conversation with one of his Minions now?
It wasn´t like there was a better partner, but still…
"Come on," he said, suddenly rough. He strode off, whacking his sword at the undergrowth as if it was actually forged to function as a machete.

The sun started setting.
They´d lost many of the prey, temporarily hung up and guarded until their muscles would become tired and they´d cease their fighting and stabbing. But there were more than enough of them still present in the cocoons on the spiders´ backs, mainly those warm to the touch and weaker than the fierce fighters with the pointy ears.
Luckily, because they were nearing the Queen´s lair.
Ahead of the spiders, the rocks became rounder and the gorges opened into a single abyss. In front of their eight eyes, it seemed like the world ceased to exist in a whirl of mist and foam. On both their sides, gigantic waterfalls thundered down, and there, in the middle of the lake, was their home. It was a steep, high pyramid, overgrown and weathered, but there were still many images of the Mother Goddess visible. This was a temple, but much grander than the one at the reefs. This temple had once been the centre of the elven cult.
Now it was the centre of something entirely different, and much darker.
Barely visible threads of silk floated down from the cliffs and attached themselves to the rough stone of the temple. The spiders ran over the lake, swift as shadows. Lower and lower they came, eventually reaching the entrance formed by the Mother Goddess´ mouth. From there, they ran into the tunnel that was her throat, and deeper into the dark insides of the temple.
Deep below them, something moved. Something enormous, with lots of legs.
The cocoons started moving more wildly. There was just one, larger than the rest, which stayed still. That one did happen to be attached to the back of a spider having difficulties with her heavy load, still just hanging by a thread above the lake. She was the only one still outside. She’d had trouble along the whole way, bearing the big cocoon with the long-legged creature inside.
The thread did already describe a low arch above the water, caused by the combined weight of the spider and the human, and the end attached to the temple was fraying fast. Eventually, it snapped.
The spider and her load fell into the lake and hit it with a modest splash. The arthropod immediately sank, and the water caused the threads of the cocoon to come loose. Something unfolded, kicked her legs and rose to the surface.
Jinx broke through the still waters of the lake, her breathing fast with horror. Her entire skin was red with rash. She started rubbing her arms to drive off the itching, noticed where she was and swam to the lower steps of the temple. There, she sat on the weathered rock below the water level.
She shivered, something which had nothing to do with the temperature. "Seriously… spider silk?"
Jinx didn’t have a single allergy. She could eat anything without having trouble. But if she came in contact with but one thread of spider silk, the rash flamed up and she would suffer for days with unbearable itching.
And now, she’d been enveloped by the stuff on all sides. She’d moved as little as possible. She thanked every god she knew for having landed in the lake.
For a moment she looked over the glistening surface, then she lowered herself into it entirely again. The water subdued the itching for a bit.
"Oh, gods. Of all things… Vessperion, this is unbearable!" She forced herself to stop scratching and let herself float along, arms and legs spread, staring up at the sky. Then she rewound the recent events.
A great jolt. The prow being shattered. Being flung away into the water, nearly being decapitated by Sayron’s axe whirring past, a dark, hairy creature jumping at her, and then the spider silk. And now, she was probably miles inland without the Minions or their Overlord.
Nice and quiet. But she did worry about them.
The water made the itch bearable, but she´d have to get out sometime. She searched the shores, if the soaring cliffs and waterfalls, gleaming in the red light, deserved that name. There really was no shore at all. This lake was some sort of drain... She could make out some caves at water level where rivers went on their way to sea, but she wouldn´t enter those. She was lost enough as it was.
So, cliffs. If she´d still have her ropes, they wouldn´t have caused her trouble at all. But now…
Jinx looked up at the temple. It was very overgrown. And in a tree not that high on the walls hung a great number of vines. Maybe, if she could get to those… would they be as strong as actual rope? It was worth a try.
She swam back to the temple and scrambled up the rocks. Then she tried climbing up to the vines, but had to give up in seconds, groaning with irritation. Her skin felt like a thousand nests of ants were burying themselves in. It was itching so badly it hurt. Jinx didn´t bother any more, but let herself fall backward into the lake. In the water was the only place where the feeling was bearable.
She had no weapons, no idea where she was, and Sayron nor the Minions were likely to be very close. They might even be dead already.
Jinx craned her neck, so she saw the lake upside down. She narrowed her eyes.
Two small round things were rapidly coming closer above the water…

Gloob had been hanging high from a pinnacle of rock, so Sayron had been throwing Stripe´s sword to the thread until the Minion fell down. Partly to his own surprise, the Overlord had caught the cocoon as it plummeted down. Scabies´ cocoon had been easy to recognize as a red parrot had been clawing at the threads, cawing furiously. The bird had circled Sayron´s head as he cut the cocoon open, and hadn´t left the Minion´s shoulder ever since.
Now he had a horde again, three Minions, and Sayron felt slightly better. Then, however, the terrain had begun to rise, until they were standing atop a hill with a view of something both insanely beautiful and gruesome.
Before their eyes, a landscape seemingly not from this world stretched out to the horizon. It was a sea of razorlike rock spikes, skewering the sky above them. The setting sun cast red shadows into a labyrinth of gorges.
Sayron stood gaping up, his sword hanging limp in his gauntleted hand.
"We´re not going through this."
And the three Minions followed their Master as he started walking south.

The two round things turned out to be talkers.
Jinx looked up at the bloated faces of two winged, black-eyed creatures in horror. "Child, what´s happened to you? All alone here in the lake, with such a red skin…"
"Don´t call me a child! And go away!" She swatted at them, their eyes reminding her of mermaids. "Leave me alone!"
"Oh, we can´t just leave you here," the second fairy spoke. "We´ve got to take her with us, Rosetta."
"Throw some pixie dust over her then, Iridessa!"
"On it." Golden dust floated down from the pudgy, two-fingered hands and spread over Jinx´ body. She rubbed her skin, but it didn´t come off. She was sparkling like Nordbergian Midwinter decoration in the falling night…
"Think happy thoughts, child!"
"Happy thoughts?! I lost everybody! I´m stuck with you! I´m itching like hell because of that spider silk!"
One of the fairies hovered for a moment. "Did you come out of one of those horrible spiders´ cocoons too, then?"
Jinx fell silent. "Yes. Who else does?" she asked carefully.
"Oh, we have some ugly creatures with glowing eyes back at our home tree, but we´re going to drop those onto the tsingy," the fairy spoke lightly. "Don´t you worry about that."
Jinx shut her mouth. She couldn´t say anything now. She had to go with these two, because somewhere out there were Minions – alive! …For now…
"Good, child! You´re thinking happy thoughts!"
She looked down abruptly, her thoughts of Minions forgotten for a moment. Only now she saw she was rising from the water.
"…That stuff makes me fly?!"
"Combined with faith and happy thoughts. Now, come with us to the Fairy Tree and we´ll take care of that skin…"
Sparkling, Jinx floated away over the water between the two fairies.

The southern course turned out to have been a bad idea by day, let alone by night. The little starlight was blocked off by the many layers of leaves above their heads, and as Sayron and the Minions struggled through the jungle, they knew things could get nasty every next second. And they did.
Five minutes after they´d turned their backs on the sea of rock spikes, the four were looking out over a clearing between the towering trees, which Sayron entered without a second thought. The Minions followed, without noticing the strange broad plants between the tall grass. That changed as they started moving.
One of the plants opened a broad maw filled with thorny teeth and hissed at the Overlord. Sayron grimaced in shock and raised his sword. At once, the entire clearing awakened. The Minions drew their weapons and took positions with their backs to Sayron as the plants attacked.
What followed was a dark green chaos. From all sides green maws snapped at them, thorns pulled deep scratches over their unprotected skin, Scabies fell and had been eaten if Gloob hadn´t jumped in front of him, mace at the ready to whack the plants aside. Sayron swung his sword around like a lunatic. "Damned Everlight! Damned elves! Damned Gnarl!" He roared as two plants closed their jaws around his shoulders and dragged him down. "Damned Jinx!!" The sword flashed as the Overlord swung it around with all the strength his rage had given him and cut through stalks and leaves alike. He scrambled to his feet. "Minions!"
The three hurried towards him through the crawling chaos, nearly tripping over thorny stalks as they went. They managed to make it out of the plants, with hammering hearts, covered in scratches, bites and rash – everything here seemed to be poisonous. The plants still hissed and snapped at them as they went on.
A few minutes later their breathing was slightly more regular. Sayron was still stomping on in rage, his sword dripping with green juice and his arms covered in scratches. "When I find her, I´m kicking that wench out of my domain for good," he growled. "The horde should be led by a Minion…"
Behind him, Stripe´s eyes lit up. A heartbeat later, however, he outstretched a hand towards the Overlord. "Master –" he started, but it was already too late.
Sayron´s violently descending boot landed in a small hole. Instantly, that erupted into dozens of glowing creatures.
The Overlord quickly stepped back, lowering his shoulders. "Gnomes," he hissed. At the same moment, a minuscule poison dart, shot from a small blowpipe, ricocheted off his helmet. These gnomes were defending themselves slightly better.
Sayron was already raising his sword, but then realized the creatures were still pouring out of the burrow. There simply were too many of them and he had no idea what effect those darts would have if they hit target. He swore, turned and hurried on through the undergrowth. The Minions followed, their arms over their heads.
The gnomes pursued them for the entire night, and the jungle resounded with swearing, chittering, hisses, roars and the clash of weaponry as Sayron and the Minions got themselves further and further into trouble.

The view was almost enough to forget the itching.
It wasn´t just the sight of an enormous, bulky, sparkly tree, it was also standing on a tall rock spire surrounded by a true forest of stone knives which, if fallen on, seemed more painful to Jinx than a trip down the Tower stairs in Gnarl´s Iron Maiden. "What is that?" she gasped.
The two fairies flying next to her followed her gaze to make sure she didn´t mean the tree. "That´s the tsingy, child."
"So that´s where you´re…"
"…going to throw those nasty creatures, yes." The fairy patted her shoulder and Jinx had to restrain herself not to put her dagger through her and try to fly off on her own. "But they deserve it. One of them tried to set the tree alight, imagine that!"
Reds! Maybe Hoarse or Parch was there! "No, that can´t be tolerated," Jinx said, trying to keep her voice steady. "What do they look like apart from the glowing eyes, anyway?"
"A few of them have red skin and horns, like demons," one of the fairies chittered. The other nodded. "Yes, and some of the others have large ragged ears and they´re wearing rat fur…"
A tuque hat, say something about a tuque hat, Jinx internally pleaded. Kniff had to have survived, he had to. Nothing could kill that Minion.
But the fairies didn´t seem to be in the mood to talk about the Minions any more. "Tell us, child, where do you come from? You don´t seem to be from these parts, you´re not at all like those dreadful fat Empire tourists."
Jinx gave a forced smile. "I was shipwrecked on your shore. I´m originally from Nordberg." It didn´t seem like a good idea to her to say she did come from the Empire, in the end – and even worse a plan to tell them what kind of place she called home now.
"Nordberg, hm? Well, we´ll talk about that later," the fairy spoke cheerfully. Jinx looked up. They´d risen to the high piece of land where the tree was located. It was a strange place indeed. Everywhere around it, the razorlike points of the tsingy reached upwards, but this area was relatively smooth. It had probably broken off of the even higher cliff ahead, with the tree still on it.
Jinx quietly tried to hover by holding the thought she´d soon see Kniff again. And yes, in a whirl of golden sparks, she rose a few centimeters off the ground. Nice. That was probably the only way to escape this bizarre place…
Everywhere around the tree, fairies flitted through the air, glistening with golden dust. The large, dark leaves lit up as they soared past. Above the rock a constant buzz of rapid wingbeats and chittering voices resounded.
Then a scream ripped apart the warm, vibrating air. Jinx looked up instantly, her eyes wide. That´d been a Minion´s voice!
A moment later there was a nauseating smack. A high-pitched giggle wafted around the tree.
"Have you started throwing them down already?!"
"Easy, child," the fairy soothed. "It seems to be so. But you won´t want to see it."
Jinx was already gone. She ran through the strange island´s tall grass to where the scream had come from. There awaited an image that made her stop dead in her tracks.
A single fairy was dancing through the air above the grass, a trace of golden dust trailing behind her. Also trailing behind her, seemingly hypnotized out of their wits, hazy-eyed and walking like they were totally wasted, were four Minions. In this light, it was difficult to see to which clan they belonged, let alone who they were.
The two fairies caught up with her. "Come along now, child…"
"Don´t you ever call me child," Jinx murmured. "You have no idea."
Then she drew her dagger and ran for the dancing fairy keeping the Minions hypnotized. One jabbing movement, and the bloated little body was pinned to the blade. The fairy shrieked, so high it was nearly inaudible – the scream of an insect. The pixie dust was spraying off her like blood.
Jinx looked at the four Minions. They were slowly coming to their senses again, but fairies were approaching them at all sides, too. Those four would very soon be under hypnosis again if she wasn´t careful.
Two browns. Two reds. And, unbelievable blessed coincidence, Kniff and Parch were among them!
Jinx paid no attention to their surprise and started shaking her skewered fairy above their heads. The pixie dust floated down to them. She noticed Kniff rose immediately, despite the still hazy look in his eyes. "Guys, come on! Wake up!" She lifted the other brown and shook him until his teeth rattled. She saw the new red Minion pressed a white-hot hand to Kniff´s back so he landed instantly, jumping away in pain. Parch seemed to be clearer in the head as well.
Pity they were surrounded by fairies by now.
The plump creatures looked down at them as Jinx tried to shield the Minions. She raised her dagger, the weakly struggling fairy still on it, and saw them back away in horror. "Don´t bother," she said, teeth clenched. "We just want to leave."
"You´re with that Demon Lord everyone´s talking about," one of the fairies gasped. "He insulted and attacked Queen Fay in Nordberg…"
"Not just that," Jinx replied, circling like a she-wolf to protect the Minions against new hypnosis. The two browns drew their weapons – she saw the new one had taken an elven bow off his shoulder. "He opened the Reef Gates and he´s here, on Everlight."
"Of course. How else did his devils get here?"
"Not devils," Parch muttered behind her back. "Minions." And a single fireball elegantly arched its way to the group of floating fairies. They scattered fearfully, clearing the way for the two reds. Two pairs of glittering eyes cast a questioning glance at Jinx. She outstretched her arm. "The tree! Now!"
It was raining fire. The dark leaves lit up, and the trunk followed soon after.
The Minions cheered, the fairies screamed, and Jinx loved it.
She turned, a dark silhouette against the inferno, the dead fairy still skewered on her knife. She looked at the four Minions. "We fly! Come on!"
Four grins answered hers, and together they took to the skies.

The Everlightian jungle was home to many kinds of creatures, both magical and non-magical. But if they´d looked up at the right moment, all of them would have been surprised. It was no ordinary sight, flying, glistening Minions in front of the full moon.
The four were cheering in triumph, spinning in the air and shaking their fists at the incinerating Fairy Tree. Jinx spread her arms wide and threw back her head laughing. She felt like she´d regained her ropes again.
The two reds seemed to be just fine. Vertigo was not in their dictionary. The browns were slightly less at ease, but they weren´t afraid, either. The leader of their horde was with them, after all.
In this bright moonlight Jinx recognized the red Minion as Blister, and the brown with the bow introduced himself as Minc. He was above Kniff in the horde, and was the second weakest living Minion. Jinx feared Cleft to be dead, what made Kniff weakest again. The Minion in the tuque hat didn´t seem to mind that much. He flew the highest of the small horde and wouldn´t shut his mouth for a second as they soared above the tsingy.
"…and spiders took us and we saw Stripe cut the throats of two and the Master just lay there…"
"I know, Kniff."
"…and we knew you´d come, Jinxie."
"…" For a moment, she just stared at him, in their idiotic floating position in the moonlight above the unknown land where they´d still managed to find eachother. "…Really?"
Minc nodded before Kniff. "Leader doesn´t abandon the horde."
"Hoarse will come, too," Blister agreed, and Parch´ eyes lit up. "Leaders always come. And with them, the Master."
Jinx looked around and followed the jagged horizon. Where was Sayron? She remembered the Reef Gates to be west of Everlight, so their ship had to be somewhere on the western coast…
…but it was kind of difficult to find out where the west was in the middle of the night, with the perfectly full moon directly above your head. She made a mental note to keep the rising sun at her back the next morning. "I´ll get us back to Sayron, guys. We´re going back to the Netherworld."
She caught Kniff´s eye, but he was looking at her strangely. "Jinxie…"
"What?" she asked, a mere second before she noticed herself. She was losing altitude, very slowly, but now that she´d noticed, faster and faster. She shook her skewered fairy above her own head, but no more pixie dust came off it. "Oh, dear."
The four Minions also started sinking in the air. "Oh, no…"
And then, about fifty meters above the razor-sharp tsingy, the magic keeping them in the air collapsed on itself, and the five of them fell through the dark like bricks.
"Shiiiiiit!" Jinx shrieked. She thrashed with her arms and writhed to not skewer herself onto that particular enormous spike directly below her…
Hazy like a dream, she saw Parch and Blister move to two sides of the group with flicks of their tails and grab the browns at their arms. Minc and Kniff shivered in pain visibly as the scorching hands of the reds burned themselves into their skin, but they didn´t make a sound. Then, they grabbed Jinx. They fell on in a strange formation.
The reds wrapped their tails around two peaks and clasped their foot claws around them as well, with a strange hissing noise as the rock´s sharp edges got smeared with steaming red blood. Jinx and the browns smacked into the peak below them, but their descent did slow, certainly as Kniff and Minc put their claws to use as well.
There was a cracking noise. Blister yelped, but didn’t let go. Jinx looked up and saw one of his legs was bent in a strange way – broken or dislocated by the enormous strain he´d put on it.
"Hang on," she called up. "Hang on…" She yanked the fairy off her dagger and rammed the weapon into the rock, but the blade richoceted off and the knife was twisted out of her grip.
Then, finally, eventually, they´d come low enough. The reds pulled their tails loose, the browns very carefully pulled their broken claws out of the cracks. Jinx fell down to the hard bottom of the tsingy, covered in sharp little pieces of stone. The four Minions fell on top of her. Minc and Kniff immediately jumped up, weapons at the ready. Parch and Blister stayed where they were, their feet a bloody mess.
Jinx stared up at the stars. "Sayron," she sighed, "where are you now?"

The sun rose above an incredibly foggy jungle. Water dripped from feather-like leaves, bent branches, pointy ears and glistening armour. The first birds drove the creatures of the night away.
Lord Sayron of the Netherworld hauled himself up out of the dripping ferns as the sun passed over his face. Dew streamed off his armour as the amber gem flickered and came to life. From deep inside his mighty chest a groan arose.
Some distance away Gloob and Scabies clambered to their feet. Stripe, leant against a tree, lifted his head and put his helmet on his head more straightly – he´d taken the last watch. The fire, lit by blue lightning, had gone out hours ago.
The Overlord rolled his shoulders and checked his sword. He felt terrible after last night. The bare skin of his arms, covered in stings, bites, scratches and some open wounds was a silent witness of that fact. The three Minions hadn´t fared much better, but they´d heal more quickly than their Master.
Something snorted, loud and moist, and far too close.
Sayron froze. The Minions automatically followed his example. Stripe swiftly snuck around his tree and stood in front of his Master.
Very carefully, the Overlord crept forward. He could see something in the mist rising from the forest floor and between the high ferns.
They resembled mountains, all dark, rough fur, gigantic heads and almost ridiculously large, razor-sharp horns – except that there was nothing funny about it at all. Hooves like soupplates clawed the earth between the thick, gnarled tropical tree roots. A pair of glistening horns rose as one of the beasts looked up, the maw full of ferns.
Sayron turned back and pressed himself into his tree. "Not good," he muttered. He looked forward for a moment. Then he squared his shoulders and grasped the sword´s hilt. He looked up. Their southern course would take them through the herd. But he was an Overlord…
"Minions, follow me," he said, not louder than nessecary. He stepped out from behind the tree and walked toward the herd. He wouldn’t go through it – there were boundaries to what even he was willing to do.
Heads were raised. There was snorting. Pupils shrunk.
The largest of the beasts stared at Sayron with growing anger, threw up his enormous heavy head and ripped loose a raw roar from his throat, so loud the Minions stood still and Sayron´s heart missed a beat.
"Mhûûûûûûaaaaaaaahh!!"
The entire herd stampeded at them like a murderous avalanche.
For the briefest moment, Sayron was frozen to the forest floor. Then, at once, he ran as fast as he could.
He was aware of his Minions sprinting out in front of him, but, bound by their loyalty, never far away even if they could. Behind him resounded the roars of the herd, the thundering of their hooves, the snapping of branches and the splintering of small trees. Sayron was pretty fast, even with his armour, but he knew he couldn´t outrun the beasts.
He glanced back. It didn´t last long. It was not a pleasant sight. The hornbeasts had madness in their red eyes, and there was no doubt they´d trample him into the earth until nothing was left but a stain on the forest floor.
"Mhûûûûûûaaaaaaaahh!!"
The Overlord let his armoured feet come down even faster. His muscular arms pumped like pistons as he crashed through the jungle like a lunatic.
A parrot´s caw resounded, followed by the call of a Minion. Sayron looked up feverishly.
Scabies stood waving his arms on the mossy trunk of a fallen tree, his parrot circling above his head. "Master!" He wildly gesticulated to the right. Sayron followed his claw. There, the overgrown walls of a fort or temple rose between the trees.
The Overlord turned right. The herd skidded, but kept following him.
The walls were coming closer. Sayron prayed to every god who´d be willing to help him they´d offer protection from the crazy beasts.
His Minions darted away in front of him. He thundered in between the walls. And as if his prayers had been heard, two stone doors rolled shut behind him.
Panting, he glanced back, after he’d put a safe distance between himself and the hornbeasts. The doors, not that different from the Reef Gates, trembled as gigantic horns were rammed against them, but they remained intact and in place. A scream of fury echoed through the forest as the beasts realized the trespassers of their territory had escaped them.
Sayron swallowed the metallic taste from his mouth and looked about him. His Minions were protectively standing in front of him, but there was no living creature in sight between the high walls.
There was, however, a faint and distant singing. It were elven voices.
He crept forward, careful not to make a sound, and –
"There you are!"
Sayron almost had another heart attack. "Gnarl?!"
"I knew you’d make it!" the advisor’s voice blared. "Glad to see you’re not dead, Sire!"
"Where were you, Gnarl?!" Sayron breathed.
"We lost your signal for a while, there. But it seems like it didn’t matter a thing. You can’t bring Evil down." In the Tower the advisor exchanged a glance – both triumphant and relieved – with Kelda. The Mistress had threatened to turn him into a pair of gloves if he didn’t see to it the mist pool was working again soon. "...I see you’re in an elven temple, Sire. I’d be careful if I were you. They’re very protective of their cult."
"Forget that," Kelda snapped. "How soon can you set up a gate?"
"I’ve already sent Grubby to seek out a location, Mistress," Gnarl nonchalantly answered.
"Within those walls, please. He’s coming home this instant."
"Eh," the advisor coughed, "that’s unlikely, actually. The soil over there’s not fit for the drilling of... ouch!"
In the meantime, Sayron had caught a hold of his breathing again. "Take it easy, down there. I’ll get out." He went on his way between the high walls. Stripe, Gloob and Scabies formed a protective formation around him and kept a close eye on their surroundings. There didn’t seem to be elves in this vestibule, however. They probably were all at the singing...
Then, Sayron spotted a small tree, growing high up the walls and hung with a white, spidersilk cocoon. He grabbed Stripe’s shoulder. "Give me your sword." The Minion obeyed him and Sayron aimed for the thread supporting the cocoon. He managed to cut it loose with one throw. Stripe’s sword fell down with the cocoon, and as the Minion caught his weapon Sayron extended his arms for the cocoon. He immediately felt the heat within. With his own sword he cut loose the threads, and there, still covered with the inner silk, was the horned head of Hoarse, leader of the red clan. As soon as his hands were free, he clenched them into fists and wrung loose his arms, and the cocoon burst into flame.
"Master," the red bowed. His eyes glittered, and he seemed to be more than willing to put up the fight with the ones that put him into the silk.
"Master," Gnarl echoed. "It doesn’t seem a good idea to enter the ceremony with just four Minions..."
"These are the four strongest, Gnarl, and I have to get back to the Tower," Sayron bit to his advisor. "Give me some suitable advice."
For a moment, there was a noticeable absence of the grey Minion’s creaky voice. As he spoke again, however, there was the hint of a smile to his words.
"My Lord, I’ve got an idea."

The ceremony was well underway. Along the temple walls were rows of elves with crossed legs, bowls of incense in their hands. The smoke was lifted up to the canopy above the temple, through elegant, overgrown stone arches and niches in the walls, and the depictions of the Mother Goddess in all her forms.
In the middle of the large open space was the high priestess, her hands outstretched to one of those depictions of the elven deity, high up in the wall. The goddess wasn’t in her form of a slender woman with an angular headdress and her two knives, high and dignified, this time, but a fat female, like the other elves with her legs crossed and with a crown-like headpiece resembling the one the priestess wore. The priestess’ body also resembled that of her goddess. As she moved slightly, her whole body jiggled. She was standing in front of an altar, laden with food: fruit, rotund roots, strangely formed leaves, but also the meat of birds and larger game. She outstretched her hands towards the food. The singing rose to a climax.
And it went silent.
The priestess froze, her hands still floating above the altar. Then she turned, several parts of her body slightly delayed.
On the other side of the temple stood a large figure with broad shoulders, covered in armour. Four little creatures flanked him in warlike poses.
For a moment the priestess was speechless. Then her expression hardened. "Who are you? You interrupt the feeding, speak your names!" A brown-haired elf had risen from his seat at the wall and now tried to draw the attention of his priestess by tapping her shoulder, but she shook him off.
"Dramatic," Gnarl sighed next to Sayron’s ear. "These females are the height of elven beauty, Sire. They force feed themselves to look like their Mother Goddess deity. Hell of a wobble these ladies have... hell of a wobble! I believe they have a connection with the temple doors..."
Sayron glanced at the wall behind the priestess. "Back there the soil’s fit to dig a gate, I presume?"
"Probably, Sire. Grubby’s on his way."
"Such a coincidence," Sayron remarked. He squared his shoulders. "Lord Sayron, a traveller," he spoke to the priestess. "I wish you to open the gates behind me, milady. It was not my intention to get stuck in here."
"So you wish to return the way you came?" the priestess asked, her eyes narrowed to slits.
"Certainly."
She nodded with dignity and raised her arms. A blue glow surrounded her and the creaking of ancient stone resounded behind the Overlord. "You can return, Lord Sayron." She turned to the nervous elf behind her, irritated. "What is it?"
"M-milady..." he stammered. "This is... the Overlord… Kamáel went to stop at the Reef…"
The priestess´ eyes swivelled back to Sayron. The Overlord smiled darkly and bowed as he stepped aside in one fluid motion. The thunder of enormous hooves resounded through the tunnel behind him.
A heartbeat later the side of the tunnel was beaten to pieces by gigantic yellowy horns. The hornbeast at the front of the herd was the largest as well, and as Sayron pressed himself into the back of the temple, he couldn´t help admiring the strength and fury of the beast. There was no rationality in him. He was simply enraged with the entire world. And he was so large... not even five elves would be able to control him, even if they’d manage to get on his back.
The temple rang with the roar of the beasts and the screams of the elves, and the only thing Sayron and the Minions needed to do was watch and make sure they didn’t move too much, so they wouldn’t be noticed. Sayron was silently shaking with laughter, and Gnarl didn’t even make the effort of doing it silently.
Then a blue flash lit the gloomy stone and canopy. The priestess had been able to get out of the beasts’ range and was busy opening the front gates, in the hope the beasts would leave the temple.
The largest beast let his bloodshot eyes fall onto her and snorted. A single mighty hoof clawed the earth.
He stormed at her.
The priestess seemed to freeze. Then she jumped, clearly aided by magic, and flitted to a platform halfway up the temple walls. The hornbeast rammed himself agains the wall, ripped out his horns in a shower of crumbling stone and roared.
"Mhûûûûûûaaaaaaaahh!!"
Sayron felt that roar tremble inside his chest, and he was glad it wasn’t him, fleeing for those horns and hooves.
The gates opened completely. Some of the beasts slowed and stopped, lured by the freedom behind the doors. Somewhere they knew it was better to be out there than to chase elves inside. The fury started to subside. The largest of the beasts turned away from the priestess on the platform, and suddenly he was calmly walking out through the doors, following his herd like nothing had happened at all.
Something had happened.
Almost all of the elves were dead, lying crushed and broken on the forest floor or skewered on razor-sharp horns. Some survivors were clawing themselves to their priestess, moaning.
Sayron stepped forwards and carefully planted his steel boot on the back of a dying elf as he did so. He looked up at the priestess.
She snapped her fingers. A single, bright blue spark fizzed.
The doors banged shut.
"Are we going to do it this way," the Overlord growled.
The priestess looked back, determined. "There’s no place for you here, Sayron, Demon Lord of Nordberg."
"Open those doors."
"Never. They’ll never open again. You’ll die in here."
Sayron whipped his hand up, fast as a snake, and flung a stream of blue sparks at the priestess. She tried to dodge, but didn’t succeed to get all of her large mass out of the way and was knocked down to the forest floor. There, the Minions immediately jumped her, and when they’d finished it wasn’t even necessary for him to sink his sword through her layers of fat and into her heart.
With her last breath came the creaking of the doors.
Sayron pulled back his sword. His shoulders sank. "Gnarl," he sighed, his voice suddenly breaking and more tired than he’d ever been in his life, "tell me the gate’s close..."
"No worries, Lord. Grubby’s nearly done digging."
"And the hornbeasts?"
"They’ve left the trail. Be careful, but I don’t think they’ll be a problem anymore."
The Overlord unsteadily left the chaos inside the temple and through the doors. He rounded a small trail along a chasm with small streams of water creeping down the walls, ploughed through a gorge full of poisonously pink flowers, and...
"Come home, Sayron," Kelda’s voice whispered in his ear.

Minions hurried down along the staircase leading to the private quarters, and up from the lower levels of the Tower. The last of them were just in time to see the blue light flash up – something that hadn’t happened in months.
For the first time since he’d left Nordhaven’s icy fjords with the ship, Lord Sayron was coming back to his domain.
Gnarl bowed, silently and so deep his ears trailed along the floor, as his Master descended to the black marble of the throne room. The Minions, now present in every corner of the great hall, cheered and shouted.
Sayron looked around, a smile breaking through on his face. It was good to be home.
From next to the throne, Kelda approached him, her red hair gleaming like copper and her green eyes glistening like stars. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulled the cloth from his mouth and kissed him fiercely.
Then, much too soon for Sayron’s liking, she broke the embrace, clenched an iron Nordbergian fist and hit him so hard his helmet rang like the Midwinter bells.
"K-Kelda!" Sayron protested, staggering on his legs and wondering when the world would cease its shaking.
"Don’t do that ever again!" the Tower lady snapped. "You’re in big trouble, mister!"
"Already?" he moaned. In the corner of his eye he saw Gnarl grinning to himself.
"Yes, already! You tactless... thoughtless… irresponsible…"
"I’m back, aren’t I?" Sayron countered, his hands pressed against his quivering helmet. "What’s..."
Kelda came to stand right in front of him, straightening out to his shoulder height. "Aren’t you forgetting something, mister Overlord?"
Gnarl shuffled towards them, his hands folded beneath his cloak. "I must confess, Lord, you’ve left something valuable in the Everlightian jungle. It’s no hurry as the leader of your horde has as much priority as you grant her, but..."
"...But still you’re going back as soon as you can walk straight again and you’re going to find Jinx, do you hear me!"
The Overlord moaned, staggered back to the throne, curled up as tightly as he could and pulled all the cushions over his head.

Somewhere east in the Everlightian tsingy an excited yell resounded.
A small creature, covered in bruises and scratches and his torn tuque hat covered in spiky green seeds, struggled out between the last rocks. "We’re out!" he called over his shoulder.
"Keep it down, Kniff," came the muffled answer. "Did you forget the avalanche already? We had to dig Minc out entirely, remember, genius?"
A second brown Minion, a bow across his shoulder, jumped out with a wide grin. "Am alive, right?"
A third figure clambered out of the tsingy at last, two pairs of glowing arms around her neck, the inner fire selectively not touching her skin. Parch and Blister’s feet weren’t bleeding anymore, but it was better for them not to walk yet.
Jinx straightened out. The jungle in front of her was a welcome sight after they’d spent the entire night and morning in the tsingy.
There was, however, a plus.
She turned. "Are you coming or what?"
Raspy voices answered her. A fiery glow played over the rock face. And a moment later five Minions, two reds, three browns, jumped out of the tsingy, following the one they looked upon as their horde leader.
The tsingy had been on the spider’s trail. Logical, actually...
The night had been full of battle, and her hands were red with rash, but now she had a horde to compete with.
Jinx smiled. Then she turned back to the jungle and sniffed. A strange smell floated towards her, faint now, but she had the feeling she would almost be able to taste it soon...
It reminded her of open sewers... and a kind of exotically prepared fish she’d smelled in the harbour market of the city she’d once called home...
She hoisted the reds onto her shoulders a little higher, touched her dagger, looked back at her horde, and confidently stepped into the wilderness.

Chapter Text

"I don’t see the use of this, Sayron." Kelda impatiently tapped her foot to the black marble. "You’d return to the jungle, remember? You promised. You’ve rested enough in these five days."
"I didn’t promise anything," Sayron countered. "Plus, that’s one of the benefits of my job. Even if I make a decision, I can come back on it whenever I please." His eyes rippled for a moment. "And I rather feel like visiting my old birthing grounds again."
"It is certainly true you need to be sure your subjects remember your face, Sire," Gnarl agreed. "They have Minions in Nordberg but your presence will work miracles, you’ll see."
Sayron turned back to Kelda. "And you’re coming with me, aren’t you? You can make sure all is well yourself."
"Oh, you can count on that." The Tower Lady firmly gripped Sayron’s muscular arm. "Activate that portal!"
Sayron looked up. "Nordberg," his deep voice commanded.

A gust of warm wind and a blue flash sliced through the clear, cool Nordbergian air. Briefly after, as heavy metal boots and lighter leather shoes descended the Tower Gate stairs, excited calls in raspy voices resounded.
"Master!"
"The Master returns!"
"Mistress Kelda!"
Sayron briefly smiled at the handful of Minions approaching the gate as he walked past them on his way to town. Kelda inspected them more closely. "Sayron!"
The Overlord turned. "What is it?"
"I know the Netherworld armour. These are different."
The Minion at the front proudly straightened out. "Were a gift, Mistress."
Sayron looked down at him. "From who?"
"Nordberg, Master! Finally cooperating after big slaughter two weeks back. Scared them good," the brown grinned.
"They gave you armour?" Kelda asked incredulously, inspecting the gleaming Nordbergian steel.
"And new weapons!" another Minion laughed, raising his long, shiny dagger. The weapon had a grip made out of deer bone.
"Wait a minute," Sayron frowned. "Slaughter?"
"I think we’d best ask this to the people, Sayron," Kelda answered softly. "You did stay away for too long. Come with me." She took his gauntleted hand and dragged him with her to the town. The Minions cheerfully ran after them.

A strange, penetrating smell floated through the wilderness.
The great cassowary was a bone-tough bird, all stabbing beak and slashing claws, but even he knew he shouldn´t get anywhere near that smell. Still, he did. For he, a large and proud predator from the Everlightian jungle, was on the run for something on the opposite side of the smell. Something he hadn´t encountered before, but what hunted him from the trees and the forest floor with arrows, fire and strangling ropes that had already left slashes on the gleaming blue skin of his long, featherless neck.
The enormous bird briefly looked behind him. He´d better not have.
From the thick foliage, a shade jumped at him, arms and legs spread. He was hit squarely, a strangling embrace closed his windpipe, a shining blade was smeared with bird blood and then all was over.
An excited call echoed through the jungle. "Prey!"
"Jinxie has it!" another voice passed the message on. "Blister, Parch, Smoky, Yelp! Come help toast it!"
"Hurry up, Blister! Hungry!" another one snarled. At the same time, a horde of brown and red Minions broke through the undergrowth and crowded around the kneeling figure, still wiping her knife on the cassowary´s black plumage. Last, a middle-sized red Minion limped into sight. Blister´s leg was strong enough to stand on again, but until he´d had Mortis´ help, he wouldn´t be able to walk properly.
That didn´t keep him from lighting a huge fire, with the help of his clan members. A little while later, the cassowary had been reduced to a pile of blackened bones, in many cases sporting the marks of pointy teeth and sometimes even deprived of the marrow, and a load of dark feathers some Minions now added to their armour. Minc, the brown with the elven bow, put the bird´s ridged skull on his own head, so the large beak stabbed out in front of his face.
In the middle of the din of raspy voices, a scraping noise resounded. Jinx was cutting one of the bird´s ribs with her dagger, her eyes vigilantly watching the forest around her. Her new ropes, fabricated out of tough vines and woven with aerial roots for extra strength, lay around her shoulders in the old, familiar fashion. On the ends, they were weighted with small stones also woven into them. She started to perfect them further and further.
Like the Minions, Jinx had clearly been in the jungle for a few days now. She distrusted the water just as much as her horde did, so her hair was one tangle and her face a mass of dark smears, but her eyes looked out of it sparkling like gems. Her shirt was torn and spattered with the blood of immediately healed wounds. Her foot wrappings were gone, but the totally frayed underside of her pants was the witness of the fact her feet had been healed even more often than the rest of her body.
She cut a small splinter off the rib and pinched it through the red cloth around her head. There were quite some bone splinters already in there, next to two nasty, rough mouth parts formerly belonging to an insect or other large arthropod.
Jinx rose. "Come on, boys," she spoke.
She wasn´t aware of the eight glowing eyes, seemingly floating in the empty air between the leaves. But there was an excited, hissing whisper rising from them, like a discussion nearly decided.

Once in Nordberg, the Minions ran out in front of Sayron and Kelda to an alley the Overlord hadn´t been before, and he thought was constructed only after his departure to the Netherworld as a seven-year old. The front Minion politely knocked a wooden door like all the others. It almost immediately creaked open.
A ginger-haired man stepped out. Involuntarily, Sayron froze as he recognized him.
Kivner was fully healed. Not the faintest scar crossed the face with the long nose and the short red beard. He was the same man he´d been before the Nordhaven inferno.
"The worshipper!" Gnarl hissed. "So he hasn´t just survived the inferno, he also went to Nordberg and… oh, I think I understand what´s happened, Sire! Oh, that´s beautiful…"
"Lord Sayron!" Kivner smiled, like he´d just been pleasantly surprised. Sayron backed away from the thought that just might be the case. He dug his memory. He had known, somewhere deep down, it would be wise to remember this face. "Kivner, isn´t it?"
The smile widened as the ginger man heard his name. "Certainly, lord. Your faithful servant."
The light brown eyes narrowed for a moment, barely noticeable, but Sayron saw it. Kivner immediately spoke on. "During your absence I´ve made sure Nordberg understood your intentions. I´ve been awaiting your return." He stepped out of the door opening and into the snowless street. "I must humbly request you to follow me."
There was something strange about the way Kivner spoke, Sayron pondered as he and Kelda, followed by a small horde of Nordbergian Minions, strode after the ginger man. In some way the Nordbergian accent wasn´t right, or the intonation was off… he couldn´t put his finger on it, but…
All of his doubts and wariness were, however, wiped away as he saw what was in front of him.
The cliffs at the back of the village had been turned into a second quarry. Dozens of Nordbergians were busy with pickaxes, chippings and oar were taken away on all sides and some distance away a great smithy fire roared up. Hammer blows were audible. Dust wafted up in great clouds and the sound of the pickaxes filled the cool air.
Kelda laid a hand on Sayron´s shoulder. "It seems we have enough armour and weapons here to let a great deal more Minions into the horde, darling."
A grin broke through on the Overlord´s face. He abruptly spun to face Kivner, so his sash swung behind him. "Kivner, I think we´ll stay here for a couple of days."
The ginger man grinned as well and bowed jauntily, and because of the contrast in feelings Sayron´s words caused with Kelda, the Tower lady didn´t even notice that movement was far too elegant for a Nordbergian.

A few days later, the Everlightian jungle.
Out at sea, the highest peaks of the island had been clearly visible, but at this moment they rose up into a remarkably massive blanket of clouds, so thick it almost turned solid in a heavy layer of silvery mist, sucking all colour from the forest and covering every leaf in glistening drops. A motionless silence hung over the jungle, just broken by the lonely cries of birds and beasts, echoeing their way out of the audible.
Then, a slowly climbing figure appeared, clearer as it approached. And another one. Soon, a row of climbers worked their way up the slope, some of them casting a golden glow into the fog. The breaking of small twigs disturbed the heavy silence.
Jinx and her horde were now completely adapted to Everlight. The black-haired girl had taken it for a fact they’d be stuck here for a while, if they’d ever find their way back to the Netherworld. Everlight was so vast, and the chance they’d run into a Tower Gate so small, she’d swapped searching for surviving.
That was also the reason she turned as fast as a tigress and had her ropes aggressively at the ready within half a second as something threw itself at Rampus, the brown Minion walking behind her. The reinforced vines swiftly shot out to the great, gleaming black spider, even before it had had the chance of sinking its mandibles into his throat. The Minion scrambled backwards and drew his weapon. In the meantime, the horde had turned into a fighting chaos rolling on the forest floor.
Jinx threw her soaked hair out of her face and cast out her ropes to the half dozen of other spiders. At the same time, Kniff wrapped a strong arm under another arthropod’s head, Minc jumped back to riddle a second with a volley of self-made, bone splinter arrows and three others flamed up beneath the fireballs of the four reds.
Jinx’ rope wrapped itself around the waist of the last spider, after which she pulled it towards her and sliced it open from throat to silk glands. Brownish entrails fell between the dewy ferns.
She tightened the red cloth around her head. "Great job, guys."
Minc gathered his intact arrows. Kniff wiped his dagger. The reds extinguished the fire around their hands.
Clout looked about him. "Cocoon near?"
"You’d think so, with all these guards." Jinx stepped forward, further up the slope. "Have a good look around. It’s easy to miss in this fog." She raised her head to the trees herself, a hand on the bone hilt of her dagger.
A soft hissing resounded through the whiteness.
Several Minions froze. Just their glowing yellow eyes shot between the trees and the undergrowth. Jinx took one more step and then stopped as well.
"Snake?" Minc mumbled, muffled beneath his cassowary beak.
The hissing returned, clearer now. It had a throaty undertone, clearly not belonging to something as banal as a snake…
Rampus’ ears swiveled towards the sound. Kniff turned as quietly as he could as it suddenly came from the other side as well.
A small shade appeared between the trees further up the slope. Jinx drew her dagger and took one rope off her shoulder.
The shade slowly approached them. Then, suddenly, it accelerated enormously and launched itself right into the middle of the group. Several Minions already raised their weapons…
A rasping laugh. Clout had raised his arms, not to trust his sword forward, but to throw them around the newcomer’s shoulders. "Manky!" he yelled.
The shade turned out to be a new brown Minion, a small axe hanging from his belt and clad in black fur like the rest of his clan. Not the slightest trace of spider silk stuck to his body.
Jinx knelt down and inspected the cheerfully grinning Minion from head to toe. "How did you get –" she started, but abruptly fell silent as something hissed next to her ear.
A moment later however, the hiss changed into chuckling. Jinx’ eyes suddenly stared into two glowing orbs with large, dark pupils, calculating, narrow and with a reptilian look in them.
They blinked and were gone. A suffocating stench reached her nose, the same smell that had been hanging around them for days but stronger than ever.
"You!" Clout called out.
Clout was the oldest Minion they had, Jinx realized. A Minion who still remembered the days of Vessperion, before the Minion clans separated…
From the mist, eight glowing eyes came forward. As she looked on wide-eyed, four skinny bodies materialized around them.
The green Minions were, again, unique. Their skin was scaly and spotted, their limbs long and thin. From their leafy loincloths muscular tails emerged, at the end sprouting yellowy spikes. Their faces were sly, their ears long and versatile. From their lower jaws small canines stuck up. The stench reached its peak.
The four of them approached the horde with fluent, swift motions. Jinx caught a glimpse of glistening, razor-sharp claws, and she silently was very glad these Minions were on her side… or could she be really sure of that?
"Jagged," the largest of them whispered as he stood right in front of Jinx, nodding curtly. He grinned, a shocking display of carnivorous teeth vanishing into an expression of impregnable slyness before the girl had even blinked her eyes. "Leader of the green clan." He gestured to his companions. "Whisper, Scythe, Ramul."
Jinx nodded at them. "My name is Jinx," she said, a little unnerved by the sudden volume of her own voice. "Leader of the brown horde."
"We know. Remarkable," Jagged hissed. "A human leader and no Master. Where is he?"
Jinx had expected it, but now she was sure they’d been spied on for days. Still, she carefully kept her expression of calmness. "We were shipwrecked on the western shore," she answered. "I haven’t seen lord Sayron ever since. You don’t have information either, then."
"Didn’t hope for a return," came the whispered answer. One of the others, Scythe, Jinx thought was his name, grinned with those words.
Kniff pulled at her ragged shirt. "These wild Minions," he muttered with pressure. "Freed Manky, but…"
"We don’t know whose side they’re on," Jinx understood. She was aware of a division behind her. Some Minions were glad to see the greens, others were nervous. But Manky, who had been freed from his spidersilk cocoon by them, was still grinning without concern…
"You know this island," Jinx started in a calm voice. "I want you to ensure us a safe passage to the western coast."
"Safe?" Scythe mocked. "Spiders, plants, gnomes, grass bears…" Another Minion, one of his feet wrapped in what seemed to be blue cloth, chuckled in agreement. "Your idea of safe…?" he asked with a claw outstretched in question.
"…is not safe in the literal meaning of the word but rather fast enough to not be noticed by danger, something I have the reason to expect when travelling with you to our Overlord, Ramul," Jinx answered, still with her carefully dosed calmness.
Ramul looked at her with narrow yellow eyes for a moment. His pupils contracted to hair-thin slits. Then he turned to Jagged.
The largest green Minion let his gaze travel over Jinx’ horde. Several Minions, including Kniff, looked back defiantly.
He nodded. "Taking them to the Hive."
The other three grinned as he faded into the mist. Then they followed his example.
"If the brown leader can follow," came the chuckling answer from, apparently, totally empty air.

The throne room was filled with the clash of metal on metal. Gnarl kept his ears folded against his head carefully and looked up at the large net the Minions had spanned beneath the portal with a smile. A moment later his eyes were on the mist pool again, where Sayron and Kelda, along with Kivner and some other Nordbergians, stood at the Tower Gate. More Nordbergians and some of the Minions were busy with the town´s final productions. The swords, axes, spears and enormous collections of arrowheads were being loaded into the gate, from where they clashed down into the throne room.
It had been like this for several days now. The first days, there had also been an enormous stock of meat, enough to keep the barracks fed for months to come. But it was nearly over now.
As the advisor watched, the final pieces of armour were laid in the gate and descended into the great hall. He nodded at the Minions on the scaffolding on both sides of the net. They grabbed the corners firmly and jumped, slowed in their fall by ropes attached to their own armour. The net was tied together. Soon it lay on the throne room floor, where a new team of Minions dragged it away.
"You can come down, Lord," Gnarl spoke to the mist pool. He saw the Overlord briefly turning to Kivner.
"I´m so glad you saw who to obey," he grinned to the ginger man.
"There never was any doubt, lord," Kivner answered with a voice as slick as honey. Gnarl raised his eyebrows for a moment. Kivner was still subservient, but in another way than before… he couldn´t quite lay his finger on it…
"I´m looking forward to your next visit!" the advisor heard, just before Sayron and Kelda stepped into the gate and the mist pool abruptly faded.
With a blinding blue flame the two reappeared into the throne room. Sayron immediately roared with laughter. "I never suspected it´d be this easy," he laughed. "They´re throwing themselves at my feet!"
"As they should, Sire," Gnarl spoke. He kept himself from warning his Master. In this remarkably positive situation, he was the only one expected to busy himself sniffing out possible pitfalls…
Kelda eyed the enormous net full of metal gears of war. "Where are we going to put those? I don´t think there´s enough room in the armory at the forges…"
"I suggest the lower levels, Sire," Gnarl remarked. "With so many good pieces of armour, the younger Minions soon will be fit to fight in the horde, but first they´ll have to polish their skills and they can train best down there. It´d be useful for the material to be there as well."
"Agreed," Sayron answered airily. "Take them there." He pulled Kelda close. "I have to celebrate the fact I have Nordberg completely under my thumb…"
Kelda smiled briefly, but then pushed him away. "Weren´t you about to do something as soon as you got back, Sayron?"
The glow in the orange eyes subdued a bit. He nodded reluctantly.
"Jinx´ll be on her way to you as well," Kelda encouraged him. "She´s good with the wilderness. And you might even find the green Minions on your way." She stepped back, but kept looking at him with her piercing green eyes. "Good luck."
Sayron kept looking at her for a moment, but then raised his head to the portal and outstretched a hand. "Everlight," the command resounded.

"Thank Vessperion for Grubby´s Minion Gates," Sayron muttered some moments later, after he´d returned at the rocky plateau in the middle of the Everlightian jungle with a bolt of sizzling blue lightning. He outstretched the gauntlet bearing the amber gem to the brown gate, after which Stripe, Scabies, Gloob and the others came tumbling out. After ten or so Minions he turned to the red gate, the only other to flame to the fullest. Hoarse came flying like a fire wheel, immediately followed by inexperienced, recently spawned reds. The stronger members of the red clan were all stuck in cocoons, or they were dead… or maybe they´d been found by Jinx, something he secretly did hope for.
He looked back at the horde. He didn´t know that many of these Minions. Most of the weak after Scabies and Hoarse hadn´t fought that often yet. They were wearing proper armour, but that was only thanks to Nordberg. He throught to himself he really was glad with the extra material – metal was too scarce and the only armour the Minions were wearing normally was paid with the blood of the previous owners. The Netherworld had been a leech, and a hungry one at that, but those days might just be coming to an end.
Another leap forward. Sayron allowed himself a brief smile as he followed the rocky trail downhill from the plateau where the gate had been dug.
On all sides, the jungle reacted to their presence. Birds and small animals hurried away in the treetops, there was something bigger rustling in the undergrowth and right in front of his feet an enormous, perfectly camouflaged butterfly furiously beat its wings to rise up in time. On the inside of its wings, it was a magnificent, flaming red. Sayron tried to stomp on it, but missed.
He looked up and swore.
In front of them a high, steep rock face rose up, on their side decorated with a huge carved depiction of the Mother Goddess, again in her bloated form. Here on Everlight the cult seemed to favor that form, even in their own priestesses.
That way was shut. Even if the reds could climb the cliff, he himself would be useless. But his swear was mainly because of the water to his right. The path abruptly fell away in a rushing stream of water from further uphill. Across it, a trail led further into the jungle, but the Minions wouldn´t be able to follow.
Unless… Sayron looked harder. There on the opposite shore grew a small tree he might be able to cut down using his sword…
He laid his weapon across his shoulder and splashed into the stream.

Kniff skidded down the muddy slope, lost his footing, slammed into the ground face-first and slid down the last bit that way so his teeth rattled. Then he scrambled up, spat out a large gleaming beetle and ran on.
It wasn´t easy following greens, he thought miserably. But he wasn´t at the very back. Jinx was having more trouble with Blister on her shoulders. He heard her coming down the slope, but didn´t look back, for the danger of losing sight of the horde in the lustrous undergrowth.
Yesterday had been easier. The green Minions might be invisible thanks to their own magical camouflage, but the smell was easy to follow and they´d only slightly miscalculated the right direction a couple of times. And even then, the greens had often returned to point them in the right way again with the glow of a yellow eye or a three-clawed slash across a mossy tree trunk.
But now they were, indeed, going too fast to run into danger and give it a reasonable chance to cause them any trouble.
He cut himself a way through a bush with fleshy, gleaming leaves with his dagger, stopped halfway and then simply clawed himself out with his nails. At the moment he wrung his head outside he suddenly looked into two narrow eyes in a faintly visible face.
Kniff blinked. "Whisper?"
"Yes," was the hissing reply. "Keep running. Almost there."
"Where?" Kniff said, faltering while trying to get his foot out of the bush. He looked back briefly. Jinx was still following, Blister´s glowing eyes just above her shoulder.
"The Master," Whisper answered. "Jagged felt. He´s close."
Kniff´s eyes flashed and his ears flew up. "The Master! How does he know?"
"Animals flee," hissed Whisper. He grabbed Kniff´s claw and pulled him along. "Birds fly up and screech. And now he knows feeling of other Minions again…"
Kniff turned. "Jinxie!" he called back. "Master´s close!"
Jinx raised her head and nearly slipped now she wasn´t paying attention to the ground anymore. Her eyes gleamed and she nodded. "Good! About time!"
"You alright?" Kniff asked, still being dragged along by his once again invisible helper.
Jinx grinned briefly, a flash of teeth just as fleeting as the smile of a green. "´Course." She pulled a sprint to catch up with Kniff and Whisper. "The slope´s getting less steep already…"
On her back, Blister looked forward intently. "Strange grass," he muttered.
They were, indeed, surrounded by strange, high and thin growth with stiff stalks.
"Tallgrass," Whisper said. His eyes became visible as he looked back at them. His pupils were alertly widened.
"What does that mean?" Jinx asked, suddenly uncomfortable.
The green Minion blinked rapidly.
"Grass bears," he said.

Aches, a strong Minion with a Netherworld-made, black-plumed helmet, jumped over the loose tree trunk with wide eyes. It was only a thin tree and he was absolutely not happy with it, not even when he landed next to his Master on the other side of the wild stream. As he tried to control his breathing he watched the rest of the horde follow him.
A swift smile passed over his face at the sight of a young red Minion, clearly terrified of the water spraying below his feet, staggering halfway across the trunk. As he watched the newborn fell to his barely armoured knees, his glittering eyes wide with panic. Aches didn´t lift a finger. If Minions were weak, they didn´t deserve to travel with the horde.
His smile faded as Hoarse shoved him out of the way with a white-hot hand and ran onto the trunk again, hoisting the youngster to his feet. The brown gnashed his teeth at the red leader as he came back, a hand firmly pressed to the sizzling burn on his arm. Hoarse didn´t even look at him.
The horde gradually gathered around Sayron. Aches strolled to his spot just behind Scabies. The Master started walking.
Sayron looked about him with mild surprise. The growth had changed. It now consisted mainly of long, straight stalks, segmented like spines, stiffly shooting out of the soil. Often they grew over the path they wanted to follow, so both his sword and the Minions´ weapons were put to use.
It was after passing a cluster of those stalks that the Overlord froze.
"By the Unholy Lord! What kind of teddy-shaped monster is this?" Gnarl wondered out loud. "I´ve never seen anything like it… even in the lands around the old Tower…"
Sayron cautiously approached the enormous, black and white creature. He had experience with the larger beasts of Everlight… but the creature seemed to be just fine where it was, a claw full of the strange plants and gnawing peacefully. "Gnarl…" the Overlord muttered.
"Ewww, it´s just so fluffy! It´s repulsive! My eyes! My eyes!"
"What wonderful fur that beast has," Kelda admired it. "I bet it would look much better on me, though."
Sayron smiled briefly. "That might be arranged, love."
"Best to leave that monster to its muching, Sire," Gnarl discouraged him. "Remember last time?"
Sayron shrugged and turned. "Maybe later…" He raised his sword and swung it into a new cluster of stalks, just as Gnarl finished his sentence: "It seems to have a taste for that tall grass…"
The gargantuan blade hit the stalks with a rattling, far too loud sound. Exactly at that moment, an enormous roar got up behind them.
Sayron spun. The grass bear hauled itself up on its hind legs and swung a heavy black claw in his direction.
The Overlord´s orange eyes widened and paled to a fearful yellow. "Oh, no…"
Further in the jungle a comparable roar resounded. The sound of breaking branches approached way too fast – from more than one direction.
"Run, Sire!"

A roar, faint like faraway rainfall.
Jagged yanked up his head, his pupils narrowed to slits. He let his body solidify to visibility, followed by several browns and reds slamming into him almost immediately. He spun around hissing, just to be answered by a loosely strung bow and a grin behind a cassowary beak. Minc narrowed his own eyes. "Was that?"
"Trouble," Jagged snarled. Next to him Scythe and Ramul solidified from thin air, the first with a faint smile around his canines.
Parch skidded to a halt sharply and nervously looked between the three greens. "What happening?" As the greens remained silent, he looked back. The rest of their small horde came down the slope at an alarming speed, Jinx, Kniff and Blister in their midst. As the red Minion looked on, Whisper became visible and joined his three clan members.
The roar returned.
"Grass bears?" asked Jinx.
Whisper nodded. "Master needs our help…"
Ramul hissed at him. Immediately, Jagged swung out his claws to the Minion with the blue cloth around his foot. Ramul gestured with his chin. "Are only with four!"
Parch´ eyes glistened for a moment. He exchainged glances with Jinx. However, before she could say anything Jagged slashed the air in front of Ramul. "Have a horde now."
Jinx looked between Jagged and Parch. "Let´s go then," she spoke.

Sayron cut himself a way through the now much denser tallgrass. In front of him, behind him, everywhere he could hear the approaching grass bears. The more plants he cut down to get away, the more aggressive they became. His Minions were still running along with him, but some had stayed behind to slow the bears and it didn´t seem like they´d had any success…
He cut away the stalks in front of him. His now pastel yellow eyes widened even further. Behind the stalks, a grass bear had been waiting for him.
The swipe of the great front paw was crushing, so powerful the Overlord was slammed into the ground immediately. Stripe, Gloob and the others instantly jumped in front of him, weapons at the ready, but the grass bear wiped them away like they didn´t even exist. Hoarse and the reds, who´d climbed on top of the nearby rock formations, let a rain of fire descend on the beast, but the bear´s fur was damp and so massive it was like setting soaked moss alight.
Sayron rammed a gauntleted hand below him and tried to get up, but he could hear massive paws descend behind him as well.
The grass bear in front of him rose to its hind legs. Sayron rolled out of the way before the front paws could crush him. The bear landed on all fours, but immediately swiped a paw in the Overlord´s direction again, a stroke powerful enough to separate his helmeted head from his body –
– when the bear suddenly screamed in pain. Behind him, another high yell like it resounded.
It magically appeared on the grass bear´s back: a skinny green creature with long, versatile ears and glowing yellow eyes. Ivory spikes ran along the spine. The creature hissed ferociously while it spun around on the white fur with the speed of a whirlwind, stabbing long, razor-sharp claws everywhere in the bear´s body. Apparently, there was even time to wink at the Overlord slyly.
"Green Minions!" Gnarl cheered.
Some colour crept back into Sayron´s eyes. He stared up from his horizontal position, not quite able to grasp the fact he´d finally found what he had set sail for all those months ago. Or they had found him, more like. A lost Minion clan.
"Yeeeeaaaaaaaaahhh!"
A new creature threw itself onto the writhing grass bear. It immediately wrapped a strangling vine around the animal´s throat, pulled itself down and planted a dagger in the back of the neck. The green Minion scrambled around the head and stabbed all his claws under the bear´s jaw. A yanking movement, a last desperate gasp, and the beast thudded between the lustrous ferns.
Jinx slammed into the ground just in front of Sayron, scrambled to her feet and outstretched her hand to him. Her filthy face sported an uncontrollable grin. "Hello, Lord."
"Like you´d be able to get me up," the Overlord muttered. He pushed himself up and picked up his sword. Jinx went to stand next to him, her ropes at the ready. By the sound of it, more bears were close. The jungle was teeming with them here.
"How did you find us?" Sayron asked, without diverting his gaze from the undergrowth.
Jinx slightly bent her knees. "We followed the sun. Then we found the greens. They were very helpful," she grinned sourly.
"We?"
"I´m with my own horde, Lord."
"You´re part of that horde, brown leader," Sayron corrected her, just when a new bear broke through the stalks on his side. He immediately stormed forwards, his sword low to get it beneath the beast´s stomach. Instantly two greens jumped on its back as well, using the distraction Sayron, Jinx and a couple of browns provided to kill the bear within two minutes.
"That´s Jagged," Jinx pointed, meaning the green Minion who´d already killed two bears. "And that´s Scythe…" The newcomer grinned broadly. Jagged nodded briefly and then ran off to block the bears before they could get to Sayron. Halfway down the trail, he faded out of sight.
From the opposite direction a heavy snort disturbed the sudden silence.
Sayron and Jinx turned like one. Scythe´s pupils widened.
This grass bear didn´t look too good. Yellow foam dripped from its maw and its little eyes spun round uncontrolled. Still it managed to knock Jinx into a rattling cluster of stalks with one blow. The sound enraged it even more – it growled hoarsely and roared so loud Scythe´s ears were blown backwards.
The green Minion took a jump, but didn´t get a good footing on the greasy fur. He almost slipped off at the flank and needed all of his strength and agility to just stay in place, without getting the chance to launch an attack.
Jinx pulled herself up on a quivering stalk, a numbing haze in front of her eyes. She saw how Sayrons sword slid off the bear´s fur blow after blow.
"We need more Minions," she muttered. She straightened out. "Kniff! Parch! Minc! Rampus! Yelp!"
"Jinxie?!" Kniff shouted from further into the tallgrass. She spun around and saw a fireball rise up from between the stalks in answer. They were coming.
The bear bared its teeth in a rattling growl and came thundering at her over the now formed meadow. Sayron had been smashed into the ground and lay still, but Jinx saw his eyes glowing faintly. A heartbeat later, however, she was forced to look away, because otherwise she couldn´t cast out her rope to the high, safe branches of a nearby tree. The bear slammed itself into the trunk, so hard it surprised Jinx it remained rooted.
Little, spinning eyes looked at her from a black-masked face. Jinx stared back with grey eyes as hard as diamond. She twisted her rope in her hand, but had little hope – certainly not when she saw Scythe, lying half between the still upright stalks with his eyes closed and his ears limp. He had to be unconscious, because he didn´t turn invisible.
The bear threw itself into her tree again. This time the trunk trembled so fiercely Jinx nearly fell out. She knew the tree wouldn´t survive the next blow.
The grass bear knew that as well, judging by the look of sly madness in its eyes.
It swiped. The trunk splintered with a terrible noise, and Jinx was dragged down with the falling crown. And three brown Minions threw themselves at the bear´s throat screaming.
Minc spanned three arrows at once and aimed for the eyes, but missed because of the beast´s irregular movement, causing the arrows to fly over its head uselessly. Rampus managed to swing himself around the throat, but his sickle didn´t pierce the heavy fur. Jinx remembered she´d recommended him a new weapon – he´d gotten this sickle off a Minion deceased long ago, before Mortis´ time. Now he was experiencing the downside of such an ancient weapon for himself.
Kniff buried his claws in a front paw and worked himself up. He managed to remain on top of the bear´s head for a split second, his arms wide for balance, and cut off one of the round, black ears. The constant roar reached a climax as the blood came trickling down one side of the masked face. The pain gave the bear enough strength to bat away all three Minions, in the direction where Scythe still lay motionless and Sayron was painfully climbing to his feet.
"Jinx!"
She looked up.
Atop the rock formation behind her were Smoky, Blister and Parch. The most agile of the reds, the one who taught her to climb, winked at her.
Then he allowed the two others to grab him.
Parch seemed to fly. His glowing body flashed over the meadow covered in broken stalks of tallgrass, straight toward the grass bear. He hit the beast´s broad shoulder, but immediately clawed himself in place with the nails that´d find a hold even on a smooth rock ceiling. He swiftly climbed over the insanely writhing bear´s back to the head, pulled open the maw with all of his claws, stuck both his hands inside and, at the moment the bear shut its maw again snarling, sent a roaring column of flame that wouldn´t look too bad on a dragon into its gut.
The bear shivered. It tried to snort, but could only breathe out – accompanied by a flow of thick grey smoke streaming from its nose and between its teeth.
It yelped pitifully. Then it fell over with a crushing thud, and moved no more. A constant stream of smoke rose from the open maw.
Parch lay still at the head. Jinx wrestled out of the remains of her tree and knelt next to him. The glittering eyes blinked open and focused on her.
"J-Jinx."
"Wow, Parch," she whispered. "Wow."
Behind them two yellow eyes crept closer. A moment later Ramul smacked Scythe into the head with his flat hand, so hard the senseless green Minion was immediately awake.
"What use are you?" the socked green grinned.

Not that much later they all stood on the other side of the stream again, on the rocky trail. Jagged, Whisper and Ramul had led the attack on the other grass bears, and with success. There were quite a lot of casualties among the browns and reds, but not nearly as much as when the greens wouldn´t have been present. There was reason to be grinning as wide as most Minions were.
Eventually Jagged straightened out to Sayron. When he got his attention, he respectfully bowed his head and lowered his ears in the universal gesture of unconditional loyalty. When he looked up again, his expression was one of worry.
"Master," he spoke. "Have got problems."
Sayron looked down on the leader of the new clan. "As Gnarl says, as long as you help us, I´ll help you, and if you continue helping us as impressively as back there I´m willing to do a lot."
"We´re all," Jagged whispered with wide pupils. "Are no more green Minions. Hive was lost to trespassers´ hands… and rest of the clan is dead."
Jinx held her breath for a moment. She knew that without a Hive, no new Minions were born, and on this dangerous island that meant big trouble even for greens. She looked up to Sayron. He was still looking down at the green leader calmly, his eyes a slightly more fiery shade of orange. "Trespassers? Fat tourists, protected by soldiers in gleaming armour?"
"Yes, Master," Jagged hissed. "Took the Hive to an old temple. Can´t get in, is too well guarded. Much of the clan died inside."
"Empire," Kniff spat. Next to him, Parch looked away. It seemed like the green clan had more problems than his red had had, stuck below Nordberg in a domain of fairies – at least the red Minions had had a clan. Four greens… all that was left? It was too strange to comprehend.
"Where is this temple?" Sayron asked. Jagged turned and pointed east. "Deeper into wilderness, Master." He exchanged glances with his clan members. "Not through grass bear territory anymore…"
"Good," the Overlord smiled. "I´ve had enough of them for quite a while." He straightened his back and looked up at the hill where the Tower Gate was located. "Okay, that trail leads into the right direction. Let´s go."
"Lord," Gnarl´s voice creaked. "I appreciate your spirit. But there´s something you should see, here in the Netherworld."
"What can be more important than finding the Hive?" Sayron asked irritatedly.
"There´s a someone here to see you, Sire. A female someone."
Something about the advisor´s voice made Sayron shiver. "I´d better come down then?" he asked, suddenly uncomfortable.
"Yes, Master. You´d better come down."
Sayron turned to the four greens. "Are you going to be alright here?" He knew the Minions couldn´t come along to the Netherworld. They´d die if they´d distance themselves from their Hive too far. They´d been lucky the source of their life force was still on the island. Only when the Hives where in his domain, the Minions were free to travel the world.
Jagged nodded. "Will be here when you come back, Master."
Sayron nodded back and started climbing the hilltop. When he looked back, the four greens were nowhere to be seen.

A blue flash announced their return.
Jinx had to restrain herself not to fall to her knees and kiss the throne room´s gleaming black marble. She´d been considerably at home in the jungle, but the feeling of the warm, dry Netherworld air embracing her again was just wonderful. She took off the cloth around her head and shook out her damp hair. A heartbeat later she raised her hands in defense again, because she and Sayron were both rammed by Kelda, who wrapped her outstretched arms around them. The Tower lady was smiling wide, and as she saw who it was, Jinx soon had a broad grin on her face as well. "Kelda! Long time no see!"
"I bugged him until he went back to find you, Jinx," the copper-haired Nordbergian chuckled. "But it seems you found him."
"Don´t overdo it," Sayron rumbled. "I was nearly there." The Overlord broke the group hug, not that unfriendly, and stepped over to the throne. Jinx followed him, sending a nasty grin around the Overlord´s back in Gnarl´s direction. "Hi, oldtimer."
The elder Minion looked at her briefly, but ignored her, save the slight curve of the corner of his mouth. Then his expression became one of concern. "Master, I´d swear I recognize her," he spoke softly.
"Who?" Sayron looked back at Jinx for a moment.
"The visitor, Lord. Shall I bring her in?"
Sayron turned again and slowly lowered himself to the throne. "...Yes. Call her in. I´m curious."
The spike crown on the ceiling opened briefly. A small figure floated down. Jinx went to stand on the other side of the throne, next to Kelda. She narrowed her eyes. The visitor was indeed a woman, clad in a blue cloak with the heavy hood raised over her face. Just her mouth remained visible.
"Why are you here? Speak up," Sayron commanded in a harsh voice.
"I´m here to warn you about the path you are treading," the woman spoke. She was soft-spoken, but she had a tone of all-knowing authority to her voice. Jinx narrowed her eyes even further. She was sure she recognized this woman… and it was an important memory… but she couldn´t reach it… She was starting to suspect her death in Mortis´ net had done something to her memory, causing her to remember her previous life only in glimpses and dreams.
The woman spoke on. "I have seen it all before… the Minions, the Dark Tower… the women! It is a pattern that will lead to your destruction."
"Nonsense!" Gnarl chuckled darkly. "The Overlord is the only one who´ll be doing any destroying around here!"
"I have watched you for many years… from the shadows."
Sayron backed away slightly on his throne.
"You need to see what future awaits you."
Gnarl stroked his chin throughtfully. He, too, found the answer to the woman´s identity to be just out of reach.
"Seek answers in the old lands. The way is now open. The rest is up to you."
With those words, the portal flashed a brilliant blue. The advisor looked up sharply. "A new gate?" he muttered by himself. As if to answer his question, an even smaller figure came down in the blue light and ran over to Gnarl straightaway. It was Grubby, the digger. "Gate active in the Wasteland, Gnarl!" he shouted.
"The Wasteland!" Gnarl seemed to stiffen for a moment. Then he turned to Sayron and lowered his voice. "That´s the place where your father´s tower once stood, Sire!" he muttered excitedly. "The area once held great power, but it´s suffered some very turbulent times in the past… It´s certain to be in a chaotic and unpredictable state. I would advise extreme caution…" The advisor swallowed. "It´ll probably be upside down and inside out, but at least you´ll get to see the old country, Master…"
"My father´s tower…" Sayron´s eyes misted over. "I´m going there." He rose. "…And you."
The woman raised her head to the Overlord, but not far enough for her face to become visible.
"You´re annoying me."
The amber gem cut through the air as Sayron outstretched his arm. The floor beneath the woman opened. Gnarl stretched his neck and grinned. "Ha! …Oh…"
Jinx gasped. Kelda clasped a hand to her mouth.
The woman was floating above the opening.
Sayron´s eyes paled to yellow and widened further than ever. The mouth beneath the hood curled in a smile. Then the mysterious visitor disappeared in a blue flame.

"These lands were once the location of the Dark Tower… the seat of Overlording power."
Sayrons eyes, still yellow, slid over the surroundings. The Overlord swallowed. Next to him, Jinx clasped her hands to her mouth, as her eyes started to water.
"…At least until your predecessor mysteriously disappeared during a trip to the Infernal Abyss."
"Are you sure we won´t run into him here?" Sayron muttered.
They were surrounded by black rocks, sharp as shark teeth, clawing up to the inky sky in bizarre formations. At the jagged horizon hung a constant, unworldly blue glow. Tentacly, almost fluorescent purple plants clung to viable corners. Enormous mushrooms with the colour of meat soaked in seawater for months sprung up around the Tower Gate. A dry, stinking wind seemed to whisper ancient curses.
Minion Gates drilled themselves out of the soil. Sayron raised an arm and called the Minions out. Most of them also gasped as they saw where they had arrived. Kniff and Parch immediately scurried over to Jinx. "Not good," Parch mumbled. Kniff was shivering uncontrollably.
Sayron stepped forward. "Right, Gnarl, explain," he spoke to the advisor – just to have a voice around him, because the silence in this land was unbearable. Gnarl´s voice soon drowned out the rushing of the dead wind.
"Without an Overlord the Minions fled to the Netherworld," he spoke. "After the Great Cataclysm ruined the Dark Tower, we never returned." The advisor paused. "See for yourself. Magic runs rampant here! Unrestrained!"
"I can see that," Jinx muttered while beholding the valley below them, closed off by curved black stone daggers. There, among huge puddles of blue ooze, crawled dozens of gigantic, naked slugs of the same colour. Like the ooze, they were glowing faintly. Each of them sported three stalked eyes.
"…And Minions are rather partial to not being turned inside out or growing an extra head," Gnarl hurried himself to say before the silence became too deep. "Unless it´s in the service of our Overlord, of course."
"Cut it out, Gnarl," Sayron said, half automatically. Jinx smiled for a moment.
"Sorry, Sire. This place is said to be the source of the great Cataclysm," the advisor carried on without faltering. "And the magical plague, which swept the land many years ago."
Jinx stopped walking for a moment. The magical plague?
She remembered that. When she was little, her city had buzzed with stories and rumours. A shadow, far to the east. People spontaneously turning grey with glowing eyes. Magic… completely on the loose.
That was when it had started, she remembered. The fear of magic. The Sentinels and Eradicators of the Glorious Empire. Then magic had become something unnatural.
If it had really started here, she could understand that all too well.
"Although no one is quite sure what caused it," Gnarl spoke. He coughed. "You should explore, Lord. These lands once held many secrets and artifacts, which may now aid you against the Empire…"
Their path led them upwards, onto a gigantic curved claw of black rock. To Jinx´ surprise the climb didn´t tire her at all. The air seemed to be different here, her body seemed lighter. The agile reds ran out in front of them, but came back soon enough – it was better to stick together.
Then they arrived at the very tip of the peak, and Sayron gasped for breath.
That was such a strange sound that Jinx first stared at him for a moment before following his gaze.
Kniff´s ears trembled. Parch´ inner fire blazed up, his eyes were misted over.
There, unbelievably far away, the old Tower stuck out of the waste at an angle. The gigantic size of it was only visible by the haziness – the enormous distance. Curved spikes, not so very different from the one they were standing on now, reached up to the black sky from the very top, and also stuck out halfway down.
They were standing there for a long time, Sayron, Jinx and the horde, in complete silence. The wind, not warm and not cold, howled around the peak and swept along strange, old words.
"That looming fortress was once the source of fear in this land," Gnarl eventually spoke softly. "This was once your spawning pit, Sire. Well, it was where your evil seed was planted, as it were. Your spawn-mother left before you were born. She didn´t feel that a Dark Tower was the right place to bring up a baby. Strange female."
Sayron was still staring at the tower. A tower in the air, instead of underground, where he had stayed as long as he cared to remember. A tower rising up above the land, for everyone to see. "It´s beautiful," he whispered, his eyes staring back in times long past, when the land had been populated and the tower had stood straight.
"Until the browns found you in Nordberg, we thought we´d lost you forever." Gnarl chuckled for a moment. "See? There´s no restraining true Evil. It´s in the blood! And here you are, back at the place were you were conceived!"
The Overlord ripped his gaze away from the Tower. At that moment, he noticed a soft, pearly glow, at the extreme tip of the stone claw. He walked over and knelt, at the patch of soil where the glow was coming from. He brushed away the lifeless black sand.
"…Unholy Lord," Gnarl whispered.
A curved surface came to sight, gently emanating the first true light Jinx had seen here. Forms seemed to glide over the surface, disappearing before they were fully formed – eyes, peaks reaching upwards, a pearly dragon wing.
"That´s a shard of the old Tower Heart."
Sayron tapped it with his finger. The forms froze for a moment, but then resumed their movement faster than ever.
"The Tower Heart collects magical energy and grows in power with its Overlord. With the old Overlord gone, the magical energy within it should have gradually dispelled… but it appears to have exploded for some reason! …So that´s what caused the Great Cataclysm… A burst of magic that powerful could indeed easily have wrecked the Tower…"
Stripe wriggled a claw underneath the shard. It came loose out of the sand without trouble and could easily be picked up.
"See if you can locate the other shards, Sire. Maybe there´s some magical energy left."
Sayron nodded, wordlessly. He allowed Stripe and Scabies to lift the shard and then turned, in the direction where they´d come from. "Come on, we´re taking it back to the gate."
Their way back was free of danger. The blue slugs were still crawling through the valley, feeding on the bizarre growth, and didn´t seem inclined to come up and bother them. Soon the shard lay in the Tower Gate, and Gnarl rapported it had safely descended into the Netherworld.
Inside, Jinx begged the Overlord to follow the shard and leave this unnatural place far behind. Like Kniff, she was now shivering over her entire body. But Sayron turned away from the Tower Gate and stepped back into the Wasteland.
This time, they descended the slope to the slug valley. Sayron stood still at the foot of the hill and glanced at the nearest puddle of blue ooze. "What is that stuff?"
"Careful with that, Sire. It looks very powerful. Maybe it´s the cause of the extra eye those slugs have." The advisor paused. "But I do see an interesting phenomenon over there…"
Jinx peered out in front of her. There, across the small valley and separated from them by a moat of ooze between two rock walls, was a rough wooden gate.
A trace of civilization? Here?
The Overlord stepped forward. Immediately, the slugs stopped feeding.
"Careful you don´t fall into the ooze," Jinx warned. Then she drew her dagger and ran out, as a horde leader.
The slugs weren´t much of a challenge. They tried to raise themselves, and they were big and heavy enough to squash Minions, but they were just a bit too slow. Soon enough, all invertebrates brave enough to attack were reduced to glowing puddles of blue slime in the black sand. Jinx eyed them warily. "Don´t touch it," she repeated. "Come on."
She walked over to the ooze moat. Sayron caught up with them halfway, after wiping his sword on the mushrooms.
Gnarl hummed. "Maybe the blue Minions can clear this away. They´re the most magical of us, maybe they´re resistant to the effects."
"Remains their location," Sayron muttered. "They probably retreated to a moist place, but that could just be the open sea…"
"Let´s hope they aren´t hiding out on the ocean floor, Sire. But it seems unlikely. They´ve always hoped for you to come back."
"So we can´t go any further?"
"Is a wheel over there," Parch remarked. "For opening the gate."
Yelp nodded thoughtfully. "Can climb along rock face!"
Blister slapped Parch´ shoulder. "You´re best climber, Parch. You lead the way." The red Minion´s broken leg had been healed by Mortis in the Netherworld, so he could help.
Smoky also stepped forward. "With four, we can turn wheel, maybe back there is stuff for bridge like Master did on Everlight."
Parch rubbed his white-hot hands together. "What we waiting for?" He walked over to the rock wall where the ooze started and pulled himself up.
"Parch."
The red half turned, one foot clawed into the rock. Jinx looked back.
"Don´t fall."
"Never fall," Parch grinned confidently. "You should know, Jinx."
He clambered up with agility, and then climbed on to the side, not by stepping sideways but by climbing on with his head in front, a method showing his experience. The three others followed him, in the small master climber´s footholds for extra safety.
Parch grinned. A while ago he hadn´t been allowed to fight in the horde. Now, he would have killed an enormous grass bear andopened the way for the Master on the very same day! He couldn´t be happier…
There was something strange with the rock.
The red Minion scratched the black stone with his hands. It was hard, harder than the basalt above the lava flows in the Netherworld. And slippery. Slippery as ice…
He made one more forwards movement. Then his feet also lost their grip. His tail flicked through the air, useless.
"Parch!" he heard, as he fell to the ooze below. Then he smacked into it in a fountain of glowing, sticky drops.
On the other side Sayron, the Minions and Jinx stood staring at him. Kniff seemed about to run to him, but was restrained by Minc.
The red Minion looked down. His body was covered in blue splashes. "Is alright," he said. "Am okay."
Above him, the three others lowered themselves. "Pull you out, Parch," Blister said, a concerned look on his face.
That was fine, Parch thought. He was alright, so if they´d fall as well… what would be wrong with it?
As Blister outstretched a hand, Parch gripped it without hesitation.
And pulled.
Both their names were called out as Blister fell on top of him into the ooze, so they both got smeared with blue liquid. Now Parch really started to feel strange. His inner fire seemed about to burst out, the base of his curved horns was tingling.
Smoky and Yelp stared down, impulsively climbed towards them and also lost their footing.
"Parch!" Jinx yelled from the other side. "Parch!"
Kniff struggled in Minc´s grip. "What is that?!" he yelled.
Parch looked down again. His entire skin was tingling now. He seemed to change colour, become lighter. He felt his horns. They were stretching.
"His eyes," Jinx moaned. "He has no pupils left, he has no damned pupils left!" She groaned with powerlessness. "Climb out, Parch! Please! You´ve taught me all I can! Climb out!"
Parch stuck out his tongue. It seemed to be longer than before. He moved the tip in front of his own eyes. His tongue was blue. He looked behind him to the three others and nodded, satisfied.
Blister, Smoky and Yelp were standing hunchbacked in the ooze, covered in blue splashes but clearly with a sickly pinkish skin, as if all red had been washed out. Their inner fire was the same colour as the ooze. Their eyes lacked pupils and were mismatched in size, and their tongues hung out uncontrolled.
The now much larger red Minion snarled and pointed at the horde on the other side. Then he and the three others started moving, a swaggering, irregular pace.
Through the blue haze before his eyes, the Minion that had once been Parch saw the black-haired girl shaking her head, as tears trailed their way through the filth on her cheeks. She stepped back as he approached, but still he pounced. In his jump his claws swung out. As he hit her, they both slammed into the ground.
"Parch!!"
His only answer was an irregular growl. Blue drool dripped on Jinx´ face as he reached for her throat. His claws pierced her skin and he tightened his grip as she started bleeding.
A short, fleshy sound. His mismatched eyes acquired a faint expression of surprise. Through the blue haze he saw a jagged knife being pulled from his stomach. Light purple blood mingled with the flood of drool on her clothes and the tears on her face. There was no pain. He was beyond that.
As Jinx threw him off her he remained there in the black sand, his long tongue lolling out as the blue light in the once glittering eyes faded. And in the gaping wound in his stomach, glowing very softly, was an orb of red life force.

As Jinx lay sobbing on the ground next to Parch´ hideously mutated body, the red life force within him faded. It spread out through the air for the briefest moment, then descended through minuscule pores in the ground, deeper and deeper. As deep as was possible.
As it arrived in the humming, warm Netherworld air, it chose a specific direction. It floated over gorges, plateaus and hanging bridges to an organic, black object riddled with red-hot openings. It flowed into the red Hive through one of them. And there, in the scorching heat, the little, blazing grain of life started to transform. The red glow changed to orange, yellow and finally an all-consuming white. It changed form. Appendages appeared. Four of them split into four more, smaller appendages, another increased in length. Another still was raised upwards, to the faraway upper world, and opened two pinpricks of eyes, glittering and yellow.
Then a red skin started to grow over the new red Minion´s inner fire. At the stomach, arms and back it was slightly thinner, so the glow shone through. The unborn Minion stretched his arms, clenched his tiny hands into fists and swung his tail. Then he started making weak swimming motions, taking him closer to the outside of the Hive.

The reds in the stalactites above the lava flow, the swimmers in it and the others hanging around at the Hive looked up as one of the openings in it lit up brighter than usual.
One beat of a tiny, fiercely glowing heart later, a young red Minion tumbled out of the opening he´d lit from the inside. He fell down, straight into the lava flow. As he hit the liquid fire, the little red already seemed to grow. And as he threw himself out and climbed up along the rock face he was of normal size for a newborn.
The red Minion straightened out, dripping with lava. He opened his eyes. The others watched with interest – his eyes were elongated and sported a pitch-black lining.
"What´s your name?" one of the others asked.
The newborn looked at him. "Fever," he spoke with a sizzling voice full of fire.
But the little red Minion smiled in such a way you just couldn´t imagine he was speaking the truth.

Chapter Text

A soft crunching. The feeling of cold leather against warm skin. Eyes screwed against the blinding white and constantly shaking off to prevent a pile of snow forming on top of your head.
Exactly what she needed right now.
Here, at an altitude of four thousand meters up in the Nordbergian mountains rising over the town, Jinx was alone with her thoughts. That was fine. She hoped this whiteness could drive out the dark within her. Darkness was great, but not the kind that had invaded her heart from the Wasteland.
Her narrowed eyes stared through the whirling snow. She saw other things, however.
Mortis, bent over the Well, reaching inside with a webbed hand. The lighting shades of Rasp, Nails, Raw and the others being dragged out, shining life force fusing with them, the Minions becoming solid again. She’d seen them die. Rasp and Nails back in Nordhaven, skewered on Kiret spears, Raw with an arrow through his head at the Reef Gates. Still, they were back.
Parch wasn’t. He’d never come back again. Blister, Smoky and Yelp weren’t. Gonk and Ludz, two weaker browns on their very first travel, separated from the horde by an enormous slug on the way back to the Tower Gate and driven backwards into the ooze, they weren’t either. Sayron had commanded them with burning eyes to kill the Minions first. But not even that had been nearly as hard as sticking her dagger into Parch and feeling it rupture her friend’s insides.
Jinx shook her head. The snow sprayed off her black hair. She didn’t want to think of that anymore.
Loss. She’d lost things before.
Including great parts of her memory, so she couldn’t even remember exactly what...
Jinx stopped, her head down and her gloved hands clenched into fists. She’d been so unexpectedly happy in the Netherworld and with the Minions, once the death threats had subsided, she’d forgotten it didn’t make any sense. Of course, if Sayron continued like this, it’d be wise to be on his side, but what good would it do her? She’d always be his slave...
She thought of disappearing. A part of her would be happy to escape into the upper world, maybe to a far corner north of the Empire, or undiscovered lands beyond the distant horizon.
But another part of her knew that, even if she’d suddenly remember who she’d been and what she should be doing, she was now so attached to her life as the horde leader, she never wanted to leave again.
She felt torn. That was why she’d gone out hunting alone – she didn’t want to see anyone, not even Kelda. But then she’d consciously chosen the most difficult path up the mountain, away from the hunting routes. Up here was nothing. Just Nordberg’s last snow.
And a robust, hunched form, almost white on white... moving slighty.
The grey eyes beneath the sealskin hood froze. She was back in the Everlightian jungle, a gigantic drooling grass bear looming over her...
...until Parch came speeding to the rescue like a comet...
"No!" Jinx snapped to herself. She looked back at the form behind the whirling snow. What could that be?
She reached for her Everlightian vines beneath her coat.
At the same moment the form came forward. And Jinx could see it was something far larger than she’d estimated, distorted by the falling snow and the distance.
"Ankhwoo?"

Kniff miserably brushed aside the shards of a fallen demon horn, one of the sculptures along the throne room walls that’d been destroyed by the enormous net full of Nordbergian steel. He briefly snarled at a black rat running past, but couldn’t bring himself to chasing it, at least not as enthusiastic as Grot.
He watched the other Minion for a moment. Grot was a hopeless case on the battlefield, so he’d probably be a cleaner forever. However, he thought of his broom as the mightiest of swords, always chasing after the rats and beetles invading the Tower.
Kniff lowered his ears again as he swept on. "Parch," he muttered. "Will miss you, buddy."
A soft, swift clicking of claws on marble made him look up. Another Minion? Grot and him were quite enough, the net makers had been less violent than usual.
It was a red. Small, and with a longer tail than the average.
Kniff caught himself staring. His broom clattered from his hands.
Then he saw the red’s eyes. Elongated and with a black lining.
"New?" he asked, still miserable, but despite everything still with a spark of his old curiosity.
The red nodded. "Name is Fever," he spoke. Kniff’s attention was drawn in some more upon hearing his voice – even more sizzling than Hoarse’s. The newborn – he had to be, judging by his size – turned away and looked around the throne room. His eyes lingered on the mist pool, now showing Sayron in his struggles with the Everlightian jungle. Kniff followed the red as he went for the back of the hall.
Gnarl looked up from the pool as Fever approached. He seemed to back away slightly as he saw the red’s eyes.
"Hello, Gnarl."
The mist pool went black.
A heartbeat later the throne room echoed with a desperate cry...
"Shiiiiiit!"

Jinx sprinted down the mountain trail, tripping in the massive layer of snow and feverishly searching for a spot to where she could throw a rope. Behind her, the yeti sniffed up her scent with interest. It was an enormous beast, at least five meters tall and covered in light grey fur. One huge eye blinked while watching her run, and then fell to her white clothes. He suddenly bared a set of very sharp teeth, kicked his short hind legs, flung out his long arms and swung down by the underside of the ridge, coming up and thudding back on the trail in front of Jinx. Right at that moment she threw down her vine, so she soared past him.
"What did you find, boy?" a loud voice pierced the frigid air. "Don´t just kill whatever you come across..."
Jinx looked over her shoulder from her lower ridge, a hand above her eyes against the whiteness of the sky. The yeti had held still. Next to him was a green-clad figure with blond, braided hair and pointy ears. His green eyes were fixating her even more than the yeti’s one yellow eye.
"Florian Greenheart," Jinx hissed.
The elf laid a hand on the yeti’s rough fur. "So you’ve heard of me…"
"Where are your Soldiers of the Sanctuary, treehugger?" Jinx mocked from her ridge. "Oh, wait, there is no Sanctuary below Nordberg anymore..."
Florian’s eyes widened.
Jinx clasped a hand to her mouth as she realized what she’d flapped out. Her connection to the Overlord did go a little deeper than she’d estimated, then. Now the elf knew for sure on whose side she was. She moaned. "Think of who’s holding the yeti, girl," she growled to herself. Then she looked back up at the elf.
Florian patted the yeti’s massive arm. He opened his mouth to speak. The voice following, however, was not his.
"Jinx, I believe the pool’s decided you need my help a little harder than Sayron at the moment."
Jinx jolted in surprise, slipped on the icy rock and plummeted into the ravine.
"And I think it might be right," Gnarl remarked dryly.
"After her, noble creature!" she heard Florian call out. The yeti roared and swung after her.
She swiped out her ropes to both sides, felt them catch on and nearly snap with strain, and swung to a halt between two spires. As her heart hammered like crazy, she looked about her wildly. "Gnarl!"
"Yes?"
"I didn´t even think of you! It´s not my fault!"
"Most certainly not. I suggest you get the hell away from that yeti. You´re wearing seal fur and he won´t stop until you´re dead."
There was the clatter of falling rocks above as the gigantic creature came down with giant leaps. A greedy, snorting growl reached her hooded ears. She looked up fearfully, yanked her ropes free and let herself fall even further.
It wasn´t easy using the ropes with gloves as thick as she was wearing now. Unlike during her first voyage through Nordberg, she was dressed for it now, down to her sturdy fur boots, but it did take away much of her agility.
"Ankhwoooooo!"
She smashed her feet into the rock face below her, which luckily wasn´t too steep at this point. She bent her knees upon impact and immediately started running as fast as she could, her jagged breath trailing behind her in large plumes of steam. She reached a good speed, racing downwards through the snow.
She threw a glance over her shoulder. The yeti came thundering down the mountain on his knuckles, way faster than she was. Florian was nowhere to be seen.
She might just as well use the fact she now had an advisor. "How do I get rid of him?!"
"Reach Nordberg! Once you´re out of the snow, he´ll turn back."
"Faster, Jinxie!" Kniff´s voice sounded next to her ear.
"I´m trying, Kniff!"
Below her grew leafless trees which would only in the heart of summer get a chance to come to life. At the moment she slid between them a new voice sounded, one with a sizzling undertone.
"Look to the right, Jinx."
Involuntarily, she did as she was told. There, a few yards away, a large slab of bone-tough bark hung loose from one of the trees, strangely scorched as if it had been ripped loose by a sudden burst of flame.
Something clicked and Jinx cast out a rope. She swung around the tree once, kicked the slab loose with outstretched feet and a crack, and jumped onto it as it slid into the snow. Then she bent over as if riding the floating rock. Her makeshift snowboard granted her a great deal more speed, and now she started to reclaim her lost head start from the yeti.
She heavily breathed out in a trail of steam as the pounding of the heavy knuckles receded somewhat and the yeti was hidden from her eyes by the lifeless trees. Then her eyes narrowed. "Who was that?"
"Fever, Jinx," Gnarl spoke. "A new red Minion."
Don´t think of Parch... "He´s got good eyesight if he could see that in the pool."
"How did Jinxie get into the pool?" she heard Kniff ask.
"Yeah, I´m curious to that as well." She looked back. The yeti was still tailing her. She bent over a little deeper.
Gnarl coughed. "I believe the Netherworld feels you mustn´t die. It surprises me."
"You don´t mean a word of it," Jinx grinned. She heard Kniff chuckle.
...How could she even have thought about leaving the horde?
"Jinx! Look out!"
Her eyes widened and she straightened out abruptly. In a reflex and a spray of snow she crossed the bark.
Before her feet, the world fell away. Deep, deep below her, smoke rose from the chimneys of Nordberg.
She looked back, just in time to see the yeti thunder out between the trees.
She jumped.

Gnarl rigidly clasped his hands together as he watched the vision in the pool grow hazy with speed, a grey smudge of mountain slope with Jinx sharply visible against it. Her hood was blown off and her black hair flew up. She still had the bark beneath her feet, but a fall from this height would at least do some damage...
He looked away to the Minion who called himself Fever. He couldn´t believe it was already beginning.
Three questions buzzed through his ancient skull. How was Sayron in the meantime? How would Jinx survive this? And where,where were the two other heads of the black dragon? When would they walk the mortal world?
Kniff stood on his other side, his fingers in his mouth and his eyes wide. He nervously gnawed his knuckles as Jinx cast out a rope – and missed. A second throw made her swing to the side uncontrolled, a nauseating motion even for the watchers through the mist pool.
She put her snowboard against the rock face, slightly less steep at this point. The bark slowed her descent in a rain of splinters, but her knees were trembling and she wouldn´t be able to keep it up for long.
Fever bent over the pool. "Howl! Howl for help!"
Jinx´ head flew up. "What?"
Kniff yanked his fingers out of his mouth and howled like a wolf. Jinx´ eyes lit up and she followed him, a mournful call through the screeching wind.
Way down, something answered her call. But above her the yeti roared out his rage.

The icy wind bombarded her ears. She tried to reduce her speed as much as she could using her ropes and the bark, but even as she howled a second time, the wood ricocheted on a bump of rock and tumbled away from beneath her feet. Her left foot snapped against the rock and tears sprung into her eyes with the sudden pain.
Below her was another plateau, free of snow this time. She had reached the border of the snow cap. But the yeti didn´t seem about to turn back, the elf´s command still ringing in his sunken ears.
Jinx smacked onto the relatively smooth ground. She couldn´t run – her foot lay limp and at a strange angle.
She howled again, hoarse with fear. The yeti thudded down behind her like a compact avalanche and raised a massive fist.
Which was suddenly hung with a slender, grey-haired creature, teeth sunk into the fleshy wrist.
Jinx pushed herself up on her hands, her eyes wide with joy. The wolves had come!
The yeti turned a full circle and flung the wolf loose with a mighty swing, but there were already more of them, threatening him from all sides. They snapped at his hands, as one of them was always on the ground for balance, his feet and his behind. They jumped at his face so he backed away, growling low as he did so. A single, large wolf approached Jinx and sniffed her.
She outstretched her hands to him. "I smell of Minion, don´t I?" She managed a quivery smile, deliberately not showing her teeth. This might just be the very same wolf she´d ridden during the Nordberg siege.
She swung an arm around the strong shoulders and hauled herself onto his back in an old, but familiar position. She egged him on and he sped off, and she knew he was running as fast as he could.
Behind them, the enraged roars of the yeti rose over the pack´s growls. Jinx looked back, just in time to see him bat away four wolves at once. He was coming after her again.
But the slope was much less steep here, and the wolf effortlessly jumped over the cracks and boulders that´d normally slowed her enough to cause her demise.
Now she could even see the clocktower bell of Nordberg shine in the sunlight. They were approaching the city walls.
High above her, invisible in the thick clouds keeping the mountaintop covered in snow, a high whistle like that of a tropical bird resounded.
The yeti abruptly halted and looked up. The wolves caught up with him, but with one enormous leap he was out of their range and swinging back up the mountain.
She could hear Kniff cheering.
"That turned out well, Jinx," Gnarl remarked dryly. "I really was expecting you to be a rather sad smudge of blood within three minutes. But the only reason you´re still alive is that elf´s mercy."
Her heart skipped a beat with incense. "That´s not true! I did everything I could to escape!"
"Yes, but you won´t stop a yeti just with a pack of wolves. Now, come back through the Nordberg gate and let´s hope I can get the pool to work properly again..."
Jinx started as two trees on either side of her suddenly caught flame. A hiss resounded, but she wasn´t sure if it came through the pool or from the flames. "Whoa! Do those tar pits stretch out to here?"
"...Um, would you like to check the quarry before you go?" Gnarl then asked.
Jinx raised an eyebrow at that change of subject. "The wolf won´t be pleased..."
"Then heal yourself and walk! Come on now!"
Even as the advisor spoke, the wolf slowed and came to a standstill on top of the rock face overseeing the quarry behind Nordberg. She shielded her eyes from the mushrooming clouds of debris and painfully dismounted. "Thanks, friend," she affectionately spoke to the wolf. "Pity our ways part so soon..."
The wolf briefly snorted, rubbed his nose against her hand and ran back into the wilderness.
Jinx turned back to the quarry. She carefully lowered herself from one of her ropes and came down with trembling knees. "Happy now?" she asked Gnarl as she walked between the labouring Nordbergians. "Everything´s fine here. Can I come back now?"
"Wait just one moment," a sizzling voice spoke.
"Fever?" she asked, confused and wondering why he was speaking in Gnarl´s stead. At the same time, she saw a ginger-haired man turning and staring at her.
She knew who he was. "Kivner," she said, grinning. "Hi."
But the expression in his wide, light brown eyes was not one of subservience towards an inhabitant of the Netherworld. It was one of disbelief, surprise... and unbelievable joy. A single tear ran over his cheek. His lips trembled and formed her name, without a sound.
Jinx blinked. "...Kivner? What´s the matter with you?"
"Jinx?"
"Yeah. It´s not the first time you see me, you know."
Kivner grasped her shoulders. "You don´t understand. Wait here and don´t leave."
Then the ginger man suddenly fell down as if he were dead. At once, Jinx knelt down next to him and felt his pulse. It was beating normally. She raised her eyebrows, a strange feeling inside of her. "Gnarl..."
"No idea," the advisor said, sounding as confused as she felt. "Going to get something on the other side?"
For a while, Jinx stayed at Kivner´s side, trying to wake him up. Then, running footsteps sounded behind her. At the same moment the light brown eyes opened again. "Nessuna," the man whispered. "What have you done to me?"
Jinx looked back. And spontaneously couldn´t breathe anymore.
Right there was a woman in her forties, her hair short and black, her eyes a cool grey, resembling her own. She was truly beautiful and emanated a sort of constant slyness which wouldn´t look too bad on a green Minion, despite the expression that now lay on her face. "Jinx," she whispered.
"M-mom?"
"Velvet?!" Gnarl shouted.

"Velvet, daughter to Fengor the Red," the advisor spoke disbelievingly, not that much later. "Sister to Rose, your mother, Sire!"
Sayron cast his flaming gaze over the two black-haired women. He´d returned from the jungle as soon as the mist pool was functioning normally again and Gnarl had passed him the message. Velvet was standing behind Jinx, holding her in her arms firmly.
Jinx was staring at the large Overlord family tree hanging from the library wall in the private quarters. Quaver was just writing in her name.
She was Sayron´s cousin. Sayron´s cousin!
"How did you get to Nordberg?" Sayron asked urgently.
"I came with governor Borius, thirteen years ago," Velvet spoke coolly. "I was his mistress until a certain powerful lady in the Empire really got enough of me and used him to send me to that frozen outback."
"Who was that powerful lady?"
"None other than my sister, Rose."
Jinx froze as the memories came flooding back. Rose... The wife of Marius, Speaker for the Emperor and brother to Borius, former governor of Nordberg. Only fitting that Velvet should try to suck up to him...
She´d never known.
"Arcadiopolis," Jinx whispered. "The Empire´s capital... That´s where I lived. That´s where we lived together."
"Yes," Velvet said in a softer voice. "And I went out to claim a proper position in my sister´s domain, while she still wanted to see me dead. Until Borius was sent to Nordberg. As I boarded the galleon, she was standing next to the gangplank, and she told me she´d hung you in the slums that very same morning."
"She didn´t do anything to me," Jinx muttered. "I received word you were in the Imperial dungeons to be tortured. I jumped to conclusions. I´ve been stealing on the streets for three years, after that I started to make a living for myself. Then soldiers came to arrest me, I was accused of being a witch and thrown into the Tamesa." There was no emotion to her voice as the memories kept flowing back, everything she´d been before she died in Mortis´ net. Her delirious dream at the Reef had been true – she´d gotten into the river through a witch trial, and Rose and Marius had been watching her from the shore.
"But..." Sayron uttered, awakening from his own trance. "Rose..." He looked at the family tree, where Jinx´ name was still drying. "Rose, the Mistress of the old Tower... my mother... she´s in the Empire?"
Velvet looked up at him with cool grey eyes. "And how. I believe you´ve already seen Marius? She´s his wife now, quite a stepdown from Vessperion if you ask me. She serves Emperor Solarius."
"How did she get there? Do you know why she left me in Nordberg?" Sayron´s voice grew rough. "And why did you never unveil yourself?"
"I don´t know how my sweet sister arrived in the Empire, but I think she smelled power, as did I. She was already quite powerful when I was driven out of Angelis by the magical plague. Leaving you, well, everyone would have done that. The disease was still roaming freely and she had a baby with glowing orange eyes."
"But you´re magical, too," Gnarl pressed with gleaming eyes. "You´re daughter to the mightiest wizard of the past five hundred years! I´ve heard you inherited most of Fengor´s power, not Rose." His eyes strayed off to Jinx. "And so..."
"My father was Vessperion," Sayron interrupted. "Her power is nothing compared to mine!"
"Who was her father?" Gnarl asked Velvet, his eyes narrowed to slits.
The black-haired woman pursed her lips. "An officer, Junius Laurentius. An accident, really." She looked at Jinx, her eyes full of affection. "The most fortunate accident of my life."
Gnarl turned back to Sayron. "She´s only half magical. But she is your cousin, Sire."
"And we must honour family," Kelda nodded in the Overlord´s stead. She´d been listening carefully. "And I believe we´d do well to grant lady Velvet protection in the Netherworld. The way she reformed Nordberg through the head of Kivner of Nordhaven deserves respect."
"Just a bit of black magic," Velvet wafted it away. "That idiot could never have led Nordberg. And I was pleased to be living by day again. That´s the only reason I saw you, after all," she said to Jinx.
"But Rose, my mother, serves the Emperor!" Sayron said roughly. He couldn´t seem to grasp it, which was natural. Kelda took his hand. "Sayron... that woman who was here before you departed for the old Tower..."
Gnarl yanked his head up to face Velvet. "I thought I recognized her!"
Jinx immediately knew it was true. That woman had been Rose. Disappearing in a blue flame, like Marius had done after the Nordberg siege. So the actual leader of the Empire´s Sentinels was her own aunt... things were becoming increasingly complicated.
"There´s nothing we can do about that now," Gnarl spoke concisely, despite the worried gleam in his eyes. "I advise you to look for the green Hive, Sire. If I´ve learned anything from the progress of former Overlords, it´s the fact that strange doors can open once you have the clans together."
"Then that´s what we´ll do," Sayron growled. He turned his red-hot gaze to Velvet. "You..."
Jinx held her breath.
"...You´ll get a room in the lower levels," the Overlord finished. The glow in his eyes flared. "But I´m watching you."
He turned away, strode to the portal, raised an arm and departed for Everlight.
Velvet turned to Jinx with gleaming eyes, without paying any attention to Gnarl, Kelda or the present Minions. "Look at you, honey," she smiled. "Covered in blood and scars, I´m so proud of you..."

Sayron´s head spun as he emerged from the Tower Gate Grubby had dug for him, east of the grass bear territory. He whistled. Before long the four green Minions solidified from the undergrowth to join the gathering horde.
Stripe had been looking about him for some time, to the foliage and the treetops. "Jinx scouting ahead?" he asked in his rasping voice.
"No," Sayron answered shortly. "Jinx is staying behind."
Hoarse felt someone tapping his armoured shoulder. Behind him was a small red with black-lined eyes. "Greet, leader," the newborn spoke shyly. His eyes were sparkling.
Hoarse nodded to him. "Welcome into the horde." Inside, he wondered how such a little one could be strong enough to be allowed to fight.
"Jinx´ mother in the Tower," Fever remarked.
Several Minion spun around at those words. Kniff blinked, his ears twitching and his mouth gaping open. "What?!"
"Come on," Sayron said irritatedly.
The horde immediately followed, but the group of Minions was buzzing with excited muttering. Stripe and Kniff both looked worried.
However, the greens were leading them as swift and difficult to follow as always, so they soon found they needed all their attention just to keep following. It was thanks to that attention that eventually, as dusk started setting in, they reached a narrow pass to an overgrown, rocky valley. The irregular walls rising at all sides caused it to be even darker than the area they were leaving behind, where the forest was relatively open.
They did have a clear view of an abandoned elven fortress.
There was the sound of marching feet, approaching from another direction. Sayron outstretched a hand and grabbed Rampus at the scruff of the neck as he was about to walk on.
A small group of Empire soldiers marched across the stone bridge leading to the fortress. The two in front were carrying long spears, but the two behind them were dragging someone along. It was a struggling figure, dressed in a white toga with a purple stripe.
Sayron realized he recognized her – for the captive was a woman. The woman he´d seen through his telescope before the Horizonbreaker had been shipwrecked. Her long, chestnut brown hair now hung loose and her jewellery was gone, but she was still blindingly beautiful.
"Such sights," Gnarl agreed.
Kelda gnashed her teeth. "Don´t make me skin you and wear you as a hat, Gnarl," she growled.
The soldiers dragged the woman inside the fortress walls. Then the massive gate started coming down.
"Oh dear, where have we seen this before?" Gnarl said, casually as if he wasn´t standing next to Kelda at all. "I´d find another way in if I were you, Sire..."

Chapter Text

The smell of the jungle was wonderful and comforting after the confusing events of the past day. He´d shot through a fortress for the fate of his clan, had seen little ones for the first time in months, and then, shockingly abrupt - he´d died. The next thing he knew was the feeling of water on his skin, like he´d been swimming - something greens never, ever did. He´d moved his fingers in surprise, looked back and seen a blue Minion, a clan he had only heard of in stories before. And then he´d seen everything else.
Black basalt, in strange, sharp and smooth forms, everywhere around him. A roaring river right next to him, the sound beginning to register in his regained ears. He´d felt the presence of thousands of other Minions, brown, red and green - and the Hive, hung not far away, as she was meant to.
"Whisper!"
Something had thrown itself onto him in a strangling embrace of friendship. "Jagged...?"
And now he was back on Everlight, in the valley where he´d died. But they were no longer bound to this island.
They were free to travel the world, and their home lay deep within the earth. And they really had a Master again.
Jagged had behaved so outrageously just after his death, that same Master had threatened to finish him off for good. Whisper´s leader did sport a huge scar at the height of his cheek spikes, one of which was missing. It had broken with the blow of a metal gauntlet. But the green leader had maintained his position and the wound had been healed by a blue Minion commanded to do so, and all greens were now carrying long knives on their claws that´d been forged especially for them. Lord Sayron was not unjust.
He and his clan members, who possessed the best sense of smell of any Minion clan - they had to have it to follow each other in invisibility - were now busying themselves sniffing out the fortress fugitives´ route. They quickly left the valley for the more open forest, once again resounding with the cries of birds and beasts, and the distant roar of a hornbeast.
The Overlord kept twitching his fingers, Whisper noticed. He twisted his sword around in his hand and seemed to test every step he took. He´d only been a green Minion for a short time, but he still needed to get used to his own body again.
Jinx, too, was uneasy. She kept looking around and always had a hand on her ropes as she stepped along between the towering trees, next to the horde. She´d narrowed her eyes, as if she was deep in thought.
Then a voice broke the sounds of the forest.
"Those spiders are everywhere!"
All at once, everyone´s attention was with the same thing. The yell had sounded from far ahead, but still close enough to be audible amidst all the other sounds. Ahead, the land sloped down. A few greens became invisible, and flying leaves marked the way they ran forwards. Jinx swung up a tree and followed them.
"Yeah, crawling about like they own the place..."
The ring of weaponry reached her ears. And something else, a high shrieking resembling the scream of fairies, but far angrier. She knew this sound. It were the spiders of Everlight.
"They can keep it as far as I´m concerned..."
"Well, maybe not the beach."
In a small clearing, far below her high branch, ten or so Empire soldiers were hacking away at a number of black, gleaming spiders. They didn´t pay any attention to her, and even as the Overlord came standing beneath her tree, clearly visible, they didn´t look up. She could hear the greens´ hissing voices, however.
"Spidies..."
"Love spidies..." That certainly was Ramul, and there was plain adoration in his voice, very different than what she was used of him.
"Aww, they´re just so very huggable aren´t they Sire?" Gnarl´s voice sounded next to Sayron. "Hmm... the greens seem very taken with them. But these are more aggressive than usual. I wonder why."
"I hate spider cleaning duty!" one of the soldiers yelled angrily as he ran his sword through another spider. The greens hissed in incense.
"Horrible blighters!"
"Cut their legs off!" This was met with shouts of agreement.
That was the final straw. Jinx knew it had been Ramul who stormed forward first, because he was growling furiously as his first victim fell over dead. The soldiers were no match for the greens, who had, after all, survived the entire fortress back in the valley - most of them, anyway.
When the soldiers were out of their way, the greens materialized and looked at the spiders. They looked back, with red eyes from the undergrowth. Still up in her tree, Jinx watched closely.
Then the spiders scurried away.
In a whim, Jinx flung out her ropes and flew after them through the trees. Spiders. She knew this place.
Her ropes reached into nothing.
With a scream, she tumbled forward through the last tree´s crown, as an astonishing, sunlit image unfolded ahead of her. A reflecting surface threw the light right up in her eyes as she plunged down to the waters of a familiar lake.
The water sprayed up high. A second later Jinx broke through it again. "I knew it!" she yelled. "I´m back!" She laughed wildly. "I have a sense of direction!"
The Minions came after her with much noise, bumping into the spiders by the sound of it. Jinx looked up and saw quite a lot of them run above her on barely visible threads. They disappeared, in a surprisingly familiar image, into the huge spectacle in the middle of the lake. The temple.
In full sunlight, it was even more spectaculair than the day she´d arrived on Everlight. It rose up out of the lake she´d been fished out of by fairies in all its triangular glory, the carved face of the Mother Goddess at the top of it. The goddess´ mouth was still wide open, with quite a lot of spider silk in the dark entrance. The sunlight gleamed on the smooth stone stairs leading up from the water, to the top.
She looked back up. There was Sayron, standing on an overhanging part of the cliffs like a stone guardian himself. He was staring up at the goddess´ face, his sword firmly in his hand but clearly astonished.
Jinx picked herself a portion of cliff not covered in spider webs and dark holes which no doubt contained whole hordes of arachnids, and climbed back up. "Pity we can´t go inside."
"It´d be dangerous but fun," Sayron answered, "but look over there." He nodded to the ground next to him. There, on both sides of his armoured feet, were two round, carved holes in the rocky ground. One of them contained a familiar object, emitting a red glow. Jinx´ eyes started gleaming as she looked back at the Overlord. "Key Stones..."
"Something important is hidden inside," Sayron assumed.
"Ah, precious memories," Gnarl spoke sarcastically. "I don´t know why they can´t just use a piece of metal like everyone else. Trust elves to be unnecessarily complicated!"
"There are only two this time," Sayron countered. "The other one can´t be far away."

Jinx started to doubt that after exactly two hours. She was scouting through the forest beneath her from the treetops, with the use of all her speed but all the time looking down so intently her head ached with the strain. She didn´t know which colour the Stone would have, but she did know the shape and material - the specific kind of rock from the reefs that was also used for these keys. But the Stone could just as well be covered with leaves, hidden in the undergrowth, between the risen roots of a tree, or even buried. She knew the Minions and Sayron were also searching the surroundings, and she herself had a couple of reds with her who could match her speed. Every time she saw a place where the Stone could be hidden she sent them down, but they hadn´t found anything yet.
It was in a moment like that she suddenly saw a huge ball of fire flame up below her. "Fever," she hissed.
The fire had scorched an enormous, smouldering hole in the undergrowth. She wondered how a newborn could be that powerful - not for the first time. She slid down along her vine. However, before she could ask what was going on, she already was answered. Hoarse, pulled out of the Well the day before, raised his head to Fever. She knew this wasn´t an act of aggression. On the contrary, in this way the red leader exposed his vulnerable throat and removed his curved horns. This was a token of subservience.
She went to stand below her tree and watched. Something from her former self pitied Hoarse because he´d have to give up his position, but she knew this was the way of the Minions. She´d known it was a matter of time before the almost unnaturally strong red would rise to be horde leader.
That was the reason she narrowed her eyes in surprise as Fever outstretched a glowing hand and gently pushed Hoarse´s head down until the two were looking at each other again. Then, Fever showed his throat himself. Hoarse´s eyes flared in confusion, but Fever shook his head briefly.
"What...?" Jinx muttered. Was Fever like Giblet, glad to be strong in a lower position? But with all his explosive power, he seemed born to be the leader...
She jolted as the two both looked her way. She walked towards them slowly, but before she could ask anything Fever pointed east, the direction they´d been searching in. "Look, Jinx."
Jinx followed the pointing claw and briefly held her breath. There, beyond the dense undergrowth, the land suddenly sloped down into a rounded valley. In the middle of it, a rock formation rose between the trees, unusually pale and chalklike. It was seemingly soft, for there were several depictions of the elven goddess carved out in it, along with a gate at the front. To the left of that gate was a round hole in the rock.
A Key Stone slot. One.
They´d found it.

It took some time to find Sayron and return to the limestone formation with him, but eventually the Overlord was standing in front of the gate and the red Key Stone was standing next to it. The gate opened itself. The horde and its leaders stepped inside.
Once inside, the formation seemed larger than on the outside. Their footsteps were muted between the high white walls, which sported the imprints of shells in some spots, to Jinx´ surprise. Could this valley have been flooded once? She could hardly imagine it with the forest outside, but if the temple lake would dry up one day, the forest would take it over as well...
"So you seek to spread your darkness further afield, Scourge of Nature?"
Jinx ripped her gaze away from the walls and was blinded instantly. Straight ahead, where the tunnel widened into a cave, a bright, sky blue glow illuminated the white limestone even further.
Sayron shielded his eyes, but peered between his fingers. "...Fay?"
"We meet again." In the light´s center was a stunningly beautiful woman, and Jinx realized she was actually emitting the light herself. Her skin was a lighting, pearly white, her intricately braided hair would have been black if it hadn´t been shining with a bluish glow. She was dressed in the most richly decorated elven clothing Jinx had ever seen, with high shoulder pieces resembling wings, elegantly crafted arm caps and a matching belt. Her eyes were slanted and her ears pointy. This was a very high-ranking elven lady...
Sayron bowed mockingly. "Greetings, Queen." He stretched to look around her. He could see a second blue glow, almost falling away in the woman´s. "I see you have a gift for me."
Queen Fay frowned. "You are too late. I have found a new place where all creatures of light magic can exist in safety; the Last Sanctuary."
Jinx nodded silently. She understood. This was the empress of light magic, as Sayron was the master of dark magic and Emperor Solarius that of the third side in this war, the Glorious Empire. She did know there were three forces at war here, but until now she hadn´t seen much of the light legions. That was mainly because they avoided battle and hid in the last places they thought to be safe, but they could very well be forced to fight once Sayron tracked them down - something they were getting close to, as they were penetrating increasingly deeper in the hidden corners of this sacred island, Everlight. Who knew, they might find a real elven bastion soon, but now they´d found the Queen on her travels, with the Key Stone she´d taken away from the temple... once again, a sign something valuable was inside.
Would this Queen Fay be skilled in combat? Judging by her glow, she boasted a gigantic magic reserve, but she didn´t make a move of attack.
"Does it have to be this way, milady? We both belong to domains of magic, we should be cooperating against the one who wishes to see all magic and therefore both of us dead... Solarius." Sayron winked and outstretched a gauntleted hand to the elven woman. She brought her hands together in front of her chest and sent him a destructing gaze. "Please accept my parting gift," she spat with a voice of poison, "for we shall not meet again."
She raised her hands and sparked a blinding blue light, which slid down and engulfed her. Then it changed form. There suddenly was a whole new form between them and the Key Stone in the cave of limestone.
Jinx swallowed.

The elven queen materialized far to the west, in an elegant arbor made out of living, flowering tropical trees. They were standing with their roots in large bowls of earth, on an enormous round wooden platform high above the ground. All around this platform were hundreds more, connected with hanging bridges. In the giant trees they were attached to, hanging baskets were rising and descending as transport. The sound of elven voices was everywhere, mingling with the higher-pitched sound of fairies and gnomes. In one of the many clearings below and around this forest city resounded the deep call of a unicorn.
This was Orntal, one of the largest and last bastions of light magic in Everlight. The others were all but evacuated to the Last Sanctuary, there where the Overlord would never dare searching. Queen Fay couldn´t bring herself to empty this city. This was her capital, her forest palace.
Fay´s blue glow illuminated the leafy twilight as she walked out of the arbor and to the platform´s edge. She was heavily hoping her messenger would prevent the Overlord from entering the temple. Then, her thoughts went to her other, most trusted envoy, far away in the north.

He´d been observing the town. And he liked what he was seeing now.
The mines were abandoned, the dust swept up by explosives and pickaxes had settled. The people hadn´t gone working today, because their masters hadn´t forced them to. They, in their turn, hadn´t been forced by their master, the man with the red beard.
Kivner's grip on Nordberg hadn't been as strong as he´d thought.
His green, almond-shaped eyes shot to the left, then to the right. A small number of his Soldiers was still alive and with him, far away from Everlight. The Sanctuary in these icy parts might have been lost, and it had been a heavy loss for light magic, but this would make up for a lot.
Florian Greenheart, without the company of his yeti but with that of other elves with sharpened swords and bitter expressions, stepped off the Nordbergian cliff into nothingness and let himself fall into the quarry. A cloud of dust flew up, followed by more as his Soldiers went down as well.
Florian looked around to the other elves. "You´ll follow, but at a distance," he spoke, in a voice betraying he was used to being at the head. "The people mustn´t see you yet. Nordberg has been conquered twice now, and I don´t think it´ll be difficult to bring them over to light magic, but we have to be careful." He paused. "If the Scourge´s monsters start attacking, you can show yourselves as much as you want, but don´t kill them. Capture them."
The Soldiers nodded. "We´ll follow you over the rooftops, Florian. Good luck."
Florian stepped into the back alleys of the town. His Soldiers flew up onto the roofs, and became nearly as invisible as green Minions.

The green Minion with the black-lined eyes hissed like a rabid cat as the last blue sparks whirled around the body of the newly appeared figure. Strictly speaking, it was a woman, but her lower body was firmly rooted into the limestone, there were broad, dark leaves fanning out on her back and arms, her whole body was covered in thorns and her hair consisted of living, versatile stalks. Her eyes glowed a pure, haunting green. Stabbit knew, somewhere in his insane whirlwind of a skull, this wasn´t good at all. And so he immediately jumped for the dryad´s head, blew his stinking breath in her face and pierced her neck with needle-sharp teeth. White juice dripped from the corners of his mouth.
The dryad let out a high shriek and raised a thorny arm. A moment later, Stabbit smacked into the limestone wall, twenty thorns embedded in his scaly chest. He was, however, giggling like a madman.
Red-veined, fleshy leaves folded around the blue Key Stone like a cocoon. The dryad laughed, a high, resonating sound echoing off the walls and running shivers over Jinx´ spine.
Sayron pointed at the plant-woman. "Burn her!"
The reds were already on their way. They scrambled for the dryad along the white floor and walls and threw their fire, but it seemed to ricochet off her, as if she had a fireproof layer on her leaflike skin. She batted away a fireball with her spiny arm, and she wasn´t even scorched afterwards. The leaves around the Stone, too, seemed fireproof.
Jinx decided it was her turn. She ran forward and flung her own spikes into the dryad´s stomach, so the white juice sprayed in her face. The greens threw themselves onto her snake-like lower body and started clawing at her roots, Stabbit with the wildest enthusiasm.
Jinx stared into the green, narrowed eyes for a moment. Then the magical creature attacked and jagged thorns cleaved through Jinx´ own stomach. She gasped for breath as her leather armour and skin were ripped open and the blood spurted out. She fell back, her hands pressed to the gaping wound to stop the bleeding and heal herself as quickly as possible. Her place was taken by half a dozen of browns, hacking and slicing as if they were cutting a tree, but the wound Stabbit had bitten into her neck, Jinx´ slices and the wounds the browns were now inflicting were all healing visibly.
The edges of Jinx´ wound came together. She painfully pushed herself up. Through the haze before her eyes she could see how Sayron hacked away at the plant creature´s lower body, but her clawed hands were tearing at his helmet to reach his vulnerable neck. Blue lightning flashed, and the dryad fell back, the leaflike armour on her chest smoking and crackling.
The Minions were still busy with the roots, but they were healing so fast Jinx could see them writhing like snakes. The dryad swept her arms around, and the larger thorns came loose and batted the Minions back, the finger-long spikes in their eyes, right through their hands or in their hearts. Raw fell backwards, half his chest covered in lethal knives. Some blinded Minions were hit with another wave, this time lethal as well. Kniff, his bat ears pierced trice and two other thorns in his upper leg, limped away as fast as he could and ducked as a new rain whirred over his head.
The thorns ricocheted off Sayron´s armour, and he kept dodging those aimed for his face. The white floor was, however, getting covered in the blood dripping from dozens of wounds and cuts on his arms. It did mingle with the dryad´s white juice. The enraged shrieking of her voice echoed around the cave. She raised her arms, and new thorns grew out of the scars where the old ones had come off.
A rope snared her wrist, the arcanium spikes on the inside so the milky juice splattered around. A second one gripped her other arm. Jinx, whose blood still dripped from the barely healed wound and over her legs, staggered forward as the dryad tried to yank herself free, but with both her arms bound she couldn´t reach the vines with her razor-sharp thorns. Jinx kept her arms wide, wrapped the ropes firmly around her own wrists and stepped back again.
Sayron immediately took his chance. As the remaining Minions concentrated on her lower body and back, he let his sword sink into her chest. The juice sprayed around and the dryad screamed so loud Jinx almost clasped her hands to her ears, but the creature kept yanking on the vines. The leaves on her back fluttered as if it were wings and the dryad tried to take flight.
Then the Overlord ripped his sword out of her body, swung it round and cleaved her neck. It took three swings with full force to fully pierce the bone-tough skin, but then the stalked head flew against the limestone wall shrieking. It fell to the floor, rolled over and came to a rest. Only then the glow in the green eyes faded.
The rooted body fell over with a heavy thud. The greens jumped off its back, but Stabbit hooked himself in place even more firmly for a moment and clawed at the headless neck like a lunatic, causing more juice to seep from a number of woodring-like grooves. Then, chuckling as if this was the funniest thing he´d done in ages, he jumped to the floor and licked the juice off his claws with a long tongue. Scattered through the cave, the Minions pulled the thorns from their bodies. Kniff tested his wounded leg, one of the spikes still in his ear.
The leaves around the Key Stone became limp and folded open.
Jinx panted. She´d heavily underestimated light magic, she realized. This dryad had been stronger than an Empire Eradicator, far stronger. She rearranged her priorities. Maybe it wasn´t such a bad thought to forge an alliance with light magic and lay siege to the Empire together, but she held her tongue. That was up to Sayron.
The Overlord in question shook his sword, so thick white drops more or less rolled off the blade. He couldn´t wipe it on the dryad´s leaves, because they too were covered in it. He didn´t seem very happy that he couldn´t clean his weapon, but put it away nonetheless. "Well done," he said. "Get the Stone, we´re off to the temple."
The Minions grabbed the blue Key Stone, looking around alertly if there wasn´t something else to defend it. There wasn´t. They could get the object out of the limestone formation without further trouble, and as they took the red one from the entrance, it rolled shut as if nothing had happened.

The cliff where the two slots were located lay opposite the Mother Goddess´ gaping mouth in the temple top, so what happened as the two Stones were in place was expected.
Below them, in the lake, something stirred. Then the clear water suddenly streamed off the gleaming stone parts of a bridge, rising from the depths on ancient pillars, connecting and rising until they linked the cliff to the temple, as if the Mother Goddess was sticking out an enormously long tongue at them.
Elegant and efficient. Typical elven craftsmanship.
The rumbling of the rising bridge ebbed away and it became quiet around the lake again. Then Stabbit turned an ear and then his entire body, a nervous giggle at the back of his throat.
Jinx turned. There had been a rustle in the bushes, way too close. She jumped for it.
There, running away with surprising speed, were three men. They wore light armour, resembling her own. But they were wearing it over green tunics.
"Gentlemen!" Jinx shouted, not even out of breath as she chased after the Imperials with their own speed. "You have no business here, this is a matter of the Overlord!" She faltered for a moment as she saw where the three were leading her. Here, in a part of the forest they hadn´t been yet, on the other side of the temple than where they´d been searching, a recently constructed hanging bridge led over a gorge. Below, a river roared its way from the mountains to the temple lake.
The three scouts ran over the bridge, and one of them got out a tinder box. A burning cloth was lobbed to the wooden boards, and Jinx jumped back as the fire ignited. Before long, the entire bridge was up in flames, and before the reds who´d followed her could hurry over it, it was already falling into the gorge. A hiss and a cloud of steam rose from the river.
"We´ve been trying to enter this temple for some time, and thanks to you, we can. Now we can capture that Spider Queen and get her in the Arena, can´t we boys?" The scout at the front laughed and exchanged shoulder punches with his companions. "Hmm... maybe you and that Demon Lord too, witches´ spawn. Given you'll survive going in there with those wee little warriors of yours."
Jinx hissed in rage with that suggestion. "Never! We´ll ravage the Arena and take down the Imperial balcony!"
Laughter was her answer. "Good luck!" The scouts turned and walked away on the other side of the gorge, chuckling.
Jinx growled in anger, but she could see the gorge was too wide to overcome with her ropes. Instead, she dived down into the river without hesitation.
The fast-flowing water reminded her of the subterranean river that had killed her. Now, however, she had a considerably better condition and more strength. She managed to stay in one place amidst the rocks and stared up at the rock wall atop which the scouts had disappeared.
Quite a lot of red eyes stared back from the countless holes she´d missed in her rage.
The spiders of Everlight.
It´d be impossible to climb up here without being thrown off, bit full of holes or spun in. Jinx swore in fury, gave one last kick and let herself be dragged away by the river. Half a minute later she was back in the lake she seemed to keep falling in. Soaking, she climbed back up to the cliff. Sayron was waiting for her.
"Scouts, Lord. They fled over a hanging bridge they immediately destroyed," she reported. "I think they have a hiding spot beyond that gorge."
"Fair chance Cardea´s there too," the Overlord understood. "Why didn´t you follow them over the gorge?"
"It was too wide and the walls are full of spiders," she said angrily. Then she remembered something the scouts had said. "But those three spoke of a spider queen in the temple. That might be valuable information when we go inside."
Sayron turned back to the temple. "A queen," he muttered. "Fay wasn´t the only one in these parts."
"So these spiders have a social system," Gnarl pondered. "There is a chance you´ll have effect on the little ones once you kill her."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Sayron stepped onto the bridge and strode to the Mother Goddess´ gaping mouth with large steps. Jinx was right behind him, the Minions around her. Right behind her, Ramul scurried on, his eyes wide with excitement - he seemed most interested in the spiders.
There was something moving in the temple mouth, black in black. Red lights gleamed up, there in the crawling darkness...
It was teeming with spiders in there.
Then the darkness flowed out of the temple and onto the bridge, shrieking in fury with the intrusion of their domain.
Sayron unsheathed his sword, still covered in dryad juice. "I´m sorry, guys, but we´ll have to kill them. Go!"
Ramul looked at the spiders with intense sorrow, but then jumped forward. Not a heartbeat later his new knives caused the bluish blood of the animals he loved to spray to all sides. They didn´t share his feelings, for the snapping mandibles were already tearing on his tail and closing around his upper arms. The rest of the horde threw themselves into the swarm, and Jinx was in the middle of it before she knew it as well.
Two spiders climbed onto her back, surprisingly light and unbelievably fast. An unnoticeable air current wove a barely visible thread around her chest and arms. Soon, there were more.
Jinx screamed as the silk was pulled tighter and her allergy kicked in. To her, a fire was ignited on the skin of her arms, slowly but mercilessly. She wiped the threads away like crazy, but that caused her hands to become covered in rash as well. She spun around to whack the spiders off her back, only acquired a new one from the swarm, flung up a rope in despair and swung up to the Mother Goddess´ nose. There she batted the spiders off her back, causing them to attack the Minions again.
Jinx panted. Below her was a screaming chaos she knew she should be part of, but she couldn´t.
"Jinx!" roared Sayron, milling around with his sword, completely covered in spiders. "Get down here!"
She didn´t answer, but pushed herself more firmly into the stone image.
"Jinx!!"
"I´m sorry!"
Sayron swung his sword around and threw a whole wave of spiders over the bridge, into the lake. The rest seemed to stiffen. The unbelievable aggression ebbed away from the red eyes and they pulled back into the temple. A second later it was as if they´d never been there at all, save for the mangled, black-haired bodies. It seemed as if they´d been pulled back on invisible strings.
Sayron and the Minions looked up panting as Jinx lowered herself on her vine. "What was that nonsense?"
"I... I can´t stand spider silk," Jinx spoke ashamedly, rubbing the red skin on her arms. "I´m sorry."
"If you can´t fight, you can´t follow us inside," Sayron spoke roughly. Jinx felt herself shrink into the girl she´d been. Then she looked up into his eyes. "No. I´ll follow you."
"You´d better not give us any trouble," the Overlord warned. Then he turned back to the temple entrance and strode in, his sword at the ready. The darkness folded itself around him, but there weren´t any spiders and his eyes started to get used to it already. Here, at the top of the temple, was only one empty room, covered in spider silk. Sayron looked around in surprise, in the middle of the room. His Minions joined him. Then Jinx went to stand next to him, rubbing her arms all the time.
For a heartbeat, they stood there. Then the floor collapsed.

Florian was soon at the center of a group of people. Those people weren´t too friendly, wary as they were of everything new and above all against the wishes of the Overlord. The elf could easily have jumped for the rooftops, but he didn't. He showed the empty sheath of his sword. "I come in peace, good people. The peace of Everlight. May the Mother Goddess be with you."
"The Mother Goddess doesn´t exist," a large man close by said in a low voice.
Florian looked at him with glistening green eyes. The man immediately closed his mouth, stricken by the piercing colour of those eyes. "That must be what the Overlord told you."
"Lord Sayron went into battle with you and has conquered Everlight," it sounded. Florian turned. "No, he hasn´t. Not in the slightest. We keep standing up against him." He bowed his head lightly. "If you´re under his command, then why am I still alive?"
"Why are you here?" the first man asked. Florian turned back again. For a moment he looked at the man, the most trustworthy look he could muster in his eyes. "I want to help you. You´ve been dominated by the Empire and now the Demon Lord. You deserve to be free. You deserve someone fighting for you."
"And you´ll be doing it?" Despite everything there was hope in the rough voice. "You and whose army?"
Florian raised his head to the rooftops. "Queen Fay´s army."
The Soldiers let themselves fall down. There were only a few of them, but the people gasped for breath and streamed away from Florian to look at and admire the other elves.
That´s part one of the plan, the elf thought to himself. He perked his pointed ears. There came the raspy voices. Time for part two.

Jinx screamed as she fell through the dark, much further than she´d expected. Her ropes couldn´t save her here. It was like in her nightmares, where she´d forgotten everything she´d learned in the Netherworld and was falling from her sleeping barrack into the abyss. She´d fall to her death beneath the Everlightian lake...
Then there was a deafening splash below her. Her widened eyes caught a glimpse of reflecting water, rippling in waves in the little light falling through the hole in the ceiling. A heartbeat later she was below that surface herself, briefly too dazed to move, but then she clawed her way up and took two Minions up with her. She treaded water with the two in her arms, saw a platform where Sayron hauled himself onto and threw the Minions towards it. A few times of repeating that action and the horde was safe. Only then did she allow herself to look around.
Most of the reds had landed on the platform, and others were hanging higher up the walls. Others were lying in the water, lifeless and extinguished like dead insects. But it were the reds up on the walls Jinx was paying most attention to.
Their glow lit the crumbling walls, completely covered in spider silk. Now Jinx was glad she hadn´t blindly used her ropes to stop halfway down. The Minions climbed down as fast as they could, because there were spiders coming after them already, on their way to this platform floating in the lake water gathered in the temple. The glow lowered and concentrated itself, so it became increasingly clear what exactly was lurking on their level.
A bulbous abdomen, bulging and white with eggs on the underside and covered in rough black hair on the upper. Enormous silk glands excreting the threads keeping it in the air. An angular prosoma, a head with gigantic eyes reflecting red in the dark. Opening and closing mandibles. Eight versatile, clawed legs, each half as long as the throne room in the Netherworld was high.
Jinx stared up at the Spider Queen. She´d never been this afraid in her life.
Sayron was nailed to the platform for one moment, but then he called his Minions to him with a broad gesture of his arm. "Easy!" his voice sounded through the dark. "We´ll get out of this if we work together!"
Jinx nodded quickly, snapping out of her own terrified daze just in time to roll aside as the Queen snapped shut a gigantic set of mandibles where she´d been standing. She knew she was engraved on the monster´s retinas in eightfold, and the Queen had considerably better night vision than her.
She jumped up, a rope whirling around in her hand. A moment later she lashed the spikes out to the red eyes, but the spider raised her head to bite off the precious, arcanium-covered end. Jinx yanked her vine out of reach of her enemy.
Then the Queen crawled up the temple wall like an inverted landslide. Something else came down. It were thousands and thousands of pieces of darkness.
They were surrounded by spiders again, but this time there really was no escape. This was far, far worse than outside on the bridge. Sayron let his sword sweep around, low as a scythe, and straightened out from time to time to keep the spiders off his back. The Minions, who were on the creatures´ height, had it slightly easier, but Jinx was busy getting lost in panic, milling around blindly.
The spiders kept flowing off the walls, despite the reds trying to keep them on. It was Sayron who, straightening out, cast his gaze upon the walls and saw what the sprinting spiders were revealing. Wooden hatches, constructed long ago by the elves who´d built this temple.
Gnarl had been supplying him with battle advice, but as the elder Minion saw the hatches he put Sayron´s thoughts into words. "We´re below the lake, Sire! And this room is already partly underwater... if you can get the Queen up there..."
Sayron turned with a swing of his sword and a fountain of spider entrails, searching the room. "Jinx!" he roared over the din, all the time wrestling and clawing at the spiders trying to engulf him from all sides.
In the other corner of the temple, a pale face beneath tangled black hair turned towards him. He nodded at her hurriedly. "Up the walls! Now! Open the sluices on my command!"
She stared at him in terror for a moment, but then swept out a rope and flew up, past the descending spiders and up the wall. On her way, she became tangled up in countless threads the spiders had used as safety lines, and she moaned like a wounded animal. Then she arrived next to the wooden hatches. "Hoarse! Fever!" she called out with a choked voice, her hands full of blisters as she clung to the countless layers of silk.
The reds looked up, lighting figures in the darkness below. Then the fireballs sailed her way and the hatches were ignited. One moment, the entire temple was hellishly lit, and the spiders shrieked in incense. The Queen hurried over the walls towards Jinx, but she already disappeared into the smouldering opening.
The girl panted with fear as she shot ahead, diving to the other side of the tunnel twice to dodge a gigantic searching leg. She outran the Queen´s reach just in time, but she could hear the enraged hissing and chittering coming from between those mandibles bounce around between the tunnel walls, echoing a hundred times over. Many scratching claws were coming after her already.
She ran through the dark, the din of the fight in the large room muted by the body of the Queen pressing herself into the opening, still trying to fish her out with reaching legs and mandibles. Her running footsteps echoed around the tunnel, loud above the rattle of the smaller spiders hurrying after her.
She kept looking back, but that wasn´t such a good idea. Two heartbeats later she smacked into a wall. A dead end...
However, wall. Jinx let her widened eyes travel around. There was a carved stone lever here, protruding invitingly from a niche to her right. And the wall she´d run into showed a weathered image of the Mother Goddess, a barely visible bowl in her outstretched arms. A line ran over the middle of the image.
Sluices. "I´ve found it!" she shouted as loudly as she could. Her voice thundered through the tunnel, and she prayed Sayron could hear her.
Then, muted and barely audible above her own jagged breathing: "Open them..."
Jinx slipped around the corner, quick as lightning, and yanked the lever down.

"Reds up the walls! Browns, greens, to the sides and to the back!" Sayron roared. He gripped his sword so firmly his knuckles paled, stared up at the Queen still pressing herself into the hatch, and waited. "Come on," he whispered.
He didn´t have to wait for long. There was a thud, a gurgle and a rushing increasing in volume with fear-inducing speed...
Then a gigantic, foaming jet of water spouted out of the tunnel, with such force it made the Queen crash into the opposite wall so she fell into the water the platform was floating on. She milled her legs around with such violence the platform swayed in the waves she created. A stretched shriek of fury and fear ripped itself from her throat, but the jet didn´t stop, keeping her down with the millions of gallons of water streaming off the walls. The red Minions hurried out of the way like an exploding star system. The spiders on the platform started to panic.
Sayron looked at the sluice tunnel feverishly, but he didn´t see Jinx anywhere. Then he turned, ran across the platform, raised his sword and threw himself onto the floating Spider Queen. He landed on her abdomen, bent over beneath the water´s violence and clung on for fear of being flushed off. Then he let his raised sword come down and stabbed the blade into her white, swollen belly, again and again...
The dryad´s shriek was nothing compared to the sound now coming from between the Queen´s mandibles.
The spider clawed around, trying to reach the platform, but as the jet of water weakened and stopped there were also a couple of browns led by Scabies who were brave enough to jump at her. The pirate, the only upperworld Minion able to swim, ran to the head and stuck his swords in her eyes. The shrieking changed tone.
With the browns and Sayron sinking their weapons in her belly time and time again, it didn´t take long before the eight legs started moving slower. Increasingly weak and halting became the movements of the Queen, until the enormous appendages curled up above the Overlord and his Minions. Some last convulsions, and the remaining eyes became glassy...
The angular head sunk back into the lake water.
The Spider Queen was dead.
Sayron yanked his sword back and straightened out as far as he could below the folded legs. The entire temple was quiet. The remaining Minions - a lot had fallen for the countless spiders - looked around dazedly. Their enemies were no longer fighting.
Then all of the spiders scurried to the platform´s edge as one. Those up on the walls formed a vertical circle around Sayron. A gigantic amount of red eyes shone in the gloom falling into the temple from above.
One by one, the spiders bowed their heads.
Gnarl chuckled, elated beyond belief. "Now you´ve killed their Queen, those spiders don´t dare attack you! They´re... recognizing you as their new leader, Sire! I think the greens will be very happy with this..."
Sayron looked at the platform. There were the greens, their claws and knives still dripping with bluish blood, but with joy in their eyes... an expression he knew, for the browns looked at the Nordbergian wolves in the exact same way. Would this make as good an alliance?
As he watched, Ramul approached one of the large, gleaming black animals and outstretched a claw. The spider slowly came forward. Then, careful but determined, the green Minion stepped forward and mounted the arachnid, entwining his foot claws beneath the slender waist. He leant forward over the angular head, clawed up with his long knives and hissed in joyous triumph.
Sayron grinned broadly. With the spiders on his side, he would be able to do very interesting things indeed.
"With these new mounts your Minions will be able to reach places even Jinx can´t enter," Gnarl spoke.
Sayron abruptly looked up and jumped off the Queen´s body. "Jinx! She´s still inside that tunnel..."
At that moment, a scratching sound came from the place the water had spouted from. A single spider appeared in the opening, turning clumsily and pulling at something further in the tunnel. Ramul urged his own spider forward and climbed up he wall. Other greens were mounting their companions now.
Ramul and his spider pulled Jinx into sight. She was completely limp, but the light of her magic was sliding over her skin and her eyes were open. They shot over the greens, the dead Queen and Sayron. "So we did it," she said in a small voice. "It´s over."
"What happened?" Sayron asked as she climbed to her feet on the platform.
"There was a niche there, and it rolled shut as the water came," Jinx answered. "There were, however, a couple of spiders getting locked in with me. I couldn´t see anything, but I think I got a few of them. Thing is, I got wrapped up so badly I nearly fainted. Luckily that was the moment you killed the Queen and they stopped fighting, and even dragged me back..."
"You have to go in there again," the Overlord spoke.
Jinx looked around. "Yeah, I see."
"Gnarl, will it be enough?"
"I think so," the advisor answered, "it´s pretty much endless. If you´re quick, you can get away once you´re above the outside water level. I advise you to send up the reds and greens first, they won´t be able to take it."
Sayron nodded. "Up with you."
The red Minions shot up, so the light was dimmed even further. The greens, with varying levels of confidence, also climbed up over the silk towards the hole in the ceiling. Jinx could see there were more tunnels on the different levels of the temple - there was more than just this room with its ruined floors, but no one would ever see it again.
She nodded to Sayron and swung back to the tunnel, covered in puddles of water on the inside. She ran back to the lever and pulled it down. The niche rolled shut, so she was cut off from the rest of the temple. In the dark, she listened to the roar of the water filling the temple.

The water shot out of the tunnel and into the temple. The platform, which had already been raised as the Queen received her fatal blow, rose even further and kept accelerating this time. Sayron and the browns ascended along the silky walls, as the water kept bubbling up from beneath them as they rose above the sluices. Kniff and a couple of others looked over the platform´s edge uneasily, in the knowledge their horde leader was somewhere they absolutely didn´t want to be.
The Spider Queen´s body drifted up with them, and Sayron dragged one of the curled legs towards him to lay it on the platform.
Eventually, the platform bumped into the ceiling, and those aboard climbed back up through the hole, Sayron first. He took a few bricks with him, but managed to reach the entrance, where he went to stand safely on the bridge. The browns, too, climbed up and joined the reds and greens already present.
Then Sayron looked down on the water bubbling up from underneath the platform, starting to flood the room. The ferns that had settled between the bricks were already swaying in the current.
"Gnarl, let her know she can stop."
"How, Sire?"
"The mist pool, you know that very well."
Gnarl waited, hoping for a reaction, and then swallowed. "I don´t control those changes, Sire."
Sayron blinked. "But at the fortress... and just before Velvet entered my domain... who was it?"
"I have no idea," the advisor lied. "but I don´t have control over it. I have no way to let Jinx know she can return."
Fever and Stabbit exchanged glances and both grinned slowly. Stabbit giggled, atop a large spider whose mandibles chattered for a moment.
"She´ll have to -" the old Minion started, but then his voice fell away. Sayron raised his eyebrows.

"- figure it out herself," Gnarl finished his sentence in another place.
Jinx, leant against the temple wall in the dark, raised her head. "Gnarl! Hi."
"Jinx. I should have known," the advisor muttered.
"What should you have known?"
"Nothing. They´re up, water waster. You can turn off the tap."
Jinx nodded. "Wish me luck." Then she pushed the lever back up. She couldn´t hear Gnarl´s answer, because the stone doors slid aside and the water bursted in.
Jinx was pushed into the wall by the water´s enormous weight for a moment, but then she could muster enough strength to push herself away and swim into the tunnel. Her back grazed the ceiling and new scratches appeared in the leather, but she was swimming fast enough. Bubbles traced a silvery trail through the darkness.
One of her ropes pulled taut around her shoulder. She faltered, and realized the spikes must have gotten stuck between the bricks. She turned, clawed her way back and pulled it free with effort and loss of air, to swim on afterwards.
It was dark inside the temple, just as dark as in the sluice tunnel. Jinx felt as if she was floating through a moonless night as she swam up in the enormous room, and she knew it was because of the lack of oxygen. She kicked her legs even faster, not daring to spread her arms for the risk of losing her ropes, but she didn't have the idea she was rising any faster.
No light. The platform was blocking the hole in the ceiling.
No!
Jinx reached the platform, clawed at it blindly, kicked herself up. Bubbles streamed from her mouth and she knew she wouldn´t be able to take it much longer.
I don´t want to drown. Not now. I have so much left to do.
A gurgling sound next to her ear betrayed Gnarl was talking to her, but she couldn´t understand him underwater. A sound that kept repeating itself caught her attention, however.
"´ween! ´der ´ween!"
Spider Queen?
She drifted up, kicking her legs weakly. She could see a dark shadow, huge and bulbous. The body...
A chink of light pierced the water next to it.
She widened her eyes and tried to reach it with all her might. In the hazy water, she could suddenly see one of the monster´s legs was sticking out over the platform, so a slit was formed. She outstretched her arms to the light, felt a stone edge, cool air - blessed air! - on the top of her hands, then suddenly a rough claw and a wild pulling force...
The next moment, she was staring up at the temple´s overgrown ceiling, but mainly into Kniff´s widened eyes.
She rolled over and coughed up the entire lake.
"You need to stop panicking like a hysterical peasant wench," Gnarl swore. "I bet the torture chamber´s keys you´ll die milling about like a terrified elf, you... human! Mortal human!"
Jinx coughed and managed to regain control over her voice. "And who... is scared now, eh?" She spat a last time. "There´s only one who´s hysterical here and it isn´t me, old timer!" She stood up and punched her fist against Kniff´s. The brown Minion was grinning broadly. "Bravo, Jinxie."
Jinx looked up at Sayron. "Thanks. Without that leg I´d have drowned, and I already know that isn´t something I want to try again."
"I would rather not see my horde leader drown," Sayron spoke shortly. As he walked out of the temple, back into the sunlight above the lake, Fever and Stabbit were the first to follow him - chuckling.

The water level of the lake had dropped visibly. The entire temple was full now, and Jinx knew it could take some time before it´d empty again.
However, they quickly lost the pyramid from view as she led the horde back to where the hanging bridge had been.
Jinx stood on the edge, but jolted as dozens of shades hurried past her. It were the spiders, and they threw themselves into the gorge with more faith than she could ever muster. She saw how their legs were moving rapidly and they cast out threads from their hanging spots halfway down the cliffs, which in turn floated over the gorge on the wind to attach to the other side. The spiders nesting on the other side did the same, so a network of threads was created for the spiders to hurry over, all the time led by the greens on their backs.
Sayron turned to the reds. "There´s no way you can cross that. Go back to the Minion Gates."
Hoarse nodded and turned, together with his clan members. Fever exchanged a final glance with Stabbit, then with Jinx. A shiver ran over her spine. Then the little fire master turned as well, and disappeared into the undergrowth.
In the meantime, the network had become a true carpet of silk, opaque and so dense it didn´t even give way as the browns ran over it. Jinx, too, got over without trouble. And though the threads did fray and rip as he kicked himself away for the last time, also Lord Sayron was eventually standing on the right side of the gorge.
Not far from them, a word was carved into a tree trunk. Ignavopolis. There was an arrow next to it, and some caricatures of flowers and women with proportions probably unlike those in the Empire. Sayron grinned in his mouth cloth.
"Let´s get properly acquainted with the natives..."

Chapter Text

The little breeze the elves were wafting towards her with their huge palm leaves wasn’t anywhere near enough to subdue the Everlightian heat, not even in the shadowed arbor where she was sitting with her local centurion.
Cardea outstretched a fat hand to the nervous young commander. "So your scouts have seen him."
"Yes, milady," he nodded. "The Demon Lord, a group of those monsters and... her."
The governess looked out of the arbor and over the small city at sea, blistering in the tropical sun reflecting from the white walls and light roofs unhindered. Ignavopolis. They had enslaved the elves from the surrounding villages and put them into service of the Glorious Empire, so they now served the inhabitants and visiting tourists. They had removed the jungle and even now they kept the surroundings safe with spider patrols and hunters for larger game. It had gone so smoothly.
It would continue going smoothly.
She’d made sure there was a proper defense before the city gates, but she was quite certain of herself again, now the failure at the fortress lay behind her.
"They went into the temple," Cardea smiled. "They can’t possibly still be alive."

Alive!
It was good to be alive. That was always the case, but all the more when you’d just nearly drowned for a second time in a dark temple filled with spider silk.
Jinx felt more alive than ever, because she was right in the middle of her favorite situation. She took her vines off her shoulders and watched the Everlightian sunlight glint off the arcanium for a moment. Then she looked up at the wall of spears blocking their way to Ignavopolis.
She was at the Overlord’s side, who was now twisting his sword in his hand. Behind them an almost animalistic growl rose from the horde, as the Minions got more than ready for the upcoming battle. The spiders the greens were riding hissed and chittered, louder than ever now the clan had followed the example of - again - Ramul as he had started to press his mount’s mandibles gently. Now the fangs of every spider were filled with poison.
The horde was larger than ever. Way behind the Overlord stood Meph, one of the Minions who’d trained with the Nordbergian material in the Netherworld. With him, an entire legion of browns had ascended to the upper world, so the horde was more like an army now. They were ready.
All the better, for it seemed governess Cardea had chosen for a good defense, whether she was sure of their survival or not. The lady of Everlight wasn’t stupid.
Higher up the rock formations stood a group of archers. The creaking of the bowstrings was the only sound breaking the silence in the gorge to Ignavopolis.
Sayron narrowed his eyes. He wouldn’t wait.
"Forwards!!"
A roar like it had never been uttered by Minions before ripped the air as the enormous horde threw itself between the rock formations like a wave of hacking, stabbing, slicing weapons and started to handle the defending soldiers. Arrows whirred into the chaos left and right, and both Minions and stricken Imperials screamed in pain. Blood, red and dark, sprayed out of the battle on all sides and pieces of loose armor and worse flew after it.
Jinx flung her ropes out and ran over the vertical wall of the rock formation, straight over the fight, past the climbing reds who’d take on the archers. She felt like her heart would burst out of her body because of the rate with which it was beating, the joy of a good fight.
She pulled her vines loose and let herself fly over the spears with outstretched arms, to land on the other side with bent knees and narrowed eyes. A new legion was approaching from Ignavopolis, but for now she was on the soldiers’ backside.
The arcanium spikes shot out and became smeared in blood. Jinx drew the long knife she’d taken over from one of the Minions and thrust herself between the weapons with determination, always cautious to heal immediately any damage they did. She worked her way to Sayron, until they could grasp each other’s free hands and fight on back to back. Around them raged a sea of Minions, actually outnumbering the soldiers. This was the very first time that happened, and the Overlord’s eyes were flaming a bloody red with joy and battle frenzy. His enormous sword flashed in the Everlightian sun and severed both limbs and heads with a single stroke. Sayron raised his hand up high and formed a blinding orb of blue energy, sprouting dozens of tentacles of irregular lightning. The soldiers around him fell down, smoking and with their eyes turned away. Where the rocks came together high above them, the red’s fire ignited and cast the glow of destruction against the walls.
But the true stars of this battle were the greens and their mounts. With Ramul at their head, the spiders swarmed out over the walls like a black shadow and crawled down to the soldiers, to climb over them, take them down with new silk and sink their fangs into their flesh briefly but surely. Often enough, they stood up afterwards, but unstable and not able to see clearly where exactly they left their weapons, so they did more harm to their own comrades than to the Minions.
For a short while, Jinx had a moment of rest, and she looked up and around her. She realized she hadn’t been this happy very often. The only thing that was missing occurred to her as she saw Sayron, his free left hand outstretched over the heads of the men, sparking with baffling lightning. Magic. She hadn’t managed to unleash her violet explosions after the events in the fortress.
Soon enough! she thought to herself as she spun around and stabbed her long knife through a new soldier’s green tunic in the same movement. I’m allowed into the magic room, so as soon as we take Ignavopolis and I’m back in the Netherworld... I’m in for something...
They were already surrounded by dead and dying men and Minions as Jinx realized Sayron was wiping his sword. They had already hacked themselves through the second legion.
The Overlord whistled, short and sharp. Stabbit, who’d been hurrying ahead, giggling atop his spider, returned with his ears drooping in disappointment. "Wait," Sayron growled. "Who knows what’s waiting for us down there."
Jinx gathered the Minions around her. "Stripe, Gloob, Scabies," she muttered to herself as she cast her eyes over the browns in her command. "Meph and company..." She realized that, during the fight, groups of weaker Minions had gathered around the familiar, more experienced horde members. The horde started to organize itself like a true army with its commanders. She grinned at Kniff as he freed himself from the strangling embrace of a dying soldier with a last jab of his dagger. The Minion shook his arm, so a little less blood dripped down along it. It didn’t do much good for the overall picture - his clothes and hat were covered in it, too.
"You’ll really need to wash your helmet once," Jinx smiled. "I think the sea’s close."
Kniff grimaced, a claw at his filthy, ragged, tangle-, soot- and blood-covered headpiece. "Didn’t think so," he answered, shaking his head but grinning.
The reds came down, Hoarse and Fever just after one another and with perilous jumps. They mingled with the rest of the horde, like pinpricks of light in a sea of darkness. These really were a lot of Minions, even though many had already fallen.
Sayron looked around. Jinx nodded at him. The Overlord raised an armoured hand and gestured to the town.
"We advance..."

Marcus Cassius, the skinny, young centurion of Ignavopolis, his golden plumed helmet beneath his arm, just wanted to leave the arbor in the town heights as another man hurried towards him. It was one of the scouts he’d sent to the spider temple earlier, but this time he was gasping for breath considerably more.
"Centurion! The Demon Lord...!" The man swallowed, caught his breath with some effort and continued. "He’s still alive! He’s right in front of the gates... and the spiders! They obey him like dogs! His devil trickery... again!"
Cardea rose from her seat. Marcus looked around in sudden panic. The governess, however, remained deathly calm. "Evacuate the city. Take everyone to the jungle on the other side of town and make sure there are ships ready."
"Yes, milady," he immediately nodded. Then he put on his helmet. His men needed him.

As the centurion and his men arrived at the end of the path out of town and in the overgrown gorge, they found nothing besides their dead colleagues. There was, however, a trail of deep footsteps and lighter claw marks that led into the undergrowth, in a westward detour.
Marcus swore heartfelt.

" Arrrrrrrrr!!!"
Scabies yanked his two swords from the sheaths on his back, let his parrot fly up from his arm and stormed onto the beach so fast his clawed feet threw up clouds of sand. Behind him came the entire horde, and in front of him the fat tourists flew up from their lounging chairs and tried to make off as fast as they could, but only succeeded in throwing over parasols and tables, so they became the horde’s prey very quickly.
Sayron stomped after them, a lightning orb in his raised hand. "No deaths!" his voice rang out. "We make prisoners this time!"
A lament even audible to the people and elven slaves in Ignavopolis itself, behind their way too weak walls of tallgrass, rose from the horde. The Minions reluctantly put away their weapons and kept to circling their victims as Sayron enlarged his lightning orb and let the flashes touch the people’s foreheads. Soon, they were throwing themselves into the sand at his feet.
"We are your servants, Sire," a man whose face had been so arrogant he could have passed for the Emperor himself drooled. "What do you want us to do?"
Sayron’s gaze fell upon a large number of crates with bottles inside. He knew Minions fought better when drunk, and the amount of mead from Nordberg had seemed to dry up in the Netherworld. "Bring us those bottles."

In Nordberg, the people had other things on their mind than to send their mead down through the Tower Gate. They were currently busy guarding that Tower Gate and mainly the Minion Gates around it carefully, so not a single Minion could pass through.
As more and more people bowed down to Sayron on Everlight, they were standing up to him in Nordberg.
Florian Greenheart jumped onto a straw roof, fast as the wind as two of his Soldiers cast a weighed net over three Minions. It had been woven from vines and stalks sung to life by Queen Fay herself, so their weapons, sharp and jagged as they might be, had no hold on them, and the living light magic even burned the creatures of the dark domain. The Soldiers of the Sanctuary had been able to save a number of these nets large enough to equip most of the Nordbergians, and everywhere in town, Sayron’s guardians were tackled. Not one of them was killed, however. Florian was as good as certain the Overlord had his ways to speak to his dead servants. He wanted to keep their black souls here, where he could keep an eye on them.
The blond elf let himself fall off the roof and swung his own net above his head. As he threw it, he caught a large Minion, with a black-plumed helmet and a halberd of Netherworld durium. The Minion struggled like a lunatic, growling like a rabid wolf and flinging his weapon around so wildly Florian acquired a deep wound over his shoulder and chest. The elf grasped the halberd and yanked it from the leathery claws. Then he looked the Minion in the eye, emerald green in sulfury yellow. He recognized that look. "You’re their leader."
"And you’re going to die!" the Minion snarled.
"We’re all going to die," Florian shrugged, though he had his doubts on that concerning himself. He looked around him. To the left and right, the magical nets were dragged over the cobblestones, filled with Minions. The Nordbergians were often lightly wounded, but grinning broadly and nodding at the elves.
"You’ve lost, demons! Nordberg is free!"

"Hic."
Jinx leant against a palm tree, a bottle of Everlightian rum in her hand and her bandana pulled slightly over her eyes. Drinking breaks in the middle of a siege? Why not?
Right in front of her sat a row of Minions, grins plastered across their faces as they watched Stabbit hold an even larger bottle to his spider’s mandibles and then having a huge swag himself. The green Minion hiccupped again and giggled incoherently. Then he looked over his audience and to Jinx, and the horde leader held her bottle in the middle of a gulp as their eyes met. There was undiluted madness in those yellow orbs, and once the Minion had an opponent again...
"Ooo dear," Jinx grinned. "This is going to be fun."
The yellow eyes tumbled into another direction. Sayron came striding towards them. The group of Minions beneath the palm tree sprung up at once and Stabbit’s spider hauled itself to its eight feet uncertainly. Kniff quickly pulled his sagging hat straight. He hadn’t even come close to the blue, rolling sea with it. Scabies was the only one who was even now standing at the water line, up to his knees in the ocean from time to time. He only looked around as Sayron started talking and then quickly ran for his Master.
"I assume you’re no longer sober," the Overlord spoke as his orange eyes slid over the gathering hordes. "Are you ready to crush this city?"
A deafening shout and the sun glinted on the blades of dozens of raised weapons.
"Are you ready to show the Empire who’s in charge now?"
A possibly even louder storm of approval ripped the quivering air above the beach apart. In Ignavopolis, the people who hadn’t been evacuated to the harbor pressed their hands to their ears.
"Then let us bring them down! Burn the city wall! Take everything! No mercy for those who fight back! Go!!"
Jinx let her bottle fall in the sand carelessly and stormed to the walls with the Minions.

A crack amongst the overall noise signaled the breach in the wall of tallgrass. The Empire hadn’t even tried to protect Ignavopolis from this side.
The fire quickly sprung over to the straw roofs of the luxurious houses with their white walls, marble-covered terraces and balconies and often their own, huge swimming pool...
"This is clearly the place where Empire citizens go when they tire of city life," Gnarl chuckled.
Sayron clicked his fingers and created fine nets of lightning keeping the fire out, as he had done earlier to protect the Nordbergian ship from the Nordhaven inferno. He wanted to keep this town more or less intact, for it would be his property soon.
For now, the chaos was worse than it had been in Nordhaven. The Minions streamed in through the growing hole in the city wall and swarmed out through the sloping streets, pushing the people aside and searching for objects or persons of value. Stabbit and his spider were the first to climb the roofs, blinking through the city on a thread of milky silk without even looking where they were heading.
Then Stabbit’s wide eyes suddenly focused. He’d seen something interesting. Red cloak. Green tunics.
He was allowed to slice this.
A touch with a bizarrely long nail signaled the spider it could go down. The green Minion and his mount threw themselves right on top of Marcus Cassius’ troops all by themselves, as they hurried into town through the main gate to prevent damage already done.
Stabbit grabbed a soldier’s neck, bit shut with his canines and ripped open the man’s windpipe. Then he let go and laughed wildly, flinging his steel claw knives around in a broad circle. He fought so wildly and his spider was so fast and intangible despite the alcohol, not a single soldier could even come close during the time Stabbit was the only warrior.
That didn’t take long, however, for very soon the rest of the horde stormed through the hysterical mob and reached the soldiers.
The Empire’s ships docked in Ignavopolis, Jinx knew that. The troops always arrived here. And many of the survivors from the fortress were also stationed here. There were many soldiers, and there was no time to lose - they might be calling for reinforcements via the ships or guard towers even now.
Almost unconsciously, she’d been keeping count of the soldiers she’d downed since they’d come across the spider silk bridge and now continued counting mutedly, however sometimes louder because she dealt a blow at the same time. "Eighteen... nineteen!"
A little distance away, already on a marble flight of stairs leading up to the higher terraces, Kniff looked around in surprise. He narrowed his eyes briefly and then dealt the final blow to his terrified victim. "Eleven!" he called out.
Soon it was a cacophony of Minion voices, so many counting individuals Jinx almost lost track of her own count. And as she already knew, not a single Minion knew how to count properly.
"Twenty-twelve!" "Tenty!" "Three hundred!"
"Shut it!" Sayron roared, stepping between the remains of a burning fence, his sword dripping with blood and with red flames for eyes. "Leave the counting to those capable of it! Thirty-two!"
Jinx abruptly looked up to her Overlord and grinned broadly. "Twenty-three and counting," she announced.
"Keep going! And leave the innocent alive for me! Thirty-four!"
On both sides of the formation now blocking their path ran fat Empire citizens as well as elves, but not the elves Jinx knew. These pointy-ears wore shreds of clothing, not elegantly crafted from living leaves like the garments of Florian Greenheart and his fellow combatants. Their hair hung loose and their eyes were fundamentally sad beneath the current mortal fear. The horde leader noticed them running inside small, barely noticeable huts in the shadow of the enormous white villas and holiday homes, and coming out again carrying what little belongings they had to disappear out of sight and into the back alleys. To escape. Jinx looked up to Sayron, but he only nodded. He’d go after them later, she realized. Nothing escaped his eyes - or his sword.
"It seems the local elves have been reduced to catering to the every whim of these obnoxious bloaters, debasing their once proud race with the ignominy of servitude... so it’s not all bad." This situation amused Gnarl to no end, Jinx could hear that quite clearly. She chuckled. Then she had her attention with the matter at hand again.
The Empire citizens had made the elves their slaves. Did Fay care so little for her people, doing nothing to help them? Didn’t she know? Or was she simply not strong enough to take on these soldiers? Jinx didn’t know what to think of light magic.
Behind the advancing Overlord the Minions stormed into houses left and right, smashing doors, gulping down bottles of wine and rum and dragging along terrified people, sometimes with eight Minions at a time. Soon a large group had formed, surrounded by Sayron’s army and pushed towards the Overlord. "Master!"
Sayron looked around, and his eyes rippled with malicious pleasure. He raised his hand up high and a lightning orb like there hadn’t ever been one outstretched tentacles of blue light. The citizens fell to their knees.
"Attack," was their first command.

Marcus didn’t know where to look. Now the people of Ignavopolis were attacking his men, and they were just as confused - they wouldn’t be asked to raise the sword to their own people, or would they? The people they were supposed to protect with those very same swords?
Still, the tourists from the Empire itself yanked the weapons from the claws of the demons and hacked at his men without hesitation, with at least as much enthusiasm as the Overlord’s monstrous race. The demons stood behind them, watching, and shaking with laughter.
It didn’t take long before the first soldiers were forced to fight back, but others lost their courage and ran into the streets, in broken and vulnerable formations - which were soon overrun by the Minions or jumped by spider riders.
Throughout Ignavopolis, everything began to collapse before Sayron’s might. The red Minions set strategic points alight to drive people together, cooperating with the spider riders who advanced over the rooftops and emptied their fangs into everyone who struggled too much. The browns swarmed through the streets in their huge numbers and gradually took over the entire city. From the beach, seagulls flew out over Ignavopolis - the Everlightian equivalent of carrion crows. Before the sun had even set, they’d have an undisturbed feast.
Ultimately, the soldiers had been pushed back to the very top of town. The houses crowded together on both sides of a marble flight of stairs now filled with soldiers, and Sayron could see their centurion standing above them, unreachable for him and with his remaining men, probably also for the climbers and spider riders. But beyond the troops he could see an arbor, on the overhanging rock in front of a truly gigantic white villa, and the image reminded him of the residence of governor Borius in Nordberg. He could even see a figure in white in the arbor, probably watching over the chaos that had become of her city in panic.
"Cardea!" the Overlord’s voice rang out. "You’d better take cover! I’m coming for you!"
A second figure, taller and slimmer, appeared on the governess’ side. Sayron narrowed his eyes and saw lush, dark brown hair fall over slender shoulders.
A clear message. Cardea knew very well she wasn’t the only reason he’d followed her all this way.
His eyes widened and paled to a lighter orange. Next to the arbor was a gallows. Another nice way to punish witches...
"Hurry!" he commanded. Immediately his Minions ran up the stairs, mixed with citizens. All of Ignavopolis would fight for the life of the woman from the beach.

Jinx ran small distances along the walls of the houses, where she could easily grab hold with her hooks because they were constructed with the same soft limestone she’d seen earlier in Fay’s hideout. Every time the archers in the middle of the formation raised their bows at her, she let herself fall and raged out between the soldiers. The spider riders and the reds followed her example, making themselves almost unreachable. Despite that, many fell each time they mounted the walls, being hit by the hardened steel arrows of the Empire.
Jinx came down and let her foot shoot out. Her sturdy Nordbergian boot hit a bow and made the wood splinter like a twig. After that, she strangled the archer. "Thirty-three," she growled determinedly.
"Aaaiee!"
The scream was sudden and sharp as the stab of a knife. Jinx looked around abruptly.
Halfway up the wall hung a gleaming black spider. Its Minion rider was still sitting on its back, but he was skewered on a long spear. Black blood dripped over the point. The Minion was Stabbit.
Jinx knew she had to fight on, that this was simply another casualty in their ranks she might see back from the Well, but she couldn't look away.
Stabbit looked down at the soldier holding the spear with demonic, black-lined eyes. And then, gruesome, misplaced, he giggled.
The Minion clicked his spider’s abdomen and the arachnid scurried up the wall, so the spear was pulled out of the soldier’s hands. Jinx still looked on, and fought only to stay alive, half-heartedly, her attention with Stabbit.
The green grasped the spear and pulled it from his chest. Then he trust the far too large weapon down and killed the soldier. A greenish, whirling light closed his chest wound. Then the Minion jumped back into battle laughing.
Jinx blinked like crazy. What had just happened?

From a roof not far away, Fever watched how Stabbit fought on, a white-hot hand pressed to his face but peering between his fingers. The red Minion shook his head. "Idiot," a voice like flowing lava hissed. "Idiot!" He sighed. "What do you expect from madness itself..."
Then the entire villa on top of which he was standing was eradicated in a sudden, humongous burst of flames.

They drove the soldiers back to the top of the stairs. A large portion fled down between them, towards their deaths at the claws of the Minions and the hands of the citizens. Another portion stood their ground. Among them was their centurion, a young man with a narrow face and pure terror in his eyes.
"Marcus!" the governess shrieked from her arbor. "Bring me his head, and the heads of all his little... things!"
The centurion didn’t answer, but stared straight at Sayron with eyes that were now hard as granite, in a pale face. "Archers in position!" he commanded.
"Reds, deal with them," Sayron spoke without raising his voice. The red Minions climbed the rock walls surrounding the villa and ignited the fire around their hands. Cardea backed away.
"You are here to save me, right?"
It was the woman’s voice. Sayron looked up. There were two soldiers next to her, holding her arms in an iron grip.
He nodded. She looked back with deep, dark eyes, very different from Kelda’s emerald green. "I don’t care how much blood you have to spill. Just get me out of here!"
"Bring the beast down! And you! Hang her so he has something to look at while he dies!"
Sayron raised his sword up high and let it come down in determination. With every stroke he felled at least two or three soldiers. But meanwhile a noose was laid around the woman’s neck.

Back at the Tower Kelda furiously bit her nails. In the mist pool the remaining soldiers swarmed around Sayron, stabbing and hacking with spears and swords, and around him the arrows thudded down into the ground, his Minions and, eventually, the Overlord himself. He ripped the arrows out with his bare hands, however, and ignored his wounds. She had never seen him this passionate, except in the battle for Nordberg.
He’d been fighting for her back then.
Now he was also fighting for a woman.
She didn’t want to face it. In the pool the white-clad Empire noblewoman - without doubt - was just visible, so much more elegant than her, a simple Nordbergian. So much more fitting for an Overlord.
She clenched her teeth and ran a hand through her short ginger hair. She‘d known Sayron since he’d been found before Nordberg’s gates. She cared about him. She wouldn’t give up this easily. She had known more dangerous adversaries than rivaling wusses, beautiful as they might be.

"This is better than the Arena," Cardea chuckled from her high arbor, but she did grip the sides of her seat so firmly her pudgy knuckles paled. Below her Sayron fought himself through her last army, with so much determination he came out in front of his Minions and got stuck without their help. If he wanted to save the woman he had to risk his own hide, but he did it. He did it... and he seemed to succeed.
The distance to the rock wall was too great for Jinx. She wanted to climb up and cut the noose, but she was stuck in the middle of the clearing, between dozens of soldiers and Minions and unable to reach the walls. She powerlessly watched as one of the soldiers stepped to the lever on the gallows platform, the lever that’d open the hatch below the woman so she’d fall. Jinx didn’t know whether she was light enough to hang. Maybe her neck would break rightaway.
"Don’t die!" the woman called out from above. "Please, don’t die..."
Sayron looked up. A battalion of reds raced over the walls and cast irregular patches of light. Fever and Hoarse seemed to lead them simultaneously, and they were also the first to let go of the wall with their hands and to start lobbing fire hanging from their feet. A single red cast his fire so far it almost reached the gallows, but at the same moment the hatch opened. Sayron shut his eyes tightly. Then he opened them again.
Her neck hadn’t broken. She was hanging there, gasping for breath that didn’t come, her eyes silently pleading him to hurry.
"Simmer! Sear! To the gallows! Now!!" he thundered.
Two of the most fast and agile reds since Parch hurried along the walls. Cardea screamed in protest, but the spears of the soldiers flanking her weren’t fast enough to intercept the Minions. Two fireballs zoomed to the exact same spot and the noose ignited. The woman fell to her knees hard, below the gallows platform and greedily breathed in, unable to pull the noose off her neck because her hands were still bound.
"Get back here! We’re having that rock!" Sayron wiped over his arms and seemed to realize only now they were wet with dark blood. He carelessly plucked a broken arrowhead from his shoulder and tossed it away over the soldiers’ heads. "Out of my way, maggots," he growled in a low voice.
He didn’t even raise his hand, but a dark fire started growing in his gauntlet. Crackling tendrils of energy played over his armour. A heartbeat later he electrocuted all remaining soldiers in front of him with a single lightning orb, and kept holding the power for so long there was actually black smoke rising from their eye sockets. As he ripped his arm away they fell to the ground like ragdolls, as if their strings had been cut.
The men behind him finally lost all hope after seeing that image. Chaos ensued, and that was just the Minions’ specialty.
The only one still standing between him and Cardea now, the one he’d spared with his lightning, was Marcus Cassius, the centurion. Sayron grabbed him with a bloodied metal gauntlet and lifted him by the throat, a grip at least as strangling as the noose itself.
The centurion spluttered in mortal fear. Sayron stared straight at him with demonic, narrowed red eyes. Never before had Marcus been this afraid.
"I like you," the Overlord growled.
"W-what?!"
"That why I’m not going to kill you. You’re going to be governor of Ignavopolis," Sayron chuckled. He lightly tapped the young man’s forehead with his sword hand’s index finger. A tiny splash of dark blood and a blue spark remained on his skin. His eyes rolled up, and then he belonged to the Overlord. Sayron put him down.
"Yes, Master," he saluted energetically.
Sayron nodded at him briefly and then turned to Cardea. "And you," his voice rumbled, low as an avalanche still miles away, but approaching swiftly.
Meph had run to the young woman in the white toga by now, and was cutting her bonds. She rose and rubbed her wrists, and then stroked the Minion’s ears. Meph smiled dazedly.
Cardea backed away. "I didn’t mean it," she stammered. "I wasn’t really going to kill you. I wasn’t going to kill her. Please, spare me!"
Sayron’s finger pushed against her forehead and her old eyes crossed to follow him.
Jinx climbed up along the rock face and saw what was happening. She was surprised. After all the trouble the governess had given him, in the fortress, the spider temple and here, he wanted to enslave her? What was wrong with the satisfaction of slaughter? She’d almost killed him at the fortress!
"Thank you, my Lord," Cardea mumbled as she sank to her knees. Jinx had the feeling the real governess was still having a bit of a word in this, too.
Then Sayron raised his blade.
"No! Master, what are you doing! I’m your faithful servant!" This time incomprehension and real pain lay in her voice. And Jinx understood. What was better than killing someone while she thought she could trust you? She saw Sayron enjoy the confusion in Cardea’s breaking eyes and knew this was a way better revenge than stabbing a hysterical, screaming woman. She laughed to herself and realized how much darker she’d become during the time - a year? a century? - she’d spent with the warriors of the Netherworld. She quite liked it.
"Fifty-six! Ignavopolis is ours!"

Later, as the last sunlight fell over the mountains and into sea, Jinx and a couple of Minions were sitting on the warm sands of Everlight’s paradisiacal eastern beach. She’d just chased Kniff all the way to sea, with the threat she’d wash his hat good, and the Minion was still shaking the last salt water off his foot claws in disgust. Some distance away, two other Minions ran along the forest edge, gigantic palm leaves tied around their waists, probably meant for wafting before.
Jinx grabbed to her right and brought a large bottle of rum to her lips. And enjoyed the moment to the fullest.
Stripe was sitting on her other side, his centurion helmet beside him in the sand. He nudged her with a spiky elbow. "Wanna bet?"
Jinx looked at him, an uncontrollable smile on her face and a glowing feeling in her chest. "About what?"
"You fall down first." Stripe grabbed a new bottle of rum. Just behind them lay about all of the gathered bottles of the entirety of Ignavopolis, like a ripe meadow of glass.
Jinx fastened her own grip. "I’m on. Kniff?"
"Yea!"
Not long after the beach resounded with drunken yodeling.

In a more peaceful place, without Minions to ruin the atmosphere, Sayron took a definitive decision. He rose from his seat at the pool of the villa he’d claimed as his first and strolled down through Ignavopolis, to a larger open square. There he raised an arm. The amber gem flashed in answer.
The woman, who’d introduced herself as Juno, gasped silently. She’d been holding his other arm the whole time.
An inky black, spiky Tower Gate dug its way up through the spotless Everlightian marble and spread its peaks. An unworldly blue light drifted up and lit the face of the pretty Imperial. Juno looked at the Overlord and smiled. "Finally, a way out of here."
In the Netherworld, the mist pool, discreetly switched off by Gnarl, finally re-activated itself. Kelda caught those last words and knew enough. She wouldn’t surrender without a fight, however. "She’s not coming down here?!"
Gnarl rubbed his hands. "Ah, the more the merrier, aye Sire?"
A growl like a she-wolf’s was his answer.
Sayron looked around. Despite the merry sounds now rising from the beach, he knew Jinx and the Minions would see the light from the gate and follow him soon enough. He thought correctly. He deliberately waited up a little longer as he heard the shouting.
"Blue light! Blue light!"
"Oh dear. Come on... boys...!"
"Hic!"
A smile tugged on the corners of Sayron’s hidden mouth. Even Jinx sounded drunk. That hadn’t happened since they’d taken Nordberg. He sighed. He wanted to have the Minions with him. He felt Juno wouldn’t survive the return to the Netherworld otherwise. Luckily his servants seemed to take a liking to her, just as they’d done to Kelda, back then...
Jinx swung through too far and came to a standstill against a limestone wall. She turned around unstably and nodded, satisfied to see the Minions coming up the stairs, often cradling three bottles of rum each.
"Reporting for duty, Lord," she grinned.
"I see so," Sayron nodded. "Good job, but you need to do me one more favor..."
"Just name it," she said, casting a slightly hazy glance at Juno.
"Don’t take a side."

"Hm, a little on the dark side, no natural light. But I think I can work with this," was Juno’s comment as the floor closed beneath her and the portal shut its claws.
"Ah, I see you’ve already arranged a peasant slave as my lady in waiting! She’s a bit scruffy..."
"Juno," hissed Sayron. "That’s Kelda."
"Oh! Hm, I have my doubts concerning your tastes, darling."
"The only thing I’m waiting for, Empire, is for you to put one foot out of line so I can hang your carcass on the wall... with the other pretty, vacant things! Not that I actually need an excuse, come to think of it..." Kelda’s green eyes were ablaze. "Sayron! How could you!"
"I’m an Overlord," he spoke in a low voice. "I do as I please, whenever it pleases me. You knew that as you followed me from Nordberg."
"I was special! You said so!" Kelda was blushing in rage. "No doubt you also said it to her!" She planted her hands on her hips. "I’ll scratch your eyes out, you..."
A few Minions had come along through the portal and they now arranged themselves in front of their Master and Juno. Stripe, swaggering slightly, had a look in his eyes that could only be labeled as concise. None of them spoke.
Kelda stepped forward and raised her chin. Then she rammed the Minions aside without hesitation and threw herself onto Juno, a hunting knife suddenly in her hand. The woman backed away, but couldn’t escape the Nordbergian. "Sayron! What have you gotten me into!"
The Overlord grabbed his first Mistress’ wrist as she wanted to bring the knife down more successfully. "Kelda, stop embarrassing me."
"Hear who’s talking! I..." Kelda’s eyes dwelled to the side and found Jinx, in a corner of the hall. The girl stood watching with a pained look in her eyes and her ropes hanging down limply. The green eyes softened for the briefest moment. She yanked her hand from Sayron’s grip. "I understand. An Overlord needs to be able to do as he pleases." She bowed with great exaggeration and strode out of the great hall, on her way to the private quarters.
Jinx bit her lip. She felt like she should have done something, but she’d been forbidden and she didn’t feel stable enough to actually accomplish anything, or even talk without slurring. She sunk down against the throne room wall.
Sayron and Juno walked to the throne together. Gnarl couldn’t keep his eyes off the new Mistress, Jinx noticed. She chuckled involuntarily. This could be fun.
"Your place isn’t too bad," Juno remarked. "It could compete with the Imperial Palace itself." She looked down at Gnarl and raised her eyebrows. "And what’s this? An antique version of your little demons?"
"My name is Gnarl, fair lady," the advisor spoke in a whole different voice than both Sayron and Jinx were used of him. He even surprised them by reaching up and kissing her hand. "I’ll do my best to make your stay as pleasant as possible..."
As Juno uncertainly pulled back her hand and turned to the hall, Sayron discreetly kicked his advisor. "No funny business," the Overlord hissed.
"Certainly not, Master!" Gnarl grinned. He finally ripped his eyes off Juno and looked up at the Overlord. "You handled that pretty well, by the way. I haven’t seen many Masters retaining their position with more than one Mistress. I have to admit the ladies pose a bigger threat than whatever enemy this world can cough up. But don’t be too certain... I don’t think Mistress Kelda will surrender this easily..."

The advisor’s words could just as well have echoed through the dark hallways of the private quarters, that same night.
The torches on the walls had been doused, but the little light streaming into the Tower from the lava flows outside reflected on the blade of an unsheathed knife.
Kelda had insisted that she, Juno and Sayron all slept apart that night, and after the tiring battle the Overlord had agreed. There were more than enough bedrooms, but the Nordbergian knew exactly in which one Juno was sleeping. She’d bless her with a better kind of sleep... one from which there was no waking up. Sayron would see his mistake. And she wouldn’t have to disgrace herself any further, not in front of him, nor for Jinx.
She crept through the black marble arch to Juno’s bedroom on velvet feet. It hadn’t been furbished yet, but the Empire noblewoman did lie in an enormous, luxurious bed from which she was taking as much space as possible. She was sleeping deeply, very different from Kelda’s light, alert naps.
The Nordbergian stepped to the bed silently as a snow leopard and raised her knife.
Juno smiled in her sleep. Then her lips moved slightly. "I wouldn’t do that if I were you."
Kelda stiffened. "Why not?" she asked with a steady voice.
The dark eyes opened. "You’ll never survive the poison I’ve given you tonight."
"Poison?"
"That barbaric deer steak of yours? I guessed you wouldn’t recognize the taste of castor beans. Deadly. It grows everywhere on Everlight and I recognized them immediately." Juno brought her hand above the velvet sheets and tossed up a small bottle. "The antidote. Ah, no, no!" She tauntingly pulled her hand away as Kelda took a grasp at it. "If you stab me, I’ll have to throw this lovely bottle out of the window..."
Kelda’s eyes were pulled towards the window. There, behind magnificent stained glass, lay the deep, deep void of the Netherworld. "Spare yourself the effort," she answered coolly. "So you’re a witch after all. They should have hung you, there in Ignavopolis."
"Oh, but I don’t use these tricks to seduce men. They wanted to hang me for that, but I don’t... need any help with that." Juno smiled slyly. "You don’t either, I assume?"
It was as if a lens shifted in front of Kelda’s eyes. Juno wasn’t a cheap, empty-headed floozy who wanted to take Sayron from her. She was sly and cunning, in another way than her, but still...
The Nordbergian condescended to laying down weapons first. She sheathed her knife.
Juno gave her the bottle of antidote. Kelda downed it in one gulp. It had no colour, scent or taste, as if it was water, and she wondered whether Juno really had poisoned her after all. That would only make her more cunning, because she’d completely fallen for it. The glistening in the dark eyes told another story, however. If she hadn’t been standing at Juno’s bed like a murderess, Sayron would have found her dead in bed the next morning.
Kelda outstretched a hand. "A truce among Mistresses."
Juno took the gesture and winced at the firm Nordbergian handshake. "As long as your love for Sayron and your hate for Solarius remain stronger than your hatred for me, I promise the same from my side."
"Fair enough," Kelda spoke with her head held high. Then she pulled back her hand, turned and strode back to her own bedroom with a strangely satisfied feeling.

And miles higher and further west, on a paradisiacal beach on the fluorescent Everlightian sea and beneath millions of twinkling stars, lay a girl and a Minion, sleeping away their drunkenness they’d only made worse with the seemingly neverending supply of booze from Ignavopolis. The Minion dreamt of flashing blades, great grey wolves howling at a full moon and a chanting horde of his kin, before the gates of a city full of terrified people. The girl’s sleep was full of light, but not the average kind. It was purple, and even in her dreams she knew it was deadly. She outstretched her hands to it, but it stayed just out of her reach...
Not for long, Jinx vowed to herself as she slept. Soon the magic would be hers.
She and Kniff smiled simultaneously and showed two very different sets of teeth, even though the Minion’s hat lay beneath his tightly shut claw, dripping with seawater and a whole lot cleaner.

Chapter Text

"Darling..."
Lying loosely between the luxurious sheets of his gigantic four-poster bed, crafted into the shape of a huge dragon with spread wings, the Overlord rolled over. His closed eyelids trembled and showed slits of orange light.
A tanned hand reached for his bare, muscular shoulder. "Wake up."
Sayron still didn´t show signs he was about to open his glowing eyes entirely. Juno looked at the countless scars decorating his dark blue skin admiringly for a moment, but then crept onto the bed. "Come on. It´s been morning for ages, darling..."
"Ahem."
Juno looked up. In the entrance to the room, Kelda was tapping her foot.
The Empire lady quickly pulled her hand off Sayron´s shoulder and rolled off the bed. "Yes, yes. Alright." She stepped back and let Kelda join them. The Nordbergian Mistress gripped the Overlord´s neck and pinched. Hard.
Sayron immediately shot up and looked around with wide eyes. "Oh! It´s you. Good morning to you too..."
"Juno´s got something to tell you," Kelda said.
Sayron looked up to his new Mistress, beaming as if she hadn´t been hung at all the previous day. The bruises around her neck had started to fade already, and she was wearing a new, snowy white toga. She´d also taken quite a while to do her hair by the look of it.
The Overlord smiled. "Tell me."
"Oh, that can wait," Juno smiled back, to Kelda´s great annoyance. "Get out of bed first, have breakfast, take it easy..."

As he´d followed that advice and was sitting in the throne room with his Mistresses and Gnarl later on, Sayron didn´t want to hear anything about taking it easy.
"Those little midget thingies of yours, are there blue ones? I saw red and green ones..."
Kelda had to restrain herself not to answer in Sayron´s stead. She´d studied the writings in the private quarters for long enough to know everything of every Minion clan, also the one still missing. Sayron, however, nodded immediately. "Yes." He grabbed her hands. "How do you know? Have you seen them?"
"I saw a couple of them being taken to the Arena," Juno answered. She was new in the Netherworld, so she didn´t see the value of this information and spoke carelessly. "But they didn´t seem too different from the demons you have here. I think they had webs instead of ears, but that was about it."
Various Minions were looking up to their new Mistress in admiration. Gnarl´s ears were high with excitement. "The Arena? In the Empire´s capital?"
"Arcadiopolis, yes."
"This is fantastic information! This will complete our domain!" Gnarl stared straight at Juno and gestured wildly while he spoke. "Blue Minions are the most unique of the lot. They´re the most magically gifted of the clans, so I shouldn´t be surprised the Empire found them. Hm, come to think of it, we did lose them upstream in the Tamesa... They´re swimmers, and very vulnerable. They won´t last for three minutes in the Arena, judging by what I´ve heard about it. And it seems it´s been a while since they were thrown in..."
Sayron paced through the hall, his sash trailing behind him like a sail. "We have to go to Arcadiopolis as quickly as possible, certainly now. We have no time to lose." He looked up. "I´m taking a ship from Ignavopolis. I´ll sail for the Reef Gates and open sea, and then to the east and the Tamesa delta. Not over land, the capital will be warned long before I arrive there. I don´t want to draw attention before I have the blues back."
"A proper plan, Lord," Gnarl nodded.
"Is there any hope for them?" Kelda suddenly asked. "Blues are so vulnerable. So fragile."
Gnarl looked around at her. "I´d know if their clan had been exterminated," he spoke with a suddenly deeper voice. "There is still blue life force in the world. The Hive still exists. There is a population alive, I can feel it." He coughed. "And besides... if I were in charge, I´d wait for the losses to grow back before I´d let those funny blue creatures run for their lives in the Arena again..."
In a corner of the great hall, Quaver gripped his jester´s staff so firmly the wood creaked. He was glad Mortis wasn´t there to hear those words... or Jinx.

A blinding light reflected over the ocean like a skimming pebble, so bright she instantly shielded her eyes. There were more pleasant ways of waking up than on an Everlightian beach with your face straight to the east.
Though, east. She´d fallen asleep facing Ignavopolis´ walls. She´d rolled over...
Jinx rolled back. There she saw two steel boots. Next to it were quite a lot of clawed feet.
She raised her gaze. "Hello, Lord."
"I´ll get you later for not reporting back to the Netherworld after a decisive battle," the Overlord´s voice resounded. Kniff quickly pulled Jinx up and the girl beat the sand out of her clothes. She didn´t have the idea it helped - she´d probably find white sand and little shells for weeks to come.
"Uh. Sorry about that..." she muttered while emptying her boots, searching for her dagger and quickly plucking it from the sand. "I´m ready. What are we doing today?"
Sayron looked back at the docks of the city, next to which quite many Imperial ships were floating in the azure water. "We´re going to the Empire."
Jinx stared at him, not sure of what she´d heard. "What?"
"We´re going to the Glorious Empire, over the ocean, with one of those ships. I just wanted to let you know before I go and pick one."
A terrible feeling of déjà vu nestled itself into Jinx´ stomach. "Wanted to let me know... where do I stay during the journey...?"
"You´re coming with us," Sayron said in a dry voice contrasting greatly with the enormous relief those words evoked with his horde leader. "But not yet."
Jinx looked at him expectantly. Sayron´s eyes rippled. "I´ll pick you up at the Reef Gates."
"What do you expect of me in the meantime?"
"You´ll work on your magic. Gnarl reminded me he´s going to show you a thing or two in the magic room."
Jinx´ heart possibly leapt even higher. She opened her mouth to say something that´d probably be garbled with gratitude, but Sayron already turned. "Alright, boys, let´s finish what we started yesterday!"

Ignavopolis´ central marble square was teeming with people and Minions, not half an hour later. Sayron was standing in the center of it all. "My loyal subjects," his voice rang out, and it was clearly audible how much he enjoyed those words - and the breathless faces of the former Imperials even more. "During my absence you´ll look after this city well - better than Emperor Solarius and his lap dog Cardea did. You will go to hunt in the jungle, together with my Minions, and you´ll lay any life force you find in the Tower Gate."
The people nodded obediently. Sayron grinned with the prospect of the amount of new Minions that would roll out of the Hives. "Also you´ll work on your own condition. I don´t like fatsos." Again, an agreeing nod. "And thirdly you´ll point me to the fastest ship in your harbors and ready it for me to sail to the Empire."
"Yes, Master!"
Two hours later, and the bloated citizens of Ignavopolis had readied a slender ship, with much effort and under roaring laughter of the Minions. It had seven red sails of which the golden suns had carefully been painted over, so they reminded more of blood than of the Emperor. At the tip of the highest mast a pitch-black flag fluttered, bearing the white emblem of the Overlord - a circled tower.
Sayron already stood on the rail, giving the last instructions to the new leader of the Minions stationed in Ignavopolis. "Rasp, make sure those people keep moving. They have to become my people, and not just in their heads."
The former horde warrior saluted with a proud grin. His friend Nails stood beside him - he´d stay on Everlight as well. Fifty clan members were getting familiar with every alley of the town at the very moment, just as it had been in Nordberg under the command of Scrunt with the durium halberd. Behind the two Minions stood Marcus Cassius, in name the governor of Ignavopolis, smiling as he looked at the ship. He seemed to be a lot happier than he´d been under Cardea.
Sayron looked out over the city for one last time. He focused on a white balcony, covered in tropical hanging plants, higher uphill. There a brown figure with black hair leant over the balustrade. He raised an armoured arm.
A rope shot straight up and the sun glistened on arcanium. Then Jinx turned and a few seconds later a lighter flash went up in the light drifting up from the Tower Gate.
Rasp cast them off. Sayron turned the wheel and made sure the ship distanced itself from the docks. In the rigging, Kniff climbed to his familiar spot beneath the black flag, in the crow´s nest, and Scabies was busy cheering in joy on the aft deck.
Thus started the journey of the Shadow Bringer to the shores of the Empire.

Feeling a whole lot better than the day the Nordbergian ship had sailed away in the icy mists of Nordhaven, Jinx descended into the throne room. Gnarl was already waiting for her. "Is he on his way?"
Jinx nodded. She bounced from one foot to the other. "And so am I, right?"
"I don´t see you running up two thousand stairs, missy." Gnarl grinned demonically. "Good luck with that."
Jinx grinned back. "Oh, you know just as well as any other I don´t take the inside route anymore. I´d better be wishing you good luck, oldtimer."
With those words she walked out of the hall and swung up a rope to a peak on the outside of the Tower. "I see you in the afternoon! I can wait!" she called into the throne room through a slitlike window. There was no answer.

Fifteen minutes later Jinx hauled herself over the prow balcony of the private quarters. Some of the Minions working there nodded at her, not surprised at all about her method of arrival. The horde leader was used to doing this.
As she walked into the Overlord´s chambers she saw a woman in a white toga, facing away from her and busy examining a carved image on the wall. Jinx politely tapped her shoulder - in the time it would take Gnarl to get here she could just as well get to know the new Mistress. Juno turned and put up large dark eyes.
"What are you doing here?"
"I´ve come to train in the magic room," Jinx answered. "Welcome to the Netherworld, by the way."
"Thank you, but how did you get in?" She gestured to the stairs, a few meters away. "Is there another way?"
"There is for me," Jinx grinned with a nod to her ropes.
Juno smiled. "All this way? Wow."
"Practice makes perfect."
"I know," the Imperial lady winked. "Hey... your accent. Do you also..."
"...come from Arcadiopolis? Yes. In a way. I´m the daughter of lady Velvet," Jinx entrusted her. "You´re practically family now, so I can tell you this. She´s here too, in the lower levels."
"The cursed sister of lady Rose?" Juno clicked her tongue. "Well, well. I shouldn´t have expected otherwise. Her daughter? I didn´t know she had a child."
Jinx smiled - she could guess what her mother would think of that reputation. She remembered something. "You´ll see the city again soon, you know. Sayron is on his way, over the sea. As soon as he gets to the Reef Gates in the atoll I´m going as well."
"He´s on his way thanks to me," Juno answered, not without pride. "It seems it was interesting information I had about those blue creatures."
"Blue creatures?" Jinx widened her eyes. "Blues?!"
"You too."
"In Arcadiopolis? No wonder he was in such a hurry."
"What is it that´s so special about all those little demons?"
In Jinx´ eyes, Juno suddenly lost quite a lot of her status. If you touched the Minions you touched her. Her face hardened. "They make this domain what it is. Their strength makes sure the Overlord can travel as he wishes and keeps the Netherworld in existence. Everything works because of the Minions."
"Ah, you´re their leader, of course. I´m sorry." There was no regret in Juno´s voice. Her eyes and hand dwelled to the image on the wall, and the beauty of the private quarters. Not one moment her eyes lingered on the Minions working there, bringing in food, cleaning the floor, walls and banners, sculpting the fine images higher up in the vaults... This woman was used to having slaves. But Jinx knew there was a fundamental difference between Minions and slaves. Minions would follow their Master into death itself because they wanted to, out of the courage in their black, but big hearts.
The horde leader turned around abruptly. She´d wait for Gnarl elsewhere.

"Ah, here at last, are you?"
Jinx nearly had a heart attack as she pushed open the black marble doors to the magic room. Inside, on the verge of the blindingly white abyss, the grey Minion was waiting for her coolly. "How in Vessperion´s name did you get here?!"
Gnarl chuckled. "Oh, I have my ways. I´ve been here for some time, you know. I thought you were fast with those ropes, but..."
"I was talking to Juno," Jinx spoke with as much dignity as she could muster.
"Ah... Juno." The yellow eyes misted over slightly. "What did she say? Something about me?"
Jinx shook her head. "No, she only seemed to talk about Sayron," she said vaguely. "I think she only has eyes for his enormous, fantastic power." With a bit of satisfaction she saw how Gnarl´s face clouded over. "She needs to see how much the Minions are worth," she then added. "Who knows, you might take care of that."
As suddenly as the grin had disappeared, it reappeared again and the advisor´s irregular teeth became visible. Gnarl nodded without saying anything. Then he looked back at the glowing white pit in the middle of the magic room. "To business!"
"To business," Jinx agreed. Her heart jumped.
"You probably think this is the magic room," Gnarl begun. "Am I right?"
Jinx nodded uncertainly. "Isn´t it?"
"No. The actual magic room lies down there."
Jinx stepped onto the bridge leading halfway over the abyss and looked down, without shielding her eyes against the constant, unmoving white light as her retinas told her to. She bent over slightly.
Gnarl walked around her unnoticed. "It´s time for you to undergo an unbelievable honour, Jinx..."
Jinx narrowed her eyes. She thought she could see something moving down there...
"See you in a minute!" With those words Gnarl gave her a shove, and Jinx fell straight down, with milling arms and a stretched cry, into the unmeasurable depths and the baffling white light.
The advisor chuckled to himself. Then his grey cloak seemed to fan out, much further than was logically possible. He, too, jumped into the pit, and before long the light had swallowed him.

During her fall the whiteness around her changed. It remained painfully blinding, but it became less frozen. Whirlings appeared as Jinx fell deeper into the magic room. Patterns, changing as on the Tower Heart shard, the one time she´d seen in the Wasteland. However, the forms were far larger here, and all around her.
A rising tower, without doubt the same fortress she´d seen in that same Wasteland, but proudly upright and fully intact. Marching armies, walls of spears. Dragons, not just a veined shadow of a wing this time, but whole dragons of white fire, each of them with another collection of spikes, webs and horns. One of them even had three heads.
Then colour crept in the world of magic around her. At the same moment the forms disappeared, so she entered a storm of bright colours changing more swiftly than in the nacre of an emperor shellfish - emerald green, bloody red, azure blue as the Everlightian sea. Purple...
Jinx took a blind fling. The purple gust writhed out of her reach, just like in her dream.
Then, nauseatingly abrupt, her fall came to an end.
Jinx was trembling from head to toe, both her stomach and her heart lodged in her throat. She was convinced she´d smacked into the bottom, contrary to the information her body gave her.
She opened her eyes. She was still hanging in the void, but as she outstretched a hand she could feel a smooth surface, inches below her body. She stood up, on a surface differing in nothing from the insane whirlwind of colours around her.
"Welcome to the magic, Jinx."
She turned. Her eyes were streaming, but she could see something standing some distance away. It had spoken with Gnarl´s voice.
However, it only globally looked like the advisor she knew. This Minion - if one could speak of that - had an inky black skin, was far more muscular than any other Minion and had eyes flaming like yellow hellfire. That wasn´t the most bizarre, however. This Minion had wings. Webs of iridescent black skin attached his hands and arms to his legs, and there were even membranes between the creature´s elongated fingers. It just shook off a leathery grey cloak and a familiar red scarf. It still had leather straps around its arms.
"...Gnarl?"
"It´s me. Take a good look at my new form... or should I say, old form?" The creature lifted an arm and smiled a sharp-toothed smile as it looked at its claws glistening in the bizarre light. "The magic is at its very strongest here, but that also means everything must take its true shape. Just look at yourself."
Jinx did as he said and looked down at her own body. She started. During her fall through the magic, a few things had changed.
A gleam lay over her entire body, glistening like so many minuscule scales. The callosity on her hands, formed by all her work with ropes, had disappeared and her hands seemed made for finer things, but her nails were sharp and pointy, almost like claws. She was still wearing her own clothes and her ropes were also still curled around her shoulders, lessening the shock.
"Is this how I really look, then?"
"It seems to be so. But almost everyone has such a bizarre true form, you should know how Sayron showed himself in here."
Something told Jinx she didn´t want to know. She shook herself. "Right, what happens now?"
Gnarl stepped back, supply on his rejuvenated foot claws. "Have a look around. Take it easy. Everything will unfold itself. With a bit of luck you´ll get back here soon with total control of your magic, like Sayron back in the day."
Jinx looked at him for a moment, but then turned and stepped forward uncertainly.
Behind her, Gnarl kept looking at her back. There was worry in his eyes, though he´d hidden it well while she was still looking at him - her true form was nothing like he´d expected.

At the start of her walk, nothing changed in the colour storm around her. After a few minutes of walking however, something started to happen. The black form of Gnarl had disappeared for a while then, vanishing behind a curtain of light.
Blue started dominating here - a pale, icy cyan. It gradually took over all other colours and then started crystallizing in flying particles, like wisps of blue polar fire. Jinx looked up. Above her were waving streams of frigid northern light.
It was actually colder here, but not like the Nordbergian winter. This was an ethereal cold, and Jinx knew for certain this temperature drop couldn´t freeze her toes off - it was more likely her heart muscle would stop altogether.
"What is your name, child?" The voice was a frigid hiss, matching the temperature perfectly.
For once, Jinx didn´t feel offended by that name.
Up ahead, the wisps of blue polar fire whirled around eachother and melted together. A form rose, of the same icy colour as the entire surroundings. It was a woman, with short, wild hair floating around her head, long flowing fabrics falling down from her belt, and a huge jagged sword in her right hand. She wore a crowned helmet exposing her face, so her eyes sparked into Jinx´ as the iciest stars of a Nordbergian winter night.
"My name is Jinx of the Netherworld," Jinx spoke with as steady a voice as she could manage. "I´m looking for my own magic."
"They all are," the woman laughed. "But I am not what you seek. I do not belong to you. I am the magic of Synn of the North."
Synn! Jinx gasped. Synn of the North had been an Overlady of long ago, one of the three Darklords of old. She´d been a member of an elven mountain tribe, but after an uncertain event only known to the Darklords themselves she´d turned to the shadows and murdered her entire tribe. Then she´d joined the other two and traced a line of blood over the world that still had no equal.
Jinx sunk to her knees trembling. She almost had another heart attack as she felt an icy hand around her arm. She looked up, straight into the woman´s eyes.
"Stand up, foolish girl! Do not bow to me. I am not the Darklord of the old days, merely her magic. An echo, a mirror image. Save your bowing for the real Synn of the North, if you ever meet her." Synn´s magic yanked her up and Jinx staggered back. "Go back. Disappear from my domain. You do not belong here. Seek further and find your own magic, wherever it may be."
Jinx nodded silently, let her eyes slide over the form of the legendary ruler one more time and then turned, to run back over the ethereal surface, in the direction she´d come from.

It didn´t take long before she could see the black shape of Gnarl again. The Minion nodded at her. "What did you find?"
"Synn of the North," she panted. "Gnarl! Is everyone here?"
"The magic of all former Overlords? Probably," he nodded. "That´s why this is only allowed to the Overlord himself, in normal cases. It´s a huge honour, didn´t I tell you?"
"Thank you," the muttered. "I value it a lot more now."
"Your time´s up, you know."
"What?"
Gnarl looked up. "If you stay here for too long you´re at risk of getting an overdose of magic. Maybe you´ll come back with the magical disease and drool glowing blue holes in the carpet. Can´t have that."
Jinx felt her heart sink with disappointment. "When do I come back?"
"As soon as possible..." The Minion grabbed her arm and spread his own arms, so the iridescent black membrane became spanned. A gust of sudden, probably magical wind and a heartbeat later they were flying back up to the real world.

It felt remarkably freeing to just sail along Everlight´s shores, instead of ploughing through the dark jungles behind those beaches with a flashing blade for every third step.
Sayron stood at the wheel with one hand and enjoyed the feeling he got when things ended. His task on Everlight was completed. The only thing left for him was to finish off the fled elven slaves from Ignavopolis, but he´d do that later. What mattered now was speed, and the seven red sails aided him sufficiently in that. The Shadow Bringer was at least three times as fast as that piece of firewood from Nordberg with which he´d reached the island. That ship had been a fishing boat, not at all meant for the open sea. This ship, however, had already made the journey once.
He planned to sail around the south of the sacred island, back to the Reef Gates. If he strained his eyes he could see the irregular shapes of the reefs behind the sea mist, everywhere on the horizon. There was only one passage, and that lay on the west side. Then, as they´d picked up Jinx, they´d sail back east and to the Empire.
Closer than the reefs lay a second, gigantic island. Sayron knew this was called Little Everlight, probably broken off the larger part. Unoriginal, but the elves probably had a nicer name for it - which he didn´t want to know.
He turned to Everlight itself. There, above the trees, rose insanely jagged peaks. The tsingy nearby the spider temple. Sayron smiled at the memory of the time he´d seen those rock peaks for the first time and promptly turned around to march into the opposite direction.
The Overlord raised a hand and let the lightning flash down. Then his magic had been much weaker. Training in the magic room, and getting to know his powers better, had helped him a whole lot. He wondered how Jinx would return. Stronger? More useful? Hopefully her head wouldn´t get too big.
Sayron blinked. No, Jinx was loyal to him, a horde leader. She had a high status, but it was the status of a high-ranking Minion, nothing more. A girl that had come washing up like a dead rat and had even been stopped by a wound of a Kiret spear in the beginning would never be more than that.

Jinx kept bugging Gnarl so badly the advisor jumped back into the magical abyss with her that very same day. This time Jinx controlled her fall, and speared into the whiteness with her feet forward. She even expected the landing once the colours started appearing.
"Pick another direction," the now black Minion advised. "Synn won´t like it if you bother her for a second time."
"How do I know where I´ve already been?"
"You´ll know. You just feel it. Follow your own magical compass."
Jinx looked around and chose a random direction that felt good for her. She hoped she wouldn´t bump into Synn again.
"Try not to attract anything carnivorous," Gnarl called after her. "I might not be able to ascend fast enough." His chuckling followed her for a long time.
It took longer than the previous time before one colour started dominating the others, like the entity that resided here rather remained hidden. This time it was a very dark green getting the upper hand. Jinx stiffened. Again, it wasn´t her own magic, but she kept walking nonetheless. She was very curious who she´d meet this time.
Ahead, some particles of the magic solidified and became black. They also changed form, until they resembled small circling pieces of basalt, exactly like the huge chunks of rock tumbling around the Netherworld Tower itself. They kept flying around as a figure rose up in their midst, gleaming in a green haze, with inky black eyes.
It was a large, muscular man in a seemingly steel armour with black details, maybe obsidian. In his right hand he carried an enormous warhammer.
"Greetings," his voice sounded. "Speak up, what´s your name?"
"Jinx of the Netherworld," Jinx answered again. "And yours?"
The man uttered a rumbling laugh. "Guts. I have no name, as you know very well. The name of my bearer was Atrej."
A second Darklord. Jinx´ eyes gleamed as she bowed to the Overlord. "Do you know where I can find my own magic?"
"Inside this room," was Atrej´s answer. "If you haven´t found yourself yet, you didn´t look good enough." His black eyes narrowed. "You haven´t looked at all."
Jinx blinked. "What do you mean?"
"That skin? The only miracle here is that you´ve come down only now. I wish you the best of luck in your quest." The little chunks of basalt started dispersing. "Send my regards to the green Minions, will you..."
Jinx nodded silently and only turned as the green glow had also vanished. Synn, Atrej. Who would be next? She shivered and walked back to Gnarl. She knew this would be the last time she entered the room today.

"His regards to the green Minions?" Gnarl laughed as they were back on the bridge in the Tower. "Atrej? Funny guy. He practically was one himself. So even his magic still feels connected to them. Interesting."
"You remember them, don´t you? The Darklords?"
"I´ve fought side by side with them, yes."
"Wow," Jinx whispered. "That´s insane."
"Quite. That peak, Dragonspire? It took us days to climb it."
"You fought in the battle for Dragonspire!"
"Of course. I can still hear the creaking of my poor knees as I arrived before their gates. And I was considerably younger back then."
Jinx blinked. "Didn´t you fly?"
Gnarl looked back at her, a gleam in his now dimmed, old eyes. "I can´t just let those wings flop out, you know. Only on... special occasions." The advisor grimaced and remembered the shards of a magnificent stained glass window, tumbling behind him in a four kilometer dive to solid ground. "By the way, I took my true shape only a couple of times," Gnarl said quickly.
Jinx walked back to the Overlord´s chambers with him. "You are no brown Minion at all. Never were either."
"I´m grey. An age like mine has the habit of doing that to you."
"You belong to neither of the clans. Mortis? He spoke of his old horde leader. Zap called you the Hiveless One."
"Better not stick your nose into business that can bite it off," Gnarl countered.

Little Everlight disappeared behind the high cliffs of the larger island later that day. The Shadow Bringer sailed out of the small strait between the islands and came into more open waters.
Sayron looked at a couple of greens on the lower deck, busy pulling pieces of translucent, scaly skin off their arms and shoulders with their nails and sharp teeth. The Minions were all gradually shedding a layer of skin, probably because of the radiation of the Sentinels they´d had cast over them a few days back at the fortress.
The Overlord just started to regret the fact Gnarl was still busy in the magic room as the advisor´s voice suddenly bombarded his ears.
"Good evening, Master!"
"Gnarl," the Overlord nodded. "And? How´s she doing?"
Gnarl coughed. "Oh, fine." Jinx just landed in front of the throne room entrance and was clearly listening. "She hasn´t found her magic yet, but she starts to understand how the room works."
"Who did she meet?" the Overlord asked curiously.
"Lady Synn and Lord Atrej." Gnarl just hoped Sayron wouldn´t ask about Jinx´ true form. He might not be able to lie.
Sayron opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment there was a loud bump and a shock coursed through the Shadow Bringer. Something had rammed the ship.
The Overlord drew his sword at once, but he didn´t let go of the wheel. He whistled. The first Minion who came running was Clout, and Sayron handed over the wheel to him to go and watch at the rail. Instantly something rammed the ship from the other side. As the Overlord bent over the water something horrible was staring up at him, a head that was all mouth, filled with needle-sharp teeth. Small black fish eyes stood above it, and long fins fanned out on both sides.
Then it was gone and the prow creaked under a new thump. An enormous splash made him spin around.
Before their bowsprit a gigantic creature jumped out of the sea, fishlike and with a long, muscular tail covered in blue-green scales. The scales continued on the upper body, but two stubby arms with webbed, rudimentary hands betrayed what this creature really was.
"A mermaid, Sire! A variant of the inner sea! We´ve been lucky we didn´t run into those with the Horizonbreaker!"
Sayron stared at sea and followed the creature. It swam around the ship with alarming speed. "Can it break through the prow?"
"I don´t know, Sire. Killing it would be a good idea if possible."
A new thud, but the wood didn´t give out yet. "As soon as possible," Gnarl added.
"Minions!"
Various horde members came running for him, but not all the way to the rail. Mainly Kniff stayed well away from the water - he knew better than anyone what the smaller mermaids from the reefs could do, and this one was far bigger.
"Taunt it. Try to get it on deck," the Overlord spoke hurriedly. "Damage to the rail is no problem, as long as the prow stays intact." He quickly looked back - somewhere in the west lay the wreck of his last ship, the Horizonbreaker. He already started to get attached to the Shadow Bringer and wasn´t planning to let this ship go down as well.
As the mermaid swam into the ship for the fourth time Scabies jumped over the rail in a fit of insane recklessness and hung from it by his feet. He yelled at the water and slashed down with one of his swords.
The mermaid turned away from the prow and jumped up. Minc just managed to pull the pirate back by his ankles before the gigantic maw closed itself around his shoulders. Scabies thudded to the deck on his back and looked up into the eyes of the Minion behind him. That was Stripe.
The former horde leader slapped the pirate in the face, hard. "Idiot," he growled. "Minions don´t do suicide."
Scabies´ ears fell down limply beneath his bandana. "Sorry."
"Make yourself useful," his bigger clan member snarled with a gesture to the rail, where the water was spraying onto the deck with the violence with which the mermaid threw herself onto one spot in the prow.
Minc hung half over the rail, his bow at the ready. He fired, but the arrow splashed into the waves uselessly. He reached back into his makeshift quiver. He´d only managed to save five arrows after the battle for Ignavopolis.
Next to him, another Minion suddenly fell over the rail. The mermaid turned her head abruptly and jumped out of the sea in a fountain of salt water, to snap her jaws shut around him. A last yell, and the Minion was gone.
Minc looked around him with wide eyes. Then he caught a gust of a terrible smell. The stench of a green.
A giggle. On his left Rampus tumbled into the ocean.
The Minion with the bow ignored the hammering of his heart and aimed without thinking of anything else, such as the fact he might be next to be kicked into the ocean without any reason. He let his arrow fly. Straight into the black, soulless fish eye of the mermaid rising from the water to catch Rampus.
The jaws snapped shut and Rampus´ body was crushed with a terrible crack, but from between those teeth a rattling howl rose up, and the mermaid disappeared in a maelstrom of foam, writhing so wildly the ship swayed to and fro. Minc hung over slightly further and spanned a new arrow, but the fish creature didn´t return. No new thud against the prow came, and gradually the water, too, calmed down. The creature was gone.
A short giggle made the Minion turn. The scratch marks of every time three claws worked their way up along one of the masts. A moment later Stabbit materialized atop a high spar.
Minc nodded to himself. He´d have to keep an eye on that unpredictable maniac.

After a restless night during which she kept waking up, convinced of the fact her entire skin once again glistened like it'd done in the magic room, Jinx rolled over on the blanket in her barrack in the unholy early morning. She could wake up this early, for Kniff was sailing with the Shadow Bringer and wouldn´t get one of his morning tempers if she did. She stood up, grabbed her boots and bandana, walked to the door of their humble home and flung her rope around the small wooden pole she´d hammered into the other edge of the abyss long, long ago.
On the floating rock she bent over so far she lay almost flat on the polished basalt. The rock soared to the Tower like a comet and docked. Jinx didn´t take time to go into the throne room, but just waved to Gnarl - the advisor never seemed to sleep and was already plotting out new routes on a large world map, and probably assault plans for Arcadiopolis itself too - and then climbed up the outer wall of the Tower.
She knew Gnarl would arrive in the magic room before she did, and indeed, as she pushed open the black marble doors he was already there, his grey-cloaked back to her, looking into the abyss.
Jinx hesitated, thinking of kicking him good to see if he could show his wings in here as well. She was convinced of the fact he flew up every time, so he could arrive before she did. But in his old, grey form Gnarl didn´t have any trace of membranes between his stiff, old limbs. She didn´t ask. Just like in the first days she still didn´t doubt the fact the advisor, despite his age, could severely harm her if he wanted to.
Gnarl turned. "Are you ready? Do you think you can find yourself this time?"
"Not more or less than the two previous visits," Jinx answered.
"Good enough." He outstretched a grey hand with long fingers. "Ladies first."
So I won´t see how you can also arrive down there before I do, Jinx thought. Still she stepped past him and tumbled into the white light.

"You know how it works," she heard as she´d scrambled back to her feet on the whirling surface of the actual magic room. She turned, to see the bizarre true form of the old advisor. He outstretched his arms backwards and stretched the magnificent, iridescent black membrane, as if he was about to fly up at any moment. Intricate patterns, black on black, glistened in the multicoloured light.
"I hope so," Jinx answered. Then she turned away from him and started walking.
This time she didn´t just choose a direction, but followed the colours. Though they danced around her like a lunatic rainbow she still tried to focus on purple, the bright purple she knew her own magic would be made of. She didn't seem to succeed. The purple floating just in front of her one moment was shooting to her left the next and then lay right behind her. Still it started dominating eventually. However, it wasn´t the pure purple she was looking for. This purple was dark, almost black. Maybe that wasn´t such a bad thing, Jinx thought. Her own skin had the exact same colour.
As the colour started swallowing everything like dark clouds, however, she knew this was not her magic. Before she knew it she was standing in the middle of a whirlwind of a strange, fearsome purple, even with flashes of black woven through it. The temperature rose and the air around her seemed to press together, sultry like before a thunderstorm in the real world.
Then a lightning bolt struck right in front of her, emanating an unholy, dark light.
Before her eyes the form of a man with long, pale hair rose up. In his right hand he carried a strange sword, black even through the dark purple haze and slightly iridescent, like Gnarl´s wings. He wore a magnificent helmet shaped like a horned dragon´s head. Jinx knew that helmet - she'd touched it in the room where the old armour of the Overlords lay.
She sunk to one knee, trembling. "You´re Lord Vergal. The Dragon´s Son."
"Vergal Garghan," it sounded with a voice like honey. "That is my bearer´s name."
"I´m sorry I disturbed your slumber," Jinx stammered. "I´m searching for my own magic."
"You... You have the feel of Minions about you." There was slight surprise in the voice.
"I´m a horde leader, Lord." This magic didn´t seem to mind being addressed as its bearer himself. Jinx felt strangely light as she realized she was almost talking to Lord Vergal Garghan himself, the third but also the very first of the Darklords. She had hoped and feared to meet him.
"A human horde leader? Interesting," the legendary Overlord´s voice resounded. "Who is the current Master of this Tower?"
Jinx swallowed. "Lord Sayron, son of Vessperion."
"Ah, Vessperion. Good man, judging by his magic." Vergal´s magic started paling without warning. "Now, leave me. There is no more time to be floating in here. I have business to attend to with my bearer."
The shape of the magic disappeared, and a heartbeat later his purple clouds, too, faded away. Jinx was surrounded by the colour storm again. She slowly rose from her kneeling position and swallowed, still trembling.
Business with his bearer?
Wasn´t Vergal long dead? It had to be at least a thousand years ago the Darklords had ruled the world...

That evening Minc climbed up to the crow´s nest, to Kniff, with a piece of loose sail cloth from the hold. The Minion permanently taking the task of lookout also slept there, in an improvised hammock, and had done so since his days on the Nordbergian ship and the Horizonbreaker. He was even lying in it right now.
Kniff averted his eyes from the sun setting behind Everlight´s cliffs and looked at his clan member questioningly. Minc looked around carefully, and then back to the other Minion. "Don´t trust it."
"What not?"
"The greens."
Kniff put up his ears, in an even more surprised gesture. "What?"
Minc narrowed his eyes. "Didn´t look when mermaid attacked? Drozz and Rampus fell into sea."
"Because of thumping against ship."
"No. Heard giggle."
Kniff widened his eyes. "...Stabbit? No!"
"Slept below deck last night. Giggled whole night. Tired of it. Don´t feel like getting throat slit when sleeping." Minc lowered his ears in apology. "Don´t mind?"
"Course not. Sleep here." Kniff outstretched an arm in invitation, and Minc tied his sail cloth next to the first hammock.
"Thanks."

"How are you coming along?" Velvet asked worriedly as her daughter came flying to the Tower with the floating rock the next day. She was already waiting on the platform, a rare event considering she rarely left her own chambers. Those were big enough, after all, and Velvet had her own business to attend to - she´d taken all of the bizarre objects from her Nordbergian home with her.
Jinx jumped onto the platform. "Still no result," she spoke in apology.
"Don´t be disappointed. You´re not doing it for me." The look in Velvet´s eyes said something else.
"I´ve met three powerful Overlords... maybe it´s a matter of time now."
"Good luck, dear. You don´t have much time left," Velvet warned.

"Now you´ve met all three Darklords," Gnarl warned her when they were standing in the magic room. "You´ll do well not to meet them again."
"I know," Jinx nodded nervously. "I´d rather not see Synn and Vergal again. And I don´t want to invoke Atrej´s irritation either."
Gnarl slightly lowered his head and looked at her with a grin. "You need to stop fooling around. You´re not trying hard enough."
Jinx huffed in incense. "Watch out, you."
"You watch out. You don´t know what I can do to you in this form."
"Oh, gods." Jinx demonstratively turned and walked into the storm for the fourth time. This time. This time for sure.
She didn´t follow the colours again. She hadn´t found Vergal´s purple by following the pure violet, so this time she chose a random direction again and hoped her path wouldn´t lead her to a Darklord.
It took a long while before one colour started to dominate the others, even longer than with Atrej. But when it started, it was the most eye-catching change of all.
Around her, the world went blood-red. The temperature rose noticeably with every next step, until Jinx felt like she was standing inside the lava pits at the forge. She took off her bandana and wiped over her burning forehead.
Then fire started to leak from the bottom of the magic room. A rough circle of flames surrounded her, meters across. Jinx stopped walking.
"Who´s there?" she asked uncertainly. Which hellish ruler could have possessed this magic? She wasn´t sure whether she wanted to know, but she couldn´t get away without burning alive in the circle of fire.
Then a gigantic jet of flame sprayed up in the middle of the circle and a shape took form. It was made of pure fire, but Jinx recognized a three-pronged helmet, armour resembling Sayron´s and a cloak that fluttered in its own hot air currents. A flaming axe was laid over the broad shoulder, an experienced move she knew of the current Overlord.
"I might be asking you the same," a voice sizzled.
Jinx widened her eyes. "M-my name is Jinx," she stammered. "Are you..."
Eyes, the brightest flames of all, stared into hers with a piercing, way too familiar expression in them. "My name, or at least the name of my bearer, is Lord Vessperion, ruler of the Five Abysses and slayer of the Forgotten God." The magical mirror image slightly bowed his helmeted head. "My bearer feels he recognizes you."
Jinx´ heart was hammering like crazy. This was the magic of her uncle, Sayron´s father. And the magic had a connection with its bearer, far away in the underworld. "I´m the daughter of Velvet, Rose´s sister," she managed to utter.
"Ah, Velvet´s daughter. Yes, now I remember..." Vessperion´s magic looked over Jinx´ head. "You´re looking for your own magic, aren´t you? Just like my son."
Jinx´ breath faltered. Was the former Overlord speaking through his magic now? It seemed like it, because Sayron was not the son of a magical mirror image. "Yes," she spoke. "Yes, I´m looking for my own magic." She scraped her courage together. "Do you know where I can find... her?"
Vessperion lowered his flaming gaze, straight into his cousin´s eyes. "Yes," he then spoke. "I do know that. Follow me."
The circle of flame was extinguished and the redness faded away, so Jinx was back in the madness of every colour she could think of. However, there was a single flame still burning, right in front of her. "Follow me," her uncle´s voice sizzled again. Then the flame shot away.
Jinx ran after it. Finally! Finally she´d find what she was looking for! She shot through the colour storm, paying no attention to the sudden flashes of a dominating sky blue, sulfury yellow, green. Gusts of colour whirled out of her reach. Then she saw something black.
"Gnarl! Move!"
The Minion dove out of the flame´s way just in time. Jinx rocketed after it, determined not to lose Vessperion. She cast off her ropes in a quick decision. "Take good care of them! I want them back undamaged!"
She couldn´t hear Gnarl´s answer because of the roaring of the flame. She bent over slightly while running, her fists clenched and straight in the fire´s wake. Her eyes were burning.
Light blue started dominating, and for a moment Jinx thought she saw northern lights dancing, far above. Then it faded and she ran into a world that was filled with a bright, lively purple.
Purple! It slid around her in patterns changing more swiftly than the wind itself. It became brighter still as Jinx ran on. Her magic was very close...
The flame was still shooting ahead, and though Jinx felt a stabbing pain in her sides she still ran after it. "I´m going to find you," she growled. "I will this time. This time for sure. You´ve escaped me once, but this time I´ll have total control!"
Vessperion´s flame extinguished.
"Are you absolutely sure?"
Jinx crossed her feet on the smooth surface and slid to a standstill. The purple had also come to a halt and whirled around her in gleaming patterns. A couple of lights, with long tails resembling those of comets, drifted around eachother. A form rose.
The form was Jinx.
The girl was panting and her eyes were wide as she stared at her own mirror image - the image of her magic. She was of the same height, wore the same clothes and had the same stubborn expression of which Jinx realized only now she had it on her own face most of the time. There were, however, some fundamental differences. Her magic still held the ropes Jinx had just dropped with Gnarl, and she was made of purple light. Her eyes were radiating with a blinding violet and lacked pupils.
Jinx´ magic folded her arms and grinned. "Finally here, are you? Ready to claim me, little girl?"
"Watch your tongue, you," the real Jinx huffed, catching her breath. She hesitated, then outstretched a hand. "What happens now?"
The purple form stepped forward. "Now, everything begins." The magic took the waiting hand and turned itself into Jinx´ body.
A storm of purple comets got up and twisted itself around Jinx like an insane tornado. Involuntarily she spread her arms and threw back her head. In each of her hands, an orb of purple fire appeared.
Then it was over, just as suddenly as it had begun. Jinx fell down and instantly went through her knees, her head on her chest and completely out of breath. She slowly brought a hand in front of her face. Before she could even blink, a large, gleaming purple flame was flickering between her fingers.
She jumped up and spun around, so her magic traced a gleaming trail through the air. The purple patterns in the magic room had disappeared. Jinx´ magic was entirely inside her own body.
The horde leader danced through the colour storm and cheered in joy.

"Gnarl! Gnarl!"
The black Minion had already turned to her and his yellow eyes burned through the colour storm. "Did you find her?"
"Yes!" Jinx skidded to a halt before him, raised a hand and let the purple comet ignite itself. She laughed wildly. "I feel like Sayron!" She lobbed the purple light straight up and watched it explode with a monstrous grin. "Never thought I´d get this back!"
"I have to disappoint you. The magic is at its strongest here, as I said. In the real world you have a lot left to learn. But you can easily do so on the Master´s flag ship..." Gnarl chuckled as he saw Jinx´ face. "No worry. The Master is still growing as well. Here in the magic room he resembled Lord Vergal, at the peak of his might. He´s getting closer to that in the real world every day. You´ll grow as well."
Jinx took up her ropes. "Take me up. I want to see it."

As they were back on the bridge in the private quarters, and Gnarl was his grey old self once more, Jinx raised a hand again. Here the purple comet was a small star, still capable of wrecking the carved webs of a blue Minion head on the wall as she threw it. She ignored the incensed looks of the Minions close by and strained herself. This time the spark was bigger already.
"I´ll learn," she said determinedly. She tiredly blinked her eyes.
"Not too often," Gnarl warned. "However funny it might be, especially in the beginning the magic can claim so much of your energy you´ll fall flat on your face of exhaustion in the middle of a siege. I advise to leave it alone for some time."
"Maybe."
Gnarl looked at her sideways. "You know what day it is, don´t you? To the throne room with you. You´re just in time with finishing this business."
Jinx brightened up instantly. "Today?"
"Go and join your horde, missy!"

Lord Sayron shielded his eyes as he looked straight into the high sun. Familiar doors of reef stone, rising up a hundred and fifty meters above water level, lay ahead of the Shadow Bringer´s prow.
A while later, the large ship sailed between them and the Overlord could see the four Key Stones again, glowing with their own colours as if nothing had changed since the moment, so long ago, they´d opened the gates for him. Events that had caused the remains of the Horizonbreaker, probably on the bottom of the ocean now, to still be damaged, the scratches of the rough stone doors still etched in the wood.
He looked up at the platform where the green Stone was casting its light over the bay, high above him on his right. Maybe Morvan´s body was still lying there, the elven guardian of that stone. Jinx had saved his hide up there, and he had thanked her by brainwashing her. Fortunately it hadn´t succeeded. A voluntary warrior was of far more use than a brainless slave.
Why didn´t he succeed? He still didn´t know.
The green Minions, the last flaps of loose skin still on their backs, looked around alertly. After this, they would have really left Everlight for the first time, for the first time since their ancestors made the journey after Vessperion´s fall. Stabbit seemed to be standing slightly apart from the rest, and was constantly vibrating between visible and invisible as well. Not a single other Minion seemed to want to get close to him, especially not the two residing in the crow´s nest.
The Shadow Bringer had more difficulties getting through the reef than the two other ships, probably because the Empire hadn´t known of the existence of this atoll and hadn´t built the ships for it either. Luckily not a single mermaid dared show herself again, very fortunate as the reef mermaids were proven to be venomous. Kniff shivered as they passed the place where he and Jinx had fallen into the water. He looked up from the crow´s nest and could just see the top of the temple on the rocks, rising above the trees. Where he´d bowed for Jinx...
Ahead of them, a blue flash rose to the sky. Something, or someone, had used the Tower Gate to the reefs. Kniff´s eyes lit up. He nudged Minc, next to him in the crow´s nest. "Jinxie´s back!"
Minc nodded and followed the rising flash with his eyes. "You think we have magical leader?"
Kniff didn´t answer. He felt like he´d done during his first sea journey, when he´d constantly been asking himself how he´d see her back. He suddenly grinned. "Yea," he said. "Very magical."

Jinx stepped out of the gate and looked around. A grin was plastered across her face. There was the very first tree she´d ever tested her ropes on. And the stream where she´d seen the Nordbergian ship´s white sail disappear. She turned a slow circle. And there was the open sea beyond the reefs.
Open sea! Never had she sailed the real ocean. She´d been raised in a river delta and her journey over the shallow Everlightian inner sea had been her first acquaintance, but she knew the open sea was something else. There awaited unpredictable winds, sunken civilizations, sea monsters and deserted islands. Open sea... She wondered if she had pirate blood, she was that happy with the prospect.
And then there was a glimpse of red between the green. A creaking of wood, ropes and seven red sails reached her ears, and above it all were the Minion voices.
The crow´s nest rose above the canopy. She held a hand above her eyes and grinned. Kniff was waving at her wildly. She raised a hand. "Ahoy!"
"Come aboard," Sayron´s voice thundered. "We head out!"
"This time," she whispered. "This time I get invited." She enjoyed it again. Then the arcanium spikes hit the wood of the prow with hard raps and Jinx jumped into the water, to swiftly haul herself up along her ropes. As if she was climbing over the Tower´s prow balcony she hauled herself over the rail and then she was aboard, on the weathered boards of the deck. The ship sailed on and Jinx felt the wind pull on. The loose ends of the ropes she was now rolling in were swaying gently.
Then the prow worked its way through the last mangroves of the reef. The first sails caught the wind again blowing free. At the bowsprit Scabies raised a sword and cheered.
One by one all their sails filled with seawind, and the ship gained speed. The Shadow Bringer leapt forward, like the ship couldn´t wait to return to her own harbors either.
"Arcadiopolis! Here we come!"
Jinx felt a heavy hand on her shoulder and abruptly turned, as her broad grin diminished. Sayron was standing right in front of her.
"Do you have your magic?"
Jinx nodded and outstretched a hand, the palm up. She blinked her eyes, and there was a spark, small, even smaller than in the Netherworld, but of a purple almost hurting her eyes. "I have it. I´m planning to get it as strong as in the magic room before we dock in the Empire."
"That´s the spirit. I´m going to help you with that." It was a conclusion, not an offer.
Jinx nodded again. She could see in the Overlord´s flaming eyes she was a lot more than when they´d sailed past here for the first time. He wouldn´t dare brainwash her again now.
"Thank you, Lord!"

In the Netherworld Crawler looked out over the sea of vines above the green Hive, satisfied. Barely a week before he´d lowered himself out of it on a thread of black silk, and already he had a task he never wanted to drop again. It had everything to do with silk, but white this time.
The vineweb had become a true web, but now of spider silk. And he was the one with the chief responsibility over the mounts of his own clan.
Not all spiders of Everlight had been brought over, of course. That´d have been impossible, there were way too many and there would always be a large colony in the rocks around the temple lake, and probably even more on the rest of the island. But the group that was brought here and was now under his care, would be especially tended to by his clan... maybe with very interesting results.
The black arthropods were scrambling around between the vines, constructing webs and hunting the small species of vermin that had thought they´d be safe here. Some even seemed to be building nests.
Crawler contently stroked the vine he was grasping for support and strolled through the stalks, inspecting some spiders as he went. He hoped they´d fully adapt to the Minions - the upperworld horde had ridden them without too much trouble, but the newborns now training with them experienced some difficulty with the spiders that didn´t keep their silk to themselves or snapped out to their riders with strong mandibles. They´d continue to make the mounts get used to their riders until they could shoot through the Netherworld with more agility than the reds - only then Crawler would be truly satisfied. He remembered what Ramul had said to him before the absolute spider expert had departed to the upper world for some months. "Take care of them. Make them strong, make them agile. Counting on you." He´d said this with his claw knives right under Crawler´s chin. Then he´d patted his spider´s head for the last time and had left. The spider even had a name - Letho. Crawler didn´t dare guess what would become of him if he´d disappoint the upperworld fighter, one of the four elders even.
They´d become an army that could compete with the wolf riders. He was sure of it.

"The first thing you need to know it that magic doesn´t grow by itself," Sayron grinned in the shadows of his helmet. "You need to work for it."
"Did you?" Jinx wondered. "You were flinging pure lightning around when I was running after you clad in sealskin and fainting with the smallest wound."
"My Minions had an... envoy of my magic with them when they found me in Nordberg," Sayron admitted. "They found me using it, too. I have had quite a larger amount of time to practice than you will have, but to practice, I had."
"Ah. So I have thirteen years of experience to catch up with."
"That depends on how hard you train." Sayron raised a hand. "Let´s begin." The blue lightning came to life with a crack.
Jinx uncertainly raised her own hand and formed her small star. She pushed as hard as she could, but the magic didn´t even fill the palm of her hand. She noticed all too well how Sayron´s eyes rippled with a silent smile. He was no gentle teacher.
The lightning outstretched a jolting tentacle to Jinx´ hand. She wanted to pull back, all too familiar with the consequences of Sayron´s magic, but stopped as she saw her star reacting. She realized the two kinds of magic were testing eachother, and could almost see the two figures in the magic room circling one another.
The lightning backed away slightly, and the star grew, as if it was pulled on. Instantly Jinx stepped to the right, and before she knew it she and Sayron were tangled up in a fight - though it was no fight full of the clash of weaponry and swift wounds, but one of spraying sparks and bolts of lightning. She dived to the side as the lightning was flung to her and blocked a second bolt in a reflex - to her surprise it ricocheted off the minuscule star in her hand. The sparks that reached their target from her side burned themselves into Sayron´s skin and through his sash. It hurt, she could see that, and it elated her - even though she knew it would take a while before she could make a complete Eradicator disappear save his breastplate.
She had had help back then. And to be frank she knew from who. There was something very strange about the Minions with the black-lined eyes.
The short distraction that thought gave her made that one of Sayron´s bolts suddenly reached its target, and Jinx stiffened completely, enveloped in unbearable, crackling pain. She couldn´t fall, she seemed nailed to the deck. Blue lightning writhed over her skin.
Then, suddenly, it was over and she fell to her hands and knees. Her star faded - the lightning had taken all of her energy.
"Enough for today. You´ll make your progress."
Heavy footsteps told her Sayron was walking past her. It took a long while before she could stand up again.

Later...
Stabbit lay curled in a tangle of ropes below deck. His claws stuck out of his improvised sleeping place and his glowing eyes were half opened. His eyes shot over the rest of the horde, the Minions that had fabricated makeshift beds of their own, and of which some were even asleep. The main part, however, was staring at the ceiling - or him.
They knew why Minc hadn´t slept below deck for a week already. They were bothered by the same. Him.
Almost, the crow´s nest had been festooned with hammocks, and probably the main mast as well. Sayron had caught a group of Minions about to rip the main sail apart to do that, however, and forbidden them. So everyone save the two browns was still sleeping here. Jinx had a place in the first mate´s cabin, where she could still hear what was happening below deck - but she would probably not hear too much tonight, because she had been sleeping unbelievably deep all week, tired of her tasks on board. The horde leader was now responsible for the raising and securing of all seven sails, aside from her trainings with Sayron. She was also the one that had had to repair them as Sayron had noticed the Minions had torn them apart.
Stabbit´s eyes lingered on the ceiling above which the horde leader slept. If only he could climb up there. He missed his spider. His spider, with whom he´d sped through the entire city of fat people without effort, clawing and biting off body parts to the left and right... he licked over his canines and almost tasted the delicious blood again.
He didn´t understand Fever at all. What fun was there in just destroying? Fear, chaos and madness, that was what it was all about, wasn´t it? Explosions were a waste of perfect amusement...
He missed his amusement even more than he missed his spider.
It had been fun to kick the two browns overboard. Their screams and the cracking noises as they broke between the jaws of the mermaid were still resounding in his frayed ears. But that was more than a week ago already.
He missed his amusement.
A heartbeat later there was nobody lying in the tangle of ropes.
The horde members who were still awake looked around them nervously. Simmer and Sear, two reds, perked their ears alertly - they were both very wary of this green Minion.
Then something invisible giggled between them.
Fever shot upright against the wall in the back of the room. "Stabbit...!"

Jinx only jolted awake as there already was a brown Minion standing next to her hammock and almost turning it upside down. "Manky?" she muttered sleepily. "What time is it?" The Minion´s ears were laid flat against the back of his head, she noticed. That made her a little more alert already. "Manky, what´s going on?"
"Acrid, Sear, Raw," the Minion spoke quickly. He looked over his shoulder. "Come on!" He pulled her out, to the deck, and then down to below it. Now she could also hear the noises of a fight. Why those hadn´t woken her was a mystery to her.
"What´s going on here?!" she yelled, looking out over the chaos. Browns, reds and greens were seemingly hacking around blindly, to the empty air and eachother. Or, no; there were mainly browns and reds - the greens had circled a piece of emptiness and only a few were fighting the other two clans who were seemingly in total panic. Also - her heart hammered faster - quite a few dead Minions were lying on the floor, among whom Acrid, Sear and Raw as Manky had said. They had the marks of very sharp teeth in their necks and long, deep wounds over their entire bodies. Sear was missing an arm. The limb lay against a wall some distance away and its light was still fading.
Jagged, part of the circle holding back something invisible, looked back at Jinx briefly. His eyes were widened. "Jinx!"
She ran to the circle. A stench, even worse than that of the rest of the greens, slapped her in the face. "What. Is going on here."
"Stabbit..."
She elbowed herself through the circle, unfurled her ropes and wanted to throw herself to the spot she thought the Minion to be, but someone beat her to it. Fever had come after her immediately as she broke the circle. He stepped to one point with great certainty and a second later Stabbit became visible. Glowing hands grabbed the green Minion´s arms. He was covered in the blood of other Minions. And now he was visible he was also giggling, despite the pain Fever had to be causing him. A clawed hand was raised and Stabbit licked the blood off his nails.
"That why Kniff and Minc sleep in crow´s nest," a brown behind her muttered. "Completely insane!"
Jinx had to agree with him. Stabbit was completely insane. She stepped forward, grabbed the green Minion at the throat and lifted him, out of Fever´s grip. "What do you think you´re doing?" she growled, her face inches from his.
Stabbit chuckled and breathed out good and proper. Jinx had to turn her face away and coughed chokingly as the stench became too much for her. She didn´t let go, however. "You... need to have... a good fight with your leader," she uttered. "Jagged, teach him a lesson, will you. If you want my advice... he´s valuable, he fights like a lunatic and doesn´t even know pain, but he´s not exactly trustworthy and obeys no one. Change that, for all out sakes. Change this unpredictable killing machine into our killing machine."
The green leader nodded, his eyes narrow. "Good advice." He bared his claws and nodded to Stabbit. "Release him."
Jinx disgustedly threw Stabbit off her and against the wall. There, he wasn´t jumped by Jagged, but Fever. The red didn´t grab the insane Minion by the arms this time, but at his throat, and the stench worsened as the scaly flesh started scorching. Stabbit hissed in pain and stared at Fever with wide eyes.
"Can´t," he lisped, to Jinx´ surprise - Stabbit never spoke!
"Just you see," Fever answered with eyes just as wide. Now the horde leader paid attention to it, she realized the eyes of the two were always the same. The red tightened his grip. "We only need one heart," he spat in Stabbit´s face. He ignored the blood that ran over his own shoulder as the green buried his claws in his neck. "Act normal or I´ll destroy you... completely." He snorted, so his nostrils flared menacingly. His hand lit up brighter as well and the area of scorched scales around Stabbit´s throat was enlarged. The gruesome grin around the canines had frozen completely for a while now. Swelling blisters were appearing all over Stabbit´s shoulders and chest.
For a few heartbeats it was deathly silent as the two stared in eachother´s black-lined eyes. Then the grin disappeared. Stabbit lowered his ears.
Fever let go. Stabbit´s entire neck and chest were burned raw and were bleeding from between the remains of his scales. The red walked out of the circle and didn´t look back.
Jagged gave his clan member a last slash over his chest, but Stabbit didn´t seem about to move again tonight. He stayed there, a shrunken pile of Minion, and didn´t even react to his wounds.
Jinx stayed there looking for a moment, but turned away as it became clear Stabbit was really no danger anymore. She turned to Hoarse. He was sitting crouched with two other reds. One of them was dead, and missing an arm. Sear.
Jinx walked to them. She swallowed. "Did that..."
"Happen before his death," the other red, Simmer, muttered. Him and Sear had been inseparable. Hoarse patted his shoulder.
Jinx lowered her eyes. If a Minion was mutilated before his death, Mortis wouldn´t be able to make it undone. Sear had lost his arm forever. That was one of the worst things that could befall a red Minion, quick and agile as the clan was. "I´m sorry."
Hoarse looked up. "Throw him out of horde."
Simmer averted his eyes from his leader. He knew it was nessecary - Sear´s place would be taken by a red that could still climb and throw fire with both his hands.
"Maybe Giblet can take him in," Jinx proposed. She knew her brown ´clan member´ was always looking for reds who were crazy enough to keep the lava pits in the forge hot and liquid. "Sear won´t have to climb there."
Hoarse nodded and stood up. "Luckily Acrid still in one piece," he spoke. And with that things were settled.
That same night the bodies were cast into sea. The water hissed as Sear´s blood flowed into it.
From that night on, Jinx slept below deck and no longer in the first mate´s cabin.

More than a week. Not much longer.
It seemed longer. Time slowed when you were in a cage. Food shortage and too little room to even breathe properly didn´t help either.
The Minions of Nordberg wanted to fight back, but their kind wasn´t built for this situation and many of them had become dazed. They hadn´t given up, and if the cages would be opened now they´d be far more dangerous than before, but now... they didn´t even have weapons, and the humans and elves now running their city stayed well out of claw reach.
Scrunt was staring ahead miserably for a few days now. There, glistening in the sunlight against the thick wall of a Nordbergian house, was his halberd.
Now, however, he looked back at the rest of his cage, and the Minions he still commanded, by the unwritten laws of the Netherworld. He let his eyes slide over his inferiors and took his decision.
"Rags. Get over here."
Minions don´t do suicide...

Mortis started. He´d been busy staring melancholically at the polished plateau reserved for his Hive - the Hive he hadn´t seen in twenty years and of which he had no idea where she was. He was no longer dependent of the life source, but he never spoke of the reason. He preferred not to think of it either. But now the Master had actually set sail to find his clan everything came back. He´d wondered whether his horde leader was still alive, and if so, if Zap would still address him with his old name, Murk.
But now there came a sound from behind him, and he turned around abruptly. That wasn´t supposed to happen.
A lighting shade drifted to the Well, but contrary to all other cases this one made a sound. A stretched cry, no more than the memory of a voice, but clearly audible to him.
"Maaaaaaaaasteeeeeeeeeeerrrrrr..."
This Minion had to have died with a purpose and still be very determined...
"...Rags?" Mortis spoke in surprise.

The next morning, the man assigned to feed the caged Minions came running back to Florian Greenheart, who´d set up his tent in front of Borius´ villa with his Soldiers. The man had wide eyes and was breathing rapidly. "Florian, it´s a mess at the cages!"
As the elf had descended the hill his pointy ears flew up. The furthest cage was circled in blood splatters and there was a body within the bars. It was completely clawed open.
The man behind him shook his head in disgust. "Seems we´re not feeding ´em enough. Now they start on eachother."
"No," the elf muttered. The Minions stared back at him with something of both mockery and determination in their eyes. "No!" He turned to the Nordbergian. "Don´t you see? One of them is dead!"
"Yeah, good morning, I can see that!"
"I told you they couldn´t be killed!" Florian grasped his head. "Now the Demon Lord knows of his failure here... throw the cages into the river! Then he´ll at least have fewer warriors as he arrives here!"
Scrunt grabbed the bars of his cage as his prison was hauled onto a cart. "Master is coming!" he yelled. "And we come back!"
That day the river carried dozens of little bodies, clad in rat fur, all the way to the overgrown ash heaps of Nordhaven, and on to open sea, where they finally sank. But one of those bodies had been dead for longer, and he alone had been enough to shake Mortis awake and send the resurrecter speeding to the throne room.

A divider walked playful steps over an elaborate sea chart. The gauntleted hand holding it handled it surprisingly gentle.
"Three weeks. That seems like a nice island to stock up on provisions, at that time, what do you think?" A finger, covered in sharp metal, tapped a small speck in the gigantic southern ocean. There was no name, but it was probably more than fit for the purpose Sayron had in mind for it.
Gnarl´s voice answered him. "That seems like a good idea to me, Sire. There is no hunger on board yet, but the hold is getting empty."
"Would anyone have ever been there? It doesn´t even have a name."
"We´ll find out," the advisor chuckled. "Skulls on the beach... Oh, wait a minute, Sire. What is it, Mortis? What are you doing here?"
"Master," a new voice croaked in Sayron´s ear. "There is a Minion from Nordberg in my Well. He was screaming."
"Must have run into the river because he couldn´t restrain his wolf," Gnarl wafted it away. "Get away from the pool, you."
Mortis had to be determined, because he kept talking. "Shades never scream. They don´t even whisper. This Minion has something to tell you, Master. I ask permission to resurrect him and find out."
"You have it," Sayron said, cutting off Gnarl. "If that Minion is making a racket like that I want to meet him."
A few minutes later Mortis´ voice sounded again. "Master... now all Nordbergian Minions have entered the Well." The blue Minion gulped. "This is Rags, the only one I pulled out."
"Master!"
"What happened up there?" Sayron asked with a suddenly rough voice.
"Elves... caught us in burning nets! Put us in cages, have taken over Nordberg!"
"Elves?! What elves?" He suddenly realized something. "Florian Greenheart!"
"You really need to kill that accursed treehugger, Sire," Gnarl growled. "Rags, your clan members have killed you, didn´t they? Those scars don´t look too pretty. Heart and intestines, am I right?"
"Only way," Rags´ raspy voice resounded. "Master... people obey elves, now. Nordberg is lost."
Sayron´s armoured fist cracked the table in two with one slam. "No!" he thundered. "That can´t be! They were loyal to me!"
"Not since we put Kivner away, it seems," Gnarl mumbled, trembling slightly before his Master´s rage, even though it was through the mist pool. He saw Sayron´s eyes reddening slightly more. "And whose idea was that, Gnarl?"
The advisor gulped. "Mine, Sire. Without Velvet in his head he could have..."
"Yes, yes. And that worked out fine without him, now did it? We have to go back. Nordberg is mine!"
"I fear that won´t be possible, Sire. Firstly, conquering a town for a second time is rarely possible without burning it to the ground, and secondly, you'll have to start focusing on the Empire now. Nordberg was only for starters, Lord." Gnarl furiously hoped his Master would see this. Of course he especially valued the town where he´d been raised and probably bullied fiercely by the local children, but now they had their arrows aimed for the Empire at last they had no time to lose. Not with small, distant areas like Nordberg.
Sayron remained silent for a moment, so his bloody red eyes were shadowed by his helmet. His fists closed and opened repeatedly. Then he flung a bolt of blue lighting at the wall in rage, so a huge scorch mark was made. "Vessperion curse them! You´re right..."
"When you´re the Emperor they´ll bow to you, Sire!"
Rags slightly lowered his ears - he´d apparently died only to get out of the cage. But as he saw Sayron´s eyes his hope returned.
"No," the Overlord spoke. "Earlier. Even if I have to burn the whole city down."
"As you wish, Sire..."

A few weeks later...
"No fire!"
Crawler furiously lowered himself on the thread of silk his spider was excreting from her abdomen. The red quickly withdrew his hand. It was clearly just a newborn, oblivious of the consequences it would have if he´d tried to haul himself up on another thread of older silk.
"Is flammable, idiot!" He bared his canines at the young Minion, who quickly lowered his ears.
"S-sorry," he stammered in a small voice. "Just wanted to look at the mounts..."
"Jealous?" Crawler grinned from his hanging spider.
The red looked into the mount´s huge, reflecting eyes. "Yes," he admitted.
Crawler laughed. He nodded to the newborn briefly and signaled his spider she could climb back up. He´d been on his way to another part of the - by now - strongly expanded system of vines above the green Hive. The nests.
Further ahead the stalks had become a labyrinth of silk, in which great lumps of whiteness were visible. Hidden eggs - hundreds of them. And all of them would survive, he´d make sure of that.
In the month the Overlord had been gone many of the Minions had gotten familiar with working with the spiders, and even some newborns could handle the mounts now. They clambered around the entire Netherworld, though Gnarl had forbidden them to enter the Tower. The green Minions had taken their scouts over the walls of the great cave even further than the reds, though the spiders didn´t seem to want to go too deep. They also didn´t get past the rivers, like the reds.
Crawler dismounted and walked over to a nearby egg sac, grasping vines to stay upright in the complex web Jinx had started. He stroked the thick layer of white silk. The guarding mother let him - one of the privileges the greens had earned.
Something moved under his hand.
Little jaws worked their way through the silk, pulling it in between the mandibles. Then Crawler was suddenly looking into two huge, pale but already reflecting eyes. Three more pairs ringed the sides and back of the little head.
The Minion laid his hands under the hatching spiderling and carefully pulled it from the nest. He could see more little ones, deeper in the egg sac. He grinned uncontrollably. Now he knew for certain Ramul wouldn´t pull his head off.
With the spiderling in his hands he looked back to the rest of the nests. He could already see movement.
This was their dawn.

Three weeks at sea. Boredom struck mercilessly, even though the amusement they missed was Stabbit´s.
Kniff wanted to come out of the crow´s nest, for he knew there wasn´t anything to see on whichever horizon. The thing was, there was just as little to do on deck. In the hold Scabies and Gloob were probably busy teaching the others card games, and Jagged and Whisper would be cheating gruesomely.
Minc looked back at him from the nest´s rail. "Getting north. Maybe run into kraken."
"Not kraken area," Kniff answered listlessly.
"Is. Teeming with them around Empire."
"Krakens are further north. Nordbergian sea. You never sailed there."
"You see them then?" Minc retorted.
"No, but..."
"See! Krakens have to be here!"
Kniff drew his dagger and the start of a grin pulled at the corners of his mouth. He could use a fight. "Wanna bet?"
Minc was already throwing up a small knife he kept next to his quiver. "With pleasure!"
A tremble went through their high mast. The Minions froze in the middle of their opening attacks. Minc turned back to the rail and looked down to sea.
A monstrous, enormously long form slid beneath the ship, magnificently visible from above. The creature was so large its form would never have been clear from the deck.
Already in the distance a webbed, horselike head cleaved its way beneath the waves. A spiny crest decorated the rest of the writhing body.
"Sea serpent," Minc whispered, next to his clan member and with a pale face.
Kniff followed the sea monster as it disappeared to the horizon and then looked to the side. He grinned. "No krakens. Different territory altogether."
"You win..."

A month at sea, and finally the island Sayron had pointed to as a stop came into sight. It wasn´t big, but there seemed to be recognizable Everlightian trees on it and the mountains were high enough for fresh water. The Shadow Bringer was anchored in the shallow waters of a small bay and a line of deep footprints led across the beach into the undergrowth.
At the end of a long trail of ruined and scorched plants, the Overlord was sitting on a small formation of white rock. His eyes were fixed on the high cliffs of the same material. His reds were climbing up along them, and in all compass directions the other clans were hunting. He would serve as a beacon and the place to take the spoils to. Everyone was glad to have solid ground under their feet again.
That same went for Jinx, deeper in the jungle with a group of browns. She didn´t think there were any real dangers on this island, so she hadn't asked for help from the other horde leaders. She enjoyed being somewhere where it didn´t just smell of salt, wood and unwashed Minions.
A small portion of her horde had returned to the ship with some carcasses of animals they´d bone. They´d dry the main part of the meat in the salt wind so it´d stay edible for longer. The reds were on their way to the mountains, carrying fireproof bags of ancient dragon skin they´d taken with them from the Tower - they´d drag them through the rivers up there from above to fill them.
At this moment Jinx was going deeper into the jungle still because she was surprised with the life on this island. It lay in the middle between Everlight and the mainland, and it wasn´t clear whether it´d ever been attached to any, be it by a bridge of land or the mythical shifting of the world. There were, however, strange species present.
There were birds like the one she was looking at now, for example. The animal had brown feathers, though iridescent blue and purple as it moved. Above that, it was clutching itself flat against its tree trunk - with four claws, both on its legs and wings. As Jinx stepped forward and it fluttered off, it was slow and clumsy. This bird was a climber.
She´d also seen piles of earth where, at one time, a pale, blunt head had stuck out of - with scales. And in the bay where they´d anchored, large animals with many legs had been running over the shallow waters without sinking.
Jinx followed the bird with the clawed wings, pushing ferns out of the way and with her horde behind her, as quiet as Minions could reasonably be on her command. Scabies and his parrot had fortunately returned with their kill.
The canopy thickened and it became darker around them. Jinx looked up. And saw two reflecting pinpricks of light.
She narrowed her eyes. The lights belonged to a little creature, clinging to a tree ahead like the bird had done. His large, almost pure white eyes with contracted pupils were glowing slightly, aside from the reflection. In the sudden gloom she saw large pointy ears, almost like those of the Minions themselves. The claws with which it was holding on also resembled the hands of the browns behind her. Though, as the creature jumped away, she saw a long tail swishing behind it, far longer than even the greens had.
Jinx blinked. Did the creature have cheek spikes? It really resembled a Minion...
She turned to her small horde. "Wait here. I´ll see if I can follow that animal." Then she crept forward in the direction the creature had disappeared into.
Without her horde she could move quicker and without as much noise, though she didn´t enter the trees - she´d lose the creature for certain. It took some time, but eventually she could see the little body pressed against a tree again. A small head turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees to face her, and the bat ears trembled as the little animal flattened them. She crept closer with her eyes averted, and waited for the last moment before looking up into the enormous pale orbs again.
The creature might be small, it really resembled a dark Minion miniature. It did have cheek spikes and there even seemed to be a small hook on the tail, like the greens had. It was hairless, just like her horde members. As it hissed at her softly she could see a sharp set of teeth.
"What..."
It jumped away. Jinx ran after it.
The horde leader couldn´t see it through the dense canopy, but the animal led her to the rising limestone cliffs. As she finally lost it she was so close to the foot of it, there were white pieces of rock everywhere, broken off from the higher walls.
She realized she could never solve the riddle of the small creature. She´d better return to the Minions.
"Hm." She looked up at the cliffs, just visible through the canopy. She remembered the imprints of shells she´d seen in Fay´s hideout. She wanted to have a look if things were visible here, too, before she went back.
Her eyes fell to a piece of fallen rock. It had split in three, and on the fracture she could see a shape. Bones.
So not just shells left their impressions here...
Two of the three visible bones had recognizable claws. She turned to another piece of limestone. There she saw the faint impression of a crushed shape that, after a bit of puzzling, resembled a skull, flattened and with scattered, sharp teeth. Below the place the teeth should be attached to, there also seemed to be pointy shapes.
Below the jaw. Cheek spikes?
This creature had been larger than the animal that had led her here. The proper size for a Minion.
Jinx stared down at the white remnants. Had it been coincidence that led her here? This island in the middle of the southern ocean... She´d heard the Minions had originated in the Netherworld, but magic alone could not create life and no creature had come into the world completely shaped. She had no idea how the island could be connected to the domain of the Overlord, but...
She turned. She should really be getting back to her horde.
Later, some time after she´d left, another two creatures with bat ears and cheek spikes jumped over the remains of the fossil.

They had enough provisions to last a second month and it was halfway into that month that Jinx suddenly realized the temperature was slowly dropping. They got further into the north, and as she hadn´t gone anywhere but Everlight and the Netherworld for a long time the sudden coolness came as quite a shock. The same went for Sayron and the Minions. The surroundings of the Empire weren´t cold, but they weren´t tropical either. They´d have to adapt. Kniff and Minc finally came down from the crow´s nest to sleep in the warmer places below deck, even though nobody trusted Stabbit, though he´d behaved for weeks now.
The Empire. From the entire Netherworld only two people had been there recently, and those were Juno and Jinx. Juno spoke of her old homeland with affection and pride, but the only thing Jinx got were goosebumps. Memories came back, things she´d suppressed since she´d regained her memory. White walls and terracotta roofs, the scent of wine - and cesspits. The sewers, the slums she´d been banished to as Velvet had been taken to Nordberg. Years of fighting and stealing on the streets, something that did enable her to defend herself in those first days with the horde... she´d learned to work with weapons young, one time even with the stolen dagger of a nobleman. He didn´t need it anyway. They did nearly beat her to death once they snagged her. Violence, disease and hunger had been no strangers, and that was also the reason she saw her current position as a huge improvement... at the moment, even better than the good life she´d had when Velvet still had some influence.
From time to time, the rats of the Netherworld had reminded her of the sewers where many people had built a creaky excuse for a home, but there were far worse things than rats in there. There, outside the protection of the city, were the frogs for an example... one of the things that caused her goosebumps. Luckily she´d been able to build a small hut outside the sewers. She wondered if that still stood upright, and who lived there now if that was the case.
"Jinx!"
She jolted. Sayron stood below the mast of which she was standing on a high spar, a half-secured rope in her hand.
"Raise that sail, will you!"
She quickly finished her knot. Then she jumped up to a spar higher still and unfurled the red sail that had been tied around it, so it could catch the wind. The ship creaked and jumped forward over the early waves with new speed.
She landed on deck with a loud thud. "How much longer, Lord?"
"A few weeks. How´s your magic?"
Jinx smiled. She had gone on practicing herself, and she could answer him by raising her hand. It was no spark, no star that lay there in her palm, but an orb taking up all space between her fingers. As she moved her hand the magic traced a thin trail through the air, almost like it had done in the magic room.
"Don´t throw it. Good. You´re ready."
"I´m not too sure of that."
Sayron looked at her for a moment. "Ah, your old home? Believe me, I particularly enjoyed it to crush Nordberg."
"But what if..."
"If they´re too strong? They aren´t. We will rule for a thousand years, Jinx. I will rule for a thousand years. And you´ll enjoy it just as much as I did to see your old enemies bow down before you." With that the Overlord turned away and walked back to the aft deck.

After a week of sleeping below deck, Jinx had gotten used to her rough bed of old sacks from the hold. Still she didn´t seem to be able to sleep, a few weeks after Sayron´s ´comfort´.
It must have been about five in the morning when she finally tired of it and ascended the stairs to the deck. She laid her arms on the rail and stared into the east, where the sky lit up to signal the upcoming sunrise.
There wasn´t just light on that horizon. There was something dark as well, ringing the edge of the world.
Land.
Land!
Jinx forgot to breathe for a moment and stood at the rail completely frozen, her eyes wide and without feeling the cool seawind blowing her hair back.
A rattling resounded behind her. She turned slowly. There was no Minion at the wheel, like there usually was during the night shift. It was Sayron in person.
"You knew," she uttered. "You exactly calculated it."
"So here we are," the deep voice resounded. "Clear sight of our prey."
Jinx turned back to the sea - and the shores of the Empire. No wonder she couldn´t sleep, so close to... home.
She tightened her grip on the rail as if clutching a lifeline. "Courage, Jinx," she muttered. She remembered what the shape of her magic had said before she´d turned herself into her bearer. "Now everything begins."

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 - Enter Without Knocking

A sheltered bay, a muddy beach with plants sturdy enough to withstand the salt water growing on the shore. Further inland grew a tangle of trees with a dense canopy casting the forest floor in a dappled pattern of shadows. There was no one in sight.
This seemed like a fine spot to go ashore to Sayron - a humble start of a deadly infiltration, if it was up to him.
His first step into the Glorious Empire was one sinking rather deep into the salty mud, but the Overlord quickly pulled his steel boot from the water and stepped into the undergrowth. Some Minions were already following him.
He almost automatically turned as Kniff joined him, but Jinx remained absent. The girl was still standing on the anchored Shadow Bringer´s deck and was looking at the mainland with an undecided look.
"Jinx? Are you coming?"
"Not going without you, Jinxie," Kniff spoke silently. He knew very well what was happening in her head right now.
Jinx grasped the rail slightly firmer for a moment and then flung her legs up and over it. She splashed into the water of the bay with her feet forward.
Very briefly, she remained there. In that moment the land flashed before her eyes, beneath her as if she was flying. This dense forest, open plains, a swift-flowing river and a high wall with gates of green copper. A broad, straight road with the wooden guard towers of the Sentinels on both sides. Huge villas compared to which the houses in Ignavopolis were mere huts. Another wall, thicker and higher this time. Streets and alleys, squares and then a towering palace...
"Jinxie?"
She shook her head and returned in the here and now.
"I´m coming," she said with a clear voice. She ploughed through the water with great strides and joined the Overlord.
The air in the Empire smelled of a mingle of apple blossoms and the many herbs deeper inside the forest. Jinx furiously blinked her eyes as the all too familiar scents and surroundings nestled themselves deep within her and uncovered even more forgotten things than during the sea voyage.
"Jinx," Sayron suddenly spoke, interrupting her thoughts. "You know this area. What are we up against?"
Jinx swallowed. "Probably the Heartland first, considering we´re southeast of the city. That surrounds Arcadiopolis on our side, but not in the north, there the lands are wilder. The Heartland is full of the villas of noblemen who can afford not to live in the city itself."
"Summer palaces," the Overlord nodded. "Well guarded, I assume?"
Jinx nodded. "Sentinels everywhere." She shivered as she realized she herself would be all too visible to them now her magic had awakened. She´d always feared them, and the reason was now apparent.
"And after that?"
"If we make it through the Heartland there´s a city wall and then the city itself, and we´ll have to see quite much of it, because the Arena´s in the north. What´s the plan to get in there? If there´s anything well guarded, it´s got to be the Arena."
"We have to get under it," Sayron spoke, his gaze still ahead as they walked through the silent forest, looking around if there wasn´t a soldier or even a peasant to see them. At this moment, no one would remain alive to tell his story to the Emperor. "Gnarl reminded me we have to get to the dungeons, but I hoped you could tell me where they come out on."
Jinx´ pace slowed as she got the feeling coagulating lead was pumped into her legs. "The dungeons..." she heard herself say. "They end in the slums in the northern part of town."
"...I see..." Sayron spoke slowly. "And I think you know them better than the rest of the city, don´t you?"
"I´d rather not return there, Lord. But I don´t think I have much choice."
"It´s about the blue Minions now," the Overlord said. "Invaluable. With them we can... what´s that?" He halted abruptly, and with him the rest of the group. Some Minions bumped into eachother.
There, nailed to a tree, was a smudgy piece of paper. There was a portrait printed on it, in sepia-coloured ink. Jinx walked forward slowly and incredulously outstretched a hand to the picture.

JINX LAURENTIUS-ANGELICA
THE PURPLE SCOURGE
DEAD OR ALIVE - 500 AUREI

Jinx stared at the words wide-eyed. "Five hundred aurei," she muttered in a trembling voice. She couldn´t even imagine that much money in one place. And now it was on her head? Her head?
"Purple Scourge," a raspy voice next to her spoke. She looked down to see two big yellow eyes above an even bigger grin. Of course it was Kniff.
"Name to be proud of," he laughed. He punched his fist against her arm and chuckled cheerfully. "Nice picture."
Jinx turned back to her wanted-poster. With some imagination one could recognize her face, but only if they really knew what they were looking for. She had short black hair, but that was about it. She hadn´t been famous enough - after her eighth year, at least - to be really remembered and the escaped fugitives from Ignavopolis who´d spread the word of her existence hadn´t really looked at her well enough either. With just this picture she would never get caught if she wasn´t standing directly beside Sayron.
Sayron was grinning slightly as she walked back to him. "Your reputation is speeding ahead of you, leader."
"There have to have been survivors from the fortress who saw my magic," she realized, still slightly dazed. "Purple Scourge. Haha."
"Lucky thing Velvet´s in the Netherworld," the Overlord remarked. "They would´ve tried to get her out of Nordberg. Angelica? That name has some weight now, I think."
They left the tree behind and went deeper into the forest. Jinx expected to arrive at the open plains any minute and be looking out over the walls of the Heartland, but that didn´t happen before a new surprise came on their path. It was also in the form of posters this time. They had to be getting really close to the plains, because there were more now. The helmeted head on the first was impossible not to recognize, though Sayron´s appearance had to be more than clear to even the most backwards village idiot.

SAYRON OF THE NETHERWORLD
THE DEMON LORD OF NORDBERG
PREFERABLY DEAD - 2000 AUREI AND IMMORTAL SENATORSHIP

How much is two thousand aurei, exactly, Jinx?" Sayron asked dryly and without looking back. "I noticed you were shocked with your own poster."
"Very much, Lord." Jinx took a deep breath. "Enough to get someone out of the slums forever."
"Ah. That immortal part is figuratively, I assume?"
"Maybe not. Emperor Solarius has been looking for a way to become immortal for quite some time. If he´s found it I doubt the fact he wants to share, but with the captor of his greatest enemy..."
"Flattery," the Overlord grinned. "And what do we have here?"
Some Minions had hurried ahead and were now standing around a second tree, chittering and in many cases roaring with laughter. There hung a poster with two pictures. The first was a monstrous head with narrowed eyes, huge scaly ears so frayed there was barely any skin left, a nose fit for a pig and a gigantic drooling maw filled with dragon teeth. A double row of continuous spikes ringed the broad chin. The picture was a mixture of caricatures of a brown and a green Minion, considering the fugitives had probably failed to see the difference between the two. The second picture was that of a head with curved ram´s horns, no ears, flaming eyes like those of the devil himself and a nose and mouth like those on the first picture.
All in all they resembled Minions just enough to make sure the Minions could easily go free if they hid some crucial parts and behaved themselves.

SERVANTS OF THE DEMON LORD
DEMONS OF EARTH AND FIRE
100 AUREI PER HEAD FOR LIVE CAPTURE

The Minions had difficulties catching their breath, all the worse as Jinx read them the writing. "Much money?" Gloob asked her as he wiped the tears from his eyes with a sharp claw.
"Heaps," Jinx nodded. "More than I´ve ever had."
Scabies looked at the poster, practically drooling. "Maybe turn ourselves in and make off with gold!"
"I could do it," Jinx offered seriously. "If I dress up a little I look just as much like my portrait as you do with yours. I´ll free you later."
Scabies was grinning broadly. Sayron stepped between them, however, and kept standing a few yards away. "I don´t think there´ll be any freeing, just good guarding and torture. I´d ask Juno, but it´s too early for her to be awake... does the Empire have any decent torture chambers, Jinx?"
The horde leader shivered. "You bet."
"Would a Minion last long in there?"
"They´ve got brands, racks, instruments to break bones lengthways, burn your skin away from the inside and keep you alive for months," she summed up. "If they discover your fear of water they´ll probably try the test they gave me, but with a rope so you don´t drift off. Almost drown, hoist up. Almost drown, hoist up."
The browns and greens were shivering over their entire bodies. The reds had paled to pink in most cases. "I think they´d even find a way not to kill the reds and still use water," Jinx added. "Be afraid, guys. The Master´s right. Sorry, Scabies, but come to think of it I withdraw my offer."
"Alright then," the pirate muttered. On his shoulder his parrot fluttered uneasily. The animal, by now dubbed Duda by the Minions, wasn´t very happy to be taken from his tropical habitat, but it was far too late to return to Everlight now and he didn´t seem about to leave Scabies.
As Jinx had been expecting, it didn´t take long before the forest started thinning after the posters. Ahead of them were sloping hills covered in short, dry grass, so they shielded that which lay behind them. Sayron walked out carefully. "What can I expect here?"
"Maybe a..."
Fweeeeeeeeeeeee...
"Dive!"
A great lump of rock whirred over their heads into the forest and came down on the forest floor with a mighty cracking and snapping of branches.
"...catapult guard," Jinx finished.
"Great!"

"Gents! What was the meaning of that?"
One of the men on the catapult shook his fist at the higher walls of the fortress. "Cut us some slack, Silvanus!"
"Out of the question, not until the next shift arrives."
"Scumbag!"
Caius Silvanus, red-cloaked commander of this catapult fort outside the walls of the Heartland, turned with a faint smile. "If it happens again I´ll have you led before the Gargantuan campaign," he spoke with a slight raise of voice, but without turning back to his men. There was the sound of swallowing from the catapult.
"You wouldn´t," it sounded.
"Try me."
"Scumbag," it sounded again, but much softer this time. The men cringed slightly and one of them rubbed his head tiredly. "We´ve been here for fourteen hours," he muttered. "Old bread and water. I want to go to the tavern."
"Fire another one, Claudius? I kind of liked it."
His companion shook his head. "I can see Silvanus handing us over already."
"He´s already barking mad to refuse to let us go... hey, what´s that?"
The two looked down. There, on ground level, some of the second-rate soldiers guarding the fort had seen it too. Two figures, one very large and the other only coming to the shoulder of the first, were walking across the hills with great strides. They´d probably come out of the forest they´d just fired into. They were both covered in filthy, frayed pieces of cloth, especially the largest. Not an inch of his body was visible.
"What are you? Ruborian mummies?" The soldiers below roared with laughter, but Claudius nudged his companion. "That must be slaves that have escaped from the harbor!"
"All the way through the delta?"
"Everything´s possible! Maybe they´re trying to make off through the backland, I heard there´s a village there built by all sorts of escaped scum."
The second Imperial grinned. "Thinking what I´m thinking?"
"Permission to fire, Silvanus?" Claudius called up.
"Permission granted!"
"Fire...!"

Jinx´ head shot up beneath her hood of old, colourless sail cloth. That didn´t sound good. "Sayron, aside!" she hissed at the wrapped Overlord.
They quickly ran apart. The huge lump of rock slammed between them, so Jinx let herself fall to her stomach, her arms over her head.
"I bet you wished you had a catapult, slaves!" one of the guardians on the fortress called out. "But no catapult for you! Naughty slaves! Back to your masters with you!"
A giggle escaped her. She scrambled back to her feet and ran on as fast as her patched blanket allowed, as Sayron caught up with her. "Those rocks," she pointed with a wrapped arm. A rope threatened to escape her smudgy cover, but she caught it just before she could trip on it. She looked back. "Careful with those movements, your helmet is almost ripping through the cloth."
Sayron squinted up. "I can´t take it off now. Just run."
"Look, we have the catapult, you have the squashy heads!" The soldiers seemed to be enjoying themselves.
"Gah, dammit, where´s that shift? I need to go and visit the little soldiers´ room..."
A shade of an idea reared its head in Jinx´ mind, but a new whistling sound wiped it away. "Dive!"
"Run, Sire! Avoid those boulders!"
"Gnarl?! About time! You missed our arrival! Where were you?"
"Let´s not discuss that for now."
"They think you´re slaves, how disgusting!" This was Juno´s voice. Jinx blinked her eyes for a moment. Gnarl and Juno arriving at the mist pool at the same moment? She shook her head. She couldn´t use those thoughts right now. "Advice, please," she growled between her clenched teeth.
"You´re doing fine!" A new whistle made Gnarl flatten his ears and cringe slightly. "Well, as long as you manage to keep out of firing range. Those rocks seem like a good spot to flee to, but I see you´re already on the job. Where are the Minions?"
"I´ve summoned a couple of gates and will call them out again once we´re a little less visible," Sayron answered feverishly. Him and Jinx reached the rocks, towering granite blocks behind which they found good shelter. From here they could finally look back and see the walls of the Heartland, constructed of large blocks of stone and fortified with marble pillars. A huge gate of green copper, decorated with the lionhead emblems of the Emperor, was blocking their way.
"The Heartland and the city are just behind those walls." Juno chuckled. "Ha, bet I´m the talk of the town!"
"Crushing those with the enemy´s catapult would be wonderful," Gnarl spoke dreamily.
The horde leader could just hear the catapult guards swearing, but it seemed they kept firing just in case they could get over the rock formations.
Behind the rocks the land sloped down. Ahead of them a broad, shallow stream gurgled its way over rounded river boulders, probably to the bay where the Shadow Bringer lay anchored. Across the water the forest started again.
Sayron splashed through the stream, Jinx on his heels. "Gnarl? Good spot?"
"I believe..." Gnarl hummed self-satisfied as an underground rumble reached his ears. "...that Grubby´s already on his way."
A huge black Tower Gate and four Minion Gates drilled their way through the Imperial forest floor.
Two and a half months. Sayron had to restrain himself not to jump into the gate and soar back to Kelda, Juno and his comfortable Tower. He knew he couldn´t let his gate exist for too long, however - it´d have to disappear in slumbering condition below the surface again soon, and now it only served as an anchor for the Minion Gates. Those weren´t too stable without a stronger connection to the Netherworld.
Sayron shook the sail cloth off his arm and called the Minions out. Simmer, the red, actually grinned again as he saw his Master and the brown leader in this state. Jinx grinned back. "Did you go see Sear?"
Simmer nodded. "Is in the forge. Doing well."
"Good."
"There are probably soldiers near," Juno´s voice sounded from a little further, from the field around Sayron that was connected to the mist pool. "The catapult guard may be less alert, I don´t doubt the fact those unwashed barbarians are hiding somewhere with all sorts of filthy weaponry... very different from your sword, dearest," she added admiringly. Another voice snorted briefly.
"Save your drooling for the Imperial men who believe it, Juno."
Jinx suppressed a smile. Kelda would never like the Imperial Mistress, much like herself. They both allowed her around because she was a useful source of information concerning the higher ranks of the Empire, but to stop nagging? Never!
"She´s got a point, you know," Gnarl spoke in a slightly defensive voice. "Fair chance there´s a camp there. Keep your eyes open, all of you."
"And especially you, Gnarl," Jinx muttered, chuckling. "Keep those big yellow orbs wide open down there. You surely like what you see." It was probably most fortunate the advisor couldn´t hear this.
Sayron halted. "Is it a good idea to continue? This way we´re distancing ourselves from the walls of the Heartland."
Jinx thought for a moment, just as quiet as the rest. Then something occurred to her - the same that had made her think before. Gah, dammit, where´s that shift?
Camped soldiers... the wanted-poster of the Minions looking nothing like them... the catapult... the wall...
"Lord, I´ve got an idea," she said slowly, and then looked up into the orange eyes of the Overlord. "We have to find ourselves some soldiers."
"What are you telling me now?"
Jinx winked at Kniff. "Trust me."

A circle course more or less leading back to the catapult guard, along the river, eventually brought them to Jinx´ goal.
"Soldiers! Uncouth bores... At least they´re bathing," Juno ranted in a soft voice.
Indeed, there were about a dozen half-naked men standing in the cold stream, exaggerating terribly. "I´m going to dip my toe in... just my toe," Jinx overheard. Another jumped out of the bushes and kicked over the soldier in question, so he fell into the water face-first to leap up roaring. "Now you´re in for it!"
"Bring it on!"
Sayron turned his gaze to a small tent further away. Inside there was the gleam of bronze. A piece of a flowing red fabric stuck out of the tent.
"They left their clothes in there," Juno realized excitedly. "I wonder..."
"Exactly my idea, lady," Jinx grinned without taking her eyes off the tent. "Lord? Attack?"
"Attack."
Stripe, Gloob, Scabies, Aches and Glottis hurried forward first, being the strongest of the brown clan. By the time the rest caught up with them the job had already been done. The river took red water along to sea.
The rest of the horde turned and ran for the tent. Glottis, however, practically walked over their heads to get in first and admired the outfits of leather and bronze piled up there. Helmets, shields, shoulderpieces, sandals...
The Minion yanked it all in place as the rest was still wrestling with the leather buckles and shot into a salutation as his Master´s shadow fell into the tent. The red feathers on his helmet trembled.
"A true centurion, hm," the Overlord chuckled. "Was this your plan, Jinx? ...Jinx?"
The girl shoved a gold-coloured helmet over her ears. Her bandana just peeked out beneath it, of the same colour as the plume of feathers on top. The rest of the Imperial armour camouflaged her own leather protections and the bronze shoulderpieces covered her ropes for the main part. She even had kicked off her Nordbergian boots to put the sandals on. "Unpractical," she muttered as she lifted a foot and took a good look at the footwear. "Every sword gets straight to your toes. ...Sorry, Lord?"
"What are you doing, Jinx?"
"Disguising," she answered with a deadpan face. "Anything worth improving?"
Sayron was speechless for a moment. Then his gaze dropped. "Those pants and knee protectors. The Imperial guard didn´t wear pants the last time I checked. Just the skirt, please."
"Sayron!" Kelda called out in incense.
"She´s asking, isn´t she?"
Jinx just looked at him for a moment, but then walked to the back of the tent without another word. As she returned she was pantless. "Better?"
"I´d decapitate you without looking twice."
"I´ll take that as a yes. Good, shall we go and relieve the catapult guard, boys?"
Sayron looked on with slightly widened eyes as the Minions, disguised as legionaries, joined the brown leader. "And how will you explain Minions in the Imperial army?"
"I happen to know the Empire takes up everything and everyone non-magical, also in the army. Nordbergians, Ruborians, even elves and gnomes if they give off their magic in a special procedure in the Palace. There´s no Sentinel nearby, so that magic´s okay, and I can pass for a new centurion introducing newbies into the catapult guard."
"They´ll know they´re Minions..." Sayron hesitated.
Jinx laughed. "If they go by those posters not a soul will recognize a real Minion even if they found him on their plate with an apple in his mouth," she countered. "Trust me. I have this under total control..." She straightened her helmet, but the overlarge headwear slid back at an angle almost immediately. "Well, more or less. Permission to go?"
Sayron suddenly grinned. "I like this way of forging plans. Permission granted."
Jinx saluted and marched off with a swishing cloak, centurion from head to toe.

Claudius looked at the rock formations with great determination. "Bah, I was looking forward to crushing those slaves. Haven´t seen that for too long, I really need to go to the Arena again."
"Keep yourselves together, men," Caius Silvanus chuckled from above. "The Emperor will decide you´ll be better off in the Ruborian quarter with that attitude."
Claudius grimaced. The ´Ruborian quarter´ in reality was a slave quarter near a much richer part of the city, to house the servants of the senators and noblemen living there. He knew he´d rather not live there.
"Such a nice commander we have, with his charming jokes," he growled to his colleague, next to him on the catapult. He didn´t answer, but a growing grin did appear on his face as he looked over the fortress walls. Claudius nudged him with his elbow. "What is it?"
"Just look," was the answer. "The shift! Finally!"
Claudius followed his gaze and brightened instantly. "Ah! The Imperial guards! About time!"
"Hmmm... you´re a bit small," his colleague called over the wall. "Don´t tell me they´re recruiting gnomes now..."
The commander of the - indeed, strikingly small - new guards saluted stiffly. "New lot, gents. A just arrived shipload of goblins from the Golden Mountain range. They´ve just been tested and found non-magical." The commander kept a hand at his helmet as if it´d fall off otherwise and had a voice sounding like it was being deepened on purpose, but Claudius wasn´t in the mood to be wary. He wanted to get drunk as soon as possible and hurry off to the Arena if he still had time. He´d heard there were blue demons on the program again soon.
Silvanus bent over the wall. "Open the gates. Come on, let them in, the men want to go into town," he grinned. "Good boozing, gents!"
"Good day to you too, commander," Claudius answered sweetly. Inside he was labelling Silvanus things even Sayron would be surprised of he knew about.
The new commander marched through the gates, his men behind him in a loose formation. Silvanus looked down on them. "What a strange shape those goblins march in."
"They have a lot to learn, but that´s my job," it resounded in a low voice. "Boys, square, not triangle, what did I tell you?"
Silvanus looked at one of the new guards with raised eyebrows. "What´s he wearing on his helmet? Peacock feathers?"
The commander swallowed. "One of those things I´m telling them about," was the answer. "The red feathers were beyond saving, and so was the peacock, I´m afraid." Inside Jinx was swearing at Nails - it had happened behind her back, but she should have watched him more closely as he went for the wandering bird. Luckily Silvanus didn´t seem to pay much heed to it. Goblin manners. Jinx suppressed a smile. She hoped the Minions could restrain themselves as well. She could imagine they were irritated because they had to keep their ears folded beneath their helmets, but there was no other way. Those ears had been the most recognizable on the posters.
No one blocked their way as they walked to the catapult. "Take your positions on the fortress wall," Jinx ordered the Minions. This is too good to be true. This is great. I feel like an Overlord. She halted, there on the wall of the Imperial fort. At this moment, I am an Overlord. These are my Minions.
Two Minions mounted the catapult. Jinx kept standing next to it and nodded to Silvanus. Then she turned back to the hills and searched for Sayron.
The real Overlord didn´t show himself yet, so Jinx kept in character. She exchanged glances with Kniff and Minc, next to her on the catapult. "Fantastic, Jinxie," Kniff muttered from the corner of his mouth. He grinned ahead, his back to Silvanus. "Thank you," she answered at the same volume. "I do my best."
Then suddenly, a shadow appeared behind the granite formations on her left. Sayron raised an arm and the amber gem flashed. She was the only one who saw it. She was supposed to be keeping watch.
She pretended to see something on the right, where the walls of the Heartland rose up. At the same time she quickly gestured to Minc and Kniff to turn the catapult. "Open the gates, will you," she called down. "There´s someone who wants to enter." That was the absolute truth.
The soldiers down there, who couldn´t look through the gates, immediately did as the higher-ranking commander ordered. The catapult fort´s gates swung open.
The catapult turned to the group of guards of the last shift, on their way to the Heartland.
"Fire," Jinx said in a relaxed manner, without raising her voice.
Then all hell broke loose.

Gnarl looked into the mist pool incredulously. His eyebrows were raised high and he was even barely aware of Juno standing right beside him to see just as much as him.
But she´d almost broken down at the sight of the Empire! She´d been so uncertain!
And now she was practically flattening an Imperial fortress on her own and commanded the Minions as if they were hers!
He looked on, his eyes gleaming, as the undisguised Minions still with Sayron streamed in through the gates, gates that would never have been able to be closed in time by the soldiers that had opened them. The disguised ´goblins´ on the walls turned to their human counterparts and cut their throats with the sharpened blades of the Imperial guard. Minc and Kniff swung their catapult from left to right and flattened everyone of the last shift trying to make a breach from the outside with the enormous boulders piled up in front of the warmachine. Other Minions didn´t know how fast they had to load them in the sling, so many shots let the duo rain down.
And as Sayron struggled with the soldiers at the entrance of the fortress, attacking him and trying to close the gates at the same time, Jinx was standing atop the wall deathly calm, the overlarge plumed helmet proudly on her head and with the entire situation in the palm of her hand. She strolled over the wall and aided the fighting Minions, as she scarcely took her eyes off Caius Silvanus. The real commander looked back with wide eyes, pale and shaking his head.
"No," he kept saying. "It can´t be he´s already here. It can´t be." His cheeks trembled. "You... you´re the Purple Scourge."
Jinx nodded as she took a rope off her shoulder with confident gestures. She swiped it out to the higher wall and was standing next to Silvanus in the blink of an eye. The man backed away in fear.
"I am indeed," Jinx grinned from beneath her helmet. "Good morning, we´ve come to take over this land." She raised her free hand and let her magic ignite. Purple fire.
"May I shake your hand, commander?"
Silvanus stepped back even further, but there was Nails, prodding his back with a spear. Jinx grabbed hold of him and flung her magic in his face. Then she pushed him off the wall and looked after him.
A second later her face was illuminated by a purple explosion. A grin let it reflect off her teeth, then there was the thud of the remains of the body on the fortress´ tiles.
In the Tower Kelda burst into applause. Juno hesitated but followed her. And Gnarl shook his head in a mixture of disbelief and something else, a big grin showing his irregular teeth. "Well done! The wall, quick!"
Jinx looked down. "Minc, Kniff! Aim that thing for the gates!"
A few seconds later an enormous lump of rock sailed for the copper gates of the Heartland. The guardians on the walls had fled ages ago as they´d noticed something terrible had taken over the catapult.
The crack was muted by the distance, but the gates burst apart in a rain of remnants. The Imperial lion flew through the air in two halves and buried itself into the fertile earth on both sides of the wall.
The Heartland lay open for anyone who wished to enter. And there were quite many of them.

Jinx stepped through the remains of the gates first, still clad in the armour of the catapult guard. She´d dumped her own clothes, along with those of the Minions, in the Tower Gate and she was just hoping everything was still in one piece after the landing in the throne room. Next to her Minc didn´t seem at all at ease without his cassowary skull, the beak before his face. The horde leader could exactly see where the skull had been because the skin of his chin and around his eyes was considerably darker than the rest of his face, thanks to the Everlightian sun.
Before them, a flattened road stretched away between high pine trees. There was nobody in sight, probably because everyone that had been there had fled. Jinx cringed for a moment - it hadn´t been the most subtle way of entering, but they were inside, there was no doubt about that. And by the look of it this was definitely no main road. No one wanted to leave the Heartland at this point. There were no Sentinels, there was nobody at all...
Sayron stepped after her. He was lightly wounded because of the fight he´d had to overcome at the gates of the catapult fortress. Jinx realized the roles had been reversed that moment - she´d been standing high and relatively safe, in a key position, as Sayron had been in the middle of all the trouble.
Now he knows what my job is like.
"Let´s follow this road and see what we run into," Jinx muttered without thinking.
"My idea," Sayron spoke, suddenly right next to her. She looked up, feeling caught. Glowing orange eyes looked down on her. Remember your position, girl... She quickly stepped forward, and made sure she didn´t command the Minions in any way. They still followed her, however, even before the Overlord himself stepped forward.
The deserted road led them straight to the southwest, straight for the city. In the bushes were insects buzzing and birds singing, but along the entire road they didn´t run into anyone, except a couple of peasants. Sayron tapped their foreheads and their weak minds had no chance to protest.
Then the land abruptly sloped down and a second road appeared from behind the trees. This one was much broader and as Jinx peered ahead she could see several Sentinels standing atop their watchtowers. This road clearly led along many homes and probably also to the city itself, for there were far more people down there than on their path. There were pedestrians in togas and less rich clothing - slaves or peasants. There were riders on horseback, walking slowly on this crowded road, and there were sedan chairs.
"Those chairs are something I won´t miss," Juno´s voice sounded. "Get one short carrier and you´re walking at an angle all day."
The red light of the Sentinels played over the road, but no one seemed troubled by it, not even the few elves Jinx managed to recognize. The elves didn´t wear their typical clothing of leaves and dyed fabrics, but had adapted to the lower layers of society. Only a few of them wore togas.
Jinx frowned. It seemed as if the Sentinels didn´t cast their gaze upon the sedan chairs. Come to think of it, they never did, but she paid attention to it only now because it was her business now.
"Better not step onto the main road, Sire."
"My idea. Let´s continue along this path, it seems easier to survive." Sayron crept on behind the bushes as silently as possible, to the point their path passed the main road. The Minions swiftly ran after him, covered by the disguised ´goblins´ and Jinx as much as they could.
The path led up again, onto a rocky hill, but it did stay parallel to the main road so they came to walk above it. For a few minutes they had a view over the crowds of the main road below them, but then suddenly the Minions that had hurried ahead rounded a corner and practically stood in the middle of a group of soldiers.
Jinx froze as she saw it. Then she realized all Minions in sight were disguised. Nothing was lost yet. She gestured backwards the rest was to stay behind the rocks and then focused through her initial shock.
"Alright men, I want you to meet our newest recruit! He is known as a Gargantuan and hails from our experiments... I mean special training program!"
The centurion in the centre of the group theatrically gestured to a large tent. Then something came out of it, something that made Jinx involuntarily gasp for breath in horror. She wasn´t the only one, many of the real soldiers around her and the Minions did the same and the men didn´t even notice the disguised horde members.
"I suddenly feel very, very small," one of the soldiers mumbled.
What was standing there in front of them was a true mountain of flesh. Legs like tree trunks, covered in copper armour, a chest like that of an Everlightian hornbeast and arms so muscular the chainmail protecting them nearly snapped apart. A helmet not so different from an Eradicator´s covered the face, but this being was far larger and more powerful than those already enormous warriors. This Gargantuan didn´t need a magic-sucking cannon. He was deadly with his own strength alone.
With great size comes little intelligence, Jinx thought to herself as the creature snorted and stared at the widening circle of soldiers. It had been a saying of her mother, but it was proven to be true once again.
"As you can see he´s a tough brute, not like you wimpy lot," the centurion mocked. Then his eyes fell to Jinx and her little army. "Ah, the Imperial guard! Come here, men... creatures... what are you?"
"Goblins," Jinx said in her deepened voice as she discreetly tried to turn her face away.
"Goblins," the centurion agreed. "Come here. Let´s see how you lily-livered loungers stand up to a Gargantuan."
Stripe and Scabies stepped forward, but even those two reckless warriors hesitated and were probably giddy with nerves at the sight of their opponent´s size.
Then the Gargantuan roared and stormed forward.
The soldiers immediately jumped back, but Jinx remained standing with wide eyes before she dived to the side. The Gargantuan slowed his enormous mass with some trouble and turned around snorting.
This was like dealing with a grass bear! This was no human being anymore!
She realized this opponent didn´t let himself be fooled by their Imperial disguise. She and the Minions didn´t belong here and the primitive Gargantuan brain realized that, unlike the centurion and the soldiers. That thought was confirmed as the creature went for them a second time. This time he rammed the rock wall with his helmet, but it didn´t seem to have acquired so much as a scratch as he turned again.
"Tough head that thing´s got," a voice creaked next to her ear. "I bet it could break anything. Look behind you, girl!"
"You again?"
"The pool´s got a mind of its own," Gnarl chuckled. "Come on! Staying alive is a tricky sport!"
Jinx feverishly looked behind her, making her helmet slide to the side again. She straightened it and saw an elegantly crafted gate between the rock walls. Behind it a road seemed to continue...
She smiled grimly. "Men! To me!"
The Minions perked their ears and ran to their ´commander´. The Gargantuan didn´t know where to look as they ran past him on all sides, but then he locked his insane gaze on Jinx, who was staring at him mockingly with her entire legion around her.
"Waagh!"
"Come here, handsome," Jinx grinned.
The Gargantuan scraped his armoured foot over the rocks. Then he thundered forward.
Jinx and her horde burst aside and cleared the way to the gate. The Gargantuan didn´t manage to stop in time and squarely rammed the elegant bars. An opening was formed, big enough for a human or Minion to fit through.
As the being tried to right his unbreakable helmet with clumsy hands the horde leader and the Minions slipped through the gate as if they were fish. Sayron and the rest of the horde remained behind them, without protection or an advisor.
The centurion stared after them with wide eyes. A group of Imperial guards appearing so suddenly and disappearing even more suddenly?
He turned around abruptly as the Gargantuan roared again. He´d better calm the creature fast...
"Waagh!"

Jinx ran over the road outside the gate for a short time, but then halted.
Whole crowds of people in white togas, sedan chairs and on horses passed by in front of her.
This was the main road.
She looked up very slowly. Straight above her the watchtower of a Sentinel rose from the granite. The platform shielded her from his hooded eyes.
Then she looked ahead again. Because over there awaited something that did quite grasp her attention.
There, past well-tended pine trees, lay a gigantic villa. White marble pillars supported a broad terracotta roof and the entrance lay beyond a huge courtyard with two magnificent fountains, flanked by statues of heroes and gods...
"I recognize this place..." Juno pondered through the pool. "It belongs to senator Drearius! His wife accused me of sleeping with him! As if. I only hinted that I possibly would if he'd buy me a dozen new slaves with ruby-encrusted collars... that's all. And he didn't, the tight-fisted windbag!"
"Does he have a sedan chair?" she asked thoughtlessly.
"Of course he has a sedan chair. He's a senator. Love, if you ever have the chance, ask Sayron if he kills him for me, will you please?"
Jinx couldn't answer her, because Gnarl immediately talked over it. "Jinx, look to the right."
Jinx did as he told her. There was a girl in rags of clothes, just walking by carrying a bag from which a small piece of gold-coloured gauze was peeking out. She widened her eyes. "Oh no. No, no."
Gnarl chuckled demonically. "I do know something about the Empire, you know. And the way you took the catapult tells me you know very well what you have to do now as well."
Jinx was already lost in her own thoughts, floating to a certain shape like jigsaw parts. It indeed was just like with the catapult. It was so simple. Sentinels apparently didn't look whether the noblemen had magic... something she could only guess the reason of, because noblemen, most of all, followed the Empire's ideal and that was the destruction of all magic - but still... they did it. A sedan chair. The villa. Right.
She briefly looked at the sky. The sun nearly touched the horizon, a sultry Imperial night was about to begin. The senator had gotten himself involved with Juno, so she could guess his type. Decadent to the core.
Her thoughts raced to an inevitable conclusion.
It was so good to be home again.
"Wait here, guys," she said hastily. "Out of sight, please." Then she stepped onto the main road with a hammering heart, into the sight of the Sentinels. Hopefully they had other things to look at on the overcrowded main road.
Everything for evil.

In the Tower Gnarl stepped back from the mist pool, wrung his hands and burst into laughter. Kelda, defiantly hanging around at the throne in conversation with Quaver, turned as Juno joined him. "What's going on?"
Gnarl chuckled and composed himself. "Just you see. Our Jinx has the proper eye - she's already thinking in the required strange ways, but she's not very lucky!"
Kelda walked over to the pool, curious despite herself.

"Halt! In the name of the Emperor!"
On the main road to Arcadiopolis a girl who was just about to turn right to Drearius' villa started and looked back. There, emerging from a deserted side road and just below a Sentinel, a soldier from the Imperial guard was coming for her. He was in full ornate, with a gold-coloured helmet and plumes and all, but still something wasn't right.
Still Cariatia Ressa, slave of senator Drearius, stepped towards him quickly. The soldier halted, grasped her arm as she was close enough and pulled her with him onto the side road. Only then did Cariatia see his face properly. And it wasn't a 'him' at all.
"What...!"
"Quiet," the female soldier hissed.
"There are no women in the army!"
"There are now," the other grinned. Cariatia cringed as she felt the tip of a knife pressing into her side. "Come with me and we won't have any trouble at all..." The disguised girl dragged her around a bend in the road and Cariatia gasped. There were about a dozen creatures in the same Imperial armour as the girl. "What's going on here?!"
"Can ask as well, Jinx," one of the creatures rasped. "What plan?"
Jinx tightened her grip on Cariatia. "I have to think very hard about that one, but there's the small thing of having no time for that. Girl, I can kill you now, I can have my friends here kill you, I can take you back to my commander to enslave your mind or you can say goodbye to the Empire yourself and join us. It's a rough existence but we do need servants where I come from, and look at me, you'll have far more freedom than you could ever have up here. Believe me, I represent the better option. Solarius is dying." Jinx paused. "Or he will be very soon if it's up to us."
The slave stretched her neck to look into Jinx' grey eyes. She smiled grimly. "You must be with the Demon Lord. ...Why would I fight for a filthy swine of a master or an Emperor I haven't ever even seen? I'm Cariatia. My father forced my mother to give me an Imperial name, but she's called Eyja herself."
"A Nordbergian name," Kelda spoke elatedly. "Come to us, girl, it's so much better down here."
Cariatia's eyes widened as she heard the voice from nowhere. "Witchcraft?"
"We also represent quite a lot of magic," Jinx said. "But no witchcraft." She peered into the honey-coloured eyes of the girl for one last moment and then let go. "I need that bag."
"You're going into the villa," Cariatia understood. "Drearius is hosting an orgy tonight. I assume you want to infiltrate."
"I feared that," Jinx sighed. "Yes. Stop laughing, Gnarl!" she snapped at the advisor as a muffled snorting resounded from the field around her that connected with the mist pool. She took Cariatia's bag and looked inside it. There awaited a rather minimalistic outfit consisting of gold-coloured fabric and gauze. "I can't put this on, just like that. I can't pass for a slave, not the way I look now."
Juno suppressed a mocking snicker. "Indeed, you can't. But I might be able to make you slightly more presentable."
"I'll have to come down to the Netherworld first. Shall I go back to Sayron? But what do we do with these Minions..." Jinx' voice faltered. She'd been pointing in the direction she'd come from, as if pointing at Sayron. But that pointing had had consequences.
A brown Minion gate and a small black Tower Gate drilled themselves through the cobbles.
"You're starting to acquire the feeling, Minion Mistress," Gnarl remarked. "Don't just stare at it, come down!"

As the mist pool faded out it almost immediately flashed back to Sayron. Gnarl stooped down over the image. "Lord, you'd better come back through the Heartland gate. Jinx is busy with a plan to make sure you can enter the city without being seen."
"Where is she now?"
Gnarl looked up. "She's descending into the throne room right now."
"I'm coming."
Jinx touched the floor at the moment it folded shut over the pool, together with Cariatia. The girl looked around her in wonder and shock and Jinx recognized her own emotions from the moment she'd seen the Netherworld for the first time herself. So long ago. But Cariatia seemed to be a bit frightened as well, and she'd never been. She'd always been a part of the domain. Not a normal human being.
Kelda took Cariatia aside, so Jinx stayed behind with Juno and Gnarl. She clutched Cariatia's bag in her arms as if it was a shield. "What are you going to do to me?"
"I'm going to make you presentable, girl," Juno smiled, but it was the smile of a snake.

By the time Sayron arrived in the throne room Jinx and Juno were already up in the private quarters. Jinx had returned to her barrack first to get the clothes she'd worn as she arrived in the Netherworld - her short tunica, trousers and sandals. Those clothes came from the Empire, so she should be able to show herself wearing them.
Not that she was wearing them right now. Now she was in one of those situations she tried to avoid as much as possible. Now she wasn't wearing anything at all.
Juno laughed. "You have no idea how long I've wanted to do this."
"Try to keep it short," Jinx growled. "I'm no Minion terrified of water, but I don't like this stuff..." Sitting in the carved basin in the private quarters, as the underground mountain water clashed down on her bare back from the stone mouth of the blue Minion sculpture, she had to admit to herself she did like this privilege of the Overlord and his Mistresses a bit, despite what she'd just said to Juno. She did bathe, when she had the chance, but as little as possible as she either didn't trust the water in the upper world or there was always somebody around, and she plainly hated the river at the barracks. There was quite a lot of filth being washed from her skin right now.
"Oil, please."
Nubbin, one of the Minions working in the private quarters, silently but smiling handed a small bottle to Juno, after which she rubbed the contents over Jinx' shoulders.
Jinx looked back at the Minion for a moment.
Nubbin was the head servant in these quarters, and barely looked like a real Minion with his red overcoat, snowy white collar, intact trousers and powdered wig. He had been holding a gilded feather duster in his claws as they'd entered, which was standing leant against a wall now.
The horde leader, like always when she had dealings with the servants, had to violently suppress her laughter. At the same time she felt pity for Nubbin and his colleagues, for she knew these Minions had to undergo a procedure rather tempering their natural aggression and roughness. And they hadn't all chosen for that themselves. Nubbin didn't seem to have problems, however - he was made for these more civilized tasks, even slightly more discerning than Quaver. Jinx liked him, despite the fact she was more used to the upperworld brawlers.
Then some sort of liquid stuff was poured over her head and Juno's nails clawed themselves in her hair. "Good gods, girl, what have you been growing in here? Keeping a patch of endangered mushrooms?"
Jinx groaned as she scooped water over her face to flush the liquid from her eyes. "None of your business," she spluttered. "I like my mushrooms."
"Not so witty, madam. I bet you haven't cared for your hair since... well, never, am I close?"
"Why would I? No one cares."
"Drearius will care," Juno retorted with a swish of her long hair Jinx couldn't see, but feel all too well by the nails in her scalp. "He may be a fat toad, he has got an eye for women... except that creature he's married to."
"I could reply to that with quite a lot of witty comments but I won't," Jinx said, the last part slightly faster as the nails dug a bit deeper.
"You have beautiful hair, you know."
This was so unexpected Jinx froze for a moment. "...What?"
"There seems to be more of it now it's been cleaned for a change. Wait until it dries, you won't know what you're seeing. All thanks to the nice things I could take from the good people of Ignavopolis," Juno chuckled. "They're so obedient they do everything I say, isn't it wonderful?"
"Sayron's magic has a habit of doing that to people," Jinx answered as she held her head under the blue Minion's mouth to flush her hair clean. "Can I pass for a senator's slave girl? I can't believe I got that plan into my head, but even less that it will actually work."
"Well, you know how to act like a slave."
Jinx widened her eyes, wiped her hair back and jumped to her feet in the basin in a fountain of drops, without paying attention to the fact she was stark naked. "Say that again?!"
Juno stepped back. There was something in Jinx' eyes suddenly scaring her, something which didn't match the girl she'd been washing. "I said..."
"Yes?!"
"...Nothing, Jinx."
"Good!" Jinx snatched a towel from Nubbin's claws and violently rubbed herself dry. She could feel her hair dry up in the warm air, and realized it lay around her head wider than she was used to. She caught a glimpse of herself in a nearby mirror, a huge reflecting surface on the next wall. She didn't recognize herself. Her skin was even and much smoother than before, and she knew she looked less tired and determined than usual. Even her many scars were not as noticeable, except a long one over her stomach where the arm thorns of a dryad had struck her. Hopefully no one would pay that much attention.
"You shouldn't have said that, Juno," Jinx said as she turned. "I haven't been a slave anymore for a very long time now."
Juno remained silent and was surprised herself. But to make sharp comments now didn't seem very wise, even though Jinx was unarmed and would never dare to harm her.
The girl walked over to a bench hewn into the wall, where her clothes were spread out. "But thanks for the treatment. I think you're going to save my life in there." She pulled her old tunica over her head and pulled on her belt. "Can I pass like this?"
Juno nodded, secretly glad she'd gotten away. "You don't look like yourself anymore." She quickly lined Jinx' eyes with kohl so they were as black-lined as those of Fever and Stabbit.
"Then hopefully I don't look like my wanted-posters anymore either." Jinx grinned and threw her ropes over her shoulders. "I'll change in the villa. See you later!"
And with a few strides she disappeared to the prow balcony and over it.

As she returned to the Heartland Gnarl's laughter still resounded in her ears, even now the advisor had either stepped away from the pool or fallen silent again.
She stepped onto the main road, Cariatia's bag slung over her shoulder, and could faintly hear the hissing of the group of greens she'd taken with her. If she found a sedan chair she'd need them to lift it. She was just praying the Sentinel would keep his eyes off her now, too. Apparently he did, for she could swiftly run to Drearius' estate and disappeared behind the pines into his gardens. The greens were excitedly whispering among themselves. Their smell was less penetrating than normal, also thanks to Juno's strong perfumes. The Minions hadn't liked it at all, but when Sayron ordered something they did it.
Others were also moving towards the villa. Sedan chairs with obvious noblemen wearing huge jewellery consisting of gold and blood rubies inside stopped just in front of the marble pillars in the fading evening sunlight, as the slaves who did the carrying wiped their foreheads and went through their knees almost immediately. Jinx, remembering her role, nodded to them and received unsteady smiles in return. In one case she saw a confused look bordering on recognition and she realized she did know that man. She tried to stop her thoughts but she still got a name: Tacitus. She also remembered he couldn't talk since his tongue had been cut out for stealing some money from his master's belongings. The brand on his forehead, the official punishment before his master had lost his temper for the worse, reminded her of this. He wouldn't cause trouble, even if he'd remember who she was.
It was an unbelievable pity the slaves took the sedan chairs with them right away. Jinx knew it was custom to only bring them back as dawn broke and the orgy was bound to be finished. The only means of transport she could steal belonged to Drearius himself, somewhere in the villa or in a courtyard.
The villa towered over her. In some strange way it seemed to be larger than the Netherworld Tower itself. Jinx hoisted Cariatia's bag higher onto her shoulder and tried to put herself over the fear-inducing sensation of nakedness she got from her lack of armour - she didn't feel at all at ease with just thin fabric between her skin and the outer world. She knew she'd have to strip down quite a bit further to get to the sedan chair, however.
She stayed waiting next to the huge doors quasi-respectfully as the slaves opened them and the noblemen entered, then she followed them at an honourable distance.
The doors closed themselves behind her with a most definitive bang. She'd entered a senator's villa. She, the Purple Scourge. Unarmed.
She had to have lost her mind. But there was a swift glimpse of a yellow, winking eye and a gust of the smell of the greens, and she knew what she was doing it all for again.
"Blues," Scythe's voice hissed.
"I know," Jinx whispered back. She stepped forward. She knew a bit about the inside architecture of villas. Quick and unnoticeable as only a slave could be, she shot to the right into a hallway and followed the giggling from there. If she had to be a slave girl she'd do it good and proper.
She pulled open a door. Indeed, there was a group of girls - some of them already wearing the horrible clothing she'd have to wear as well, others still in their regular tunicas.
"Are you new?" one of them immediately asked. "Hello! Welcome to the group."
"Where's Cariatia? Are you replacing her?"
"Is she sick?"
Jinx gently repelled the chattering girls and smiled timidly. "I'm Renita."
"Ooh, a mum one. Still, you've got to have some guts to be chosen as a dancer, girl."
"Come on, take off your clothes!"
Jinx did as she was told, still with her shy new personality. What she'd feared, happened. The girls gasped for breath as they saw the - still a bit noticeable - scars on her back, partly dealt by the Minions as Gnarl ordered them to kill her in the very first beginning, but for another part caused by flogging. "What happened to you?!"
"I was not always in service of a civilized man like Drearius," Jinx answered silently and tried not to think of the fact she might mean Sayron with this.
No! She liked Sayron... he'd never willingly harm her again...
"No wonder you're so silent, poor thing. We'll look after you tonight."
Jinx smiled at the girl who'd spoken in gratitude and tried to pull her clothing from Cariatia's bag. "Thank you. What's your name?"
"Vesta. And this is Luciana, Mauritia, Minerva..." Jinx nodded to the girl in question with every new name and knew she'd have forgotten everything within ten minutes. Except maybe Vesta. There was something in her eyes that Jinx could recognize. Vesta wasn't exactly satisfied with her job either.
Pity it would barely be better under Sayron's reign, rather worse... but that wouldn't be her problem anymore!
Unless... a small voice in her head said, but a hand on her bare shoulder silenced it.
"Hurry up, we have to go in."
Jinx nodded quickly and hoisted herself into the rest of her outfit. That wasn't much. It consisted of two strategically placed pieces of gold-coloured fabric, a soft belt with a longer piece leaving her legs completely bare, a golden ribbon as a collar of which she knew it'd annoy her for the entire night and gold-coloured gauze covering her arms up to the elbows. She shook her hair once again. She wasn't used to the lack of bandana either.
This was no situation for Jinx of the Netherworld, covered in damaged leather and the blood of her enemies, now was it? What had she been thinking...
A bronze bell resounded.
"Come on," Vesta smiled. "It's time."
Jinx’ heart shot into her throat. She just realized how strange it was she was never scared even if she faced half an army, while now...
The scarcely clad girls pattered through the hallway, to the hall and from there to the enormous main room of the villa. Jinx heard a comforting second patter behind her. The greens were never far away and she knew they'd fight for her if they needed to. She briefly outstretched a hand and felt claws stroking her palm.
Then two slaves pushed open the double doors to the main hall and all her thoughts were engulfed by a wave of heat, perfume and music.
In the middle of the room a gigantic fire was blazing. Around it were long couches, piled full of cushions and even fuller of noblemen. There were about twenty men present in the hall. Magnificently crafted carpets covered the entire floor, but Jinx could see that, like the walls, consisted completely of mosaic and was at least as valuable as the carpets. The music wildly whirled around them as the girls slid between the guests, smooth and elegant. Jinx tried to imitate them as well as she could. Luckily nobody paid attention to slaves by nature, not even good-looking girls like these. And the slaves themselves didn't expect miracles from the shy, new Renita either.
Every girl settled with one of the guests and removed their sandals. Then the noblemen's feet were washed with soft sponges, soaked in the scented water standing next in tubs to the couches.
Jinx had knelt down before a man who wasn't even that fat, and taller than most nobles. He was actually skinny, but he hadn't been too modest on the jewellery. The girl only looked up when she couldn't turn back anymore and her heart skipped a beat as she recognized him. He looked over her head to the rather talkative man on the couch next to him, but in the way she was staring at him it was only a matter of time before he'd look down.
Marius Ovidius, it rang through her head as she clutched the sponge. The music played on louder than ever. This is the worst person I could have chosen!
She immediately turned her face away from the brown-haired, monocled Speaker for the Emperor and prayed he wouldn't look at her. Marius would definitely recognize her. He was Rose’s husband... He had been there as she'd been thrown into the river! And he'd been present as Sayron took over Nordberg and killed his brother... He'd doubtlessly make some noise if he'd recognize her.
But he'd never liked the more decadent aspects of the Empire... more decadent than most, anyway. It probably was an obligation to go to certain orgies - very unpleasant, yes.
Jinx kept her head down, clenched her teeth and started washing Marius' feet. This had to be the worst humiliation she could think of. She decided she would be the one, when the moment arrived, to kill him in person - even if she'd have to snatch the sword from Sayron's hands. But not tonight. Tonight was a moment of silence, discretion... and humiliation...

Sayron and Gnarl both stood on one side of the mist pool. They exchanged glances.
"This wasn't the best idea."
"It could just work out, Sire," Gnarl spoke, but there was nervousness in his eyes. "So far Jinx hasn't let us down."
"Let's hope this turns out well, then." The Overlord had a hand on the hilt of his sword and the advisor could see he was willing to take the villa by force. Gnarl outstretched a bony grey hand. "This is the best way, Sire. You've voyaged all the way over sea to remain hidden. Jinx is making sure that isn't ruined now."
"I hope you're right..."

The first course was brought in. Jinx finished the footbath and peeked at the table as she stood up next to Marius' couch. There a beautifully crafted plate was put down with a small body on it, surrounded by flowers and fruit.
"Dormice in honey, fattened on poppy seeds," Drearius announced from his central seat near the fire. It was a true senator - bloated, clad in a toga that probably wouldn’t be white anymore by the break of dawn and hung with jewellery. In his short, curly hair he wore a crown of leaves, the token of a host. He snapped his fingers. "Girls, come here. Amuse us."
The slave girls flocked together around him. Jinx hurried away from Marius, unbelievably glad she could get away from him for this moment. She went to stand next to Vesta and the two exchanged glances. Vesta smiled encouragingly. "You're doing fine!" she whispered. "You're a natural."
"Thanks," Jinx mumbled back, not too sure whether she should be glad or not. She'd never exactly thought of herself as elegant.
"Dance for us, girls!" Drearius clapped in his hands and the music changed to a more fluid rhythm. The guests turned away from their meals - that'd already disappeared in most cases - and looked at the slave girls. Jinx tried to look like her old self as little as she could and furiously hoped Juno's treatment had disguised her well enough. For a brief moment she wondered how much of this Gnarl could see. He was probably laughing himself silly, just out of hearing range of the pool.
The girls started dancing and Jinx went along as well as she could. She noticed, however, the music engulfed her in a strange way and the movements were plain sailing from then on... It was almost as if she was in the middle of a fight, whirling and stabbing...
"Easy, Renita!" one of the girls hissed at her. "Did you make this dance up yourself? We can hardly keep up with you!"
Jinx focussed and realized she'd caused the girls to keep up a wilder rhythm all by herself. Some of the guests were clapping their hands with the music and they were clearly enjoying it. "It's something else, Drearius," she heard one of them say admiringly. The senator sat there watching with a grin.
Jinx kept dancing and told herself she was indeed fighting, just in a slightly different way than usual. From the corner of her eye she saw an amber flash and she realized the greens were also watching her from the side. She just hoped no one would notice their eyes. She couldn't signal now.
Then she saw one pair of glowing eyes and a barely visible blue sock flash into the hall into the direction of the fire. Marius' untouched dormouse was snatched from his plate. He didn't notice. His eyes were fixed on the dancers, be it with slight boredom and not paying much attention to them either.
Then Jinx suddenly felt something on her leg. She looked down. An apparently floating piece of charcoal was drawing something on her thigh, with jolts and not too clear because she kept dancing, but it resembled a rough drawing of a spider. A spider. Then this had to be...
Her face froze as all at once she felt something else and very strange against her leg. She kept dancing because she had to, but used the next best opportunity to kick the air fiercely. She felt how the Minion was flung off her leg and heard a faint thud as he smacked into the nearest wall. She quickly rubbed her legs together to remove the spider drawing and tried to keep her face neutral. That wasn't easy.
The music and the dance continued as Drearius clapped his hands again. "A second course which is worthier, my dear guests. The udders of sows fed with figs, and on top of them... stuffed peacocks."
New slaves removed the first plates - at which Marius looked at his in surprise - and put new ones in their place. The udders were barely recognizable, but that couldn't be said about the peacocks. The birds had been plucked and roasted, but after that their tail feathers had been put back in. Jinx immediately thought of Nails and his new headwear.
The dance calmed down as the guests turned to their meals and didn't pay much attention to the slaves anymore. Shortly after Drearius snapped his fingers again and directed the girls back to the guests. The nobles did have spoons and knives on their tables, but they mainly used their fingers for eating, even Marius. Jinx knew it was up to them to wash the nobles' hands if they outstretched them, and she also knew every guest had his personal slave for the night. She was stuck with Marius.
On her way back to him a man she'd heard spoken to as Porcius grasped at her and managed to get a fat hand around her waist. Jinx froze and let herself be dragged closer, but her heartbeat resumed as another girl - Minerva, she thought - intervened. "My lord, I'm your appointed slave for tonight, lord Marius needs Renita now!" The girl fluttered her eyelashes and Porcius fortunately let Jinx go, so she could hurry off to Marius. She'd never been this glad to come closer to the Speaker.
She knelt down next to him and grasped the tub of rosewater in case he'd need her. In fact she had the best position. Marius would never look down and didn't seem to have any interest in his slave, however scarcely clad she might be. That couldn't be said about the rest of the nobles. Young men with leafy crowns on their heads refilled the cups with wine as soon as they were half empty and the men, heavy though they were, started to feel the consequences - laughter, slurring and the playful yelps of the slave girls almost drowned out the music.
When can I leave? When in the name of the gods can I go to that sedan chair? Vessperion, I want to turn this villa upside down and burn it so badly.
Marius washed his hands more often than the rest of the men. Most of them just kept eating until they were dripping with fat and only turned to their slaves for other forms of amusement, but Marius ate in a more civilized way and outstretched his hands more often, so she could clean them. Jinx was having difficulties keeping her face neutral. I'll chop those hands off before I kill him.
She felt a tap against her leg. A single yellow eye lit up. "Was searching," a shadow of a voice hissed, barely audible above the music and the talk.
"For the sedan chair?" Jinx breathed back.
"Too many guards. Everywhere, doors with slaves, too big to open. Need you."
"But I can't leave. Not now. These people..." Jinx looked around the hall for a moment, "...wouldn't think twice about killing an annoying slave at their tables. And I'm unarmed..."
"Be subtle," the Minion hissed. "Like in fortress."
"Yes. Even subtler."
"Alright." With that, the Minion disappeared from her side and left her with Marius.
"And now for the main course, dear friends!"
Conversation stopped. The music changed tone as the doors were opened. A legion of slaves waltzed in, three truly gigantic domed plates on their shoulders. They were put down scattered through the hall. Then the domes were removed.
Jinx widened her eyes. There lay the roasted bodies of animals she knew of only as... hornbeasts.
The enormous, terrible grazers of Everlight, with horns like swords and hooves like flat shields, caught and prepared by the Empire? These had to have been transported across the sea alive, even before they'd left from Ignavopolis, especially for this evening.
Three of them were more than enough for twenty noblemen. The hornbeasts were so large even Sayron could have ridden them effortlessly... a live one, that was.
The beasts' eyes had been replaced by grapes and in their jaws an entire salad had been prepared. They were surrounded by high piles of fruit and flowers, among which also tropical ones from Everlight. How those had arrived here so fresh baffled Jinx. This wasn't food, this was art.
But the most spectacular was yet to come as the first knives were put into the beasts and they were cut open. As soon as cuts appeared in the flesh there came a sound from within the huge mountains of meat. Chittering, screeching, whistling. And then it happened.
Whole swarms of brightly coloured birds burst from the stomachs of the hornbeasts. Every species Jinx had ever seen on Everlight, and more. There were yellow and green parakeets, purple birds with enormous orange crests, black and white ones with a multicoloured nacre gleam, and the large blue and red parrots. The horde leader stared up at the rainbow-coloured swarm and perplexedly wondered what Scabies would think of this.
The guests, too, were shouting in admiration and it took a while before anyone got to eating. One of the nobles reached into his toga and pulled out a small crossbow, amusing himself by shooting down the terrified birds one by one. Jinx gnashed her teeth, but quickly stopped and hid her face behind her hair as Marius looked down.

"This is madness!"
Juno looked up from the pool and quickly wiped the admiring look off her face. "No, dearest, this is the Glorious Empire."
Sayron stared at the chaos in the villa's main hall. There were birds everywhere, the wine, constantly refilled by the alert slave boys, really started to kick in with the nobles and the music echoed into the throne room so loud the portal peaks rattled. "She'll never get out of there in time."
"Maybe not. But she's crafty, Sire." Gnarl looked up. "She'll make it. She's got your best greens with her."

A soft hissing. Marius' wine chalice disappeared from his table. This time the Speaker for the Emperor did notice and he shot up straight from his cushions. "What...!"
"Ramul!" Jinx hissed. From behind the couch she could hear spluttering. The green Minion didn't seem to like the wine. "Give it back!"
In the meantime, Marius' neighbour was slapping the Speaker on the shoulder. The more obese nobleman was clearly experiencing more of the drink's influence. "Drearius has outdone himself, what do you say, Marius?"
"Yes, yes," Marius answered in annoyance. "Wait a minute..." He stood up and looked around him better. Then, to Jinx' horror, he looked down. Marius Ovidius, against a backdrop of lanterns and a whirling parrot swarm, looked straight at her in search of his wine cup. His expression changed from slight irritation to recognition. Gruesome, lethal recognition. "...You... this can't be..."
Jinx looked up at him. "Good evening, lord Marius," she spoke defiantly and with far more confidence than she felt.
Marius stared at her. "Slaves! Guards! This is Jinx Laurentius, the Purple Scourge!"
Everyone stared at Jinx. For a moment even the music seemed to stop. Jinx held her breath...
...and released it as the laughter started.
"That slave girl? Are you drunk already, Marius?" one of the nobles hiccupped.
"That's just a regular pretty girl with black hair, friend. You're imagining things."
Marius spluttered. "Do you really think I wouldn't recognize her if I..."
"My dear Marius," Drearius slurred from his seat. "You wouldn't stir things up and ruin my night, now would you?"
"I'm the right hand of the Emperor, senator Drearius," Marius spat with a voice like poison. "And this here..." He looked down and froze.
As all attention had been fixed on him, the unnoticeable slave girl had swiftly made off.
The doors banged shut as he spun round to face them.
The rest of the slave girls rose and placed flower crowns on the nobles' heads. Marius opened and closed his mouth in disbelief as a curtain of daisies obscured the place where Jinx had been sitting from his sight.

The Purple Scourge practically flew through the hall as fast as her minimalistic outfit allowed.
"Minion gate! Minion gate! Minion gate!" She pointed at the marble tiles of the villa like a lunatic, trying to pull off the same trick as she'd done outside on the side road. There she'd managed to summon gates herself - she had to be able to do it again! "Gnarl! In the gods' name, send Grubby out! I need a horde in here!"
"Working on it, Mistress!" Gnarl called back half mocking, half dead serious. And yes, with her next attempt two gates dug themselves through a magnificent carpet, a brown and a red one. "This is everything I can do this fast!"
Jinx hesitantly raised an arm like she'd seen Sayron do. To her own surprise, two hordes tumbled into the villa. "Hoarse! Control your horde! Things can go up in smoke later, but not yet!"
The red leader nodded quickly. Jinx gestured to the Minions to follow her and ran off again. "Jagged! Are you here?"
A hiss answered her, but it wasn't Jagged to materialize next to her. It was Ramul. "Jagged still in main hall!"
"Ramul? You've managed to land me into trouble wonderfully."
"Welcome."
Jinx yanked open a large door of which she thought it might just lead to the courtyard. And froze.
This absolutely wasn't the courtyard. This was the kitchen.
Spink and Clout, two of the eldest Minions, rubbed their claws together. "Looks like Melvin's kitchen," Spink grinned. Clout drooled as he let his gaze wander around.
The cooks - probably slaves as well - stared at the Minions in bewilderment. Then at Jinx. "Who are you and why does a dancer come to the kitchens and what are those?!"
Jinx didn't have time to answer. The Minions had already hurried forward. They didn't get such refined food in the Netherworld and they now grasped every chance to bring some variation to their diet.
The horde leader stood there watching, powerlessly at first but soon shaking with laughter, as her horde and Hoarse's went wild in the enormous kitchen; swinging by the high racks hanging full of meat as they stuffed themselves with great chunks of it, flinging sauces around at the cooks and eachother, picking new hats formerly belonging to the slaves or the food itself...
Kniff and Minc, again wearing their normal outfits of tuque hat and cassowary skull, came swishing past with a collection of sharp table knives in their claws and chased the slaves and some live chickens through the entire kitchen.
Then two doors on the other side of the room were flung open. Those turned out to lead to the other side of the main hall. The guests stared into the kitchen as if frozen and beheld the chaos taking place in its full glory. Right in the middle of it all was the disappeared slave girl, the oily light gleaming on the little golden fabric she was wearing. She stared back with wide eyes for a brief moment.
And then theatrically spread her arms. "Tadaa!" She pointed at the hall with an outstretched, commanding finger. "Go, boys! As much chaos as is reasonably possible!"
With a cheer almost drowning out the music the Minions stormed for the banquet. They seemed to enjoy the taste of hornbeast.
Jinx stood watching with a face-splitting grin for a moment, but then snapped her fingers in a way Drearius couldn't have done better. "Jagged! Come over here with your horde!"
Covered in so many sauces, crushed flowers and other junk they were plainly visible the greens hurried for her. Jinx looked at them for a moment. Then she emptied an abandoned tub of rosewater over them.
As the greens swore and shook themselves in disgust the brown leader turned around. "We're going to find that sedan chair!"

The Minions were having the time of their lives with both the kitchen and the main hall as their battlefield. They might be using their weapons just for the work their teeth weren't equipped for, but still...
However, they didn't seem to be making enough of a mess to actually shock the now really drunk nobles. Drearius and his guests were roaring with laughter at the ravaging Minions and didn't seem to mind the fact the main hall was steadily going to blazes at all. "Drearius," one of them hiccupped. "Are these yours? I haven't seen anything like these creatures!"
"Except maybe those posters, but those just have the ears," another slurred. "They're great! Their appetite is even greater than ours!" As he spoke Scabies threw open the doors leading to the outer hall to let the parrots escape. Duda, however, remained perched on his shoulder.
Marius, the only one who'd taken it easy on the wine, was standing in the middle of the chaos and jumped aside as one of the enormous hornbeast plates shattered next to him. Porcelain shards flew in his face. He narrowed his eyes behind his monocle. "It's a good thing I've brought an escort along," he growled. Then he spun around and stepped out of the open doors. As soon as he slammed them shut behind him, three kitchen knives buried themselves into the wood and a jug of olive oil shattered against it. Roaring laughter resounded behind it.

Again Jinx ran through the long, luxuriously furbished hallways of the villa, bumping into fleeing cooks and throwing over other slaves. She skidded around a corner and immediately smashed into a beautiful vase on a small table. The clatter of breaking pottery resounded through the corridors and there immediately was a reaction from ahead of her.
"Hey! What's happening over there?"
Jinx rounded another corner and was standing in front of two large doors - which weren't unguarded. Two guards who probably did get paid were blocking her way. There were short swords hanging from their belts. Jinx looked at the weapons disparagingly and was about to grab her own, but then realized once more she was unarmed and practically naked - not in the position to start a fight. She looked up at the guards nervously for a moment, but then looked back over her shoulder with the same frightened expression. "Oh, my lords, it's a mess in the main hall! I've fled... I believe the servants of the Demon Lord are inside!" As if to emphasize her words, something which could only be called a muted explosion resounded from behind her.
The guards stared at her and then both ran past her. Jinx turned to keep following them. "Jagged!"
"Yess..." it sounded in a hiss. Not a second later both of the guards fell over, their throats clawed open. Jinx thrust open the heavy doors with some effort.
Yes! The courtyard! And there in a sheltering group of trees... the sedan chair, crafted from Everlightian hardwood with all sorts of gold leaf decorations and closed with dark red curtains. Finally! She looked up at the night sky and could see it wouldn't take long for the sun to rise. They'd escape with the dawn!
Then the enormous gates on the other side of the courtyard opened and Marius stepped in from the outer gardens. "I should have known. So here you are, Angelica."
"Marius," Jinx hissed. "I haven't properly introduced myself. Jinx of the Netherworld, pleased to meet you..."
The Speaker snapped his fingers. Jinx abruptly looked up as three Sentinels appeared on the rooftops around the courtyard. Three red lights slid over the marble tiles and the rosebushes around them, and then all three concentrated on her.
And now she was truly magical.
Even the fortress of Everlight hadn't been able to prepare her for this pain.
Jinx' tortured cries echoed through the night and the hallways of the villa.

The chaos in the main hall was still continuing. Now the noblemen were shocked and some of them had fled the villa already, along with many of the slaves. The walls were dripping with sauce and wine and most of the pillars supporting the roof had been pushed over. Any more and the roof would probably come down altogether.
Some Minions were lying on the couches or the plates, as stuffed as the dormice, others ran after the remaining guests. Drearius himself had run through the front doors of the villa and was probably in the outer gardens now. A screeching voice from the hall signalled his wife had come down and was most likely following him.
Then the four eldest greens stormed into the hall. Jagged put his claws to his mouth and whistled loudly.
Whisper clawed at the air so the light of the fire glinted off his knives. "Orders to make some heat!"
Hoarse looked up from his personal dormouse and then dropped the little body. "Really?!"
The green Minion came to a standstill next to him and briefly clawed though the Achilles tendon of a man running past him so he fell flat on his face. "No. But Jinx in trouble and fire mostly good solution."
"Agreed!" the red leader snarled as his eyes flared. He spat in his hands, where the fire ignited immediately. "Boys! Back in action!"
"Can we take food?"
"As much as you want!"
"At it then!!"

In the light of the Sentinels Jinx clawed at her own head, driven by the pain that threatened to split her skull in two. Her magic whirled and boiled within her, shrinking away like water in a frying pan. Purple sparks flashed around her fingers and disappeared.
Marius laughed mockingly. "And you dare call yourself a servant of the Demon Lord. I expected more from someone who managed to cheat death for revenge."
"M-Marius..."
"Spit it out."
Jinx uttered a long groan, her vocal cords too raw to scream, and fell to her knees. A strand of purple light escaped her fingers, then her mouth and wide-open eyes. The Sentinels on the walls whispered among themselves - they were having success!
"Good. Let your filthy magic stream out."
"Jinx! Jinx!"
Gnarl?
"Jinxie!"
Another red glow fell over her... Screaming that wasn't hers resounded across the courtyard and behind her. A scorching heat warmed her bare back.
The Sentinels' lights fell off her like stones. Jinx fell over and wrapped her arms around her mangled body.
Then something yanked her from that position. Just in time, because the marble pillars next to the outer gate collapsed and part of the roof came down.
Jinx and her saviour rolled over on the now still spotless tiles a few times as a broken pillar thudded down next to them. Jinx had firmly closed her eyes, but as she opened them again she saw a humongous amount of fire towering over her. The flames ate through the villa from the inside out. Faintly through a film of tears, she could see a couple of reds standing in the courtyard, lobbing fireballs to the Sentinels on the roof.
Marius furiously looked around him as he was closed in by the horde. A dozen weapons came down at once - but they only skewered a bright blue flame. He was gone.
And the Emperor knew of their presence.
She'd failed. Jinx curled up tightly, practically naked on the cracking tiles.
Her helper pulled on her arm. She could only see a dark face with glowing eyes against the flames, but she knew it had been Kniff who'd saved her life for yet another time. What would she be without that Minion?
"The sedan chair," he panted. "Save it!"
Jinx let herself be dragged to her feet. She coughed - the smoke was already entering her lungs. The screaming from within the villa had almost stopped, overpowered by the roar of the flames. "The sedan chair," she repeated on what should have been a commanding tone, but turned out as a hoarse whisper. She coughed again. "The sedan chair! Eight of the strongest to the sedan chair!"
The scattered Minions turned and the eight strongest of the brown horde, who'd composed themselves rather better than Kniff and Minc and were still wearing their Imperial armour in at least a certain degree, hurried to the sedan chair. Miraculously it was still intact. They carried it to Jinx, who dragged herself in.
As they were about to carry it through the outer gate two figures staggered towards them through the smoke. It were Drearius and his wife.
Behind them a taller form rose. It raised a mighty sword. A heartbeat later two heads rolled over the marble.
Lord Sayron quickly called up three Minion gates and let the horde escape. Then the gates sunk again and the Overlord stepped into the sedan chair. Inside, Jinx had fainted.

At the break of dawn, on the main road to Arcadiopolis, a sedan chair carried by goblins moved to the west. It was a detour, but hopefully they'd be able to enter the city on the north side this way.
Jinx was busy waking up.
Everyone else would, when coming back around in the sight of two glowing orange eyes from the darkness of a crowned helmet, immediately scream and faint again. Jinx merely smiled. "Thank you."
"It's not thanks to me we've passed all those Sentinels without being seen."
"Don't expect me to do that again. It could have been simpler." Jinx looked down. She was still dressed in her golden fabrics. She blushed fiercely and could immediately hear Gnarl chuckling. "You have to keep those clothes, they suit you!"
"Gnarl, when I get back, I'm going to maul you," Jinx growled. "And that's as soon as possible!" She remembered something. "Lord, we're in big trouble. The Emperor knows we're here! It's only a matter of time before he sends half his army after this sedan chair!" She groaned heartfelt as the full truth hit her. "I've ruined it all..."
"I know. That's the reason we're turning south here," Sayron answered. "I think we might just get away with the blues - the security around the Imperial Palace is probably improved considerably more than that around the Arena dungeons." He patted the side of the sedan chair. The Minions turned a corner.
"Where is... here?"
Sayron peered outside from under the closing curtain. "A city gate with a lion's head made of wood instead of copper or gold, much less tall and grand than most of the others we've passed and not exactly well-guarded. Also a reason of my idea about the Arena, by the way."
Jinx groaned. "Oh, no."
"We've got to keep you a little low profile for now," Gnarl spoke. "And you can't get much lower than this place. Better now than later, considering the little slip-up of our Purple Scourge."
The gates opened before the nobleman's sedan chair, though the guards couldn't imagine why a senator would ever pay a visit to... the slums.
The Demon Lord and the Purple Scourge entered Arcadiopolis. Technically, that was.
"Home sweet home," Jinx sighed. "Hopefully nobody recognizes me in these clothes."

Chapter Text

"Close your eyes, hold your nose and go through the slums ..."
Juno didn´t seem to be very happy as the Minions took the sedan chair deeper into the poorest, filthiest part of Arcadiopolis. Before long the buildings around them consisted of discarded boards of wood and many of them were raised on poles above grey, muddy water. Most of the colour had vanished from the surroundings, and it wasn´t the pale morning light that caused it. The few night fires were the only thing granting any vibrancy to this part of the city.
Jinx knew what those fires were for. They kept the frogs away at night.
She wasn´t happy at all. She´d hoped she´d be able to get out of the slums part of the infiltration, but she hadn´t succeeded ... and to make matters worse she was still wearing an orgy dancer´s outfit! She rubbed the dried tears off her face, landed there during her rough treatment by the Sentinels. She knew she had to look terrible, partly scorched, with tangled hair and kohl all over her face. She´d even use the filthy water from the slums to wash everything off.
Then a thud resounded on the side of the chair she was still sharing with Sayron. Soon there were more and she could hear the Minions growling.
"Who´s in there then? A noble?"
"Show your fat face, high and mighty!"
The sedan chair swaggered. Then the front dove down to the ground - and further.
Sayron´s hands shot out to balance himself, but even an Overlord failed at that when his seat was being turned upside down. The sedan chair toppled over, landed in something soft and then fell over to its side. Jinx landed on the covering shroud, quickly getting drenched in something below it. She clambered out through the other shroud and climbed onto the other side of the chair.
"Oh, great! Did you really have to throw us into a cesspit?"
Some distance away the Minions shook the mess off their armour and looked up at their horde leader guiltily. Jinx shook her head. "Not you. Them." She looked up at the people furiously, a by now surrounding crowd of men, women and some children. They were all clad in colourless fabrics offering no protection whatsoever, and most of them were barefoot in the mud. A large, black-haired man with a large nose was standing at the front, his hands on his hips. His dark eyes were narrowed. "A slave? Who´s your master?"
Jinx tried to stand up on top of the chair, but didn´t succeed. As she tried to balance herself two armoured hands wrung themselves through the shroud on what was now the top of the sedan chair and the wood creaked. Then the chair was ripped in two and Lord Sayron was standing in the middle of the cesspit.
The group of people fearfully backed away. The Overlord menacingly narrowed his glowing eyes. The black-haired man didn´t even take one step back as Sayron looked straight at him, however.
"The Demon Lord ...?" He looked lower, at Jinx. "Are you ..."
Next to him a boy with brownish hair and a ripped tunic appeared. " ...Jinx? Is it you?"
Jinx, who´d been busy sorting her scarce clothing so it still covered at least a bit of her after her fall, froze and looked up very slowly. The mud dripped from her hair. She frowned so badly her entire face crumpled. She didn´t want to remember that boy´s name at all.
"It´s me, Aurelian!" The boy stared at her with far too much hope in his eyes.
"Jinx ... Laurentius ...?" the mumblings went through the once again approaching group of people. "Purple Scourge ... travels with the Demon Lord ... our Jinx ... ridiculous dancer ... champion ..."
Then Sayron clambered out of the pit and stepped towards the black-haired man. The mumbling silenced. Jinx, however, had understood more than well what they were getting at.
The large man bowed. "I am Scipio Metelli, lord. More or less the representative of these people ..."
Aurelian stepped past him and waded through the mud towards Jinx. He wiped her face clean and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Jinx," he spoke softly, but excitedly. "I hadn´t thought ... I mean, that I´d ever ... after you were thrown into the Tamesa and washed down the Witches´ Hill ... I thought you were dead." His eyes were glistening. "What happened to you?"
Jinx briefly exchanged glances with the Minions approaching her. "Aurelian ..." she started.
The boy took her hands. "It´s great to see you again," he said hoarsely.
"Is that our champion? Clad in the filthy rags of a crawler´s costume?" someone probably not very close to Sayron called out.
Aurelian looked back at her, still with those shining eyes. "Are you, Jinx?"
Grey eyes were raised to look at him. Jinx clenched her teeth. Then her hand shot out and closed around his throat with all the murderous force of a furious Purple Scourge. Aurelian uttered a choked sound and tried to pry her fingers off, but he didn´t succeed. Jinx even seemed to lift him off the ground in her rage.
"No," she hissed. It had become very silent the moment she´d grabbed Aurelian. "I´m not your champion. You´ve never been mine. Don´t expect noble deeds from me - ever again."
Aurelian struggled and looked at her with pleading eyes. Jinx looked back with an icy gaze. "I know you figured out what I felt for you, kid. Nice trick. I´m not the one I was back then." Then she threw the boy off her and in the same mud still trickling down her own back and legs. "Don´t be fooled by my clothing," her voice resounded through the narrow alleys and over the grey water. "I am the Overlord´s most trusted warrior and will act as such especially towards you."
"You hear it," Sayron chuckled, a careless hand on his sword. "I assume we won´t find you resisting us?"
Scipio had taken a step back. "Most certainly not, my lord. But that wasn´t the case before you arrived here either."
A few people backed away even further as Sayron looked over his head. "Do we look like a threat?!" a woman called out. "We have enough trouble already!"
The Overlord looked at her coolly. "The Purple Scourge seems to have had some problems with you."
Scipio cast a deadly glance at Jinx. "You were asking for it, Angelica ..."
"It is a dangerous occupation making such remarks, even if I am of an endlessly higher origin than you, oh Scipio, mighty Arena warrior," Jinx spoke with at least as much poison dripping off her voice. "Your skills with the whip are something I nonetheless will forgive nor forget." She snapped her fingers and instantly a purple flame ignited in her hand. However, it flickered and burnt on far smaller. Jinx stared at it and pumped more magic towards her hand. The flame remained small. "What´s going on here?" Then she swore to herself. "Lord," she spoke to Sayron, who turned to face her. "The city is protected by a shield that prevents the use of any magic. The part of the shield over the slums is weaker, but it is present." She nodded at the flame. "We can´t rely on our magic here."
Sayron swore. "First let´s see if we can still summon a horde. It´s a bad idea to be out and about with just eight Minions." The amber gem flared. Some people still had time to jump aside as the rumbling started, but the Minion gates drilled through the muddy soil very slowly and it took a while before the black spikes unfolded and the multicoloured fires ignited. It took even longer before all the required Minions were summoned. The hordes were small, as they probably wouldn´t be needed for long - they wouldn´t survive the flooded sewers. They didn´t manage to summon a Tower Gate.
Only as Sayron let go of the power and the gates sunk back immediately did he see Jinx lowered her arm as well. He raised an eyebrow.
Jinx shrugged. "Would´ve taken even longer without my help." She looked back at Scipio. The rest of the people started spreading again, nonetheless still nervous. "Scipio. I bet you know your way through the sewers from the point I never dared to go past."
Scipio showed the start of a mocking grin, but quickly put it away as he realized who he was dealing with now. "Where are you headed?"
"The Arena dungeons."
The look on the large man´s face was priceless to Jinx.

On their way through the slums Jinx noticed that, despite everything, she kept looking around. She´d lived here since she was eight, but after all those months around the polar circle and in the steaming jungles around the equator, it was bizarre to be back in this vast, but still so familiar area of poverty. Here dwelled the many, many slaves of Arcadiopolis. It took forty men to lift one above the mud, her mother used to say, but in many cases in this city it took more.
"So this is where you lived," a familiar voice resounded, as if telepathy was at work.
"Mother?" Jinx muttered. "Yes. For thirteen years, here. But it was worth every day."
"I´m sorry it went this way."
"So am I." Jinx looked around and recognized buildings as well as people. There were Arena warriors who didn´t get paid, but were good amusement, like Scipio. There were cooks and carriers like Tacitus, the one whose tongue had been cut out and whose master probably had been burned alive in Drearius´ villa. There were tasters who practiced their skills by frequently adding sewer frog poison to their food. If you didn´t, you wouldn´t last long in the Empire´s capital, driven by scheming and murder. There were cleaners and builders, dancers like Vesta ... Jinx secretly hoped she´d survived the fire. There were rowers who did occasionally see something of the world, but Jinx knew from experience she preferred not to do so from under a galleon´s deck. There were carpenters and horsemen like Aurelian, who were slightly luckier, unless you were kicked cripple by a race horse like the boy ... She´d seen he still limped. And then, of course, there were the many small thieves and beggars of the city, the blind, sick, deaf and others with a simple case of bad luck.
There were Nordbergians, Ruborians and others from the Old Lands, elves from the Old Forest as well as Everlight and even a few people with the healed tokens of the magical disease. Down here everyone was present.
The buildings were rarely higher than two stories and mainly built from rather rickety wood offering protection from neither wind, rain nor trespassers. Not that there were many of those in here ... unless you had so much as one dupondius to steal. Lines full of pale laundry crossed the space between the buildings, often so low Sayron´s helmet was caught in them. The grey water was never far away, and always there were the rough, damaged walls from which the large pipes emerged, many of which spewed the filthy water.
"What poverty, what filth ... just ignore it, like everyone else does," Juno muttered in Sayron´s ear.
Jinx didn´t hear it, even though the Overlord passed her by as the Mistress said it. She came to a halt and looked on to a specific point. Scipio came standing next to her. "Yes, it´s still there and it´s unoccupied. When we heard of your antics we decided to keep it in honour just in case you´d remember your roots."
"My roots were never here," Jinx muttered, but it sounded hollow. She stepped across a small clearing between the buildings, beyond the ashen remains of a night fire, and towards a rickety wooden home. On the loose door, a purple, four-pointed star had been painted.
"Purple dye? That must have been horribly expensive ..."
"Yes," Aurelian, who´d been walking along, answered. "But it does scream the fact this house has to be left alone and that our champion has lived here."
"I´m not your champion. I´m my own champion."
Kniff had remained silent up to now, but he started walking slightly faster than the others and approached the home together with Minc and Ramul. Simmer quickly joined them, glowing softly and illuminating the door as he did so. The house, probably consisting of only one room, was leaning against the stone wall at an angle. To its right a large pipe cast its water into the canals and to its left the water started fairly quickly as well. Not far from it, an enormous pipe opened on water level, large enough for even Sayron to stand upright in it.
As the red Minion´s light fell through the cracks in the door a hissing sound came from within the home. The two browns looked at Ramul, but he looked back just as hard. Then Minc cautiously opened the door. And immediately was toppled over by a whirlwind of striped fur.
Jinx stormed forward, her hands outstretched. "Snaps!" Her eyes were wide in disbelief and she was grinning. "Are you still here?!"
"I more or less took care of him, but he didn´t want to move in with us," Aurelian said. Jinx knelt down in front of the cat and outstretched a hand. The tabby tomcat, covered in scars, in proud possession of three quarters of ear and so large he might just as well have been a small tiger, sniffed her fingers warily. Then he raised his narrow green eyes to her, lowered his ears and hissed.
"Snaps, it´s me!"
The tomcat slashed out with a massive front paw. Jinx didn´t pull back in time and acquired four bloody scratches.
"Snaps ...?" Jagged mumbled, standing some distance away. He exchanged glances with Scythe and Whisper. Only the four elders knew there had once been a green Minion with that same name. He hadn´t survived Everlight. This Snaps looked like he would do so without any trouble at all. Right now he tried to claw himself up Jinx´ leg as Kniff and Minc tried to get him down. Ramul hissed even louder than the cat himself.
Eventually Snaps came high enough for Jinx to grab him, so the struggling cat hung in front of her face. Her leg was dripping with blood, but that wasn´t the worst that had happened to it lately and she could ignore pain. "Snaps," she spoke. "Calm down. It´s me, Jinx. I smell different, I look different, but it is me." Then she hugged the cat furiously. Snaps immediately buried his claws in her bare shoulder, but then seemed to realize what had just happened and widened his eyes.
"Riiight ..." Jinx whispered. "Easy now." She knew her cat´s temper better than anyone. Snaps was the scourge of all sewer rats - and bigger things - within a radius of miles around her house. And he seemed to be so territorial that even now he hadn´t left the home.
Kniff and Minc exchanged surprised glances. Then Kniff brightened. "Like wolfies," he whispered. "Dangerous at first, remember?"
Minc shivered. He could remember that day in the Nordbergian mountains all too well, the day their clan had forged an alliance with the wolves. Snaps was comparable. "But ... so small. Why bother if she can´t ride it?"
"Don´t get all of it either. Still, look ..." Kniff nodded at Jinx. The cat had relaxed and now hung over her shoulder, limp as a towel. He even was purring, with the sound of a chainsaw.
Aurelian had disappeared just before, but returned to them now. He carried a colourless shirt and pair of pants over his shoulder and coughed. "Ahem."
Jinx looked up out of Snaps' fur. "Oh!" She blushed for a moment, but then got a hold of herself again. "Thank you ... Aurelian."
The boy rubbed his throat meaningfully, but Jinx didn't pay too much attention. She disappeared into her former home to finally put some pants back on. Snaps stayed behind and leered at the Minions suspiciously. Even Stripe didn't dare coming closer and whistled between his pointy teeth instead.

As Jinx came outside again, Scipio had rejoined the group. He was carrying a torch, something which made Jinx chuckle before she realized they wouldn't be able to take the reds with them where they were going. Maybe the rest wouldn't be able to follow either, though they would try - as far as Jinx knew, the water in the large pipe was only knee-deep for the Minions.
The Arena warrior nervously looked up to Sayron. "I'm pretty certain that leads us to the Arena dungeons, Lord."
"Pretty certain? So there is another way?" Sayron briefly looked at Jinx. Scipio nodded. "Yes, but it's guarded. The only ones passing through there awaits a certain future as cannon fodder. Many of our lads have tried their luck with that passage, but not many of them survived their first day."
"And even if you survive you don't get much out of it apart from the scars," Sayron understood. He looked down as he heard a scratching sound. Snaps pulled his claws along the steel of his boots. "Jinx? Shall we get moving?"
Jinx hurriedly picked up her cat and directed him back to her house. Then she closed the painted door. "Coming."
The reds had been taken out of the horde. Scipio led them into the huge pipe with his torch, which became increasingly useful as it curved away from the docks and rickety houses, as well as the sky and the entire outside world. Sayron, Jinx and the horde stepped into a world of darkness and echoes. The Minions´ claws scratched the submerged, algae-covered metal of the pipe. The stench of the sewers around them soon penetrated the very air, even more so than in the rest of the slums.
Even here, people made a living. In branching pipes houses were built, if ´house´ was the proper description of these constructions. People who didn´t find a place in the slums themselves sought shelter here. This probably wasn´t the Glorious Empire people left Nordberg and Ruboria for ... though Jinx knew the Ruborians hadn´t had much of a choice.
Rats splashed out of their way and into smaller pipes. Here and there, small frogs leaped away as well, only inches tall. These were just the juveniles. Once they were out of their tadpole stadium they grew explosively, as Jinx knew very well.
They passed a large pipe, almost as big as the one they were following themselves, as it happened for the first time. For one moment Jinx could see two round, golden eyes staring at her, then a lump of darkness as big as a sheep jumped forwards. She leaped back and splashed the filthy water over the entire horde, but that was better than being throttled by one of the Empire´s giant toads.
The creature was almost a meter high and certainly two with the stretched hind legs. It had a bluish grey skin with yellowy eye spots on its head. The mouth was broad and looked as if it would be able to effortlessly swallow Minions whole. The frog opened it as if to prove it and let a long, pink tongue shoot out, snatching one of Scabies´ swords from the Minion´s hand. Duda squawked in fear.
Then a giant, jagged sword blade came down and pierced the skull, chest and stomach. The tongue fell down limply after a last gurgling croak. Sayron yanked his weapon from the slimy carcass and moved it through the sewer water to wash off the blood. Jinx shivered.
"Strange life around here, aside from the locals that is," Gnarl remarked.
"I´m glad you´re with us, Lord," Scipio said with one eye on the dead frog. "We´re going to come across a lot more of these. They have a rather large territory around here and there is even talk of a king."
Jinx laughed. "Save him the fairytales, Metelli."
"The people have seen him, you know," the black-haired man continued. "Around dusk, when the fires are lit. He´s truly huge."
"I should have seen him in that case, because I lived near the entrance of these accursed sewers," Jinx countered.
Sayron sheathed his sword. "There´s often a grain of truth in fairytales, Jinx. Let´s at least keep our eyes open."
Jinx shrugged and strolled towards Scabies´ fallen sword, landed in the water as the frog had fallen. "Can I borrow this?" she asked the Minion. "I feel more comfortable carrying a weapon."
Scabies nodded. "No problem."
Jinx stuck the weapon behind her belt, but kept a hand on the hilt. She cautiously stepped forward into the grey water and peered into the pipe the frog had come from. Her shadow cast an enormous amount of darkness, dancing in the light of Scipio´s flame.
There was a faint spattering noise in the pipe. And it was getting louder.
Jinx widened her eyes as she saw the dozens of golden specks, non-blinking, but approaching very fast. The spattering turned into the consistent, slimy sound of amphibian skin against metal.
"Scipio ..."
The Arena warrior looked past her. "Oh, no."
"We´ve got company!"
Sayron raised his blade. The torch flame cast a pale reflection on the metal. Not for long, however.
Not a heartbeat later the first frog, three times the size of the first, threw itself against Scipio´s chest and the torch landed in the sewer water with a loud hiss. Darkness, just pierced by the glow of Minion eyes, engulfed the group. And all hell broke loose for the horde and their fellow travelers.
Sound was their hope now, so Jinx tried her hand at yelling to lead a horde terrified by the water around them. Even the Minions didn´t see much now their eyes had yet to get used to total darkness, though that´d happen soon enough.
"To Sayron and me!" her cry echoed through the pipe. "Form groups! Don't thrust ahead!"
Her eyes started to get accustomed to the dark very slowly, so she could see it as a long tongue, as thick as a man´s wrist and covered in threads of slime, came flying straight for her. The tip hit her square in her face so she stumbled backwards, was kicked in the legs by another frog and fell onto her back. One second later the largest frog she´d seen so far was sitting on her chest. The amphibian inflated its throat, sucked it in again and opened a maw so wide Jinx gasped in sudden fear. She grasped around in the muddy water for Scabies´ fallen sword, found the hilt and stabbed the frog through its upper jaw and skull, and thrust the blade through its head until she could see the tip again. The dark blood spattered her face. She involuntarily licked her lips.
Oh, no.
The frogs were deadly poisonous, as she knew very well. She would regret this, even if she´d survive this fight.
For one moment, she wondered whether the frogs were more poisonous than the Everlightian mermaids. Then she´d pushed the cold, slimy body off her and jumped to her feet again, soaking wet and filthy, with dark blood on her clothes and sword. And just in time to see it.
At the end of the pipe, where it turned a corner, something so large it barely fit appeared. Gleaming grey, with barely visible golden spots, a mouth of three meters wide and eyes like gruesome suns ...
Scipio outstretched his arm. "The King!" he yelled, just before he was mowed down.
A rumbling sound echoed through the pipe. It took a while before Jinx realized the enormous frog was croaking.
Then, before she could react, an enormous mouth opened from within the darkness, a long pink tongue wrapped itself around her waist, rubbery lips closed and no amount of struggle could have freed her again. It seemed as if the frogs were turning towards another tactic now, and they were being told to do so by the King. To the left and right, Minions went through the same.
Though Jinx couldn´t see it anymore, Sayron and Scipio ceased their struggle and turned their blade and whip to the frogs making off with their Minion victims - and in one case, human victim. They ran through the deepening water after the retreating amphibians. At that moment the King croaked again, so loud the pipe trembled, and leaped out of sight with one kick of his mighty hind legs.
Sayron sprinted to the point where the pipe curved around and nearly lost his footing on the slippery algae beneath the surface as he turned.
The little ones make off with my Minions and the large one challenges me. This resembles my encounter below the spider temple far too much.
Drops of poisonous blood flew off his sword during the running. Scipio and the remaining Minions could barely keep up with him. I´ll never say this to her face, but if we get in trouble finding the blues I want her with me, alive! He growled softly. "Jinx ...!"

Jinx was feeling slightly odd.
She hung in the mouth of the frog that´d caught her, her sword firmly in her hand, but only restricted around her waist. She was too large to fit into the amphibian´s maw entirely, unlike some Minions. The frogs had them snared tightly, for very few had succeeded in clawing themselves out through the creatures´ throats.
But even though she would easily be able to free herself from the bouncing frog´s grip ... she didn´t. She saw the algae-covered surface of the pipe passing her by with great clarity, but she beheld it without emotion.
Poison ...
When would this pass over? Or will I die in this state?
I wouldn´t like that.
Would I?

She felt the slippery tongue come loose. Then the frog opened its mouth and dropped her into the shallow water. Around her high walls led up to a hazy ceiling, dripping with murky water and dark slime.
In front of her, the Frog King towered over her, all grey-gleaming belly and bulging throat between giant webbed feet. His golden eyes looked down on her from great height.
Jinx´ hand relaxed around the hilt of her sword.

Sayron and Scipio ran into the King´s chamber at the same moment, just in time to see Jinx fall. Sayron immediately raised his sword and was about to storm forwards, but Scipio grabbed his arm. "No, my Lord!"
The Overlord stared at him with wide eyes for a moment, but then looked back at the gigantic frog. In the mean time, the remaining browns and greens spattered after him.
The King slightly opened his mouth and croaked softly. Even now it trembled through the room and ripples raced across the water. The smaller frogs had aligned in a circle along the walls, dropping their prey one by one. At that moment the King lowered himself between his muscular legs and bent over to his first victim. Jinx stared up at him, seemingly unharmed, but Sayron knew something was very, very wrong. He shook off Scipio and ran forward. "Jinx ...!"
Then the King´s tongue shot out, thicker than a marble pillar, and his horde leader was yanked up. The largest maw of the Empire was shut and her limp body disappeared from sight.

To Jinx, her upward flight seemed to last forever.
This can´t be ...
Not with my horde still down there ...
Not now ... not this way ... this makes no sense ...
No ...!

But still, without being able to do anything about it, her world darkened and her breath was smothered in slime.

Jinx ... gone?
Sayron stared up at the King for half a second. The frog licked his rubber lips and looked back, a strange, ancient wisdom in his golden eyes. A heavy croak wrung itself from the mouth.
Jinx couldn´t be gone. Of course he could handle the Empire without her, but ...
...but even now he became aware of the hubbub in his horde and he knew he couldn´t channel his Minions´ rage in the right way like Jinx could ...
...he gripped his sword more tightly and felt his eyes change colour. A more vibrant scarlet than the fires in Giblet´s forge. A more raging fury than the Nordhaven inferno.
"VESSPERION!!"
He and the Minions stormed forward, immediately followed by the frogs aligned along the walls. It became a chaotic charge, water and blood spraying up high around the King, whose webbed feet easily crushed groups of Minions. Their bones broke on the slimy stone bottom below the water´s surface.
Sayron ran on, flinging frogs away to the left and right, tripping, sliding into the water and scrambling back to his feet ... then a giant webbed foot smacked down beside him and a wave of slimy water flushed over him. He pushed himself up, his soaking sash sticking to his armour, and hacked away at the King´s hind leg with his sword. It took surprisingly long to wound him and he could barely dodge the tongue in the time he needed. The third time the King was lucky. Fortunately, Sayron weighed quite a lot more than Jinx. The King only managed to lift him about a meter off the ground before his tongue lost its grip and the Overlord fell back into the water. The King planted his feet on both sides of Sayron and bent over. An enormous golden eye fixated him from the cocked head. The mouth opened slightly and a pale pink tongue licked out ...
...and then Sayron realized the noise around him had turned to a sudden silence.
The King averted his eyes from the Overlord between his feet and very slowly turned his eyes to his own throat, bulging like a giant grey balloon. A strange, gurgling croak wrung itself from his half-opened mouth.
Then, very softly, a purple light started glowing within.
Sayron widened his eyes and barely realized they cooled to a hopeful orange. In his half-upright situation, he gripped his sword more tightly than ever before as the light increased in brightness.
The King´s throat swelled some more, but only at a certain point. That came forward more and more, until it became apparent something inside wanted to get out ...
A muted scream started somewhere within the giant frog, but it wasn't the amphibian himself ...
"Yeeeeaaaaaaaaahhh!"
The swelling burst open in a rain of dark blood. In the middle of the eruption, a sword´s blade stuck out.
Sayron, still sitting between the King´s front legs, quickly averted his head as a flood of dark blood flushed over him - he knew it was poisonous. He scrambled backwards and looked up at the King, just in time to see the blade zipping itself all the way down his throat. The frog gurgled and it was clear to the Overlord this was a dying breath.
Then, in a wave of blood, intestines and rubbery grey skin, his horde leader rolled out. Jinx was coughing and spitting and swearing, and she fell over twice before she could stay upright again. The second time she nearly skewered herself on her own sword. But she was alive. Of course she was alive.
Kniff ran forward, and at first Jinx pushed him away before she saw who it was. Her face was covered in blood, slime and half-digested frog food, but her eyes were shining. "I´m alive? I´m alive!"
Sayron blinked as he beheld the duo. First she survived a mermaid bite. Now a dive into the Frog King´s blood. Was his horde leader as immune to poison as the greens?
Briefly, thoughts shot through his head - she was strong and tough like a brown Minion, she lobbed fire like a red ... she could heal herself ...
Then something slimy rubbed against his hand and those thoughts were wiped away. He looked down. Straight into a pair of bulging golden eyes.
The frogs of the Empire were all staring at him and Jinx.
The horde leader answered his gaze. "Just like the Spider Queen, ey? Which one of us is King now?"
"Me, I think," Sayron grinned. "Thank you."
"You´re welcome." Jinx stepped away from the King´s carcass. The frogs jumped after her. The Minions backed away slightly, but then it became apparent the amphibians were now part of the horde.
"Well, this is strange." Jinx looked around. "It´ll make our journey easier, mind. Never would have thought to find allies with this lot."
Her gaze fell to Scipio. The large man stood leaning in the pipe they´d come from. "I don´t have any light for you now, but we can see fine anyway." He gestured at the pipe invitingly. "Further in search of your missing demon clan?"
Sayron stepped forward. "Certainly."
Some time later, the darkness swallowed them once more, this time broken by the gleam of golden eyes and the sound of amphibian feet on metal.

Later ...
A sound echoed through the dark pipe. Jinx suddenly was very glad Scipio´s torch had gone out, at least it couldn´t betray them anymore. She looked down as she heard a spattering. All frogs leaped off. Appearantly they weren´t obedient enough to stay with them with those sounds ahead. Jinx smiled a crooked smile. Maybe the blue Minions can train them like the greens trained the spiders, and we´ll be able to put them to good use.
Blues ...
Cautiously creeping forward through the ankle-deep water, Jinx started making out voices and recognizing words.
" ...hear they´re back on the program ..."
" ...get to make yourself useful, Old White ..."
"...think I´m going to watch."
A gurgling voice answered shortly now and then, but so softly it was barely audible. Jinx stiffened. That voice resembled Mortis´. Could it be? That was another blue Minion talking ...

"I think I´m going to watch. What do you think of that, Old White?"
It was a rotund man, clad in a second-hand suit of armour, but the damage could have easily been caused by the biting air down here in the sewers. He was grinning and facing one of the dripping walls of the small, square room in the middle of the pipe system, separated from it by rusty but still strong bars. On the other side of them was the creature he´d called Old White, in the shadows upon the enormous steel ball he was chained to.
The man outstretched a finger. "It´ll be fun to watch them die again."
"I´m sure it´ll be, Drusus. Humour is something you possess in large quantities," the creature answered in a soft, deep voice, gurgling slightly.
Behind the man his mates chuckled, sitting at a low table, playing cards in the light of a lantern. Drusus narrowed his eyes. "You never learn, do you? Do you want me to cut something else off?"
"I´d prefer it if you didn´t." Old White shrugged, something about that movement not entirely right in the darkness that surrounded him. "But I think I won´t be able to do much about it."
"Shall I handle the others, Drusus?" Another man stood up from the card game, a large curved dagger in his hand.
Old White fell silent. Amber eyes were lowered in the dark. On the other side of the room four more pairs stared into the gloom, backing away as the man approached them. Keys jingled. "This is going to be fun. What will it be this time? Fingers? Or something better? I´ve heard all internal organs can come to light without the patient dying." The dagger glistened as the blade lifted the chin of one of the four creatures. "I wonder if I could cut gills into your ne-" The man fell silent. A new colour was glistening upon his blade, a colour that absolutely wasn´t present in the room. Purple.
The next moment the weapon spun from his grip in the explosion that blew his head off.
In the dark opening of the pipe leading to the rest of the sewers a figure stepped forward, rubbing her hands to lose the remaining sparks. The remaining men turned to her immediately, but from behind her rasping voices resounded and they quickly became battle cries. Two guardians yelled for reinforcements, but they´d never get to them in time. An enormous shadow raised an even bigger blade and was then wiped from view by another purple explosion. The creatures in the cages averted their eyes, used to the dark as they were.
Then, just like that, it was silent.
Jinx extinguished the last sparks flying around her fingers. She looked up as she heard a soft, slightly gurgling voice.
" ...Is it you, my Lord? At last?"
Only then she really saw the contents of the cages.
On rotting straw, surrounded by fish bones and chained to the dripping walls of the room were ... they. That for which they´d left Everlight with such haste. The blue Minions. The last remaining clan, lost so long ago, so valuable.
However, there were only four of them and they looked hopeless. The glow of their large eyes was dim and not all of them even had two eyes. With all of them, their smooth skin was covered in scars. With three of them their ear webs were severely damaged or partly missing, the fourth missed all of his fingers on one hand.
Jinx stepped towards them and outstretched a hand through the bars. "What have they done to you..." She knew, putting one and one together. The blues had been here for years and in that timespan their guards just had to notice the fact they could heal themselves and one another. Not many injuries were deadly for this clan and even then a blue Minion wasn´t lost - every blue Minion could resurrect a dead clan member if his body was still intact. Or more or less intact.
"Where´s the rest of the clan?" For a moment she feared this would be just like the way they´d found the greens, but then one of them raised his lifeless, non-blinking eyes to her.
"Further into the system," the shivering blue spoke in a hopeless voice. "We´re the resurrecters."
"We do most of the work after the Games," a deeper voice resounded from behind them. Sayron, Jinx and the others turned around.
On the other side of the room was another cage, they had to have passed it without really noticing. There was the Minion who´d probably spoken first of all, atop an enormous metal ball he was chained to. And he was a truly bizarre sight to behold.
His eyes were lifeless like those of the others, but even bigger. One of his ear webs had been completely torn apart before it had been cut up even further, and the other wasn´t exactly intact anymore either. On his one shoulder were three gleaming scars, like a handprint, but on his other shoulder nothing was visible because he missed his right arm completely. Both of his middle toes, too, were missing. But the most striking was the colour of his skin. This Minion was almost white.
Around his neck was a blue shell. Jinx knew the meaning of that. "Blue leader," she spoke. The large eyes were turned her way and the Minion smiled. "You see that well. My name is Zap. I´m very glad to finally set eyes upon you. To what does the horde thank your company, young lady?"
"I´ve been travelling along for a while. I´ve heard much about you, Zap."
"Do Minions still remember the blue clan from the times before we left the other hordes in such a foolish way?" Zap smiled wryly. "Whatever you´ve heard, I don´t deserve a good reputation."
Gnarl joined the conversation. "I don´t want to tell him yet, Zap, but there was one who survived the disappearance of the Hive. Hylke and Gush died, but the third is still alive."
The white Minion frowned for a moment, but then he seemed to remember something. His already wide eyes widened even further. "Young Murk ... is he still alive? Oh, the tragedy ..." He seemed to forget his own situation completely for the moment. "So far from the Hive, for such a long time. How did he manage? But he was always the one with the most intimate bonds to death ..."
"He calls himself Mortis these days. Many horde members owe him their lives ... multiple times over."
"I´d very much like to see him again." Zap looked up to the Overlord. "Master ... I assume you are our new Master. I´ve served Lord Vessperion, and Lord Alcazar and many others before him. I´m a bit younger than Giblet, but just as loyal. The only problems are these chains." The white Minion outstretched his one hand and feet from his seat upon the iron ball in apology.
Jinx immediately ran to the other side of the room and snatched the keys from the dead hand of the man she´d decapitated. A pool of blood was still spreading from the stump of his neck - it hadn´t been completely scorched shut by her magic. She first opened the chains of the four other blues. It surprised her to see them standing up slowly. Then she hurried back to Zap´s cage. After a bit of fiddling she´d opened both his door and his chains.
Zap hoisted himself up by his iron ball and hesitantly tested his two-toed feet, with a bit more trouble than his clan members who had a more stable footing. Spink immediately supported him. The pale Minion looked to the side in surprise. "Spink?"
"Still here," the old Minion with the hollowed pumpkin on his head rasped. His voice sounded slightly rawer than normal and behind his pumpkin his eyes seemed to glisten. "But why so white, Zap?"
"Let´s just say I took a clan leader´s responsibility."
The other blues staggered towards the horde and embraced Zap and eachother. "He did almost all of the resurrections after the Games. I´m surprised he´s got magic left," the Minion missing the fingers of one hand said.
"Thirteen years," Zap laughed incredulously, blinking as he looked up at Sayron and Jinx. "Ever since the moment we dived into the Tamesa with the Hive I´ve regretted my lack of self-control. The people here do that to you. The Arena was built especially for us, you know. We´re magical in the most heathen meaning of the word and it was also possible to keep us alive forever. But now you´re here, Master! And I see the other clans have also managed to reach the Netherworld ... that´s where your bastion is located, isn´t it?"
"The Netherworld in all its glory," Sayron nodded. "Where is the Hive?"
"I fear I won´t be able to lead you to her, Master. I haven´t seen the Hive in years."
"Then we´ll have to search," Jinx said determined. "We´re getting you out of here ... all of you."
Scipio had kept to himself during the reuniting with the blues, but he looked up now. "That won´t be easy ..."

Indeed, it wasn´t.
After some more pipes Scipio carefully led them through, they were suddenly looking out over an underground canal filled with stinking water, bordered by grey stone walkways on both sides. Both of them were packed with cages and copper jars. Some of them were surrounded by a multicoloured aura, some others resonated with strange sounds - gnome chittering, the buzz of fairy wings. From the larger cages came snorting and ... crying? Some of the voices seemed human.
Gnarl let his eyes wander around through the mist pool. "The Empire gathered magical creatures from all over the lands here! They must be headed for the Arena above ... but it seems much of their magic has been removed ... that fairy glow isn´t half as intense as usual, for example."
Kelda snorted. "Cowards. I appreciate a good hunt, a bit of bloodshed. But it has to be fair, as nature intended. Otherwise, what´s the fun?"
A blue glow caught the eyes of Sayron and Jinx at the same moment. It shone into the darkness weakly, emanating from the other side of the canal, and it barely stood out in the gloom. "That must be the Hive!"
"All the way across the water," Sayron mumbled from the entrance of the pipe. He looked lower. Gnarl had his comments at the ready immediately. "There´s a raft, but I doubt whether the Minions you have with you now can push it. You need more of them, Sire."
Zap looked down at his feet. The middle toes were missing, and so were the webs that had connected them. "I fear I won´t be able to actually swim ever again, Sire. They started with chopping off the most important parts." He nodded at the stump of his arm. "Maybe Gills, Flounder, Shark and Clam can help, but ..."
"We were planning to get every blue Minion out of here anyway, weren´t we, Lord?" Jinx asked sharply. Then she stepped forward alongside the canal.
Almost immediately, she noticed the void on her left. There was another large room. From atop the stone walkway, she could see the lower floor was flooded, but the water wasn´t deep. She raised her head.
Along the ceiling, copper jars were rattling past on creaky rails. From within some of them resounded gurgling sounds that sounded very familiar to her.
She quickly scanned the surroundings, then saw some other jars which were emanating gnome chittering, tied together with a long piece of rope. Within two seconds she´d tied a square knot and flung it up. She managed to get her lasso around one of the hooks from which the jars were suspended. "Sayron! Catch!" She unhooked the nearest jar and lobbed it down. Every jar with the sound of blues coming from it followed. Some landed in the water, others rolled over the stones with loud clattering. For the time being, she didn´t care if the Minions broke anything. They could heal it anyway.
The soft copper was no match for the Minions´ weapons, even if the lids were molten shut with only a small airhole in them. The blues climbing out were scarred, but far less than the five who´d served as personal toys for their guards. They even looked strong, very different from what Jinx had heard. These Minions had been thrown into the Arena many times over and had probably gotten more than enough experience.
Jinx threw down the last jar, while the free blues handled those in the water, and powerlessly looked on as the jars she´d missed were taken along over the canal. How many Minions was the Empire planning to use?
"We have enough for the raft."
She looked over her shoulder. "But we´re freeing all of them."
"We´ll try our best, but I don´t think that´s going to happen, Jinx."
Jinx looked at the horde, still tugging at various jars or whacking away at them with heavy weaponry. From some of them came no blue, but a fairy or gnome. Those were dispatched easily. Then she turned and flew off.
She ran over the stones and ignored the cages containing unicorns and strangers species. In some of them were elves or even humans. She ignored those, too. Maybe they´d lived close to her, but she was here for the Minions now.
She was aware of the fact Minions came after her and together they made quite a lot of noise as they spurted along the canal, thrashing and kicking open jars as they went, but she didn´t stop. She was determined to free as many blues as possible as fast as she could. They wrung themselves out through the holes in their jars, cutting themselves on the cracked copper but immediately healing themselves again, and they hurried back to the Overlord or after her. Gurgling cries of triumph resounded through the stagnant air.
Then Jinx ran around a corner, away from the canal. And straight into someone she didn't want to meet right now.
It was a guard, but not in second-rate armour like the ones that´d been guarding Zap and the others. He widened his eyes, first in confusion, then in recognition. "So you were making all that racket ... Men! I have the Purple Scourge!"
Jinx shot to the side and drew Scabies´ sword, but the guard had already grasped her arm and a second gripped her waist soon after. She struggled like a lunatic and managed to cut off some fingers, so the first guard had to let go. "Sayron!" she shouted. "I need a little help in here!"
Then she saw what was standing a few yards away, in the darkness. It was a giant cage, and what was inside was making more noise than Jinx herself.
It was a mountain of grey fur, five meters tall, with muscular arms like tree trunks. The knuckles touched the floor and one enormous yellow eye stared at her above a broad, sharp-fanged mouth.
She recognized that stare. This was - no doubt about it - the very same yeti that had chased her off the Nordbergian mountains.
"Ankhwoo!"
In the guardians´ grip, her eyes remained locked in the yeti´s gaze. Arena fodder. She pitied the ones to fight him ... or had already fought him. Apparently Florian Greenheart had failed to protect the creature from the Empire ...
Then new, raspy shouts drowned out the yeti´s racket and the guards were throttled by the horde from all sides. More men came running from the darkness, but there simply weren´t enough. As Jinx yanked herself loose and freed the guard´s intestines with one strike of the sword, she first realized the Emperor hadn´t exactly protected the Hive very well ...
From deeper into the darkness behind the yeti´s cage came the blow of a horn.
Jinx spun around. There, in the direction of the canal, came an answer at the moment the first hornblower was silenced. From beyond Sayron and Scipio, fighting closer to the water, suddenly sounded the splash of oars ...
"Sayron! The Hive!"
The Overlord turned. His eyes widened. "They´re rowing her down the canal!"
"After her, Sire! We can´t lose her!"
Sayron ripped his sword from his last victim´s chest and didn´t even make an effort to wipe the blade clean. "We´re taking the raft!" his voice thundered, echoing between the dripping stone walls. "Follow me!"
To the left and right Minions turned away from dead or dying victims. Some of them tried to get away, but had underestimated the men and were stabbed in the back at the last moment. Jinx swiped her blade around one last time and wanted to make off, but then she saw the blues running to the fallen Minions as fast as they could. Blue sparks danced through the dark, more than she´d ever seen with Mortis. Blood dried, wounds closed themselves and the dead Minions stood up again ...
Without life force! Just like that!
The blues really are irreplaceable, Jinx though as she stumbled, turned and ran after Sayron. Vessperion, I hope this ends well.
The glow of the Hive was dying over the water as they returned to the canal. Sayron, however, ran back to where they´d come from with great metal strides. The raft was still floating at its dock. "Push us," he ordered the blues. "Down the canal and after the Hive."
The brown and green hordes jumped onto the raft, pushing and shoving until they all fit more or less. Sayron, Scipio and Jinx stood at the front. The gathered blues jumped into the water and placed their hands against the back of the raft, pushing off with their webbed feet at the same time. The only one not swimming was Zap. His webless feet were useless and the old Minion would probably never brave a current again.
Slowly but certainly the raft came into motion. It accelerated until it glided over the filthy water, casting waves in front of it. Sayron strained his eyes. The blue glow of the Hive became stronger, up ahead.
Then it was replaced with an orange light.
The blues kicked their feet more fiercely. As the raft reached the new light source it turned out to be a torch, attached to the wall. A row of them stretched out on both sides of the canal, along the walls, so the Hive´s glow was drowned out.
"They´re lighting torches," Sayron growled. "Faster! We´re losing her!"
Up ahead, the row of lights stopped. Once there the raft bumped against some sort of shore, turning out to lead up in the form of stairs. Jinx jumped off the raft first and ran up. At the top of the stairs was a pair of heavy wooden doors, but they weren´t locked. She started pushing them open. Then Sayron was suddenly behind her and flung them open with one shove of his armoured hand.
Light flooded out.
Sayron´s eyes paled and Jinx turned white.
In front of their feet, a red carpet started, embroidered in a rich gold thread. It partly covered a veined white marble floor, the same material that´d been used for the walls. Pillars supported a high ceiling full of mosaics of landscapes and gods. Enormous, high windows let in the daylight with crushing force.
The first blues left filthy, wet web-prints on the carpet. They looked around them fearfully.
"Sire," Scipio mumbled. "This is a part of the Imperial Palace ..."
"Well, then this is our chance," Sayron growled. "Maybe Solarius´ head will roll over this marble today."
They walked across the carpet, not without awe inspired by their grand surroundings. Statues flanked their path, men with raised swords, and eventually a duo with crowns of leaves. Replicas of the Emperor himself. Beyond them, stairs led up.
Sayron and Jinx climbed them side by side. As they could see what awaited them at their top, Jinx held her breath for a moment.
A depth, full of seats, leading down to a round, sand-covered field ...
"There´s the Arena!" Juno exclaimed. "Oh, I´m going to miss seeing the Games ..."
"Don´t worry about that," Kelda bit back. "I´m sure there´ll be enough haughty, stuck-up harpies to make up for your absence. Sayron, be careful, will y-"
A sharp sound interrupted her. It was the sound of slow, mocking applause.
Sayron, Jinx and the gathered Minions abruptly turned around. On the other side of the stairs was the entrance to another room. And in that entrance was a familiar face.
Marius Ovidius clapped his hands one more time and then spread them in a low bow. "Welcome, Lord Sayron of the Netherworld, and you, Purple Scourge. I´m sure you´ll enjoy the Arena Games now there´s such a beautiful thing at stake."
Sayron raised his sword. "Where´s the Hive?"
"I knew you´d follow that little piece of junk. That plan couldn´t fail. It´s about to be destroyed in the Vat of the merciful Emperor, as every magical object or creature should be. It´s become useless now it´s served its role as bait." Marius stepped back. Sayron followed, his eyes red with rage. Jinx nervously looked between them and shook her head. "Lord ..."
Marius walked backwards into the room behind him. "The Games will have something wonderful at stake, Demon Lord! Far more valuable than the Hive ... your life and the entire Netherworld."
A twin of Sentinels stepped out of the room on both sides of the Speaker. The dark blue robes stretched over horribly deformed bodies, different from anything Sayron had ever seen with the Sentinels. Their heads were asymmetrical and their backs were hunched. Beneath their gloves, some of their fingers were longer than others.
"Brod, Angela, faithful friends," smiled Marius. "Bring him to his knees."
The two Sentinels raised their hands and a flood of bloodred light like Jinx had never experienced before fell over them and the horde. The Minions screamed out in pain and many lost consciousness almost immediately. The pain was so terrible it took a short while for Jinx to actually feel it, but when she felt it, it was enough to do the same to her. The last she saw were two gleaming eyes beneath the hood of the shorter Sentinel. There seemed to be a film of tears over the nacre, but it could also just be her diminishing sight ...
Sayron managed to resist. On one knee, but with clenched fists and trembling with strain, he looked straight at Marius. Next to his ear he could hear Gnarl shouting, but the connection was about to be broken by this amount of antimagic. "Master ... Mast ... M-"
As his advisor´s voice died away, the Overlord felt his last shred of power evaporate. He fell over onto the red carpet with a thud, amidst his likewise fallen Minions.
"You´ll make a splendid act at the Arena Games ..."

Chapter Text

A pounding sound woke him. The second thing that came through was the pain.
His entire body was raw. His armour scraped across bruises, cuts and bumps, quite a lot of muscles seemed to be stretched too far and his head was almost bursting apart. The pounding sound turned out to be his own heart, thumping in his rushing ears.
Lord Sayron felt wrecked.
He raised his glowing eyes. He was lying on a stone floor, partly covered in sand. In front of him were bars. They´d put him in a cage.
He grasped for the hilt of his sword, to discover his weapon was gone. Of course. Into the Arena unarmed, as was befitting of a captive or a slave.
Sayron uncertainly grabbed at the bars and managed to get hold of one of them. He painfully climbed to his feet.
Maybe he could melt them with magic.
He raised a hand, but all he could produce were a couple of blue flashes. Of course. The magical shield.
Where were the Minions? Where was Jinx? They couldn´t have stood up against the Sentinels, they had to be trapped in here somewhere as well...
At that same moment, the bars rolled down, into the stones. Sayron stumbled out of his cage.
Now he realized the rushing sound in his ears was actually something quite different than his own blood. It was the sound of hundreds of cheering people.
A single, deafeningly amplified voice clearly recognizable as Marius Ovidius´ sounded above them all. "Look at that, ladies and gentlemen, a magnificent explosion and he hasn´t got a scratch himself, beautifully done for an uncivilized Ruborian savage!" The cheering grew louder. Sayron staggered towards the sound. New bars isolated him from a seemingly outstretched plain of sand, where a group of many-legged creatures was scrambling about. Some hurried away, others were charging towards a certain point. That point was a boy, about twenty, with dark skin, covered in scratched metal greaves, a single arm guard and damaged chainmail. Apart from that he was only wearing rags, leaving bare quite a lot of his gleaming skin. His chest, legs and unprotected arm were covered in scars and as he turned Sayron could see the same applied to his face. He was carrying a large trident and a net, which he flung around wildly to throw it over two of the creatures at once, swift as a snake.
Sayron focused on the boy´s opponents. They were enormous beetles with a yellowy abdomen and rustling shields. Scattered through the Arena the Overlord could see scorch marks in the sand. He kept standing by holding one of the bars and let all this come through. They let the Ruborian boy fight against the bomber beetles from the same realm. The ancient Ruboria mainly consisted of deserts populated by the most fearsome creatures of the planet, among which these explosive insects and the mighty sand worms.
The boy, who appeared to be an experienced Arena warrior, stuck his trident through the net and jumped back with agility as the beetles exploded. The bang resounded through the entire Arena and the audience applauded.
Sayron blinked. As he´d jumped back, the boy had snatched his net away with his trident, so he could use it again. He was good...
You´ll make a splendid act at the Arena Games...
The Overlord took a deep breath. He knew he´d probably be next.
He turned so he could lean against the bars. As matters were now, he wouldn´t survive much of what the Empire could throw at him.
Then his eye caught a couple of copper jars against the far wall, beyond the cage he´d come out of. He slowly walked towards them. At his approaching footsteps, gurgling voices emanated from inside.
Blue Minions...
He clenched an armoured fist around one of the jars and used all the force he had left. The lid flew off.
A blue Minion wrung himself out and folded his webbed hands. "Greetings, Lord." He let his round eyes slide over Sayron, and without wasting time with words, he laid both of his hands on the Overlord´s arm. Blue sparks flew out and rushed into Sayron´s veins. Immediately, his wounds were healed and his head stopped hammering. His strength returned. He stood up straight. "Thank you."
"You're most welcome, my Lord. Is there a chance we´re getting out of this?"
"As long as I´m breathing, there is. Did the Hive make it?"
"If she´d been destroyed we´d be in a place from where there is no resurrection. Not all is lost."
"And the last beetle bites the dust! The savage triumphs over the beasts!" it resounded through the bars. Sayron and the Minion looked up at once. Marius yelled over the hurricane of new applause with his amplified voice. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, the main act. We have a real treat for you this time."
Sayron´s heartbeat increased. His eyes ignited. He smashed his fist through another jar, freeing a second Minion.
"He´s a vile magic user."
A third and fourth Minion joined his horde. Sayron knew he didn´t stand a shadow of a chance with just blues, reborn though he was feeling now.
"A mass murderer!" shouted Marius. Sayron grinned involuntarily. "Do you want me to prove it again, Marius?" he quietly spoke to himself.
"Ladies and gentlemen, he is the enemy of everything you hold sacred and dear!" The Speaker paused. The audience was deathly silent. Sayron clenched his fists, a good blue horde behind him, tall and proud behind the bars.
Then they rolled down and nothing stood between him and the open plain of the Arena. Marius´ voice thundered down upon him and the audience went mad. "He´s the Demon Lord of Nordberg!"
Sayron stepped onto the sand with as much dignity and menace as he could manage and resisted the urge to stare up and turn around. The seats, filled with Imperials, towered above him on all sides. They were completely stuffed with a sea of white togas and the sun glistened upon gold and jewels everywhere.
Right in front of him, pillars of red marble rose up. They supported an enormous balcony, hung with red banners with golden suns. In the middle between the emblems, a figure leant over the balustrade and even from here Sayron could see the wide red cloak, the richly embroidered tunic and the crown of golden leaves.
"Solarius!" the Overlord roared.
The Emperor straightened out. A moment later, something long and glistening tumbled down from the balcony to bury itself into the sand at the base of the pillars. From across the Arena Sayron recognized the object - it was his sword.
Marius was standing next to his ruler, with seemingly nothing to amplify his voice so monstrously. Sayron had, by now, figured out the Empire didn´t despise magic as much as they said they did. He´d bet the Darklords´ helmets at least half of their realm was built on the exact same as his.
"Let´s rile him up a bit!" the Speaker yelled. "There´s nothing as amusing as an angry savage, as we saw with the Ruborian. Bring in his little imp friends."
Sayron nearly tripped in his run to the other side and his sword. They´d left his Minions alive!
But where was the Purple Scourge?
On both sides, gates in the Arena wall rolled open. Minions stumbled out, unstable and wounded. Most of them dragged themselves along and left behind bloody trails of varying size. Sayron recognized Stripe; almost his whole face was covered in dried blood and one of his eyes was black and swollen.
Then figures jumped after the Minions. They were Imperials with the best armour and black-plumed helmets - probably Arena guards and formidable opponents by the look of them. They were carrying swords on their belts, but in their hands were spears and those spears came down upon the Minions trying to get away from them. Their screams mingled with the cheering of the audience.
Sayron widened his eyes. Did they give him Minions just to let him watch them die?
Then he looked back. The frontmost of the blue Minions, a large individual with ear webs continuing far down his chin and a large scar across his chest, was looking at him grimly. "Into action, Lord?"
"Into action!" the Overlord nodded hurriedly. He watched the blues sprinting forward as their webbed feet threw the dry sand up high. The Arena guards backed away and posted themselves next to the gates. They wouldn´t attack him, Sayron realized. That was the task of disposable opponents. It seemed a good idea to not attack them, either, before he´d analyzed the situation fully...
...once he had his Minions back.
The blues had reached the heaps of dead Minions. Some were still half alive and dragged themselves towards the blues. The sand around the gates was drenched with blood. There were browns and greens, practically everyone who´d survived the journey through the sewers.
Then the blue sparks began flying and many of the fallen spontaneously climbed back to their feet. Stripe spat blood, but then growled menacingly at the people sitting above him. Some ladies shrieked.
"This despicable creature that hails from the bowels of the earth itself killed my own dear brother Borius!" Marius raged on the Imperial balcony. "And he slaughtered our most noble governess Cardea of Everlight!"
The hordes gathered around Sayron. The largest blue Minions supported two younger greens singlehandedly. The Overlord sprinted on towards his sword, reached the red pillars and pulled it from the sand. His fingers closed around the familiar hilt.
"He is responsible for the Great Cataclysm and the magical plague," Marius spoke directly above him. Sayron looked up with flaming eyes and caught the cold stare behind the monocle. The Emperor looked down as well, but his face was emotionless and his eyes were so dark no expression was to be found even there.
"But here in this Arena, ladies and gentlemen, the Demon Lord of Nordberg will face the consequences of his actions."
"We´ll give him a show," the largest blue Minion gurgled confidently.
"However, we are not unsporting, ladies and gentlemen. We´ll even let him use his magic to serve as a warning about this diabolical practice. Much good may that do him." The Speaker straightened out, took his hands off the balustrade and clapped twice.
"Let the Games begin."
The cheering of the audience died away. Suddenly Sayron caught another sound; that of thumping against wood. He looked around and saw four wooden gates in the Arena wall, not that far away. They were trembling beneath the violent force of something on the other side, something that wanted out. He planted his feet firmly into the sand. "Here we go," he whispered.
The gates opened. That same moment four snowy white flashes shot out and straight for him.
They were unicorns, their heads low and their mouths dripping with yellow foam. The deadly ivory horns were aimed for him and the horde and before Sayron could blink his eyes, the magical horses rammed them. Some unwary Minions were skewered immediately and there was a wave of cheering in the audience as new blood splattered into the sand.
The Minions had never fought unicorns before, but they recovered miraculously. Very soon, Jagged and Whisper flung themselves onto the back and around the throat of the front and long red strokes appeared across the white pelt. The unicorn uttered a low sound and kicked its hind legs. Two others reared up and crushed careless Minions with their hooves as they came down. Sayron knew the horns and hooves of unicorns were harder than those of normal horses, probably thanks to the magic in their veins. He also noticed the wounds Jagged and Whisper had dealt were slowly starting to heal even now.
"More Minions! At them, now!" Sayron outstretched a hand and flung his reborn lightning into the direction of the stampeding magical beasts. One of the unicorns slowed and came to a thrashing halt. The Overlord brought his sword down and cut through much of the elegant neck. The unicorn fell down and the Minions finished the job.
More unicorns galloped into the Arena, but the Minions ran straight at them and flung their claws, weapons and teeth through the white pelt until it wasn´t white anymore. The blues turned to the fallen with great efficiency so his horde remained intact. As Sayron straightened out and ripped his sword from the belly of a third unicorn he suddenly saw more jars standing along the far walls of the Arena, reinforced with metal bands but still shaking beneath the violence of the contents. He realized the Empire probably wanted to finish off every living Minion together with him, in one gigantic show. Maybe the audience had prepared for a fight that lasted all day, or longer... They had all the time in the world and were more than willing to watch until he died.
Well, he wouldn´t grant them any rest if that was the case.
He ran along the Arena walls and crushed the steel bands and the soft copper beneath it with his much stronger arcanium sword. More browns and greens joined the horde. They were the weaker ones. Sayron recognized Minc, Kniff and Stabbit. The latter had multiple scars across his whole chest, so many it seemed as if his heart had been cut out many times over, but still the wounds had healed...
"See how the magical beasts lust for the fight!" Marius´ voice resounded.
"He sure can fight," Sayron caught on the seats above him as one of the surviving unicorns wrestled him against the Arena wall and the Overlord clasped his armoured hand around the beast´s jaw. An enormous tug, and the neck broke with a loud crack. "That´s what a real man looks like..."
Sayron halted, panting heavily, as the unicorn slid out of his grasp and thudded into the sand. He barely realized he and his Minions had killed all of them. He could hear Marius grinding his teeth on the balcony, however. "Let´s make the next round a bit more difficult, ladies and gentlemen," the Speaker spat. "Bring her in."
Sayron abruptly looked up. With a loud rattle another gate in the Arena wall opened.
"Ladies and gentlemen, apart from the Demon Lord of Nordberg our infinitely wise Emperor has another surprise for you today..."
The Minions looked around them nervously. Sayron gripped his sword more tightly than ever.
"She, too, is a despicable practiser of the magical arts. She is the much sought-after right hand of the Demon Lord..."
Sayron clenched his teeth. They had Jinx.
"A halfblood witches´ spawn, returned from the bowels of the earth where she forged an alliance to darkness, I give you the Purple Scourge!"

The Purple Scourge!
The ears of multiple Minions flew up at hearing that name, but there was one whose tuque hat was nearly lifted off his head. Kniff had been standing close to Sayron, but now he sprinted across the Arena so fast he tripped over his own feet as he came to a standstill. Some others hadn´t hesitated either. He looked into the gloomy catacombs expectantly, his claws twitching with worry.
As Jinx entered the Arena it was with limp arms. Her head lay on her chest, so her face was obscured, and she was staggering as if she was drunk. Kniff immediately grabbed her, and if he and some others hadn´t supported her she´d surely have fallen.
She´d clearly been tortured. In some places the blood came leaking through her clothes. They´d taken everything Aurelian had given her and dressed her up in Arena-equipment, a chainmail, a leather breastplate and a single arm and leg guard. The damage, however, had already been done.
Kniff reached up and pushed away her hair. His yellow eyes widened.
One side of her face had been totally dislodged, as if she´d been been hit with a hammer repeatedly. Her right eye lay in the socket in a strange way and with a milky hue, with a pink haze of burst veins below that. Her cheekbone had been crushed and her jaw was broken. There were four slashes across her cheek that went so deep Kniff, upon looking closer, could see her teeth through the flesh. The wounds seemed to be dealt by claws, or nails. Her other eye was black and as good as shut.
It was no wonder she was staggering, for one of her kneecaps was clearly dislodged. The Minion could also see her left arm had been broken in three places. Marius had completely raged out on her.
But even now the blue Minions hurried towards her. A swarm of blue sparks surrounded the mangled horde leader. Her arm jolted and creaked as the bone wrung itself into the right positions, her kneecap slid back and her face twitched and changed form as her cheek closed itself and her skull healed.
Jinx breathed in, with a rasping sound. Her eyes focused. Her right eye was alright again, but there were large scars across half of her face. The new ones on her body stood out far more than the scars she´d acquired up to now. "Kniff...?"
"Still alive," the Minion answered. He looked up nervously. "But not for long."
"That´s not the right attitude," the horde leader mumbled.
"Now the Purple Scourge seems to be battle-ready..." Marius chuckled for a moment. "Ladies and gentlemen, the demoness in human form now knows the meaning of pain. But she still has much to learn. Give them our jewels, gentlemen. And while you´re at it, show the audience what happens to bad slaves."
Jinx looked up as she heard the rattling of metal bars. On Sayron´s side rose a roar she remembered from the Heartland, brainless and insane, like the sound of grass bears but from a human throat. They´d unleashed the Gargantuans.
More gates rolled open, and smaller figures entered. Humans. Indeed, former slaves from the slums by the look of them. Some of them still wore the richer clothing of villa slaves. There were even some dancers who reminded Jinx of Vesta, girls who´d probably grown too mature to continue dancing but weren´t given another task by their masters. Marius did pay a good price for Arena fodder.
As the Arena was filled with their opponents, Sayron and Jinx called the Minions towards them. Jinx slowly drew the Arena sword they´d given her and weighed it in her hand. Not an ideal weapon compared to the daggers she was used to, and certainly not perfect compared to her ropes. But she´d have to use it. This was about survival.
"We´re getting out of this," she spoke. The Minions´ ears moved slightly. "We´ll see the Netherworld again."

"We´ll never see him again."
Deep below the cities of man, where daylight never showed its face and the only light came from lava, torches and magic, was an ancient grey Minion sitting hunched over a pool of black mist. Even the feared yellow pinpricks of eyes didn´t pierce the darkness now. His ears, however, were stubbornly pointing upwards and his fists were clenched. The one who´d spoken was the woman on his right hand, stomping her feet so violently the mist trembled. "We´ll never see him again... and what will happen to us then?"
"Mistresses of a fallen Master are allowed around for long enough to see if they´re pregnant, if not, the Tower is rid of its inhabitants and we´ll start the search for a new Master," Gnarl spoke in an emotionless voice. He raised his eyes to Juno. "But I don´t think it will get that far, my lady. Lord Sayron is tougher than you think."
"He is," the other woman on the advisor´s left hand growled. Kelda´s hands were clenched into fists as well, so tightly her nails dug into the palms of her hands.
"Of course we´ll see him again, you stupid wench. He´s a fighter. He´s a Nordbergian!" Her eyes flashed with pride. "When he was little he was already wrestling down seal mothers!"
The three fell silent, as silent as the Minions in the throne room. Their ears were hanging down limply. Gnarl, however, refused to show what he knew they were going through despite their own words. Sayron´s signal wouldn´t return for some time. He was stuck on an island amidst an ocean of antimagic. He´d been in Imperial hands for two days now. Two days on the edge of a dark mist pool, while Kelda didn´t leave his side and Juno, if she came down, was a nervous wreck.
Sayron, Jinx and the blue Hive. There was quite a lot at stake in these Games.

It was a good thing Jinx had drawn her sword, for before she even knew it she had to swing it around sideways to keep the first attackers off her. She caught the fact the first round had consisted of unicorns, but it became very clear Marius was tightening his fist now. These might be slaves, and they´d been equipped with sloppy weapons and armour, but there were very, very many of them. The Speaker had probably brought in all of his Arena warriors, voluntary or not. There were people with a typical Nordbergian appearance, elves clearly caught directly on Everlight and shipped to this mainland, all the many peoples from the slums...
...a Gargantuan stormed past with a deafening roar, five Minions on his back among which a green who´d been crushed against a wall so hard all of his bloody bones stuck through his ripped skin, though he managed to keep himself in place because his claw knives were buried through the creature´s armour so deeply...
...the magical thunder rumbled as Sayron electrocuted seven slaves at once...
...her sword pulled swathes of light through the air, diminishing in brightness as the blade became covered in human blood...
...only as her muscles started protesting did she realize how long she´d been tangled up in battle and still the Arena was filled with screaming people and Minions...
...and then suddenly there was a trident stuck in her shoulder.
She swirled around, panting, her face covered in blood, not all of it from others. The three razor-sharp points were retracted and new blood defiled her armour.
The one holding the weapon had a gleaming, dark skin and a messy black head of hair. His eyes were glistening surprisingly blue.
A part of Jinx´ mind registered his proud stance. This was no slave. This was a trained Arena warrior. And above that, he was Ruborian.
The Ruborians had always been a proud people, she knew that. However, the Cataclysm had brutally ended their reign in the northern part of their desert kingdom. Twenty years ago the Wasteland swallowed the mountains that held the source of their holy river Kemetis, changing the river from a bringer of life to a bringer of death and destruction. The main part of their realm collapsed. Many of the survivors had sought a better life in the south, deeper into the desert, but there were others travelling to the north... into Imperial lands. Weakened and bereft of all, the former great leaders and their people had knocked on the growing Empire´s door, which had by then taken over the cities of the elves from the cut down Old Forest of Evernight and added both Nordberg and Everlight to her colonies, and they´d been welcomed with open arms... only to be put to work as slaves, servants or, in this case, Arena entertainment. This boy had to have come to Arcadiopolis as a baby, or he´d been born here, much like Jinx herself.
All this flew through her head in the few seconds she needed to raise her sword and thrust it into his direction. He, however, turned himself out of her reach, swift as a dancer, and jabbed his trident after her so she could barely dodge it. The points made holes in the Arena sand instead of her back. Around her the chaos raged on mercilessly, with such fierceness she didn´t even recognize the Minions storming past.
She struck at the boy again, but in vain. He really was fast.
"That´s no good weapon for you," his rich Ruborian accent rang out, to her surprise. "What do you normally fight with, Purple Scourge?"
To her even greater surprise, Jinx actually answered. "Ropes," she called back, "improved with Netherworld metal. I could have killed you easily by now!"
"I think not," the boy grinned. "I´m planning to kill you." His trident shot out to her chest, but she beat it away with her protected arm. Then the boy´s fist shot out and struck the right side of her face, only just healed after the torture of the previous day. Jinx staggered and briefly fell to one knee. Long enough for the Ruborian to put his trident to her throat and lift her chin with it.
Jinx looked at him with grey eyes full of pain, but then her expression changed. The boy´s blue eyes filled with confusion for a moment, but then it was his turn to be in pain. Stabbit had thrown himself onto his back.
The green Minion had been having a great deal of fun in the Arena. There was no shortage of things he could mutilate and kill and so his skin wasn´t green anymore - he was literally covered in blood, as much as when he´d have been bathing in it. Pieces of unicorn pelt, human flesh and even bone were stuck between his claws and teeth and his eyes were shining with demonic battle rage. Fever wasn´t there to temper him, and that meant he was raging about just as much as he liked. The Ruborian boy had enough reason to scream, but to Jinx´s surprise he managed to reach backwards far enough to fling the green over his head and into the sand. Stabbit looked up at Jinx with a gaze that made even her back away slightly, but then the black-lined eyes shot back to the Ruborian. The trident had run him through, the points sticking into the sand below his body. A screech wrung itself from Stabbit´s throat. Then, however, the wound began to shine with a greenish light and the Minion started to push the trident out of his body with his clawed feet.
"What kind of demon is this?" he boy snarled. "The rest died just fine!"
"This one´s not exactly average," Jinx managed to utter as she took the opportunity to heal her face and some other wounds. She raised her sword, planning to add a fatal wound to the collection of bloody scratches Stabbit had dealt to the boy´s back. The boy hesitated, not sure whether to protect himself from Stabbit or rip his trident out to attack Jinx. Then that decision was made for him.
A thundering roar announced - too late - that a Gargantuan had decided to lay his ramming course straight through Jinx. She was flung away for meters, against another man´s back, his skin as dark as the blue-eyed boy´s.
Lying in the sand on her back, dazed as she was, Jinx noticed there weren´t as many people left in the Arena - not live ones, that was. Almost all of the elves were dead, and the people from Nordberg and the Empire itself as well. The last remaining warriors were the ones with a dark skin and black hair... the Ruborians. Of course the almost unbeatable Gargantuans were still present as well, storming through the Arena again and again, trampling everyone and everything in sight and crushing the dead bodies beneath their armoured feet. The blue Minions flitted between the wounded in small groups, healing or resurrecting the Minions who could still be saved wherever they could. Sayron was standing in the middle of the ring, entangled in battle with three Ruborians and a Gargantuan. That last one had caused Sayron´s armour to be dented inwards on the right side of his chest, so he had trouble breathing. His crushed shoulder had been healed by the blues by now.
The blue-eyed boy stepped back into view, towering over her with his hands on his hips. Vaguely, the horde leader could hear Stabbit screaming, in such a way it was clear someone else was cutting him to pieces now.
"May I know the name of the one that kills me?" she heard herself say.
"My name is Seffec abd-Napata." The trident was lifted. "And I´m sorry."
The weapon came down, but it came down in the sand. Jinx had rolled out of the way with great speed, jumped up and now hit the boy against his head with he hilt of her sword with such force he fell over himself. Immediately, her foot was placed upon his chest. "Why are you sorry to kill me, o Seffec? Personally, I have no trouble running you through with this weapon right now." She tried not to look at his eyes so much - those were far too bright, too blue...
The boy struggled, but this was the foot with which she´d held Stripe in place long enough to become a horde leader. "I want to bring down the Emperor. You´re known far and wide for desiring the same. It´s a pity we´re forced to attack eachother with their weapons and an even greater pity we´re almost at the bloody end of this battle." He looked at the trident, fallen uselessly into the sand out of his reach as Jinx had rammed him down. "I shouldn´t be fighting with that thing, as you shouldn´t be fighting with an Imperial blade."
"The Purple Scourge appears to be in conversation, ladies and gentlemen," Marius sneered. "I wonder if the Ruborian´s tribe members have seen it."
Jinx looked up. Around her, the Ruborians were still at battle with the Minions, and three of them still had their weapons aimed for Sayron as well. But some, who had the chance, looked to her and Seffec at times. And they did nothing to help the boy.
She looked back into the blue eyes. Seffec grinned. "Kill me if you can, Purple Scourge."
A shade of a plan... an idea...
Vesta wasn't exactly satisfied with her job either.
Pity it would barely be better under Sayron's reign, rather worse... but that wouldn't be her problem anymore!
Unless... a small voice in her head said, but a hand on her bare shoulder silenced it.
Slaves. Arena warriors. Seffec still smiling at her, even though her foot carrying her full weight was upon his chest and she still had her sword raised, ready to strike.
She stepped off him.
The Ruborian lay there for a split second, but then shot up as fast as a snake. In a flash he had his trident back in his hand and aimed at her. He raised the weapon and thrust it forward.
After which he let go and it flew over her head. Jinx spun around and saw it bury itself into the unprotected neck of the Gargantuan still threatening Sayron.
She turned back to Seffec, her eyes wide, her breath in incredulous bursts.
The boy outstretched his hand in the gesture of the Ruborian huffal, the equivalent of shaking hands. Jinx, who knew the greeting, answered the gesture by stroking the palm of her hand along his. Then they both turned to the remaining warriors in the Arena. Thus far, the Ruborians and the Minions appeared to be of about the same strength, for there were almost no deaths by the account of the other.
Jinx put her hands to her mouth. "We have an alliance! Stop killing the Ruborians, guys!"
Sayron spun around. "What?!"
"Trust me, Lord! Have I ever disappointed you?" She was aware Seffec was shouting at his own people in their language, and realized that, young as he might be, he had a high status amongst them. More so, as she looked at him she knew very surely he was their leader. It was just as probable as a human horde leader. Just as probable as an alliance between Minions and Ruborians under the eyes of the Overlord and the Emperor.
She looked up and saw Marius gasping for breath on the balcony, simply unable to grasp the fact both parties were now cooperating against the third and brought the Gargantuans down together.
Arena swords buried themselves in the enormous warriors´ flesh, and not long after that, there were survivors left in the Arena, but none of them tried to kill the others. The Speaker appeared to be choking on his own disbelief and rage. Next to him, the Emperor stood deathly still and emotionless.
Then Marius grasped next to him in a wild movement and flung something over the balcony´s edge. Jinx´ eyes widened. It was a rope - two ropes! Not her own ones, as they´d been in the Netherworld since she´d entered Drearius´ villa, but they were sturdy ropes!
Before she knew what she was doing she was sprinting across the sand, ignoring everything around her, and she flung them around her shoulders. "Thank you, Marius!" she shouted up. "You´d better have something good for me, because I´m really getting in the mood for..."
The Speaker´s amplified voice blew her words away. "Bring in Ripped Wing!!"
In the echoes of that cry a buzz rose from the audience. Shouts and clapping resounded across the seats as a large gate in the Arena wall slowly rolled open. Jinx turned to Seffec. "What´s Ripped Wing?"
The Ruborian´s eyes were fixed on the opening gate. "If I´m to judge you by what I´ve heard, Scourge, I think you´re the right one to face him. Marius didn´t give you back your preferred weapon for nothing."
"This is no weapon! I´m used to spikes of Netherworld arcanium! I can only climb with this!"
"Defeat Ripped Wing and climb up to the Emperor," was the rushed answer as Seffec took a few steps back. Jinx saw almost everyone in the Arena did so, even some Minions. She exchanged glances with Kniff as he came standing right next to her. The Minion was bleeding from a number of wounds and it was clearly visible his foot had been re-attached by the blues. Still, he was smiling.
"Getting out," he spoke between clenched teeth. "Feel it."
"I -"
Something moved within the Arena dungeons. Something huge.
Then it burst into the ring in a cloud of disturbed sand.
Jinx opened her eyes wide as she realized what this was. It had a shabby, grey-brown fur with darker stripes, spanning over protruding ribs painfully taut. The rounded spines led up to an angular head with huge pointy ears, a wolf-like snout and a mouth full of clearly carnivorous teeth. The hind legs were short, but ended in sharp claws that would be able to effortlessly tear her apart. But the front legs...
This creature wasn´t meant to dwell on the ground. The front legs had stunningly long fingers. This was a giant bat with a wingspan of at least fourteen meters. But, in the end, this was the Empire.
The webs between the bat´s fingers had been cut away, so only the skeleton of his wings remained. The animal tried to spread his wings to seem bigger even now, but he did so without moving any air. He´d been chained to the ground without any chains at all. Something within Jinx stung with pity, even though the bat was looking at her, as frontmost of the group, with a look in his eyes that could only be called murderous.
Ripped Wing came down upon his knuckles, lowered his head and screeched. Jinx clasped her hands over her ears in the pain her eardrums managed to make of that sound.
As the sound died away, she took the ropes off her shoulders with familiar movements. "We´re getting out of this," she repeated Kniff´s words. "I´d like to dance with you, flightless flyer." She ran for the bat. Immediately, the beast lowered his head even further and bared his teeth. In a lightning-fast movement throwing the sand up even higher he thrust forward, and Jinx managed to roll away just in time as the lethal jaws snapped shut. It was apparent Ripped Wing could swallow her in two bites and he was starved enough to do it as well.
She´d already sheathed her sword. Both of her hands were free and it was not half a second later that one of her ropes shot out to the beast´s neck like a whip. Pull it taut, feet lifting off the ground...
Finally...
Under the eyes of the Ruborians, the Minions and the Overlord Jinx swept through the air, flung about by the enraged movements of the bat. She pulled herself out of range of his teeth and landed on his lower back, close to the claws of his hind legs. The beast tried to kick her off him, a move that could have ripped her stomach open with ease, but the horde leader pulled herself forward again, closer to the back of the head. A heartbeat later she was sitting behind the huge ears, in the greasy, longer fur in his neck. Ripped Wing tried to bite behind him, but couldn´t turn his head far enough. This way, his jaws did come close enough to Jinx for her to throw a rope around them.
A suddenly silenced screech forced itself from the sharp-fanged mouth as it was snared shut. The muscles with which the bat opened his mouth appeared to be weaker than the ones with which he closed it. Jinx let her second rope join the first and pulled them taut with all her might. Then she planted a hand against the back of the head and gave the beast a good magical shock. His knuckles were scythed away from under his body and Ripped Wing thudded down into the sand.
The audience cheered wildly. Jinx looked up at the Imperial balcony - Marius was almost foaming at the mouth. A crooked grin pulled up the corners of her mouth. "Boys," she called down to her cheering horde. "Let the blues forward, will you."
Sayron widened his eyes as he realized what she was planning. "No, Jinx! I´m not going to let you do this! Kill him!"
Jinx looked at him for the briefest moment and shook her head. "No. That´s what they want." She gestured up at the balcony. "Please, Lord. Have I ever disappointed you?" she repeated.
Sayron fell silent and let the blues pass. In the meantime, Ripped Wing came back around, but Jinx kept him down with her magic as she was still sitting on his neck. The Minions gathered around the skeletal remains of his wings, spread out in the sand.
Blue sparks swarmed out along the fingers. And the webs, dark brown and leathery, started to heal.
Ripped Wing, his head forced down, tried to look to the sides but could only turn his eyes from left to right. The intonation of the audience changed.
"What are they doing?"
"Look! Look! Those wings are coming back!"
And the slightly more intelligent people... "He´ll be able to fly again..."
"Run!"
"Remain calm!" thundered Marius. "Let the Eradicators into the Arena!"
"Boys!" Jinx shouted. "This is your party!" As she looked up from the healing wings she saw Sayron and the horde had already leaped forwards, ready to face the armoured giants. The fight was considerably easier now Sayron was there in person, and not in the shape of a Minion like that day on Everlight. The blue lightning appeared to be conducted by copper very well. And the magical cannons didn´t affect the Ruborians...
"Seffec," Jinx whispered. She grinned. What an addition!
Ripped Wing let out a strange little sound, vibrating from his shut jaws. She looked down. A large, yellowy brown eye looked back. Jinx carefully laid a hand on the fur between the ears, without shocking the bat this time. "You´ll fly again," she said softly. "Please don´t thank me by eating me, Wing." She looked to the side. The blues were almost done, the webs almost connected again. She could see the veins writhe underneath the thin skin as the system was being fully healed. She only hoped his flight muscles were still working properly.
The sparks died away. The Minions nodded at her and stepped back. Then it became apparent the bat had been very well able to move during the process, because he climbed back up slowly and carefully and uncertainly shifted his wing fingers. Jinx quickly let herself slide down and took her ropes off his jaws along the way.
The enormous beast shuffled around uncertainly, looking to both sides to his healed wings. Then he looked straight at Jinx again. Around her resounded the clash of weaponry and quite a lot of screaming, both of the fighting and the audience, but she didn´t seem to hear it as well as usual. She nodded at the bat, and smiled. As he spread his wings she didn´t even back away.
Ripped Wing, whose name would never fit him again, flapped his wings and rose from the sand. Minions and humans shielded their eyes as the grainy clouds swallowed them. Then the bat ascended above them and circled up through the Arena, his head held high and his jaws open in an exhilarated cry of triumph...
Noblemen and slaves, even Marius and the Emperor staggered back and almost trampled eachother in their haste to get away. Still, one of them couldn´t prevent himself from being plucked from the seats by the starving flyer. Fate had decided him to be none less than Porcius, the sole survivor of Drearius´ orgy.
Down in the Arena Jinx stood laughing, her hands on her hips as she watched the bat take off. "That´s a good supply of fat for the journey he´s about to make!" She raised a fist. "A good voyage to you, Wing! I hope you make it to Everlight!"
She didn´t doubt the fact the gigantic flyer hailed from the island. The short fur, the teeth large and sharp enough to devour a hornbeast... maybe he didn´t prey on them, but even a scavenger needed teeth like that on the sacred island.
"Scourge!" She looked to the side. Seffec, who just ripped his trident from an Eradicator´s throat, gestured upwards. "Climb to the Emperor and kill him! Quickly!"
Jinx nodded at him and ran through the sand towards the balcony. Once there, she flung her ropes around one of the ridged pillars supporting it and steadily started climbing up. She was aware of the fact the Eradicators all turned to her now, but they had the entire horde and the Ruborians against them.
The Emperor had stepped back, out of her sight, but Marius was looking down at her and she looked back, straight into his dark eyes. "Hi, Marius," she panted. "No Sentinels with you this time, I see. Forbidden inside the Arena walls, isn´t that a pity?"
As the Speaker used his voice it was in a calm tone, despite the rage in his eyes. That was so enormous she knew a rabid grass bear would be a more favorable opponent, but she was in the perfect mood for that. As she heard what he had to say, however, she stopped climbing.
"Bring in the yeti."
A familiar roar resounded through the Arena, drowning out the screaming of the still fleeing audience. Jinx closed her eyes for a moment. "No..."
"Ankhwoooooo!"
Five meters tall, with murder in his one eye and yellow foam around his mouth, the yeti thundered into the ring. The Eradicators scattered as quickly as their armour allowed as the beast from the Nordbergian mountains flung itself against the pillars with the force of an avalanche, with such power Jinx fell out of them and another was rammed away from underneath the balcony, to thud down in the sand.
The Purple Scourge scrambled to her feet as fast as she could, with a hammering head and burning eyes because of the flying sand. Within half a second she´d unsheathed her sword again. She rolled over as the yeti´s fist came down next to her and immediately stabbed his fingers. "You couldn´t kill me then, you can´t do it now! I´ll prove Gnarl I can survive without the wolves!" In one way or another, that was more important than getting out of the Arena, more important than survival; she simply had to show Gnarl she could face the yeti by herself...
"There he is! There he is! Oh, I was so worried about you..."
"What?! No, you weren´t! You just went off to paint your nails! I..."
"Sire! Sire!"
Jinx tore her sword from the enormous hand and looked up. Sayron was standing on the other side of the Nordbergian beast, and the new voices had sounded from his direction. Voices of which she´d thought she´d never hear them again. Juno, Kelda, and Gnarl.
"I knew you were still alive, Sire." The uncharacteristic joy was clearly audible in the old advisor´s voice. "I see you can manage without my aid."
"It´s good to have you back, Gnarl," Jinx called out. "I was just thinking of you."
"So you´re still around as well. I should have known we wouldn´t be getting rid of you just yet." Jinx grinned at those words. "You don´t mean a thing of it, old man."
"Lord, that yeti seems to be a primate of sorts. Maybe his brain is alike to a human one? If you can convince Imperials to think like you, you will certainly succeed in doing so with this noble creature."
Sayron halted in the middle of a strike, after which he could barely dodge the yeti´s next blow. "You don´t mean..."
"I do, Sire. Blind slaughter sometimes isn´t the appropriate answer. This strength may be put to good use."
The Overlord exchanged glances with Jinx. The horde leader couldn´t help it; her eyes were gleaming with pride. "Told you so." She said it in the lowest possible voice. She didn´t dare say it to Sayron´s face just yet.
Seffec stabbed the yeti between his shoulder blades with three steel points, so the creature turned away from Sayron and Jinx. At the same moment Stabbit launched himself onto his head and started his efforts clawing out the enormous eye.
"Jinx." Sayron turned towards her with flaming eyes. "Cover me."
"With pleasure, Lord!" Jinx turned to the yeti with an unmovable grin and unsheathed sword and joined the Ruborian and the green. At the same time Sayron readied his magic.
The yeti milled around at the small figures attacking him, stabbing him with sharp, glistening pieces of metal in their hands or on sticks. On top of his head was another ball of unbearable pain, which he tried to flick away with one hand, but every time it just shot to his back and immediately returned. He roared, and blindly swatted around until he felt he´d hit something. Upon opening his one eye he saw two of the little figures being flung against the pillars and collapsing there.
Then his sunken ears suddenly caught a crackling behind him. As he turned, it was already too late - the only thing he saw was an exploding blue light filling his entire world and future.

Jinx felt as if she was soaring after Ripped Wing, out of the Arena and on her way to Everlight. She weakly smiled up at the sky - that wasn´t such a bad idea at all. She missed the tropics terribly.
Something touched her shoulder and made her gaze return to the rows of seats, the Arena walls, and down to the sand. Blue eyes looked back at her, not all that bright anymore either, but a little bit more conscious than she was. Seffec had been smashed into the marble with a little less force.
"Look," he said, smiling as the blood came trickling from the corner of his mouth.
Jinx looked up. Only then did the crackling reach her ears.
Sayron stood up tall and proud beneath the Imperial balcony, his arm raised towards the lowered head of the yeti. The enormous arms of the creature hung down limply and the one eye was half-closed. The Overlord was overpowering the beast with all his might. A thick beam of blue lightning connected his hand to the creature´s skull.
"Top that, Solarius," Jinx mumbled, distractedly wiping away the blood dripping across her cheek from a head wound. "You can´t bring us down. You just plainly can´t."
The lightning died away in jolts. The yeti fully opened his eye and looked at Sayron, an expression of unmovable loyalty on his silent face. Sayron nodded briefly.
The beast turned away from him and towards the pillars. Jinx and Seffec hurriedly scrambled to their feet and stepped away from the balcony backwards. The horde closed itself around them and two Ruborian men caught Seffec as his left leg failed to carry him any further. The boy seemed to realize only now he shouldn´t be able to stand on it at all - the bone was protruding at a strange angle.
As the yeti went for the remaining pillars supporting the balcony, the final spectators fled the Arena. On the balcony Marius looked around him wildly, seemingly not able to grasp just how much the Games had gone out of hand. Then he turned back to the Emperor, who´d already backed away from the balcony itself. "Back to the Palace, my Emperor," the Speaker said hurriedly. He stepped through the passage back to the Imperial chambers together with his lord, and disappeared from sight.
In the mean time, the yeti wrecked the rest of the pillars. The Imperial balcony creaked and cracked, shards of marble broke off and fell down, and then, finally, the magnificent structure collapsed. The balcony came down as if in slow motion and whacked a crater in the sand. Debris flew everywhere and formed an improvised stairway to the passage where the Emperor had disappeared. The first Minions were already climbing the ruins, and Sayron was quick to follow them.
Jinx remained standing there as the horde streamed past her. She stared at the spot where the balcony had been, a faint smile around her lips and with her thoughts not all in this world. She only jolted awake as a familiar claw closed itself around her arm. The Arena sword fell into the sand as Kniff looked up at her.
"Said so."
Jinx´ smile widened. "I should have known it´s the truth when you say it, old friend."
Kniff looked up at the debris. Stripe was standing in the passageway, waving with his sword. "Hive was still there! Was in storage with rest of the blues! Are still alive! Still alive!!" As he shouted out those words the first blue Minion stepped into sight, though he wasn´t blue at all, but white. Zap shielded his eyes from the harsh sunlight with the only hand he had left. Stripe and Spink helped the old horde leader down as the rest of his clan appeared behind him.
As the blues climbed down, Sayron stepped back into sight, something gleaming in his hands. As he raised it, the sunlight spattered off it. "They used this to make the Sentinel lenses! A shard of the Heart! Let´s see if it fits the shard we found in the Wasteland!"
"And the Emperor?" Jinx shouted up. "He´s in there somewhere!"
"A blue flame," Sayron called back. "Marius has taken him somewhere safe. We have to hurry, I can hear the soldiers chanting from here. That, and I think there might be a legion of Sentinels approaching through these halls."
"At least they can´t create any new Sentinels," Jinx answered.
Sayron quickly let himself fall down the debris. "You´re right." He scanned the Arena. "We have what we came for. And we´re still alive. That makes up for the fact we have to leave this accursed city without another fight."
Jinx took a deep breath. "Can you get us out of here, Gnarl?"
"Of course, milady. You shouldn't have asked." A tremor ran through the soil. A moment later a Tower Gate dug through the sand, a sight that brought tears of relief and joy to Jinx´ eyes. Black Netherworld claws curved up to the Imperial sky. As if drawn in by a magnet she stepped forwards, one foot in the blue light. Then she stopped, one hand around a sharp spike. She turned to the Ruborians. Seffec looked back. "Will you follow us?"
The Ruborian with the blue eyes grinned. "Aiwa."
Jinx frowned briefly. Before she could ask, Seffec nodded with an even bigger grin. "Considering my answer, I think it might be useful for you to learn our language. Aiwa means a full-out ´yes´."
"I´m glad to hear that," Jinx answered with a smile, not entirely certain why she wanted the Ruborians to come with her so badly - the fact they were new allies didn´t explain everything she felt right now.
The blue light swallowed the Overlord and his followers, including the blue Hive. The Netherworld was complete. And as the Sentinels arrived in the Arena and closed the magical shield of the city above it, so the Gate trembled and folded in on itself, it was already too late - Sayron might have retreated, he was on his way to invincibility now. The day he´d return would mean serious trouble for Arcadiopolis.
And high above the western ocean, with a good tail wind and the sun on his wings, an Everlightian giant bat with a stomach full of nobleman soared towards the same goal as the one who freed him: back home.

Chapter Text

Home...
It had been far too long.
Even though Jinx had been to the Netherworld just before the catastrophic orgy, she felt like she hadn’t been home in months, and in a way she was right, for it was only now that she returned to the barracks. Her true home didn’t lie in the Tower at all. Her true home lay with the Minions. And the barracks had never been this alive.
The blue clan had returned. The blue Hive was triumphantly lifted on webbed hands and deafening cheers, to be placed on the jutting rock at the waterfalls, where a spark immediately lit up in the large, flat cups. Jinx stretched her neck, but couldn’t see anything. Then, as a replacement, she cast out a rope to a basalt spike stabbing through the waterfall and flew over the Minions’ heads, turned in the air and had a good view on top of the cups.
Before her eyes, they filled with pink eggs. Within, she could see little wiggling figures with long tails.
The blue Hive had been seeded. For the first time in thirteen years.
The blue Minions let out cries of triumph and joy, and Jinx shouted with them in exhilaration.
Next to the Hive, a pale figure raised one arm. Zap’s damaged ear webs stood out wide and high. "We’re back! We’re healed! The Netherworld is complete again!!"
And no speech of any Overlord, at the dawn of any battle, could have awakened this amount of cheering from Minion throats.
From her lookout spot in the middle of the waterfall Jinx raised her ropes up high and cried out until her vocal cords were sore. Only as the storm of triumph had slightly calmed down, she saw a few figures at the back of the crowd of Minions without glowing eyes.
She stared straight into the blue eyes of Seffec abd-Napata. He was looking around, clearly busy to understand the exact meaning of the blue Hive’s return for the Minions and the Netherworld.
This granted him a bit of respect from Jinx’ behalf.
The horde leader grinned and let herself fall along the waterfall and into the fast-flowing river below, to hoist herself out of the water next to a couple of her brown horde members. She growled cheerfully in reaction to their incense as she soaked them.

Things had changed.
All Minions were glad to be back, but not many were as exhilarated as the head of the spider riders as he climbed up along the living vines at his Hive, towards the nests. White silk surrounded him as he came higher, and here and there were already the many red eyes leering at him. Ramul clawed himself into the horizontal vines and clambered to the nest of his beloved Letho.
However, upon his arrival, there was more than just his spider waiting for him. The nest wasn’t just covered with white, but also with black silk...
Little squeaks and growls drifted towards him from within the shelter, with Letho’s familiar voice above them. Then something jumped out of the nest. And another, and another.
Ramul raised his claw knives to defend himself, but noticed they’d been covered in the same black silk as the nest within two seconds. He couldn’t do anything against the little green bolts of lightning that flew towards him...
Green?
For a moment, he froze. Then he reached to the back of his head and plucked off one of his little attackers.
Dangling from his hand was a tiny green Minion, with stumps of cheek spikes, unfrayed little ears and brightly gleaming eyes. The little one was naked apart from some of his own protective silk. Along the inside of the tail were two rows of silk glands.
Letho stepped into sight, with even more subtle movements than usual. The enormous spider raised her velvet pedipalps and rubbed them over her jaws in greeting. The eight eyes were gleaming with pride.
Ramul looked at her. Then back to the youngster in his hand, and the eight others now dividing themselves over his back and Letho’s abdomen. Then his eyes softened for the first time in Minion memory and his mouth curled into a sharp-fanged smile.

As Ramul was coming to terms with the knowledge he was probably the first Minion ever to pass on his genes, Zap, leader of the blue horde, stepped away from the Hive and straight down the rocks. He could have taken the river, but he didn’t dare to swim in the rapid waters.
One Minion hadn’t been there to see the placing of the Hive. And it was a blue one.
Zap stepped across the last hanging bridge. He could already see the huge stalagmite. The Minion he was looking for was standing at the well next to it, his hands on the edge and his head low beneath the hood. Even from a distance, Zap could see his entire robed body was trembling.
"Murk."
The trembling increased.
"Murk... old friend."
The hooded head was lowered deeper over the Well. As the Minion spoke his gurgling words echoed up as if they came from a great depth. "It is Mortis, now."
Zap reached the other blue Minion and pressed his one, pale hand against the rough fabric of the robe, at the height of Mortis’ heart. The blue leader’s breath faltered.
Mortis raised his pale eyes to his former leader. A faint smile stretched the grey skin around his mouth. "Yes, old friend. The resurrecter’s heart does not beat anymore."
"...I feared it."
"I have not feared anything in thirteen years."
"How did it happen? You and the others stayed behind..."
"As you dived into the river with the Hive and swam downstream to the city of the pillar-builders we felt it in our hearts, and in our heart of hearts, shade swimmer. Every day, we died a bit more. The blue spark was fading."
Zap briefly closed his eyes. Mortis kept looking at him without blinking, his own eyes completely bereft of emotion. As Zap opened his eyes once again he clenched his one fist. "Every day, a bit more... all but you died entirely."
"No, shade swimmer. All of us died entirely." Mortis seemed to stare right through Zap with his pale eyes. "But they did it slightly earlier than I. They asked me to take their life force."
Zap’s eyes widened.
"I took the blue sparks. And then, three torturous days later, I myself died because of the absence of the Hive. But my sacrifice kept me going. The blue spark kept me upright, and became... this." Mortis snapped his fingers and there was the blue whirl, a collection of small bones floating within it. "My life, shade swimmer. I am dead, but continue to heal and resurrect myself with this. I guard the balance. I have no need of the Hive. I have no need of a horde leader, for I am outside of any horde."
Zap nodded silently.
"I heal them. I resurrect them. I save those who are fit to be saved." Mortis paused. "I make the difference... at the very last moment."
"Forgive me."
"I know no forgiveness."
Zap, old and wise as he was, bowed his head, overpowered by shame. He tightly closed his eyes, but opened them again as he felt a hand on his good shoulder. He looked up into the pale eyes of his former horde member.
Mortis seemed to be smiling faintly. "But I know no pain anymore either. No grief, no loss. And thanks to my new talent the horde knows no loss anymore either. So, in a way, I should thank you, shade swimmer. It was not easy, but the memory of the pain is gone now. I am new."
Zap nodded. "Then I know what to call you from now on, Mortis."
The resurrecter’s smile widened. "Let me ease your pain, horde leader. Give me your feet."
Zap widened his eyes and did what was asked of him. Mortis first firmly grabbed his left foot and closed his eyes. Bright blue sparks surrounded the limb. The remains of the webs on the outer toes grew towards eachother until Zap’s foot was one web between the two remaining toes. The right foot underwent the same.
"Now I can really call you shade swimmer."

"It was a good idea to save him a fate as a rug, Sire."
Gnarl outstretched a bony hand to the gigantic beast behind the arcanium bars. The cage stood in the middle of the throne room, hastily polished as it was, the vast age of it all but invisible now. This cage had contained dragons and trolls in times long past. Now, it served just as well to contain the tamed yeti. Sayron was reluctant to let it roam his domain freely.
"We can use his strength."
"Could this be the same one that aided me in my escape from Nordberg, thirteen years ago?" Sayron pondered. "He seems familiar."
"If it has been the same yeti all the time, he’s come a long way, Sire. From Nordberg to the Netherworld, into elven hands where he also hunted Jinx, and from there, in one way or another, to the Empire... but whichever way he’s taken, he’s here now!" Gnarl chuckled. "Back to the Empire, of course, he will go. But slightly more effective this time. I can already see it, this marvelous beast charging for their city walls... There will be screaming and the crack of breaking bones, oh yes."
Juno looked at the mountain of grey fur disapprovingly, but Kelda was grinning broadly. "It’s good to see a yeti again, even though the last one I saw made off under the ice with you, love. You’ve made quite the catch."
"Quite the catch, indeed," Gnarl agreed. "This yeti, the blue clan, and then I’m not even mentioning those Ruborian friends your horde leader managed to bring with her. Not bad at all, Sire."
Sayron took place upon the throne and tapped against the cushions. "I’m not too sure. They’re roaming around the entire Netherworld, they’ve even figured out the floating rock already..."
"The Ruborians are strong, Sire, and they hate the Empire with a passion equaling yours. And their young leader, Seffec abd-Napata..."
"He’s too young! He can never lead his people!"
"He’s twenty years old, Sire, as old as you are."
Sayron stared at his advisor for a moment. Gnarl looked back without flinching.
"You may forget this fact in your wisdom, but despite the imposing figure you inherited from your father, you are of the same worldly age as Seffec, and you’re probably of the same age as Jinx as well, Sire."
Sayron clenched a mighty fist. "Leave me."
"As you wish, Sire." Gnarl bowed and shuffled to the descending stairs, to take to other tasks in the lower levels. Kelda and Juno approached the Overlord, but his expression told them more than words. They, too, hurried out of the throne room. A moment later Sayron stood up and slowly walked over to the yeti cage, to look deep into the beast’s one yellow eye.
"The tables are turning."

Wings...
The glow from the heart of the world cast a flickering light up along the Tower, at times broken by the shadows of the floating rocks tumbling along in front of it. Sometimes the irregular walls were lit by an orange glow, sometimes they were cast in gloom. The same went for the girl crouching on a jutting ridge halfway up the vertical walls. Jinx stared down into the light, but her mind’s eye saw trees in silver moonlight. From above.
The night she’d flown above the Everlightian jungle had been one of the most beautiful of her life. She couldn’t exactly think of anything better.
Wings. Ripped, but healed.
She saw the bat in front of her, flying across the ocean, back into the west. Everlight. He’d be there, soaring over the treetops in silver moonlight, without the aid of pixie dust.
Wings.
The horde leader didn’t exactly know why, but the image of the beast ascending over the Arena had scorched itself into her retinas. She had to see him again, she was very sure of that now. It could never be, it wasn’t even likely the bat would actually make it to Everlight, but here and now she had a strong feeling she’d see him again one day.
She shook her head as the image of the tumbling rocks far below her finally got through to her again. She frowned. She didn’t want to be here right now.
A heartbeat later she flashed down along the Tower, in the firm grip of gravity. Not long afterwards, her ropes took over.

"Sef."
"Hmm?"
"Sef, did you see that?!"
Seffec looked up into his friend’s face. Masud’s dark eyes were full of excitement. "What should I have seen?"
"The Scourge! She plummeted down, right there, straight down like a rock!"
Seffec immediately looked down over the edge of the balcony he and Masud had been walking across, still scouting around the domain. The Ruborians wanted to know everything about their new home. All of them already missed the sun, but they didn’t have permission to use the portal yet. Some doubted the actions of their young leader, and Seffec had his own doubts about the rightness of his decision to join the dark side - how could he know Sayron wouldn’t use them as practice material for his other warriors? Or as cannon fodder in the front lines? Even though the blue Minions had healed his leg and quite an amount of other injuries amongst his people, it would take time for the Ruborians to trust the Overlord... if he was worthy of that trust.
He knew it hadn’t been Sayron who’d made him step into the portal to this Netherworld.
It had been the Purple Scourge, and she’d barely needed words to do so. That had also been the reason for Seffec abd-Napata to be so hasty in looking down. He was just in time to see Jinx cast out her ropes and swing down along the Tower with broad swipes, all the way to the jutting platform where the floating rock docked, at throne room level. He looked down upon her red-wrapped head as she stepped inside. She didn’t look up.
Seffec only looked up as Masud punched his arm. "What?"
The young Ruborian just grinned.

The smells! The light! The swelling sound of the upper world - and what a place in the upper world!
Salt, sand, coconut milk. The shimmering of sunlight on water, like countless silver coins in a pirate’s treasure. The scorching heat of a tropical sun. The rushing of the Everlightian sea!
Jinx spread her arms and spun around laughing, barefoot in the golden sands nearby Ignavopolis, and continued until she was dizzy enough to fall over. She fell down into the sand on her behind and immediately let herself fall over entirely so she could stare up at the palm leaves above her. Only then did the sound of Minion voices register.
She’d expected that sound, but not with a gurgling undertone.
She pushed herself up from the sand. Her eyes had to get used to the light, but after a few seconds she could make out little blue figures in the tropically blue ocean, just a little way from shore. She started grinning as she walked towards the water line.
The blue Minions were swimming again. And how.

...Soaker couldn’t believe his luck.
After all those years of putrid water, copper jars and the burning sun with the grainy Arena sand beneath his webs he was swimming in the blessed ocean. The salt water tasted great, his feet kicked up the sand of the steeply descending bottom in high clouds and all around him were his overjoyed clan members, tumbling and signaling with their webbed fingers in exhilaration.
Blue Minions had no gills and had to ascend to the surface for air, but not that often. They could hold their breath for minutes. Soaker could probably do it for the longest amount of time amongst his clan. He was large, had ear webs that continued all the way to his chin and a long scar across his chest - he was the one that had been freed by Sayron first before the Overlord had entered the Arena. Often, he’d been one of the last blues to resurrect the rest of his clan in the days they’d spent in the Empire’s clutches. And he was the one kicking his webbed feet with the greatest force of all, shooting across the sea floor, towards the docks of Ignavopolis. As he swam underneath the boards with a couple of other swift-swimming blues, in the liquid light shining between the cracks, he noticed a shadow above the surface. He kicked himself away from the sea floor in a billowing cloud of sand and shot up. His round head broke through the surface, causing almost no ripples at all, and a second eyelid blinked open to grant him a sharper focus above water.
At the edge of the docks stood a girl with messy black hair, large scars across half of her face and strong vines slung over her shoulder. Even Soaker, who’d only been in the Netherworld for two days, knew Jinx and everything she represented. He nodded with a smile. "Brown leader."
Jinx nodded back and gave a small salute. "Soaker, isn’t it?"
"Yes, leader."
Jinx had noticed the blues kept to respectful names and protocol. She now realized Mortis had gone slightly further with this; the resurrecter never called someone by their real names, but made titles up himself. In the end, that originated with the respect of the regular blues.
In a whim, she bowed her head. "Thank you for saving my life. Without your clan, I wouldn’t be here."
"You’ve already repaid that debt a hundredfold, leader."
Jinx smiled broadly. She looked from the dock, as more and more round blue faces joined Soaker’s, there just off Everlight’s shores. Some humans joined her in their turn. The former Imperials, now Sayron’s loyal subjects, had lost a great deal of weight since she’d been here last. She also saw a few of the brown Minions now in charge of the city.
She looked back to the blues. Then she realized why she’d really come here. She looked over her shoulder to the ever-present jungle. Would Ripped Wing have made it already? Probably not...
"I have to go back," she spoke to Soaker. He nodded and dived back below the waves.
Jinx turned and walked back to the Tower Gate.

The muted sound of chisels to stone resounded through the throne room as Sayron sat down upon the throne the next day. A few Minions above his head made sure no chippings fell to their Overlord - others were busy crafting the rocks above the throne into a whole new figure. The rough shape of two gigantic wings already spanned the walls on both sides.
Gnarl crept closer towards the throne. "My Lord."
"Gnarl," the Overlord nodded. "I’d like to hear your opinion concerning... the attacking of Nordberg."
"So you want to continue with that plan?"
Sayron nodded once. "I don’t plan to leave the city in elven hands. I want it back before I crush Arcadiopolis."
"This would be the appropriate moment. Fay is certainly expecting you to reside in the Netherworld until you’re strong enough to attack the Empire again, and with full force this time." The advisor tapped against his chin. "Either way, it’s not the right time for that, something I wanted to speak with you about as well. You probably remember the Wasteland?"
Sayron nodded. "Yes. And I also heard rumours about the blue Minions. Would they be able to clear away the ooze so I can explore the area further?"
"Probably. I wanted to advise you to make sure you do so before you turn to the Empire again."
"But I also want to propose I attack Nordberg first, whatever I do next," Sayron spoke sternly.
"Most certainly, Lord," the advisor bowed. "I can’t deny I do look forward to that as well. Do you wish to use all means? You’ll have to drive out the elves and win back the humans, or do you want to use the ‘no survivors’ strategy?"
"I want to see them writhing in the dust," the Overlord spoke calmly. "And I do wish to use all means. Fear is the best tactic in this case."
Gnarl grinned. "My idea exactly. Will you unleash the yeti?"
"The yeti and the Ruborians. And all four of the clans."
The advisor folded his hands. "A wise plan, my Lord. But may I remind you of the fact that the young Seffec is not yet fully loyal to you?"
Sayron remained silent for a moment. "Considering the loyalty of his people I don’t think it’s a good idea to break him."
Gnarl nodded silently. His eyes were gleaming.
"...Let Jinx come to the throne room. She brought them here, I hope for her own sake she can teach them where their loyalty lies."
"And us," the advisor nodded. "I’ll tell her, Sire." He shuffled out of the hall. "Before too long we’ll be able to return to the north above us..."
Sayron stood up with flaming eyes. A cold smile tugged at his hidden mouth.
"...and it’ll burn like the hell beneath us."

Not five minutes later a muted thud resounded above the Overlord’s head. He turned and looked up. On the balcony above the throne was Jinx, still busy gathering her ropes.
"You’re the one I needed."
"You had me brought in, Lord," the horde leader nodded. "I just returned from Everlight. Everything’s going according to plan in Ignavopolis."
Sayron walked to the throne, as Jinx let herself fall down and landed on one knee as the Overlord took place. She rose. "What’s the reason of this... audience?"
Sayron tapped the basalt of his seat with an armoured hand. "I wanted to ask you what you think of the Ruborians."
Jinx blinked her eyes. "They hate the Empire and want to see Solarius dead just as much as we do. They handle the Netherworld surprisingly well. I think they’re valuable allies."
"But are they loyal to me? Are they doing it for the Dark Domain? It’s not a matter of a common enemy, Jinx." His voice grew biting. "I don’t want them to turn against me when we topple the Emperor. I want to be able to trust them."
Jinx lowered her eyes and thought about it. "They need to know they fight not simply against the Empire, but for you." She looked up. "Then let them. How far are you planning the Nordberg siege?"
"You know better than anyone there are shifts posting at the Hives to get all the newborns into this world in one piece, as the hordes have never grown this fast," the Overlord spoke. "In fact, I’m prepared already. But I want to use that magnificent beast," he gestured towards the yeti, his enormous hands still clutching the bars of his cage, "and I also want to use non-magical troops against the elves. But your Ruborian friends..."
"...You weren’t certain of their loyalty." Jinx nodded. "If you want my advice, I say you should give them the black banner and send them to Nordberg. Let them fight Fay’s army. Then you’re sure they’re doing it for you, and not for simple revenge. Let them kill an elf and you’re certain of the dark in Seffec’s heart." She awaited Sayron’s reaction tensely.
The Overlord looked at her with an unreadable stare. Then he nodded and his eyes lit up. "Tomorrow, at nightfall, we march to Nordberg."
Jinx bowed slightly. "I’m looking forward to it, Sire." She grinned and cast a rope upwards. A heartbeat later she was gone.
A dry cough sounded in the shadows. "A wise decision, Lord."
Sayron didn’t turn. "Whose?" he asked calmly. "Mine to take it, or hers to propose it?"
No answer. The only sound was a stiff shuffling as Gnarl walked to the throne. The advisor wasn’t exactly prepared for the sudden presence of an iron hand around his throat, or the fact he came to hang a foot above the ground. Sayron’s eyes were ablaze. "She corrects the mistakes you make! I’d better rely on her than you! You, the Minion Master!"
Gnarl clutched his Master’s fist. His yellow eyes were widened and actually filled with fear. "Sire," he creaked painfully. "I can’t and won’t stop you from harming me, but realize what you’d lose."
Sayron’s eyes cooled. A heartbeat later he opened his fist and the advisor thudded down to the black marble, a pile of bones in a grey cloak. Gnarl climbed to his feet and coughed, less dry this time. He folded his hands and lowered his ears. "I’ll go and talk to Kivner of Nordhaven, Sire. If he’d lead the assault, it’d most certainly lower the morale of the people."
"You’d better," the Overlord growled. "I wish you the best of luck, because I don’t think he’s forgotten it was you who tortured him so exquisitely."

Greasy torchlight, seemingly bereft of all brightness, gleamed dully on steel - the old, bludged and in many cases rusty steel of the weapons and armour below the fighting rings of the Minions, low in the Tower. It seemed to grow slightly brighter as it reflected off a jagged sword; a sword being raised by dark hands.
"Barid husam," it resounded. The ears of nearby Minions moved slightly to catch the soft voice. "Unbelievable I’m seeing this again..."
"The swords of our ancestors..."
"And not just the swords, Masud!" The light of a passing Minion carrying a torch briefly lit up the face of an exhilarated Seffec abd-Napata and glistened in his blue eyes. "Look here... old ebohorns..."
Masud reached inside a weathered wooden crate. "A golden helmet of the Saipern-legion." His voice was full of respect. "I wonder if they’re still busy in the south."
"Let’s focus ourselves on the events in the north right now, and I don’t mean the north of Ruboria." Seffec weighed the old sword in his hand. "I remember my father carried a sword much like this one before he was forced into the Imperial army." His mouth tightened. "They didn’t just give him a straight coward-sword, but also a place in the front lines..."
Masud outstretched a hand and placed it upon the curved blade. "So cold."
"Just as cold as the Nordbergian snow where my father died. I name this sword after that cold - Barid." Seffec nodded. "I hear Nordberg will be our first battle, let’s say it’ll be a nice start of our career..." He looked at his friend, who just picked up a long bow. "You’re sticking to the long distance?"
Masud nodded, grinning as he fastened a magnificently crafted elven quiver. "I prefer a nice view over the battlefield."
"My idea," it sounded from above the two Ruborian boys. They looked up, into the glowing yellow eyes of a brown Minion. He was sitting above them in the scaffolding, busy attaching razor-sharp metal tips to arrows of varying plumage. In the dark, they could just make out his grin. "Name’s Minc."
"Masud," the boy nodded. "Pleased to meet you, fellow archer."
"Probably end up together at the back," the Minion chuckled. "Or on Nordberg’s walls."
"Not bad at all."
Minc nodded to the boys’ clothing - still barely more than rags. "Pick yourselves some armour. Furs are at back, would be smart to take some. Ruboria’s warm, yes?" He grinned again. "Been there once, days after spawning. Sand’s still scorched ‘tween my claws. As is bomber beetle explosion in my eyes."
Seffec laughed. "Tell me about bomber beetles. So you’ve seen Ruboria, Minion?"
"Sef," Masud hissed. "Call him by his name, he’s one of us."
"...I mean, Minc?" Seffec quickly corrected himself. He exchanged glances with his friend; Masud was right.
Minc had narrowed his eyes, but his expression quickly changed. He nodded. "One of last voyages with Master Vessperion."
"Then you probably know more of our homeland than we do. And we’re used to cold... I think Nordberg is about as warm as an Imperial winter now."
"Well prepared," Minc winked slyly. "Have no doubt you’ll keep the black banner high."
Seffec stuck the sword through his belt. "Hopefully long enough to polish this old sword with blood."

Greasy torchlight, but now even less of it, also gleamed on steel in a level lower still. This steel, however, hadn’t been forged to form the blades of weapons, but chains and bars. And behind those bars, in the company of three skeletons wearing the bloodied remains of togas, was a man with a rough red beard and long, matted red hair. His clothing, or what was left of it, was all straw and filth and his brown eyes were glassy.
That changed as footsteps resounded on the stairs leading into the dungeons from the upper levels. First the foot claws came into sight, and as soon as Kivner could make out the colour of his visitor’s skin, he shot to the back of the cell between the skeletons. A few bones rattled and a skull that had come loose earlier rolled into the corner. Somewhere, startled rats squeaked.
Gnarl stepped from the stairs and shuffled towards the bars. Kivner hid his face. "No more, no more..."
"Kivner of Nordhaven, be ashamed of yourself," the raspy old voice sounded with a cruel amusement. "I’d expected more of a spine from someone like you. You should like it to be tortured by the servants of your beloved Overlord."
"...No more..."
"What do you think of the Overlord now, Kivner?"
"...No more..."
Gnarl impatiently tapped his foot. He knew now it hadn’t been very smart to try and force a truth out of Kivner that wasn’t there - he really had wanted to hand Nordberg out to Sayron. He wanted his people to be reduced to slaves - or corpses. Or at least, that’s what he had wanted before. Right now, Kivner of Nordhaven was an empty shell. Gnarl had tortured him a bit too often.
The advisor struck the bars with all the force his bony body could muster. "Kivner!"
The trembling of the human pile of misery in the corner of the cell ceased for a moment. Then it started again with a new fierceness.
"Listen to me."
A dull eye briefly looked at him from within a tangle of red hair. Then Kivner tucked his head between his shoulders again.
"I’m not going to torture you today. But only when you answer me!"
An irregular moan rose from the corner. Gnarl clenched his jaws and felt his rickety teeth protesting. "What would you do if you knew Sayron was about to have you thrown into the abyss today?"
The reaction couldn’t have been more abrupt. Not a heartbeat later Kivner was inches from his face, knelt down to Gnarl’s eye height and with his hands clenched around the bars so tightly his knuckles were white. "No! He can’t do that! I’ll help him!"
"Because you’re afraid he’ll throw you into the abyss?"
"No! Because I’m afraid someone is going to throw him into the abyss!"
Gnarl fought the urge to shake his head in disbelief. In all his years as an advisor - more than he cared to remember - he’d never met someone like Kivner. "I’ve tortured you for weeks, Kivner. In his command."
Kivner’s eyes brightened slightly. "No. He’s forgotten about me. You came here out of boredom and curiosity."
Gnarl almost backed away. Almost. Kivner looked through him as if he was made of glass. "Very well, let’s assume for now you’re right..."
The Nordbergian looked at him, expectant as a child.
"...and he’s no longer forgotten about you but has sent me down to let you out of your cell..."
The man shuffled through the straw on his knees to press himself against the bars even tighter.
"...and throw you into the abyss because he’s tired of wasting bread and water on you, even though the Minions have turned it down, what would you say to him?"
Kivner kept looking at him, but he clearly didn’t see anything anymore. A drawn-out moan was wrenched from his throat.
Right. So the man clearly could live with the idea he was allowed out of the cell, but not with the idea of dying. Gnarl had seen people who’d been tortured far less and had happily chosen for death.
"And what if you’d be allowed to fight for him?"
Immediately the brown eyes focused again. "Then I’d say he has my weapon, heart and soul."
Again, Gnarl had to restrain himself not to step back. Kivner had been consistent again so fast it wasn’t human any longer. "Would you die for him?"
"I don’t fear death."
"Then what do you fear, Kivner?"
"A world where the Empire has destroyed all magic and replaced it with machines and their own order." The ginger man shivered and his eyes seemed to focus on something beyond Gnarl. The advisor felt that, even if he turned now, he wouldn’t be able to see what Kivner saw. He decided to take the risk of addressing the Nordbergian again. "The elves are magical too. What you are about to fight is light magic, Kivner."
"Light magic is in the way of true magic. How could the elves ever equal Lord Sayron? They simply took use of caves and trees, while the Dark Lord rules the heart of the world itself."
Aha...
Suddenly Gnarl knew he was on to something.
Kivner knew of the Sanctuaries - or at least he knew of the one below Nordberg. Maybe he’d become trapped there once as a child? Mesmerized by fairies or gnomes, perhaps? Allowed to taste magic for a brief time - and then become repulsed by it until he stumbled upon that other kind of magic... dark magic?
The longer Gnarl thought of it, the more probable it seemed. He locked eyes with the ginger man again. "Very well then, Kivner. I’ll be honest with you. Tomorrow night, the Master is going to battle with Nordberg by use of all means. He wants to drive out the elves, but he’s also willing to kill the people. He wants the city back, and he doesn’t care how much of it will be left to rule. However, he’d be pleased if you’d be there to convince as many people as you can to come over to the dark side. He’s busy constructing a human army and the Nordbergians would be a nice addition."
Kivner’s eyes were radiant.

On a rickety hanging bridge, a single figure was strolling away from solid basalt and towards the barracks above the yawning abyss. The barrack he was moving towards was swaying slightly, indicating someone was home. A tiny green figure scrambled away over the roof and lowered itself on a thread of black silk as he approached.
He pushed the skins away from the entrance and revealed the inside. There, a few hooks had been attached to the walls and the floor was covered by a rough blanket.
On a few of the hooks hung a red cloth, a leather breastplate and two vines. On the ground sat a girl with loose black hair, her legs crossed and busy sharpening an Imperial sword. Jinx looked up and smiled faintly. "Hi, Kniff."
The brown Minion looked up with a crooked grin. "Wacky you’re still living here."
Jinx raised an eyebrow. "How come?"
"Are horde leader, cousin of the Master, brought the Ruborians here..."
"And because of that I shouldn’t live here? Rubbish." Jinx stood up, just able to fit underneath the low ceiling of the barrack. "Unless you want me gone I’m not going anywhere. I’m part of the brown horde, so I sleep in your barracks. I thought that way when I first got here, and it’s still the same now." She leant against the wall.
Kniff raised his ears. His eyes gleamed and he was smiling broadly.
"Though things have changed, yes."
The bat-like ears moved slightly. "Ruborians?"
"It’s strange to have people around me again. Humans don’t belong here. I should be glad they’re here, and I really do appreciate them, but..." Jinx looked down and smiled warmly. "Ever since my death in Mortis’ nets I’ve belonged with you. Sometimes I wonder if he brought me back to life with brown life force. I feel like I’m more Minion than human."
Kniff remained silent, but she could see he was delighted with those words. She gave one more stroke over her new sword. "Tomorrow we’re going back to Nordberg. Are you ready?"
"You bet."
"Good." She put the sword away. "We’ll see what the Ruborians can do, but I doubt they can top us."

Chapter Text

It was colder than she remembered.
By now, autumn had fallen in Nordberg and the few brave green leaves the trees had brought forth coloured red, as red as the setting sun.
That happened to be Jinx´ favorite colour.
The horde leader stuffed the bottom of her trousers into her sturdy boots for some extra warmth. She was glad she´d taken some of her old seal fur, too. Now, she looked out over Nordberg´s city walls, and for a moment she seemed to be that inexperienced girl again, just woken up inside a wolf burrow and accompanied by a banished brown Minion.
Next to her, Kniff was grinning so wide the top of his head almost slid off.
The town was strangely beautiful in the last light of day.
It'll soon be red once more. Jinx smiled, her arms folded. The Imperial sword hung from her belt and around her shoulders her ropes had been curled up tightly. Around her, the horde stirred nervously, almost unable to wait until Sayron gave the signal to storm off the hill and take the city gates.
The Overlord stood higher up the slope. The red light reflected off his armour and his sword as he looked out over his troops.
The brown horde, however large it was with the enforcements of Meph and his lower level arena legion, was only a small part of the gathered warriors. The three other clans had also brought their members, though Zap was missing - he'd sent Soaker to be his replacement. The strong, scarred Minion would be as good a leader as the old, fragile but wise blue.
And then, of course, there were the Ruborians. Seffec had taken a number of his strongest, most trusted people, the ones standing closest to him being Masud with his long bow and a small, slender man with wooden beads in his black hair that rattled as he moved. Jinx had caught his name was Omari.
Close to Sayron was another man with a paler skin and red hair. Kivner had strapped a large crossbow to his back, but he wasn't bending beneath its weight, no matter how bony and miserable he was. Immediately after he'd been taken from the dungeons and faced Sayron, he had been standing upright and had looked more like he'd used to before his predicament. Jinx was pleased to see him, in fact - he might be crazy, he'd been of use to them earlier and if all went well tonight, he might make sure more people joined their cause.
"In this city, we've celebrated a victory against the Empire that won't be forgotten very soon," Sayron's voice rang out. "In fact it was my first victory. In that battle, I met Jinx and I won back the town I'd grown up in. Let's let the elves know Nordberg is still ours... and teach them what happens to those that hinder the Netherworld in her march to power."
He'd spoken calmly and there was no hurricane of cheering, but the effect of his words was powerful. Jinx grinned and tightened her grip on the sword's hilt.
"As the sun sets..."
Jinx looked to the west. Beyond the blackened remains of Nordhaven, the sun touched the icy sea.
"...and Nordberg is cast into shadow..."
Kniff's ears slowly rose and the glow of his eyes grew stronger as the light diminished.
"...we shall light Fay's army in their foolishness..."
An excited buzz of raspy voices rose from the hordes. The Ruborians shifted nervously. Seffec plucked at the black cloak that'd been given to him before they'd left, bearing the Overlord's symbol.
"...and we shall do so with the flames of our war!"
"For Sayron!" screamed Jinx, a cry that was soon taken over by others until the hilltop was alive with cries of war.
"Sayron! Sayron! Sayron!"
The Overlord seemed to grow beneath the massive chanting. His eyes were aflame. He raised his weapon up high, and at the same moment came the blow of an elven horn inside Nordberg's walls. They'd been heard. But how couldn't they be, with this army at the gates?
Jinx' eyes darted westward again.
Very slowly, as if the last light was still resisting, the last shard of sun sank underneath the horizon. The red light slid off the hilltop and suddenly the world was darker...
Sayron lowered his weapon in the sudden silence.
"To battle."
A flood of Minions stormed downhill.

Seffec was aware he ought to be leading both his own people and part of the horde, though he dared only to steer the Minions lightly out of fear of what Jinx might do to him should he threaten her position in whatever way. However, he noticed he was simply running, unable to stop due to a combination of battle frenzy and the simple fact there was so much aggression rampaging after him.
Surprisingly fast, he reached the foot of the hill. As the land flattened, Jinx' clear voice rang out thought the cold night air, jerking him to his senses again.
"Reds, after me! The rest focuses on the gates, but stay out of shooting range! Seffec, you want to stand back." The horde leader grinned as she took her ropes off her back, then she flashed up and climbed the city wall on the right side of the gigantic, mended wooden gates. The first elves and Nordbergians were already shooting at her, but she was swinging from side to side so swiftly not a single arrow hit its target.
Seffec stepped back, as his eyes followed the tiny flaming figures of the red climbers, but he only really reacted as the roaring started. He spun round and his eyes flew up to the hilltop.
There was Sayron, ominous as ever. But the real sight stormed and tumbled and thundered downhill in large clouds of dirt and early snow.
They didn't need a battering ram to thrust open these gates. They had the yeti.
The mountain of fur flew over the front lines with a single gigantic leap and threw itself into the wooden gates. A fist the size of a dolmen stone rammed a dent in them almost immediately, and from within Nordberg came the sound of screaming and the ring of the clock tower bell. Seffec smiled. Smooth.
On the inside of the doors resounded a metallic clink as some nails were beaten out from the outside. The yeti roared again. A next blow nearly unhinged the doors, and the single yellow eye glistened with beastly pleasure.
"Ankhwoo!"

On the city wall Jinx balanced herself back to an upright position, quickly in the growing company of reds. That was a good thing, because the wall was teeming with both elven and human archers. The elves were considerably better at it than the Nordbergians, and so Jinx left them for the reds. The Nordbergian furs didn't burn as well as their light, leafy clothes anyway.
The horde leader unsheathed her sword, snared a large man's throat and pulled him to her so she could get the blade under his chin. "We won't be scared off!" she proclaimed loudly. "It will rain fire and death until Nordberg is back under the rule of Lord Sayron, or until it's ceased to exist! What say you?!"
Jinx grinned as she got the familiar reaction. Some cast aside their weapons and ran down the wall stairs to the city itself, others raised their equipment and stormed for her. Seeing that, she slit her victim's throat without blinking and let him slide down behind the breastwork as his last breath gurgled in his bloody windpipe. That seemed to slow the Nordbergians somewhat, and their attention shifted to the burning elves now running across the wall. Without taking her gaze off the people, Jinx let her other rope shoot out and forced one of Fay's men to his knees with the arcanium spikes. "They could handle fifty Minions. But for how long could they remain with fifty? They're with five hundred now, good people, and still gathering. Five hundred will become five thousand. It knows no end. You will die here, or you will join us."
Somewhere at the bottom of the stairs, a black-haired man suddenly unsheathed a jagged knife and stabbed an elf in the back. "We fight for you!"
Jinx blinked. "Ah! There are still surviving followers of Kivner! I've got good news for you, friend." She looked back, then down to the gates - then jumped off of the breastwork to roll away just in time as part of the wall collapsed.
With a great splintering of ancient wood, the gigantic yeti broke through the gates and swung into the streets. Jinx grinned darkly as the screaming kicked into high gear.

Minions streamed in through the remains of the gates, like a swarm of multicoloured insects. Amidst them ran humans - Seffec's Ruborians. Kniff looked up in disapproval as he was nearly trampled by a slender man with wooden beads in his hair. However, his eyes widened as the Ruborian suddenly forced a Nordbergian to his knees without actually touching him. A mage? This was interesting...
And now someone else was stepping out ahead of the horde. Kniff knew this one. Oh yes. Ginger hair, black leather, a large crossbow. With a loud whirr, he fired in the air once. The effect was greater than a scream for attention. They had enough attention as it was, and now the short but fierce bloodshed ceased and the warriors assembled around Kivner, he'd become the centre of everyone's world.
At least, until a giant shadow emerged behind him, flowing into sight from within the smoke rising from the fires already starting in the Nordbergian houses.
"People of Nordberg," Kivner spoke soothingly. "I offer you an agreement in the name of Lord Sayron..."
A woman with unmistakable terror in her eyes spat on the ground before his feet. "Do you know where you can stick that agreement, demon?"
A figure stepped out of the horde. "I do know where I'm going to stick my sword." And a blade, already gleaming with blood as it slid into her stomach, but even darker as it emerged from her back, cut off her next words. A darkly gleaming pool spread out in the bloodied moonlight.
Seffec turned and calmly walked back to the Overlord. Sayron nodded at him very lightly, and there was visible contentment in the flaming eyes.
Kivner spoke on, but Kniff had stopped listening. In his thoughts he went over the plans that had been made. As the Master tried to convince these people in the square, there was fighting in other streets to make sure the elfies didn't mess things up... and Jinxie and the reds were searching the city for something that could end all fighting if that might be necessary. Just like the Master had ordered.

With a clatter that hurt her ears from up this close the Purple Scourge crossed blades with an elf, standing atop one of Nordberg's rooftops. Fay's warrior - with braided, light brown hair and barely armoured - whacked her weapon aside, but she ducked before he could strike her. "Just give up," she chuckled. "Fay will fall. Your cities will burn. But if you leave now, Nordberg won't - then we'll just dominate it." She rolled aside and stabbed a second long-ear in the back, relieving the red who'd been fighting him. Left and right reds were jumping from roof to roof, and green spider riders fought to grant them safe passage. Find that storage, Sayron had said. And she would. The pain of the scathing wounds and half-healed strikes she'd acquired only made her more eager to push on with that plan. She hoped the people of Nordberg needed their final shove before they'd surrender...
Down in the streets the yeti milled about. He could flatten sheds and barns with a single blow, break through doors and pull away entire roofs. And she knew Sayron would lead a large portion of the people to the great square in the centre of town, from where they'd have a good view of her spectacle, might it come that far. His knowledge of the city was very useful now.
"Maybe we fall today," her opponent panted, "but in the end Fay will defeat you. Light will always conquer!"
Jinx pressed her weapon against his and brought her face very close, so she could stare him into his wide green eyes. "You may think so," she spoke softly. "That rule applied in this world - until Lord Sayron set foot in it." And then she yanked her sword away and thrust it into his stomach. Bleeding and gurgling, he rolled off the roof. Rasping laughter rose from the street below as the browns received him and finished the job.
The roof was free. Of course, new elves were approaching fast, but for now...
Jinx grinned. Then she turned and ran after the reds and greens that'd been placed under her command, to the roof's edge, and jumped. Her ropes ensured a safe flight to the next, and the one after that...

Lord Sayron placed a hand upon Kivner´s shoulder. The ginger man immediately stopped talking, though his honeylike voice had had a comforting effect on the people even despite the dead woman still causing a puddle of blood to seep away between the cobblestones, and of course, the screaming further into town. He looked up. "My Lord now wishes to speak to you."
"And that´s an honour, take that from me," Seffec added. The Ruborian leader was standing at the Overlord´s left hand and now exchanged glances, not sure whether he´d been allowed to speak at all. Sayron looked back briefly, but didn´t say anything. However, an invisible smile plucked at his mouth as he looked out over the Nordbergians.
"Good people of Nordberg... things aren´t looking good for you. But you´ve brought it down upon yourselves." Sayron gestured over their heads. "An alliance with Fay? Come now. First the Empire. Now light magic. You should know that only one choice could be the right one. And what is that choice, I ask you now...?"
A man at the front of the crowd fell to his knees and touched the ground with his forehead. As he looked up, his face was red with the blood of the dead woman. "Lord Sayron," he answered in a whisper.
"No!" another screamed. "Don´t give up your freedom!" A man wielding a small axe jumped out and flung his weapon at the horde. A green Minion, not fast enough in responding, fell over gurgling, the weapon embedded deeply in his chest. A blue Minion next to him immediately started dragging him away, but more weapons were being picked up.
Sayron, safe in the middle of his horde, frowned with flaming eyes. Were they that stupid, or did they really rather die than follow him...?
Maybe they did need that extra push.
"The elves are dying in the streets," Kivner exclaimed next to him, visibly cool amidst the upcoming chaos. "Take it from me, your only hope now is to serve the mighty Overlord. You´ll be richly rewarded once he´s Emperor," he added. And indeed, the people hadn´t failed to notice the well-oiled crossbow strapped to his back, and the gleaming, black leather clothing he wore. Sayron felt it was easy to be generous towards someone with such a wonderfully messed-up mind as Kivner.
"There´s doubt, Sire," Gnarl creaked in Sayron´s ear. "Too much. I think this would be the time to strike." He chuckled. "Of course, it´s a pity about... what will it be... a quarter of the city? But you´ll receive two things in return: a magnificent fireball and Nordberg´s loyalty."
Sayron nodded, barely noticeable for the people in front of him. "Pass it on." In the meantime, he drew his sword. He could just hear it calling for the blood of Nordberg, but he had to let someone else handle this.
More specifically, the Minion Mistress.
"With pleasure, my Lord."

Jinx flung herself up along a steep wall full of protruding bricks and crumbling cement. Perfect. She loved this. A few doubtful snowflakes whirled past her as she threw herself feet-first into the top of Nordberg´s bell tower.
She was greeted by the fearful eyes of the man who´d been ringing the alarm bells as the attack started. He was young and unarmed, and a heartbeat later - his last - his dead body tumbled down along the weathered walls. Jinx sheathed her sword, leant over the edge and looked out over the city, her eyes narrowed against the suddenly biting wind.
In the southern part, where they´d bashed down the gates, almost every house was smouldering beneath a ragged blanket of black smoke and she could clearly make out where the yeti was enjoying himself. The clash of weaponry was rising everywhere and she could still see elves doing battle on the rooftops. However, they fought against a combination of reds and green spider rides, and those two groups fit together like hand and glove. To the left and right, elves and Minions were falling off the roofs dead or mortally wounded, but those last ones were immediately caught by blue Minions, spread out through the entire city under the protection of the browns and making sure the troops stayed intact. This strategy had been thought out, and the success was partly thanks to the knowledge of Nordberg´s streets; partly Sayron´s, but Kivner knew best what the city looked like now.
Nordberg was theirs.
Or at least, it would be as soon as the people surrendered. If they didn´t, the Overlord would, come dawn, own nothing more than a charred heap of ashes and a lot of corpses. How would the diplomacy be coming along? Sayron would have reached the great square by now, would he?
"Hello, Jinx."
The creaky voice was familiar, but it cut through her thoughts so suddenly Jinx jolted and looked behind her, as if she expected someone to be standing there. Then she smiled. "Hi, Gnarl. How are things down there?"
"In your eyes they might be fine, but that´s only on the aspect of the bloodshed. Negotiations aren´t coming along very well. Weapons are being picked up in the square, and not only by our forces."
Jinx started grinning. "Gnarl..."
"I´d almost be sorry," the advisor spoke with a hint of a demonic grin clearly audible in his voice, "but this asks for certain... measures."
"We´re lucky to have a plan B, right?"
"We´re lucky indeed," Gnarl agreed.
"Can I?"
A short pause. "Do everything you think nessecary, Jinx, and add to that everything you think fun."
Without even taking the time to answer, the Purple Scourge swung cheering to the middle of the bell tower.

Claws and blades cut through clothes and flesh as a hot knife through butter. Fanged jaws pierced defenceless elven necks, velvet legs threw out milky silk gleaming red in the light of the many, many fires.
If Ramul had been able to count that far, he could have marvelled at the number of his victims thus far. He and Letho worked in deadly unison, climbing walls and jumping elves with unequalled speed. Now and then the spider floated into the streets without sound, to deal deadly bites amidst the Nordbergians themselves, if they´d been foolish enough to pick up arms against the others or the Master.
The green was barely able to become invisible, so much soot and blood covered his mottled skin. But it was worth it. He was hissing almost continuously, out of pure battle rage, and he was very well able to equal Stabbit in his temporary insanity. He and the three other green elders had decided not to take the insane Minion with them. Stabbit wouldn´t be able to stop fighting once Nordberg surrendered.
Despite Ramul´s significantly greater ability to compose himself, it took him a while to notice the new ringing of the bells.
He did immediately know what it meant, however.
The green looked up. He didn´t need to see Jinx hoisting at the bell rope to know it was her. The negotiations had failed.
The spider rider swung his blades through the air, so blood flew everywhere. "To me!" he hissed. "Jagged!"
His fellow clan member turned. "Hear it," he nodded, grinning. "Everyone to us! Come!"
"Where Hoarse?"
Jagged looked around. "Will hear. Come on!"
And so the spider riders and the reds who heard Jinx´ call left their elves and rebels, but they were Minions of their art - the ones they left behind alive wouldn´t see the next dawn.

High up in the tower Jinx looked on as the little lights of the red Minions streamed towards her. Of course, not all of them. But enough for the plan B she herself had proposed to Sayron. She mused to herself - earlier in her life she´d have hoped it´d work. Now she knew it would. If it didn´t, she´d improvise until she got a result at least as good as the original idea. Nordberg would kneel.
A red Minion slung his claw over the tower´s edge, not far from her face. Jinx didn´t jump as the horned, fiery glowing creature hoisted himself into the tower using hands and feet. She smiled. "Hi, Simmer. The gathering´s coming on nicely, I see."
"Fever´s leading," the red panted.
Jinx frowned. "Where´s Hoarse?"
"Not as far front as Fever."
The horde leader took her ropes off her back. She could see Simmer read her bewilderment right off her face. "Then I should go and take a look, I guess."
"I follow," the Minion sizzled hurriedly. He jumped out of the tower, to turn in midair like a cat and hook on lower on the wall. Jinx followed a moment later. She switched between her two ropes to fly around the tower with increasing speed and eventually land upon a rooftop. She rolled over, freed her ropes from the tower´s crumbling cement and launched herself to the next roof, already partly whacked away by the yeti. The great beast wasn´t far away, judging by the roars, and more by the screaming. Jinx hoped the creature would survive this attack. She´d seen the Nordbergian´s spears, and though yetis didn´t often come this low the people were capable of killing them.
The cold night air blew the sounds away. And up front she saw the swiftly moving lights of the reds.
Simmer caught up with her, and suddenly they were in the middle of the red horde. Glittering eyes were turned her way. "Jinxie!"
"I hear Fever´s leading!"
"Is! He knows way!"
"To the storage?" Jinx frowned. She knew in which part of town the storage for which they were heading was located, but in the chaos she´d slightly lost her mental map and because of the smoke covering the city, she hadn´t been able to see it from atop the bell tower. Fever seemed to be able to feel it. She did her best to get to the front of the horde.
Eventually she was out of breath, but right behind Fever. She tried to gather enough air to address him, but then he suddenly stopped and pressed himself to the edge of the roof. Jinx followed his gaze, not yet able to speak.
There was the storage. But it wasn´t exactly unguarded. She quickly flattened herself.
"Kiret," the small red Minion hissed with a sizzling voice that made Jinx jolt. She hadn´t heard this much fire in a red´s voice before.
Indeed, around the storage were the gigantic, broad men, clad in wolf skins and carrying spears in their gnarled hands. The ferocious hunters from the Nordbergian ice plains, seemingly called upon once again to defend their lands against Sayron. Jinx pressed her lips together. She´d never make it past them with just a red and green horde. Kiret didn´t burn that well, and to be honest they were only passable with pure brown muscle. If Kniff had been here, he would´ve lost his mind seeing the wolf skins...
She realized something was tapping her shoulder. She turned and gazed into Fever´s burning eyes. He bared his pointy teeth in a smile, so his light shone out from the inside. "Give me free passage."
"What?"
"Can manage alone. Get me in and... run." The way he uttered that last word made Jinx shiver for a moment. Shiver because of the cold that would soon become all-consuming heat.
She wanted to ask further, but restrained herself. She suddenly remembered the inferno on that hilltop on Everlight, that´d turned an entire Imperial legion to ashes. This Minion wasn´t a normal red. Jinx nodded slowly. "Okay."

In the meantime, matters had turned to amateur combat in the square. Some of the Nordbergians had swords and axes, but others had to make do with torches and pitchforks - literally. There were also those who´d taken explosives from the quarry, or fireworks from the city itself. Blues, as it turned out, weren´t able to revive Minions who´d been completely blown apart. Sayron had barely been able to dodge the severed arm of a green, though the claw blades had damaged his helmet. His sword, however much he´d wanted to avoid it, was dripping with human blood.
There were positives, too. Seffec and the Ruborians were fighting like lions to protect their Lord. Omari, the mage, turned out to be capable of great things; he was flinging long threads of dark golden light around him and forced dozens of people back or down on their knees. Seffec stayed close to Sayron; blood was dripping out of his hair and his eyes were wild. Barid, his cold sword, was at body temperature.
Many Nordbergians attacked, with all their inexperienced spirit. Many more had stayed behind and now functioned as an uneasy audience. This wasn´t a fight. This was Nordberg´s dying groan, and Sayron knew it.
"Jinx is on her way, Lord," Gnarl spoke calmly. "This´ll be over soon."
"That´d better be true. This wasn´t what I had in mind, Gnarl." Sayron´s voice was icy, and sharp as daggers. Gnarl flattened his ears, even though his Master couldn´t see it.
"Keep an eye on the horizon, Sire. It´ll be a pretty sight."

Here in the west of town, the fighting in the great square was almost inaudible. Now and then a muted thud resounded through the cold, dark air, when something exploded or the yeti flattened something. Still Jinx and the hordes laid flat on the rooftops, looking out on the storage with the Kiret around it.
Then something jumped and floated towards the storage on a thread of ghostly silk. In the dark of this night, the gleaming black body of the spider was barely visible, and the green on her back was simply invisible. More followed.
"I´m counting on you," Jinx hissed at Fever from the side of her mouth. "Though I don´t know why, or on what grounds. If you truly fight for Sayron, fulfill your task."
"No worries," the red Minion grinned without taking his eyes off the spider riders. "Will do good, Jinx. Very good."
The spiders reached the storage and lowered themselves. The green horde managed to dispatch one or two Kiret without making a sound, then they were spotted. A feral scream echoed through the night. Jinx looked to the side. "Light me."
The metallic sound with which her ropes made contact with the storage´s roof was drowned out by the roar of the Kiret, the drawing of spears and the hiss of dozens of fireballs through the air. But nonetheless, the Purple Scourge was flying straight for the enormous hunters. She rammed her sword through the throat of the nearest one immediately, and yanked it out in a fountain of dark blood to charge at a second. She didn´t allow herself to get drawn into the fight. An opening, that´s all we need. Fever, where are you?
Her lack of concentration was punished by a long, deep wound along the length of her arm. She irresistibly thought back to her first real wound, also by the Kiret. Now, however, she healed it immediately. And she could keep grinning. A lone spark, bigger than the thrown fireballs, leapt over her to the storage roof. Jinx retreated slightly, followed by her broad-shouldered opponent, and saw Fever digging through the roof tiles with red-hot hands. A small jet of flame told her the roof beams were burning. Something reminiscent of fear dug into Jinx´ stomach - he shouldn't be using that much fire, not now!
"Retreat!" she roared. The Minions reacted immediately, probably because of the pressure in her voice. They really, really needed to leave this place.
The greens jumped back to safer roofs. Most of them made it, others were plucked from the sky by thrown Kiret spears. Jinx briefly closed her eyes - a struck spider was a dead one. Spider blood didn´t clot.
Then, as she was still looking up, her legs were scythed away and she was driven into the crowd of Kiret. The smell of rancid wolf fur and human sweat engulfed her as she bumped into the broad chest of one of them.
She didn't waste words, but raised her sword rightaway, to let a purple light grow in her other hand. She should have known better. Kiret didn´t know fear, just their purpose - protect the storage. They had no idea Fever was already inside.
The purple comet slammed three Kiret into the storage´s wooden doors. One of them was unhinged. Jinx could look right inside, and she was even able to see something, for inside... there was light.
A glimpse of crates full of fireworks, sticks and boxes filled with many more. As if she needed more confirmation. Yes, indeed, this was Nordberg´s fireworks storage. And the Nordbergians liked their fireworks. Come dawn, they´d probably have other opinions.
But there was something else, at which both Jinx and the Kiret were now staring with wide eyes. Jinx spontaneously forgot the pain in her arm and the huge men still surrounding her. The sight inside the storage was mind-boggling. Fever. Just Fever.
The red Minion was floating in midair, seemingly on his own hot air current. Around him swirled a blinding tornado of fire. Jinx´ eyes were streaming with the heat, those last few moments, but still she could swear the flames formed ghostly, flickering wings around Fever´s shoulders.
"Run, Jinx," his voice sizzled. Through the thick, trembling air, she could see him grinning.
Then everything bloomed with a heat and light like the sun´s itself.

Boom.
Sayron looked up. The sound had resonated down to the soles of his steel boots. At the edges of the square, people had fallen to their knees because of the tremor.
Above the rooftops, the night sky lit up with a hellish glow. And then everything went up.
Blue. Red. Purple. Yellow, green and orange. Flowers, wheels, dragons of light and fire - but there was nothing festive about it, at least not for the Nordbergians. Sayron noticed a broad grin stretching the corners of his mouth - a smile he hadn´t shown since his childhood, though his mouth had been hidden from sight even then. The Overlord felt like he was back in the days he himself had demolished the Midwinter Tree with gigantic pieces of firework. How fitting.
The heat rolled over them. Burning remains, some as large as the houses, started to come down, randomly distributed across Nordberg. Sayron destroyed some of them with blue lightning as they came too close to the square. Shock after shock thundered through the city. No one thought of fighting anymore - most of the people had shrunken down with their hands over their heads. Whatever was left of the elves was running through the burning streets, out of town.
Sayron burst into laughter. Inside, he was cheering with triumph; he didn´t care large portions of the city were ruined and being ruined. What was destroyed could be rebuilt. His way. For who would ever seek to take Nordberg from him now?
A small spark arched through the sky from the origin of the inferno, up through the smoky, brightly lit sky and then gently floated down. Unlike the other sparks, it didn´t lose brightness. The light landed in a street not far from the great square. Kniff followed it with keen eyes. His gaze wandered to the point where the alley came out on the square. Not much later, Fever came strolling out.
The brown Minion ran for him. "Fever!"
The red looked up. His black-lined eyes were burning like hellfire, and Kniff backed away. "Yes?" he hissed.
"Jinxie... what..."
"Big bang," Fever grinned. "Don´t know."
Kniff´s eyes flickered. He bared his teeth in a savage growl and he struck, not with his dagger, but with a claw. Fever dodged him and grabbed his wrist. Kniff´s skin hissed. "No, Minion." He sounded very different now. "Not against me. Don't even think about it."
Then he let go, and Kniff felt all fury flooding away from him. At the same moment, his heart dropped, and hope and despair mixed into terrible expectation.

There were still fireworks going off around the storage. It would take a while until everything had stopped exploding. Up this close, the surroundings were of a strange beauty, equaled by that of a tidal wave towering over you, or the eye of a hurricane.
There was, however, a little purple speck. And it wasn´t firework.
With a stubbornness that´d seemingly be saving her life forever, Jinx shot out of the inferno´s heart, protected by a thin purple shield. A few red Minions ran with her. They would have been able to survive the fire, but the force of the explosion was a different story. Some spider riders had possibly made it, fast enough to outrun the explosions, and they´d had a head start, but Fever had condemned quite a few of his own clan members to death.
Jinx had never before managed to create a shield. Her own face showed the most surprise. Her magic kept surprising her.
But, of course, Fever was no different.
He´d been floating. She was still astonished as she rushed through the exploding wrecks of Nordberg, protected by a purple bubble, Simmer and a few other reds running along next to her as if the devil was on their heels and they actually feared such a thing.
He´d been floating. Minions weren´t supposed to be floating. At least, not reds, she quietly added as she thought back to Gnarl´s true form, black and winged.
Fever had shown her wings of raging fire. Stabbit had healed mortal wounds with his own green magic. The Minions with the black-lined eyes kept surprising her, and she didn´t know whether they were part of the horde or just playing along and enjoying the show. She was starting to see the probability of the last.
The explosions started to decrease in ferocity. The fire continued, but she was catching up with it. The houses were recognizable here. She looked back; nothing but flame, charred and charring remains. At least a quarter of town, or more, had turned to ashes.
She recognized the houses here, and she also knew the sound growing more clear with every second. She gestured at the Minions and swung up a roof. Her shield silently burst.
There was the square. There were only exhilarated Minion voices, despite the amount of humans. There were no elves in sight.
Before her eyes, the Nordbergians slowly sank to their knees before Sayron. Weapons clattered to the ground.
"Mead for us again!" "Yay! Yay!" "Who´s coming with to roast seal?"
They´d been successful. Jinx´ face split in a grin. It became wider as the Overlord looked up; his eyes changed colour in a way betraying joy and relief. He hadn´t been sure whether she was still alive...
The horde started to follow Sayron´s gaze. Yellow eyes brightened and toothy grins were shown. A heartbeat later Kniff and Fever ran into the square together, and as Fever grinned self-satisfactedly, Kniff was cheering.
Sayron chuckled deeply. "Congratulations, dark warriors. Nordberg is ours. Kivner, make sure they know what is expected of them. I´m sure you´ll enjoy the time with your people, my lieutenant."
Kivner put up such big eyes they nearly rolled out of his head. The madness in them was almost drowned out by his joy. "Certainly, my Lord!"
Sayron winked and swept his arm upwards, and the just barely buried Tower Gate once again drilled through the cobblestones. Leaving two hundred tough Minions, half of the city in flames and most of the surviving populace in mortal fear and awe, the Overlord and his followers left the city. The surviving elves sped away from their lost bastion, and all of them heard the rapidly approaching howl of grey wolves in the wilderness.
In the Netherworld, a thin ray of blue light shot up from the blue Hive. One single egg had glowed for a blinding moment.

To the west, across the sea...
Tropical birdsong wove a way between elegantly formed branches, dense canopies and countless hanging flowers. The beauty of this place was in sharp contrast with the mood of its queen.
In her palace, high in the branches, Fay had let herself down upon her throne made out of living wood, her head supported by a pale, elegant hand. Her eyes were sad, but hard. In front of her stood her most trusted advisor, and he´d just brought bad news.
Florian ran a hand through his messy blonde hair. "I´m sorry, milady. There was little even we could do to keep Nordberg. I returned as the Scourge was still approaching, but I don't doubt the fact the city now burns. The last sighting suggests his troops are almost indestructible now. We weren´t ready."
"I feel the dying of our people, there in the north," Fay spoke with her musical voice. "There is nothing we can do now. We are being overrun. He will trample everything that opposes him, like the Empire has done for years."
"You shouldn´t think that way."
The queen abruptly rose, so her dress whirled about her as if gravity didn´t affect it. "Look around you, Florian! Orntal is the last safe haven."
"We still have the Last Sanctuary..."
"He will find it. The Empire and his demons have been in the area and they will return. It is only a matter of time." Tears bloomed in Fay´s eyes, and little blue flowers bloomed around her throne in reaction. "His troops are growing with the hour. We have no chance if we keep fighting him. Light magic has no chance left."
Florian widened his green eyes, and he seemed truly shocked for the first time. "You don't mean..."
"We are both magical," Fay spoke with a bitter, ironic smile. "He seems to like me. It is the logical solution, Florian. The Empire will try to crush us both, and I can´t let it succeed. Solarius must be brought down, and it is time for sacrifices to be made. If he returns to the Wasteland, I will be waiting for him."

That same day Nordberg was transformed.
Jinx and Seffec managed - disguised with stolen Imperial garments and guided by Cariatia, the girl from Drearius´ villa who´d been adopted by Kelda - to return to the slums of Arcadiopolis and to speak with the people there. Jinx was still regarded as their champion, even more so now they´d brought down the Arena. Seffec spoke of great things that weren´t even that far-flung - seas of fire, power and domination, victory and freedom. Sayron´s version of freedom was debatable, Jinx thought to herself, but everything would be better than the slums. A Tower Gate turned out to be able to last for five minutes beneath the weakened shield over the area. Five minutes turned out to be enough for those desiring to come over to the dark side.
Five minutes of people turned out to be enough to replace the Nordbergians who´d rather flee into the wilderness than side with Sayron.
That same day Nordberg was transformed into the upper world capital of the Netherworld, fully populated by people faithful to Sayron, with Kivner as their vigilant eye. The Minions in the new city were treated well and honored, just like the guardians of the brainwashed Ignavopolis. Sayron´s second dominion over the town had turned out far better than the first, but then again, he´d gained a lot of experience since then.

As Jinx was busy evacuating the slums and refurbishing Nordberg, Sayron was busy with other matters entirely.
"Congratulations on your victory, my love," Juno said, gently pushing him down upon the gigantic bed in the private quarters. She laid down beside him. Kelda did the same on his other side. Sayron looked between them in pleasant surprise; this was the first time both his loved ones were in one room without trying to rip eachother apart.
The ginger Nordbergian smiled broadly, and she was more beautiful than ever. "I´m glad to see our city is finally behaving itself, Sayron. You´ve got something to celebrate." She removed his helmet and kissed him like she hadn´t kissed him for a long time. In the meantime, Juno busied herself removing other parts of his armour.
Sayron decided that going through his next ventures with Gnarl could wait. The private quarters were about to become very private.

The soft sound of chisels to inky black basalt resounded through the throne room as Jinx returned. She gently floated down in the azure light, landed on the familiar, warm marble floor and looked up.
The sculptors had been hard at work. Where there´d only been two faint outlines of wings covering the walls to the sides of the throne, they were fully detailed now. The angular bones beneath the thin skin were almost tangible. Every vein had been given shape. Not for the first time, Jinx realized the Minions weren´t doing this by themselves, but were inspired by something else entirely.
Above the throne, three remaining structures of indestructible granite loomed into the great hall. They were still rough, but Jinx noticed she was involuntarily shivering.
"Run, Jinx."

Two Minions were strolling upwards across the basalt of the area where the Hives were being kept. They were on their way to the waterfalls where the blues had constructed their gleaming, waterproof dwellings, but neither of them bore ear webs. One of them was red and faintly grinning, the other was green and constantly giggling.
They reached the Hive and bent over the water of one of the small basins worn out into the rock. Fever did so with visible repulsion of the water, but Stabbit almost fell over.
In the other basins, the water was teeming with tadpoles, their bodies round and light blue, their tails a subtle hint of pink. They already possessed the yellow eyes marking them as the larvae of blue Minions. But there was only one of them in this basin. He was swollen, and he already had thin front legs. Fever - able to think clearly, in contrast to Stabbit - knew this larva had devoured the others in his pool, bones and all. As they rightfully should.
The two Minions each outstretched a hand to the larva. As they touched him, he writhed wildly and closed his eyes, and before theirs, his front legs grew to become arms, back legs developed and soon became real legs, and the tail repositioned to the position of an adult blue Minion´s.
Their brother. There, newborn, naked, with closed eyes and ear webs just being raised along the sides of his head, was their brother. They were complete.
"What do you call yourself?" Fever asked. Stabbit stopped giggling.
The blue Minion raised his head. Then he opened his eyes. They were as round as the other blues´, but inky black-lined. He grinned and thus bared his razor-sharp fish-catching teeth.
"Goudvis."
Fever grinned. Stabbit showed the exact same expression. Three pairs of demonic eyes deeply pierced eachother.
The three gripped each other´s hands firmly. Fever didn´t leave burns on the other two, and Stabbit´s claws didn´t seem to do any damage either.
"When would we walk the earth again, they wondered," Goudvis smiled. "They´ll know the answer soon enough."

Chapter Text

He could feel it now.
He´d long been able to ignore it, this pulling, alluring power. But now there was nothing left between him and the pearly light.
Go, Sayron. Bring it. Heal it. And claim it.
Waterfalls of blue light flanked the pearly glow, and he knew what they were. Lethal, mutating magical ooze. The groundwater of the Wasteland. That name had been chosen correctly - the area was teeming with life, but it had fallen to waste, all of it; hideously deformed, even by his standards.
But the light pulled him closer, and he could no longer ignore it. Nordberg had been brought to its knees. His next steps were the Empire and light magic. But before he´d be able to handle them, he´d need the Tower Heart.
And the Tower Heart lay in shards, scattered in the most dangerous area of the known world.
Thus the Overlord pondered the path ahead of him, staring up at the sculpted basalt ceiling of his bedchamber, both his Mistresses sleeping next to him. It couldn´t be much later than five in the morning, but he was unable to sleep again.
He´d go.

Jinx was troubled by the exact same problem. Halfway through the artificial, Netherworldly night she´d silently jumped out of her shared barrack and taken the floating rock, to pace around the trapdoor in the throne room for a while. Now and then she´d looked up at the three structures, apparently destined to become the three heads of the winged beast that dominated the wall above the throne. It still made her uncomfortable.
Back to the Wasteland.
She didn´t want to.
She still remembered the final gurgling Parch had brought forth as her dagger stabbed into his stomach. His hideous transformation from fiery red to sickly pink, with mismatched eyes without pupils and a lolling tongue.
It would happen again. They´d only scouted a minuscule part of the area, and there was so much more ooze behind the barricade Parch had failed to open. It would happen again, no matter how hard she´d try to prevent it.
Jinx pulled herself up to the middle structure above the throne, to sit down and think. She still knew better than sit onto the throne itself, even now.
Kniff wasn´t coming along. She decided that then and there. She wouldn´t allow her friend setting as much as one foot into that terrible land. They´d need a small horde, so they wouldn´t attract any unwanted attention while gathering the shards. More blues than the other three clans together, they´d be needed the most...
In the throne room Jinx started to select her horde, grim and analytical.

Finally Sayron came into the great hall, visibly concerned and tired. A while before that, Gnarl had appeared, and Jinx had told him of her ideas. He´d taken them into consideration, but now Sayron stepped for the throne he looked up. "Good morning, Sire." The depression seemingly clouding the entire Netherworld was also audible in his old, broken voice.
"Good morning, Gnarl; Jinx." Sayron sat down on the throne. "Well. There´s no reason not to continue now we have the chance."
"The Wasteland," Jinx said softly. "No, I think we should head there today. Was that your plan as well, Lord?"
Sayron nodded silently.
"Those shards should be found as soon as possible," Gnarl said. "I suspect they lie scattered in a wide radius around the old Tower, as that was the centre of the explosion. There are maps of the old lands; the area probably covers the Mellow Hills, large parts of Angelis, the dwarven lands and Ruboria..." Jinx leant against a wall and felt herself calm down listening to Gnarl´s voice. As long as he was talking, everything was fine. As long as the old advisor still had a plan, everything was alright.
"...and Jinx had the idea of taking a small horde along, with the most talented Minions she selected herself, so you won´t attract too much attention in the area and can still search for the shards as fast as possible. Is it not, Jinx?"
"Yes," she said hurriedly, aware of Gnarl´s piercing gaze. "I´ll get us the best horde we´ve ever had, Lord."
"That sounds good to me. I´m glad to have such a good horde leader." Sayron folded his arms. "Of course, it´s also in your hands whether we make it or disappear into blue ooze."
"No pressure," Gnarl winked.

Kniff was on lookout at the moment the floating rock docked at the Barracks. He was alone on the edge of the abyss - the other Minions were busy practicing their fighting skills, relieving the shifts posting at the Hives, eating or hunting. He was the only one who would do something as useless as waiting for someone.
But the rock came, and Jinx was on it. He jumped and ran for her. "Jinxie! Going today?"
Jinx stepped off and leant against a stalagmite. "Yep. But, Kniff..."
"Back to Wasteland! Make Tower Heart whole again... see old Tower... going to be great!" His face fell slightly as he undoubtedly remembered Parch. "Also dangerous, but still..."
"Kniff, you´re not coming with us."
The Minion had opened his mouth already, but his next words died in his throat. The excited expression slowly melted off his face. "...What?" he asked, incredulously and very softly.
Jinx slid down the rock. "You can´t come, Kniff."
"But always come..."
"Not this time, buddy. We need a small horde, with selected Minions..." She didn´t say she was the one who´d selected them, and they were the best she could find. She looked away and thought back to the time Kniff had taught her to hunt and kill, fight and ignore pain. Now she was stronger than he was, and she could tell him what to do. It didn´t feel good.
"...But..."
She pulled him close. "I don´t want you to die, Kniff. Not like Parch."
"...Don't want you to die either..." he murmured into her hair. "Have to look after you, Jinxie." He let go and looked at her with serious, glowing eyes. "You look after horde, but I always watch over you..."
"I´ll be careful, buddy." She smiled faintly. "I´ll be back. I always come back. And then we´ll storm Arcadiopolis together."
The Minion gave her a hurt look. But she knew he´d listen to her. She just hoped it´d be as a friend, not as a lower-ranking horde member. "I promise, Kniff."
"Okay then." He sighed. Then he gave her a lopsided grin. "Will watch in pool. Faster than Gnarl if he tries to kick me."
Jinx hugged him one last time and hoped it wouldn´t be the very last time. "I´ll bring you a souvenir."
And with that, she rose, pulled her ropes taut and stepped onto the rock. She wouldn´t be seeing the Netherworld for some time.

The return was enough to wrench the air from everyone´s lungs.
Nothing had changed. Every detail was the same, and everything recalled the last disastrous time they´d been here. The rushing of the lifeless wind, the jagged, claw-like rocks, the inky sky with the blue glow at the horizon... Strange growths scraped a living in dark corners, and everywhere, so very clearly, was the presence of uncontrolled, sick magic. This was a wrong place to be.
The azure light from the Tower Gate was a comfortingly familiar sight, but they soon left that sight behind them. Sayron stepped swiftly on over the path leading down, to the valley where the pools of ooze lay spread out over the dark, lifeless soil. They were glowing. Fortunately the slugs were gone.
Parch had died here. His body was gone; it´d probably been taken by whatever bizarre scavengers this land was home to. Jinx was glad of it. She probably wouldn´t have been able to bear the sight of his deformed skeleton.
The Minions formed an uneasy group.
Jinx looked over them, now they´d come together here. She´d only taken three members of the brown clan; Stripe, Gloob and Aches. Those three should be enough in a fight, for they were the strongest and they had been the strongest for quite a while. Aches would probably give her some trouble, because he still didn´t fully accept her leadership, but she´d taken him anyway - he was very strong and almost fought more ferociously than Stripe.
The reds and greens, too, were with three. She´d chosen the two most fiery and the current master climber from the red clan; Hoarse, Fever and Simmer. From the greens, she´d selected Stabbit as he was the toughest and would maybe even be able to withstand the ooze, and Jagged and Ramul to keep him in check. With the blues she´d told Zap and Soaker to gather a team that would be good at cooperation. They were with six, led by Soaker. Among them was an individual with black-lined eyes. As he´d tumbled from the blue Minion gate, Jinx´ heart had dipped for a moment. Three Minions with those eyes? Fever and Stabbit had caused enough strange events, but a blue? They were mysterious and unpredictable at the best of times...
A horde of fifteen was very small compared to the armies they´d marched around with on the last few missions, but it was enough for a scouting voyage. Back in Nordhaven and in the Everlightian jungle, the hordes had barely been bigger.
The blue Minion with the black-lined eyes walked to a glowing pool of ooze, together with the rest of his clan. Soaker had remained standing at the edge, staring down with round frog´s eyes. There was no telling what went on in his head right now, but he´d heard about the fate of the Minions that´d gone before him in great detail.
He outstretched a webbed hand and moved it over the pool.
The ooze hissed, splashed and sunk away into the soil. The blue Minion stepped forward and stayed there for a moment. The ooze didn´t return. It seemed to avoid the blue like water on red-hot metal. Sayron´s eyes were wide with excitement, and Jinx held her breath.
Then the representation of the blue leader stepped away, and a few moments later the ooze came back up to bring the pool back to its former size. It was temporary... but it worked!
"As long as the blues stand in it, the ooze stays away," Gnarl concluded slowly. "Perfect. This way... well, just imagine what will happen to pursuers who don´t make it to you in time, Lord," he chuckled. "Only you will have free passage."
"Good," the Overlord spoke softly. "We can move on."
After the rest of the blue horde had tested their skills on several pools, they walked over to the large pool, with the barricade on its other side. Jinx could still see the scratches Parch´ claws had made in the overhanging rock as he lost his grip and...
...the blues freed a splashing path to the other side. The lighting blue drops glistened in the air, and then the ooze was gone. Sayron and the horde uneasily walked over to the other side, Jinx quickly followed between the two rows of blues. As they, too, followed, the pool closed itself behind them. There was no going back.
The three browns and Jagged started turning the wheel. The barricade came up slowly.
"Are these barricades to keep something in or keep something out?" Gnarl pondered. "Hm, either way, they won´t be stopping you, Great One!"
With a thud, the wood reached its highest point and they walked underneath it. The path curved between jagged, black rocks, and Jinx knew none of them was able to climb them; they were gleaming in a way betraying their slipperiness, and they were so sharp they´d probably slice right through her ropes. Hopefully there were other types of rock in this land.
Then they rounded the curve in the ravine path, and Jinx gasped. Next to her, Sayron froze.
In front of them lay a collection of creaky houses. Clotheslines with colorless clothes on them were spanned between the roofs. Miserable people with overlarge eyes looked at them from everywhere, just as shocked as the Overlord and his horde themselves.
"Unholy..." Gnarl started softly.
"That´s it!" someone shouted. "They´ve sent the Demon Lord of Nordberg to finish us off!" A halfhearted sort of panic broke out in the little village, but some people walked straight at them. All of them had a pale skin and deep, lifeless eyes. A painfully thin man looked up at Sayron pleadingly. "Look, we´ve got enough problems, ok?" he spoke, breathlessly and rasping. "They kicked us out of the city, claimed that we were contaminated with magic... ridiculous!" He burst into a wheezing fit of coughing and turned away. A second man grabbed Jinx´ arm, so she backed away involuntarily - his wide eyes were wild and his breath smelled strange. "Or we no longer ´fitted´ into the Glorious Empire... they dumped us here to die..."
The coughing man bent over and flailed about him. "Get back... Get back... Stay away from me!"
Jinx´ man turned in horror. "Arrgh! He´s mutated!"
Jinx looked on as the healthy man hid behind her. The coughing man started giving up blood, but at the same time his body changed, until he was as hunchbacked as the mutated Minions had been. His eyes enlarged and his pupils disappeared. In the end, his elongated tongue hung out of his drooling mouth and he came limping towards her.
That was too much.
The horde leader drew her sword and cleaved the mutant in two with a scream of fear and aggression. The two halves thudded into the black dust.
It became quiet. The man came out from behind Jinx. There was fear in his overlarge eyes, but also surprise. She could see he was bewildered by the fact she was as scared as he was. "You´re the Purple Scourge," he mumbled, his eyes fixed on her one moment, averted the next.
Jinx looked up. "Sayron..."
"The Empire is more evil than I am," he muttered. "Can´t have that."
Jinx had been busy with nothing but Nordberg for the past few days, and so her thoughts immediately went there now. "Sayron... if they´re still healthy..."
"Good people," the Overlord started, "do you hate Emperor Solarius?"
"Quite," the man next to Jinx growled softly.
"Barely enough to eat," it sounded from within the village.
"The water can´t be trusted."
"Slugs and carrion crows everywhere..."
"This is hell..."
"And every now and then there´s a mutation wave," the man with the large eyes spoke, looking around with a hunted look. "No one knows when it´s his turn."
Faces appeared from the creaky houses. Men, women and even children. Jinx felt a sting of uncharacteristic pity. She´d thought she´d been unlucky in the slums. Now it became clear what had happened to the disappearing people condemned by Solarius. Things could always be worse. Always.
"We can´t leave anyone behind," she hissed to Sayron.
"Oh, watch me. These are former fat Imperials in most cases."
"They hate the Emperor! Can you even imagine how deep their vengeance will go?"
"I´m not saying I will leave them here. I´m just saying I could." Sayron looked over the sorry bunch of people. "But just for myself. I´ll let them fight. The fact I give them their own revenge is purely coincidal." He exchanged a glowing glance with Jinx, and they both knew what was meant here. Keep it quiet, will you. I´m the Demon Lord, all in all. "We´ll see who´s healthy enough. We can´t have the magical plague breaking out in Nordberg." He raised his voice. "People of the Wasteland! I offer you an escape. My Minions will escort you to a camp outside Nordberg town. There you´ll stay for two weeks. Those mutating during that time will be killed by my horde. The rest may stay in Nordberg until I call you out to march against the Empire." He spread his arms in invitation.
Silence became mumbling. Mumbling became shouting. Shouting became a crowd streaming towards them.
Sayron looked back. "Soaker, clear the way. Make sure no one loses his footing... some are a bit unstable." The blue leader nodded and walked back the way they´d come.

As soon as everyone had disappeared through the Gate they had the empty village for themselves. They went through the belongings the people hadn´t taken with them - rough tables and chairs, mats that´d been used as beds, dried food. The people had apparently lived off mutated animals, carefully skinned and roasted, but still glowing blue in some places. The healthiest probably hadn´t been here for very long. There was no surviving on the long term in this place.
"We´ll have to be quick," Sayron concluded. "If we don´t find the shards in time, we´ll have to get back to the Netherworld and continue later. Gnarl, is it possible to dig out another gate further into the area?"
"Probably, Sire. As soon as it´s needed, or if there´s suitable soil, I´ll send out Grubby."
"Good." The Overlord paused. "That said, I think we'd better leave."
Jinx smiled. "I'm ready. I was prepared to be jumped by who knows what kind of creatures behind that barricade."
Sayron's eyes wrinkled. Then he turned away and trod off through the village.
On the other side was another barricade, and it was operated the same way as the first. When it had been turned open, the ravine path continued. It seemed as if the villagers had hid in a relatively sheltered valley, a broadened part of this crack in the hard, smooth rock.
Something scrambled over the rocks above them.
Jinx immediately pulled her ropes from her shoulders, but then realized she wouldn´t be able to climb here. She swore - she was powerless, and she would have to wait for the creature to jump them... if it hadn´t been a figment of her imagination. But others were also looking up, and she didn´t doubt her own hearing yet, for it could compete with that of a Minion.
It resounded again. And once more, but now from the other side of the path. Stripe turned around, his narrowed eyes scanning the edges of the ravine and his ears pointing up rigidly under his centurion helmet. He was growling softly.
A little sound bounced off the black walls. It resembled... bleating?
Then two creatures jumped down, into the gorge.
Jinx and Stripe immediately had their swords at the ready, Gloob and Aches were a heartbeat later. But no one struck as they saw what was attacking them.
Bulbous, glowing blue eyes on two sides of a blunt head. A short, withered body with clawed feet, but covered in the ragged, filthy remains of... wool.
Jinx backed away, not sure whether to laugh or shiver in revulsion. For what was attacking them were two mutants that´d once bounced around in the Mellow Hills, beneath a blue sky filled with clouds as wooly as themselves. What she was looking at now were two sheep from the lands once surrounding Spree.
The sheep uttered a rattling growl and crept around the group with a bloodthirst that wouldn´t look too bad on a wolf. To the Minions´ surprise they didn´t seem to have problems climbing the vertical walls of the gorge to continue their circling. There were carnivorous teeth in their once adorable mouths.
Stabbit broke the spell by launching himself atop the front sheep. But even he faced a surprise; there was some glowing blood, but the sheep were just as agile as him and by climbing the slippery walls with claws seemingly made for it, they managed to shake him off.
The other creature thudded down in front of Goudvis, but its raised claw seemed to be halted for a fraction of a second as the blue Minion looked him squarely in the eyes. A heartbeat later, the beast was rolling around screaming in agony, its fur suddenly ablaze. Hoarse and Fever hadn´t hesitated any longer.
The first sheep managed to avoid them by staying on the walls, but eventually it, too, left a smoky trail and fell down. A last, rattling growl, and it became silent.
Sayron stepped to the remains. The scorching flesh retracted from far too sharp, irregular teeth. "What kind of magic is this?" he muttered. "I can´t imagine my father once used this power through the Heart..."
"Lord!"
He looked up. Jinx came running back from behind a curve in the path, further into the gorge. Her mood seemed to have changed radically, as she had an excited look in her eyes. "A shard, Lord! Bring the blues... it´s in a pool."
Soaker and his clan hurried after her. Sayron followed, just in time to see the ooze retracting. And yes, there was a large shard of a material he hadn´t seen for a long time now - he´d tucked the two shards he´d acquired earlier away in the deepest parts of the Tower, close to the tip of the stalactite. If they´d become unstable, not too much of his domain would perish.
Nacre, but not with random streaks of colour. This shard was so large the shapes were clearly visible. He could have sworn a face was looking at him, from within a helmet that wasn´t too different from that which hid his own face right now. He quickly looked up, but the rock walls hid Vessperion´s Tower from his eyes at the moment.
Jinx picked up the shard and put it safely in the dragon leather sack she carried on her back. If anyone was able to get everywhere to collect shards in unexpected places, it was her, and so she´d been given the honour of carrying them.
She didn´t know if she appreciated that honour enough.

It was cold.
Seffec pulled his scarf tighter. He wasn´t used to wearing this much clothing at once, but he wasn´t built to walk around Nordberg with less. During the battle he´d been moving enough to keep warm, and his armour had been insulating enough to even get him to sweat, but now... it was cold.
Barid.
Nordberg was still smoking in the autumn chill. Parts of the city had been transformed into charred remains, and there was both snow and ash falling from the sky, a day after the great fire. But in the parts still inhabitable, new people were moving into the houses. In various points a black flag was hoisted high, fluttering wildly in the harsh wind. And the burnt buildings were being rebuilt even now.
Seffec looked out over the great square, a hand on the hilt of his scimitar. Nordbergians, Ruborians, Imperials. He smiled. Sayron was actually succeeding in uniting the entire world under his black banner. And everyone treated the Minions well, and received sharp-fanged grins in return. They remained with two hundred, however. Sayron would never forget what had happened when he´d kept it at fifty.
Then, straight ahead, an azure light blazed up from the Tower Gate. He jolted. Some of his fellow guardians joined him.
People started appearing between the black spikes. Hesitantly, they stepped to the cobblestones.
They were pale and thin, with overlarge eyes. No, not pale - their skin was almost grey.
A few Minions followed them, clearly straight from the Netherworld itself. They drove the people across the square in a hurry, to the city gates - being mended for a second time and still hanging open. Seffec followed them with a shocked gaze as they walked past below him.
Some of them looked up. Seffec recognized typical Imperial faces. "Where do you come from?" he asked.
"Wasteland," one of the men answered. He smiled weakly. "It´s nice up here."
Seffec breathed in deeply. People? There? He bent over to one of the Minions accompanying the people. "Where are you taking them?"
"Camp outside walls," the brown spoke. "Have to build, but will happen fast. Take down some broken houses for wood."
"Will do." The Ruborian leant back. "Did the Overlord pick them up?"
The Minion nodded. "Are deeper in area now."
"Wish them good luck, if you can."
The brown saluted and then ran after the rest. Seffec stayed behind.
Omari seemed to have appeared out of thin air behind him. He placed a slender brown hand on his shoulder. "They´ll do it, fahid. They´ve faced greater peril."
"So did we. And still the disease drove us out of Ruboria." Seffec folded his arms on the balustrade above the square. "I just hope the Purple Scourge won´t be glowing blue when I see her next."
Omari bared his white teeth in a grin. "No need to worry about her, fahid."
Seffec stared at the Tower Gate in silence.

The travelers continued their journey through the gorge for the rest of that day. It seemed to know no end, and none of them could climb up to see how far the ravine continued. Eventually they made camp, as good as unsheltered, but still they were glad to have some rest. A nightshift of browns and greens was appointed, and after a meal of dried Nordbergian meat they tried to get some sleep.
Neither Sayron nor Jinx had much success. There wasn´t much difference in day and night here, as the sky remained inky black, but still it had become darker in some way. Now it became apparent the rock walls around them were covered in alien-like vegetation that slowly started to glow in purple, yellow and blue. It was unusual, but after some time Jinx found it strangely beautiful.
She rolled over. Next to her, between her and Sayron, lay the sack with the lone shard. How long would it take to complete the Heart? She sighed. At the same moment a snore escaped Sayron. So he´d got to sleep...
She was tired. She wasn´t used to walking these distances anymore, and her feet were sore. How she wished she could have climbed here...
With her head on her arm, Jinx slowly dozed off. "Sleep tight, Kniff," she muttered, then her eyes closed.

Far away in the Netherworld, Gnarl slept as well. His slumber mostly was short and alert, because the Master could need him at any minute. He´d never needed much sleep during his long, long life; after all, evil never really slept.
Now his large, old eyes moved rapidly behind his wrinkly eyelids. The Minion Master was dreaming.
Six glowing eyes in the deep darkness.
We´re all here, Gnarl. What say you?
"You´re one, Lord," he uttered. "And I hope everything is to your liking."
Not quite. But she carries the shards. It is a beginning.
"Why are you so fixed on Jinx? She´s just a mortal."
That´s what you think. It´s good my eyes are still on this world. She´s far more interesting than you think, Minion.
"We´ll see..." Gnarl turned abruptly as a light began glowing behind him. In the lower regions of the Tower, his body turned as well, in the Iron Maiden he slept in. He didn´t so much as scratch himself on the razor-sharp spikes. He oiled them regularly, but they never harmed him in any way.
There, on the ceiling, the throne room portal came into sight. The blue light lit the vaults, the banners, and the throne. And the sculpture above it. It was fully completed now, and three dragon heads arched into the great hall. Their eyes glistened.
And became real.
Three pairs of glowing yellow eyes now looked at him from this side. Gnarl stooped to the floor. "Lord..."
But the dragon ignored him. The heads arched down with a creaking of ancient basalt. Gnarl followed the triple gaze. There, on the centre of the trapdoor, two figures had appeared, and they were none less than Sayron and Jinx. They weren´t looking at the dragon, however, but at each other. With murder in their eyes. Sayron´s armour was caked in blood, Jinx´ face was filthy with soot and covered in scratches.
Though apart from them, the throne room was empty, Minion voices were echoing everywhere, screaming and growling. It seemed as if a fight was going on throughout the entire Tower...
Then the stone dragon spread his wings. The wall behind the throne shattered. The trapdoor opened and the two figures standing on it fell through.
Gnarl outstretched a hand to them, but there was nothing he could do. He could only listen as his Master and the horde leader fell to their deaths, screaming.

Jinx screamed.
Strangely enough, she was still bothered by a light vertigo, or really a fear of the orange depth of the Netherworld. When she walked over the rickety bridges at the barracks, she still didn´t dare to look down, unless she was holding on to her ropes firmly. The idea of falling in there wasn't pleasant at all.
And now she fell through the trapdoor in the throne room, straight through the Tower. Black stone walls flashed past, then the abyss opened for her. A glowing orange maw without end, and there was nothing she could do.
She clawed around and tumbled over until she could look up. There was the Tower, the chunks of basalt circling around it as if in some weightless dance. Unreachable. No ropes. No hope. Only falling, falling...
A dark shadow tumbled past and to a point deep below her, as if to catch her, but she would still crash against it...!
Falling, falling... and then darkness.

"Houses!"
Ramul´s voice rang out through the gorge, and out. Finally - after another half a day of traveling - they´d reached a new open plain. The rock walls made way for an endless black sky, and a true sea of blue ooze casting a poisonous glow up to those dark heavens.
Jinx climbed out uneasily, immediately followed by Sayron´s towering figure. She was mostly silent today, and lost in thought. Faint memories of the dream of that night went through her head - Sayron looking at her in murderous rage, a three-headed dragon...
She looked up, and out over the slightly uneven plains of ooze. At the edge - shore? coast? - were, indeed, some wooden buildings.
A second village? This close to the ocean of ooze...?
Ramul, still leading the way, turned invisible and moved towards the rickety shacks carefully. He peered in. Then his eyes widened and he hissed in shock. A gurgling growl was his answer.
The growl spread over the shacks, a sound only faintly human. Ramul came shooting back and remained next to Sayron, hissing and spitting, his eyes wild and his claws spread.
There they were, the people who´d populated this outpost, perhaps not even that long ago. Only a day´s travel from the original village, but close enough to the ooze and the sick magic for them to simply succumb - shambling, with a grey, mottled skin and blindingly glowing eyes. They were still wearing their human clothes, torn and covered in all sorts of substances, among which certainly blood and drool. Some, who´d retained their humanity for a little while longer, lay in the dust as rotting corpses, ripped to shreds by their former friends.
All turned to beasts in this land.
Swords, claw knives and fireballs were pulled out. The creatures who´d once been humans would die like beasts as well.
Jinx half expected the persons they´d once been would shine through upon their deaths, but they didn´t. The mutants, like Parch, just brought forth a last gurgle and stopped moving. She saw it yet another time: magic was irreversible in many cases.
As she wiped her sword and put it away, faint images shot through her mind again: a three-headed dragon, falling without ropes, Sayron looking at her with hatred and a strange fear. At the same time, a thought occurred to her. If these people had been changed by the Wasteland... what kind of irreversible things had the Netherworld done to her? She most certainly no longer was who she´d been when she was fished from the Tamesa. Was there some sort of transforming curse on her, too?
Something prodded her with a spiky elbow. She looked down. Aches was looking up at her boldly. "Come."
She tried not to feel irked by the fact he treated her like a newborn. "Yeah, yeah." She looked up and saw Sayron and the horde had indeed moved on. The Overlord seemed to have decided to walk by the shore of the ooze-sea. She caught up with him. "Shouldn't we cross it with the blues?"
"Only when we can´t find anything else on land. It´ll exhaust them."
"Fair enough."
About half an hour later, the landscape returned to its familiar chaotic state. Ragged black cliffs rose up around them, and the path was blocked several times. The horde painfully worked its way through a razor-sharp maze, which reminded Jinx of the Everlightian tsingy. This appeared to be its nightmarish mirror image.
Still, the path they were able to follow seemed to lead slowly upwards, and with some effort and - with a few Minions - foot wounds, they rose along the smooth walls. Ravines plunged down on both sides, apparently deeper than ground level. Strange sounds echoed up. Jinx shivered and hoped nothing would work its way up, or fly...
Then they reached a point so high they could see across the rest of the dark tsingy. A faint flapping of wings resounded, but no one really registered, for they all stared at something straight in front of them.
A floating rock.
Not at all like the one in the Netherworld, polished and almost perfectly round; this one was a rough, glowingly overgrown chunk of rock with barely a flat top to stand on, but despite the fact it should weigh tons, it was floating in midair... and it followed a slow course across the gaping gorge in front of them.
Jinx´ gaze wandered for a moment. Her eyes widened. "Lord..."
Sayron followed her gaze and saw what she meant. On a spike stabbing up though the ravine, barely balanced, was a shard. "Do you think you can climb?"
"I can try." Jinx grinned. "I´m going to need that rock."
"Jinxie! Careful!"
Kniff hadn´t spoken earlier, undoubtedly because Gnarl only tolerated him just close enough to the pool to watch. Now he had wrestled forward, and Jinx could practically see him with her eyes open. She smiled, knowing he could actually see her. "It´s alright, Kniff."
She took her ropes off her shoulders, braced herself and waited. She clenched her teeth. And jumped.
The rock was at the point in its course closest to them, and with both her ropes around a tuft of glowing vegetation, what could go wrong?
Or so Jinx thought.
At the moment she collided with the rock and scrambled up, something tore itself from the darkness at the bottom of the ravine. Multiple somethings.
Jinx rolled onto her back as the rock slowly drifted away from Sayron and the horde. At the same time the creatures arched through the dark sky, and dived down on two pairs of leathery wings. Against the blue glow on the horizon, Jinx saw outstretched arms, clawed feet and terrible faces, all curved horns, narrow glowing eyes and perfect, knife-sharp teeth. Faces of horrible beauty.
Succubi.
Back in the Tower Gnarl thought back to something he´d entrusted to Vessperion all those years back; poor misunderstood ladies... all they want is a little bit of love. A little bit of death... well, it won´t be different now.
The female demons seemed to be even more powerful than back then, in Angelis. The ooze might have given them strength, instead of deforming them. Maybe it was the fact they´d been magical to start with...
Clawed feet were outstretched to Jinx, crouched down on the rock. Sayron stepped forward, but the chunk of rock was too far from him now. Behind him, the Minions growled. The reds threw their fireballs, but only Fever´s came close; the succubi dodged them easily.
The first demon landed next to Jinx. Blue-black wings closed over her, like a bird of prey defending its catch.
Almost immediately, a thud resounded, and the succubus flew up again. Jinx pulled back her sturdily booted foot and struck out with her ropes. Glowing white scratches appeared across the creature´s chest. "Don´t even think about it!" she shouted up.
The demon snarled. Then she turned her wings and flapped across the abyss. Towards Sayron and the horde. Jinx cowered down. "Uh."
"The shard, Jinx!" Sayron shouted. "I can handle them!"
Jinx swept her ropes around like a fully trained Imperial slaver. The succubi visibly lost their interest and turned to their sister, soaring over the horde and crooning invitingly. A heartbeat later, Jinx was alone on the rock. She closed her eyes and tried to shut out everything happening behind her.
The shard, the shard...
The rock moved - slowly, so very slowly - to the peak that bore the brightly glowing piece of nacre. As soon as she could, Jinx jumped and clawed herself in balance. The shard disappeared into the sack on her back.
She turned.
The succubi were hoisting Gloob, Ramul and Aches into the sky. The rest of the horde seemed hypnotized. The same went for Sayron.
I´m the only woman. Shit.
The Minions didn´t struggle as the succubi swept them higher into the air in a deadly embrace. Jinx looked around wildly. There were a number of peaks close to her...
She jumped and swiped out her ropes. During the jump, she prayed not for her own safety, but for the hope there wouldn´t be any more succubi.
The rock returned. She used it as a foothold and arrived at Sayron´s side in a slide immediately afterwards, toppling over part of the horde. Those Minions seemed to be knocked back to their senses, but in the mean time the succubi rose higher and higher...
A scream echoed between the gorges. One of the Minions had felt the teeth. High above her, Jinx could see one of the three victims struggling. "Gnarl!" she cried. "That´s almost a quarter of our horde! What do I do? I can´t get that high, I don´t have good weapons...!"
Gnarl remained silent for frustratingly long as the Minion above them kept screaming. Sayron shook himself awake, but now there were cries and flapping at the bottom of the gorge as well.
Then he spoke. "Yes, you do."
"What?!"
"You have the Heart! Connect the shards!"
No time for questions. Jinx let the sack slide from her back, grabbed the two shards and pressed the fractures together. The shards didn´t fit together, but they originated from the same object and a line of light flashed between them as they connected where it was intended. This kind of touch hadn´t occurred in twenty years. The Tower Heart, seemingly powerless and broken, but still with a soul of its own, received the first message of healing.
The power it managed to emanate even now was enough to knock the succubi above the horde out of the sky screeching. Jinx kept pressing the shards together as tightly as she could and strained herself to follow the Minions as the demons tumbled down, all four of their wings useless in the shockwave.
Aches landed on top of Stripe, hard, waking both of them up and getting Aches a slam in the face from his superior. Ramul was also freed and wildly clawed himself up along one of the peaks in the middle of the ravine. He barely made it and remained atop the spike panting, but grinning widely. Gloob, however, tumbled down with his succubus. Jinx ran to the edge and looked down furiously. "Gloob!"
Her voice echoed away in the abyss.
He was one of their most skilled fighters, she realized. And who knew how long it would take before there would be Minion gates again? She couldn´t leave him...
"...leader... er..."
A shock went through Jinx´ body. He was still alive. She aimed the light still flowing from the shards into the depths of the gorge. It briefly reflected upon something that might be a piece of armour. She put away the shards and stepped forward.
Sayron grabbed her shoulder. Jinx shook him off. Then she saw his eyes.
"Jinx, not for one Minion."
"There might be shards down there," she retorted. "I just noticed these rocks can be climbed."
Sayron sighed. "I´m going to hear that argument more often, am I?"
Jinx looked back defiantly.
"Well then."
The horde leader walked to the edge, anchored one rope and let herself slide down. When she reached the end, she shook it loose and hooked her other into the wall. That way, she lowered herself deep into the darkness of the gorge.
There was something down there. Except, probably, many more nesting succubi...
Now that her eyes became accustomed to the dark due to her being in the middle of it, Jinx could make out a huge form on the bottom of the ravine. Perhaps something that had fallen and made the ravine...?
She could see it better now, as the glowing plants growing all over it made the shape even better visible. What was that?
It resembled Vessperion´s Tower in some way, but this one was horizontal all the way. But who else had built towers here, in times long forgotten?
"Leader! Jinx!"
She looked back. There, on a ridge halfway down the gorge, sat Gloob. He was grinning faintly. He wasn´t hurt too badly; his right leg seemed to be broken, but the blues wouldn't have any problems healing that.
"Buddy," she grinned. She swung over to him and hoisted him onto her back. Then she saw the bite.
An almost perfectly round circle of teeth marks decorated his right shoulder, and they were dripping with a translucent blue liquid. "Gloob..."
"What?"
He couldn´t see, she realized. The heads of Minions were proportionally too big and their shoulders too narrow to see for themselves. She shivered. "Gloob, this isn´t good."
But he didn´t show any signs of mutation. Whatever venom the succubus had pumped into him, it wasn´t working yet. And he wrapped his long arms around her more tightly.
She had to take him up.
"What wrong?" he asked, more concerned now.
Jinx remained hanging there for a moment. Then she tore a piece from her shirt and tied it around his arm. "A wound that´s not looking too pretty. The blues will take care of it."
And who said that wasn´t true? If the wound would heal beneath the fabric, it wouldn´t matter anymore.
And so Jinx climbed back up, giving in to one of her greatest weaknesses.

It had to have been at the end of that day as their problematic path led them out of the dark tsingy. Now they walked between high cliffs, but on a flat, easy path. In other places, there would be magnificent, red sunsets, but here there was just the eternal blue glow at the edges of the world.
The peaks became lower and lower. The group ended up in a landscape of black hills. Now Sayron could see far across the land, and he didn´t like what he saw. It was depressing to be able to see this far in this dark land.
The loose earth of the hill on their right moved slightly.
The travelers were alert immediately. In the Tower, Gnarl shot up straight as something came to sight, and blabbered incoherently.
And then they were everywhere.
They were quick, so quick Sayron didn´t even recognize what they were - it took him a while even to spot the enormous, sharp-toothed mouths beneath the little beady eyes, the short arms and legs, the remains of rough clothing. Some of them had put on pots, pans or buckets as helmets, a remainder of civilization surprising him, but he did know this style from somewhere...
"Sire... we´re in the Mellow Hills again."
"Halflings?" the Overlord uttered. One of the creatures came jumping for him with his mouth open wide; he raised his sword and drove it deeply into its esophagus. "Are you sure?"
"They were dumber than sheep before the mutation, Sire." Gnarl let his eyes slide over the surroundings. "And they were breeding like rabbits even then."
Sayron looked up. The hills around them were alive with the bizarre creatures. Some of them picked up rocks. They turned out to be skilled throwers. It was only thanks to Gloob´s skills with the mace that not one Minion was knocked unconscious, though Sayron saw he was using his left hand - wasn´t Gloob right-handed?
"We can´t win this!" Jinx shouted from further away, her bloodied sword in one hand and two ropes in the other. Both had been wrapped around the throats of struggling halflings, and both of them still tried to run away, dragging Jinx with them. She dug her heels into the sand. "We have to try and get away!"
The Overlord looked around again. As far as he could see, there was no end to this eruption of halflings. Running seemed like a good idea. He´d heard of an Overlord who´d been eaten by a giant weasel, but death by halflings seemed, to him, like an even more humiliating end. He nodded to Jinx hurriedly.
The horde leader yanked her ropes free, so the two halflings spun around and fell down into the black sand.
"Retreat!"
At his Master´s voice, Gloob almost missed an incoming rock. All Minions turned immediately and sprinted after Sayron and Jinx, further into the hills...

And here, in the blinding colour storm of the magic room, three colours flooded together. The streaks were of a deep, dark green, intense purple and icy blue. They whirled around each other for a moment, as if they were checking each other warily. Then three figures rose up.
Lord Atrej, Lord Vergal and Lady Synn - or their magics - looked each other in the eye for the first time in thousands of years. At this moment it didn´t matter whether they were flesh or magic; there were more pressing matters to discuss.
Synn´s icy voice slid through the air like a knife. "My Tower has been seen."
"And they´re marching on in the direction of mine," Atrej said in his deep voice. "Hopefully they overlook it and head for the only one still standing." He looked at Vergal.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Synn bit at the third Overlord. "Your Tower belongs to Lord Vessperion."
"Vessperion refuses to show himself," the Darklord with the dragon helmet spoke. "More important at this moment is the... presence in the Bastion."
"Light magic," Atrej nodded, seemingly unmoved.
Synn spat. "Filthy elves! I can´t believe I never managed to kill them all off..."
Vergal laughed. "Now I understand why you never had any heirs, Lady."
"And you!" Synn bit. "They founded that Sanctuary just like that... and you´re still alive! You should have thrown a lightning bolt at it ages ago, as Vessperion doesn´t seem to be in a condition to do something about it himself!"
"You shall see, Lady," Vergal spoke calmly. "You shall see. The Unholy Lord has plans not even the Mother Goddess has been able to foresee."
Synn fell silent. She knew Vergal´s bond with the Unholy ran deepest.
"We´ll have to watch, friends." Vergal exchanged glances with the other two. "And wait."
"And nudge them every now and then," Atrej added with an unmeasurable smile. "We wouldn´t want the young Sayron to die by a halfling´s hand, now would we?"
Synn chuckled coldly. With that sound, the three rulers faded into the colour storm.

Not far from the place where the halflings had burst from the earth, remains of houses started to appear in the dark hills; round doors, windowsills and more. It seemed like the furnishings and tools were now nothing more than primitive armour and weapons. The halflings had definitely lost whatever little intelligence they´d had.
It was purely coincidal that Stabbit had remained standing at one of the doors and had stared inside, long enough to catch Sayron´s attention. He´d kicked down the door, and a white glow had flowed out.
Halflings did still collect shiny things. Jinx gained one shard. The sack on her back tinkled while running.
Then their path started going down.
To their surprise, they seemed to be entering some kind of quarry, the sandy walls speckled with protruding pieces of black rock. The halflings behind them seemed to diminish, though one stubborn group kept running after them. One of them bolted forward and opened his gigantic, drooling mouth...
...and abruptly yelped as an arrow pierced his skull from above, nailing his jaws together.
Jinx looked around. Just in time to see a green-golden flash dive away. An almost shocking display of colour in this land of black and grey.
"Where did it go?"
The horde leader froze, then jumped forward and dragged Sayron against the wall by his arm. The Overlord struggled for a moment, but he, too, froze as he heard it.
"...must have a base around here."
"Think it´s the one we´re meant to be looking for?"
"Yeah, ´cause I´d hate to think we´d stumbled upon the wrong secret base!" the first voice bit back sarcastically.
Sayron peered around the bend in the path. Jinx tried to look around his broad chest, but the Overlord pushed her back.
"What do you see?" she hissed, slightly offended.
An invisible smile tugged at his mouth. "Little soldiers."
"Many?"
"Not really. Probably a remainder of a scouting legion. Not even a centurion."
"Explains the conversation. At it?"
Sayron looked at her from the side. His eyes wrinkled. Then he stepped around the corner.
During the short, bloody fight, Jinx thought back to the green flash. Had it been an elf she´d seen jumping away? Why had he helped them...?
But after they´d slain the soldiers and followed the path further down, her first question was answered immediately. Glowing vegetation started to appear along the sides of the path, but not the tentacly sort she was used to by now. These plants had leaves, real leaves, and they were glowing in magnificent hues of purple, gold and blue-green. Definitely elven work. Jinx started to suspect whose presence had stimulated their growth...
Then the building came into sight.
Sayron slowed his pace. His eyes were wide, almost as wide as those of Fever, Stabbit and Goudvis - who were looking up right next to him, grins on their faces.
It was a ruin now, partly overgrown with the glowing elven plants, but still a recognizable building from glorious days long past. The remaining walls were smooth and perfectly crafted, and elegantly decorated with sculptures; dragons, narrow eyes, crossed blades and writhing stone flames. It was undoubtedly of the hand of Overlords.
Gnarl held his breath. "Lord, this is the Hive Bastion from the old days. The stories tell of the four Hives being kept here in the time of the Darklords - Vergal, Atrej and Synn. As they couldn´t keep the Hives in their Towers without breaking out into war amongst themselves because of the distribution, they protected them here, in a location in the exact middle of their Tower triangle..."
Stories, Jinx thought. No, old man, you´ve seen it yourself. This has to be unexpected for you... Then she thought back to the fallen tower she´d seen in the succubi´s ravine. A Darklord´s Tower...?
Sayron took it in silently and slowly walked to the opened, partly collapsed gate of the Bastion.
A green-golden flash fell out of the sky in front of him.
Florian Greenheart stood up and wiped his blonde hair from his face. His eyes were full of barely suppressed hatred. "No time for pleasantries... not that I´d have anything pleasant to say to you." He clenched his jaws. "A large force of Empire troops is heading this way. I come on behalf of Queen Fay to offer you - against my better judgement - a truce. If you agree, follow me to her now."
Sayron looked at him in amusement. "Well, this is a surprise. The Lady of the Light, wishing to make me her ally? And now of all times, after the recent slaughter of her own troops?" The Minions behind him laughed raspingly. Sayron was clearly grinning in his helmet. "Well, lead me to her then, Greenheart. I´m curious as to what she thinks she has to offer me."
Florian nodded, his face dripping with fury, and turned. Together they passed the gates of the Bastion.
The construction´s roof had come down long ago, and the floor was littered with overgrown debris. The inner walls were almost all gone, but a second gateway had remained intact. Beyond that glowed a cool, blue-white light both Sayron and Jinx knew all too well.
"I take no joy that our paths have crossed again, but it appears we share a common enemy - one who is as relentless as they are powerful. I speak of Solarius´ Empire."
Fay´s musical voice engulfed the horde and its leaders like warm water. Sayron smiled almost involuntarily, despite the fact two dryads with arms full of thorns flanked the queen of light magic. She was exactly as beautiful as he remembered, and probably just as deadly if he´d decide to oppose her. He permitted her to speak on.
"His forces are too great for either of us to fight alone..."
In the privacy of his helmet, the Overlord could hear Gnarl suppressing his laughter.
"...but together... we may stand a chance."
She said it almost pleadingly. Sayron caught her eyes. He saw a woman who wanted to live, who wanted her people to survive. He didn´t know about that last bit, but she herself... she was too beautiful to be lost. This magical flower, who´d transformed his ancestors´ Hive Bastion into a glowing garden with her mere presence... she shouldn´t be lost. He nodded to her. The glow of his eyes cooled to a friendly, warm gold.
Fay nodded back, visibly relieved. "I know what you seek in these lands. I will send my lieutenant Florian to aid you."
Sayron looked back. Florian made a face showing all too clearly what he thought of this. Gnarl coughed shortly. "Help would be nice, Sire. I guess we can always kill him afterwards!"
The Overlord grinned at Fay. "Thank you, milady. You honour me."
"When you´ve gathered the shards, bring them to me. Florian will lead you to my Sanctuary. I will be able to restore the object."
Sayron bowed a last time. As he straightened out, Fay was gone and he had to shield his eyes from a blue flame.
He turned to Florian. And grinned.
The elf found himself surrounded by more bared teeth. Sharp, irregular teeth, and in one case, those of a human girl. Jinx resembled a Minion more than ever as she smiled at their unwilling elven guide.
In one jump, he was atop a wall. "Follow me," he bit at the group.
And so they left the Hive Bastion, back into the Wasteland, with a new course... and new hope of succeeding.

Much further to the west, in a land beneath a blue sky now blushing pink in the evening light, two enormous wooden doors were being pushed open. The wood bore the gilded lion´s head of Emperor Solarius, and the slaves pushing them open hadn´t gotten their bulging biceps for nothing.
Two men walked in through the doors, into a marble hall full of mosaics and statues. They were both dressed like centurions, but their red cloaks were tattered and torn. Their breastplates were rusty from the sweat and blood that had flowed over them. Beneath their arms they did carry new helmets, but one would suspect this was because their old ones had been topped with half scorched plumes, or dented beyond repair.
The doors to the Emperor´s throne room swung open for them.
Immediately, the two bowed to the floor, not daring to look up and meet the Emperor´s eyes. "Imperator," one hurried himself to say, "we´ve come to bring you report of the takeover of the city of Ignavopolis on Everlight -"
"Spare yourself the effort," a voice interrupted him. It wasn´t the Emperor´s. The supreme ruler of the Glorious Empire never spoke, after all, to civilians nor commanders.
The two looked up. Their eyes widened slightly as they saw the throne before them, surrounded by gilded grapevines and palm leaves, was as empty as their stomachs felt thanks to the news they had come to bring. There were two figures on both sides of the seat of power, however.
"Lord Marius..." The two bowed again, not as deep and much shorter. "We bring bad news. The civilians of Ignavopolis have been brought under the com