"Evil always wins, because Good is dumb. And when you look at your average Brown, that's saying something!" - Gnarl
Louise shifted under the warmth of her blanket, curling her toes back under the rolled-in edges. In the place half-way between sleep and wakefulness she dozed. Slowly she climbed back into full awareness, though it was only with reluctance. She stuck her head back under the blankets, trying to cling onto sleep as long as possible.
She had been having such... such a strange dream. Very, very peculiar. She had been... some kind of super-agent for Princess Henrietta, going on secret missions, fighting Albionese traitors and golems and she had married Viscount Wardes and...
"Wake up, mistress-in-training! Rise and shine! Birds are singing, flowers are growing and the sun is shining! Pah! It makes me quite sick! Your Evil training has to continue so we can stamp out such things!"
… no, she was back in her perfectly normal and mundane world where she was apparently the ruler of a ruined smelly tower packed with undead, 'advised' by an uppity goblin and 'helped' by other goblins who were less uppity, but rather more stupid. And her eyes had a tendency to glow yellow. Well, pink-ish yellow. The problem was the glowing, not the precise colour.
She wondered exactly why she had ended up with this, and why she didn't just leave.
Wait, she knew the answer to that. The entrance was still blocked by rocks. And even if it was open, she couldn't go back. She had even left a note saying that she was going to seek her fame and fortune. If she came crawling back after a week, she would be... would be a double-failure.She could handle being lectured to by a goblin about 'evil' if she could learn magic properly here. If she really could master her power here, she could put up with pretty much anything. Once she had done that, she could just quit.
And so what if she had apparently a ruined towerful of goblins as familiars? She would just have to take one back, and... goblins were magical creatures too, right? Which meant that they were just as impressive to have summoned as a dragon! Which meant that everyone should be as wowed by her summoning as by Tabitha's, and anyone who didn't agree was being petty and biased because they had only summoned –to pluck an example out of thin air – a stupid frog, rather than an awe-inspiring magical creature which just happened to be a goblin.
She was rather proud of that chain of logic.
It wasn't like "evil" was anything more than the inherent vice and wickedness in the hearts of mankind, anyway. It was a negation of virtue, a moral weakness, and certainly not a positive force in its own right.
"What if master not want to get up?"
"Honestly, Licket, are you so very stupid that you cannot understand that she is the dark mistress, not the master? Others have grasped it." Gnarl paused. "And if she will not get up, we might have to rub some acid in her eyes to freshen her up."
"I'mawakeandready!" Louise yelled, almost levitating upright in her haste.
The two minions stared up at her, from the rather dank room which she was using as her sleeping quarters. There had been no way in all that was holy and sacred that she would be using the place where the vampire had been sleeping. Just the scent of rot and blood had been enough to persuade her that she wasn't even going to go in there until it had been cleaned.
Preferably using fire. And lots of it.
"Well done, mistress," Gnarl said. "Now, come on. We have many Evil deeds to learn to do, and only much time to do them in."
It had been several days since she had entered this sunless place – three if she was to believe Gnarl, and her body clock agreed. She was wearing a rather dirty black dress which had been obtained for her from... somewhere in the mess, and had eventually by the medium of pointing her wand at any goblin that came near her managed to change without their 'aid'. It was a terrible fit, because it had apparently been designed for someone taller, wider in the hips, bustier and generally... generally more shaped like Kirche von Zerbst. As a result, it was belted in at both the waist and the chest and she had just about managed with her limited needlework skills to produce a hem a good five centimetres thick.
Her next project was going to be create straps for this strapless dress, so she wouldn't have to wear a blouse underneath so it covered... well, anything at all.
Apparently she had a crown-helmet-tiara thing somewhere down in the underlayers, near some kind of giant stone heart or something. That was as much as she could recall for the moment from the extensive talks from Gnarl this early in the morning.
Ever since the first morning, he had been tutoring her. Or, rather, in practice, he had been asking her questions to establish what she knew and the state of the world as a whole. It was all blending together in her mind, not helped by the fact that the only thing to drink down here was slightly stagnant tasting water and the suspiciously strong beer that the minions seemed to brew from mushrooms and whatever else they could get their hands on. Now at least she was doing something new. Sat on her throne – what a joke; it was an uncomfortable broken stone slab and she was sitting on her horse blanket – she watched as Gnarl paced back and forth in front of her. There were more of the goblin things with him, including...
"Louise the Vampire Slayer!"
... the jester. Oh yes, the jester. A pathetic little creature wearing a jester's hat from centuries ago and shaking an obnoxious stick with bells on it. And some of the things it said... she breathed heavily, trying to ignore its clanking. When Gnarl started talking again, it was a reassurance, because at least he was something to listen to.
"Your Evilness! I have splendid news. The Minions have reclaimed the library! Well, mostly. There are some small pockets of resistance... evil hands, giant bats, talking skulls who think that they are funny, but I'm sure the Minions will have fun crushing them." Gnarl cleared his throat. "And..."
"We find weapon in treasure rack!" announced one of the brown-skinned creatures. "Find two weapons! For you, mistress!"
"That is excellent news, Grinkle," Gnarl said, rubbing his hands together. "It is wonderful to hear that at least something escaped that disgusting vampire's attention. The library might not have been where the most powerful treasures were kept, but some of the more interesting ones were there. Back when we had a research staff, at least.
"And, your evilness, it would simply not do to have you walking around without a sign of your consummate power until we can push those stinking undead back away from the Tower Heart and recover your Gauntlet. Grinkle. Go finish killing everything in the library!" Several Minions scurried off with that order.
"Gauntlet," Louise echoed, shifting uncomfortable on her hard and cold seat. There had been so many words thrown at her over the past few days, many of which Gnarl pronounced as if they were capitalised, that she was rather losing track of them. "That was...ah, the thing. The thing that did the thing with..." she trailed off, "... with the stuff."
The old Minion stroked his goatee. "Indeed, mistress, and eloquently put. It is what absorbs magic and lifeforce from the corpses of your defeated foes, allows you to communicate simply and easily with the heart of your tower without the use of difficult and draining communications spells, and also provides many other useful functions."
Oh yes. That thing. It had sounded useful. Personally, Louise was just going to put up with this until she had mastered whatever magic she could learn here, but that did sound very useful.
"She who Looks Disgustingly Adorable in a Chemise!"
Louise stared up at the filthy ceiling and counted to ten. She wasn't going to have a tantrum in front of these goblins. She wasn't. Even when goaded by a stinking jester. It would be embarrassing. It would also be dangerous, because the exit was still sealed off and she couldn't run away if they decided they didn't want to follow her any more.
The pink-haired girl exploded into motion, leaping up with her teeth clenched. She landed on one foot, bringing the other around in an arc which would have probably have got her scolded by her etiquette tutor for being unfeminine. Well, unfeminine it may have been, but it was undeniably effective, and connected directly with the creature's face with a smooth follow-through.
The jester went flying back with a clank and a rattle, bounced three times, and fell with a scream through one of the holes in the floor.
Louise smirked in triumph, and then hopped around in agony as the pain kicked in. She had only been wearing her stockings, and that bl- ... that dratted creature had a hard skull.
"And that, mistress," Gnarl said, coming up behind her, "is why almost all figures of your evil stature wear armoured boots of some kind. That was a positively spiteful kick, though. It makes even a dark heart like mine swoon." He shuffled up to the mouth of the pit, and poked his head down. "I think this hole leads down to the place where that filth vampire threw freshly drained corpses down. Urgh. So unhygienic. And so wasteful."
From the depths, there was a clanking which sounded remarkably like a heavy stick with a rattle on the end being smashed into the skull of some undead horror.
"And it sounds like we'll have a day or so of peace and quiet," Gnarl added, cheerfully, "and he might clear out a few ghoulies down there. You might want to be keeping this hole around, mistress, even when we repair the rest of the Tower. And I do believe the minions want us to come to the library."
The smell of wet paper is a terrible thing, when it has been left to moulder and rot. Doubly so is this true in a library, for the scent that leaks out into the air is more than just mere rotting wood pulp. It is the decay of knowledge, the rotting of thought, and the all-consuming entropy of pancryptography.
Louise sniffed. Wait, no. That was rotting parchment wafting out of the grand doorway marked LIBRVM. And rotting vellum. And something musty. And blood, of course. Disgusting vampires.
But metaphorically at least, it smelt of decaying knowledge.
She had descended down a broken and worn staircase, trying her very best to move in her dress, down a level and then along a long corridor. With a hint of concern she had noted the littered bones and broken weapons which were scattered along the place. Her concern was... well, alleviated was too light a word, and also not technically accurate, but it was at least shifted when she had seen the state of her honour guard of minions. Several of them were now wielding bones or rusted swords.
One of them came scurrying up, out through the doorway. "Treasure! For you!" it announced proudly, presenting her with a small handful of... she squinted at the coins... they seemed to be a mix of tarnished sous and deniers. From the crest on the sous, they were around two hundred years old.
Which admittedly wasn't so bad; there was more silver in an old sou than there was in a modern one. What was worse was that fact that she had no pockets on her at the moment, not even a purse.
She coughed, and then coughed again in the stench. "Um, Gnarl," she managed, once she had gasped for air. "Do... uh, I have somewhere to keep these or... something?"
"Oh yes, yes," Gnarl said. The old goblin was leading the way, the glowing crystal hanging from the pole on his back providing a much cleaner light than the burning torch she had in her hand. "At the moment, your evilness, it has several chained up feral vampires in it, collared and leashed to attack anyone who can't control them."
"Oh," said Louise.
"No, it is of no account," Gnarl said, flapping a hand. "We stopped feeding them, so in a few more days they will have starved themselves into dormancy and then we can dispose of them if you order, mistress. And when we recover your gauntlet, its magic will be able to absorb such moneys and transfer it immediately to the treasury. It is a great tool for Evil, because it makes plundering, pillaging, piracy, pocketing and other profitable professional practices much more convenient. I mean, how many Overlords are forced to wander around with large purses? None of the proper ones, at least. It is a clear sign of an inferior dark lord or lady that they carry money on them."
He cleared his throat. "That is the other reason I anticipated your orders and put the very highest priority on getting the library cleared. Not only did I think there might be treasures in it, but that is where many of the magical texts were."
"That's very w-well," Louise said, "but what do I do with the coins now?"
Gnarl paused, and scratched his head. "Puzzling," he remarked. "Aha! Maggat!"
A goblin, slightly larger than most of the others stepped forwards, saluting sloppily. He – wait, did these things even have a gender? – was carrying a rusty sword quite casually in one hand. However, that was not his most prominent feature, because he appeared to have forced his head through a skeleton's ribcage to create some kind of crude bony armour. This general morbid theme was only supported by the fact that two human skulls were serving as pauldrons. "Boss?" it asked.
"Maggat! You are now promoted to the dark mistress' official purse!" Gnarl shot a glance at Louise. "It is acceptable for you to have other people carry your money for you. And Maggat is smarter than your average minion. He can count up to thirty-four."
"Fingers, toes, an' I gots four skeleton hands on belt for large numbers," the bone-armoured minion admitted bashfully.
"A veritable scholar," Gnarl agreed. "And he's strong too, so can carry the large sums which you will hopefully acquire in the short period before we reclaim the treasury."
"Um," Louise said, quite aware that the elderly goblin seemed to be rather overestimating her capacities in that field. "Here you go," she said, for lack of anything else to say, handing the coins to her new official pursegoblin. "But... Gnarl. You said the minions had found weapons in the library, but... I have my wand. And shouldn't the magical books in the library be more important?"
Gnarl wrinkled his nose at the thin piece of wood. "My lady, you are an Overlady. You are expected to have a weapon which can be used to hurt people even when you might not have even one smidgeon of magic to hand. One can never be careful, after all. And I don't think that thing would work if you tried to stab some armoured intruding knight through the eye. Even if you got it through that tiny armoured slit, it wouldn't be reliable enough." He started forwards again. "Oh, do not worry, my lady. There certainly used to be a vast number of books there. Evil has a fine history of sorceresses and such like; Overladies are typically more magically puissant than Overlords."
Louise did like the sound of the word 'puissant', she had to admit. What she did not like was the sight of the library.
It was not as bad as she had imagined.
It was worse.
The room had been a many-ringed hollow several storeys high; indeed, with the dim light of her lantern and Gnarl's crystal, she could not see how far it descended. The edge was a long, lazy slow spiral, which looped down and down. She could just about see broken bridges criss-crossing the centre, and further rooms leading off from the edge of the spiral. But looking at the book cases, they were a mess. The ones which were not bare were scattered with falling-apart or burned books. This place, this place which was larger than the one back at the Academy, this place which was now herswas a complete and utter mess.
Gnarl must have heard her faint moan, because he said, "You killed that disgusting vampire too quickly, my lady. One of the former Overlords spent a very long building up his collection, and..." he realised he was talking to thin air, as Louise was over at the nearest bookcase, running her hands over the ruined spines and making more distressed noises. "We used to have a properly sinister ghost to care for the collection, but..." he shook his head, "... the wardings are all fried, so I can only think that some necromancer must have released it. You may well need to find yourself a new chief librarian if you want to rebuild the collection to its former standards."
"Where are the magic books?" Louise ordered in a calm and commanding voice which merely happened to coincidentally sound precisely like an incoherent shriek. "Where are they? Are they safe?"
Behind her back as she ran off followed by her pursegoblin, Gnarl raised his eyebrows at one of the minions. The creature winced and raised its hands, palms facing forwards, fingers curled in, and made the universal motion of 'don't even ask'. Gnarl rolled his eyes, and sighed. "Grinkle," he said, "where are the weapons you found?"
The minion, now wearing a human skull as a hat, shrugged. "She go running in that direction," it said. "She very fast running. We not kill everything in there yet."
Gnarl sighed again.
From the distance, there was a trio of thunderous detonations, a short pause, and then two more. That was shortly followed by the sound of minionly cheering.
"Well," began Gnarl. "At least..."
Two more detonations sounded out, along with more cheering.
A snap of three thuds.
"She..." Gnarl paused and waited, counting to himself.
One final, louder one.
"... , fourteen, fifteen. At least she's picking up the important principles of her new role. A good leader is willing to lead from the front, inspiring by example and acts of extreme and pitiless brutality. And that there are very few problems that cannot be solved by application of sufficient force, apart from unsteady roof supports."
There was a crash, and a faint clanging noise, followed by another explosion.
"Grinkle," Gnarl said firmly. "What were the weapons you found? Were, by any chance the Vorpal Lance, the Staff of Destruction or the Lash of Ceaseless Malevolence among them?"
The skull-wearing minion shook its head. "Nuh uh. All gone." It cleared its throat. "I make list to help report. One. Giant Smashy Hammer of Grabthar the Smashy. I not think it very likely she lift it, because it giant and made of gold and also glow red hot when Evil creature try to pick it up. It burn! Very hot!"
"Ah yes," Gnarl said, a hint of nostalgia in his voice. "We had to use thirty Reds to move that in, back in the day."
"Item two! Staff."
There was another explosion, and a muffled, "Put down that book you blasted skeleton! Get him! Don't let him get away!"
"Oh, she is even learning the voice," Gnarl said approvingly. "It does wonderful things to hear a good old fashioned 'don't let him get away' used as if it's really meant." He paused, lost in thought for a moment. "Grinkle, which staff was it?" he added.
The minion shrugged. "Iron and black," it reported. "No fancy thingies on it. Probably not get sold because it not shiny."
Gnarl stroked his goatee. "Interesting," he said, slowly. "Very, very interesting." He hobbled forwards, to meet the soot-covered Louise, who had a black-bound book under one arm, and was leaning heavily on her newly found staff. Her eyes were burning an uncanny pink-tinged yellow. There was a small horde of similarly dirty minions behind her, but their gleaming eyes, burning green runes, wide grins and of course the fact that they were rather shorter made her easy to tell apart.
"I stopped... I stopped... skeleton was going to take this book," Louise managed. "Felt the magic from it. Also it was in good condition unlike everything else. Probably earth magic in the bindings." She glanced down at it groggily down at the book. "It wasn't black then," she added. "Soot. Staff was there. Useful for beatings."
"Explosion bigger-er. Bigger-er-er-er with staff," reported her pursegoblin. "Also, flying skully go smashy when she hit it. She hit it at Krikit, and he hit it with club, and it go flying and smash into wall. It funfun."
"She good mistress!" Grinkle said, approvingly, turning to face Gnarl. "Big booms. Lots of them, too."
"Indeed," Gnarl said thoughtfully. "Although I feel we should perhaps accompany the Overlady back to her boudoir. I feel we will not be able to get as far as I would have hoped today, but then again, she appears to have acquired a tome. I will have to begin her tutoring in the Black Arts of Magic, to go with her tutoring in the Black Arts of Minion Management, the Crimson Arts of Combat, and the Blackest Art of Bureaucracy." He turned on his heel, and headed back towards the exit.