"They're all alike, these Dark Lords." The speaker was a scarred Goblin, a green-bloodshot eye mismatched with a carved onyx ball that replaced what had once filled the smashed socket on the other side of his face. He growled a curse before continuing. "I know all about them"
"How?" The green-skinned Orc picked at a protruding fang with a sliver of bone. "Goblins can't read and the last Dark Lord rose to power five hundred years ago. Your tribe didn't even exist then."
"I'll have you know my ancestors served the last four Dark Lords and three more before that. It would have been the last eight but Trellion of the Sable Tower, may his unholy soul burn forever in whichever hell finally claimed him, said Goblins were worthless." A note of pride rang in his voice and his thin chest swelled. "You'll recall his reign only lasted three months."
"I'll recall nothing, you worthless turd." The much-larger Orc spat a gob of acidic saliva at the other. "Goblins are not fit to speak to the chief of the Wolf clans."
The whistle of the knife cutting through the air was so quiet only the two werewolves and vampire king heard it. Neither one felt it was worth calling attention to until after the Orc chieftain collapsed onto the stone table, a viscous black fluid oozing from both eyes and mouth.
Shouts erupted from both sides of the table, more weapons were drawn, and even the heretofore-unperturbed necromancer lord began showing signs of discomfort and impending violence. Faint glimmers in the air around his head and fingers signaled to those sensitive to such things that it was going to be a bad idea to be around him in a few moments.
Nobody noticed, however, that the onyx throne at the head of the table that had been unoccupied, and in which none of them dared sit, was no longer empty.
The first new blow was nearly struck by a black-skinned half-Orc, a reddish mace swinging through the air at a high-ranking cleric of the Necroth sect sitting next to him. Why anyone had allowed the two to sit next to each other, however powerful the half-breed, was a mystery. Everyone knew better than to put a non-human next to a priest whose church believed humanity to be superior in ever regard to the other races. Their particular god was an especially intolerant and demanding one, even among the assembled creatures.
"Hold," came a soft, silky voice. The power wrapped around that word was so great it froze the mace swinging for the priest's head. Nobody in the room could move, talk, blink, or even breathe.
More than one weapon was frozen in midair. The half-Orc's simply would have hit first.
"Why are my creatures fighting?"
There was no immediate response, not that any could be made against the grip holding each of them.
"Perhaps they forgot themselves? This is possible; it has been a long time since there was a Calling." The voice changed pitch slightly, though it never lost any of the polish. Now, however, it spoke with the smoothness of a razor's edge. "Or perhaps they are not as loyal as they should be? It is a quandry."
Slowly the assembled began to breathe again, their weapons floating slowly to the floor, forgotten for the moment.
"I do not wish to judge unfairly, after all." The air chilled suddenly. "Except where the High Priest of Wroth is concerned. I do not wish to have myself or my creatures associated with one of your ilk. You, and your god, are to be commended on heeding the Call, but you are not welcome here."
And the Dark Lord showed his displeasure by causing the priest to immolate so slowly that the fire bursting out of every pore had time to get to know its neighbors quite well, with coffee and cakes and pleasant conversation – at least as much as could be had over the incoherent screams of agony as every part of the priest was consumed by the pale blue flames.
"There is no room in this place for gods who do not allow their believers to think for themselves. There is no room in the world for gods who do not permit their followers to allow others to exist." The voice was quiet but firm. The blades beneath the velvet surface dripped with blood and malice. "If any wish to argue with me then I say come forth and we shall see whose philosophy on life is stronger."
Later, when there was time to think of something other than the fact that they were about to die, the more magically-inclined of those assembled had realized that despite the incredible amount of magical energy that would have been required to achieve any of the things that had happened to them even up to that particular point, they had felt neither a building or a lessening of the natural magic levels around them.
In short, whatever was happening was being done with forces beyond any they'd ever experienced or even heard of. The eldest vampire, who was old enough to have served the previous two Dark Lords, wily enough to have survived said service, and so powerful as to have been crowned king of his race, was particularly terrified at the realization that his thousands of years of future existence weren't as guaranteed as he'd previously thought.
Everyone, especially the three remaining High Priests of elder and particularly nasty gods, found their new liege's cavalier attitude to the divine to be especially troubling.
"Change, my creatures, is upon us. The world turns and a new era dawns. While it may be more apropos to say that the sun is setting on the old age, I would prefer to look at this as a new beginning. Eventually. Carved out of the bodies and written on the parchment of history with the blood of those who oppose us. Who oppose me. And, gentlemen, if I may use such a word to describe those gathered before me, the parchment these words will be written upon shall be made from the skin of those who stand in our way."
A murmur began to circle the table. This was more like it.
"My antecedents all spoke of sacrifice, though when they said it they mostly meant your sacrifice, and the sacrifices to be made on unholy altars to the darkest gods of this little world, usually with your flesh feeding the flames. I speak of no such thing when I speak to you today. They spoke of glory, though they meant it all for themselves. Of wealth, and battle, and victory hewn from those who will stand against us. I speak of blood, of death, of those lost on the field of battle. I speak, my creatures, of the road ahead of us. Those who came before me all made promises they never intended to keep. Rewards for the loyal, punishment for failures, gold beyond your wildest dreams, and domination of those whom you hate, all just for the taking. Listening to them you'd assume that the lands of the Silver Elf and the Golden Dwarf were unguarded; that the humans beyond the Reduran River were soft and fat.
"But I will not lie to you and say they are as my predecessors tried you trick you into believing! The Silver Elf is master of the bow and blade; the Golden Dwarf of the hammer and pick. The men who work the soil and hunt the forest know the spear and the axe; their knights are masters of the lance, the sword, and the mace. They are hard, they are strong, and above all they are smart! These three things your subjects rarely have in concert they have in droves! Furthermore, they do not waste themselves in battle needlessly. They train, they learn, and then they fight. They fight each other, they fight us, and they rarely lose. Not for nothing are the Elf and the Dwarf willing to to be ruled by a council that they themselves are but minor members of.
"But I tell you nothing you do not already know. I speak to you as kings and chiefs, as high priests educated in the ways of the world. I speak to you not as equals, never as equals, but as knowing subjects. I speak to you as you are. I do not lie to you, as a good master does not lie to his servants, because what comes next is a choice.
"Now leave me. Return tomorrow when the sun is at its peak in the sky. I will give those who have not yet arrived until then to do so. After all, it has been centuries since the last Call.
"However, do not think that I will not reward those of you who made the most haste to be here."
Another murmur went through the assembled.
"If you would stay behind, Djel, I have something I wish to discuss with you privately. The rest of you may leave.”
The one-eyed goblin chief stiffened in his chair. The others filed past him with various expressions of smug amusement or outright hatred. Goblins were far from favorites with all the races that had listened to their lord’s call and they felt comfortable enough to show it – especially when they assumed the Goblin was as good as dead.
“Tell me something, Djel of the Black Skull tribe. Speak to me as chief of the tribe who holds undisputed rule of the mines below the Misty Hill on the edge of the infamous Curlwood Forest.” The Dark Lord’s voice caressed Djel’s ears like a lover seeking a favor, but did nothing to hide the implicit threat behind the words. “Tell me why you dared to bring G’raTok venom into my hall, and then dared to use it against one of my creatures."
“Forgive me, my lord, but I am a small creature. I stand little chance against your other, more powerful, subjects.” Djel bowed his head but otherwise moved little. “I wished to level the field if one took offense to my presence.”
“Considering the attitudes of many of my subjects, perhaps a wise precaution.” His voice betrayed nothing. “Continue.”
“Not much more to say. Even bare-handed, that brute of an Orc would have killed me if I hadn’t killed him first. While I trust my abilities with a blade, I do not have the strength to kill an Orc chieftain in single combat. Besides, he wouldn’t have hesitated to use whatever weapons he had at his disposal to kill me, now would he? I was just smart enough to bring something extra to the table.”
“Indeed. Perhaps there is more to you than meets the eye, Djel. Perhaps there is something buried beneath the surface that I should consider to have enough value to ignore the intentional insult you have brought to me.”
“I meant no insult, my lord. It was, as I said, purely a tactical decision.”
The Dark Lord laughed quietly. The temperature in the room dropped severely and a rat that had decided to investigate the smell of a recently-deceased body seized and died with the tiniest of squeaks.
“Wouldn’t the adventurers who hunt your people for sport be amazed to hear you speak so coherently and intelligently. If the Dwarves knew how smart your kind could be they’d hunt you mercilessly.”
“You mean they don’t already?”
The Dark Lord gave Djel an appraising look that physically aged him over a year. Considering the short lifespan of the Goblin race, a year was a long time. The wrinkles that had started forming at the corners of his eyes spread across his face like spider webs. He gasped at the sensation.
“My predecessors would consider that to be impertinence and strike you dead where you sit. Then again, most of my predecessors wouldn’t bother talking to a Goblin at all, and none of them would have let you live after your comment about one of their fellows burning in hell. I consider myself to be a bit more progressive than any of them, however. You intrigue me, Djel, which is no small feat. I think I will let you live today, whether that meets with your approval or not. As I recall, the Wolf clans were recently united under a single Orc. That means you killed the leader of four different clans, officially making you the enemy of several hundred green-skinned killing machines with a revenge fetish. Luckily they weren’t the gray-skinned Orcs, or you’d be facing several thousand. On a lighter note, if memory serves, the Wolf clans follow a ‘you keep what you kill’ policy when it comes to matter such as this. While technically you cannot inherit anything as you are not an Orc by blood or adoption or rite, you should be the new leader of the four clans.
“I think that deserves some kind of recognition.” What might have been a faint smile danced around his face and then disappeared. “Come here, Djel.”
The Goblin rose from his seat reluctantly. But, in the end, it wasn't like he had a choice.
While many of the Dark Lord’s servitor races would happily chew each other up for food, some of them were on neutral terms. A few, in fact, were nearly friendly.
“This one is different.”
The necromancer nodded at the werewolf seated across the fire from him.
“I felt something was odd about him.”
“He doesn’t smell right.”
“He’s the Dark Lord. His very existence is that of personified evil; His presence is an abomination onto the life force of the earth he treads upon.” The vampire king glided into their circle, uninvited but not unwelcome. “His smell is irrelevant. What matters is that He can work magic of a kind I have never seen, and I dealt with the last two Dark Lords before Him. When He killed the priest there was no degradation of the background magic. If I were to try something similar the effects on the background field would render any magic for the next week doubly difficult if not outright impossible.”
“As would any attempt I would have made to have the same effect.” The necromancer sipped a foul-smelling concoction with several worrying shapes floating in it. “Furthermore, it would have been of a totally different flavor.”
“He smelled wrong,” the werewolf insisted, growling. “There is more to this nose than just odor, you know.”
The vampire smiled toothily. “I trust a werewolf’s nose more than I do many a thing in this world, but this is beyond anything your nose could detect. Take no offense as none is offered.”
The werewolf growled again but settled for chewing an unidentified piece of meat instead of pushing his point.
“I’ve been away from the rest of the world for many a year, so please indulge me. How long have werewolves and necromancers been on friendly terms? A century ago you were at war.”
“And before that vampires and necromancers weren’t exactly friends. Wars come and go, bloodsucker.” He smiled and patted the seat next to his. “I see you’re old enough to ignore the sun without having to use an enchantment. You must remember a lot of wars.”
“From both before and after I was... blessed with this condition, yes. You’ll forgive me if I refrain from sitting quite so close to a fire, however. I may be immune to the sun but naked flames larger than a candle still give me pause. It’s something burned, pardon me, into the blood.”
The werewolf growled to himself. A few short barks punctuated his muttering, but he kept it very quiet. Even the vampire couldn’t hear more than a few words, and they didn’t make sense without the context.
“Just how long have you been away, your highness?” The necromancer decided politeness might win him some points with the obviously-more-powerful vampire. Especially since most elder vampires were such snobs.
“One hundred and eleven. I'd intended to sleep for merely twenty, but my servant was killed by an adventuring party of Dwarf clerics, judging by the bones I found in what was left of my resting place. The council acted in my absence. You may have heard of the Short Mountain clan's eradication?”
“Indeed I did. I was a neophyte at the time, but I was among the dozen sent to aid Draconovit and Erethia in their attack on the Short Mountain. I was wounded.” He held up his left arm, which was visibly shorter, hairier, and darker-skinned. The hand was horny and gnarled and far more powerfully-built than his right. It looked like it was more used to handling a heavy hammer or pick than doing delicate magics, and the fading tattoos were still legible. “I made do.”
The vampire laughed. It was silken and hungry, but very infectious, and even the werewolf found himself smiling.
“Ingenuity. Six thousand years I've walked upon this land and yet the cleverness of the necromancers continues to impress me. That arm must have cost you dearly among your fellows.”
The necromancer nodded. “You are correct, your highness. I've had to kill several who wished to kill me for not being pure. But I am not a follower of Necroth, as many of my brothers and sisters are, so I do not feel a loss of purity. I worship his sister, Retali. Her favor means I am left alone, nothing more, and that is all I wish from the gods.”
The vampire nodded. “An unusual choice for a necromancer, indeed. Most followers of Retali are monks.”
The necromancer smiled and reached for a rock on the ground next to him. He stabbed his hand down and the rock split cleanly in two. “We all have our past lives, do we not?”
“Speak for yourself,” the werewolf said. “I was born to my clan, and I'm proud of it.”
“We would have it no other way,” the necromancer said smoothly. “How would you like to be addressed, your highness?”
“Many of my kind collect names like many of yours collect trophies. I never saw the reason why. I speak more dead languages than you know ever existed, have amassed more riches than a fair-sized kingdom, collect tribute from every vampire that has established a dominion, and oversee disputes between creatures more ancient than I am. What do I care about having a name so long it could fill a book? I am only the second king my race has ever known, and I've reigned for twice as long as the first. I am the undisputed master of all eight vampiric disciplines, the first of my kind to do so in over twelve thousand years if not longer or even ever. Vampiric lore only extends back to the death of last great wyrm, a secret we do not lightly share with outsiders, and I've read the chronicles of each discipline so often I can recite them from memory. None of them speak of any of my kind mastering more than two. I have power beyond even my own understanding, and even the demon lord Laal has sought my council several times. From him I expect every honorific, every courtesy. For a necromancer so bold as to attach the arm of a Dwarf to replace his own, in the middle of a pitched battle no less, I offer familiarity instead. Call me 'your highness' if you wish, but I will accept Chirival. You I will call Fori.”
The necromancer hid his reaction well, but the vampire king was far too powerful not to pick up on it anyway.
The werewolf gnawed more meat off the bone and stared into the fire.
The Dark Lord's hands continued to rest on the onyx throne, but Djel felt fingers probing his shattered eye socket. The fear that gripped him wasn't new, but the intensity of it was. The Dark Lord's presence created a fear that demanded obedience in all but the most powerful or holy of creatures.
Djel knew he was neither. He also knew his joints ached in the morning, his hearing wasn't what it used to be, and his teeth were starting to hurt whenever he drank something hot.
He was getting old and he knew it. At any time he'd be challenged for leadership of the Black Skull Tribe by some young buck who'd best him, and even if he survived the battle he'd have to sacrifice himself upon the altar. Tallis was a merciless god, but the only one to have considered the Goblin race worth taking under his blackened wing.
But he was still cunning, and that cunning had served him well for several years. When the Call summoned him, his cunning had kept him alive on the long journey – many of the beasts that lived in the Dark Lord's dominion cared not for their meals' loyalties.
“The damage is quite extensive, little one. You're lucky to have survived the blow. I could replace your eye, if it amused me to do so. It does not. I could make you young again, even ageless, if it struck my fancy. But I sense you do not wish to be ageless, or even young again. The hourglass that times all our lives shall not stop for you. But it does run quickly, and you sense the sands coming to an end. I shall not stop them, but I shall slow them, because even if you wish things otherwise your wishes do not matter. You shall not have your eye back, little one. I like the scar and the crude rock you placed where it would be.” The silken voice paused. “But I think I like something even better. Come with me.”
The vampire king may have been comfortable with necromancers and werewolves, and tolerant of virtually all the races so far assembled to their master's call, but the toad-like Kresaki were an exception. Their goddess demanded death, like most of those whose followers headed the Call, but demanded it to be final. Those who cheated death; the lich, the ghoul, the awakened mummy, the vampire; were anathema and to be destroyed at all cost.
As warriors, the Kresaki were laudable – physically powerful, immune to poison, and with skin that resisted cutting better than well-cured leather, they lived in a militaristic society that valued obedience above virtually everything else. Their goddess, Dorchal, selected her priests and priestesses personally, appearing every year at the end of a festival that no outsider had seen and lived to report on.
Her high priest had asked to join them around the fire. The werewolf had left immediately, snarling something about rather licking a pile of manure than share space around the fire with him.
“I offer greetings of brotherhood,” the priest croaked in surprisingly-good common tongue. “As Dorchal explained to me in a dream the night before the Call came to me, my duty to the Dark Lord is greater than any duty to Her, and the Dark Lord tells us to be brothers.”
The vampire king stifled a laugh, but the necromancer scoffed openly.
“You expect me to believe that Dorchal's high priest is willing to work with the undead and those that raise them? Just like that? I don't think so.” He wiggled the fingers on his Dwarf hand. “The necromantic arts include far more than the creation of zombies and mummies, and Dorchal grants her faithful several necromantic gifts, yet any others who use them are to be killed? For this arm alone you should be seeking my destruction.”
“What you say is true.” There was a note of irritation in the priest's croak. “But I assure you, things are different now. My mistress has commanded me to submit to our master's will, and He says get along.”
The vampire listened to the two argue for several minutes before clearing his throat to get their attention. When a vampire king with six millennia behind him clears his throat, it was impossible to ignore. The two stopped talking instantly and turned to look at the him as dead and dying insects dropped from the air around them.
“Fori, I think you missed something of great import that our friend the priest here said.” His voice was flat, lacking all the glamor and melodic tones it had possessed up to that point. “Why would a god, any god, tell a worshiper that another mortal being should hold more allegiance than to his or her god?”
Djel stepped out of the box and fell to the flat stone floor. Being so close to the Dark Lord had sapped more than just his energy. He could feel his very life ebbing into infinity.
“Arise, Djel.” The silky voice lacked any hint of mockery or anger. In its tones were a command as strong as that which held the room of the Dark Lord's most powerful servants still.
Djel rose, lifted by invisible hands with grips stronger than iron.
“Good. I am aware that being so close to me has... Deleterious effects on those not prepared for it. You, my little Goblin, could never be prepared. But listen to me, talking to you while the last of your life flows away like water from that spring.” He chuckled, frost forming on the points of Djel's ears. “Look, Djel. See. You will have the strength you need.”
A dark warmth spread through his body as the grip on his arms faded. His one eye probed the near-total darkness surrounding them. Visual acumen was a Goblin trait, even into the inky midnight of a moonless night that was the brightest noon underground, but age had clouded his vision – doubly so since the Dark Lord's magic had weakened him.
“Look, my creature. See the water. Hear its music.”
As if a hundred torches were lit at the same time, light flooded the area, and the spring appeared. It burbled hypnotically, a sound that had been muted in the blackness.
“The Elves call it a sweetspring. There are only four known in existence – the other two were destroyed in wars with the Orcs and the Dwarves. To the Elf, Silver or Sable, it is sacred, a reason to wage unceasing war to claim it. My immediate predecessor discovered it and had it sealed up, working powerful magics to keep the pressure from destroying the complex above. When I discovered this I had it released so the spring could flow again. Beauty is universal, and this is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful things in the world. Of course, you are too simple to understand this, but you will see in time. Now, drink of the waters, but do not poison the pool with your hands or lips.”
Djel walked to the spring, stiff muscles bending only with protest, as the warmth of the magic sustaining his life burned darkly in his chest. The spring bubbled up between two white rocks and fell into a shallow pool, of a size, depth, and shape large enough for a large Human to lay in comfortably and be completely immersed. It overflowed on the far side from the source and ran down a small channel that followed a well-worn footpath into the darkness below.
The smell was sweet. Normally offensive to Goblin senses, the sweetness was somehow attractive, seductive. It brought within him a sense of peace that soothed him in ways he never knew could be soothed. He began to feel an overwhelming desire to taste the water.
“Do not poison the pool, my creature. I will not tolerate disobedience in this.”
Problem solving was not a Goblin strong point. Thinking was not a Goblin strong point. Goblins like things simple – kill, fight, mate, eat, die, pray, prey – but Djel was far from the average Goblin.
His hand dipped and came up sparkling with water from the stream disappearing in the distance. His tongue snaked out and lapped up the drops before they could fall.
“Obedience will be rewarded, my creature.”
The water was sweet, refreshingly so, and it made his mouth taste cleaner than he would ever remember it feeling or tasting. Just the few drops he managed to catch continued down his throat, extinguishing the dark fire burning in his chest and replacing it with a cool, soothing sensation that began to rapidly spread through his limbs. In moments he felt better than he had in years.
“How do you feel?”
“Good, my lord. Young, if you were to ask.”
“I do ask. Open your eye.”
Djel realized he'd closed his eye when the water had hit his tongue. He opened it.
“By the gods,” he breathed.
“The sweetspring is named for the odor the water emits, but the power of the spring is far greater than just a pleasant smell and taste. It rejuvenates those who drink of it, even the ageless Elves who guard the springs with their very souls.”
“I think I see why.” A note of awe touched his voice, making the Dark Lord smile.
“You fascinate me, little Goblin. Look in the pool, see your face now.”
Djel leaned over the edge of the pool and saw his face staring back – at least, his face as he remembered it a decade before. He gasped.
“You are younger, your life extended, your strength renewed, but only as much as a Goblin ever is. For my purposes, this is not enough, but it is enough for the moment. Tell me, have you ever had food prepared for an Elf or Human?”
“Once. A party of my raiders ambushed a party of Human adventurers come to delve Curlwood for riches. I tasted from the leather cauldron they'd prepared. The food was terrible.”
Amusement tinged the Dark Lord's next words. “Spices and flavors unknown to you, tasting worse than the ritual Griil fungus you consume to honor your god?”
“The Griil fungus tastes like the poison it is. This tasted worse.”
The Dark Lord laughed in tones sweeter than the finest silver bells. “Taste this, then.” He extended his fist and turned it over, opening his hand in a shower of red sparks. The air tasted faintly of burnt bone for a few seconds, but as the sparks faded a small loaf of bread appeared, the crust around its bottom removed, showing off the pale pinkish interior. The top crust, in an odd mushroom-cap shape, was covered in a thick layer of a red paste that was both shiny and dull in places. The smell was something the Goblin had ever experienced, both sweet and fruity, but somehow attractive despite the cloying sweetness that should have offended his sense of smell.
“What is it?” He found himself salivating and stepping closer.
The amusement in the Dark Lord's silken harmonics put a smile on Djel's scarred face. “It's called a cupcake.”
“What I mean is obvious, if you think about it. Why would a god willingly surrender a follower? Not only that, but actively encouraging their high priest to swear allegiance to one who obviously cares little for the divine?”
The necromancer scratched his chin. Even after decades of use far more gentle than the century it had seen before its new life, the skin was hard enough to make the motion audible to the fur-clad, blue-painted man stepping into the circle.
“Is there room for one more, my lords?” His voice was roughened by years of shouting across the chaos of a battlefield and a touch hoarse from a wound that had left a faint scar across his throat, but it was powerful and one obviously not used to deference. “I can see by the position of the sun that I am too late for the meeting our master has called.”
The necromancer, his mouth open to speak before the warrior had appeared out of nowhere, closed it, his reply to the vampire paused.
“Please, join us,” the Kresaki croaked. “Unless one of you two object? I, for one, welcome the king of the Losarae to our circle.”
“You are far from home, your highness, and ill-dressed to meet the Dark Lord.” The vampire grinned toothily. “I welcome you. Please, join us. Might I ask as to why you are late joining those of us heeding the Call?”
“I thank you both,” he said, taking a very guarded position opposite the necromancer. “I greet you, sub-lich.”
“I greet you, king of men.” The necromancer bowed his head slightly. “I assure you, the feud between the Losarae and cult of Necroth in no way threatens you. I am a follower of Retali.”
“A necromancer who doesn't worship the god of death? Wonders never cease, do they?”
The necromancer looked at the Kresaki priest seated next to him, his toad-like face twisted in what was actually a close approximation of human earnestness, and laughed. “They do not.”
“What have you done to me?” Djel licked his fingers to get the last of the crumbs.
“Nothing. The sweetspring merely cleansed you. All poisons and toxins, physical or magical, have been neutralized. That includes the ones in your mother's milk that damage your tongue, and the ones in the fungi you consume do the same. You are tasting food the way it truly tastes, perhaps for the first time in your life. The spring saved you, it cleansed and rejuvenated you, and it's giving you the gift of taste as well. I'm afraid, however, you will never again be able to eat Goblin 'cuisine' again. If you get homesick for familiar flavors you can still eat many of the same things, but you will find them quite distasteful now.” The disdain in his voice when the Dark Lord said “cuisine” was so intense the subterranean insects crawling up and down the nearby walls died, each one exploding into a fat spark. “But I think you will find the exchange acceptable.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Djel said, bowing his head respectfully.
“You are welcome, little one. Never let it be said that I, Samur Derebeyi, twenty-third Dark Lord of the Shadow Horde, can not be generous to those who please me.”
“I will never say it, master.”
The Dark Lord smiled. “Come, Djel. Your true recognition, your true reward, awaits you.”
Djel waited for the Dark Lord to walk by him before assuming the traditional place of deference; a pace behind and two to the left. Not that he expected his master to have a problem with the gentle slope, but Djel watched for any signs of a trip so he could help him.
He was feeling... Different. Deferential, yes, but somehow more than that. Sensations and emotions he'd never felt before were beginning to flow through his mind and, rather than being as unnerving as he felt he they probably should have been, they were strangely comforting.
The Dark Lord moved in silence. Even his silken robes made no noise as they shifted. Djel, a master of stealth as only one born and raised in shadows and caves can be, struggled to keep himself as quiet as he whom he companioned. Struggled and failed, to the amusement of his master.
“When you are clothed in shadows given shape, you will move this quietly. Until then, do not try.”
The passage they were following cut through rock polished first by water, then by tools and the bare hands of thousands of slaves. What little light there was made the walls glint and glow, but the passage quickly opened up into another natural cavern that was lit dimly from so many hidden sources that it was impossible to identify any of them. Shapes, indistinct even to Djel's recently-rejuvenated eye, moved at the bottom of the cavern. A short walk ahead terminated in a curving staircase cut out of the living rock. The steps were obviously carved for human-sized legs, but Djel knew he could manage them.
Even if he couldn't have, he would have. Somehow.