The darkened room was lit by a single candle, and a circle of faceless figures sat arrayed around it. They all wore deeply hooded cowls, save one, whose yellow eyes blazed out in the orange candle-light. He looked around expectantly, straight-backed and wide-eyed, one leg jittering beneath the table.
From one figure came a rustle as it sat up a little straighter, then it cleared its throat.
"Are we all met?" it asked in a deep, sonorous voice.
"Aye," replied the figure to Richard's right.
"And who is this stranger, brought into our midst?"
"Hi, I'm Richard." Richard said, waving cheerily. The figure on his right elbowed him sharply in the side. "Ow!"
"He is the one of whom I told you, Brother Yanni." the figure to Richard's left answered. "The one who escaped the Thirteen Hells, who has raised an army of the undead, and who wrought destruction upon Greyvale, Thomaston, and Brookhaven."
"And Riverwood." Richard put in helpfully, and received another elbow in the side. "Ow!"
"We have indeed heard the exploits of this . . . Richard." the first figure said. "And has he the qualifications to be indicted into our brotherhood?"
Richard leaned over to the figure to his right, hand in front of his mouth, and whispered, "I don't think that means what he thinks it means."
The figure shook its head and sighed, putting a hand to the darkness where its face probably was. The potentate was still speaking in his resounding voice, while the other hooded heads nodded slowly.
"What? What? Wiley, what?"
"This is a ritual," Wiles hissed, "it is meant to be taken seriously."
"I am taking it seriously." Richard retorted indignantly. "If I weren't, everyone would be on fire. You even gave me a candle. I'm behaving extremely well. For me."
"Just . . . don't speak unless you're spoken to. That's all I ask. All right?"
Richard rolled his eyes and sighed. "Oh all right. But I'll have you know this is a major departure for me."
"You don't say," Wiles mumbled through gritted teeth.
Meanwhile, the potentate, Yanni, was concluding his speech, saying, "And now, brothers, we must question the candidate, to determine his readiness to enter this ancient and secret brotherhood. Brother Wiles, speak for your charge."
Wiles rose smoothly and cleared his throat. "I believe the charge would prefer to speak for himself." he said, and sat again. There was a brief murmur among the assembled, before the leader raised his hand and silence fell.
"Very well," he said, "let the stranger rise."
"Ooh, that's me!" Richard said excitedly, hopping to his feet, and saluted.
After a moment, Yanni said, "What is your name, O Shrouded One?"
"I am Richard, Lord of the Thirteen Hells, Master of the Bones, and mayor of a little village up the coast." From outside, there was a roll of thunder. Richard's eyes crinkled. "I did that." he said proudly.
Yanni hesitated again before replying, "What, precisely, does the title 'Master of the Bones' entail?"
"I was hoping you'd ask that. You know, I got to thinking, 'I really did raise an army of the undead, didn't I.'" He stepped out from behind his chair and slowly began circling the twenty assembled figures, gesticulating the whole time, his fingers pale and vivid in the darkness. "And I thought, 'Who else has raised an army of the undead? Nobody, so far as I know.' And, you know, I did such a good job raising them, you can actually tear them down to nothing but bones and they'll just pull themselves back together again." He leaned down and earnestly told one of the figures, "It makes them much more portable, you know." Continuing his circling, he went on, "So I thought to myself, I'm a little short on titles, having just the one. Why not add another? So I did. 'Master of the Bones.' That's what I was doing on the ride over here. Not that I had much else to do."
"Hang on," said one of the other figures, pointing at Richard, "you can't just go around giving yourself titles."
"I can't?" Richard said, raising an eyebrow. "Says who?"
The figure looked at its compatriots. "Well, you just . . . can't. It's not done."
"Oh, is this manners? Because I've never been very good at manners. They told me it was bad manners to sacrifice squirrels on the dinner table. Didn't stop me."
Yanni held up his hand again. "Nevertheless, you have proven your skill in raising the dead. You have escaped the Thirteen Hells alone, a feat no other has yet accomplished."
"I didn't escape," Richard corrected, "I rode out. On a road paved with bodies."
"Er . . . did you?" Yanni said.
"Yes," Richard replied, "or did Wiley not tell you the part about how I killed every lord of hell on my way out? Because that was an important part, and if he left it out, he's getting a demerit." Richard scowled at Wiles, his hands on his hips. Wiles raised both hands in a pacifying gesture.
"I wasn't aware." he said.
"You could have asked," Richard admonished.
"Silence, both of you." Yanni commanded. Richard pointed an accusatory finger at Wiles.
"He started it!"
"Nevertheless. We will move on with the questioning. You affirm that your name is Richard, Lord of the Thirteen Hells, Master of the Bones?"
Richard nodded sagely, crossing his arms. "I affirm." He jerked a thumb at the nearest hooded figure. "He a mushy."
Wiles sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, shaking his head slowly.
"And what right have you to join this most ancient and secret brotherhood?"
"You asked me to." Richard replied.
The potentate stiffened. "Other than that." he clarified.
"Oh," said Richard, and scratched his chin, considering the ceiling. "Well, I have raised an army of undead minions. And destroyed four towns. And some hamlets. Which are not just baby pigs. Although I killed a lot of those, too. In very humorous ways. I can do a puppet show!"
Covertly, Wiles made a get-on-with-it gesture.
"And, uh, I took over the Thirteen Hells." Richard continued. "Annnnd . . . oh! And I kicked Death's head right off." He put his hands on his hips and beamed, taking in the faceless figures around him. "I think I'm qualified."
"V-very well," said Yanni, "the candidate has proven himself. But has he learned the tenets of our brotherhood?"
"I did!" Richard replied excitedly. "Wiley made me memorize them." He cleared his throat and said impressively, "Secrecy. Loyalty. Power. Burmashave."
Wiles made a strangled squeaking noise and buried his face in his hands.
Yanni slammed his hands down on the table and rose, allowing the light of the candle to illuminate his face. It was a ghastly, drawn, skull of a face, the skin pulled tight and dry across the bones, the teeth permanently bared. His eyes were shriveled orbs that glared out from sockets too large for them, appearing as points of white in a surrounding darkness. Richard raised an eyebrow.
"If you cannot take these proceedings seriously," Yanni warned, "you will be expelled from this brotherhood and cast back to the world a cursed man."
"Oh, I'm already cursed, I don't need another." Richard said, waving a hand nonchalantly. "And why is everyone always so serious? All my life, and subsequently, I've been told to be serious. I refuse. I will not be serious. I will do this!" With a flourish, he conjured a pair of glasses from thin air, with a huge false nose and bushy black eyebrows attached to them. He settled them on his face and folded his arms, regarding the head figure smugly. "Besides, you can't curse in here. There's children."
"Enough!" Yanni roared, bringing his fist down on the table and splitting the wood. The other hooded figures quickly retreated into the darkness. "I will not be made a mockery of!" He stretched out a hand toward Richard, sparks crackling along his fingers, their red light turning his tiny eyes into glowing embers.
"I doubt that." Richard said, and snapped his fingers. The sparks on Yanni's outstretched hand drew to a point, then exploded. He screamed horribly as the explosion tore the flesh from his bones, leaving him a blackened skeleton. The skeleton looked around, bones clacking, examining its surroundings and itself. It caught sight of Richard and took a step back. Richard waved cheerily.
"Hello!" he said brightly, then, pointing a finger at the skeleton and glaring a terrible glare through his conjured glasses, he commanded, "Kneel."
The skeleton scrambled to take a knee, in the process knocking off its own foot. Richard giggled, then looked around the room.
"I'm a big fan of dark and mysterious," he said, "but this is silly." In his hand, a bright ball of fire flared into existence. The hooded brethren shrank back, shielding their eyes from the bright light. They were all pale as death, and many had begun to adopt Yanni's corpselike appearance.
"That's better." Richard looked around the room, taking in the faces. "So is this one of those deals where I become your leader by default by killing your old one?"
Wiles took a hesitant step forward, clearing his throat. "Er . . . not exactly. The chief warlock is elected by a vote. In the event that he is . . ." he glanced at the kneeling skeleton, "impeached, a new chief warlock must be nominated and voted upon."
"Procedure," Richard opined, rolling his eyes. "And supposing I threaten to incinerate anyone who tells me I can't be Chief Warlock? What happens then?"
Among the brotherhood, there was much darting of eyes. A few cleared their dry throats, some scratched their heads. Eventually, Wiles replied, "Are you threatening to incinerate anyone who tells you that you can't be Chief Warlock?"
"Oh no, I wouldn't dream of it." Richard replied cavalierly. "You guys have your little vote, I'm going to take my new skeleton out dancing. Pick up your foot, silly, you dropped it." As he walked past Wiles, Richard clapped the other warlock on the shoulder. "I want a nice, clean vote, with no cheating, and at the end of it I want everybody to be here to hear the results. Capiche?"
Wiles swallowed heavily and nodded. "I . . . understand." he said.
"Great!" He pulled off the silly spectacles and affixed them to Wiles's face. "From now on, every meeting chair should wear these. I think it would prevent the kind of melodrama we just had to endure. Toodles!" And with that, he beckoned to the skeleton of Yanni and skipped from the room, leaving the skeleton clattering along behind him, carrying its right foot in its hand.
Some five minutes later, Wiles emerged from the darkened hall to find Richard lying on the ground with his feet propped up against the wall. The skeleton of Yanni was nowhere to be seen.
"We, er, have come to a decision." Wiles said. Richard looked over at him curiously.
"Oh boy!" he cried, and rolled to his feet. "Are we going back in the creepy hall of doom?"
Wiles raised an eyebrow. "Er, yes, I will announce the results of the voting in the meeting hall, as you requested everyone be present and that is the only place we will all fit."
"Great!" Richard brushed past Wiles and darted back into the large stone structure. Outside, lightning flashed, illuminating the scenery for a brief moment. As rain began to fall, Wiles turned and followed Richard inside, his head hanging.
Back in the meeting hall, several more candles had been lit. The hooded brethren sat around the table, leaving only three seats empty—Wiles's, Richard's, and Yanni's. As Wiles entered, he shut the door behind himself. Richard was already dropping himself into Yanni's old seat, proceeding to prop his bare feet up on the splintered table.
"Drumroll, please!" he called, putting his hands behind his head and leaning back in the chair.
Wiles cleared his throat. "It is the unanimous decision of this brotherhood—"
"Where are the glasses?" Richard demanded. Wiles sighed and wordlessly pulled the spectacles from his robe, affixing them to his face. Richard giggled.
"As I was saying," Wiles continued in a strained voice, "it is the unanimous decision of this brotherhood to elect Richard, Lord of the Thirteen Hells, Master of the Bones, as Chief Warlock of the Brothers of Darkness."
Richard leapt to his feet. "This is so unexpected!" he cried. He pulled a tiara from thin air and fixed it on his head, followed by a silken sash which he draped around his shoulders. "I'd like to thank the Academy, and all the little people, and whatever deity might have had a hand in arranging this." He wiped an imaginary tear from his eye. "This means so much to me!"
Around the room, most of the brethren had hidden their faces in their hands. One got to his feet, glaring daggers at Richard.
"I told them this was a bad idea. You haven't even been fully initiated, you have no idea of the workings of this brotherhood, you are unequipped to handle the responsibilities necessary—"
"I appoint Wiley as my VP of Darkness." Richard cut in. "To act as Chief Warlock when I'm out on business."
Wiles gaped at him. The objector ground his teeth. "You can't do that. It's against the rules."
"You people are so caught up on rules." Richard said, rolling his eyes. "You remember that guy who used to be in charge?"
"Of course I do."
"You remember how I killed him?"
The objector swallowed. "Yanni was not . . . necessarily . . . the most powerful of us. Besides, we are many, and you are but one."
"You are pussies, and you all voted me into office." Richard retorted. "Now you have to deal with the consequences. Although, I'll be honest, I usually get someone else to deal with my consequences for me."
"As you allowed Brothers Wiles and Jordan to rescue you from your imprisonment?"
"Yes! Exactly like that. Although I could have gotten out on my own. I just wanted to see what would happen." Richard stuck a finger in his ear and twisted it back and forth. "Honest."
"Of course," Wiles murmured. "Nevertheless, Brother Richard—"
"I believe the official title is 'Chief Warlock,'" Richard interrupted, holding up an earwax-veneered finger.
Wiles sighed. "Nevertheless, Chief Warlock Richard, now that you are our leader, there are a few matters of business to be taken care of."
"The battle-mages, for one."
"Are we slaughtering them all in their beds? I vote we slaughter them all in their beds."
"Tempting as that may be, it would be logistically quite difficult. They are powerful, and they travel in groups, sometimes as many as seven together. No, our intent, which we decided upon prior to your initiation, was to . . . convince the battle-mages they were no longer needed here."
"What, you mean hide?" Richard demanded. "Run away and hide like cowards?"
Wiles cleared his throat. "Not as such, no. Our intent was to lie low for several weeks, or perhaps move to a different region of Legara."
"So run away and hide like cowards." Richard repeated, then shrugged. "I'm okay with that."
"You . . . you are?" said the objector, his brows furrowed.
"Sure. I like traveling. I like massacring new towns and new populations. And I don't like fighting battle-mages. It sucks. Have you seen those guys?"
Wiles shared a glance with the objector. "Yes. There is a reason we chose to come to your aid only once they had gone. So . . . you agree to our plan?"
Richard waved a hand noncommittally. "Sure, whatever. Is that everything? I want to look around the creepy castle."
"Er," Wiles said, glancing around at the circle of undead faces, "for now, yes."
"Great!" Richard cried, and leapt from his seat, scurrying off into the darkened hall behind him. Many pairs of glittering eyes turned to Wiles.
"You see?" he said, smiling easily as he removed the spectacles. "It's just as I told you. Not only did he dispose of Yanni for us, he is the greatest puppet leader an organization could wish for." He resumed his seat and steepled his fingers, still smirking. "Now, gentlemen, let's get down to real business. I believe we have a valuable weapon here, if only we can point it in the correct direction."
The warlock who had been so adamantly against Richard before leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "He is a loose cannon, Brother Wiles. He cannot be controlled or contained. Bringing him here was a mistake. We must dispose of him as swiftly as possible."
"Oh, I quite agree, Brother Seras. But we may as well get some use out of him first. With proper instruction, he could dispose of two, perhaps even three battle-mages before he was overwhelmed. I consider that worth putting up with a little impudence and . . . silliness."
There were a few sniggers from around the table. Brother Seras rolled his eyes. "I think you are underestimating his potential for harm. He is more likely to get us destroyed in a confrontation with battle-mages than himself. He has a yellow streak a mile wide, and would not hesitate to put any of us between himself and impending doom."
Elsewhere in the circle, another figure stirred. "Brother Seras has a point," he said. "If we are to make the puppet fight the battle-mages, we must be certain he does it alone."
"Such was my plan, Brother Jordan. I merely intended that we train him in the weaknesses of battle-mages first, that we may derive some utility from his presence. Beyond, of course, his timely slaughtering of Yanni."
From the warlocks, there was a murmur of agreement. Jordan spoke out once more.
"We have no evidence he is capable of defeating one battle-mage, much less several. How can we be sure we are not wasting our time?"
"The gem." Wiles replied. "The gem he wears around his neck. Did you get a close look at it, any of you? I did. That gem is of a sort not found in this world. Its kind are found only one place."
"You don't mean to say," Seras cut in, "that that . . . idiot actually escaped the Thirteen Hells?"
"I do mean to say." Wiles answered. "He is obviously quite powerful, but that much was evident in his destruction of Yanni. What we have here, gentlemen, is a siege weapon. We have only to point it at the correct walls."
"Very well," Seras said, "I'll consent to this plan. But I refuse to train him."
"I, as well, consent." said Jordan. "But I will have no part in his training."
"All in favor of the plan?" Wiles asked. All but two hands were raised. "The motion passes. Volunteers to train the siege weapon?"
Outside, a cricket chirped. Wiles sighed. "I should have known. Very well, gentlemen, I will take it upon myself to show our newest member the ropes. We will meet next week to discuss the results. All rise!"
As one, the brotherhood got to their feet and chanted, "Secrecy. Loyalty. Power. In death we are risen mightier."
Wiles pushed in his chair and simply said, "Meeting adjourned."