It was a dark and stormy night.
Well, no, it wasn't. It was certainly stormy, for slashing rain whipped across the wind-tossed countryside, and the sky was covered from horizon to horizon in clouds the colour of lead. And it was most definitely dark, save for the moments when the entire world was cast into bleak contrast by calamitous crashes of blinding lightning. But it was still mid afternoon, and somewhere above the thick clouds the sun was high and bright, as marked by the patch of sky which was merely iron-coloured, rather than lead.
Hence, it was a dark and stormy mid-afternoon, which is a phrase with far less poetic cachet and precedence than its nocturnal cousin. Still, two out of three isn't bad. It's sixty-six point six recurring percent. It's a solid pass.
And so all in all, with everything considered, by and large, it was probably a time for Evil deeds.
Not just evil deeds, which can be carried out in pretty much any levels of lighting and climatic conditions. In fact, some of the most evil deeds are done by well-fed men sitting in tastefully lit rooms on comfortable chairs as they fill out paperwork and give orders, with not a flaming brazier nor a throne made out of skulls to be seen. No, these were Evil deeds. The difference is, the person who coined the phrase 'the banality of evil' had never encountered real Evil, which always tries its best to be stylish about things, and even when it fails at least fails in interestingly tasteless ways.
Across this decidedly inhospitable landscape of jagged croppings of rock rising above foetid swamps and dark forests, a lone mounted figure stood out. Hunched low over her horse, keeping it at a slow walk, Louise de la Valliere kept her oilskin tightly wrapped around her with one hand and a firm hand on the reins with another. Her horse trembled faintly with tiredness - she was a good enough horsewoman to realise she had already pushed it too hard to go any faster than a walk - and it was skittish from the lightning.
"Come on, girl," she said, leaning forwards to stroke the mare's soaked head. "Just a bit further. Just a little bit. I walked you all the way until lunch, and you had oats then, so you can keep going just a bit further, right?"
She needed to get to cover, get out of this rain. She shouldn't be here. She shouldn't be riding like this in the middle of a spring storm. She shouldn't be out in the cold and wet, on her own up along the horrible bits of the northern coast, where bandits and orcs and Founder knew what else roamed the wilderness.
But a lot of things shouldn't have been, but were.
In the end, she managed to find a cave in one of the outcroppings of rock. Cold, shivering, she led her horse in out of the wet, and slumped down, shaking. After a few moments, she wearily levered herself to her feet, and pulled her horse blanket out of one of her saddlebags. Slowly, she rubbed her steed down with the still-damp blanket, until it stopped shaking quite so much, and then she fed it with the last of the oats she had with her.
Only then did she see to herself; a small fire set with the dry wood she had - a proper mage wouldn't have had to muck around with flint - and one of the rather-damp dried-up balls of grain and vegetables thrown into a pot. It wasn't as if she had a shortage of water; she just had to go and leave the pot under one of the rivulets running by the cave-mouth to fill it.
Louise felt slightly more human as the scent of cooking food filled her nostrils and she had a chance to empty her bladder outside the cave. She huddled close to the fire, stripped down to her chemise as she tried her best to dry her wet clothes. She hadn't managed to dry yesterday's set properly, so she couldn't even change into them.
The increased physical wellbeing, however, only let her sink deeper into melancholy. She was a failure. A complete and utter failure. A useless, wasted, failure who didn't deserve the name of de la Valliere. Now she no longer felt like she was going to freeze to death - or possibly drown on dry land, so heavily was it raining - she could come to face what she had known for the last four days.
Since the terrible events of the Spring Summoning Ritual.
That day hadn't started like this. The sun had shone down, from on high, down onto a green and pleasant field in Tristain. The chill of the morning had been still barely present, although rapidly departing, and the faintest hint of dew had been still present on the grass. Her shoes had squeaked, she remembered. It had horribly, loathsomely, terribly been a lovely spring morning, and the clarity of the sky above had declared that it was only going to get more pleasant. There had been birds on the field, tiny sparrows in the sky and a number of large grey cranes in the nearby pond.
Louise wrung out her hair, feeling the cold water against her fingers. Yes, it had been an auspicious day. Clear sunlight for Fire, dew for Water, a breeze for Wind and... uh, the earth for Earth. Everything had been perfect, a guaranteed success for the summoning ritual.
Except for her.
She had got to watch as people summoned frogs, cats, birds, salamanders (damn Kirche and the fact that her breasts even seemed to have the ability to call wild animals), and even a Founder-damned dragon. And then when she had stepped up... nothing.
Nothing at all.
Not even a flea. No summoning portal, no success. All she'd managed to do was cover herself in soot from head to toe so she was as black as midnight.
What kind of mage did that?
She couldn't stay at the Academy, that was for sure. Oh, certainly, they were being "kind". And "sympathetic". And telling her that "everything was all right". Yes, sure, everything was certainly just fine. It was all fine and happy and skippy and wonderful and perfect and cheerful. Except for the fact that she was a failure, a zero, a pathetic little girl who couldn't cast a single spell properly. All she could do was destroy things.
The worst bit had come when Kirche von Zerbst, her long-standing rival, had been "understanding" and come to "comfort her" but really to gloat. Why else would she have said that at least she could still get married? Louise certainly didn't want to become like... like some commoner woman who had fifteen children, because that was all that they were good for.
It had come as a dream in the night. She wouldn't stay to be mocked and bullied and shown to be a worthless little failure any more. No, there was no way she could stand that. So she would run away. She still had her entire term's pocket money. She would pack, run away, and seek her fame and fortune. Her mother had done that too; she had become a hero because of it, stopping plots against the Crown, winning battles, and she did that all in disguise, pretending to be someone else.
That would be the way to prove she was worthwhile. That she was really her mother's daughter, and not some mistake, that - as sometimes she had nightmares about - her parents' real daughter had died at birth and the midwife had substituted another pink-haired child in her place to avoid being punished. If her mother could do it, so would Louise, or die trying.
And if she died trying, at least she wouldn't be around to embarrass her family anymore. Wouldn't have to face the bullying anymore. Wouldn't be the Zero anymore.
Louise stared into the fire, the light reflected back in her eyes. Only it had all gone wrong. At first she had started off towards Bruxelles, because clearly the capital was where you sought fame and fortune. But then she had realised that that would be where they would look for her, and it wasn't exactly running away if you ran away to a place perhaps two hours coach-ride from the place you had been. So she had taken a short trip across country to take the road to La Rochelle instead.
But fame and fortune seemed to be rather harder to find than the stories had claimed. And then she had got turned around in the mountains near La Rochelle and the weather had got much, much worse and by that point she had stopping hoping that no one would ever find her and started hoping that someone would find her.
But no, no one had even been looking for the runaway noble girl. Ha! Showed how much any of them cared, for all that they had been trying to be all reassuring. They probably forgot about her as soon as she was out of their sight. Or they'd been pleased to be rid of this inconvenient girl.
The pink-haired girl wrung out her hair again, and shivered, only partly from the cold and wet. She poked her clothes experimentally, but they were still drenched. At least there was water in this cave, and stacks of dry-ish branches near the entrance - probably blown in here by the wind, she thought - and if it came down to it, her magic had always been pretty good at killing wild animals. Well, some kinds of wild animals. Birds, mice, kittens, puppies, sheep... pretty much anything that anyone found cute and could find a reason to blame her for. So at least she could get food if the rain kept on coming.
Louise curled up into a ball by the fire, by her drying clothes, and cried herself to sleep.
The pink-haired girl woke with a start, and realised she was not alone. She didn't know how she was not alone. She could give no evidence for... was not alone save for her horse, she corrected herself. Because that was still here, and looking decidedly jittery.
From the way the fire had died down to embers, and the fact that outside it was even darker, she roughly guessed that it was probably nighttime. Maybe eight or so hours had passed, by her best estimate, but it was probably still before midnight. And decidedly chilly with the fire died down and only dressed in a chemise.
Picking up her wand, Louise shrugged on her oilskin over the top, after discovering that everything else was still too wet to wear. Then, after a moment's thought, she put her wand in her back pocket, and picked up a large branch in both hands. There was something very... reassuring about a heavy lump of wood, especially compared to how... much of a failure she was.
"H-hello?" she called out, voice quavering. "Is anyone there?"
The fire went out, as if it was a candle flame snuffed out by a pair of giant clawed fingers. This precise metaphor came to mind to Louise, because at the edge of hearing she heard a scrape which sounded frightfully like the sound of nails on slate. Only louder.
Her horse panicked, treacherously finding reserves of strength which it apparently had not been willing to provide her, and bolted.
"Come back you stupid mare!" Louise yelled after it, watching as it ran off with about half her saddlebags. Something skittered out of the edge of her vision, and she whirled to face it. "Show yourself!"
No response, except for more skittering, again out of the corner of her eye.
"Who dares intrude upon my... dark domain?" a voiced asked. "This tower is... mine!"
Louise's wand whipped around to face the source of the noise. There... there were two faintly glowing points of light there, she realised. Two... red lights. At about head height. For a child. "I am Louise de la Valliere," she announced, trying to keep the shake out of her voice.
"Oh. A... de la Valliere. I should feel all so... awed by such company." Or, she realised, as the two lights rose, a man sitting down. "Welcome to my humble... abode." In the darkness, as her eyes adjusted to the lack of firelight, she could just about see a figure standing there. Bats chittered, flocking out en mass over her head, and the girl flinched. "Ah, listen to the... children of the night," the dark figure said, his movements forwards accompanied by a rustle of fabric. "What... wonderful music... they make."
The constant dramatic pauses in the dialogue were beginning to disturb Louise by this point, because they broke up the flow of conversation no end and really rather annoyed her. "Who are you?"
"Moi? I am... the Dark High Lord Baron Louis de Bois, and this... is my tower," it said, with another shuffling scrape forwards.
"This is a cave," the girl said, edging backwards.
"No," the figure said, a twist of irritation entering its voice, "it is a tower. Really. It's just a bit damaged at the moment." It coughed, and its voice returned to the dry rasp it had been using before. "Please won't you... dine with me?"
"N-no thank you," Louise said. "And... um, I didn't know it belonged to you and I'm sorry so..."
"Ah, yesssssssss," hissed the voice, "the servants are most... disobedient, aren't they? Most... poor at their... tasks. They should have... greeted you and... shown you to your... quarters. Like the other... guests who have shown up at my... tower over the years. I will need to... punish them for their... disobedience. Punish them... mightily."
Louise carefully laid the branch she was carrying down. She had to allay its suspicions, because only one kind of creature would be this pointlessly melodramatic and unnecessarily sinister according to her mother's tales. Slowly, one hand went back to her rear pocket searing for her wand, and she cursed whatever bravado had given her the idea that a large lump of wood was a better weapon than explosions. "I'm quite f-fine, thank you," she said, as slowly as he could.
"Oh dear, oh dearie dearie... me," said - no, breathed, 'said' was much too human a word for that sinister corpse-like rattle - the figure. "A poor lost little... girl." It exhaled again, a stinking breath which smelt of rotting corpses, musty tombs and dried blood. "Poor little girl, come... here. Why don't you share a... drink with me? You smell... delicious. And are only dressed in a... chemise underneath that cloak. Why don't you... take it... off? You're dressing like you... want it"
Mindlessly, Louise's cold fingers scrabbled for her wand. She had to keep this thing talking, stop it doing whatever it was going to do, because things which looked like this and sounded like this and above all smelt like this were not good things to be around. "Dr-drink?" she stammered, half from fear and half from the cold and wet. "Wh-what kind of drink? Like... wine?"
"Wine?" the figure exhaled. "I do not drink... wine."
Louise's fingers closed around the shaft of her wand. "Well... uh, what about brandy?"
"I do not drink... brandy."
"I do not drink... sherry."
"... I am fond of... beer, yes."
The corpse-like figure in its tattered black robe... only that wasn't a robe was it, that was wings... grinned, revealing elongated canines. "No. Guess again, poor little lost... girl."
"Well. Um. Um. Um. Wh-what about... Fireball!"
The explosion painted the inside of the cave with soot, ignited the rusted braziers, and sent the vampire reeling. There was the sound of collapsing masonry as part of the room fell in. Louise coughed in the smoke - at least she was dry now - and pointed her wand at the frazzled-looking monster.
"You little pleb!" the walking corpse yelled, in a rather more normal voice which was not riddled with inauspicious and allegedly sinister pauses. "This was my best suit!" Now she could see it properly in the light of the relit braziers, it was dressed in heavily tattered noble garb which looked to be at least a hundred years out of date.
"Fireball!" she countered. "And," she coughed, "I am not a plebeian, you... Fireball! I can almost certainly. Fireball. Trace my bloodline back... Fireball! Back... back... Fireball! Back further than you!"
Knocked by the relentless series of concussive impacts, the vampire tripped, staggered, and fell backwards. Right back onto one of the newly relit braziers. Which made up for their lack of things like modern mage-lighting or fragrant sandalwood perfumery by having long, sharp spikes around the rim.
The bloodsucker went up like an oil-soaked torch, and screamed until it was but ash
Choking from the smoke, her clothes tattered - but at least dry - and filthy, Louise sank to her knees, and retched. She was exhausted, mentally and physically. She was hungry. She was shaking with adrenaline. Part of the room had fallen in. She was very glad she had not had a full bladder during the incident. Her horse had run off.
Oh, and she was a complete failure at everything in life and should probably have just laid down and let the vampire kill her, because it was not like she had anything to live for. That still hadn't changed. Although, on the plus side, she had now killed a vampire.
In a way which no one had seen her do.
And so probably didn't count.
""You! Girl! That was a display of Evil energy I haven't seen in a long, long time!" There was a pathetic sounding cough from somewhere far up above. "Care to help poor old pathetic weak Gnarl down from where that nouveau riche trying-far-too-hard vampire locked me up?"
Weakly, Louise looked around. Now the braziers were alike, she could see that what she had thought was a cave was actually what looked like the ruined remnants of a castle, or maybe a tower. This was probably what had once been the hall. There were holes in the floor which she made a note to stay clear from. And there were cages hanging from the ceiling. Some of them had rusted through, but some of them were still occupied. Only one of the occupants was still alive, however.
The creature looked somewhat looked like a demented and malevolent cat, and rather more like a goblin. However, there was a certain... edge about it which most goblins lacked. Perhaps it was the wispy sideburns of white hair. Perhaps it was the goatee. However, it was rather more likely that it was the look in its eyes.
They were cold, hard, and intelligently certain.
"Honestly, give a man a hunger for the blood of the living and a pair of sharp fangs, and he thinks he should be the dark master of the night," the gnarled goblin - who may possibly have been called Gnarl, if Louise was hearing him right - complained. "Use that hand crank by the throne, and let me down. I've been up in this cage for nearly eighty years, because that foolish vampire said I had to be his advisor and I came with the Tower. Pah!" The goblin spat. "I would never serve someone like that, especially someone who pawned the remaining statues to buy himself some overpriced suits. Evil has standards, you know."
Louise pointed her wand up at the cage, her hand shaking. "Keep back, goblin," she said, voice quavering. "You saw what I did to the vampire!"
"Goblin?" The goblin sounded positively offended. "Goblin? I am no mere goblin. I am a Minion, an altogether superior race of being."
"I'm pointing a wand at you!" the girl asserted, ignoring the fact that due to the shake in her hands it was only on target perhaps half of the time.
"And it's a very nice wand," Gnarl said, "but my old legs and arms are very cramped up here in the cage. And," a wheedling note entered his voice, "... clearly when you are so powerful a user of dark energies, you have nothing to fear from one tired old Minion. Who knows a few secrets about how to use magic which he might share with a young girl who let him out of his cage."
That was true, she had to admit. The goblin looked old- almost as if it was the equivalent age to Headmaster Osmond. Which it might have been, if as it claimed it had been locked up in the cage for eighty years. And rescuing things counted as heroic deeds, and... maybe he was a mage turned into a goblin, because frankly goblins were barely able to talk, while this one was positively verbose. "Very well," she said, "but one sign of trickery from you and I'll do the same to you!"
"Oh, I swear on the goodness of my heart and by all that is Holy and Good to not hurt even the slightest hair on your head," the old goblin said, reassuringly.
Well, that was a serious oath and a reassurance. Consoled by that, Louise made her way to the old crank, and straining, worked at it until eventually the metal cage was lowered down.
"Thank you," Gnarl said. "Now, just get this cage unlocked. The vampire had the key."
Searching around through the pile of ash by the brazier found an old iron key, and Louise picked it up in her left hand. Keeping her wand pointed at the old goblin with her right hand, she fumbled at the lock until it turned in the lock.
The old goblin moved in a blur, seizing her hand while his other reached behind him and...
… and everything changed. Louise felt a weight leave her body, a weight which she had been carrying ever since the Springtime Summoning Ritual and not even realised. It was like she had been a compass, and now her needle had been removed; like she was a mule who had cast off their rider and was now running free.
Gnarl flinched back, eyes suddenly going wide. He gasped, a sudden inhalation of liquid pain. "Your dark ladyship," he breathed. "Oh my, oh, my my my."
"What?" Louise said. She was beginning to get annoyed, not just because she had a distinct feeling she had just been a fool and the goblin had been about to kill her. More annoyed. The go... Gnarl took another step back, back into the cage, and her irritation grew more.
Silently, the wizened creature raised one hand - his left one. There were runic marks on it, burning a sick, bilious green which made Louise feel slightly nauseated just by looking at it. Then that sensation was gone, and it was... just an old scar. "What does that mean?" she asked.
"It means," the old goblin said thoughtfully, "something very, very Bad has happened."
"Really?" Louise asked, concerned.
"Oh yes, it's gloriously Bad! Just wonderful!"
"Boss!" another voice sounded out from behind her, and she whirled, wand raised at the brown-skinned goblin which came running in. "We hear screaming, and it not you or us! Sound like bloody sucker dead! And then hand hurt!" The creature raised its hand, to show another identical mark branded onto its left hand. "Then Shinky get angry, try take food, and I hit Shinky harder and faster than I normally hit Shinky! Knock out teeth!"
"Indeed," Gnarl said, rubbing his hands together, possibly out of malevolent intent and possibly to get the circulation flowing again. "Minions!" he continued, raising his voice. "This is the day we have been long waiting for! Not only is that disgusting vampire re-dead..." there were cheers from more brown-skinned goblins, who came flocking behind the first, one of whom was missing all their teeth, "... but we have a new master! Well," he paused, "we have a new mistress!"
"You sure she not master?" one of the goblins contributed.
"No, because she is female," Gnarl said. "Therefore, Minionkind can celebrate, because after so many long, long, long years, we are whole again."
"Um," said Louise.
"... but she boss of boss, so she master," the intransigent goblin chirped up.
"Lickit, be quiet, or I will have you put on privy duty for a year rather than just a month."
"Eyes! Glowing!" contributed another brown-skinned creature. "Like old days."
"Indeed they are, Chokem, and it does the evil heart of an old Minion like me good to see that lovely orange-yellow burn," the oldest and most-verbose goblin said. "Even if hers are rather pinker than I remember."
"Um," said Louise, raising her hands up to look at them. They... did seem to be illuminated by a light source when she did that.
"Now, mistress," Gnarl continued. "Oh, woe is us. Due to the actions of various people and mistakes which were made, none of which were by me, your treasury is empty and your Tower is ruined. You, in your wisdom have sealed us in because you collapsed the only entrance. Moreover, despite your vast and terrible reserves of Evil energy and magic, you are nearly completely untrained in spellcraft... you seem to be completely self-taught. And your Evil fashion sense is sadly lacking."
Gnarl paused for breath.
"And you clearly don't know how to fight, or even to command your Minions. And you're about as scary as an angry rabbit. And Evil has not ruled over these lands in a long, long time, so you almost certainly don't know how to be a proper supreme ruler. And you don't control any lands. And all four of the minion hives are missing, so you cannot even spawn new loyal servants to replace the inevitable losses we suffer in the process carrying out your dreams of dark conquest."
The Minion shrugged.
"But, well, you are our mistress, and we are your loyal Minions, so we'll just have to muddle along until you are properly trained up."
He paused again.
"Oh, and there are several hundred skeletons and zombies in the underlayers which you will need to clear out before they burst out to feed on the living. Like us. The filthy vampire filled up the place with all the people he killed over the years, you see, so there are rather a lot of them."
The Dark and Evil Sinister Deeds of the Malevolent Supreme Lady of Darkness and Evil under whose Malignant Grasp all of Halkeginia was Darkly and Evilly Crushed by Darkness and Evil
"What in God's name is going on!" Louise screamed at the expectant goblinoid faces, and felt slightly better for having said that.