A Dark, But Practical Future
Headmaster Atriz, Master of Evil, Professor of Crime, and dreaded ruler of Dark Lord Academy, sat brooding deep in the bowels of the castle. Normally, he preferred his light and airy office in the tower that allowed him a full view of the villainous dealings of school life below. But the demon pit in his closet needed repairs and he couldn’t concentrate with the drafts of fire blasting up or the clanking the repairmen made. So here he was, stuck in the dungeons.
And it all smelled of mildew.
Not that his difficulties would be any less uncomfortable up in his office. Besides, such a dark and dank place was appropriate to the nature of his quandary. Atriz rolled back his thick black sleeves and picked up the list of thirteen names in his pale, almost translucent hands—the final thirteen students who had proven worthy to be admitted to Dark Lord Academy this year. He tucked his long black hair behind one ear. He was the epitome of a dark lord and, as such, knew his apprehensions were true.
One of these thirteen was a mistake. One of these thirteen students ought not to be on this list and would cause considerable trouble. The difficulty was that his sixth sense wasn’t telling him which one.
Atriz set the paper down and leaned back in his black leather swivel chair with a sigh. He stared at the boring stone walls of the dungeon, which was empty except for the desk, chair, and Fluff, the white, long-haired cat who sat on the floor a yard away.
“Rowww!” Fluff glared at him with beady red eyes. She wanted a place on his lap.
While Atriz was required by the Society of Master Villainous Leaders of Large Institutions and Associations to keep both the cat and the swivel chair, it didn’t mean he had to like either. This was one of the reasons he kept both of them in the bowels of the castle.
“No,” he said, “you cannot sit on my lap.”
“Merrrowww,” insisted Fluff as she jumped up on his lap.
Atriz looked up at the ceiling in disgust, trying not to sneeze as white cat hair spread across his clean black robes. No matter how many times he ran the magic lint roller across them, he never seemed to be able to get all the cat hair off. Still, he was better off letting her stay; she had quite the temper.
The new school year would begin in a matter of days. The board of directors would not be pleased if he delayed it. There wasn’t time for another background check on the thirteen students, so Atriz would have to do as many villains before him had done and let things play out in all their evil.
Sometimes patience is the most villainous course, he thought. He would watch the thirteen carefully, as well as his thirteen teachers, and see what developed. Sinking his fingers into Fluff’s fur, he stroked. His face lit with a perfect villainous grin. No one could produce so evil a grin as Atriz. One of these thirteen would be oh-so-sorry he ever aspired to be a villain.
It should be quite the evil school year. Only the flick of Fluff’s tail across his mouth and its promise of swallowing cat hair prevented him from laughing maniacally at that thought.
“Hey! Take a look at the size of this!” Dicky thrust the garter snake towards Danny, its long tail thrashing.
Danny took an involuntary step backwards. He didn’t mind snakes, just not so close to his nose. “Yeah, that’s a big one. Nice catch.”
Dicky cracked a grin, showing his crooked front teeth. “Dare you to put it in Pa’s bed.”
Danny snorted and turned away to poke in the dirt for more worms for fishing. “Bah, put it in there yourself.” He wasn’t going to let his younger brother get him in trouble, not so soon after the last time, anyway.
“Coward.” Dicky bounced a little. Only nine years old, he was still excited by things like frogs, lizards, and snakes.
“You mean I’m not as stupid as you’d like,” Danny retorted. He considered his pranks above that. Nailing Amos’s shoes to the floor had been a much more sophisticated crime, and one their older brother had enjoyed a good laugh at after he got over it. “I’m not going to ruin a perfectly good day off getting a whipping. I’m going to enjoy myself.”
Dicky made a disgusted noise and tossed the snake away. Danny watched it flailing in the air before it landed in the pond with a splash. Perhaps it was the lucky one, escaping Dicky so quickly.
“Yeah, but why do we have a day off?” Dicky asked. “Pa never just gives us one.”
“Dunno.” Danny decided he had enough worms and headed toward their usual rock to sit. He wasn’t going to question a day off from the forge. At thirteen, Danny was now helping Amos with his journeyman work in the mornings and had his own lessons from Pa in the afternoon. While he didn’t mind blacksmithing, it was hot, boring work. Fishing, even while putting up with Dicky, was considerably more entertaining.
“But he never gives us a day off,” Dicky insisted, “only when he goes to market or something. Aren’t you curious what’s up? Why’d he want to get rid of us?” Dicky followed to take a seat next to him and grabbed one of the worms from Danny’s cup.
Danny slapped his hand away. “Hey, get your own.”
“Aww, come on.” Dicky scooted away, the worm still in his possession.
Danny moved his cup to his other side to prevent more swiping. “Come on, yourself. You should have dug some instead of catching stupid snakes.”
“You have no appreciation for wildlife,” Dicky said, taking on the schoolmarm’s voice.
Danny chuckled, despite himself. He hadn’t been to school since his tenth birthday, when he started his apprenticeship in the forge, but he certainly hadn’t forgotten Miss Carnworth, the schoolmarm. He copied the thick local farmer accent she lectured them against. “I ken read an’ write and make a horseshoe in under ten minutes, ‘s good enough for me.”
Dicky rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that something’s up or Pa wouldn’t have gotten rid of us.”
For all that he’d discounted his brother’s words earlier, when they returned to the house that afternoon, Danny couldn’t help but glance at the smoke billowing from the forge chimney and wonder what Pa’d been up to while they were gone. They carried their fish into the kitchen. Dicky got out an extra bucket and Danny the knives when the sound of a door made them jump. Pa walked out of his bedroom. There wasn’t any normal reason for him to be there this time of day.
Pa grinned at them and their fish. “Nice catch, boys. I’m looking forward to your dinner.” He clapped Danny on the back as he walked passed him.
“See,” whispered Dicky. “He’s way too happy. Something’s up.”
Danny didn’t have a good argument and glanced out the window to watch Pa heading across the yard toward the forge. Usually Pa had something disparaging to say about them wasting time when they’d been off having fun. “Here, take this. I’m going to check it out.” He shoved his fish at Dicky and dashed toward the bedroom.
“No fair, I want to come,” Dicky called.
“You’re lookout,” Danny said, yanking the door open and slipping inside.
Pa’s bedroom looked about the same as it normally did; a large bed, even if only he slept in it since Danny’s mother had passed away; a mirror, the only one in the house, hanging on the wall; and the dresser next to it. However, something wrapped in cloth on top of the dresser caught his eye. Danny snuck over and peeled back the edge of the fabric.
A piece of twisted metal lay inside, delicate curling lines interlocking in something that looked rather like a collar for a larger animal. The intricate twisted metal links came together around an iron skull in the front. Danny traced the miniature eye sockets and teeth with a finger. This was specialty work. Something about the whole thing creeped him out slightly. Weren’t skulls bad luck? Who’d want to put one on an animal collar? Who, for that matter, would want an iron collar when a leather one would be more supple and less of a burden?
Not wanting to overstay his time and get caught, Danny carefully re-wrapped the object. A piece of black paper stuck out from under the fabric bundle. Danny pulled it out. It was a brochure, folded in three parts. On the front, in silver letters, it read: Dark Lord Academy—We unlock the hidden potential in the most difficult of children. Danny gaped a moment. Then curiosity won and he flipped it open. The first flap read:
Do you have an unusually bright son or daughter who just doesn’t fit the mold? Does your son play pranks? Does your daughter set fires? Is it hard to get your child to follow orders, despite being clever and inventive? Your child might have a future as a Dark Lord.
Wow, Danny thought. Is this serious? He’d bet anything if Dicky saw this, he’d be clamoring to be a Dark Lord. Was Pa thinking of sending him? Dicky always had been the brightest at school, even if he drove Miss Carnworth practically to tears over his troublemaking. He opened the final flap to read the rest:
Myth: Dark Lords rarely have success and are defeated in ignominy by heroes.
Fact: Most Dark Lords make a highly successful living, have instant name recognition, and no little amount of governing power. Many of the world’s most successful governments are run by Dark Lords.
Myth: Dark Lords are self-serving and turn their back on their families for personal gain.
Fact: Heroes are 90% more likely to kill a parent or sibling in the pursuit of “good” than a Dark Lord. The majority of Dark Lords, when polled, say their parents are responsible for who they are today and gave them the foundational skills for their future villainous success.
Myth: Becoming a Dark Lord involves an angst-ridden journey through misery, abuse, and loss.
Fact: Dark Lord Academy’s accredited and time-proven methods for bringing out the villainous talents in today’s students are safe, effective, and highly enjoyable. Just listen to what some of our students have to say!
Part of Danny knew he needed to get back to the kitchen before Pa and Amos realized he wasn’t with Dicky, but he was mesmerized. While Pa claimed to have heard a Dark Lord’s speech once on a marketing trip, he’d never satisfactorily described the event or what the Dark Lord said.
“Dark Lord Academy is what gave me the self-confidence to not only to acquire my minions loyalties, but to prepare and run my horde correctly in an economic manner. I never would have conquered six nations without all the valuable training I received.” –Dread Lord Hexibold
“Before attending Dark Lord Academy, I was a hopeless wimp, cringing at the whims of others while plotting make-believe revenge. I trembled like a leaf burning my first village down. Now everyone bows to me and does the cringing. If they cause any trouble, I’m prompt and effective with my revenge.” –Mistogorphos the Deadly
“Dragons, demons, and dashing daredevil villains more than willing to share all their dirty little secrets. Need I say more?” –Dread Lady Kalipsifix
“Poking around where you don’t belong, Daniel?”
Pa’s voice made Danny jump. The brochure fell from his hands and fluttered to the floor.
“Er…” Danny’s mind raced to come up with a good excuse. He glanced sheepishly up at the doorway and, to his shock, Pa burst into laughter.
“Should have known I couldn’t keep anything hidden around you.” Pa leaned on the doorframe and beamed at Danny. “Ever since you were a little tot, why, you’ve always been into everything.”
“I… have?” Danny rarely heard his father get nostalgic about them as little kids.
“I knew when the recruiter came by the fair last Saturday it was perfect for you. I sent off the application straight away. Wasn’t going to tell you until I heard back, but…”
“You…what?” Danny gaped at Pa, wordless for a moment. It was one thing to admire creepy collars or wonder about sinister speeches in far off countries and quite another to consider being a villain.
Pa shrugged. “Well, I’m sure you’ll make the cut, son. You always were a bright one.”
Pa grinned in a fond way, entirely unlike his usual self. “Why, when I was young, I’d have jumped at this opportunity.” Pa leaned forward, a glint in his eye that rather unnerved Danny. Pa was always so practical, reserved, conventional. “You’ve got to admit they have style. Lightning, reigns of darkness, dragons, magic!”
Danny stared. This was certainly a side of his father he’d never guessed existed. Sure, Pa was a clever businessman and often said ruthless market strategies were necessary for success, but he’d never hurt anyone.
Pa’s gaze turned distant. “I dreamed of it when I was about your age. Growing up in the maze of the crumbling city of Dorganth, always scrounging for my food out of the trash-heaps.”
This at least was familiar territory. Danny had heard Pa’s starving-street-boy-to-famed-
and-wealthy-blacksmith tale only about a thousand times. But never before had villains come into it.
“The villain students used to come to town for fieldtrips in their long black capes, with their flashy magic and maniacal laughter. They always looked as if they might do anything they pleased. I envied that success, was determined I’d rise above the garbage and make something of myself.” Pa pounded a fist on the palm of his other hand dramatically.
“I even applied for a scholarship once, but some snot-nosed genius boy from the capital beat me out for it.” Pa glowered a moment. “But I swore I’d have my success, that my family would never have to scrounge the trash-heap for a meal, and look at me now, the richest and best-known blacksmith in all of West Cadford!”
“You’re the best, Pa,” Danny said, putting on an adoring smile and hoping to turn the conversation away from Dark Lord Academy and onto his future here, with his family. “I want to be just like you.”
Pa laughed, but to Danny’s surprise, shook his head. “No, Daniel, I want you to be more. I want all my sons to have what I never did. And thanks to my hard work building this forge, you can really stand out, be someone. Why, your name could be famous across whole countries, maybe into other dimensions! Who knows what might be possible? You’re a bright boy, for all you’re a little reluctant to put yourself out there.”
Danny swallowed hard. He didn’t want to quash Pa’s dreams, but being the next Dark Lord to blight the land with darkness and destruction was definitely not on his list of things to do in life. “But aren’t villains evil? They…didn’t you hear how Girantrius the Terrible burned down a bunch of innocent villages over in Kortia a couple months ago? Dark Lords kill and terrorize innocent people.”
Pa waved a hand dismissively. “Bah, that was for show. All those people were carefully relocated before they burned those villages down. I heard it off a goblin I dealt with over by the border.”
Danny’s stomach tightened. Pa sold stuff to villains? He’d never paid much attention to their customers, but he’d have noticed if they’d been goblins. Then again, Pa did go out with delivery loads and to markets rather regularly. And hadn’t Danny just been fingering some evil-looking object? Now he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was for. Uncertainty clogged his throat.
“Look,” Pa continued, “Dark Lords aren’t that different from any other sort of government, other than the propaganda. The main thing is, they’re filthy rich and highly successful. I never got to have my dream, but you can.”
Danny swallowed hard and forced himself to come up with more objections. “Why can’t I go to hero school instead?”
Pa sighed. “That’s twice as expensive, Daniel, and they only allow first, third, and seventh sons to apply. If we do well enough, I just might be able to send Richard, but that’s a big if. Regardless, I want a good opportunity for you, too. Now, no more nonsense. I’ve thought long and hard about this—I know what’s right for you.”
Laugher from the kitchen made Danny’s stomach tighten. He could hardly believe that Pa was actually planning to send him away to school and to villain school at that. He had to explain and fast, before there wasn’t a way out of it. He drew himself up a bit straighter and hoped he wouldn’t hurt his father’s feelings. “Pa, I really don’t want to leave home or be a villain. I’d rather just be Amos’s assistant. I know he’ll inherit the forge, not me, but I wouldn’t mind. I like it here.”
Pa sighed. His brow furrowed a moment, then his gaze hardened. “I’m your father, I know what’s best for you. You’ll go and no more arguments. Understand? Now come to dinner.” He turned and left the room.
Danny stared miserably at the empty doorway, Pa’s words echoing in his head. Anger flickered and he bent to pick up the brochure and crumpled it into a ball. No, I’m not going to be a villain, I refuse.
He stalked out of the room and tossed it into the fire on his way over to the table where Amos and Dicky were happily putting out the cooked fish. He paused to watch the flames creep up the ball of paper, engulfing it in flames that shifted from red to blue and then to green a moment, before collapsing into ash. Danny’s determination solidified. He’d fight this, stand up for himself, and prove he wasn’t a villain.
He glanced up, but Pa didn’t seem to have noticed at all.