The Dark Chariot Pays a Visit
Danny woke with a sense of impending doom. The large black envelope, primly propped up against the candlestick on his bedside table, did not suggest today was going to go any better than yesterday. The silver seal, shaped like a devil’s head, seemed to grin mockingly at him. Underneath, in lacy silver lettering, read: Dark Lord Academy—pro peiore potestate. Danny rubbed his eyes and looked again. Nope, still there. He swallowed hard and reached out to poke it with a finger.
The envelope fell flat.
Danny sat up and groaned. It was much too early to deal with something like this. Should he open it? Could he not open it? Danny glowered. He’d let Pa do the honors. That way if it was cursed, it would be justice for Pa to get it. He dragged himself out of bed, carefully picked up the letter, and pinched Dicky’s foot as he passed him on the way out.
“Get up, lazybones.”
“Oww,” Dicky mumbled and buried his head in the blankets.
Danny rolled his eyes and headed into the main room. Amos stood by the fire, stirring the pot of porridge. Pa lounged in his usual chair, discussing horseshoe orders. Resisting the desire to glare at Pa, as it would only get him angry and insistent, Danny shoved the letter at him.
“What’s that?” Pa asked.
“Didn’t you put it by my bed?”
“No.” Pa frowned. “But then, those Dark Lords are uncanny fellows. I suppose they magicked it here.” He handed the envelope back to Danny. “Go ahead, son.”
That was distinctly not reassuring. They’d responded that fast? Danny needed time to think this through, a plan to prove he wasn’t fit for villain school. “What if it’s dangerous?”
Pa laughed. “Oh, come on, it’s not like they’d hurt one of their well-paying students. Open it.”
Danny hid a grimace. Taking a deep breath, he broke the seal. A column of black smoke burst from the envelope. He dropped it and jumped backwards. High-pitched laughter came from inside.
The smoke condensed into a squat and contorted creature. Danny squinted. It was pond-slime green, had pointy ears that stuck out sideways, and a nasty leer on its face. Danny had never seen a goblin before, but this had to be what they looked like.
“Greetings. My sincerest evil wishes. I am pleased to announce you have been accepted to Dark Lord Academy,” it said in a whiny voice. “Transportation will arrive when you have performed your first preparatory dark act. Please do so in a timely manner, because the first day of class is in twenty-four hours. All first year gear can be purchased at the school and this year’s new student advisor…” the goblin glanced down at the letter now lying on the ground, “is Mistress Virlyxfrika. Your advisor will arrange your schedule upon arrival. Welcome to Dark Lord Academy, where evil isn’t just evil, it’s terrifically evil.” The goblin grinned a horrible smile that showed about a thousand sharp, white teeth. It vanished with a bang and a cloud of black smoke.
Danny, Amos, and Pa all stared in disbelief at the now-empty black envelope lying on the floor.
“Well,” Amos finally said.
“Well,” echoed Pa.
Whatever they meant by “transportation,” Danny was not summoning it. If he didn’t, maybe he’d have enough time to change Pa’s mind. If nothing else, the horrible letter had driven home the point that dark lords were not only evil, they were proud of it.
Dicky shuffled into the room. “Hey, what’s all the noise?” He rubbed his eyes with his sleeve. “Did you drop the pot or something, Amos?”
“Erm,” Amos said.
Danny picked up the envelope and tossed it into the fire. He vowed to sweep the hearth and wash the dishes along with his usual chores. Maybe he’d shine Pa’s shoes and scrub out the outhouse while he was at it. Trim the bushes in the front yard? Cook lunch for everyone, maybe dinner as well? It sounded exhausting, but surely if he worked hard enough, Pa would have to see he was just too good to be villainous. Besides, it was only one day and then classes would start and he’d have safely missed them.
Dicky scooped himself a bowl of porridge. “What’re y’all just sitting around staring for? It’s not a holiday, is it?”
Pa stood up. “That’s the spirit, Richard! You’ll make a terrific hero at this rate. Well, on to the forge.” He turned back at the door. “Oh, Daniel, you’d better pack.” Then he left.
“What does he mean, pack?” Dicky sat down.
Danny clenched his jaw. Just watching his younger brother’s blithe contentment made him want to pummel him. But Pa’s decision wasn’t Dicky’s fault, as much as it might be nice to blame him. “Pa’s sending me to villain school. He says it’s because Amos is getting the forge and you’re gonna go rescue some princess or something.”
“I am? Why? Am I going to have to kiss her?” He screwed up his face in disgust.
“All the heroes do it,” Amos said. “And you’re a third son. Don’t worry, no one will expect you to do any of that for at least five or six years.”
“As if some girl would want to kiss you,” Danny muttered.
Dicky stuck his tongue out at him.
Danny grabbed the broom and swept the hearth right away, before he could forget. He wasn’t hungry, anyway.
“You knew all this time and you didn’t tell me,” Danny complained to Amos.
His older brother shrugged. “You don’t like change.”
Of all the stupid reasons…Danny gave him an angry look. “But villains! Amos, I’m not evil, you know that! Can’t you talk him out of it?”
Dicky snickered into his porridge. “I think you smell something pretty evil.”
“Oh, shut up!” Danny tried to ignore him and focused on Amos.
Amos gave him a sympathetic look, but shook his head. “You know Pa’s made up his mind. How about you just give it a try? You never know. You don’t take many risks. Maybe going out there and shaking things up will help you.”
Danny’s breath caught in his throat. “You think going evil’s gonna help me?”
“Nothing’s gonna help you,” Dicky muttered.
Danny took a step forward to slap him, but Amos stood up at just the right moment to “happen” to walk between them. He put a hand on Danny’s shoulder and squeezed it. “Don’t you think it’s worth a shot? If nothing else, you’ll learn some insider tips about Dark Lords and then you could be an advisor to a king or hero or something. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”
Dicky’s face lit up. “Hanging, getting burned at the stake, nothing too awful.”
Danny jerked out of Amos’s grip to take a swipe at Dicky. He caught his brother on the shoulder, sending him backward mid-snicker. Dicky yelped and clutched at the table to try to stop from falling off the bench, but only succeeded in knocking his bowl over before the whole bench tumbled to the floor.
“Oww!” Dicky scrambled to his feet, face red with fury. He launched himself at Danny, fists swinging. Danny blocked with one arm and grabbed Dicky’s hair with the other hand, yanking. Dicky kicked him viciously in the shins.
Amos’s shout to try and stop them was drowned out by an enormous bang from the front yard. The ground shook, knocking both Danny and Dicky to the ground and a horrible stench filled the air. Amos dashed towards the front door.
Shaken, Danny dragged himself to his feet. “What the—”
“Did the forge explode?” Dicky’s eyes went wide.
Black smoke billowed in the front door. Danny scrambled after Amos, trying not to breathe in the fumes. Coughing, he blinked back tears and waved his hand in front of his face. A large, black carriage sat in the middle of the yard. Amos stood a few yards away from it, gaping. Harnessed to it were four of the strangest looking creatures he had ever seen—their heads and necks were shaped like a horse’s, but their front legs ended in claws and their backs were snakelike, curled beneath them. Large black wings, similar to bat wings, sprung from their shoulders. While impressively disturbing, they didn’t quite look logical. Did they fly the carriage around or slither forward, dragging it? Danny wasn’t sure how that worked.
Dicky pushed past him through the doorway for a better view. “Wow,” he whispered.
A twisted, green-faced man jumped from the driver’s seat—another goblin. He was only about Dicky’s height. His beady eyes fixed on Danny and he grinned, showing off the tips of his fangs. “The Dark Chariot is here at your call.”
Danny’s stomach tightened. “I didn’t call anything. There must be some mistake.”
The goblin’s sneer deepened. “You are Daniel Stronghammer?”
“Y-yes.” The cold morning breeze on his sweaty face made Danny shiver and his leg ached where Dicky had kicked him.
“And you have just performed the recent and preparatory dark act of attacking your brother for a thoughtless, but quite harmless comment?”
“But he deserved it!” Danny didn’t see how he’d done anything special. Brothers punched each other all the time, right? And Dicky fought back and hurt him, as well. He hadn’t done anything evil—they couldn’t take him away already. Panic clogged his mind.
“There is no mistake, young Mr. Stronghammer. You have performed your first preparatory dark act, as stated in your acceptance letter. The Dark Chariot will transport you to Dark Lord Academy. Please climb aboard immediately.”
Danny glanced at Dicky, who was staring at the goblin slack-jawed. No help there. He looked the other way towards Amos, who stood rubbing his head and looking a bit befuddled. No help there, either. Danny’s heart pounded. “Um, I haven’t even packed yet.”
“There is no need to bring anything, Mr. Stronghammer.” The goblin’s long ears swiveled back, giving him a displeased air. “The school provides all necessary items. Of course, you’ll have to purchase luxuries yourself, but that’s the way of it.” The goblin tapped his foot. “Well, hurry along, we haven’t got all day.”
Danny searched for the perfect excuse to prove he wasn’t villain material. “But I—”
“Wonderful!” boomed Pa’s voice. He had poked his head out of the forge and a smile split his face. “Why, your transportation is already here! They’re right timely at this school, I see…I knew I picked the best one for you.” He strode across the yard and grabbed Danny into a rough hug before pushing him in the goblin’s direction. “Make me proud, son.”
Danny wanted to, just not by doing this. He still didn’t get how being a villain was something to be proud of.
Amos stepped forward to pat him on the back. “Don’t let it get to you,” he whispered. “Just give it a chance, I’m sure it’ll be alright.”
Danny grimaced. Yeah, right. But what could he do? Throw a screaming fit like he was half his age? Or would misbehaving only dig him deeper into going?
Dicky’s face reddened. “Hey, that’s no fair! I wanna go, too!”
“Third sons,” Pa said to the goblin. “They’re always getting into everything, aren’t they?” He ruffled Dicky’s hair.
“Hey, cut that out!” Dicky pulled away and flattened his hair. “How come I never get to do anything? It’s no fair!” He glared at Danny.
Trading places sounded like the perfect solution to Danny. “Yeah, why don’t you—”
The goblin stepped forward, grabbing Danny by the arm. It leered at Dicky, who took a step back. “You’ll have your chance in a few years, hero. But I suggest you don’t take on an Academy Graduate for your villain because you’ll not get far.”
Danny gulped and tried to yank his arm free. Claws dug into his arm as if the goblin understood his intent to talk his way out of this all too well.
“Well, that was a sweet goodbye,” the goblin said, “but let’s get on with it.” He dragged Danny across the yard with surprising force for someone so small.
Danny glanced back in panic at his family. Pa, still beaming like an idiot, waved goodbye. Amos gave a thumbs up and Dicky thumbed his nose at him. Danny’s call for help died on his lips. They didn’t care—they were letting the goblin take him away. A lump rose in his throat.
A jerk forced him to look forward and keep his balance. They had reached the Dark Chariot. The goblin flung him at the steps. Danny grabbed the handlebar to steady himself.
“Wait!” Pa called.
Hope surged up as Danny turned to look. Had he changed his mind? Pa took several swift steps towards the carriage, then held up a package in his hand, offering it to the goblin.
“I almost forgot. Special delivery for Lord Atriz.”
Danny clenched the handlebar tighter and looked away before he lost his composure. Pa hadn’t changed his mind. He wasn’t rescuing him, he was just giving that evil-looking collar to the goblin. He really must be working for the villains. Chest tight with despair, Danny pulled himself in. A group of pale, but intensely curious human faces peered at him from the shadows. Children—just like him.
Before Danny could register his surroundings, the goblin yelled, “Gee up,” and slapped the reins against the strange creatures pulling the Dark Chariot. The sudden jerk as it moved forward sent Danny flying into the nearest boy, a beefy fellow with dark brown hair and pale skin.
“Get off me, stupid!” He threw Danny across the chariot where he crashed into a girl and boy, both with thin, perfectly trimmed black hair and Asian eyes. They shoved him off of them without saying a word, their dark eyes emotionless.
The boy he had first crashed into flexed his forearms. While large, they looked more fat than muscle. Although thinner, Danny was strong from working in the forge. He guessed they’d be about even in a fight, but he had no intention of getting into another one. If just hitting Dicky got him hauled off to Dark Lord Academy, beating up some stranger was sure to get him locked up there for life.
“Better look where you’re falling next time,” the boy said with a sneer. “Or I won’t be letting you off so easy.”
“Right…I’ll keep that in mind.” Danny rubbed his head and glanced around at the other children.
They stared impassively back at him. Not one smile, encouraging glance, or even hint of sympathy was evident. With a chill, he realized each of these kids was planning to become a Dark Lord—hoping to rule a country as an absolute and evil dictator. He swallowed hard. The odds were definitely not in his favor. He was surrounded by villains in training.