Summary: When an aspiring evil-doer learns that a certain brightly-clad wizard stands between him and his reign of terror, it's clear what needs to be done. Actually doing it, on the other hand...
This is the third and final Howl story, following on from Seventh Son, and Wicked Lady. You don't need to have read the first two to understand this, since, like those, this is the story of an original character, who happens to bump into Howl, Sophie and Calcifer. (Though, in this case, the "bumping" is rather more deliberate.)
Archibald's father liked to think of the family as upwardly mobile. "Your grandfather," he used to tell Archibald, loudly and often, "was born a nobody. He lived in a cottage." He sneered the word. "The best anyone could say of his parents was that they occasionally told little fibs. They weren't even dingy grey. Buttermilk peasants, that's what they were."
Archibald had learnt to sneer at that point. He was good at sneering. He had won prizes for it.
"But your grandfather was determined to pull himself up by his boot straps," Archibald's father continued. "He stole and lied and tricked his way into the Academy, and he applied himself with determination and intelligence. By the time I was your age, he was almost slate. I followed in his footsteps, and am charcoal, but you, my boy, will be the flowering of our family's hopes and dreams. You, my boy, will be a true Dark Lord.
Archibald sucked on his sugar eyeball, and nodded gravely.
If he was honest with himself, he had to admit that the idea of being a Dark Lord did not appeal too much. His father set such store on it, but, really, Dark Lords were so common. Three of them had taught at his local kindergarten. The local sweet shop was run by one. On the edge of town, there was a whole housing estate made up of mountain fastnesses, arranged in little cul-de-sacs with names likes, "The Chasms," and "Magma Crescent." When his mother dragged him with her to a home improvement shop, you could not move for dungeon accessories and glue-on pointy attachments that could turn the quaintest of cottages into a Dark Tower.
The trouble was, his father was stuck in the past. Forty years ago, perhaps, only one person in ten was a Dark Lord. They truly were the elite, and it was only natural that Archibald's grandfather would have aspired to join their ranks. But now the whole thing had been debased so. Archibald's teachers felt very strongly about it. Since the Universal Evil Education Act, anyone and everyone was taught how to be a Dark Lord. Within a few years, they lamented, the Oppressed Populace would be the elite minority, while the Dark Lords would be reduced to cleaning floors.
Not that Archibald said any of that to his father. There was no need to. Some of the lessons at the Academy were fun, and some were boring, but that was true of schools everywhere, so he could not really complain. He was top of his class in sneering, and second in gloating and dramatic exits. Football was acceptable, but would be better when he could use real feet, not papier mache models, and religious education was gratifyingly quick. ("Trample on all religions," the teacher boomed. "The end.")
Geography, however, was unutterably boring, since there was only so much that could be said about blasted wildernesses and perilous mountain passes. Chemistry involved depressingly few explosions, and he never came to understand the point of cross-country running. He did not see why a Dark Lord needed to know such a thing. Surely that's what minions were for.
Still, he applied himself moderately well, and emerged from school at eighteen with a Diploma in Dark Lord Studies.
"We're so proud of you, darling," his mother gushed. "To think that a son of mine will be a Dark Lord…" She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, embroidered with sigils and flames.
"I never doubted you, lad," his father said. He gave a booming laugh. "Of course, if you'd failed us, I'd have had you eaten. You bear the weight of the whole family's expectations, lad. Don't let us down."
"I haven't let you down," Archibald squeaked, thrusting the certificate at his father.
"Now, now," his father chided, "don't count your chickens. We all know that it takes more than a Diploma to make a Dark Lord."
It was true. To properly achieve the rank of a Dark Lord, Archibald would have to leave his home and go to a far country, where he had six months to unleash a reign of terror on the local populace. Said reign of terror had to be demonstrated through written reports, interviews with victims, and an inspection by the Dread Inspectorate. Only if his reign was deemed terrifying enough would he be granted the title of Dark Lord.
That evening, Archibald and some of his friends met for one last session down at the Hero's Head. They had all come armed with books and pamphlets taken from the bodies of travelling bards and peddlers. Much drink and much debate ensued, but in the end decisions were made.
"My mind is made up, old chap," declared Nigel, Archibald's best friend. He stabbed drunkenly at an open book. "I fancy taking on this Chrestomanci chap on his home territory. He can't be up to much, not if he wears clothes like that."
Horace decided to go to a land that did not believe in Dark Lords at all, but placed their faith in strange things called mashynes and compyoot'rs. "Like lambs to the slaughter, don't you think?" Horace chuckled, sipping his overflowing china cup of blood. "Don't believe in Dark Lords, do they? I'll show them, and they will not be able to defeat me, even if all their Mashynes band together with sword and axe to assail me."
Archibald nodded, approving of their choices, but his mind was already made up. He would go somewhere a little closer, merely beyond the ocean, rather than in another world. It was a little land called Ingary, where, according to the books, fairy tails were the stuff of daily life. He had eaten a fairy once, and had not noticed its tail, but he could not see that a land full of fairies with tails could pose any sort of a threat at all.
He would become a Dark Lord, just to shut his father up, but he had no intention of working any harder than he had to.
It will be easy, he thought, as he packed his bags and left his homeland for the very first time. Six months reigning in terror, then I'll become a Dark Lord. Dad will have to leave me alone then, and I'll have the freedom of a mountain fastness, where I can get around to doing what I really want to do with my life. Not that he really knew what that was yet. He enjoyed evil-doing very much indeed, but being a Dark Lord seemed such an unoriginal and clichéd way to do it. It had become so Establishment. Perhaps he would become a pirate, or a professional traitor.
The rules specified that he had to travel alone. Minions had to be recruited only after he had reached his placement, and a Citadel or Fastness had to be built from scratch, using only local resources. It was a test of initiative and evil.
Alone, then, he arrived in Ingary, and set about instituting his reign of terror.
Depressingly quickly, he was forced to admit that it was not as easy as it might seem, instituting a reign of terror in a strange country.
The lack of money was a bitter blow. Due to something complicated called exchange rates, it appeared that the bags of gold he had brought from home were sufficient only to hire a few part-time and sadly pathetic minions, and not even enough even to rent a hovel. The trouble was, he discovered, many hens in Ingary laid golden eggs, and gold was forever being found at the end of a rainbow. It just did not have the value that it did at home.
Still, a Dark Lord was never down-hearted. He sang a few inspiring songs to himself, and returned to the fray. He tried to get his minions to lie and steal and kill to get more gold, but they were not at all good at such things, most of them being barely worthy of the title "minion" at all, and better suited to farming. In the end, he had to swallow his pride and lie and steal himself.
It worked, though. Within a few weeks, he had acquired enough to rent a medium-sized modern house on the edge of the chief town in Ingary. He hired a slightly better class of minions, and then, remembering how tedious he had found cookery at school, hired a cook and cleaning lady with aspirations of wickedness.
He stalled there for a moment, struggling to work out quite what to do with his reign of terror, now he had the premises and the manpower. Killing the king sounded like a good place to start. Slightly clichéd, but he was behind schedule. He had no desire to be a dazzling Dark Lord, just a passable one, to shut his father up. Yes, he decided. Killing the king it was. That would plunge the population into panic, and cue reign of terror.
He skulked awhile in his lair, plotting the details of his plan. Then it suddenly struck him that his lair was not lairy enough, being a lavender-painted parlour with lots of frills. For the first time in his life, he felt faintly nostalgic for the old home improvement shops of his homeland, but he dismissed that thought quickly. It was results that counted, not décor.
Still, he made sure that his minions hastily converted the broom cupboards and wine cellar into lovely, dank dungeons, and he sent his cleaning lady out to furnish the place with cobwebs and guttering torches. His lair was private, but a Dark Lord had an image to keep up in public rooms.
One evening, he was skulking in his lair, fomenting his foul plans, when a surprising thing happened. The fireplace, reduced, of course, to festering ashes, suddenly blazed into light, and a fire demon appeared. He recognised it as a fire demon, of course. There had been a hundred chained in the bowels of his school.
"Ungrateful," the fire demon was grumbling. "I warned them. One day, I told them, I'd just up and go and find someone who really does appreciate me. But did they believe me? Well, here I am." It appeared to notice Archibald for the first time. "Oh. Excuse me. Do you want to employ a fire demon? I won't work for free, mind you. I want payment and praise."
Archibald considered it. A fire demon could be a useful slave, but he had no intention of paying.
"Come on," the fire demon snapped. "I haven't got all day. I'll end up forgiving them in the end if you're not quick. I always do. I can't think why."
"Who is this of whom you speak?" Archibald asked with his best Dark Lord Elocution.
"What?" The fire demon blinked. "Oh. Howl. Greatest wizard in Ingary, and so on and so on. Also a vain, ungrateful, insufferable… man."
Archibald leant forward in his seat. "Greatest wizard?" He had not come across any wizards during his sojourn in the city, although he had watched carefully for pointy hats and long beards. "Great enough to save the king if someone tried to kill him?"
"Of course," boasted the fire demon. "And he would, too, though he'd spend most of his time trying to wriggle out of it. Probably get drunk, too, at the King's Head, because he'd be terrified. But he'd do it. He's stronger than anyone knows." It sighed, sounding almost petulant in its irritation. "Now you've gone and done it. I'll end up going back to them again. I always do. Why won't anyone take me up on my offer? This is the fiftieth hearth I've tried."
The fire demon left with an aggrieved whoosh, and Archibald sat and thought. It did not take long. This Howl was a threat, and Archibald needed to get rid of him. That was good. He could not have a decent reign of terror without imprisoning a wizard and subjecting him to torment horrible, and it would justify all the work his minions had put into furnishing the dungeon. Even the means was easy. Drinking at this place called the King's Head. Drink. Strong drink…
He fell asleep to happy dreams of torture. The very next day, he bought the loyalty of the pub landlord, with false smiles and forked tongue. The day after that, the wizard Howl was in his possession.
It was shortly after that that things started to go wrong.
The prisoner shook Archibald's composure not a little. For a start, there was no pointy hat and no long white beard, and even a tiny child knew that all wizards wore such things. How was a Dark Lord supposed to function when people didn't obey the rules?
The interrogation was troublesome, too, because, far from quaking in terror and screaming in torment, the captured wizard started to sing. None of Archibald's lessons had covered such an eventuality. After a few minutes of it, he felt a shaming desire to cry, but he covered it with a sneer, and ordered his minions to take the prisoner down to the deepest dungeons. Then he retreated to his lair, and sat there trembling.
"Howl will destroy you," gloated the fire demon, popping up in Archibald's hearth.
Archibald stifled a shriek. He turned it into a menacing wail, or almost managed to. "Howl is your enemy," he declared. "He is your gaoler. Join me and…"
"Nope," said the fire demon cheerfully. "You're on your own here. Don't say I didn't warn you."
It disappeared, but Archibald got the sudden impression that it was lurking up the chimney, ready to listen joyfully to Archibald's destruction. It would probably pop down every now and then with helpful commentary. He wanted to peer up the chimney, but that did not feel dignified.
The scrying glass on his table went smoky. "Your friends have failed, lad," his father's voice spoke from it, sounding almost gleeful. "Nigel and Horace are both back in disgrace. But you can do it, boy. All our hopes are resting on you."
Archibald put his head into his hands, then raised it again. I'm not defeated yet, he thought. It was just so hard to think proper Dark Lordly thoughts in a room that was so lavender, he decided. That was the problem. He would go and interrogate the prisoner again.
He threw open the door to his lair. "Minions!" he shouted. "Minions! To me!"
No-one answered. He began to stamp down the stairs. His footsteps echoed so beautifully that he could feel the evil confidence flowing through his veins in response. A few steps later, he realised that his footsteps were the only sound he could hear. There were no minions, going about their minionly business. There were no guttering flames. There was just nothing.
He speeded up, though careful not to appear to be rushing. A Dark Lord never rushed, unless he was sweeping across the land on leathery wings, clad in encompassing shadow. No shops in Ingary sold leathery wings, so Archibald had to do without.
The conservatory was pleasant and sunny, and made him think of childhood and his mother's smile. He squashed all such thoughts, like kittens beneath his heels. Stooping to the floor of the conservatory, he reached for the trapdoor.
Before he could open it, it was thrown open from the other side, almost striking him on the chin. He squawked. This time he could not disguise it.
A woman was climbing up the rotting ladder. "Are you sure you can climb?" she said sharply. "You're not too drunk?"
"For the third time, woman, it was an act," a man's voice said. "I knew someone was moving against the king. I pretended to be drunk so I'd be bait. I can walk ferpectly well."
The woman snorted. "You never could lie, Howl."
I should be doing something, Archibald told himself. This man was his prisoner. Prisoners did not just get up and walk out of a Dark Lord's dungeons. Strange women did not materialise inside and start nagging said prisoners about drinking. And as for the minions…
He stepped out of the shadows, or, rather, where the shadows would have been, had this not been a conservatory entirely made of glass, and it was a sunny summer's day. "You've eaten my minions," he accused them. He sounded quite booming. It helped restore his pride.
Neither of them looked in the slightest bit terrified to see him standing there. The man rather unsteadily climbed out of the hole, and stood beside the woman. I will protect, his stance said. Archibald had learnt to read such stances at the Academy. Strangely, the woman's stance said exactly the same, though this was ridiculous, because she was only woman.
"I can assure you, sir," said the wizard, "that neither of us ate your minions. They did, however, have an encounter with Sophie's interesting brand of magic. I've been on the receiving end of that myself, and I think it is possible that they would rather have been eaten."
"Howl!" the woman berated him. Her voice was angry; her face was not.
"But you are no minion." The wizard's face darkened, and he seemed to grow a little taller. His clothes were ridiculous and dirty, but in that moment they looked as right on him as a black robe looked on a Dark Lord. "You are a threat to Ingary and need to be removed."
"He's only a child, Howl," the woman said. Her hand moved to her stomach, as if unconsciously. "Children make mistakes."
"Oh, I won't kill him." The wizard's eyes were cold, green gems. He no longer looked remotely drunk.
The sunlight flared even brighter. The fire demon, Archibald thought despairingly. The fire demon come to gloat. "Oh, please kill him," the fire demon pleaded.
"Calcifer!" the woman chided. This time there was a harsher edge to her voice, and an, I'm going to talk to you later glint to her eye.
Archibald decided it was time to salvage the situation. Who were these people, after all, but a woman, a spark, and a wizard who did not even know how wizards were supposed to dress? "You cannot defeat me," he said, rising up, his arms spread wide. "I am a Dark Lord. My time has come. You will…"
He managed nothing more. The wizard spoke a word, or maybe thunder sounded outside, and the world ended around him. A thousand sensations tore at him, like all the oceans in the world breaking in his face, and all the winds of the earth tearing at his flesh. Light and darkness whirled in a wild cacophony, and when it was finished, he was kneeling, gasping, on a hard surface.
He hung his head, gasping. "Tremble before me," he whispered, the words escaping his parched lips.
"What was that, dear?" his mother asked, but already his father was drowning her out, booming, "What is the meaning of this, Archibald? Why are you here?"
Archibald pushed himself to his feet, and managed to smooth his hair. His hands only trembled a little. "Oh, that." He shrugged in a way that he thought was nonchalant. You did not learn nonchalant at Dark Lord Academy, but he had seen it in Ingary. "I decided not to be a Dark Lord. Boring job, anyway."
He left his father spluttering in outrage, and walked out beneath the fiery sky. It was almost a relief, he realised. It was too soon now, but maybe in a few weeks, or years, or centuries, he would be able to think of what had just happened, and think, "Thank you, Howl."
Alternatively, he would have to work out how to kill him. But not today. First he wanted some dinner.