(This is a standalone piece of my book, “I HATE Your Prophecy“.)
The Dark Lord had reason to believe the World had gone mad.
It might be that she was wrong. She was potentially very wrong. She could be the worst possible kind of wrong, and also the most plausible kind of wrong: she’s gone mad, and the World’s just off-kilter to her. This is a simpler solution, but it doesn’t fit Occam’s Razor because it doesn’t match the available facts.
Because it wasn’t just Alice who was in pain. It wasn’t just Alice who seemed out of step with everything else; it’s everything she could see or had heard about. Granted, you can only trust Bards about as far as you can throw them—
And, as a tip: toss a bottle of whiskey out a window, and Bards will throw themselves in an effort to catch it, which means that you can trust a Bard a good hundred feet or so. The Dark Lord has attempted this experiment with successively higher windows and found three important facts:
- No, Bards don’t care how high the window is.
- No, somehow, this never kills them. And they always land in the moat, and the Moat Monsters won’t even touch them.
- Alice needs more Whiskey.
—but they were far too inventive, as liars, to all be telling similar lies on purpose. The thing that most realistically accounted for their reports of nigh-infinite delirium wracking the Realms would be . . . nigh-infinite delirium.
Likewise, scrying glasses and magic mirrors, even in skilled hands, don’t always show you everything. But it would be hard to mistake what was happening for anything other than widespread craziness. Especially since every Sorceress who works with shadow is always on the lookout for one telltale sign: witch-burnings.
And those were happening a-plenty. And that was disturbing as hell to someone who was (a) a Witch, and (b) very, very aware that even if every single spellcaster in the World was caught and put to the torch, there’d still only be a tenth as many Witches as there were burnings.
Alice would have loved to believe she’d gone insane and everyone else was all right. But the evidence pointed in rather the opposite direction. And this was bad, because not even Necromancers necessarily want everyone to suffer; monsters have friends, too, you know. Besides, one can be a perfectly horrid individual (if one chooses) without necessarily wanting to see the World wracked with universal pain and mental anguish. (Although, the inverse is not generally true: one who wishes to see a Pear of Anguish wrap around the World and apply pressure is almost certainly a horrid individual—regardless, in general, of one’s professed motives. The ends can justify the means; but no one has an accurate count of how often they do.)
On a selfish level, though, this looked like a big ball of ruination for even the misanthropic. It was especially bad because Madness is contagious. And even if you want to remain wholly aloof from the World, the World will, given enough time, bring lunacy straight to your door.
In sufficient quantities, Madness is kind. Madness is loving. Madness overflows; its cup runneth over, its pitcher runneth over, its ocean runneth over, crashing in vast Cyclopean waves on the shores of the mind, offering to engulf you and everything around you.
Sometimes, Madness is a divine gift. Sometimes, it’s an odd tuning of the workings of one’s mental passages.
Sometimes, Madness resembles nothing so much as a pathogen, carried through the air by the scent of fear, carried through the primate instinct to learn through imitation, carried sometimes by those who want to spread its gifts—moving from person to person and group to group, airborne, thought-borne, memetic, addictive.
If you don’t fight it, it tends to claim you. If you do fight it, it will most likely claim you anyway.
The Dark Lord had cells full of those whose spirits she’d just broken. Most of them would likely go insane. Perhaps they were already insane; she still pities them to this day . Nevermind that one can’t exactly doubt their intentions, nevermind that they had to travel extraordinary distances, overcome unbelievable obstacles, and kill dozens or even hundreds of thinking beings to get a shot at killing her. It’s still ugly.
But they’d set their minds to a place where the only possible result was her death, and when that didn’t happen . . .
She used to just kill them. In a number of ways, for a number of reasons.
And now, she doesn’t. Not always. Not quite. Because . . .
. . . she might need them. Some of them. One or two of them, at least.
Dark Lords can be fiercely independent, which Alice is. But anyone who knows anything about Madness, divine or otherwise, knows that it’s hard to save yourself from it without help.
Let alone try to stem the damn tide.
One good thing about all this: There comes a point where cognitive dissonance will drown out almost anything else. And that’s what happened to these poor, unfortunate, all-too-often idiotic Supposedly Chosen assassins. They’re in a mental state which is ready for that rare thing in Humans: actual, real change away from the comforting dogma of their long-held beliefs.
Bringing up the logical question: Change to what?
“All bad is good, all good is bad; stop doing what they say and do what I say” is a simple message. It’s just unhelpful in this kind of circumstance. Mindless sycophants, while they make a pleasant chorus, are simply no damn help at all in your quest to keep your own sanity.
So she needs them to show that they have something inside which can survive (or possibly come into being during) the acquisition of a life-changing mental wound.
They can be suicidal. They can be furious. They can be confused. That’s understandable.
But they have to be willing to say, “I have tried to do a thing, and found it false, and now, I need to try something else.”
If she simply asked them for what she wanted (which was a challenge in its own right, since Alice, solitary by nature, didn’t . . . quite . . . know, herself) it seemed likely that they’d either say nothing at all, or lie. To her, or to themselves, or both.
So she set just the single test, one unspoken challenge to determine if they lived or died. The Dark Lord wanted a single thing from her captives:
She needed them to try to escape.
They needed to do something tangible, regardless of method, that showed they were willing to try to figure out a new life. Some kind of new life. Whatever it might be. She needed them to do something unquestionably stupid, unquestionably difficult, and unquestionably necessary, to reveal whether they have the proper temperament to survive. They had to find some way to alter their own damn destinies, and that meant doing something about the very unsubtle thing which (semi-literally) barred their exits from confinement. Yes, it was clearly nearly impossible. Yes, there’s a certain benefit to being alive and fed, even if you’ve been captured by The Wickedest Thing Which Ever Existed. Perhaps there should be multiple keys to their survival, more than just the one that Alice thought was important. Perhaps that would be kind.
On the other hand, perhaps they should be strangled in their sleep by trained killers; that would be far more wise than any other options, and somewhat less unkind than what they’d planned for Alice. (A quick death in your sleep, versus watching some snot-nosed kid and her friends a lot of sentients and damage your house before attempting to remove your head with some kind of cursed weapon? No contest, unless one is an adrenaline junkie who also badly wants an excuse to redecorate and doesn’t mind sharp howling weaponry being slashed in one’s general direction with the intent of converting one from a being who thinks in the third person too often, into a corpse which doesn’t think at all. No, Alice had little mercy for those who railed against their (mistrustworthy) fates in monologues directed at, presumably, the furniture; for those who attempted to command the guards to move this inappropriate barrier aside at once for the True Chosen One; and, least of all, for those who stared fixedly and determinedly at the door, waiting for it to shatter into a million pieces because things weren’t supposed to happen like this.
Alice patiently sent them stories, had them fed, had their prison chambers cleaned once in a while, and gave them what she felt was enough time. Usually, they had until Alice’s patience ran out, which, not coincidentally, often happened right after someone had tried to kill her. Some she gave more time than others.
As for the ones who didn’t make it, what did Alice do with them? It’s best we not delve into it. Perhaps they were sacrificed on dark altars; perhaps they were sold to hungry Trolls.
And perhaps, just perhaps, Alice simply let them go; packed them lunches and warm clothing, pointed towards the nearest village, and said, “Walk.”
Because after someone’s worldview has been splintered into irreplaceable shards, letting them live is not a mercy.
Most of the time, they ended up wandering, perhaps by instinct, into certain parts of the Woods, and going to live with Goblins. Goblins hide; that’s most of what they do. And they seldom tell untruths; because really, when a Goblin speaks, who listens?
And thus are Changelings made.
The preceding essay was brought to you by Dark Lords For Azathoth, and may not necessarily reflect the views of the being who wrote, edited, posted, and marketed this document.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities and create things. Every year, I put on Evil Expo, the Greatest Place in the World to be a Villain. I also write a lot of fantasy and science fiction. You can get most of my books right here. Go ahead, order “I HATE Your Prophecy“ It may make you into a bad person, but I can live with that.