(This is a standalone short story from my upcoming novel, “I Despise Your Prophecy. It involves the story you don’t hear: how for every Chosen One who slays a Dark Lord, there are dozens or hundreds who tried…and failed.)
The Chosen Ones came, certain they would kill her; everything that made sense to them told them it was so. They failed; and now, nothing made sense. She didn’t kill them; she imprisoned them, because she was looking for…something, something for which she didn’t exactly have a name or a plan, not just yet.
Before we question the quirks of the Dark Lord Alice, before we question some of the roundabout methods she employed, before we ask ourselves if she acted with perfect efficiency and wisdom, consider this:
We, those who live in a world of printing presses and electronic sorceries, are generally denied storybook romances. We’re denied fairytale endings. And were most often offered our doses of magic in the form of technologies made to seem so approachable, so believable, that we no longer remember little things—like, if someone had shown us a certain thing just a decade or two sooner, we’d have thought it a miracle, or a fraud. So why not spend a little time living up to our fictions, given the option, and a pliable Narrator?
(And if, in your Universe, the Narrator is absent, then—quick!—do as you will before someone notices. Hide your bestial face in the garb of a human, steal someone’s goodies as she walks towards Grandma’s house, and then go engage in some character impersonation to see if you can sink your canines into someone sweet.)
Don’t underestimate the power of whimsical thinking, or you might find yourself pushing up daisies. We don’t mean “dead”; we mean “assigned, as a punishment, the nonsensical task of attempting to make flowers grow faster through the application of physical force, because you have angered someone with great power and a strange sense of humor.”
Alice was fond of the Law of the Anvil: “I am a product of the flames which burnt me; the anvil which forged me; and the will that made me grow formidable instead of breaking.”
So rather than simply lock the door to the cells of the not-actually-Chosen, she’s (personally, and with a little help and a lot of difficulty) moved a large, literal anvil in front of each one, so they can’t swing outward.)
It’s not as bad as it sounds. Moving an anvil is a literal and conceptual pain, but it’s a lot of little things: trust in at least one servant, co-ordination of a very physical task, hauling and lifting, a dicey task wherein a mis-step could lead to crushed toes and maybe a broken floor. Alice doesn’t love chances or risks; but you can hardly prepare for the unexpected if you live a coddled life, eh?
And there’s something special in the very wary look on the face of someone who, a few dozen hours ago, was surrounded by veteran killers, carrying a powerful Runic weapon, and preparing to slay Evil, as Evil unlocks the door to their cell….and, instead of going in, physically hefts an anvil in front of it.
It’s said by the sage Wilson that “a true Initiation never ends”. Alice has already given each of these girls at least one serious shock to the system (by the sheer impertinence of not dying)—and now, they see the Dread Creature of Dark Legend hauling a blacksmith’s tool, and cursing like a sailor.
Not only does this lock them in, it confuses them all to Hell.
And confusion is one of the kindest ways to begin to offer someone a chance to pry open their third eye. Or at least permit a little more communication between the left and right prefrontal lobes.
She owes them at least one pleasantly surreal shock to the system, before she decides whether or not each of them, individually, will live until morning. Her system is odd, but not without a certain logic. It’s like a reverse Arabian Nights: rather than tell stories which hold a potentate’s attention, at risk (if one fails) of life and limb, the potentate is telling the captives story after story, comets sailing across their perceptions, and offering them a chance to grab onto some skyhooks before the Earth gives way beneath their feet and they plunge somewhere unpleasant.
(“1,001 Arabian Nights is not a book of this world, but Alice’s library is…special)
It’s no fun for her guards to have to move an anvil every time they want to feed the prisoners (there’s a food slot in the door, but that seems a little impersonal; and there’s something very solid about the sound of an anvil being shoved, carefully but with great force, which gives you a real bone-level understanding of just how locked in you really are.
It’s a little test. Okay, really, it’s quite a big test. It’s very simple:
The Dark Lord has reason to believe the world has gone mad.
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 is (almost?) a living entity, moving from person to person and group to group.
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 has cells full of those whose spirits she has just broken; nevermind that it’s not her fault; nevermind that they had to travel extraordinary distances, overcome unbelievable obstacles, kill dozens or even hundreds of thinking beings to get a shot at killing her; 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.
…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.
Since she’s just been a part of the breaking of the minds of 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.
But 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 sometimes, come into being during) a life-changing mental wound.
They can be suicidal. They can be furious. They can be confused.
But they have to be willing to say, “I have tried to do a thing, and found it false, now, I need to try something else.”
If she asked them, they’d either say nothing at all, or lie—to her, or to themselves.
So she sets just one bar, one unspoken test which will determine if they live or die.
The Dark Lord wants just one thing from her captives:
She wants them to show that they’re willing to try to find a new life. Some kind of new life. Whatever it might be. She needs them to do the one thing that is clearly, absolutely necessary, if one is going to do anything except just existing. (“Existing” is a noble fight; but reasons for going on are ambiguous.
If they’re going to be worth anything at all, they will, unprompted, try to do one thing that is unquestionably stupid, unquestionably difficult, and unquestionably necessary, based on everything they know, for them to have any say in their lives going forward:
They’re going to have to try to escape.
Yes, they’d have to be foolish not to realize it’s 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 they should get some credit just for trying to exist, after having had their worldviews shattered. Perhaps that would be kind. On the other hand, perhaps they should be strangled in their sleep by trained killers; that would be wise, and less unkind than what they’d planned for Alice. So Alice had little mercy for those who railed against their (mistrusworthy) fates; 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.
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.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.