“... and here is the contract between V&V and Heaven to authorize the ‘SP covenant.’” Victor handed the council a pile of documents, “It includes the construction of a new hospital, schools, and angelic public teletransports.”
Since his mansion hadn’t been rebuilt since the Nightblades burned it to the ground, the Vizier had been forced to run his meetings in Vainqueur’s castle. In the dimly lit hall, the council looked like some criminal conspiracy gathering; even with an angel in their midst.
As promised, the Vizier had finished preparing the El Dorado trip before taking his ‘vacation’. Sort of. Victor still wondered whether they should make a stop in Atlantis or the pirate islands near the New World’s coast, or maybe both if they had the time. But he had worked out most of the details, gathered the necessary supplies, and reassured Vainqueur.
To make sure the empire ran itself in his absence, Victor had granted power to an assembly of Murmurin’s most powerful and responsible denizens: Allison, Charlene, Jules, Malfy, and Miel. Marbré had been given an honorary observator seat, but would supervise improvements of their flying ship.
Victor still wondered if inviting Malfy and Miel was the right call. At this point, even if they weren’t truly Vainqueur’s minions, they had embedded themselves so deeply in Murmurin’s infrastructures that the nascent nation wouldn’t work without them. However, considering their ideological divide, the vizier hoped Jules and the others would smooth their tensions.
He would have also liked to add Red Ranger to this assembly, but the former kobold was occupied with bodyguarding Vainqueur’s niece Jolie, in the south.
“Finally, these years of toiling to redeem wicked souls will pay off,” Miel said, hugging the documents against her chest. “I can sense my incoming promotion.”
Murmurin had a public service. Victor never thought he would live to see the day.
The rest of the ‘imperial council’ seemed divided on the subject though. “In my case, I only sense the shoddy service,” Malfy the fiend said. After his near-death experience at the hands of the Nightblades, he had recovered in time for the new ‘Heaven Deal.’ “You bureaucrats know nothing of customer experience!”
“You are jealous that we won this public procurement contract,” Miel taunted him, Malfy chittering in response.
“Allison, remember to feed Junior and my slimes in my absence,” Victor asked his friend. “My excalitrap is not a picky eater, but it barks threateningly at people if hungry.”
“Sure,” the dryad said with a smile. “I saw that it decided to participate in the minion tournament, as did many other citizens.”
“Those who pass the qualifiers will each receive a Crest we pilfered from the Nightblades,” said Charlene, who now spent half her time between the syndicate’s HQ and Murmurin itself. “With effort, the participants will be ready for a [Mook Promotion] after Victor’s return. Even you, Malfy.”
“I will not forget the courtesy,” the fiend replied, making it somehow sound like a shady favor exchange.
“I believe you should have enjoyed an overplanar vacation,” Miel told Victor. “We have an excellent Nirvana resort for clie—paragons of virtue such as you.”
“I would rather wander around on my horse, knight errant style.” Considering its reputation, Victor had thought it wise not to mention where he went to study to the angel or the rest of the council for that matter. “If there is any problem, contact me and I will make my way back.”
“Sir, you’re only leaving for one week,” Jules reassured him, but then blew it. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“You know, on second thought, maybe I don’t need to—”
“Vic, you clearly need some time off,” Allison interrupted him with a kind smile. “You can trust us. Rolo and I helped manage this village long before you arrived, we will handle it.”
“You and His Majesty have often left for a while, and even though our population has grown tenfold in size since, we need to learn how to manage things in your absence,” Jules pointed out, “Especially if we are to survive the test of time.”
“Everything will be fine,” Allison insisted.
Victor relented, silently praying Murmurin didn’t blow up in his absence.
Afterward, they finished reviewing the various issues, from the budget to mining reports; being mostly sure the country would survive until tomorrow at least, Victor allowed the various councilmen to take their leave. “Congratulations, Mr. Dalton,” Malfy whispered to him on his way out. “You scammed the pigeon with such skillfulness, like a true master…”
“Scammed?” Victor asked.
“Thanks to your subtle guidance, the angel no longer advertises for her heavenly insurances, focusing instead on her subpar ‘public service,’” Malfy rejoiced. “By giving the feathered bureaucrats the SP they wanted, you have chased them away from our core soul market.”
Considering how difficult it had been for Miel to pitch her insurance to Murmurin’s monstrous population, Victor figured out that her superiors simply considered the place a lost cause. They would probably harvest the SP to expand elsewhere. And while Malfy only saw the short-term profits, an angelic public service would allow Heaven to gather followers over time.
“Although I insist that Happyland be allowed to create private schools,” Malfy said, ever the entrepreneur. “So we can tutor the elite of this nation in the proper ways, separated from the plebians.”
“About schools, have you heard of Scholomance?” Victor asked, figuring out the fiend might know of it.
“Scholomance is the most prestigious establishment that Happyland ever sponsored,” Malfy said with almost religious awe, before grumbling as he left. “I am still bitter that Maure Incorporated got their logo on the door first.”
Allison was the last one to leave. “Chocolatine told me she would visit you after this meeting,” she said. “She baked something all for you.”
“Something alive?” the dryad shrugged. “About Choc…”
“A while ago, my [Monster Insight] told me that you had something of a crush on her,” Victor said, the dryad not denying it. “I’m surprised why you tried to set us up.”
“I am a priestess of the goddess of love,” Allison said. “I can tell when feelings are not returned, and when it is not proper to insist. She is… extreme.”
No kidding. “I dunno, how can you say that if you haven’t tried?”
|Charisma check successful.|
She gave him an amused gaze. “Are you trying to set up a threesome, handsome?”
Damn it, his Charisma buffs started to play tricks on him. “I’m just not sure where the two of us are headed, so it might be now or never to try your luck.”
The dryad shook her head. “Vic, you really need to learn to assert your own decisions instead of going along with the flow.”
Victor crossed his arms, as his friend left him. As she promised, no sooner did everyone leave, that Chocolatine entered the room to take over. She must have waited all her time in front of the door.
“Ta-da!” the werewolf presented her on-and-off boyfriend with a basket. “I have made you a cake for your trip.”
Victor glanced at it, noticing that the basket wriggled as if alive. It happened more and more since she had gained more levels in [Monster Patissier]. “Thanks,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. And here she made him feel a bit sweet.
“So, a full week?” she asked him. “I hope it’s not an ‘I leave a week for shopping but won’t come back’ kind of vacation.”
“Nah, I should be happy to return to Murmurin afterward.” With the time dilation involved, he would probably love to see the sun again after seven years of training. Victor knew heroes always did it in the animes he watched in his youth, but he wondered the impact on one’s sanity. “I should have figured myself out afterward.”
“Remember to summon me if you ever feel lonely,” she said with a flirty wink. “You did mark me as your mount again, right?”
Much to his secret shame…
“Are we there yet?” his horse complained, as they walked through the thick mist.
“I dunno,” Victor replied, his scythe on his back. He would rather have taken his trusted bazooka with him, but considering the school, he thought he might have more use of older weapons.
“Are we there—”
“Stop asking me this every five minutes… wait…” The mist, while still thick, cleared a little as they approached a lake, a massive structure surging from the waves in its center. “Aha!”
After traveling through the Nightlands and crossing dozens of portals, they had finally arrived at the location indicated in the letter. From outside, the school appeared as a phantasmagorical, charred castle, with ghostly flames swelling through its walls and towers. Victor smelled ashes in the air, while the structure seemed to flicker in and out of existence at random. A bridge linked the castle to the lakeshore, with two massive stone gates serving as the entrance; the architect engraved various symbols, including those of the Dread Three, on them.
In short, it looked like a warm, welcoming place!
The vizier heard steps in the mist, turning his face to watch a girly goblin walk out. Unlike the few of these critters that he had encountered, that one looked armed to the teeth, most of her body and face covered by an armor too big for her, her back arched by the weight of a bag full of weapons. He noticed spears, swords, even an arquebuse among them; and briefly wondered how that tiny creature could carry so much stuff.
“Hi there, Tall Person!” the goblin said. “Is this Scholomance?”
“Looks like it,” Victor replied, noticing that she carried an invitation letter too. “I’m still waiting for someone to come out and greet us.”
The goblin looked at him with curious eyes. “I’ve never seen your kind before. Like a cross between a manling and a dragon.”
“I’m not sure what I am anymore either,” the Vizier admitted, “I would go with [Monster Knight (Red Dragon)]. The name is Victor, by the way.”
“Goblina,” the goblin said, having the most original name ever. “[Monster Knight]... never heard of that species, although I know a bit about dragons. My dad worked for one.”
“Was his tenure a constant struggle for damage control too?”
“Those were his exact words!” the goblin replied, amazed by the coincidence. “Which is why he dropped his last boss while he hibernated, then went as far east as he could to avoid reprisal. Have you fled too?”
“No, that’s the one thing I will never do. My dragon is more than a boss now. It’s a friend. I even owe him my life.”
“Oh? I thought dragons only cared about themselves.”
“And why are you here? To become a better dark lord’s chief of staff?”
“Absolutely not!” she sounded downright insulted. “You think I’m some kind of minion because I’m a goblin? This is exactly the kind of stereotype that I want to change!
“I’m sorry,” Victor apologized, not wanting to look like a racist.
“Everyone says goblins are just cannon fodders and mooks, but I will prove that we can be conquerors too! My, I have even gained levels in [Bandit Queen]! I swear that one day, I will even graduate to [Dark Lord]!”
While Victor listened to the critter going on a rant about goblin social mobility, the school’s doors finally opened. Both students looked at the entrance, as a delicate creature walked out and crossed the bridge in their direction. A moth-like humanoid with golden wings and antenna, pristine greyish skin, and the most insolent dress he had seen since Chocolatine’s; the magnificent lady looked at him with makeup shades under eyes, her silvery hair flowing to the wind.
Victor did the sensible thing and immediately readied his scythe. After all, Vainqueur killed her son.
“Dalton,” she greeted him. “I see that you still remember me; I would avoid pointing a weapon at a teacher if I were you though.”
A teacher? The Happyland? “Of course I remember you, you tried to eat me for dinner!”
“Ah!” the goblin mocked him. “Class hasn’t started, and the teacher already bullied you!”
“I have no grudge against you for escaping my grasp,” the archdevil said as if he was the guilty party, “Nor what your so-called master and his guests did to my company. Even if I felt vengeful, as a student under Deathjester’s protection, I could not do anything to you in my capacity of a teacher at this academy. Unless you provoke me first.”
Victor didn’t trust her at all but avoided tempting the literal devil. “So, what, you will teach me dark magic without reservation?”
“Without reservations? No.” The archdevil snapped her fingers, manifesting two floating scrolls for Victor and Goblina to grab. “You must read, fill, and sign this document first. I teach the [Summoning] class, although I also give guest lectures on specific schools of sorcery, such as [Diabolism] and [Infernal Alchemy].”
“[See Invisibility],” Victor cast the spell, to see if she had slipped words there or there. He patented that trick.
Much to his surprise, though, the document was very straightforward. After pledging to respect its core values—Ambition, Cunning, and Selfishness—he had to agree to spend seven years in the school; more if he finished the curriculum as the class’ dunce.
“We used to have houses you could join,” Isabelle said, as the chief of staff kept reading, “The Demons, the Devils, and the Daemons. But our divine sponsors found that a competitive system, while expected, decreases the ability of our future overlords to cooperate. You can’t conquer the world if you bicker with your fellows over grades and petty clans.”
“Then why is the dunce forced to remain here?” Victor asked.
“The Dread Three want to remind our students that their success will be built on the suffering of the less fortunate.”
Victor reached the list of dozens of subjects that he could study, most of them with charming names like [Necromantic Biology], [Infernal Alchemy], [Demon Summoning], [Conqueror Economy], [Eldritch Philosophy] or [Ritualistic Magic]. As advertised, most of the curriculum focused on statecraft and various forms of dark magic, with a few unique possibilities standing out, such as the required course [Cursed Artifact Crafting].
Much to his surprise, some of the teachers’ names belonged to the Dread Three. Did they personally provide educations to new students?
“You seem to struggle with the courses,” Isabelle said, her tone more curious than amused. “What are your personal and professional objectives?”
“I, uh, I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I came here to figure it out. I guess reach level sixty?”
“It is fine not to know what kind of career you want to follow yet,” the demon said, “From bloodthirsty cartel leader to dictator or nihilistic anarchist, we make sure our students find the right path for them. Simply take what interests you.”
Statecraft and magic then, although some courses bugged him. “[Peasant Mathematics]?”
“The goddess of tyranny, Veran, teaches how much students can tax their populations to hunger and poverty, without causing them to rebel. Which is, as it turned out, a very, very high rate.”
Damn, that was evil. “I will skip that one,” Victor said. “Vainqueur is against taxes.”
She bristled at the mention of the dragon, but not as much as he thought. His intuition told him that while she loathed the dragon, she didn’t seem all that vengeful against Victor personally. “You really do not have a grudge?”
“A very wise spellcaster convinced me to stay wary of you,” Isabelle Maure said. “And if you have been invited there, then you’ve almost caught up to my late Braniño.”
Victor immediately figured out that spellcaster’s likely identity, but kept it to himself. This might be the occasion to figure out what the lich was up to.
“In fact.” She smiled at him with a predatory smirk. “I have other plans for you.”
Why did Victor had the feeling that she wanted to eat him, but not in the way he first thought?