A Dark Lord’s dark designs are really only as good as the information upon which he or she bases them. ‘Knowing’ something that turns out to be wrong is as bad as, and often even worse than not knowing. It’s much easier to plan for uncertainty than it is to guard against false intelligence.
What I’m saying here is that your henchmen, minions and other assorted dark forces should be comfortable with telling you ‘I don’t know’ when you ask them questions. If they fear you’ll cast them into the Pit of Doom or what have you for such an admission, they’re only going to make shit up to cover their asses, and that’s going to make your job a lot harder, let me tell you.
But there are two kinds of false intelligence. The first kind, the cover-your-ass kind, can be avoided with good management. The second kind – what I like to think of as the ‘fuck your boss over’ kind – is a lot more pernicious, and in consequence much harder to guard against.
That second kind is why you should have a dungeon, stocked with lots and lots of truth-extracting implements.
~ ~ ~
You’ve probably heard of the Great Fire. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that gets noticed by historians and such. It’s not every day that the largest city on the continent burns down to the ground, after all.
I’ve heard tons of speculation over the years as to what exactly started it, which never fails to put a grim sort of grin on my face. It wasn’t a duke of hell, and it wasn’t an efrit who escaped its magical prison, and it definitely wasn’t a punishment of the Light visited upon humanity for its evil ways (I swear, the church will spin anything in their favor.)
It was me, but it wasn’t my fault. If you want to go pointing fingers, blame Chortle. I wanted to dump the book in the river, if you’ll recall.
But yeah, the direct cause of the Great Fire was me.
It’s funny, really. There have been countless people in the world who’ve dreamt of changing the world, of making a mark, be it for good or ill. Few ever manage it.
I did it without meaning to, or even wanting to for that matter. All I wanted at the time was to gamble, have lots of paid-for sex, and not be murdered by a prepubescent maniac.
The aforementioned maniac caught on pretty quick that something was very wrong. While I sat there in front of her, twitching and moaning with all the power that was cascading into me, she threw herself out of her own chair and threw the knife she’d laid out on the desk right at my throat. Chortle was the definition of decisive, and she had absolutely no issue with cutting her losses.
It was just too late.
Her knife flew at my throat, straight and true. I watched it with a sort of extremely distracted fascination. By that point it would almost have been a welcome end – I no longer felt human. I just felt like a vessel for the power that the book had bestowed upon me. A wholly inadequate vessel that at any instant was going to disintegrate under the pressure of it.
The power was already escaping from my physical self, as it happened, which is why Chortle’s knife just sort of melted away with the hiss of water on a hot frying pan before it had a chance to perforate me.
“Fang!” she shouted. “Kill ‘im!”
Good Dog that he was, Fang leapt to do his master’s bidding. His knife suffered the same fate as Chortle’s. The arm that held it, too.
I’m not saying that the power given to me by Hrazz’k (under duress) was sentient, because it’s not. What I am saying is that all fire has an appetite, and that fire that has its origin in the elemental plane of fire possesses an appetite, and also a preference for what it likes to devour.
No points for guessing that the preference happens to be flesh, and human flesh most of all.
When it got a taste of Fang, it went absolutely wild. Any faint hope I had of controlling it, which admittedly I did not, would have been so much ash in the breeze at that point.
It exploded outward from me in all directions, bringing me an almost indescribable relief. In a way, it was like when you have to piss so badly you’re afraid your bladder will rupture, and you finally get the chance to let loose. I was pissing power – in the form of fire – from every pore in my body, in other words.
Chortle, the shrieking Fang, and the library were burned to ash in an instant. The rest of the palace followed a heartbeat or two thereafter.
Everything around me burned, including my clothes. Everything except the book.
“What have you done?” I shrieked at it, flames and smoke pouring off of me.
“Well, not lie, that’s for sure. Hey, look on the bright side. That little girl won’t be causing you any more trouble.”
I screamed in frustration. I was at a total loss. I was a walking bonfire, standing in a field of ash that had, just seconds earlier, been a palace. And the fire was still spreading, thanks in part to its magical nature and in part to the seasonal wind.
“HOW THE FUCK DO I TURN IT OFF?”
“Right, here’s a bit of bad news,” Hrazz’k replied. “You can’t, really. Not right now, anyway. It’s been building up since the last owner of me, and that was like, gosh, three hundred years ago? Time flies. Anyway, once the excess is let off, you should be fine.”
I screamed. I pulled my hair. Lots of other people in the neighborhood were screaming as well by that point. I didn’t notice if they, too, were pulling their hair, but I rather doubt it. Most of them were probably running for their lives, or trying to. Probably a goodly portion of them had hair that was on fire, and so not especially pullable.
I try not to think about it, to be honest.
In hindsight, I probably should have just stayed where I was, in order to limit the damage. Instead I got it into my head to run to the river, there to (hopefully) douse my bodily flames and finish what I’d started to do with the book that morning, before Chortle had interfered.
What I ended up doing as I ran naked and on fire (but wholly unburned) through the streets of the capital was allow the fire to spread, fast and far.
Learn from the past, as they say, but don’t live in it. Especially when it’s just a bunch of charred corpses.
Anyway, when you hear stories of a demon/efrit/Messenger of the Light appearing on the streets of the capital that fateful day, clothed in flame and rage, it was actually me running through the streets, butt-naked and trying like hell to actually put out the flames that billowed off me. And also, murder the demon that had put them there in the first place.
By the time I realized my mistake, it was far, far too late. The city was burning, the fire spreading at a prodigious rate, pushed by the early autumn winds. The sky was an eerie red-black from all the flame and smoke. Honestly, it looked like a more convincing depiction of hell than any I’d seen commissioned by the church.
I came to the realization that the capital was in its death throes; that everyone and everything in it, including the Scriptorium and the Peach and the Bitten Coin and everyone in them were dead as like as not, or would be. And that I was the agent of their destruction, willing or otherwise.
Really rather a sobering thing to have to confront, let me tell you. When an Evil Overlord lays a city to waste, it should be on purpose, and to further their plans. It should not be because events just play out that way, and to no advantage. I’m not professionally averse to chaos, suffering and destruction, but I’m no fan of waste.
Also back then I was still somewhat soft, it has to be said. Sure, they call me Gar the Pitiless now. But it wasn’t always so. I’m not ashamed to admit that, at the time, I felt a horrendous sense of guilt at what had transpired. Was transpiring around me. But I took hold of that guilt and turned it into a resolve to destroy Hrazz’k. I ran even faster towards the river. Or at least I tried to. I was young, but being a copyist didn’t exactly build muscle or endurance. Nor did spending the bulk of my time at a gambling table getting drunk, as far as that goes.
But I did eventually make it the bank of the River Uh, wheezing and clutching at the stitch in my side with my free hand. The other hand still held the book, of course. Also I was still putting out fire and smoke like a blacksmith’s forge in hell.
“Hey, kid,” Hrazz’k said. “Is there a particular reason we’re at the river?”
“Gonna drown you,” I panted.
“What? Why? Didn’t I give you exactly what you asked for?”
“Gonna murderize you.”
“You’re overreacting! Calm down! I mean, think logically. Is a single hair on your head even singed?”
“Gonna hold you under the water till the ink runs off your freakin’ pages. Then I’m gonna tear out the pages and tear the pages into tiny pieces and hold them underwater ‘til they turn into mush. Then I’m gonna eat the mush so I can shit you into the river a second time.”
There were lots of people in the river, by the way, by the time I got there. It was about the only place not on fire. Not all of those people were alive; many more were horribly burned. And the Uh’s current was swift. More than a few unlucky souls got badly burned in the fire, and then subsequently drowned that day.
I think I’ve mentioned something to the effect that fate is a nasty, evil bitch.
Anyway, I caused a panic when I appeared on the river’s bank. Screams of terror and all that, and a slow, watery stampede away from me. Folks got pulled off their feet and drowned by their fellow victims, or pulled under by the current. It’s in some of the survivor’s accounts. You can read about the whole sordid mess, if you really want to put yourself through that. What can I say except it wasn’t intentional?
Anyway, panic or not, I had to finish what I’d started. Hrazz’k had to die. Some small part of me actually felt kind of noble at that point; I could not undo what had been done to the capital and its people, but I could avenge it, by destroying the source of all that ruin and suffering and death.
I climbed down the riverbank and threw myself into the Uh’s brown, filthy waters. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I screamed “Die, demon!” on the way down.
The river Uh, for maybe a hundred yards in both directions, boiled off instantly in a massive explosion of steam, killing everyone else in sight in a hideously painful but mercifully brief instant.
Hrazz’k blew out a relieved breath. “Well damn. I was really worried there for a bit, I don’t mind telling you, kid.”
I screamed in rage and frustration. The river rushed in to fill the gap I’d boiled out of it, with similar results.
“Listen, kid,” the book said as water warred with flame around me. “You and me, we’re stuck together now, and believe it or not, I kinda like you. I know you’re having a hard time right now, because wow, this is a seriously stressful situation, no joke. But I’ve been around the block, you know? This isn’t my first time being party to burning down a metropolis. And I can help you survive what comes next.”
I had given absolutely no thought to whatever might come next. Quite honestly, I felt like I was living through the end of the world, and the end of the world didn’t have a ‘next’. It’s sort of built into the concept.
“Next? What next?” I grated.
“Well, the survivors are going to start looking for whoever’s responsible, for one thing. After they finish with the surviving bit, anyway. And they’re gonna be a very motivated lot, if experience is any guide. What I’m saying here is that before too long you’re gonna be a wanted man. The whole kingdom is going to be looking for you, and if they find you, they’re gonna do things to you that even my kind would consider, uh, inappropriate and harsh.”
I’d been Gar the Puny, until the day my mother finagled my entry into the church to save my life. Gar the Nobody, really. That hadn’t changed until brother Jaby’s hear gave out. Then I’d become Gar the Wastrel, utterly useless but essentially harmless. Until, you know, the fire.
The fire changed everything. Gar the Wastrel died that day, less than a year old, along with most of the capital’s residents.
Gar the Fugitive was born.
Bio: Here, I'm Notogodot. In other places around the internet I'm Michael McClung, a writer and a general grump. I'm best known for the Amra Thetys fantasy series. I was born and raised in Texas, but have lived in Southeast Asia for almost two decades.