The old man hobbled painfully up the stone staircase. He favored his right hip, placing most of his weight on the gnarled staff in his hand. He had come to rely on the rod with increasing frequency of late, and the old man pursed his lips in frustration as the realization of his increasing frailty hit him once more. It took several minutes to wind his way up the steps, torch flames casting his shadow energetically against the rough hewn walls. Upon reaching the wooden door at the top, he took a moment to catch his breath. Upon composing himself, he gave the door two sharp raps with the staff.
“Come in,” a voiced beckoned, the sound ever so slightly muffled as it traveled through the door. The old man pushed the door open, surprised with how little force was necessary to move the large slab of lumber. He walked into the room, closing the door behind him. He found himself looking at a thin, balding man seated behind an intricately engraved stone table. The man was writing in a leather-bound ledger with a black feather quill, most likely raven or crow, the old man mused. Elaborately carved runes decorated the edges of the table, wrapping around to meet at the heads of four dragons, each protruding from one of the corners. When the old man looked around the otherwise sparsely apportioned room, he thought that he could see the runes on the table melting and swirling out of the corner of his eye. It was most likely an optical illusion on the part of the craftsman to draw attention to the piece, but given the nature of the employment he sought, he would not be surprised if the runes had more than a mere decorative purpose.
The balding man paused in his writing and looked up. “Please have a seat,” he said amicably, gesturing to the overstuffed chair that stood between the old man and the table. “I’ll be with you momentarily.” The old man walked over to the chair without utilizing his staff, using all his concentration to hide the pain he felt. He realized only as he sat down that he need not have bothered, the balding man having immediately returned to scribbling in his ledger. After a few moments of writing, the balding man set his quill back in the inkwell and then flipped forward a few pages in the book. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said as he stood. He came around from behind the table and extended his hand to the old man. “I had a few notes I wanted to get down while they were fresh in my mind.”
“It’s quite alright,” the old man said, gripping the proffered hand in what he hoped was a firm handshake. He again cursed his increasing frailty, but the balding man seemed unconcerned, leaning back against the table.
“Your name is…” he paused and leaned back across the table, running a finger down a page of his ledger. “Gardwick? Am I pronouncing that right?”
“Gardwyck,” the old man corrected. “It’s a long I.”
“Apologies,” the bald man said with a slight bow. “I’m Reginald Letterhand,” he continued, returning to his seat behind the desk. He plucked the quill from the inkwell and made a note in his ledger regarding the proper pronunciation. “Given your name’s pronunciation, I assume you hail from the northeastern part of the continent?”
“Southern, actually,” the old man said. “Though my father hailed from Greendocks.”
“Ah,” Reginald replied. “That does explain it.” He folded his hands in front of him on the table and gave Gardwyck a smile. “Well, let’s get to it, shall we? You are here to apply for the position of Evil Wizard, yes? Bane of the kingdom and scourge of all that’s good and right?”
“I’m applying for Prince Charming, actually,” Gardwyck replied.
Reginald’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Oh, well, um.” Reginald fidgeted with his ledger, clearly flustered.
A low rumble began in Gardwyck’s throat that grew into a sharp cackle. “Oh, gods,” Gardwyck said, slapping his knee. “You thought I was serious!” Gardwyck watched as Reginald let his forehead fall into his hand and visibly relaxed. “Can you imagine? This old, decrepit thing as Prince Charming? I’m sure the ladies would be lining up for a taste of this!” He motioned toward his dingy and tattered robes. “Yes, I’m here to apply for evil wizard, bane, scourge, et cetera, et cetera.” He reached into his robe and pulled out a rolled piece of parchment tied with twine. He leaned forward and held it out to Reginald. “My résumé.”
Reginald took the scroll and slid off the twine in one smooth motion. He gently unrolled the pages on the surface of the table. “It’s just a shame we don’t currently have an opening for a court jester,” Reginald quipped as he perused the old man’s qualifications.
“I do look quite fetching in gaudy colors,” Gardwyck said and gave Reginald a big, cavity-ridden smile.
“Alright, let’s see what we have here,” Reginald continued, reading further down. “Ten years’ experience. Brought down the duchy of Purl single-handed. I remember that one. Ooh, a specialization in necromancy!” Reginald exclaimed, giving a quick glance up at Gardwyck. “It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a proper necromancer in the kingdom. His Highness is sure to be pleased with that.”
“That was my understanding,” Gardwyck replied, giving Reginald an even bigger sharp-toothed grin. “Zombies, skeletons, ghouls, vampires, any manner of undead you need to terrify your populace, I can deliver. If you look further down you’ll see that I studied under Azav the Undying and then interned with The Yellow Skull across the Yawning Sea during the Great Pestilence ten years ago.”
Reginald slapped the top of the table excitedly and wagged a finger at Gardwyck. “That was quite a blight on Northwood! If the bird’s word is to be believed, they still haven’t managed to recover from that one. You mean to tell me you had a hand in that?”
Gardwyck opened his hands in mock humility. “Well, the thrust of the skeleton uprising was obviously the work of T.Y.S., but I did get to add my own flair here and there. For instance, the pirate wraiths that harassed the merchant vessels attempting to bring relief supplies via the Yellow Channel? That was my idea.” He pointed two bony thumbs at his chest.
Reginald leaned back in his chair, clapping slowly. “That truly was a stroke of genius, if I may say. The few ships of ours that managed to return here had our trawlers refusing to leave port for weeks! I’m not sure if you realize it, but you caused a bit of a seafood shortage for our eastern seaboard.”
Gardwyck raised his eyebrows at that. “Indeed? I wasn’t aware of that particular side effect. I will have to keep the possible impacts on global maritime commerce in mind in the future.”
“Well, based on what I see here, you seem perfect for the job, as far as I’m concerned.” Reginald picked up a small bell from the table’s surface and rang it for several seconds. After a few moments, a guard in chainmail entered the room. “Would you kindly inform the king and Sir Valiant that I believe we have our man?” Reginald asked. The guard gave a stiff nod and left the room, casting a furtive glance at Gardwyck on the way out.
“Sir Valiant? That’s a bit on the nose, don’t you think?” Gardwyck asked after the guard had left the room.
Reginald held his hands up placatingly. “I know. I know. It really is a terrible name. He was a poor hire, a mistake on the part of my predecessor.” Reginald paused for a moment and looked around, as if to ensure they were still the only two people in the small room. “To be quite honest,” Reginald began, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “His Highness and I are hoping you’ll be able to make short work of him. We’re not entirely sure how he’s managed to make it as long as he has. You see he’s… well I might as well just say it. He’s a buffoon! An utter lout! Yet time and again he has managed to best the worst things the world has been able to throw at him. Not as a result of any particular skill, mind you. I’m truly surprised he hasn’t managed to cut his own head off. He just… stumbles into victory like the town drunk into a lamppost.” Reginald sighed and rubbed his eyes with his fingers, fighting back the beginnings of a headache.
“I think you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself,” Gardwyck said.
“Pardon?” Reginald replied, blinking rapidly to clear the spots from his vision.
“How can I possibly take care of your problem when we have not yet agreed to terms?” Gardwyck pointed out.
“Oh, yes, of course! How stupid of me,” Reginald said, frowning to himself. “I must confess, I got a bit excited by your references. I do hope we can come to an arrangement.”
“I’m sure we can work something out,” Gardwyck rattled. “I will, of course, need appropriate accommodations.”
“Yes, yes, certainly!” Reginald agreed, flipping back several pages in his ledger. “We have a few properties that would suit you marvelously. Let’s see, there is the Black Tower, recently held by our most recent evil wizard.”
“That’s sounds promising,” Gardwyck commented.
Reginald sucked air through his teeth and winced. “It is a bit on the charred side, however. Sir Valiant somehow managed to anger a fire drake to the point that it chased him into the tower. Our wizard in residence and the fire drake ended up destroying each other, unfortunately, leaving our brave knight without a scratch.” Reginald flipped back a few more pages. “Ah! There’s the Buried Castle, nestled comfortably in the mountains of the Northlands. It’s gone unused for quite some time due to a zombie infestation we’ve been unable to clear, but given your proficiency in necromancy, that may actually be a bonus for you.”
Gardwyck’s ears perked at this. “I think that would do quite nicely!” he said, perhaps a bit to enthusiastically. He resolved to keep his eagerness in check for the rest of the interview. Granted, it was tough to find a solid gig in this economy, but he didn’t want to end up selling himself short either.
“Excellent!” Reginald replied, making a note in his ledger. “Now, what else? You will of course have access to all sorts of alchemical ingredients. The Endless Swamps on the western edge of the mountains are practically exploding with whatever plants and mosses you might need for your potions and spells. Also, a major trade route to Oldean cuts right through the mountains a few miles east of the castle, so you’ll have plenty of merchants to raid.”
“That all sounds quite promising,” Gardwyck said, keeping his voice even.
“But?” Reginald prompted, sensing the unasked question.
“Well,” Gardwyck said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “There is one small matter.”
“Yes?” Reginald raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“I require…” Gardwyck paused and shifted again, his chair suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, it’s really quite embarrassing.” He dabbed at the perspiration forming on his head with the sleeve of his robe.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Reginald prodded.
“Well,” Gardwyck began again. “To put it bluntly, I require a virgin sacrifice to assuage my wrath.” Gardwyck cleared his throat and smiled awkwardly.
Reginald masked his disgusted expression almost as soon as it formed on his face, but Gardwyck had known it was coming. They all made that face, just before they showed him the door and asked him to never come back. “I know. I know,” Gardwyck said, trying to minimize the damage this request inevitably caused. “It’s tired and hackneyed and messy. No one does it anymore, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth, especially if you end up with a virgin that’s particularly uppity about not dying and decides to make everyone else’s lives difficult. It’s just that… well, I sort of developed a taste for it while studying at university, and, to be frank, I suppose I’ve become somewhat of an addict.”
“I see.” Reginald said flatly. An uncomfortable silence lingered in the air for a few moments, and Gardwyck could feel all the momentum he had built in this interview deflate like a collapsed lung. “I’ll have to run that one by His Highness. We don’t really do that sort of thing in this kingdom anymore.” Gardwyck’s hopes rose. He hadn’t been thrown out! They were actually going to consider it! They must really want to get rid of this Sir Valiant, he thought.
The door to the chamber opened, and the guard in chainmail entered once more. “His Highness, Lord Tomar the Fourth!” the guard announced enthusiastically and knelt on one knee. Reginald and Gardwyck got up from their seats and knelt as well, Gardwyck forced to lean on his staff to keep from falling over. A portly man in what Gardwyck guessed to be his early sixties entered the room. He was dressed all in red velvet, and strands of gray hair speckled with black flowed out from beneath his red and gold crown. Behind the king strode a tall, blonde-haired beast of a man in full plate armor. As he entered the room, he stumbled on the small rise in the floor, his armor clattering loudly. He caught himself on the wall, his armor battering against the stone. Everyone in the room winced until the bedlam subsided. The king rolled his eyes, and the guard snickered as he left the room, closing the door.
The king turned his attention to the two kneeling men. “Rise, rise,” Lord Tomar said, helping Gardwyck to his feet. “No need for this formality here.” Gardwyck accepted the king’s help and stood as straight as his crooked back would allow. “I’m Lord Tomar,” the king said, “and this is my captain of the guard, Sir… Valiant.” You could almost reach out and touch the disappointment that hung in the air as the king finished his name.
Sir Valiant stepped forward and offered his hand. Gardwyck took it, but when he tried to pull back, he was suddenly jerked forward again. “I’m so sorry,” Sir Valiant said. “It appears your sleeve is caught in my gauntlet. If I could just…” Sir Valiant and Gardwyck moved awkwardly back and forth, each trying to extricate Gardwyck’s robe from the metal glove. Sir Valiant gave one final, hard tug, and the two of them finally separated, Sir Valiant taking Gardwyck’s right sleeve with him. The king raised his arms and let them fall in frustration. Gardwyck just stared at his bare arm.
“Oh, no. I’m so, so sorry!” Sir Valiant apologized profusely. He stepped forward and tried awkwardly to slide the sleeve back on to Gardwyck’s arm.
“No, really, it’s fine,” Gardwyck said, attempting to snatch the sleeve from Sir Valiant, but the sleeve caught again and Gardwyck pulled Sir Valiant’s hand directly into his face. It wasn’t a hard blow, but the plate mail was solid, and Gardwyck felt a trickle of blood start down his chin.
“Oh, no, you’re bleeding,” Sir Valiant moaned. “Here let me-“
“No!” Gardwyck yelled. “No,” he said more calmly. “Thank you. I will be fine.” He took his seat and attempted to pull his sleeve back up his arm while the king took Reginald’s chair. “So,” Lord Tomar said, preferring not to acknowledge that the previous few minutes had even occurred. “This is our man, eh?” he asked, looking up at Reginald.
Reginald shifted back and forth. “Well, possibly, sir. There is one… minor issue.”
The king frowned up at his clerk. “Issue?” He glanced at Gardwyck and then back to Reginald. “Well, what is it?” Reginald blushed and leaned down to whisper into the king’s ear. The king’s frown deepened, and his gaze slowly turned toward Gardwyck. “Oh. I see,” the king said, once Reginald had finished. “Look, Mr. Gardwick…”
“Gardwyck,” Reginald corrected. “It’s a long I.”
“Whatever,” the king replied irritably with a wave of his hand. He turned his attention back to Gardwyck. “That’s a bit of an… outdated request, Mr. Gardwyck, to say the least. We don’t really do that sort of thing here anymore. I’m quite sure that our ad expressed the desire for a more progressive thinking evil wizard.”
Gardwyck realized that he was sucking on his lower lip where he’d been cut, and he stopped. “I understand that it’s a bit of an antiquated need,” Gardwyck answered, choosing his words carefully. The torn sleeve fell off his shoulder, and it required several oafish attempts before it was seated once more. “But I believe I can make up for it in my effectiveness. As Mr. Letterhand can attest, you’ve already dealt with some of my work.”
The king looked up at Reginald expectantly. “The pirate wraiths, your majesty,” Reginald said with a grin, “which caused the fish shortage on the eastern seaboard.”
“That was you?” the king asked. “Well, that was quite the nuisance!” The king rubbed his chin thoughtfully, weighing his choice.
“And that wasn’t even a direct effect of my work,” Gardwyck continued. “The entire port is now a literal ghost town, if I may.” Everyone in the room chuckled at Gardwyck’s pun, save Sir Valiant, who merely stared blankly. Gardwyck could almost hear the wind whispering as it blew in one of the knight’s ears and out the other. “I’m quite sure that, given the chance, I could even rid you of your…” he paused, his eyes flicking quickly up at Sir Valiant and back to the king’s face. “More stubborn problem.” The king slowly leaned back in his chair, eyebrows raised. He made a concerted effort to maintain eye contact with Gardwyck and not look up at Sir Valiant himself.
“Is that so?” The king paused and sniffed involuntarily. “You wouldn’t be the first to have tried, you know.”
“I am aware. Nevertheless, I believe that I could rid you of this burden, given what I need.”
The king furrowed his brow in thought. “And how often would you need your… you know…”
“Oh, I think an annual basis should suffice.” Goldwyck folded his hands in front of him with a smile, satisfied that he had the king right where he wanted him. His sleeve fell again into his lap. He chose to leave it there.
The king thought for several minutes and finally looked up at his clerk. “What do you think, Reginald?”
“Well, despite the, ah, irregularity of his request, I think his references speak for themselves. He’s easily the most qualified candidate we’ve had so far. I don’t think there would be much harm in looking the other way…” Reginald raised a finger, a thought just having occurred to him. “We could go with a one year contract with four option years to see if it works out. If the general populace doesn’t take to it, we can chalk it up to a bad year and move on, but if they go along, we could end up with a solid five years before revisiting the contract.” The king nodded along as Reginald laid out the details.
“Does that work for you?” Lord Tomar asked.
“I believe that would be acceptable, yes,” Gardwyck replied, only barely containing his excitement.
A silence fell across the room as the king thought for a few moments more. Finally, he clapped his hands together and stood. “Alright Mr. Gardwick-“
“-Gardwyck, sorry. You have yourself a deal.” He turned to the clerk. “Draw up the papers, have him sign, and I’ll seal them tonight.” The king walked out from behind the desk, and Gardwyck stood to meet him, his sleeve falling to the floor. He bent down to retrieve it, only to realize too late that Sir Valiant had reached down for it as well. Their heads collided with an audible thunk, and Gardwyck squeezed his eyes shut as pain shot through his head and down his neck. He was vaguely aware of more excessive apologizing from the knight as the king extended his hand once more. “I look forward to seeing what you can do Mr. Gardwyck. Reginald and I have high hopes that you’re the right man for the job.” The king glanced over at his knight as he finished, his eyes daggers. “With your references, I expect you to hit the ground running, though. I want outstanding performance from the get go.”
“Provided the castle is infested as stated, you’ll have a zombie pestilence in the foothills by the end of the week,” Gardwyck promised. “And I’ll make immediate preparations to take care of the… other matter.”
They shook hands, and the king nodded and left the room. Sir Valiant followed behind, holding his head. He stepped awkwardly down into the hallway, his armor clanking and echoing once more, further aggravating Gardwyck’s already throbbing head. Reginald and Gardwyck each let out an audible sigh as the obnoxious din faded down the stairwell. “I will personally pay you five hundred sovereigns if you kill him,” Reginald stated flatly.
“Mr. Letterhand,” Gardwyck replied, “this one is on me.”