Starspire

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Chapter 18: Virtue and V.I.C.E.

Bahati sighed as she stepped in yet another patch of hidden mud and sank up to his knees. It would not have been so bad if she was not already had an assortment of scratches from the bramble thicket; a collection of bruises from banging into things in the dark forest, and a stomachache from worrying about what tricks Sir Nickeltwist might have in store for them all.

She had seen numerous signs for Camp Minion along the way, and had seen others scrawled in strange languages that he figured meant the same thing. He found it strange that they would be so flagrant about their hideout. Either they were incredibly cocky about their fortifications, or the kind of incredibly stupid type of villains who spilled everything to the captured hero instead of simply doing away with him.

It still boggled his mind why anyone, including villains, would want to hang out in the swamp. Didn’t they have noses and new shoes like other people?

He continued on the road, beating away an occasional marsh wight or swamp creeper, until a great black banner above a black gate came into view. In gray letters like swirling smoke, it proclaimed “Welcome to Camp Minion—an Initiative of V.I.C.E.”

As he watched the letters, they curled and reformed into another language and then another. Below the banner stood a group of burly figures, all light green skin and chorded muscles. Their noses stretched out far in front of their faces and their ears flopped out far to the sides. As he approached, they raised their hands in unison.

“Stop,” they said together, in a voice much higher than Bahati had expected. “You must prove yourself fit to set foot here. You must pass through the Dark Detector.”

They reached into their scabbards and pulled out a pair of long swords with black blades. The second they touched, a black mist began falling between them. “Walk through the dark mist. If you live, you are worthy.”

Bahati took an involuntary step backwards, realizing that there was no possible positive outcome of this test. If she was as pure as she hoped he was, these might be his final steps. If he survived, it meant that the she had not succeeded in keeping the darkness out of his heart. How hard she had tried since losing control of her magic so many years ago, and paying for it with her family’s life.

Then again, whatever happened, perhaps she deserved her fate. Her fingers curled more tightly around her staff and she stepped forward underneath the two spears.

All the heat left his body instantly, as if he had been encased in a sheet of ice. Dark shapes and faces filled her vision, cruel voices taunting and heckling her. A sharp pain pierced her heart and she felt the breath pressed out of her lungs.

This is it. I am going to die.

In the next second, she found himself on his knees, sinking into the spongy, wet earth. Her chest stayed compressed for a painful second, until she remembered to breathe.

“Good to see you on the other side,” they said together. “Looks like you just squeaked by. Barely evil enough.”

To her surprise, two much smaller creatures jumped out of the next holes of the suits of armor still standing with their spears crossed. The oversized heads barely stood up on top of their spindly green and black bodies as they scampered forward to unlatch the gate.

“Pardon the deception,” they said together. “We were having some problems with minions giving us the proper respect. Impressive, no?”

Bahati head lolled forward in agreement. All of the day’s other discomforts paled when compared to this. “Yes, if I could stand, I would be trembling in my shoes.”

The gate squeaked open, revealing a rugged path. With the help of the two creatures, she rose to his feet and stumbled his way through the gate. With a glance over his shoulder, she noticed them jumping back into the suits of armor, reverting to the burly brutes they had appeared to be at first.

She followed the trail to past a row of charred dummies that looked chillingly like the white knight they had encountered earlier, past what looked like an obstacle course mixed with a torture chamber, and into a circle of black tents.

Inside the ring stood hideous creatures of all descriptions, figures pulled from a dozen nightmares, things the boy Tyson might have imagined hiding in his closet or under bed. Fangs, claws, daggers and spears showed up in equal measure, accompanied with the din of a handful of guttural languages.

In the center stood a tall, spindly man, a dark cape draped over his shoulders. At his feet, paced three enormous dogs, huge bushy tails sticking straight into the air. The caped man raised both of his hands for silence, and the collection of creeps clammed up instantly.

“Interesting,” mumbled Bahati. “He is the one who scares the scaries.”

“Welcome to Camp Minion,” the figure began in a deep sonorous voice that belied his slender frame. “I am Count Munchhausen and these are my dogs, Bunyon, Henry, and Crockett. They are my Tall Tale hounds, see?”

A rumble of laughter worked through the crowd before the count raised his hands for silence. “I congratulate you for coming to test your mettle. Only a few of you will be found strong enough to join the ranks of Villains Inciting Chaos Everywhere. You will form an orderly line and when you are invited to step into the ring, you will have one minute to show me what you can do against my Champion. I know that most of you are impatient creatures, so I won’t belabor this. You will know your status soon enough.”

His eyes scanned the crowd. “Any questions?”

Not a single growl or grunt disturbed the air.

“Good. Remember that I reserve the right to sic the Tall Tales on anyone deemed too pathetic to breathe the same air as me.”

He clapped his thin hands. Instead of the normal sound of two hands striking together, a boom like a camp of thunder tore through the air. The minions scattered, forming a straighter and more orderly line than he had ever seen a group of human beings manage. Bahati snuck in to the back of one of the lines, thinking of how much her school teachers would have paid for such control of their classes.

The Count took his place at the head of the circle and withdrew a slender shard of glass from deep within his dapper jacket. He removed a white glove and pricked the end of his finger with the shard, producing a single drop of the darkest blood Bahati had ever seen. With a swift flick of his wrist, he threw the shard into dirt in the middle of the ring. It lay there motionless for a few seconds, and then burrowed into the dirt until it was out of sight.

A few seconds later, the dirt exploded in a filthy shower as a hulking creature rose from the ground. It was roughly man shaped, but much broader and rougher, as if it had been cobbled together from a pile of boulders. Its huge neckless head bore only two shallow cavities for eyes and a long slit for a mouth.

A golem. Bahati had read about such creatures, but had never had the misfortune to meet one. There was something even stranger about this particular one. Instead of the rough brown surface, Bahati expected, each surface was highly reflective, making the golem difficult to look at. It reflected the light from the torches that hung outside each tent, giving it the appearance of being on fire.

The first contestant leapt into the ring, swinging a spiked club in each hand. The dual blows connected across the golem’s torso. The golem countered with a withering uppercut, resigning the contestant to spend the rest of his minute writhing in the dirt.

One of the Tall Tales, a massive dog with a blue coat leapt into the ring and dragged the unsuccessful candidate off. Bahati studied the golem and winced. It didn’t even have a chip in its armor. This contest was nothing close to a fair fight.

Bahati thanked her luck that she was near the back of the line and had time to observe the mostly-futile strategies of the other contestants. Some burrowed underground and tried to surprise it from beneath. He stomped these so violently, they did not reemerge from their tunnels. Others tried an aerial approach, but even the fiercest swoops and dives did little to intimidate the golem. It moved with deceptive speed for its bulk and eventually managed to swat his flying opponents out of the air like pesky gnats.

Bahati did notice, however, that the golem did not like to get dirty. Whenever a part of him got dirty, it opened its mouth and expelled a high-pressure stream of water to rinse it off. It did this even at the expense of taking an extra blow or two. The beginnings of a plan formed in Bahati’s mind, though his stomach roiled at the thought. Her fingers still smarted from his last attempt at dark magic, but this creature was surely not going to submit to his few tricks with ice and healing magic.

She had to admit, though she had rarely worked with dark fire, her last attempt at conjuring the Darke Drake had proven incredibly successful. It had bothered her ever since that she had not been able to turn to his normal powers to save them. Now, she was going to have to do it again.

Now, only two other contestants remained in front of him: a mammoth white-haired creature that could have passed for the Yeti’s cousin, and a tiny purple imp with black spines protruding all over his body. The Yeti wrested the golem for a few seconds and seemed momentarily to be gaining the upper hand. But then the golem shifted and reflected an intense beam of light onto the Yeti’s chest, which promptly burst into flames. Stomping and writhing on the ground, the Yeti’s snowy fur became so matted with grime that it soon resembled a huge black bear.

The little imp met with a bit more success, as it was incredibly nimble. It leapt up and over the golem’s body time after time, removing spines from its body and inserting them into the cracks between the pieces of the Golem. After a few seconds, the spines exploded, widening the gaps between the sections of the monster.

The imp’s speed proved its own demise. He placed a number of spines along the creature’s arms and then scampered backwards. He moved on to other body parts, and then returned to the arms to place the next round. The first round, however, had not yet exploded and when the imp brushed by them again, they all went up at once, sending him soaring out of the ring and over the circle of tents.

Bahati swallowed hard and then dashed into the ring, knowing that this might prove to be the most terrifying minute of her life.

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