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Chapter 19: Counting on It

The golem, reeling from antics of the imp, lashed out with renewed fury, pummeling with its fists and spraying water in withering streams. Bahati danced around the water, running back and forth, creating a mire out of the ring. Then, suddenly, she lashed out with a burst of dark ice magic, freezing the stream spewing from its mouth. The water froze around its face, creating a frozen leash between its face and the ground. The golem leaned forward in a precarious position, held up only by the frozen crutch. Without wasting a second, Bahati swung her staff against the ice, screaming a light ice spell. The dark ice gave way, splinting into thousands of shards and sending the hapless golem face first into the waiting mud.

In a tremendous murky splash, the golem found itself completely coated like an enormous chocolate with a surprise center. Bahati raised her staff to deliver the crushing blow when the Count raised a hand. “Stop!” he called in a loud voice that demanded obedience. “Do not destroy my pet. It was costly to obtain and I am fond of it. You have bested it and no further action is required.”

The Count snapped his fingers and the golem disintegrated, leaving the count with a grime-covered glass shard between his fingers. He took a moment to scan the crowd, his expression cold as the blank surface of a mirror.

“I am disappointed in you all,” he began in a low voice. “It took until the last contestant to best my mirror golem. I had so many other things in store for you, but now all that preparation was for nothing.” He turned and pointed to Bahati. “This woman, who only barely possesses enough darkness in her to have survived the Dark Detector has outwitted you all. I have the mind to admit her and no one else this year.”

A low grumble passed through crowd, silenced at once by the Count’s stony gaze. “I will, however, allow her to select four others she wishes to have inducted with her. She saw each of you so I feel he will choose wisely. The choices are still subject to my approval, of course.”

All eyes turned to Bahati, and she felt as if his temperature had risen ten degrees. She knew she couldn’t please everyone, but also that she had to please a few or she might not survive the trip out of the swamp.

She cleared his throat a few times and fidgeted with her staff, trying to buy a few extra seconds to consider. She could see by the shiftiness of the crowd that the Count had not been mistaken about their lack of patience.

Her eyes then fell on the purple imp who had crept back into camp, a deep scowl set on his face and a chunk of his left ear missing. She pointed her staff towards it. “I select you. You had the right idea. You were both resourceful and quick. I can only imagine your potential for chaos.”

The imp’s face brightened and he scrambled up to the Count’s side. The decision did not seem popular among the others, especially the ‘brains over brawn’ crowd. She selected the now brown yeti to appease them.

For the other two, she selected a flier, a man with huge, bat-like wings, and a burrower, who looked like a cross between a lizard and a mole, to make sure he had selected a well-rounded group. After each selection, the Count nodded, though showed no other sign that he was pleased with Bahati’s selections.

At the end, the Count performed another thunderclap, cutting off the impending cries of protest and disappointment. “Hold your peace. I approve this woman’s selections. Be grateful that most of you escaped with your lives and that I have so graciously consented to induct any of you at all.”

The Count gave a low whistle, and the three dogs rushed to his side. The leader, a great beast with a jet-black coat gave a low snarl. This was taken up by the blue one and the last one whose coat alternated between stripes of lighter and darker brown. “The Tall Tails will see you out. Only the five of you remain. Anyone caught lagging will be joining my pets for dinner.”

The Count gave a lower chuckle that made Bahati’s air hairs stand on end. “Oh, excuse me. I meant that they will be joining my pets as dinner.”

The remark sent the rest of the hopefuls scrambling down the path towards the dark gate. In an incredibly short time, the five inductees stood alone with the Count in the circle of tents. “Congratulations. You have been selected from your peers to become members of V.I.C.E. Because the induction is secret, I will meet with each of you individually in the main tent. Starting with you.”

He pointed squarely to Bahati. “Come. You have the privilege of going first.”

The Count ushered Bahati into the tent, which contained only a lower black table covered with a black cloth. Around the room hung torched that glowed with blue flames. The Count motioned for one chair and took the other himself.

“So, what do they call you, wizard?”

Bahati sat and straightened in her chair. “I am called Bahati. And let me just say up front: I am not a villain.”

The Count gave a grin that did not reach his eyes. “Ah, but you have the potential to become one. I see great darkness in you. If you are not a villain, then why have you come here?”

Bahati shifted his weight. It had been one thing being in a group with this man, but alone, he seemed to chill the air around him. “I came seeking aid in overcoming the whirlwind. I wish to ascend to the top of this tower.”

The Count rubbed his chin, his eyes pensive. “I see. You wish to confront the great magician who is master of this place? Has he come to you also?”

Bahati nodded, squirming even more at the thought of her recent encounter with Sir Nickeltwist. “Yes. I have faced him before and know how powerful he is. I rushed into our last encounter and was caught unawares. When I meet him next, I wish to be better prepared.”

“And you realize that it is sometimes best to keep friends in low places,” the Count said. “Yes, I see the wisdom in that. Perhaps your combination of light and dark magic is just the thing needed to overcome him.”

The Count paused for a long moment. “You know, Bahati. Chaos and darkness are not necessarily evil things. They are simply components of nature. You could just as soon call the night evil for being dark and the wind evil for bringing chaos to order. I once took a journey to the moon, and looking out into space, do you know what I realized? Order is the exception and chaos and darkness the rule. Sometimes they are needed to accomplish the task at hand.”

Bahati leaned forward, forcing herself to gaze into the Count’s dark eyes. “Yes, I know,” Bahati said. “But I also know how easily such forces can get out of control. I wish to join your society, but I will never be able to call myself a ‘villain.’”

The tent rumbled with the Count’s laughter. “The word ‘villain’ was inserted mostly to make the acronym work. I will not hold it against you.” He reached into an internal pocket and withdrew to dark brown rectangles connected in the center with a seam. “We must now fulfill the dark ritual that will make you a member of our society and entitle you to our aid.”

The Count extended his hand to Bahati, offering her the other dark rectangle. Bahati eyed it warily. “What is it? I am not going to turn into a demon if I touch that, right?”

The Count’s laughter returned. “It is dark chocolate, what else? There used to be an elaborate ritual with eye of newt and unicorn bones, bloodletting and secret incantations, but I found that as long as you swear the initiate to secrecy, sharing a block of dark chocolate works just as well.”

Bahati could not resist a tight smile as she reached over and snapped off his half of the chocolate bar. He nibbled the corner first to make sure the Count had been telling the truth. When it tasted like chocolate and did not appear to have any adverse effects, she popped the rest of the bar into her mouth.

They chewed in silence for a few minutes, and then the Count withdrew another small object from his coat and placed it on the table in front of Bahati. It resembled a miniature stone tower with a pointed roof.

“Hold it up to your ear,” said the Count.

Bahati grasped it and held it up to her ear. Dozens of tiny squeaks sounded from within.

“What do you have in there, mice?”

“No,” the Count said. “But not that far off. Bats. In the belfry.”

Bahati returned the tower to the table. “Thank you, I suppose. Is there some use for tiny bats that I am overlooking?”

“This is your membership token. There are four bats in there and when you shake the belfry a single bat will fly out. That will summon the aid of any members of V.I.C.E. in the area. Use them wisely. You will not get another set until you pay your membership dues for next year.”

“Are there any members of V.I.C.E. that could help me overcome the whirlwind?”

The count nodded. “Yes, simply release a bat and you will find that you are in good hands. The whirlwind is an instrument of chaos. You will find that my people speak its language.”

Bahati pocketed the tower and nodded. “Is there anything else? I am a member now?”

“Yes,” said the Count. “Though I would urge you to ponder what I have told you. I sense great potential in you, no matter what side of the fence you choose to fight on.”

“I will,” said Bahati, rising to her feet, and fumbling with the charm about his neck. “Thank you.”

“Send the next—“

But Bahati had already disappeared.

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