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The Essence of Villainy

Prologue

The flames danced rigorously to a nervous tune. Gustav zoned out on the flames, letting their restlessness echo his soul.

Why was he here, today? What had led him so far? Led him to the brink of destruction, to the point of no return?

He stood before his fireplace of obsidian make, observing the fire. His hands were clasped behind his back, his mien ruminant. Behind him waited his destiny. Three layers of attire arrayed on a table, each tailored for the purpose of enduring these "trials" that he was so accustomed to. Trials by fire.

He let his head droop momentarily. Today was a day he'd never forget.

"Dark Lord", his maid said. "I have prepared the things you asked for."

"Good." Gustav turned around, hoping that his broodings would rest with the flames. He walked to Aries. The maid held the fort between Gustav's work desk and a lavish, pure-white-sheeted double-bed. Quite symbolical.

Aries took off Gustav's coat, her hands brushing slightly against his shoulders. Then, a piece of clothing at a time, she undressed Gustav... until he was wearing a pair of comfortable-looking slacks and a worn shirt. She then introduced the first layer of attire from the table - a uniform that appeared erroneously like a suit, yet had cuts by the side, so as to facilitate rapid movement.

She spoke while helping Gustav to suit up. "Was it really necessary, Dark Lord?"

Gustav didn't answer immediately, instead opting to finish buttoning the suit. "It's a precaution, Aries."

Aries pursed her lips. "You've always won," she said, smoothing a wrinkle on his shoulder. "There's never been a need for precaution like that... spell."

"There is now," Gustav said.

He gestured towards the table, and Aries proceeded to fetch the next piece of attire - a cape too long for normal usage, seeing as it would drag on the ground. She offered it to Gustav, who took the cape from Aries and spun it around his neck, closing the clasps. Upon doing so, the cape took on a dead flutter, floating in the mid-air instead of obeying gravity. A familiar streak of energy coursed through Gustav. The gloom of the room appeared less oppressive now, and he could smell the ashen particles drifting from the fireplace. Also what Aries had eaten for lunch today. Vegetables, mostly.

He clenched his fist hard. and almost felt like he could punch through stone. That feeling, however, was an illusion. Gustav had tried it once, and had only left a dint on the boulder.

Still, the coat pulled more than its weight in adding to Gustav's physical prowess.

"Besides..." Gustav said, "this time is different. The Church sent their very best - a legitimate world-ender."

"A heroine, Gustav," Aries said.

Gustav heard sarcasm in her tone. "Weren't they all?" he said, beckoning to the table again.

As Aries turned, Gustav was left looking at her. The maid's long, lustrous black hair flowed freely over her shoulders. Her maid's attire had an occasional white frill here and there, but was duskier in design than those from the south. Just like Gustav preferred it. Aries's eyes had a dismissive quality to them, but that, too, fit Gustav just fine. He was the dark lord, after all; nothing wrong with a maid commanding respect through gaze alone.

Especially since somebody would have to pick up the command, were Gustav to die in the near future.

He saw Aries pick a small, wooden case. The maid passed it to Gustav with reverence - or, perhaps, fear. Gustav's fingers wrapped protectively over the ornate case, and he laid his eyes on the relief on the lid - a picture of two armoured hands clasped together, glowing.

He muttered a few words under his breath, and the case began to shine with a soft, red hue. A distinct *cling* rang, as if signifying that something had just taken place.

"Cling?" Aries said, offering Gustav a puzzled look.

"I put a magical lock on it," Gustav explained. "If there's no sound, I'll know that somebody tampered with the artifact."

The maid nodded. "I see."

Gustav nodded to her. Then he looked at the case, cracking the lid. Within, resting against a silken cushioning, was a pair of exquisite gloves. A red spot marked both gloves' backs, and crimson lines traced from there to each fingertip. Metal linings trailed in tangent to crimson lines, finishing what was a workmanship of silvery-crimson jet.

Gustav geared up in a matter of seconds, his manner accustomed. The silken fabric felt natural on his hands. He had missed the feeling. Now to hope that he wasn't completely out of practice; maintaining the castle and a monster army had taken its toll on Gustav's sparring time.

"Alright", Gustav said, walking then past Aries to the door. He turned to look at her one more time. "While I'm out there, make sure to send me support if needed", he said. "Not any lizardmen, though. A demon lord will suffice."

Aries bowed her head. "...Master."

"Yes?"

"Why not send your monster army to face her, instead?"

Gustav shook his head. "Because she's a monster in her own right, Aries. As strong as they come."

Was she fidgeting? "But still-"

"The army would simply get decimated, Aries," Gustav said. "No- not decimated, but wiped out of existence. And I'm not having that."

Aries pursed her lips together.

Gustav turned his back to her and opened the door. What greeted him beyond was the familiar smell of molden stone and moist, cold air; the Castle Darkstead's corridors.

He heard a voice. "Master!"

"What now?" Gustav asked, sighing.

Aries walked to the doorway, and gesticulated at her chin. "You forgot to shave, Master. I can't have you appear before your nemesis like that, can I?"


After having his beard shaved, Gustav set off through the Castle Darkstead's corridors. Barely any light illuminated his way, but it was all good - after all, Gustav wasn't in the habit of employing ghosts who loved to scare the living daylights out of anyone, human or not. Nor was he in the habit of employing the undead. Unpractical, those - their decomposing bodies emitted a certain odor that was repugnant to the sensibilities of human nose.

It's just like Aries to stay behind, Gustav thought, passing by a pair of lizardmen guarding the entrance to the eastern wing of the Castle. Both of them saluted - not lazily, but with a gumption belonging to an eager recruit, or perhaps a respectful veteran. It was kinda hard to tell at times, what with the lizardmen rarely showing emotion on their faces. Gustav raised his hand to the guardsmen. Respect breeds respect - even a villain should understand as much.

Past the corridor, the castle suddenly expanded, rooms becoming wide and spacious. In truth, Gustav's wing was a remnant from the olden days, when he'd had to plan for a possible enemy assault. Leaner corridors allowed for a superior means of defense. The rest of the castle had been reworked ten years ago, or so - with the help of a few dark mages who had lifted stones into the air, far more efficient in their work than any mechanical lift. Ah, but he didn't employ the dark mages anymore, either. They had... usurpatory tendencies.

The halls and training yards passing by, the Castle Darkstead's gatehouse soon stood before Gustav. Darken obsidian, much like the castle proper, it arose higher than most of the buildings - sans the now unoccupied towers of the dark wizards, as well as the highest tower, which was meant for a ritual rarely conducted.

He didn't have to say a word to the guards. A clicking sound ensued, as the cogs responsible for raising the drawbridge began their work.

Gustav rubbed his shaven chin. He had invested so many years in this castle. So many plans: a few failed ones and some accidental successes.

He admired his red-and-black gauntlets, metal lines tracing the sides of the red trails. They would make sure Gustav could even block a blade, if necessary.

Of course, whether he actually could depended on the blade in question. Some blades were just blades - iron or steel fashioned by simple human ingenuity in a forge. But some blades were not simple. Some blades were complex - having as much meaning and history to them as they had age. Such items were oftentimes relics of bygone ages, magical to boot and highly destructive in nature. And should an adversary have one of these blades - nether hells, should they be able to craft such blades - it would mean the foe were nigh unbeatable. At least, without an artifact of one's own.

Gustav sighed. Afore him, the drawbridge hit the ground with an earthen thump, the sound's echo bringing a sense of finality.

He knew.

He knew that this would be the last great battle, no matter what.

Gustav crossed the bridge, then peered over the landscape. The night was dark, but here in Gustav's realm the things that went bump in the night were regulated to their own areas of living. His army was away, too. He had stationed it a few day's journey away, so that the Church pup wouldn't decimate it. Should Gustav survive, he'd need it to invade the southern lands, where the Church headquarters were.

But that was only a possible *then*. This moment here was the *now*, and what lay before Gustav was an area fitting for the final battle. A great field of grass, overshadowed by a blackened night-sky with only the brightest stars shining through the enchantment on Gustav's lands. Of course, the said enchantment of darkness only applied to areas where there was no agriculture. There was a solid reason for it, too: the lizardmen were nocturnal and the demons, from demon lords to succubi, didn't really care much for the sunlight.

Again, Gustav looked at his hands - specifically, the red spots of his gloves.

He sighed, and willed his soul into the gloves. The red spots began glowing with a steady pulse, and a quiet hum of energy filled the silent surroundings.

Not that this area would remain quiet for long, as there were storm clouds approaching from the south. Gustav shook his head at the irony. Then, in a spur of the moment, Gustav took off sprinting towards the forest at the end of the plains. He'd reach there very soon, thanks to his enchanted cape boosting his physical capabilities.

From here on out, Gustav wasn't sure what awaited him. His scouts had reported a rather stubborn advance from the Church's pup as she had - from what Gustav had heard - cleared out entire swathes of land, felling down everything in her way... including the vanguard of Gustav's army and every bit of an enchanted dark forest that Gustav had taken care to plant. There went his future-oriented plans of recruiting some magical beasties. He'd never have a pet, now.

As if to punctuate Gustav thoughts, lightning struck the forest. A light occurrence normally, but considering what the church lackeys were capable of, Gustav found himself tensing up. Preparing. Flexing his hands again, as he ran.

Azure light struck down again. Sooner than Gustav would've thought possible, forest began to catch afire. He knew from experience, though, that these azure bolts contained enormous amounts of heat. Knowing that, he watched as large flame-tongues erupted from the middle of the forest, soon spreading to either side with a speed abhorrent.

Gustav put his hand on the suit. This one had been specifically enchanted to resist temperature changes and common weaponry. However, there were limitations to both. The enchantment would stop Gustav from getting fatally wounded from a shallow attack, but a decisive attack would still do the trick. He suspected that the Church pup's armour had been enchanted the same way, albeit hers was likely to grant a better defense against normal weapons. The downside of that being her mobility would be highly impaired.

Gustav stopped running, fixing his eyes at the edge of the forest aflame. A glimmering light had appeared there, drawing closer. It was female in shape - armoured, the sword in hand almost trailing the ground.

Gustav lowered his stance and waited.

Not a few seconds after, the woman's inquisition assaulted him. "Are you Gustav, the Dark Lord?"

Gustav exhaled in a controlled manner, flexing his hands. "What of it?"

The woman pointed her sword at him. "Then I will take your head. For my sisters' lives, you deserve to die."

A memory flashed in Gustav's mind. A young girl on a stake, burning in the flames. It had happened many times, and always with a cold exhilaration.

"You will try," he said, "but I can't say much for your chances."

He had to engage in trash talk. He had to enrage her. Make her lose control. Taunt the church witch to her death.

Since she was far tougher than all the others. Since she had trained all the others.

And she could actually kill Gustav.

The woman in a shining armour stepped out from the flames. Gustav could now see her chiseled jaw, as well as an appearance fashioned by years of adversity and inhuman training.

She raised her voice, and it wasn't one bit shrill or taken with anger. "You fancy yourself a victor?"

"I defeated every one of your sisters," Gustav hissed. "I took them alive. I put them through the torture chamber and burned them on a stake. I will do the same to you."

The mask on her face showed signs of cracking. "You will die, Dark Lord!"

And then, the woman stopped herself. Took a deep breath. Straightened herself. An apparent emotion had taken over her face, but her body obeyed another tune. Ever so slowly, she raised her sword, pointing it at Gustav.

The air around the woman crackled. Gustav felt a tingling sensation; one that he knew would become worse the closer he got to the woman.

He willed his gauntlet to activate. Its red lines glowed with a dark-red radiance, and light began gathering at the end of every finger. Gustav clenched his fist, and the crimson lights coalesced into a ball of energy, pulsing like a heart.

He threw the crimson-pulsing ball at the woman, then rolled forward as lightning came down at the spot where he had stood just before.

He ended his roll with a sideways pounce, his cape granting him unnatural dexterity. He coalesced the light into his palms again, and sent it at the woman in three fast flicks. Two orbs were deflected, and the last one met with her sword, the split pieces narrowly avoiding her head and crashing against the treeline behind her. Now there was no treeline.

Gustav quickly gathered his surroundings. The woman had closed quite the distance, despite the supposed mobility impairment. By the hells, no! She's closing in for a melee.

Gustav rolled again, a wave of heat striking his back as lightning assaulted his previous spot.

And now the azure rays rained down on all the spots where he could be, thunder roaring. The ground shook. Gustav quickly wrapped his cape around himself, vaulting into the air and... disappearing.

At least, from the woman's senses. This had been the trick by which he had gotten his first mark - the first "sister" of lightning. Although Gustav didn't hold any hopes of it working against the adversary before him, it would at least buy him time.

And by the hells, was she close now. Only some twenty feet away, and still she kept casting her lightning down all about, raising up a veil of dust and mud flecks. Gustav grimaced, cape around himself.

The other sisters from before hadn't been able to summon this much lightning. Clearly, something was wrong with her.

Gustav looked down at his hands, although he couldn't see them now. I thought this fight would take a bit longer, he ruminated. Perhaps so that whatever support Aries sends would arrive in time. But they couldn't defeat her, either.

Gustav's forehead produced cold sweat. Do I really have to use it? I don't even know if the incorporation with the artifact was successful.

He saw the church witch looking around, then stand rigidly, lifting her blade up towards the skies. A dark foreboding smote Gustav's shoulders, weighing him as pure-white storm clouds began forming above her.

Gustav began to run. This was something he had never seen before, but he had his suspicions. Each church pup had been greater in combat prowess than the others before her. Their techniques had become sharper, even receiving new applications.

The last church pup that had seen Gustav disappear had countered him using a wide-range technique that had barely left him alive. She had induced it by ramming her sword down at the ground, and somehow, the earth had become a conduit for the lightning's wrath. But this woman wasn't about to strike ground, instead lifting her sword up to the skies.

Gustav saw lightning strike down on her sword. One time, two times. Thrice.

Each bolt imparted the sword with a greater glow, and upon the third strike Gustav couldn't look at the sword anymore.

In one swift movement, the woman turned her sword downward, ramming it at the ground.

The next few actions were a blur in Gustav's mind.

He appeared behind the woman, a swirling, nervously palpitating purple orb in hand. He could feel the orb pull him, pull her, as if capable of inhaling the whole existence within its center.

Being too close for comfort, he didn't even bother throwing the orb, but instead pushed it on the woman.

By inhuman reflexes and strength, the woman turned her strike midway through, swinging a slash that caused Gustav's knees to buckle as he met it.

It was her radiant sword against his purple sphere of unstable power.

A cyan light flashed between the two, suddenly expanding. Instead of the orb erasing the woman - as Gustav's plan had been - a whirling cyan depth manifested into the air and wrenched the two apart with an irresistible strength. Their stalemate raveling like a human skull under a mace, the two were engulfed in a light that took their consciousness all the same.