It was the first time in three years. Three years since they’d come together and made the group official. Three years since they’d written their mission statement.
“We, the reviled, the misunderstood, and the hated, we the villains of countless stories, both true and untrue, we the bad, the sorry, and the frightening, do hereby resolve to fight the evil of the world wherever we find it, even when it resides within ourselves.”
It was a simple mission in statement but much harder in practice. They were a group of nefarious skill, of hunger and old grudges. In the beginning, it had been hard for them not to turn on one another. Ogre’s neck still wore the teeth marks from those days, an ugly reminder of who the villains could be.
But they were tired, all of them, of living in the shadows. Tired of being misused, miscast, and mischaracterized.
It was the wolf who’d first created the flyer. It was he who led their deliberations and headed their council. And it was the wolf who’d cancelled last week’s meeting.
Tonight, he sat quietly at the front of the room. He was almost perfectly still, save the perceptible clenching of his jaw and the periodic sweep of his bright golden eyes over the spot dragon usually filled. The sudden vacancy of the largest seat on the council would’ve been obvious even without the wolf’s attention.
From the back of the room, witch laughed ominously under her breath. It was a habit she’d been hard pressed to give up and one of the reasons some council members doubted still to this day that she was truly on their side.
Witch had been cast in more tales than the rest of them combined. Her plight had affected countless falsely accused humans. She was the ultimate female villain, ancient, infamous, occasionally even aquatic.
But wolf trusted her and it seemed, maybe, that she trusted him too. She showed up every week, at least, and she fought on their side. But that laugh. And her smile, always seeming a bit like a soft, wordless threat.
And of course, there was the wizard. The dark wizard had never joined their council. It was laughable to imagine that he ever would. He, too, had been cast in countless tales. But unlike the witch, unlike the wolf or the troll or the ogre or the dragon, unlike even the silent snake, he relished his role. It mattered not that he lost battles here and there. The wizard was fighting a much larger battle. And it seemed sometimes to the others, he may even have been winning.
The wizard was the shadow that hung constantly over their meetings. And in whatever incarnation it could be true, the wizard was in love with the witch. That is to say, he desired her more intensely than a fire sucks oxygen from the room as it burns a house to the ground.
The witch had but one other real friend on the council. The dragon. And he, or she (no one was certain), had gone missing.
Finally the wolf stood and addressed the room, “Ladies and gentlemen of the never esteemed Council of Villains, we have a problem. The wizard has taken dragon. It…it’s…”
“It’s a trap,” finished witch. And she smiled that disconcerting smile. “He means for us to go to him, to try and rescue dragon. And then he means to take me. I’m sure, also, he means to kill each of you.” The witch chose her words plainly and let them hang in the air with little more than a shrug.
The wolf nodded. “But he underestimates his foes.”
Ogre was sitting at the front of the room as always, listening in his cautious, calculating way. He spoke up almost immediately. His voice was deep with alarm and edged sharply with accusation. “Maybe. Maybe he does underestimate us. I think it’s certain we’ve not yet seen the witch’s full powers. But some of us will die if we go forward with this. Of that, there can be no doubt.” Seeing the witch still smiling, Ogre grew angry. “I suppose that doesn’t matter to you, does it? You care only for wolf and dragon. And perhaps even that is a ruse! Maybe the wizard didn’t capture dragon by himself at all!”
“Be careful now,” said the wolf. “It is our mission to fight evil wherever it resides. The greatest source of evil in our world has captured one of our friends, one of our council members, and has set his sights on another. In truth, this confrontation has been a long time coming. We spend much time fighting evil where we find it, but we ignore it’s source. We retreat into the shadows while he exploits and manipulates and takes whatever it is he wants. Not this time. And no more.” The wolf’s voice had grown deadly quiet and his lips had curled back to reveal just enough of his sharp, white teeth. They glistened in the moonlight and for a moment, no one spoke.
Coyote and fox had been sitting together in the back as they always did. Noiselessly rising to all fours, they addressed the wolf directly. “We are with you, brother. Of course we are. But we’re going to need a plan.”
“Ay, plan!” bellowed troll, his spittle misting the top of ogre’s bald head. Ogre clenched his huge fists and gave wolf a hard look. “I want to hear what the witch has to say,” he spoke more evenly this time but his anger was palpable just beneath every word.
The witch strode to the front of the room to join the wolf and for a moment, a strange heat seemed to press upon each of the council members. “The ogre is not wrong. Some of us may die. But if we don’t go, dragon most certainly will.” She stood quietly for quite some time, surveying the faces looking back at her. It was the most she’d ever spoken at a council meeting.
“The choices those in this room have made with our lives have not always been the right ones. We’ve all suffered at the hands of the world. But instead of seeking justice, we’ve sought vengeance. For we know that the world is not always a just place.” And then that smile. “I share your anger. But I don’t share your fear. I’m afraid, of course. I’d be a fool not to be. But I’m more afraid of what will happen if we don’t go. If we walk away from our mission, who else will take it up? Who but those who’ve lived it can truly stand against evil? I want to bring my friend dragon home. But I am with wolf. The wizard takes great pleasure in the suffering of others, the cruel destruction of life, the spread of evil like a pestilence. You speak as if you are afraid to fight, but you should be more afraid not to.”
At that, the wolf let out a great, deep howl.
Slowly, the members all rose to their feet. Snake slithered against witch’s pointed boots. Raven perched lightly on her shoulder.
Ogre lowered his eyes for a long moment before lifting them again to meet hers. Somewhere inside, he still feared this was all a trick, but there in the moment, he believed her. He roared his assent.
The plan was a perilous one. The council knew where the wizard lived. The witch and the wolf, on the day of last week’s meeting, had trekked to the far north of the city and waited for a glimpse of dragon fire just to be sure. But to get inside, they’d need it to appear as if they’d taken the bait.
The problem was, in truth, they all knew they had taken the bait. Whether consciously or not, they were walking right into the wizard’s trap.
Their only hope was to use their foe’s weaknesses against him. The witch alone seemed confident, or at least as strangely unperturbed as she ever was.
As for the others, they may have held doubts about their chances for success, but they were committed. There were no princesses or knights in this tale. These were survivors. They’d fought all their lives, but finally believing in what they were fighting for made them far more dangerous.
And so the Council of Villains set off on a rescue mission with more at stake than the wizard could ever have understood. Raven, snake, fox, and coyote scouted ahead while the wolf, the witch, the ogre, and the troll guarded the rear. Ever conscious of his companions, wolf took in the hard set of ogre’s jaw, the strange, dreamy determination in witch’s eyes, troll’s purposeful stride. He admired the skill with which raven, snake, fox, and coyote moved undetected through the landscape.
As they neared the edge of the city, the council saw puffs of smoke that could only be dragon’s rising up through the clouds. The lair itself was visible to none but those who’d already been inside. Luckily for the mission, the witch had. An unhappy time in a story told long ago. The flash of memory sent a dark shadow flitting across her face so quickly it was almost imperceptible as she pushed the cold feeling of fleshless hands and death, not all wrought by the wizard, from her mind.
The witch knew no amount of stealth or cunning could hide them from the wizard once they’d crossed into his lands. And so they entered freely, together, each and every one of them walking forward into a string of moments somewhere within which could be their last.
The wizard had made himself handsome for the occasion. He wore jet black hair and matching eyes with a fine suit of such deep red it could have almost been mistaken for more black. To look at him was to experience the sensation of having just bitten the inside of one’s cheek. The metallic taste of blood was fresh in the ogre’s mouth as he watched the wizard stride towards them. He smiled at the witch, and to the ogre’s great dismay, she smiled back. When the wizard bent to kiss her hand, the ogre lunged forward in rage knowing he’d been tricked. There was a white flash, but the bolt, sent straight for the ogre’s heart, was blocked with nothing more than a casual flick of the witch’s left pinky finger.
“With friends such as these,” the wizard mused. Wolf could see the hunger in his eyes, the coating of saliva on his teeth betraying his languid manner.
“Indeed,” smiled the witch. “But they are my friends nonetheless. And it seems you have taken one.”
“Miss your dear dragon, do you?” the wizard was smiling even more broadly now. “I imagine you know how easy it could be to free him. I’ve no use for dragons, or any of these other silly creatures you’ve been so foolish to bring with you here.”
“Easy was never my style,” said the witch. The smile was gone now, replaced by an expression none but the wolf had ever seen her wear before. He’d seen it the first time they’d met, long before the council existed. It was the face she’d worn when as a young queen, she’d saved him from the huntsman.
There was a soft sizzle as something hot, like shimmering liquid metal, scorched the floor by the wizard’s boot. Anger flashed across his face and blood pooled lightly at the witch’s throat, but she’d been ready for him and the worst of the spell dissipated futilely into the air.
The wizard opened his mouth and for a moment, it seemed he had roared the rage of a dragon until dragon himself (or herself), flew into the cavern and smashed the wizard against the wall in a single, fluid motion of terrible grace. Almost immediately, the room exploded and the members of the council were rent into the air. Dragon and witch did their best to stop the falling, collecting each council member safely onto dragon’s back.
Fox was unconscious, ogre was bleeding from his ear, and wolf and coyote had both been badly singed. But they were, all of them, alive. Witch told dragon to get them back to council chambers immediately and let raven tend to their wounds. Then she leapt off dragon’s back and the Council of Villains watched her disappear into the smoke below.
Ogre didn’t understand. The mission had been a success. But wolf knew. He himself was cast in the age old proverb. The two wolves, one good and one evil, eternally at war inside each of us. He knew which one survived and he knew what the witch was doing. He only hoped he’d be able to ask her about it at next week’s meeting.
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