Chapter 1 – Second Chances
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Demon King, Evil Overlord, Dark Lord — just a few of the titles that have been carried by the premier villains of each generation through the ages. It is interesting to take a look at what kind of individuals have been condemned by the heavens — history tends not to remember the specifics beyond them being irredeemably evil, depraved monsters, but if one looks closely through the records they’ll find a spattering of different backgrounds — from escaped slaves and street urchins to archmages and higher nobility — but for the most part, they are all tied together by a similar thread — ambition.

When I was a child, I had always wondered what kind of crimes against humanity one had to commit to turn the wrath of the gods against them, for surely the gods were kind and loved all of mankind equally — it must have pained them to see these villains led astray, right?

As it turned out, it took very little at all to be labeled a Dark Lord.

I had been sitting in my tower, observing the difference in composition among the five planters containing wheat that were arrayed before me. The local Baron had asked if I would be able to magic together a solution for the poor soil that plagued our small peninsula. I was only happy to help, as improving the life of the common folk had always been one of the driving forces of my magical research.

At that time, I had been trying to create a potion to increase the yield of the crops, which could be both cheaply mass-produced and also still effective after being diluted through the irrigation system. My research had hit something of a wall, as while I was able to achieve both points, the potion remained too effective even after being processed by the plant, as the mice that consumed the grain would end up succumbing to tumors.

I was, however, confident that I would be able to find a solution before the planting season returned — I took pride in being considered one of the greatest living mages, and I had defeated bigger setbacks than carcinogenic fertilizer.

It was, then, to my great surprise to see a notification pop up announcing the naming of a new Dark Lord, and I could only stare dumbly as I read my own name on the declaration.

Attention all believers! For crimes against mankind, the Heavens have decreed that the Archmage known as Julian Crane has fallen to the dark side, and shall henceforth be known as Dark Lord Julian.

 

It had left me shaken to my core, and at the same time both confused and angry.

I did not understand. I had never been much a worshipper of the gods, as I believed in the results of my own actions rather than the providence of the divine, but I had never done anything that could be construed as a crime against humanity. At worst, I had experimented on small animals, but that could hardly be the reason. 

I had had little time to mull over my change in status, as later that day the Baron’s men broke through the doors of my tower in an attempt to end me.

I had not killed a man before that day, and I wept and emptied my gut as I stood in my foyer, surrounded by the corpses of twenty guardsmen. Going to the Baron to understand why he did what he did only resulted in one more death, and his gaze was venomous as he spat at me with his dying breath.

“The will of the gods is absolute.”

With the Baron and his armsmen dead, the barony was in a precarious position — one that I felt responsible for, even though I had only defended myself. Using my knowledge of the magic of life and death, I used the dead soldiers as a base for a fighting force of semi-sentient wights that would defend the populace.

And so I ended up Dark Lord of a small peninsula, with the Dead Legion at my beck and call.

Some years later, I realized the attacks on myself would never cease despite my continued non-aggression. I did not want to die — I had done nothing wrong, and there was still undiscovered magic that awaited me. Unwilling to leave the protection of my soul to a feeble human body, I created a construct of mana, outwardly human but on the inside anything but, bound my soul to a phylactery, and then used my knowledge of Soul magic to possess the homunculus. 

And so, I became a lich.

It was four years later that I began to understand what had caused my damnation in the eyes of the gods.

The gods had summoned a Hero in order to end the menace that was me. As a child, I had grown up to tales of the legendary Heroes, brought here from different worlds by the gods to vanquish the forces of evil. Myths said that only Heroes could truly kill the fallen ones, that they were special and it was only through the grace of the gods that they saved us from the villains.

My army had grown in the past few years — I had done away with the usual taxes in the barony, instead opting to be paid in bones and bodies. This kept the population happy, as they continued to receive protection from monsters and bandits while only having to give away what would have been trash anyway. The bones were useful to me, and the bodies doubly so, as I could reshape them into mindless soldiers. It worked out well, and earned me a fair amount of goodwill with the population — with my subjects.

As my army was holding the invading crusaders at bay, a heavily armored figure broke through the line and rushed to my tower. Breaking down the door with Force magic, the knight entered my seat of power and began their search for its master.

The knight was the Hero, of that I had no doubt, but I was not impressed at all with their performance. They stepped into a number of traps, only surviving because of the spelled armor — but even spelled armor has limits, and the knight would surely have been aware of this. They seemed woefully inexperienced, a far cry from the tales of the legendary Heroes.

I elected to wait and see how the Hero would fare through the climb to the top of the tower, where I had built my observatory. Their performance did improve a little bit, by the end, the knight finally acquiring some awareness of their surroundings, but I knew it would not be enough.

As the Hero broke down the door to my observatory, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by how small they seemed. The knight stood maybe 1.6 meters tall, and even with that suit of armor covering them, they seemed scrawny.

“In the name of the gods, I will end you, Dark Lord,” the voice behind the helmet declared.

The knight charged me, but barely got to the midpoint before two of my skeletal guards descended from the ceiling and skewered the little Hero through the now-spent protection of the suit of armor.

I approached the fallen form, my academic curiosity in front of a thing of legend getting the better of me. I knelt, made sure to remove the Hero’s sword from their vicinity, and then gently removed their helmet.

I still remember the seething rage I felt at that moment, when my gaze fell on the face of a young girl — certainly no older than 16, if not younger. Her blonde hair was slick with sweat, and her blue eyes were becoming increasingly unfocused as she bled out in front of me.

“I failed,” she whispered, voice weak.

As gently as I could, I caressed her head and spoke in soothing tones. “Easy, child. It’s not your fault. You did good. You did all that you could. This isn’t your fault.” I paused for a moment, then asked. “What is your name?”

She seemed surprised, and as the last of her life left her she answered with a whisper. “Sarah.”

At that point, I finally understood why the gods had branded me as a heretic.

They wanted control, and they would not stand for anyone to grow too powerful and possibly threaten their rule. So they would bring children — easy to manipulate — and molded them into weapons, to remove the thorns in their side.

 Grieving for the girl I had only known for a few minutes, I decided I would not allow the gods to get away with this. In my studies, I developed a spell that would bind a departed soul to their own body, creating effectively a sapient undead that was, in practice, the same person they had been in life — I called them revenants. It had been a failure on normal people, as they did not have the mana required to sustain their own life, and would perish after a few months.

But I could feel a great amount of mana coming from the girl, and that gave me ideas. I channeled magic through her body and into the Near-Beyond, retrieved her soul, and got to work.

What I saw when I finally inspected her soul filled me with smoldering rage. From a distance, it had looked like it was oddly larger than usual, which I chalked up to Hero souls being special. And special it was, likely courtesy of the gods’ machinations.

The thing was so completely covered in thick chains of mana that I had thought them to be part of the soul. There were so many layers I couldn’t even see the soul proper through the gaps in the links.  

I removed myself from the surgery and cast a spell of preservation onto the girl’s body. Freeing her soul from the shackles would be an undertaking and I did not want her to return to a half-rotted corpse. I also took a moment to ward us from scrying — the gods had interfered enough, and I did not want them to see what I was going to attempt.

I had to move carefully to cut and pry away at the chains. They were shaped in such a way to make freeing oneself as difficult as possible. I cursed at the gods while I did so.

As I carved through the construct, the original soul started to become visible, and I discovered another addition. A miniature mana well had been grafted onto her soul — likely the work of the gods, to empower her special hero abilities — which would work perfectly for my purposes.

I almost made a mistake when a voice sounded inside my head.

“Dark Lord?”

“Sarah. I am so sorry for what was done to you.”

“What do you mean? Why can’t I see anything? What are you doing?”

“You died. I did not realize you were so young… I am sorry.” I paused my work on the chains so I could answer her properly. “I am working on freeing your soul from the enslavement the gods put it under. I’ve made significant progress, which is probably why you can communicate with me right now.”

“Your words sound true… I remember thinking things that did not feel my own. So they had been manipulating me… I am not surprised.” She paused, then added. “Are you going to enslave me too?”

I recoiled at the accusation. “Never. If you consent, I will bring you back to the living as a revenant. You won’t be wholly alive, but it is all I can do for now.”

She did not wait at all to reply. “I accept.”

“Very well. It will still be some before I finish freeing you. I would appreciate it if you could let me concentrate.”

She was silent after that, and eventually, her soul was free of compulsion. The only abnormal part that remained was the mana well, but I sensed nothing malicious about its presence. In either case, I would closely monitor her situation to ensure her safety.

I returned to my body and cursed myself for my carelessness. A mental ping to one of my smarter minions informed me that I had been under for a week. I was incredibly lucky that my Legion was able to repel the attack without my input.

Unmarred soul in hand, I finished attaching it to Sarah’s body. The result was instantaneous — she opened her eyes and rose to a sitting position, smacking her head against mine in the process.

I could not help it, I laughed, both in amusement and relief. She looked at me oddly and smiled.

“Thank you, Dark Lord,” she said, bowing her head.

“There’s nothing to it,” I said as I waved my hand. “And my name is Julian.”

She stared at me for a minute, seeming to ponder on her change of circumstances. I rose, starting to move away to give her time to think. She would need a lot of time in the coming days.

“Wait,” I heard from behind me.

Sarah lifted herself unsteadily, still unused to the body that had been dead for a week. 

“I won’t swear to the gods, because they have shown that they’re cheating bastards. You had no obligation towards me, but you saved and freed me. For that, I owe you my life,” she then went down on one knee and bowed her head.

“I would be your knight if you would have me.”

I was stunned speechless for a moment. “Don’t be ridiculous, get up,” I said as I moved to help her to her feet. “You can do whatever you want, now. Travel the world as a knight errant, fight dragons and drunkards.”

“That is not the kind of knight I want to be,” Sarah hesitated, then added. “I’ve already seen what the real evil in this world is. I can’t close my eyes and pretend it didn’t happen.

“So, I like your cause and wish to follow you.”

I raised an eyebrow at that. “What would you know about that? I’ve most certainly never declared myself for any cause.”

“When you were fixing my soul, I was conscious through most of it. I was able to hear your thoughts from time to time — that’s where I got most of the context from. Your anger towards the gods was something else. I know you won’t let them get away with this.”

Sarah stepped forward.

“I want to help.”

“You know, it’s not going to be anything quick. It might be centuries to amass enough power to overthrow those leeches. Hells, I don’t even have a plan yet.”

“Even so. Oh and, I might have an idea. We can beat them at their own game.”

“Oh?”

“There’s a few things at play. First, since you defeated me, the gods probably think I’m dead and buried. So they’re gonna continue with sending Heroes until you’re dead.

“We also get these boons when we get summoned here — it makes us level up and master skills more quickly, plus some other combat buffs. 

“So you let them come, and free them like you did with me. I’m sure they’ll easily be persuaded to join up. Then we take our army of undead Heroes and kick the gods’ collective asses.”

She finished with a grin, planting her hands on her hips.

“That’s… a really good plan, actually. I like it. I’ll have to play up the whole big bad evil shtick.” I ran a hand through my hair and let out a sigh. “You have a really good head on your shoulders. At first, I thought you were a bit dim, since you kept running into all my traps, but you’re actually really cunning, aren’t you?”

She blushed and let out an embarrassed laugh. “Ugh, that — it’s just, this armor, you know? I can’t see anything through the visor.”

I smiled, but in my head, I felt another pang of rage. I'd had some suspicions when I saw how they sent an obviously unprepared Hero against me, but the hindering, poorly fitting gear only cemented the idea. She had been set up to fail. But why? And by who? I kept these thoughts to myself and schooled my face. No need to cause her undue anguish. 

“We’ll get that fixed, then. If this is the case, I’ll be happy to have you as my knight.”

“Woo!” she exclaimed as she did a little twirl. The effect was only slightly diminished by the bulky armor. “We’ll get them, boss. I believe in you.”

“We will. But first I need to rearm all my traps.”

 

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