"Come in," the voice said, in response to his knock. "I'm ready for you."
The sign on the door said 'Interview Room', though Nigel was sure that it normally said something slightly different. He was sure, too, that the notice was usually written in flaming sigils, rather than this polite plastic. He frowned for a moment, then shrugged. Maybe it had been changed for centuries, and he just had not noticed, in the same way that he no longer noticed the screams.
He pushed the door open. It was different inside, too, he was sure of it. Two soft chairs faced inwards, shouting, 'We're trying to exude non-threatening friendliness.' The walls were pink, like blossom, or perhaps of watery blood. There were shrouded shapes against the far wall, but he knew what they were. Here and there, bits of blood-encrusted steel poked through the thin covering. A skeletal foot protruded from one end of a badly-covered rack.
His boss was already sitting in one of the chairs, smiling in a way that was probably supposed to put Nigel at his ease. Nigel would have preferred a gloating cackle. He knew gloating cackles. Paternal smiles of beneficence were… worrying.
"Nigel," his boss said. "Take a seat." He shuffled through the inscribed tablets on his lap, as if seeking a prompt on what to say next. "Would you like a drink? Blood, perhaps? A jammy heart? A bonemeal digestive?"
Something is very wrong, Nigel thought. Swallowing, he shook his head to all offers. He had no desire to take away the taste of the kitten he had eaten for lunch. Besides, his mouth was suddenly so dry he doubted he could even swallow an elf.
"Well, Nigel…" His boss crossed two of his legs. "I've called you here so we can have a little chat about how things are going - reflect on past progress, set targets for the next year… That sort of thing."
"We've never had to do that before," Nigel spoke up, before he could stop himself. He threw himself to the floor, ready to lick his boss's feet, but his boss recoiled.
"No, no!" he cried. "Nothing like that. Get up, man. Get up. Although this is called a Review Process, there's nothing confrontational about it. You are free to speak your mind in complete confidence. As I said, it's a chance to reflect…" He stopped, looked around him hastily, and leant forward. "You're right, of course. We never had to do this in the past, but it comes from The Master himself. I had to go through this. You will have to do the same to your staff…"
"But they're slaves," Nigel protested.
"That doesn't mean that they can't have a career path," his boss said. "That they can't have goals, targets…" He held up his hand again, forestalling Nigel's objection. "And it doesn't matter that they're dead heroes, their souls chained in everlasting servitude, bound in skeletal bodies, as an awful parody of life. We can still take care of their work/un-life balance…"
"Yes," Nigel said dully. It seemed safer.
"Well, back to you, Nigel…"
"I prefer Bazrog the Bestial," Nigel hazarded.
"Nigel," his boss said firmly. "From now on, those names are only to be used when interacting with the general public. Real names are to be used at all times within the workplace."
"So what's your name?" Nigel dared to ask. He had always known his boss was D'rack the Destroyer, Chief Under-minion of Darkness.
"Cyril," his boss said, with only the slightest hint of shame.
Nigel sat on his hands. "And the Master?" The Dark Lord himself… Slayer of Hope, Spouse of Darkness, Crusher of Small Children and Furry Animals… His names were legion in all the languages of earth, but his real name… Ah, his real name…
"Boris," Cecil said. "And he is to be called that by all who address him, except in public, of course."
Boris, Nigel thought. Boris. He tried not to cackle.
"You see, The… Boris…" Cecil was clearly finding trouble saying the name aloud, too. "He is anxious to bring our organisation into the 21st Epoch. Our office practices are, to be frank, prehistoric. Boris believes that this is the main reason why we have been languishing in the wilderness, while the distant civilisations of the world grow and prosper beneath benevolent kings, and orphaned farm boys cavort in the hay, confident that the threat of Darkness has been banished forever, and…" He yawned. "You know the drill."
Nigel nodded. He had eaten quite a few such farm boys. They were always far tastier than the irritating old hermits who tended to follow them around at a distance.
"But Boris wants to Rise," Cecil said. "He wants to Awaken. He wants to Stir in the East. But to do that, he needs…" Cecil paused for dramatic effect. "A strategic plan."
Nigel frowned. "What's that?"
Cecil lowered his voice. "Not quite sure, to be honest. But he has one. He has also concluded that the whole ethos of the organisation needs changing. Yes, we are in the business of evil, but we can still treat our employees well. A happy workforce is a productive workforce. There will be morale surveys. There will be newsletters and outings and Beltane bonuses. We Servants of Darkness can be every bit as much a caring employer than those happy-clappy elven corporations."
"Oh," Nigel said. He was incapable of anything more.
A hint of regret entered Cecil's eyes. "We're not Minions any more. We're the Senior Management Team." His expression turned wan. "We're to wear suits…" He shook himself. "But back to your Review… Am I to take it from your comments earlier that you have not read the Strategic Plan?"
Nigel shook his head.
"A copy can be obtained from the Enslaved Seer on the eleventh floor," Cecil said. "Torture him a little bit until he utters it. It's fun." His eyes shone red for a moment, then faded to their usual slitted yellow. "I wonder how long before we're not allowed even to do that. Health and Safety, after all…"
"I will," Nigel said. He had no idea what those two words meant, so he ignored them. Torturing was fun, anyway. He would cling to that.
"You need to read the Strategic Plan," Cecil said. "The Mission Statement, too. 'The forces of Darkness exist to spread despair and despondency across…' Um… '…preparing the way for a reign of blood and terror, in which the last cowering remnants of mankind cower…' Um… Something about quality massacres. Accountable. Responsive… Something like that. Oh, yes, 'and the annihilation of all hope.' That's it."
"Oh," Nigel said. He seemed to be saying it a lot.
"In addition," Cecil continued, "there will be business plans for every section. You need to ensure that all your personal aims and objectives fit into the overall aims of the organisation, as expressed through the various plans."
"What?" Nigel frowned, struggling to understand the strange words. "You mean…?"
"Yes." The regret was unmistakeable on Cecil's face now. "It's not enough just to be evil any more. You might be wandering around, come across a lovely village of elven children, just ripe for eating… But unless it's in the action plan for this year, you can't do it. And, even if it is… Well, you still need to conduct a Risk Assessment before taking a single step."
"Oh." Nigel was seized by a horrible thought. He wondered if he dared utter it. "Are you sure this is all the Master's plan? He's not been… got at?"
Cecil did not answer him. Instead he said tonelessly, "We need aims. Objectives. Targets. Measurable ones, that is." He looked at Nigel. "How many souls would you say your department process in a year?"
"Process?" Nigel echoed. "Department? Oh… Ten thousand?" he hazarded.
"So aim for a 5 percent increase, then," Cecil said. "Set a target date… Say next midwinter. Something measurable, but something achievable, too. We don't want to set ourselves up to fail, but neither do we want to aim too low, because that is not the way to success." He frowned. "I think that's what the poster in The… Boris' office said. The one with the kittens climbing a tree."
"But can't I just…"
"No," Cecil said. Nigel thought there was true despair in his eyes now. "We can't. We have to measure the impact that we're making. We have to conduct user surveys…"
"Our users," Nigel pointed out, "tend to die when they… er… use our services.
"We're to do research, too." Cecil carried on as if Nigel had not spoken. "We have to find out how other similar organisations perform…"
"But we are Darkness," Nigel protested. "Alone in the world, and absolute. How can we compare…?"
"Nevertheless…" Cecil said, and sighed. "Then there's something about upper quartiles…"
"Upper Quartile? Is that the village where those halflings used to life? You know, that one where I ate that halfling who had a magic ring, and was sick for a week?"
"No," Cecil said. He sounded unutterably bleak.
Nigel waited a moment, but Cecil just sat there. "So what now?" Nigel dared to ask, at last.
"You know?" Cecil said, throwing the tablets to the ground. "I don't care. I resign. I'm off to join the barbarians instead."
"But they, despite their scary appearance and their propensity for having constant duels over precedence and honour, generally end up fighting on the side of Light, and by dying nobly, pave the way for the Hero to save the day," Nigel protested.
"Who cares?" said Cecil. "I bet the only targets they have are the ones they shoot at. I'm off."
Nigel watched him go, then studied the pink walls, and the oh-so-unthreatening arrangement of the chairs. He felt bleak and small and cornered, like heroes probably felt before he harvested their souls and turned them into undead slaves. He felt as if all hope had been sucked out of his life, as if all that remained of the future was a grey and endless…
"I'm coming with you!" he shouted, unfurling his leathery wings. "Wait for me!"
The last thing he heard was the voice of his Master, speaking in his head, whining, "But you can't all go! That completely throws out my quotas. One minion for every ten menials! It's in the Plan. You can't do this to me! Come back here! Come back here, I say! Come back here!"
Far far below him, the Dark Lord's Fastness dissolved into furious smoke and ashes.
Nigel shrugged, and flew on.