Obviously this story is quite old and, at the time, had a slight political bias to it. It’s been updated to the modern era and has a bit more bite to it–though not outrageously so. At least, I don’t think so.
This was written for a monthly challenge at a certain fantasy writer’s site in:
Your challenge is to write a story based on a cliché that’s in some way reversed. For example, the heroine rescuing a beautiful prince from an enchanted tower. It doesn’t have to be a gender issue, (that’s just one example) just a cliché turned on its head.
Gnesh was having a bad day of it. In fact, he was having a bad life of it, but so was everyone else he knew. Except the damn traitor trolls, who had worked out some sort of agreement whereby they still lived under their various bridges and charged others to cross them. Troll bridges, as it were. But they didn’t get to keep what they earned; it was all turned over to the forces of evil.
There weren’t enough bridges for all of the trolls, however, so many of them had to guard important roads—which came to be known as troll roads, of course—from troll booths at all of the access points, and they didn’t get anything more than continued existence from that deal, either. Served them right as far as Gnesh was concerned.
For centuries the rest of the forces of good, the goblins, knolls and ogres, had been forced to live in small, mobile groups due to their enemy’s disturbing habit of annihilating them on the spot, and Gnesh was getting just a little tired of it.
Why can’t we all just get along, he thought.
Four-hundred years ago, the creators, the forces of light and life, had been captured and imprisoned, sealed away from the world, and the world had suffered for it since. If any alive now knew what those forces were, they weren’t saying. Gnesh was pretty sure someone did, though. Why else were small bands of reluctant heroes being sent on quests to find them?
The followers of darkness, on the other hand, had no particular reason for wanting them released. They actively discouraged such adventures, which eventually lead to the annihilation thing. Somewhere along the way they determined that even permanently established settlements, villages with stone buildings and large tracts of farmland were on quests.
But that’s why we’re here. Someone has had a new vision, and that means another poke about.
The current camp was a makeshift one, created solely for the Council of Elders to meet. Guards from all three races had been set throughout the camp, and that was what had Gnesh in a huff today. Once night fell, ogres and goblins had to take over for the knolls, due to the knolls unfortunate tendency to turn into little piles of dirt when the sun set.
The knolls made good lookouts, they had excellent eyesight when they weren’t being piles of dirt, but their diminutive stature made them less than acceptable bodyguards. After sundown, the ogres and goblins had to do extra duty as guards and lookouts. On top of all that, one had to be careful which piles of dirt one kicked while in a huff or the morning could bring an unhappily dismembered knoll. They tended to complain about that.
Then there was the fact that only the female ogres were of any use for anything other than crushing things, as the males were of extremely limited intelligence. The males could be set as lookouts sometimes, if you found a truly gifted one, but you had to make sure they knew exactly what they were looking out for. If you didn’t, you might find a very agitated ogre jumping up and down, grunting furiously, and pointing at the dangerous butterfly making it’s haphazard way toward the camp.
All in all, Gnesh’s day had not been one to remember, but at least his duty was done for the night. The camp still needed to be guarded, but Gnesh’s post had been at the Council’s meeting place, and they had retired for the night.
There were two Elders from each race, and technically they could have continued. Whatever magic turned the knolls to dirt at night allowed them to still be able to speak. No one knew how this was possible, and no one cared to delve too deeply into the mystery. It was just one of those things. However, one did not discuss important, world shattering events with piles of dirt regardless of how intelligent and eloquent they were. The Council would resume after sunrise, which left Gnesh free to find his bed, and possibly some companionship.
* * *
Every now and then a ‘genius’ male ogre came along, one who was actually capable of cognizant thought and of communicating said thought. Bazz had been one of those ogres until he went insane—his insanity being the reason for this meeting. Bel, the ogress Elder, realized Bazz’s rantings were really a foretelling and called for the Council through the far-speakers.
The majority of his ramblings were nonsense, but three relevant pieces of information came from it. Firstly: there was one last, final chance to free the creators from their imprisonment, and a hint that those forces might actually be a mythical lost race. Secondly: to do this, three must go on a quest to find and destroy the thing, whatever it was, that held them captive. And lastly: a vague, semi-poetic statement . . .
In the heart of the blackness darker than night
Lies the salvation of the light and the life
Most of the first day was spent discussing the ramifications of this information, and debating the existence of this lost race. The two knoll Elders, Nendesin and Cencidar, were convinced it was foolish quest, sure that these chimera did not exist and that Bazz’s rant was just that—a rant.
Bel, the female ogre Elder, was of a mind that they did exist and was only waiting for the debate on who to send. Wazz, another ‘genius’ male ogre and Elder, spent most of the day calling everyone Gnash because he’d met a goblin named Gnash somewhere and liked the name.
Gnash, the male goblin Elder who was sitting next to Kneli, the female goblin Elder, agreed with Bel. Kneli thought the quest should go forth, and also liked the name Gnash, as she and Gnash were an item. That left the Eldest of the Elders, the Wisest of the Wise, the male goblin, Gnarl, to break the stalemate.
Before Gnarl could render his decision, though, the sun set and they were left with four Elders, two piles of dirt, and him. “Just once,” Gnarl complained, “I wish we could finish a Council meeting before sundown.”
“Hey, don’t blame us,” Nendesin said. “It’s not like we asked for this.”
* * *
Gnesh had found his dalliance for the night, a beautiful green goblette named Knerdi. Her ruby red eyes had just the right amount of fire, and perfectly complimented his pond-scum green ones. The way her putrid, stringy hair cascaded down her knobbly head sent shivers down his too-curved, hunched spine, and her breasts drooped as perfectly as the bags below her eyes.
In the way of their kind, their love making was loud, rough and blended perfectly into the cacophony of several other altercations that were going on in the goblin section of the camp. It happened every night and was the main reason the other two races avoided the area, especially at night. Gnesh and Knerdi neither heard nor cared about any of this—they only had eyes and things for each other, and their own screeches drowned out all other noises anyway.
Like everything else about her, Gnesh loved that Knerdi’s shrieks and squawks had exactly the right amount brain tingling penetration to them. Far more satisfying than fingernails across a chalkboard. It was a rare thing when two who blended so well found each other.
“That was amazing!” Knerdi screamed when it was all over. “It’s never been like that before!”
It was always like that for several minutes after good goblin sex. It took several minutes for their brains, their bodies and their voices to come back to reasonableness, and it was another damn good reason everyone else avoided the goblin section of the camp.
“Me too! Me neither!” Gnesh shouted back, smiling even as his brain cringed. It was always nice to have his ego stroked too, but he was sure she actually meant it, and that made it even better. “There’ve been hundreds of oth . . .!”
“How many?” Knerdi asked as a frown darkened her countenance beautifully. Her shriek was gone, too.
“Err, thousands,” he said. “I meant thousands.” Damn! Gnesh thought. He’d forgotten how many it was important for Goblette’s to be better than. They needed their egos stroked a bit afterward too.
“How many thousands? Exactly.”
Double damn! “Four-thousand-seven hundred-sixteen,” he said. “Not counting you.”
“Of course not counting me, you idiot! I can’t be better than me!”
The screech was back. Aaaah he thought with satisfaction. That’s more like it. He turned back to his potential true love, ready for round two of who knew how many. He was hoping to see much more of Knerdi in the coming days.
Such was not to be, however. Later that day, Gnesh received the bad news.
Afterward, Kneli watched him go, secretly glad he hadn’t thought to ask her how many he was better than. The correct answer was “All of them,” of course, and it was even true. But, ‘all of them’ was a couple hundred more than his total.
Male Goblin egos were such fragile things, especially the warriors, and it wouldn’t have been good for him to learn her total was higher, no matter how much prestige that brought. It was stupid but true.
However, if Gnesh survived this new quest, there wouldn’t be a Goblette in camp who wouldn’t want him, and then she’d make sure that his total surpassed hers.
* * *
“I agree with Bel and the goblin Elders!” Gnarl goblin said when the Council resumed in the morning. “We must choose three to send on this quest, one from each race! Choose your representatives well!”
“You know,” Kneli said reasonably, “you really shouldn’t come to the council directly after.”
“What!” Gnarl replied. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” Kneli said. “Forget I said anything.”
Gnarl looked around at the others, then sighed and gathered his wits. “Eh-em. Right then,” Gnarl said. “Let’s get on with the choosing.”
“We should send Gnash,” Wazz said. “I like Gnash.”
“You must choose your representative from your own race,” Kneli said much to Gnash’s relief.
“Oh, very well,” Gnash said as he pretended to be disappointed and turned to confer with Kneli.
“I agree,” said Bel, “and following Gnarl’s advice I choose the ogresss, Wel. She’s intelligent and doesn’t turn into a pile of dirt at night. She can lead the quest.”
The knolls were conferring quietly between themselves as well, but soon made their decision.
“From the knolls we choose Azumel,” Cencidar announced. “He’s one of our best thinkers and an excellent puzzle solver, which may be very useful on this quest.
After some moments of discussion Gnash and Kneli turned to the Council. “From the goblins we choose our finest warrior, Gnesh. He will provide the protection for his companions.”
Gnarl looked gravely at them all, then nodded. “It is decided.”
* * *
Zeff stood short, white-haired, and beady-eyed, cringing from the morning sun; a beacon for all of the dwarves, faeries, and his own feared elves who followed The Orange One. As Arbiter of Justice of all their armies, Zeff’s aura, second evilest in all the lands, evoked all of the fear, loathing, terror and awe necessary to enthrall such a host. Today, however, he was not there to enthrall, but to cower, for he was alone, awaiting the appearance of the one who’d summoned him.
The Orange One—self-proclaimed as The Bright One, but sometimes called The Not-So-Bright One by some … though never within earshot—was late, as usual. Zeff sometimes wondered if it was all worth it.
Sure, some things were. It used to be the elves, dwarves and fairies who were constantly protecting the land, the weak and generally all that was right and good. It was always Zeff, or some other pathetic hero, on one last, desperate quest to save all things bright and beautiful.
Then, on one long ago day, The Orange One did something that changed the balance of things. Or perhaps an unknown power did some meddling. No one knew for sure just what it was that happened—or, at least, no one would admit to it—but things were suddenly different. Now it was the goblins and knolls and ogres who were in trouble, constantly on the run and living hand-to-mouth as they tried to stop the ongoing devastation of everything that was good.
But there was something wrong with it all that Zeff couldn’t quite tune his pointy ears to. The land wasn’t as beautiful as it had once been, for one. There was a lot of destruction and stuff going on, and that didn’t used to be the case. At least they didn’t used to be the ones doing it, anyway. Or something. And there were other things too, but he had no more time to think about them as a stench rose around him and became a palpable fact of life.
The Orange One had arrived.
Zeff began his obeisance, reciting the ritual vows to The Orange One, and the other required praises, but a cold, repellent touch stopped him.
“Now, now, my Elf,” The Orange One said. “You don’t have to go through all that when it’s just us. I’ve told you, just a quick, debasing grovel will do.”
Zeff’s brain went immediately to high alert. He was in for an ass-chewing and he knew it. It never ended well when the master started off politely. “Yes, Orange One,” he said as he straightened and stood stiffly to attention. Zeff tried to look everywhere at once as The Orange One circled him.
“Do you remember the good old days, Zeff? The before times?” The Orange One finally asked.
The question caught Zeff off guard. “I do,” he said. “We were always on the brink of disaster, back then. Always on the edge of humiliation.”
“We were, old friend, we were.” The intensely glowering form stopped in front of him, and the voice grew cold. “And then I did something, Zeff. Something that changed everything.” The Orange One paused then, and his voice was soft, almost wistful, when he continued. “I did it for their own good, really. To protect them from the evil of their own making.”
Zeff was afraid to ask, but he couldn’t help himself. “Who?”
The Orangeness seemed to lessen for just an instant, and became almost wistful. “It doesn’t matter. They’re taken care of. Locked away in their fantasy land where no one can harm them.”
The Orange One’s voice solidified then, in charge once more. “A certain prophecy has come to my attention. The resisters you have so far failed to destroy, have discovered what I did so long ago. They have discovered a way to free the forces of light and life and have sent a small party of mixed heroes to do so.”
”I will leave at once,” Zeff began, “and take the full host with me . . .”
“No,” The Dominant said, “you will not.”
“I won’t?” The skulking form seemed to stare at him intently. “Right. I won’t. What will I do?”
“You, Zeff, will keep the majority of your host with you and continue destroying the enemy races, denying them all forms of sanctuary, shelter or safety. Inform Prett that he must continue stripping the land of all its mineral wealth. He will continue with the deforestation project—there must be nowhere for them to hide.”
“He’s done all of that, already, my lord. Decimated all of their cities and habitats, their food and water suppiles, but they’ve taken to living in small groups and hiding in the ruins we leave behind.”
“I don’t want to hear excuses, Zeff. Destroy the ruins if you must. Turn them to dust. Make matchsticks of the shattered trees. I don’t care how you do it, just get those things done!”
“It shall be as you say, oh great Orange One.” Zeff waited for his master to say more. When he didn’t, Zeff asked, “What of the prophecy, then?”
“The answer, Zeff, lies with the lost ones. I will not tell you where they can be found, only that they do exist. The heroes quest erroneously leads them north. You will send a small force after them. I want them eliminated.”
“Yes, Lord. It shall be done.”
Zeff knew he had to send at least two thousand RedHats north, since three quarters of them would die by each other’s hands along the way. It didn’t used to be that way, he was almost sure of that, but there it was. Still, the five hundred or so survivors should be more than enough to defeat whatever small company their enemies could muster. They could not possibly send a large numbers anywhere in secret.
Yes, Zeff thought, the quest will, by necessity, be small and I know just who should lead the army I send.
The Faerie King, Skelly, was rumored to have a soul even blacker than Zeff’s own. There was something wrong with that, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. He shook his head, and having made up his mind, Zeff strode off to give the orders. Within three days his skirmish force, two thousand strong, set off north to search out and destroy their enemy’s company, wherever it might be.
* * *
Gnesh’s life had not gotten any better after they departed on their quest. Not only had he not been able to get to know Knerdi better, but since they had departed at night, he was forced to carry the sack of dirt that was their knoll companion, Azumel.
“Why do I have to carry this sack of dirt?” he asked. “Every night for the last four months it’s ‘Carry that sack, Gnesh,’ or ‘Don’t forget Azumel, Gnesh.’ Why me?”
“Hello,” the sack said in a muffled voice, “you know I can still hear you, right?”
“Oh, right. Why do I have to carry this talking sack of dirt?” Gnesh asked.
“Because I’m the leader here,” Wel replied, ignoring the sack. “and I say so.”
Countless days and nights trudging across denuded, burned and ravaged landscape had done nothing to improve Gnesh’s mood. One thing the complete destruction of everything had done was to provide plenty of ruins they could use for cover when they detected an enemy patrol. Sometimes they passed within sight of huge structures whose only purpose seemed to be to burn whatever it was they were burning, and belch thick columns of black, oily smoke into the air.
The only instruction they’d been given upon their departure had come from the ogress, Bel. “When you get to the land of perpetual night, you’ll have reached your destination.”
Then she had had them memorize Bazz’s strange poetic statement. When asked for an explanation she would not say any more. Months later and hundreds of miles north the days grew shorter and shorter until daylight disappeared altogether and there was only perpetual dusk, and a perpetual sack of dirt named Azumel.
“Fat lot of good this sack of dirt is going to do us,” Gnesh said.
“Ahem,” said the sack.
Wel found a rare sapling that had managed to sprout after the destruction of the land. Connected to the earth as it was, the young tree knew about things for leagues in every direction. After a while she let go of it and turned to her companions.
“There’s an army approaching,” she said. “It’ll be here by nightfall.”
Gnesh looked around at the constant darkness. “That really doesn’t help us much,” he said.
“Fine,” Wel grumped. “They’ll be here in about twelve hours or so. Happy?”
“You could have just said that from the start,” Gnesh said.
Wel ignored him. “Any suggestions?”
“Hide,” the sack said.
“That’s fine for you,” Gnesh answered. “We could just pour you on the ground and . . .” Gnesh trailed off as his eyes got wide. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he asked Wel.
“Wait a minute,” Azumel protested.
“No, not that, you dummy,” Wel said to the sack. Turning to Gnesh she asked, “How many piles of dirt do you think we can make in twelve hours?”
“Hundreds and hundreds . . . I hope.”
They set to immediately, working feverishly to make as many piles of dirt as they could, lining them up in military formation. Then they hid behind a large, rotting log as near to their creation as possible, and hunkered down to wait.
“Do you think it’ll work?” Azumel asked.
“I don’t know,” Wel said. “All we can hope for is that they’ll think we brought a larger army than they thought possible up here.”
“And hope they think we got here before the daylight disappeared,” Gnesh added.
“Shhh,” Wel shushed again. “Listen.”
“You know,” Azumel said, “there’s something very wrong with this plan.”
“Yes, I know,” Wel hissed. “Who would bring an army of knolls to a land of perpetual dark? Now shut up. It’s too late for a better one, anyway.”
* * *
“You sent who?” The Orange One shouted. The earth around the precipice trembled with his rage as he and Zeff stood staring north toward the coming confrontation, and the air pressure around them felt heavier, as if a thunderstorm was gathering.
“The Warlord, Skelly, Orange One,” Zeff replied in a small voice. “You forbade me to lead them. Who else was I to send but the second most feared general in your army?”
“Doh,” The Orange One said to himself as he slapped his forehead, then turned to Zeff. “Call them back! Call them back now!”
* * *
They all heard the sound of an approaching army now. As the mass of RedHats appeared over the horizon, Wel guessed they were close to five hundred strong. She and Gnesh stood no chance against that. Their only hope lay in the possibility they would not be recognized for what they were in the dimness.
Once the army did get within sight of their little mounds, they laughed loudly. With screams of rage and delight they dismounted and kicked the piles of dirt with furious gusto.
“Can you see who’s leading them?” Azumel asked as quietly as a sack of dirt could whisper and still be heard.
“It’s a faerie,” Wel said, “and judging by the helm, I’d say it’s Skelly.”
“Oh no,” Gnesh hissed. “They say his soul is even blacker than Zeff’s.”
“Urk,” Azumel gasped, then hissed back, “Gnesh! Gnesh! That’s it. That’s the answer to the riddle. ‘The heart of the blackness darker than night’. This is our chance.”
“He’s right, Gnesh,” Wel said as she realized it. “You have to challenge him one on one.”
“Oh light and life,” Gnesh moaned. “What if he doesn’t accept? What if they all attack?”
“We have no choice, Gnesh,” Wel said. “It’s a million-to-one odds, but it’s our only chance.”
Gathering his courage and his strength, Gnesh leaped to the top of the rotting log they’d been using for cover. He took a deep breath and screamed as loudly as he could.
“Skelly! Come on, you big fairie! Fight me if you dare!”
“Oh, good one,” Azumel said approvingly while Wel added her agreement.
There was sudden silence as every RedHat in the enemy army turned toward him. Gnesh gulped nervously as Skelly, face contorted in rage, screamed a defiant challenge and charged. Gnesh sprang from the log. Steel met steel and rang across the battlefield. Thrust for thrust, parry for parry and wild swing for wild swing, the clash and clatter of blades went on for what seemed like hours to Gnesh. The circle of surrounding onlookers grew larger as the battleground took up more and more space.
Gnesh was tiring and it soon became obvious who would be victorious if the struggle went on much longer. If Gnesh was to have any chance of winning, he would have to end it soon.
Sensing this, the Warlord Skelly leapt into the air over Gnesh in a twisting somersault, but Gnesh had seen this move before and was ready for it. Reversing the grip on his blade, Gnesh drove it backwards between his body and his right arm, bending forward slightly as he did to angle the sword upwards. As he landed, Skelly impaled himself on Gnesh’s sword, stabbing him directly through his heart.
There was total silence on the battlefield as Gnesh jerked his sword free and turned to face Skelly. The faerie Warlord stood there impossibly long, a look of disbelief on his face. Three long, wispy strands of ethereal light emerged from the gash in the middle of his chest, before Skelly finally collapsed face down in a pile of dirt.
“Hey!” Azumel objected. “That might have been a relative, you know!”
“But it wasn’t,” Wel admonished from their hiding place. “Shut up,”
The eerie strands of light swirled and floated, climbed and dove through the air and the silence. Finally, they settled to the ground and coalesced into three white-robed forms that almost, but not quite, looked like elves. For a moment longer they held a golden glow, and then they were just elf-like beings. During the display, Wel came out from behind the log, bringing the sack that was Azumel with her.
“A-are you the forces of light and life?” Gnesh asked.
“Yes, we are,” answered the male on the left.
“We are called humans,” added the male on the right.
“For giving us our freedom,” the female in the middle said, “we would like to know what your most fervent wish is.”
“I wish knolls would not turn into dirt at sunset,” Azumel replied immediately.
“I wish,” added Wel when there was no reply, “that male ogres were not so incredibly imbecilic.
“And I wish,” Gnesh added, “that myself and all goblins could just go back to being goblins. No more quests. No more heroics.”
As they voiced their wishes the human forms became strangely sad.
“I fear,” said the male on the left, “that you will get everything you wish for, and so much less than you deserve.”
“You see,” said the male on the right, “the wild magic of the lie that was used to imprison us also caused all the changes you wish undone, and so many more besides.”
“Now that we are free,” the female continued, “the changes that were done will all be undone.”
Even as she finished speaking all three began to glow for several minutes. When the glow had faded the ogress, the knoll and the goblin had all been returned to their original sizes, shapes and bloodthirsty characteristics. At the same time the elves, dwarves and faeries also returned to their original sizes, shapes and attitudes. What with Redhats being Redhats and all, and the odds at four hundred ninety nine to three, the battle was fierce but decidedly short.
* * *
One other gift was given to all of the races that day, a gift normally given to only a very few. The memories were fading quickly and would soon be gone, but, for a short time, all of the races had known what it was like to walk a mile in their enemy’s shoes. Except the RedHats, many of them aren’t interested in shoes, or people who wear them.
As for The Orange One, his powers vanished and he served only one term as lord and master of the universe.