A witty fantasy novel of good, evil and everything in between, from one of Britain’s best-loved comic writers – perfect for fans of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams
The good guys are good and their hats are white as snow.
The bad guys are bad and wear black hats, or spiked helmets, or hoods, or crowns or turbans – it’s all a matter of fashion, as we’ll hear in due course, from someone who ought to know. Meanwhile the list has been made and checked twice; so which are you?
* * *
The annual Academy of Darkness awards ceremony, colloquially known as the Wickeds, is without doubt the high point of the year for the Evil community. You can bet your life (or, if you’re a member of the Academy, somebody else’s) that everyone who’s anyone in the higher echelons of the Great Darkness will be there. Malign sorcerers leave their towers, crazed priests abandon their reeking altars, barbarian warlords park their hordes on the wide plains that encircle the hallowed venue, the Undead plaster themselves all over with barrier cream; the civil services of all the Five Kingdoms grind to a temporary halt as their chamberlains, viziers and Grand Logothetes exchange their flowing black robes for straw hats and colourful floral-pattern shirts and set off down the road towards the Bronze Mountain. Under that awe-inspiring peak lie the Caverns of Argo, hewn from the black volcanic rock, where the ceremony has been held for the last four Ages. It’s a time for wild parties and frenetic networking as the nominees hustle for precious last-minute support, while the necromancers are fully occupied raising eligible voters (once an Academy member, always a member) from their long-neglected graves.
The goblins will be there, of course. For as long as anyone can remember, they’ve set up their temporary HQ in the Old Sewer, from which they sally forth by night to schmooze the unwary. They never win anything, it goes without saying. The last goblin to be recognised by the Academy was Gork VII back in the Second Age, who won a minor gong for something technical to do with fortifications. The really prestigious awards – worst villain, worst henchman, most diabolical plan – have always eluded them and, although nobody can tell you precisely why, it’s universally accepted as part of the Way Things Are. Maybe it’s their collective unfortunate manner, or the rough and ready nature of the hospitality provided at their receptions; perhaps it’s true that nobody, no matter how evil they may be, actually likes goblins. But still they attend, regular as clockwork each Samhain Eve, fur combed, claws trimmed, tusks polished till they gleam, their faces wearing their customary look of hope tempered with realism. One thing nobody in the evil biz has ever tried to deny; goblins are good losers.
Maybe not for much longer. On the evening of the ceremony, as the crowds gathered to watch the worst and darkest arrive at the cavern mouth, there was a new and disconcerting buzz going around among the people-who-really-know, a new name on everybody’s lips. In the ten short years since he snatched the Iron Sceptre from the stiffening hand of his predecessor, King Mordak had been rewriting a lot of the tired old preconceptions about goblins. A whole new way of doing evil, was what they were saying. It wasn’t just Mordak’s arbitrary and bewildering social reforms – universal free healthcare at rusty spike of delivery, for crying out loud – though those were intriguing enough to baffle even the shrewdest observers, frantically speculating about the twisted motives that underlay such a bizarre agenda. It was the goblin himself who’d caught the public imagination. Mordak had it; the indefinable blend of glamour, prestige, menace and charm that go to make a genuinely world-class villain. There were even a few voices whispering in the wilderness that if (perish the thought, naturally) the time came to choose a new Dark Lord, one of the hats in the ring might just possibly be the Iron Crown of Groth; and, once the shock had worn off, there was a steadily growing chorus of voices muttering well, actually . . . Accordingly, when the gates of the Sewer ground back on their creaking hinges and Mordak made his appearance, wearing the Iron Crown and his trademark floor-length mantle woven from the nose hair of his slaughtered enemies, there was a distinct murmur of excitement and even a few faint cheers.
Mordak wasn’t in the best of moods. He’d known before setting off to come here that he stood no chance for worst villain (the Great Dragon had that one sewn up, no question about it) or most diabolical, because the fix was definitely in, Lord Snarl’s people had been hustling everything that moved for the last six months, everybody knew it was all bought and paid for well in advance by the big money, and even if it wasn’t, it was just a popularity contest and nothing to do with real talent or ability, and besides, who really cared less about the opinions of the bunch of brown-nosed, totally-out-of-touch time-servers who made up the Academy, and honestly, if they ever did decide to land him with one of those ridiculous cheap pot-metal paperweights he’d only stick it in the outside toilet, because having something like that on your mantelpiece was as good as a public confession that you’d irretrievably sold out and no longer had enough professional integrity to stuff a small acorn. Really, he couldn’t care less, and the only thing bothering him was the thought that he’d wasted a month getting here and a week hanging around being nice to people he couldn’t stand the sight of when he could have been back home getting on with some useful work, and now he had to go and spend a very long evening pretending to be interested while a lot of poseurs who’d never done a day’s actual harm in their worthless lives strutted up and down making interminable speeches, not that he’d have minded if the food had been worth eating and he stood a hope in hell of being able to catch a waiter’s eye without having to gouge it out of its socket with his thumbnail first. A couple of wraiths he knew vaguely waved to him and he smiled feebly back, then trudged up the red carpet and into the overheated, fume-filled cavern.
He wasn’t in the least surprised to discover that the Undead had snagged all the best seats, as usual, so he and his party found a dark corner as far away from the band as he could get and picked up the menu. Nothing had changed there, either – every year he wrote to the committee asking them to provide a humanitarian option, and every year it was the same; you could have cow, or you could have sheep, and if you didn’t fancy either of those, you’d be better off bringing sandwiches. He opted for the cow, with fried potatoes and a glass of milk.
As he picked tentatively at his food, he couldn’t help noticing that people were glancing at him when they thought he wasn’t looking, then quickly turning away. Curious. True, like any goblin he wasn’t a sight for the faint-hearted, but practically everybody there had known him for years, so it couldn’t be that. He checked to see if his fly was done up and his claws hadn’t burst through the toes of his boots, then shrugged and went back to gnawing his cow. Maybe this year he wouldn’t stay for all the speeches. He could pretend he’d had an urgent message from home, sneak back to the Sewer and read a book. It was a tantalising idea, and he dismissed it, because that was exactly what they’d want him to do, and he was damned if he’d let a bunch of humanoids sideline the official representative of Goblinkind at a major occasion. A careless waiter got a bit too close; out shot a nine-fingered paw, and secured the wretched man by the lapel.
“Can I get bones with this?”
The waiter looked at him. “Bones.”
“Certainly, sir. Bear with me, I’ll be right back.”
Like hell he would. Far away on the top table, the MC was pinging his glass with a spoon. Mordak yawned. Talk about boring. You wouldn’t do it to an Elf.
Ten minutes later, as the MC announced with apparent regret that unfortunately the Great Dragon couldn’t be here tonight, the waiter came back. He was carrying a silver tray, heaped high with hocks, femurs and tibias. “Your bones, sir.”
Next to him, Duke Ozok let out a soft, low moan. He’d been gnawing his own claws, poor fellow, for a desperately needed calcium hit. “Um,” Mordak managed to say. “Yes, right, very good. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, sir.”
It was to the eternal credit of his companions that they didn’t all start grabbing at once. “Crunch quietly, for pity’s sake,” Mordak hissed. “We don’t want to give ’em an excuse to have us thrown out.”
The MC was reading out the nominations for Most Diabolical Plot. “What do you reckon, Chief?” Ozok muttered, his mouth full of needle-sharp splinters. “Snarl, or the zombie bloke?”
“Snarl,” Mordak predicted, accurately as it turned out. “Well,” he added, as the winner waddled up to the podium, “that’s that for another year. What say we cut it short and head for the bar?”
“Want to hear his speech,” replied Ag of the Black Chasm. “I like the speeches.”
The awful thing was that Ag was telling the truth. “Fine,” Mordak sighed, “we’ll stay. Any of those knuckles left?”
The speeches dragged on, as speeches at such events do. Mordak ground a dry-roasted shin to powder between his back molars and let his mind wander. The local government reforms he was trying to push through Pandemonium – the whole concept of local government had come as a shock to the goblin nation, whose idea of just powers derived from the consent of the governed was still firmly anchored to free collective bargaining with spiked clubs. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with the old ways, at that. Take the legal system, for example. Only six months ago, he’d sent observers to compile a report on how the Elves did civil litigation (Elvish lawyers were renowned through the Middle Realms for their skill and learning), and the observers had come back with a strong recommendation to stick with traditional trial by combat for commercial and property disputes; compared with the Elvish system, they said, it was quicker, cheaper, fairer and infinitely less traumatic for the participants—
The speeches were finally over, but the MC was back on his feet again. It was time, he said, to announce a special one-off award, to honour someone who’d done more for the Dark principle they all loved than anyone else living or Undead; someone universally respected by his peers, an industry legend, who represented the very worst of the Bad. Put your claws together, ladies and gentlemen, for the winner of the award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Evil: King Mordak.
The thing about a loud noise, such as a thousand well-fed guests all cheering at once at the top of their voices, in a high-roofed cavern is that the sound can’t get out. Instead, it bounces from wall to wall like a tennis ball, setting the menisci of the wine-glasses quivering and causing fine plumes of black dust to fall from the ceiling. Suddenly blinded by inexplicable tears, Mordak lurched to his feet and tottered helplessly between the tables towards the podium. He turned towards the sea of smiling faces, opened his mouth and found he couldn’t speak. The MC thoughtfully handed him a jewel-encrusted skull of water; he took a long swig and held up a trembling paw for silence.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I really don’t know what to say.”
But he said it anyway. Thank you, he said, dear friends, he said, you have no idea how much this means to me; and so on and so forth. It was all the usual stuff and, by the strange alchemy of the awards ceremony acceptance speech, he meant every word of it. First of all he thanked the Dark Lord, then various high-ranking goblins, the Academy, all the sorcerers he could think of who hadn’t been actively rude to him in the last six months, then anyone else he could think of at all; he spoke for seven impassioned minutes about the plight of the giant spiders of Doomwood, whose habitat was daily encroached upon by heartless human charcoal-burners; he reprised highlights (and some lowlights) of his recent speech to Pandemonium about declining productivity in the tin mines of Br’zg; he thanked a dozen or so minor functionaries in the Goblin Arts & Tourism Executive he’d neglected to mention earlier; then he dried up comprehensively, stood panic-stricken and open-mouthed for fifteen seconds in complete silence, grabbed the handsome malachite statuette from the MC’s hand and fled back to his seat, glowing like a furnace.
* * *
“And it’s not really selling out,” said Grorg, for the seventeenth time, as the goblins trotted wearily through the pitch darkness of the tunnels. “Not really. I mean, yes, you said over and over again that all this awards stuff is just a load of Elfpoo and anyone who’s demoralised enough to accept one is basically just admitting he’s turned his back on everything Evil really stands for, but—”
Grorg seemed to have run out of words. “But?” Mordak said.
The tunnels they were following lay under the Beige Mountains, the cloud-capped rocky spine of the Middle Realms. Nobody now remembers who built the network, or how long ago; a thousand miles of low, echoing passages, all the way from the Bronze Mountain in the south to Goblinhome in the far north. Goblins routinely run fifty miles a day in the tunnels.
“Well,” Grorg repeated. “We all knew you didn’t mean it.”
“Didn’t I, now?”
“Well, no, obviously, or you wouldn’t have accepted the gong. Stands to reason. If you’d really meant it, you’d have told that bloke, stuff your stupid award, you’d have said, stuff it right up. But you didn’t, did you?”
“There you go, then,” Grorg said cheerfully. “You can’t have meant it, then. All that bumf about the Academy being a bunch of self-serving tossers. And all that other stuff you said about the Great Darkness losing its way and standing at a crossroads and giving Evil back to the people and so on and so forth. That was all just because you were pissy about never winning anything.”
“Ah,” Mordak said. “That explains that, then.”
“Course it does,” Grorg said happily. “And now that they’ve finally given you one, after all these years, not a proper one, of course, more like a whatchercallit, consolation prize, kind of like an award for being around the longest without ever getting an award—”
“You know, I hadn’t quite seen it in that light.”
“Really? Anyway,” Grorg went on, “now you’ve finally got one, at last, that’ll be the end of that and we won’t have to listen to you bitching all the time. Not,” he added generously, “that we minded. Your loyal subjects, and all that. You want to bitch all the time, you go ahead, we’re right behind you, all the way.”
“Thank you,” Mordak said. “I appreciate that.”
“It’ll just be nice to think you won’t be doing it any more,” Grorg continued, “because, well, we’re with you right up to the hilt, one hundred and twenty per cent, King Mordak right or wrong, but it really was starting to get on our tits, you know?”
“I can imagine.”
“Course you can,” said Grorg. “Get on anybody’s tits, that would. But you won’t be doing it any more, so no worries. That’s how I see it, anyway.”
Ten days of this, so far. Another ten days to go. Mordak gritted his fangs and started to run a little faster.
The thing was, Grorg and Ozok and all the rest of them were quite right, in their refreshingly forthright way; they usually were, which was only to be expected, because they were goblins. Important not to lose sight of that fact – and it was so easily done, now that he was spending an increasing amount of his time with humans, dwarves, even (he shuddered instinctively) Elves. Around the longer-tongued species it was hard sometimes to remember exactly why a goblin was the best possible thing to be. When you’re constantly in the company of sentients who treat your entire nation as a kind of dangerous joke, you tend to get nudged back on to the defensive, and you overlook the simple fact that it’s the crudity, the boorishness, the violence, the total lack of refinement and yes, the cannibalism that have made Goblinkind what it is today. Only, of course, we don’t call those things that. We call them integrity.
Well, Mordak, I do, anyhow. Grorg and Ozok would say, being a goblin, than which there is no higher accolade. It was also the term they used to describe freedom, wisdom, Evil and the pursuit of happiness. And if goblins pursue happiness like wolves pulling down a wounded antelope, why the hell not? It happens to be a singularly elusive and treacherous prey.
“No, what surprised me,” Grorg went on, “was, they still gave you the gong, even though you’re doing all this bleeding-heart-liberal stuff. I mean, I’d have thought that would’ve scuppered your chances good and proper. But there you go.”
“I don’t know,” Mordak said. “Maybe they take the view that a healthy, well-fed, well-educated, deeply aspirational goblin army with decent boots on its feet and the knowledge that the fruits of victory will be fairly distributed is likely to kill a whole lot more Elves than a starving, dysentery-ridden rabble.”
“Anything’s possible,” Grorg conceded. “And you just don’t know what goes on inside their heads, do you?”
Not for want of intrusive enquiry. “Quite,” Mordak said. “Maybe it’s part of some kind of elaborate leg-pull, and they’re just taking the piss.”
“Now there,” Grorg said sagely, “I think you might be on to something.”
It goes without saying that bleeding-heart liberal is practically a term of abuse among goblins, who like their offal cooked all the way through. Maybe Grorg was right. It was the sort of thing the Academy might think was screamingly funny, given that he’d never exactly made a secret of his opinions about awards in general and theirs in particular. On balance, though, he was inclined to doubt it. They took themselves too seriously for that. Time, he decided, to change the subject and talk about something else. Fortunately, among goblins, subject-changing is quite straightforward.
“If you mention the Academy one more time before we get home, or my award or awards in general or anything like that, I’m going to rip your ears off. All right?”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
“No worries, Boss.” Pause. “Boss?”
“Are we nearly there yet?”
Ten more days. “We’re getting there, Grorg. We’re getting there.”