My name is Grom, and I'm about to do the most dangerous thing I've done in my life. If you ask my friends, it's also the bravest thing any goblin has ever done. If you ask my family, it's also the stupidest.
I'm going to go talk to the Lich King.
See, for as long as anyone can remember, the goblins and the undead have both lived in the desolate places of the world. In our case, the outsiders call it a dungeon. Based on some books my friends found, dungeons are supposed to be places where people are imprisoned. We're not imprisoned, and neither are the outsiders who come in here. Well, there was that one guy who fell into a trap, his companions abandoned him, and we locked him in a cage until he died. But that was one time.
Typically, things don't go that well for us goblins. I've been told they don't go that well for the undead either. Hence, meeting with the Lich King.
He's exactly as scary as you've heard, for the record. Gaunt describes a lich with a bit more substance. He's skeletal, the remnants of whatever clothing he once wore in tatters. Whatever, I don't judge someone for how thin they are or what they wear. No, the scary part is what passes for his eyes. Most liches have glowing eyes of some color or another. His glow, but they glow in the strangest void of blackness I've ever seen. If you look too long at his eyes, you feel like you're falling, and you will never be anything other than falling, forever.
I don't look in his eyes.
I bow politely, because my mother did not raise me to me a graceless goblin. "Your Majesty, I am Grom. I am here to present a plan for the goblins and undead to work together to prevent interlopers from invading our home."
Before you ask, no, I don't know how the undead speak when they lack lungs and tongues. Magic, I guess.
The Lich King wheezes, which I assume is his approximation of laughter. "You, puny things, want to work with us?"
"Yes. If you'll allow me to show you my charts, I believe I can make a solid case for why you want us to work with you."
Liches also lack eyebrows, but I like to think the Lich King raises a non-existent eyebrow at that. At least his voice sounds less like he's laughing at me when he speaks again. "I will look at your ... charts."
I swing the scroll case from my back to my side and unfurl a roll of parchment. "In the past year, the goblins have suffered a net loss of about forty percent of our numbers. Now we know approximately ten percent of our losses go on to become undead, which is, unfortunately for the undead, most of the numbers you've been able to add to your troop strength."
"How do you know those numbers?" the Lich King asks, his eyes boring through my chest like he can see my soul.
"I, uh, spoke to one of your representatives. A skeleton who works in recruitment. Calls himself Steve."
"Steve," the Lich King repeats. "I see. I suppose Steve has also told you we re-use the corpses of the adventurers we defeat as troop strength as well?"
"He did," I say, "however, he also said the goblins you've re-used outnumber adventurers about ten to one." I pause. "The adventurers aren't dying frequently enough, what with their healing magic and superior weaponry."
"And the ones who obliviate my lesser troops with a single word," the Lich King grumbles. "I see your point. Go on."
"We have a small percentage of goblins who have filed advance directives prohibiting their re-use as undead, but we can offer you additional goblin casualties for re-use as undead, if you're willing to work with us to place the best troops in the most strategic locations."
The Lich King's eye glow flickers. I like to think he's blinking. "Continue." The curiosity peeks through his tone.
Now for my big plan. I unroll more of the parchment to show a drawing of the ruined castle we all call home. "The goblins reside in the highest levels belowground, while the undead stay farther beyond us. While I would not dare to question the natural order of things, the adventurers expect this sort of strategy." I pause, daring for the briefest of moments to look at the Lich King's face. "They would never expect to enter our domicile and immediately encounter a horde of undead with the most feared member of their society. They would not be prepared for a force of such magnitude."
"You're suggesting that rather than hiding down here in the deepest catacomb, I should be--" The Lich King trails off, at a loss for words. "--on the front line?"
"Maybe not the front line," I say, gesturing at another drawing. I hope the Lich King won't be offended that I'd represented him as a slightly larger stick figure, wearing a crown. I may be good at strategy, but I'm not an artist. "But earlier in the grand scheme of things. By using the element of surprise, we catch more adventurers unaware, leading to higher adventurer casualties, with resultant lower casualties for the undead and goblins. It's a win-win scenario for both our people."
The Lich King nods. "Your figures suggest lower casualties for the undead, but I am not convinced of that. And it runs the risk of costing my life as well. I'm certain you know any death I suffer is less than permanent."
"Yes. Especially with the additional boon the goblins are willing to offer you. The amulet that grants your power is doubtless hidden away safely, but it remains vulnerable to intrepid adventurers. The goblins, however, are experts at squirreling away treasures. Even with our losses, we've managed to keep the adventurers away from most of our good stuff."
"That is because you keep it in a fetid pit," the Lich King says.
"Uh, yeah. Best place to keep something you don't want anyone to find. Under heaps of waste."
The Lich King shudders and remains quiet for a time. Finally, he says, "If I agree to this plan, it will be with the caveat that in the event I am slain, the goblins will keep my amulet in hiding until the adventurers have been routed. The amulet will then be removed from hiding, cleansed with every method at your disposal, and turned over to my remaining lieutenants as quickly as possible."
I nod. "Agreed."
"I have two additional terms."
I'd expected it wouldn't be so easy as to promise protection of the Lich King's amulet and be done with it, so now it was my turn to say, "Go on."
"First, as my undead army will be taking over the front line from your goblin army, it is to be expected the goblins will have fewer casualties from which I might bolster my troops. As such, I will require a ... we shall call it a tithe in name, a small number of your infirm and dying is acceptable, so my numbers can also remain sufficient to defend this place we have both made our home. They would, of course, not be required to come into my service until after their untimely demises. I have no desire to kill goblins merely to bolster my numbers."
Well, at least he'd asked for old goblins, and not babies. "I believe we can come to an accord on that point. And second?"
"When your undoubtedly untimely demise comes, you will be among those who enter my service."
I blink a few times before croaking, "Me? Why?"
"You have a head for strategy. Though most undead are largely mindless, there are rituals to preserve the intelligence of certain individuals."
I can't believe what I'm hearing. I'm fairly sure he just offered to make me a lich. If I'm the lich son of the Lich King, that makes me a Lich Prince, right? Not too shabby for a goblin. Besides, like he says, not until my undoubtedly untimely demise. How can I say no? "Deal."
"Very good. Then do we shake on this?"
I don't love the thought of touching his likely frigid bones, but I can't back down now. I present him with my hand. "Yes, Your Majesty."
His bony grip chills my flesh, and when our handshake is finished, its impression remains on my hand. I can already hear the inevitable nickname from my friends and family of Grom Bonyhands.
Someday, that'll be Lich Prince Bonyhands to you lot.
Dawn Vogel's academic background is in history, so it's not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers.
Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.