The Other Side
by Andrew Lu
The Black Gate lay asunder, a heap of twisted, smoking iron. The Guardians were felled, their steaming corpses smoldering in their own foul blood. The Khahasar, the Black Legion, were decimated and scattered, helpless against the foe. Their blood painted the walls and ran down the steps of the Citadel. Even the Horrors, chained and bound for centuries, had been loosed, a desperate measure; they, too, were destroyed, lying like mountains of flesh in the courtyards, their very scent carrying death to any mortal creature. The last line of defense, the lich-lords, the Wraiths, the most powerful servants of the dark master – even they were now falling before the enemy, writhing in unspeakable agony as they dissipated into black dust on the ebon stones of the Hall of Endings.
Now, there was but one left, but he was the greatest of all. The Black Lord, Father of Night, Eater of Souls, Devourer of Worlds - Azharis. The Dark God. He sat on his throne of skulls, and waited, his eyes fixed on the darkened bronze of the doors to his chamber. With one final wail, the last of the lich-lords fell. There was silence.
Azharis waited. His blood-red eyes never left the door.
A moment later, the great bronze doors shuddered under a mighty blow, ringing sonorously like a giant gong. Infinitesimally tiny black stone flakes dislodged themselves from the ceiling and lazily drifted down. The chamber doors shuddered once more, and cracks spidered up the walls. The flames of the braziers wavered. Still Azharis sat upon his throne, unmoving.
The postern rang a third time. This time, they burst asunder, and into the throne room, into the Last Chamber, burst the enemy.
He was a huge man, positively massive, clad head to toe in brilliant, shining armor, silver as the stars. His sword glowed with the light of ten suns, and his shield with the light of ten moons. His footsteps rang like silver bells as he advanced slowly into the throne room of the Dark God.
Here at last was the Hero. The Paladin. The Champion. The Vanquisher of Evil. He was a confident beacon of power and purity, shining in the shadows of the Black Lord's kingdom.
"At last," said the Hero. "At last, it has come to this. At last, goodness stands in the heart of the Citadel, and Evil trembles before the Light." He raised his sword, and pointed it at the hulking shadow on the throne. "Here, it will be finished. This is the final battle. This is the end. Prepare yourself, ye demon!"
Azharis sighed. There was silence for a moment.
"Have you nothing to say, Shadowking?" demanded the Hero, waving his holy sword imperiously.
"What? No, not really," said the Dark God. "I was just wondering if you were done."
The Hero blinked. His face was hidden behind the arcane silvery metal of his helm, but Azharis could still tell. He was a god, after all; he knew these things. Quickly, though, the Hero regained his composure.
"No, fiend," said he, stepping forward. "It is you who is done. Your reign will finally be ended. The people of this world will be free of your scourge forever."
Shaking his head, Azharis folded his black, clawed hands together. "It's always this way with you people. Never any consideration. Never any sympathy. And they call me the nasty one."
The Hero paused. This wasn't how it was supposed to go.
"It's always the same," the Dark God continued, waving his talons sadly. "You rascals ... always coming in here, wrecking the place, killing minions left and right, flinging holy fire this way and holy water that way and smashing all my nice pottery. You know; you're supposed to come right up to the top of the big tower in the middle. Instead, you go around, laying waste. There's really no need."
The Hero gaped, but recovered momentarily. "You ... you ... but surely, you see ... the hellish works of evil must be purged from the land. Your vile creations must be destroyed."
Azharis rolled his eyes. "I've heard it all before. I don't suppose anyone told you how this all works?"
"Well, not as such, no," said the Hero. "I ... I was reasonably certain that I would come in here, vanquish your minions, destroy your dark legacy, and then engage you in a climactic, mortal duel for the fate of the world."
"And then what?" Azharis asked expectantly.
"I ... you ... " the Hero stammered. "Well, you'd be ... er ... vanquished, of course, and there would be peace and prosperity and happiness for centuries to come. I'd win the hand of the Princess, become a prince and eventually the King ... the standard denouement really ... "
The Dark God stared at him. The Hero stared back. He wasn't quite sure what to do with his sword. He had been keeping it pointed at the hellion but he thought he detected the faint beginnings of an arm cramp. After quite some deliberation, he warily lowered the tip to the ground.
"What?" the Hero said finally. "That's how it goes."
"Is it?" said Azharis. "I say, do I look vanquished to you?"
"Er ... no, you look rather, ah, robust," the Hero said. "For an evil doer," he added hastily.
"Well, do you think you're the first Hero to come up here and start waving your sword at me and talking about the end and final battles and such?"
"Of course not!" the Hero exclaimed. This he knew. "There was Victor the Great, and Lothar the Holy, and Samar the White, and ... that big fellow with the hammer, what was his name ... "
"Yes!" cried the Hero. "Yes, Gabriel, that's the one."
"So, you see my point then."
The Hero looked at the Dark God blankly.
"I'm, ah, not vanquished," Azharis said helpfully. "So these things, these 'final battles,' they don't seem to involve a whole lot of vanquishing, do they?"
"No, I suppose not," mused the Hero. "But, you were defeated! And, your power reduced, you were driven into exile, never to appear again for centuries!"
"Yes, you see, that's what I'm talking ab--"
"Then I shall defeat you, and the world shall be safe until such time as you reappear!" the Hero shouted, waving his sword with great conviction.
The Dark God rubbed his temple with one clawed hand and did his best to ignore the rivulets of blood beginning to run down his face.
"They never seem to tell anyone how this works," he muttered. "Might as well just give a holy sword to a moose and call him the Hero."
"No, not moose, they're bull horns," said the Hero.
"The horns." The Hero pointed to his shining helmet. "They're bull horns, from a holy white bull on the Isle of Exelsus."
"That's, um, very nice," said Azharis. "Now, you see, here's how this is going to work."
"How what is going to work?"
"This whole, you know, final battle thing."
"You're going to stick me with that sword, that nice one there in your hand, and I'm going to say something along the lines of 'Oh no, I am vanquished, but I shall return, you haven't seen the last of me,' etc. And then I'm going to pull that lever, over there, see, the big red one, yes, that's the one, no, don't touch it you idiot. There's a good boy. I'm going to pull that one, and that will set off the self-destruction mechanism for the Citadel. Everything will start to collapse. You will make a daring escape, leaping from falling stone to falling stone, swinging from parapet to parapet, you know how it goes. It'll be very dramatic, good story for the grandchildren. Meanwhile, I get to retire for a few centuries, maybe catch up on my reading, while you live out your nice long life as a Hero, perhaps saving cats from trees and pulling old people out of burning houses and the like. When the time comes, I'll just throw together a new Citadel at some extreme point of the map, fix up some new minions, and the whole thing will start up again. By then, of course, you'll be dead, and no doubt some other young zealous fool, perhaps a distant descendant of yours, will be a part of an ancient prophecy or something, and he'll get your sword and proceed to “vanquish” me all over again. Got it?"
The Hero stared. Azharis sighed again.
"Look, sorry for going off on you like that. I'm just so tired of this whole tired shtick. Just give me a little poke, and I'll pull the lever, and you run like hell. Easy as pie."
"It seems like you get off rather easy, though," said the Hero. "I mean, you're all evil and nasty and destructive and everything, and you just get poked once, and then you're off to the beaches for a relaxing vacation reading Satre? Hardly seems fair. Seems there's no, what do you call it, justice. Doesn't seem fair at all."
"No justice?" the Dark God asked incredulously. "No justice? You speak to me of what is fair? I'm the one who has to sit here, holed up in this bloody dark tower for years on end, telling slackjawed troglodyte minions what to do, tying their shoes for them, organizing their raids, dealing with idiots like you who can't even deliver a one-liner properly, while all the other gods get to prance around half-naked, drinking wine and schmoozing with easy mortal women, and you say there's no justice?"
"Do you have any idea how difficult it is to be evil all the time? Really? Do you? I have to be a right bastard to everyone, forever! It's quite wearing! Sometimes, I just want to feed a rabbit some strawberries or something, but I can't, because I'm the Dark God! I'm the Devourer of Worlds! Do you know how much bloody pressure there is? Do you know how depressing it is to wear all black, all the time, for three thousand years? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO HAVE YOUR HAIR PERMANENTLY ON FIRE?"
"They told me it would be a revolving schedule. You know, one millennium, I get to be evil, the next, it's someone else, and I get to be a ... a love god, or a wine god or something. Something fun, you know? I even volunteered to be the first Dark God. I thought it would be a lark. Let me tell you, it's not. It's not fun at all anymore. I can't even enjoy the simple pleasure of watching peasants run screaming these days."
"And you're all so ungrateful, you self-righteous buffoons. I do this for you - for you - present a big, juicy common foe, a terrifying dark presence that mankind can unite against, who just happens to be conveniently defeated at all the right times. I do this, and what do I get? 'Your dark reign is at an end! Your vile works must be destroyed!' No appreciation at all! None!" After a few moments of indignant glaring, Azharis lapsed into sullen silence. The Hero stood awkwardly on the steps before the throne of skulls.
"So ... I, er ... just, poke you with the sword, then?" he asked quietly. "There's no battle?"
"What? No, there's no battle. I'm a god, you ninny, I could turn you into a booger before you could fumble a one-liner.”
"Well, alright then, let's get on with it. I got a little carried away there, but really, it's not so bad. I get a good few centuries of retirement." Azharis stood up, towering a dozen feet above the Hero. "Go on, poke away. It's really just a formality, but it's tradition, you know."
"Oh. Yes," said the Hero. He drew back the holy sword, then paused.
"What is it now?"
"Um ... well ... " the Hero said uncertainly. "I ... well, I, for one, would like to say, um, thank you."
Azharis stared. "Really?"
"Oh, yes," the Hero said. "You're ... you're doing a bang-up job, I must say."
"You think so?"
"Oh, definitely, definitely. Evil as they come. Had me fooled completely. Hasn't even been a real war between the kingdoms for almost a thousand years."
Azharis smiled, his fangs glowing pleasantly in the light of the glowing Hero below him. "Well, that's very kind of you. That makes me feel much better, really. I must say, you make a rather fine Hero, yourself."
"Oh, you're too kind."
"No, really, you dispatched those orcs with ineffable style. And you butchered the lich-lords quite handily. Usually they're a bit of trouble. They even killed one poor chap a few centuries ago, threw the whole schedule off."
"Yes, it was quite the conundrum."
"Well, thank you."
"Not at all."
They stood in awkward yet affable silence for a moment.
"I suppose we should get on with it," said the Dark God.
"It was nice meeting you," said Azharis, placing a clawed hand on the red lever.
"The pleasure was all mine," said the Hero. And then, he poked the Dark God lightly on the chest with the holy sword.
And then, with a mighty blow, the Hero vanquished the Dark God, who screamed in rage, and promised to return for vengeance on this world once more, before vanishing into the darkness from whence he came. No longer supported by its master's dark power, the Citadel began to collapse, and the Hero made a daring and narrow escape before the dark realm was drawn back into the abyss. And the Hero lived happily ever after with his beautiful princess bride and the adoration of his subjects, and he left as his legacy the holy armor and sword, so that when the Dark God returns again, there will be another Hero to face him and defeat him, and keep the world safe once more.
Or something like that.