(This is part eight of a fantasy series starting here. So far, Homer the minotaur is the front-runner in a board-game tournament whose champion will protect the world from a dwarven robot. Today’s final round of the tournament will determine the fate of the monsters of the wild wastes.)
The centaur, sphinx, and harpy entered the tournament after the first round, so they agreed to host the final round in the wild wastes to wrap up all their matches at once. On the way there, Homer and Aria watched the ever-changing horizon from their carriage; Aria wore a black glove over her burnt right hand. Sir Jameson rode in a mysterious white carriage behind them. “Big day, Homer,” said Aria. “If you win well, you’ll be champion for sure. But the monsters will give it their all; I’ve heard Queen Anthrapas won’t recognize the wild wastes as sovereign unless they win two matches today.”
As they stepped from the carriage, Homer sniffed the air. On the journey through the wild wastes he’d passed icy tundra, baking desert, and dense jungles. Now he entered broad savanna. The arena was circled by a great black whip three miles long. “Arra.”
“Hm?” Aria followed Homer’s gaze. “The whip is one of those demon’s weapons, like the ax, or the sword.” The savanna was still scarred by the whip’s ancient lashes.
The arena bustled with animals Homer had never seen: tall chickens sat beside upright pigs, and towering stick insects threatened to block the back row’s view of the table. These intelligent creatures of the wild wastes communicated with clucks, grunts, and clicks.
“Homer.” Aria elbowed his ribs, and Homer joined her in saluting Jameson’s white carriage. Sir Jameson opened the carriage door and helped Queen Anthrapas step out. With aid from Jameson and two gnomes in pink elven dresses, Anthrapas sat between ten royal guards to watch the table. “You should feel honored,” Aria whispered to Homer. “It’s been years since Queen Anthrapas left her throne-room to watch table-war.”
Homer nodded and sat at the table. “Sfinks?”
“That’s right. You’re up against the sphinx.” Aria pat him on the back. “You and the sphinx have both won ten points in two rounds. It’s only natural to pit you against each other.”
The gnomes brought Homer his bag of brass cards and figurines. Homer prepared his throat for a few unnatural words. “Houw sfinks uin?”
“How’d the sphinx win?” Aria licked her lips. “I asked audience members from those matches what happened. They say the sphinx fought with only one figurine: her own. She’s tougher than she looks and nigh invulnerable. Makes sense to me; if she weren’t, humanity would have captured her to use as a game-piece by now.” Homer puzzled over that while searching through his brass cards. He showed one to Aria. “Scales? Yeah, you can use my dragon. But if he escapes into the wastes, he’s never coming back. Good luck.” Aria sat beside Anthrapas and Jameson.
The sphinx entered the arena flanked by her centaur and harpy friends. The animals in the arena cheered; stick insects twiddled their antennae in satisfaction. Queen Anthrapas clapped by limply slapping the back of her other hand.
The sphinx leapt upon the seat opposite Homer. “How do you do?” Before Homer could answer, the centaur turned to show he carried three gnomes in strange costumes: one had a skirt of feathers, one had a horse’s tail, and one had ivory claws. The one with claws dismounted and gave the sphinx her brass card and figurine. “Have you selected your army?”
Homer inspected the sphinx’s figurine. It looked just like her, and if it were killed, the sphinx would never play table-war again. Homer hadn’t fought with his own brass since his first official match. But if the sphinx was confident enough to play on the board, and had already won two table-wars, Homer would need his strongest units. He pulled out Scales’ figurine.
Scales’ new figurine had an odd pattern on its neck. Homer recognized the brand of Queen Anthrapas, and apparently the sphinx did, too, because her whiskers twitched. “That figurine has suffered your selfsame fate.” Homer’s brow furrowed. “I heard you emerged from your labyrinth into human territory and you’ve fought for humans ever since. You and your dragon are both branded.”
Homer looked at Queen Anthrapas and Aria Twine.
“That’s why I’m fighting.” The sphinx’s tail swished. “I’ll never fight for anyone else, not as commander, not as game-piece.”
“Mmslf.” Homer put both hands on his chest.
“You fight for yourself?” The sphinx grinned. “Everyone says so, but humans and elves fight for their queens, and dwarfs fight for the Mountain Swallower. We in the wastes are slaves only to our natures.” Homer arranged more figurines. The sphinx’s tail’s tip flitted and she bit her lip with her fangs. “That said, I can’t resist a good riddle. I suppose it’s my nature. Is it your nature to hear my riddle?” Homer kept his hands on his figurines. “I told the same riddle to the other commanders before our matches. Neither of them seemed to get it. I can’t imagine you would, either,” she added, “having little control of the language.”
Homer nodded. “Rriddle.”
Said the sphinx:
“It’s weightless. It’s silent. It hides in the dark.
It’s grounded, but flies; it leaves not a mark.
We’ve all got our own, but they have the same name.
If you guess it, it might win you the game.”
Gnomes sculpted sandy dunes on the war-table. The sphinx pushed her figurine forward with a paw. Homer reconsidered the riddle and his choice of figurines; he set Scales beside six soldiers with slings. He reminded his gnomes that his troops wore desert-appropriate clothing, even though Scale’s presence chilled the air. Homer gestured to the sphinx to offer her the first turn. She declined by shaking her head.
“The game begins,” said a gnome in a dress. “Homer moves first.”
Homer pointed at Scales’s figurine, and at the sphinx’s figurine. He tapped fingers with his gnomes. “The dragon unleashes its icy breath.” The gnomes moved Scales’ articulated limbs and wings to show the awesome power of the maturing dragon. Scale’s figurine even had a hinged jaw so the gnomes could open its mouth. The gnomes scattered white powder to demonstrate the snowy aftermath of Scales’ freezing exhalation.
The sphinx’s figurine was at the snowy epicenter, but the sphinx herself was unfazed. “The cold is weightless and silent, and flying snowflakes fall to the ground without leaving a mark, but they hardly hide in the dark, and you ignored line three entirely. Gnome.” Her gnome with ivory claws pulled the sphinx-figurine’s tail. The figurine ballooned twenty times in size.
Homer grunted, and the sphinx giggled. “You didn’t know? Etiquette demands I restrain myself in public, but in my desert I’m free to expand to my true volume.” Her figurine was almost big as her, and mercilessly colorless.
Homer pointed to his soldiers. The gnomes showed how they gathered rocks around the desert and slung them at the giant sphinx, who batted the stones out of the air. With feline poise she sauntered to Homer’s side of the table and smacked his soldiers off the edge. The sphinx mewled with pride. “Slung stones are ‘grounded’ and could be called weightless and silent, and I suppose you can’t aim in the dark, but leaving no mark? And line three is giving you trouble, isn’t it?”
The sphinx figurine leapt upon Scales and bit at his neck. Homer pointed to the sky; Scales flew five feet above the table, supported by almost invisible gnomish scaffolding. The sphinx pounced high enough to nip his wingtips; Scales sailed five feet higher before circling safely.
“What a poor place to end the game,” said the sphinx. “Gnomes, what’s the score?”
The gnomes in dresses convened with the gnome with ivory claws. “You have four points for killing Homer’s men and injuring his dragon. Homer has two, for at least escaping with Scales alive—unless the dragon decides to flee from humanity’s custody.”
The sphinx watched Scales circle above the table. “What say you, Homer? Time to throw in the towel?”
Scales kept flying between the sun and Homer’s eyes, casting a—“Shdow,” said Homer. “Jadow. Sh—Shadow.” He pressed his hand against a gnome’s to tap a message. The gnome made Scales fly away from the table.
“It’s over, then?” The sphinx purred. “Pity I couldn’t get five points, but four will do.” As Scales’ shadow tracked across the table, the sphinx’s eyes widened. “Oh! No, no, no!” She whipped her tail against her gnome, who made her figurine try dodging Scales’ shadow, but too late. Scales’ shadow pinned the sphinx’s figurine in its tracks. She seemed unable to move a muscle. “I surrender,” said the sphinx. “Please spare my game-piece.”
The gnomes convened. “The sphinx wins two points for killing Homer’s men and injuring his dragon. Homer wins four points for winning the round. If this were not a tournament-match, the sphinx and her land would be forfeit to humanity.”
Sir Jameson whispered to Aria: “What just happened?”
“I can’t tell.” Aria squinted at the table.
The sphinx’s mouth twitched like she couldn’t decide if she were outraged or impressed. She finally jumped from her chair and dashed out of the arena, growing larger and larger until her powerful bounds were shakily audible as she passed over the horizon.
Homer collected his figurines, saluted to Queen Anthrapas, and sat beside Aria. As the harpy strutted toward the table and his feathery gnome scraped away the old map, Aria whispered to Homer. “She had you on the ropes. Why’d she forfeit?” Homer shook his head; for some reason he didn’t feel like disclosing the sphinx’s weakness. “Anyway, swell work—you’re tournament champion for sure. We’ll see what the gnomes say after all this.”
An elf approached the table. Homer recognized her as Madam Commander Victoria. She won five points against Thaddeus in the first round, but lost with zero points to the sphinx in the second, so her score was tied with the middling harpy. “Let’s make this quick,” she said. “Neither of us is tournament champion, but don’t imagine I’ll let you win out of the goodness of my heart.”
Her three gnomes in pink dresses built the map on the table. The harpy’s homeland was a hillside of pine trees. The harpy scooped figurines onto the table with his wings. Every figurine was a harpy. “These are my friends! They volunteered for battle, bukawk!”
Madam Victoria’s gnomes brought her one enormous figurine. It was the giant squid Stephanie had used against Aria months ago. The harpy’s gnome objected. “Can you tell me how this giant squid will reach the landlocked location of the match?”
Victoria’s gnomes gave the harpy’s some brass cards. “These are elvish shorties,” they announced for the audience. “They prod the squid with spears to encourage it from its coastal home to this map.” The gnomes demonstrated how the squid could clamber over any obstacle the terrain presented. “The shorties keep the squid hydrated with barrels of water brought from nearby rivers.”
The harpy squawked at the size of its opponent. “Can I at least have the first turn?”
“I can’t even give orders to my untrained squid,” said Madam Victoria. “Make your move.”
The harpy pointed his wings over the table. “My friends fly in circles above, out of the squid’s reach!” The gnomes erected almost invisible scaffolding to hold the harpy-figurines five feet above the table circling the squid.
Victoria shrugged. “Go on.”
The harpy puzzled. Victoria’s gnomes made the squid’s tentacles wiggle threateningly. “We’ll dive-bomb,” said the harpy. “One by one, we’ll streak by and strike!” The figurines zoomed down.
Victoria yawned. Her squid snatched harpies and ate them alive. “Nice try. Your harpies couldn’t scratch my squid.”
The harpy chuckled. “Your squid?” The harpies who slipped past the squid pulled shorties into the sky and dropped them onto rocks from a great height.
“Spear them!” Victoria’s remaining shorties fought back with spears, but harpies flanked them and ripped the shorties to shreds. Then the squid snatched those last harpies and ate them, too. “Hm,” said Victoria. “Well, the table is mine.”
The gnomes convened. “Not quite correct, ma’am.” The gnome with the feathery skirt stood on the table. “All the harpies and shorties are dead. The squid has no one to care for it, and will die of dehydration in days.” The gnomes marked every brass card as unplayable and confiscated the figurines. “There is no clear winner. One point to both sides.”
“No clear winner?” The harpy squawked. “I killed the squid, bukawk! I won! I won!”
“You killed the squid by sacrificing the land’s inhabitants,” said the gnome. “We cannot say you won.”
Sir Jameson folded his arms. “How immature,” he said to Aria. “I’ve never seen a commander debate the gnomes like that before. And the harpy couldn’t be champion with even five points.”
“You didn’t know?” said Aria. “The creatures of the wild wastes don’t care about having a champion to fight the dwarfs. They needed two wins today for Queen Anthrapas to recognize the sovereignty of the wild wastes. The sphinx lost; if the harpy lost, too, then the centaur can’t salvage them.”
“I won! I won! My enemy has no army! Bukawk!”
“Your army was eaten alive,” said the gnomes. “We considered giving you no points at all.”
Homer looked over his shoulder at Queen Anthrapas. The queen seemed unmoved. “Gween.”
Queen Anthrapas spared him a glance. “What?”
“Animl.” Homer pat his own chest. “Ma uin.”
Aria grabbed Homer’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Queen, it’s nothing.”
“Ma uin,” Homer said again. “Animl.” He took one of his gnomes by the hand and tapped a message:
“Homer says that when you introduced him to the creatures from the wild wastes, you called him an animal and made him prove his allegiance to humanity. If he’s an animal, shouldn’t his win count for them?”
Aria stomped on Homer’s hoof. “Homer!” she seethed under her breath, “Keep this up and you’ll never play table-war again!”
Anthrapas waved a hand. “Fine.”
“What?” Aria turned. “Really?”
“If it matters to you that much, I’ll consider your opinion, Homer.” Anthrapas watched the centaur approach the table. “If the centaur wins this table-war against the seafolk champion Namako, I’ll agree to treat the wild wastes as an independent nation.”
Homer looked to the centaur and back to Anthrapas. “Sank yu.”
“Thank you,” said Aria. She wasn’t sure if she was translating for Homer or thanking the queen on her own.
The centaur’s opponent rolled into the arena: Namako was a sea-cucumber in a giant tank of water. His gnomes processed ahead of him; they were adorned with shells and jewels.
When the tank reached the table, Namako’s whole body convulsed. White thread blasted out one end until the whole tank filled with forking innards. Gnomes explained: “Commander Namako preemptively surrenders. Five points to the centaur.” They rolled the tank from the arena while the audience murmured and pondered.
“I think those were his intestines,” said Sir Jameson. “I’d surrender, too, if my intestines fell out.”
“I guess you did it, Homer,” said Aria. “The wild wastes are sovereign territory.”
Anthrapas fell from her seat. Her crown crashed on the ground.
The royal guards lay her in her long, white carriage to rest. Around sundown, Sir Jameson opened the carriage door. “Aria? She wants to see you.”
Jameson stepped out of the carriage and Aria stepped in. She and Anthrapas were all alone. “Your highness? Are you alright?”
“Shove it.” Anthrapas tried to cough, but couldn’t. “Aria, it’s my time. I won’t live to see the sun again.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Aria. “Is your heart failing? Are your lungs weak?”
“I’m old, Aria, that’s what’s wrong. It’s my time,” she said again, “and yours. Tomorrow morning, you’re queen.” Aria’s face crunched in pain, but she shook her head and opened her eyes. Anthrapas managed to cough, and cleared her throat. “Your minotaur. He’s got to beat the dwarfs.”
“We don’t know for sure he’s champion yet. The gnomes haven’t—”
“He’s champion, Aria. He’s got fourteen points. Your minotaur has got to beat the dwarfs.” Anthrapas didn’t look Aria in the eye; she didn’t seem to know where she was. “Do you know what happens if that dwarven robot wins?” Aria nodded, but Anthrapas continued. “War. Real war, for the first time in centuries. The dwarfs have prepared for it. No one else has. It’ll be a bloodbath, and there’s no telling who’d survive to see the end.”
“The end of humanity,” said Aria.
“The end of everything,” said Anthrapas. “Can your minotaur beat the robot?”
Aria made fists. “I’m sure he can.”
“Can, or will?”
“He will.” She folded her arms. “Homer will beat the machine. He’s loyal to me. And did you see Scales fight the sphinx? That dragon’s game-piece could have fled to the wild wastes, and we’d have a worthless dragon in our stables, but it returned, out of loyalty.”
“Loyalty?” The queen rolled her eyes. It was all the movement she could muster. “Your ice-dragon returned because it was in the middle of a baking desert. It didn’t know where else to go. It cares for humanity only because humanity can keep it comfortable. If that sphinx had lived on a glacier, we’d be a dragon down. And your minotaur—”
Now Aria glared. “What about my minotaur?”
Anthrapas searched for words. “Homer… Homer is a man, Aria.”
“And you’re oblivious,” said Anthrapas.
“Our relationship isn’t like that,” said Aria. “Homer wouldn’t be attracted to me anyway. I’m no minotaur.”
Anthrapas nodded, unconvinced. “You’ve lived alone in a shack too long.”
“Not anymore,” said Aria. “Now I’ve got a throne, and I’ll do it proud.”
“Thrones need no pride. No one does.” Anthrapas turned her head so her sightless gaze pointed to the window, as if looking for a great black sword. “Just… keep humanity going. Even if it means partnering with animals—or, god help you, even elves—keep humanity going.”
Those were her last words.