Homer VS the Sphinx

(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.

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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?”

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Homer inspected the sphinx’s figurine. It looked just like her, and if it were killed, the sphinx would never play table-war again. 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.

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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.

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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.

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Homer grunted, and the sphinx giggled. “You didn’t know? Etiquette demands I restrain myself in public, but in my desert and on the table 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?”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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“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?”

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“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?”

“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.

Commentary
Next Chapter

The Circular Pangolin

(I wrote this in 2017 and it won second place at UCSB’s 2018 Most Excellent Prose competition! I was inspired by an anthropology class where we learned about pangolins, small armored mammals often compared to armadillos. In Mary Douglass’ classic anthropology book Purity and Danger the pangolin stars in Lele rituals despite being “always spoken of as the most incredible monster of all” for its peculiar physiology. Douglass’ examination of religion’s paradoxical fascinations made me imagine my own weird fantasy pangolin cult.)

Circular Pangolin

In the desert you’re always leaking. When you’re out of sweat, and you’ve pissed your last drop, your sanity seeps into the sand. Clouds drift into the drought just to die. Only curled-up critters can handle the caustic heat. Them, the cacti, and the cultists.

Townsfolk call me Doc because that’s what I am. I used to have a nurse named Fernando, but Fernando lost his mind, so I lost Fernando. I spend most of my days reminding townsfolk to hydrate, but sometimes I get to stitch someone together, or cut them open, and they’d better hope I care to sew them back up when I’m done.

Night’s the only time you can take a decent walk, so one full moon I staggered out with a bottle of tequila. I liked to circle the farms drinking until the dunes looked like waves and I could pretend I was lost at sea. That night, before I could enjoy myself, a cultist confronted me on my porch.

The junior cultists came to town on moonless nights to beg for food. They wore black, hooded robes and slippers made of old rubber tires, and sunglasses, and scarves. That’s how I knew this particular cultist meant business: he (she?) wore the full rubberized regale. His black rubber bodysuit had footies an inch thick. I couldn’t see eyes through his dark glass goggles. He unzipped his fetishy face-mask to talk. “Doc, we need help.” Having spoken, he zipped his mouth shut.

“I’ve got plans tonight.” I shook the tequila. He just motioned for me to follow. “C’mon, cactus-herder! Can’t you even tell me what’s wrong?”

He unzipped again. “God is leaking.” And, zipped.

Well, what can you say to that? I brought my first-aid kit and followed him over the dunes.

We walked hours over the sand. Dunes looked like arctic tundra in the moonlight. Ordinarily I’d never venture so far from town, but the cultist seemed to know the way. “How do you navigate out here?” The question wasn’t worth unzipping; the cultist just pointed at the sky. His rubber gloves were so thick his fingers could barely bend. “You can see the stars through those thick goggles?”

He nodded.

“Doesn’t that suit get uncomfortable?”

He nodded, vigorously.

“So what’s it for?”

He unzipped, and I never thought I’d hear something so sane from that black mask: “In the desert you’re always leaking.” And, zipped.

When we crested the next dune a sandy caldera opened before us. Junior cultists scrambled from cactus to cactus like bats sucking nectar from flowers. They cut limbs from cacti to replant and propagate the species. They wrapped wax paper around red blossoms to preserve pollen. They sliced fruits and pulled down their scarves to lick the liquid which dripped. Not one member of the strange congregation revealed an inch of skin under their tunics and rubber.

I heard my guide unzip as he led me through the throngs. “Avoid eye contact with the students. Life-essence leaks at every opportunity.” And, zipped.

“Is that all you folks drink? Cactus-juice?”

Unzip. “The cactus is like all organisms: it transmutes foreign substances into its own flesh. But the cactus doesn’t lose what it drinks. We drink the cactus to become like the cactus. We don’t lose what we drink.” And, zipped.

We walked past scattered huts made of animal skins draped over long bones. I thought twinkles in the huts were stars, but realized they were glints off voyeuristic sunglasses and goggles. The huts’ inhabitants looked away when I noticed.

“What do you eat? Cactus?”

Unzip. “We grind cactus into a paste. This paste sustains us without causing us to urinate or defecate.” And, zipped.

“How do you fuck with these suits on?”

Unzip. “To do so would be unthinkable.” And, zipped.

“Now that’s no way to live.”

Deep in the caldera the sand was pebbly and coarse. Past the last of the huts more rubber-suited figures like my guide stood across the pathless path. My guide unzipped. “I am not holy enough to go further. You must approach the caldera’s center alone.” And, zipped.

Another rubber guide unzipped. “Stomp and shout when you reach the center. A holy man lives there whose renunciation leaves him almost totally senseless, who therefore has not lost a drop of essence in a decade. His sacred potential is so great, a cut in his robes would beam like the moon. He will lead you to God.” And, zipped.

“Okay, okay. I get the picture.” The sand below was rocky and steep. I put my first-aid kit in my lap and descended the slope on my ass. “What’s the name of this holy man?”

Unzip. “To utter it would tarnish its purity.” And, zipped.

I climbed down into the caldera longer than I thought was possible. The depth dimmed the moon and the stars. The sand turned into stones turned into rocks until the ground was paved with boulders. I finally came to a place where the boulders sloped upward in all directions, so I reckoned it was the center. I stomped and shouted at the dark.

Movement rumbled from the dark: a silhouette I thought had been a boulder stood up and lumbered toward me on a gait restrained by thick black rubber. The holy man looked like an inflated cartoon character with outlines eight inches thick on all sides. His rubber gloves allowed only the barest use of his fingers. His rubber helmet was spherical with a mere pinprick for breathing and no other orifices.

“Listen,” I started, then, realizing he probably couldn’t hear me, amended myself: “If you can, I mean, listen. I’ve been more than cooperative.” The holy man managed to move his arms to twist his helmet so the pinprick for breathing was aligned with his left ear. I spoke quickly so he wouldn’t suffocate. “Just show me what I’m here to do.”

He swiveled his helmet back to breathe. Slowly as dunes roll over the desert, slowly as stars roll over the sky, he shifted weight from one foot to the other to walk. I followed, wondering if I could roll him to his destination faster than he would waddle. He led me to a gap between boulders in the ground. The gap was just large enough for someone to spelunk. I prayed it would not be necessary.

The holy man tugged my collar. “What? No clothes allowed underground?” He nodded, somehow, and I unbuttoned my jeans. “Am I here just because you don’t fit down the crevasse with your dumb rubber suit?” He shook his head. “Well, why am I here, then?”

The holy man drew letters in the air with a bulky glove. He spelled, “because you’re the best, Doc.”

I paused on my descent into the ditch. “Fernando?” I covered my mouth. “Sorry. I’m not supposed to say your name, am I?”

The holy man pat my head, and he pushed me downward.

Deep in the crevasse the age of the air weighed on my shoulders. I lowered myself ledge by ledge while holding my first-aid kit with my teeth. The ditch was so dark I had no clue how deep it ran. More than once I cut my soles on black cacti. I realized I didn’t know whether I was approaching God’s wound, or climbing inside it. Either way, the innermost lacerations would need to be sutured first.

After a duration whose length I couldn’t guess I felt nothing below me but cacti. I bouldered left and right but still felt sharp spines below. I whimpered, having no strength left to climb from the crevasse. I cursed myself for following cactus-herders.

When my strength gave out I fell. My back cracked cactus fronds and three-inch spines stuck me like a porcupine.

I landed in an empty cavern. I hardly remember falling, or how long I fell, and only recall waking nude and bloody. The walls of the cavern were dimly lit by shelves of glowing fungi.

I crawled to my first-aid kit. I started by injecting painkillers, though it felt counterproductive to puncture myself more. Then I set to work plucking each spine with tweezers. When I plucked my left arm bare it was polka-dotted with pox-like perforations. Before plucking my right arm, I examined my surroundings. The cave rocks were bigger than the boulders in the caldera above; they were sheets of stone slotted together like plates of armor.

Behind the glowing fungi, the walls were subtly transparent. I shuddered when I looked deeper: human figures were frozen in stone like bugs preserved in plastic. Some stood at military attention. Some sat with crossed legs. Some were balled in the fetal position. I turned away to pluck spines from my flesh.

When I was finally spineless I packed my first-aid kit and walked around aimlessly. Maybe God would transport me to the surface if I patched him up, but I didn’t find anything Almighty, just more rocks and fungi. I wandered to the walls for guidance. “I don’t suppose you frozen folks know where to find God, do you?”

“They already have.” The voice boomed from everywhere. I felt stones beneath me rumble and writhe. “I did not hear you come in. Welcome, Doctor.”

“What kind of God can’t feel someone crawling on them?”

“I feel everyone crawling on me,” said the earth. Rocky plates unfolded like flower petals with only more petals underneath. Sliding sheets of stone threatened to crush me, but I found a safe spot to stand: the center was stationary like the eye of a hurricane. The surrounding rocks bunched up like a bundt cake. When it finally finished moving, it looked like a circular pangolin wrapped around me.

“So.” I brushed stones with my fingertips. “Where does it hurt?”

Stone sheets rustled. Plates parted like elevator doors. More plates behind them parted vertically. More plates behind them parted diagonally and pure white light leaked through a slanted slot. “Prepare, Doctor. This will not be a sight for which your vision is accustomed.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“I cannot.”

I donned sterile gloves and ran a finger along the shining slot. The circular pangolin’s inner light showed me the shadows of bones in my finger. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“The holy man said you were the best available for sewing someone up.”

“It helps if I know what cut them open.”

The circular pangolin’s plates contracted. “I harvest mana from ether. The astral planes resist me with a hazardous…” It searched for a word. “Exoskeleton.”

“You cut yourself cactus-herding?”

“Metaphysically speaking.”

“Lemme take a look.”

The innermost plates parted and the brightness increased ten-thousand-fold. I couldn’t tell the difference between opening and closing my eyes, so I closed them and covered them with both hands. This hardly dimmed the light, and I felt utterly transparent. I wondered if my thickest bones still cast shadows or if the light penetrated even my pelvis and femurs when I walked into the rocky armor. I heard the stone sheets close behind me like air-locks. I felt labored breathing from all directions. The floor was warm and wet. I blindly felt for walls.

“So, why am I naked?”

“My inner light would disintegrate your clothing. The holy man will guard your garments.”

My hands brushed a warm wall. “Is this you?”

“It is.”

“Am I close to the wound?”

“You’ve been walking inside it.”

I considered the contents of my first-aid kit. “I didn’t bring enough anti-bac.”

“It is not necessary.”

“We can’t leave foreign objects when I sew you up. It’ll getcha whatever the metaphysical equivalent of an infection is.” In the blinding light I had to assess the wound by touch. I could barely brush both sides of the laceration with my arms outstretched. I couldn’t reach the top of the wound even jumping with my hands above me. I walked hugging the left wall to gauge the laceration depth: the left wall ended twenty paces from the deepest portion of the wound. I’d found the pangolin’s real flesh: even under plates of stone armor, its skin was a foot thick and covered in hard, sharp scales the size of my palm.

“Doctor, what is your professional opinion?”

“I need to perform debridement.” I tugged a loose scale until it popped off. “The astral plane burned your tissues. I have to remove the char.”

I used the scale to cut dead flesh from the walls and floor. The circular pangolin contracted mysterious musculature to bring the roof within reach, too. I was blind in the impossible light, but I knew which flesh to flay because the dead flesh was dry. Each time I brought a new armload of dead flesh from the wound, my old pile of dead flesh was gone. I suspected the pangolin ate them. I estimate the debridement took eight hours in total.

“Now I’m going to sew you up,” I said. “I’ll start by suturing the deepest parts of the wound.” I carefully opened my first-aid kit so each instrument remained in position. I felt where I expected needle and thread. I blindly, painstakingly threaded the needle. When I tried to pierce the pangolin’s internal flesh, the needle snapped. “Damn!”

“What?”

“You’re tough.”

“But you removed flesh with my scale!”

“I can’t sew with a scale.” I felt the wet floor for my first-aid kit and searched for another needle. I pricked myself on a cactus spine. “Ow!” It must have slipped into my kit in the fungus room. “I might be able to work with this.” I tied thread to the spine. Just as I suspected, the spine pierced the pangolin’s innards easily. The pangolin rocked and rolled; I struggled for balance mid-suture. “Stay still!”

“It hurts!” The circular pangolin squirmed as I sewed a zig-zag at the back of the gash. I retreated and tugged the thread taut.

“Just twenty more times, big fella.”

The pangolin groaned, but subsequent sutures were swifter. Soon enough I poked the cactus spine through the full foot of thick skin and pulled the whole wound shut. My roll of bandages was barely enough for a courtesy-wrap. “I’m afraid that’s all I can do.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

I felt my way back to the stone-plated outer walls. “Can you open up your armor and let me leave?”

“But Doctor, you haven’t claimed your reward.”

I turned to the circular pangolin. Its light was brightest along the sutured wound, so its edges were shaded and I saw its silhouette. It stretched like a serpent into the infinite distance. “I just wanna drink myself to sleep in my own bed.”

“You’ve rendered unparalleled service to me,” said the pangolin. “You must join my highest order.”

“You mean the folks frozen by the fungi? No thanks.” I pried at the plates. “Let me out!”

“But you must have some reward,” said the pangolin.

I gave up opening the armor. I wasn’t leaving without a gift. “How about…” I searched the bloody floor. I collected the scale I’d removed and stowed it in my first-aid kit. “How’s that? Can I go now?”

“Thank you, Doctor. Yes, you may.”

The plates opened.

I couldn’t see anything as I walked out because my eyes were adjusted to the bright light, but I felt a cool evening breeze. The plates closed behind me and sunk under the sand, leaving only the bulge of a new-born dune. When my eyes adjusted to the dark I found myself a quarter-mile from town, and my clothes were folded beside me.

I haven’t seen any cultists since then—at least, not on purpose. On new moons junior cactus-herders come to town to beg for food, and when they do, they stop by to pay respects. Not to me; I have to let them worship the razor-sharp pangolin-scale.

I asked, one time, “why do you want to see it? This is sharp enough to cut through the thickest rubber suit.”

The junior cultist pulled down her scarf and said, “you can only worship what you fear. It’s the only way to keep yourself from leaking. In any case, this scale touched the skin over the muscle connecting the bones around the heart of God, and therefore it gleams like the moon in my eyes.”

Whatever floats their boat. I use the sharp edge for whittling.

But I always carry the scale when I step out at night to drink. It reminds me to climb the new dune the pangolin left bringing me home. There I drink tequila until the dunes are waves and I’m lost at sea.


(I think this short story conveys the meaning of Akayama DanJay in 2% as many words. If you liked it, why not follow me? I try to post something every week.)

Back

Homer VS the Human

(This is part four of an ongoing series starting here. So far, in a world where war is replaced with board-games, former champion Aria Twine has discovered a minotaur with a talent for table-war. Homer the minotaur will become a royal commander if he can beat Queen Anthrapas’ best player.)


Homer was glad to have a room in Queen Anthrapas’ castle, but it wasn’t built for him. Overnight, the queen-sized bed-sheet tangled in his horns and brambly fur. The mattress would be huge for a human, but Homer’s legs still draped off the edges. He’d spent most of the night sleeplessly drawing mazes at a hard mahogany desk.

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“Wake up, Homer!” Aria threw open the window-blinds. Homer shielded his eye from the sunlight. “We’ve got to train hard before your match tomorrow morning. Quattuor, bring us a hearty commander’s breakfast.”

Quattuor the gnome bowed and left the room. When he returned with a platter of muffins nicked from the commanders’ dining hall, Homer and Aria were pouring over square cards made of wood and brass.

“I’ve never met Harvey, but he’s a royal commander, so it wasn’t hard to find logs of his games. The guy has textbook human strategies—lots of trained troops in formation.” Aria laid out some cards. “This card here is a falconer. This card is his falcon. This soldier fires arrows quickly, but this soldier fires arrows accurately. Knowing how and when to use these combinations makes Harvey a reliable table-war champ.”

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Homer’s fingers read a wooden card’s markings. “Rrrd.”

“Wood,” agreed Aria, “not brass. Brass cards are official, wooden cards are copies. Hobbyists buy ’em to recreate historical matches, or just play around. That’s how I got my start as a kid. We can use wooden cards for practicing.”

“Rrrd,” said Homer again, and he give Aria the card.

“Bird? Oh yeah, that card’s the falcon.” Aria considered the cards she’d brought. “Harvey uses a bird-eye-view to advise his archers. To beat him, we’ve got to beat his birds. Let’s go to the hobby-shop for a test run.”


The bystanders in the capital’s local hobby-shop couldn’t stop staring at Homer and Aria. To placate the queen, Aria had made a tailor sew pants and a vest for Homer’s odd frame. Homer found the clothes constricting, but the hobby-shop’s dim lighting soothed him.

“Ignore the geeks, Homer.” Aria dumped iron figurines on the table. “Quattuor, gather more gnomes to help set up the map.”

Quattuor jogged between twelve table-war boards, each officially twenty feet square. The other tables were either empty or held a war paused mid-battle as all the hobbyists crammed around Homer and Aria to gawk at both in equal measure. The hobbyists ranged in age from eight to eighty.

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Aria sorted her figurines. “You dweebs can watch, but don’t go blabbering, okay? We’re only here because we can’t train in the castle, or Harvey might see us.” The crowd murmured when Homer looked through his cards, some wood, some brass.

Quattuor returned with two more gnomes. “I’m afraid, Ms. Twine, we cannot prepare the map we’d discussed. Only unofficial hobby-maps are appropriate here.”

“Hmph.” Aria folded her arms. “I’d hoped to recreate a map Harvey’s been sparring on; I read about it in a hobby-newsletter. There’s gotta be a similar hobby-map.”

A teen in thick glasses pushed his way to the front of the crowd. “Use High Wall.” His glasses slid down his nose, and he sniffled like he’d had a cold all his life. “Harvey himself said the closest equivalent was the map High Wall.”

“Alright, Quattuor, High Wall.” The gnomes scurried over the table. “Have you got your figurines, Homer?”

Homer shook a bag and figurines fell from it. “He’s got real figures,” whispered someone in the crowd. “Even I can’t afford real figures.” Homer gathered his figurines so the gnomes could finish the map. Quattuor stuck tiny trees to the table. The second gnome crawled across rolling a grass mat. The third gnome arranged wood planks into a four-foot wall dividing the table. The map was swiftly finished.

“Eeugh.” Aria grimaced. “Stock trees? A grass mat? Wood planks? I forgot what I used to put up with in hobby-shops. Lay out your troops, Homer, like we planned. I’m setting up Harvey’s field exactly as he would.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” said the teen in thick glasses. “Harvey always chooses his army based on his opponent’s. He studies them beforehand.”

“Shut up, fanboy.” Aria set up her figurines. Her approximation of Harvey’s army was a handful of archers behind four falconers. As Queen Anthrapas’ reigning champion, Harvey would have the first choice of game-pieces from the royal collection and claim the most skilled units for himself. Homer would be left with a crowd of inexperienced longbowmen and Aria’s secret weapon: the royal beast-master’s griffon.

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“Harvey will have the first move,” said Aria. “He’ll send falcons over the wall. Their surveillance provides Harvey’s units with information about your army’s position.” The gnomes picked up the falcon figurines and flapped them over the wall. “Remember, just because you and I can see the whole table doesn’t mean our game-pieces have the same awareness. A little direction gives Harvey’s archers an advantage on this map, even against your more numerous longbowmen.”

Homer raised one hand to pause the table. A gnome put his hand to Homer’s and they communed with gnomish finger-taps. The gnome scurried over Homer’s longbowmen to the griffon’s figurine. Using sophisticated hinges, the gnome could make the figurine flex and spread its wings like a real animal.

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“Where’d you get that?” asked the teen in thick glasses.

“I know the royal beast-master,” Aria said smugly. “He got that griffon so recently, he hasn’t even had it brassed yet. He’s brassing it at my request.” Homer’s griffon easily snapped the four falcons out of the sky. Homer gestured at his longbowmen, and the gnomes showed how they volleyed a random hail of arrows over the wall. “Harvey’s archers will return fire, but with no information, you’ll win out of sheer numbers. Your griffon can fly over to kill any stragglers.”

The hobbyists chuckled among themselves. “Aria Twine’s taught a minotaur to play table-war, and it can win!”

Aria packed up her figurines. “So, fanboy, whaddya think now?”

The teen in thick glasses surveyed Homer’s figurines. “Harvey would see this strategy a mile away.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah? How?”

“Harvey is me.” He thrust a hand at Homer. “Shake, boy. I look forward to our match.”


Bright and early the following morning, Aria brought a platter of muffins from the commanders’ dining hall to Homer’s door. “It’s time. You got pants on?”

Homer’s room was silent.

“Huh.” Didn’t Homer know this match was too important to miss? Aria pounded the door. “Homer, come on!” She pulled the handle.

Homer’s room was dark. Heavy blinds blocked out the windows. The odor of fur was nose-crinkling.

Aria barely saw Homer sitting against the far wall with his head tucked between his knees, shivering in the dark. He’d rolled up his bed-sheets and arranged them in a maze with him in the center.

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Aria stepped over the maze ‘wall,’ but Homer brandished his horns at her. She backed up and walked around the bed-sheets to give him a muffin. “I visited the royal beast-master. Harvey claimed the griffon’s brass card as soon as he knew we’d need it. He won’t let this go down easy.”

Homer nodded.

“The beast-master give me all his leftover brasses. Let’s talk strategy over some muffins, okay?” This didn’t rouse the minotaur. Aria sighed and sat next to him. “Twelve years ago I was in your exact position, more or less. I was an orphaned table-war geek living on the streets. I won hobby-tournaments for bread-money. Word got to Queen Anthrapas and she offered to make me a royal commander if I could beat her best champion. Before the match, I was too nervous to sleep or eat.”

Homer nodded.

“If I lost, I’d go back to the streets. If I won, I’d live in royal luxury. And I won. But let me tell you, being a royal commander wasn’t any less stressful than living on the streets. I was shipped around the continent, and if I ever lost at table-war, there was hell to pay. But whenever you want, you can walk away from that life. You can go back to your labyrinth. But you’ll only have the opportunity to make that choice if you win, and you’ll have a clearer head if you eat some breakfast.”

Homer chewed the muffin.

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“Atta boy, Homer. Stand up. Watch your horns.” She led him through the labyrinth ‘corridors’ and opened the door.

Homer covered his eye and turned away from the light.

“Too bright?” Aria sighed. “Labyrinths are dark, I guess. The surface just isn’t built for you. Just do your best, Homer. Can you do your best, for me?”

After a few deep breaths Homer returned to the door, squinting.

“Show them what you’ve got.”


The queen’s throne room had become an auditorium. Representatives from human provinces sat circling the central pit of lava, which was covered with a table-war board. Queen Anthrapas gestured for Aria when she walked in, but Aria pointed to her minotaur. “Tell it to Homer. I’m just here to watch.”

“Homer, then. Approach.” Homer’s hooves clopped on the marble steps to the throne. The audience quieted to watch him bow. “Stop there. Turn around.” Homer turned and squinted in the light of a circular window. The window’s light was split by the Great Sword in the distance. Anthrapas coughed to prepare a speech. “On this throne, I can’t help but see that sword. It reminds me of my duty to protect humanity by restricting war to the table. If you want to be a royal commander, you must devote yourself to that cause.” With help from her guards, Anthrapas managed to stand. Several steps above Homer, she was barely taller than him when she straightened her back. “The dwarfs are reneging on the treaty which limits bloodshed to table-war. We, the elves, and the seafolk have one chance to choose a champion. That champion must defeat dwarfs on the table and thereby restrict them to it. Homer, if you’re not fighting to take down the threat represented by that sword, leave.”

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Homer nodded.

“Gnomes, prepare the match.”

Ten gnomes—including Quattuor and Septem Dicem, who still wore goggles for working the lava pit—pushed two chairs to the table. Aria poked Homer’s belly. “That’s your cue.”

“Twine!” Anthrapas collapsed back into her throne. “Get away from him and sit down. You’re not giving any pointers.”

Aria curtsied sardonically and sat in the front row.

The gnomes directed Homer to sit in the closest chair, where the circular window shined directly in his eye. Homer heard more people join the audience. Most were human; Homer recognized some of their scents as spectators from the table-war hobby-shop. A few high elves also sat in to watch the match, dragging their shorties behind them.

“I apologize for tardiness, my liege,” proclaimed Harvey, with a bow. Harvey marched to his seat wearing thick reflective glasses and a chest of shiny metal badges on a clean white suit. The outfit reflected light in all directions. With this blinding distraction, Homer fumbled his figurines and brasses.

Sir Jameson sat beside Aria. “I’m not happy you went to the hobby-shop alone. You know I’m supposed to escort you around the capital.” He took stock of the table. “Your minotaur seems ill.”

“Harvey must’ve realized Homer’s sensitivity to light,” Aria whispered back. “He’s dressed to disorient my minotaur.” The queen’s gnomes read Homer’s brass cards. Harvey let his own personal gnome organize his table-war materials; the gnome wore its own white suit.

“Everything is in order,” said one of the gnomes. “The match may begin.” Anthrapas nodded.

“Hold on.” Aria stood. “O Queen, don’t you remember our agreement? I said my minotaur could beat Harvey… blindfolded.”

Anthrapas shook her head. “There’s hardly reason for that.”

Nevertheless, Aria made Jameson give Quattuor his handkerchief to pass to Homer. Gnomes waggled their fingers at Homer to instruct him on how to tie a blindfold. He didn’t understand why, and when he looked back to Aria, she could only harden her expression to give him courage. He tied the cloth around his head so it covered his good eye. Suddenly his world was dark. He slipped off his eye-patch.

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Harvey joined the audience’s soft applause. He arranged his figurines on the table’s edge. “If you’re handicapping yourself like that, it would be shameful not to throw you a bone. As the challenged party, I’ll choose the map for our match. Would you like to choose the weather?” Homer hadn’t seemed to hear. He pointed his horns to every corner of the room, blindly listening to the audience murmur. “I’m choosing a map I’ve studied intensely: the border of the wild wastes where centaurs have built a wall. The area is sunny today, but there’s often rain or snow in the winter. Any moderate weather should be appropriate.”

Homer felt for a gnome’s hands and declared his choice of weather with finger-taps. Then all the gnomes climbed onto the table to build the map. They professionally sculpted humanity’s grassy hills on Harvey’s side, while Homer’s side gradated to the taller, darker grasses of the wild wastes. Dividing the sides was a wall of irregular boulders and stones.

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Aria furrowed her brow. “Centaurs built a wall on the border of the wild wastes? Why?”

“You’ve been living in a shack for ages, you know,” said Jameson. “The creatures in the wastes have been unruly lately.”

When they finished the map, the gnomes hopped off the table. They opened a small wooden box of white powder and shook it over the map. The powder made a white cloud that obscured the terrain like fog.

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“Hmm.” Harvey considered the fog while selecting game-pieces. Homer felt the cool fog with his hands. Through the fog and the wall, neither Homer nor Harvey could see their opponent’s pieces. “I’m ready to begin,” said Harvey. “My opponent can have the first move.”

Homer waved his hand.

“The minotaur passes the turn to you, sir.” Harvey shrugged. He pointed into the fog and then pointed over the wall. Two gnomes scrambled over the table to maneuver a figurine. When the figurine breached the fog to fly over the wall, Homer knew it was the griffon. Two more gnomes constructed scaffolding to hold the griffon’s figurine aloft. Its wings were stretched mid-flight.

“I’ll admit,” said Harvey, “spying on your practice-match might have been unfair. But you’ve still helped humanity: you’ve shown me griffons are more robust than falcons. You’ve strengthened my intelligence-gathering strategies.”

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Harvey’s griffon landed on Homer’s side of the table. Its wings blew the fog away to reveal an egg. The egg’s figurine was the size of a chicken’s egg, so the egg it represented must have been the size of a man’s head.

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The gnomes left the table to join hands.

“The griffon should return to my side now,” said Harvey. “With the griffon’s guidance, my archers can pinpoint that egg with arrows.”

“Your griffon isn’t coming back,” said Harvey’s personal gnome. He bowed before the queen. “Ma’am, officiating this quandary may require connecting to the core.”

Queen Anthrapas waved her hand.

Gnomes removed the table to uncover the lava pit. Homer sat back before his fur caught fire. Septem Dicem, wearing dark goggles to protect his eyesight, stepped waist-deep into the lava. “The collective consciousness of gnomes at the core has provided a solution to our problem.” Just as quickly, the table was replaced to seal the lava underneath. A gnome brought a new brass card to the table and chiseled a fresh grid of holes. “We apologize for the wait.”

Homer took the card. Another gnome made him a new figurine out of gnomish clay: a second griffon almost twice the size of the first. Homer grunted in approval.

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Harvey puzzled over the second griffon, but waved the problem away. “My loyal griffon will attack the newcomer.”

Instead, the gnomes brought both griffons to Harvey’s side of the table. “They attack your archers,” said a gnome. “These men are dead.”

Elves in the crowd giggled. Harvey covered his mouth. “My surviving archers open fire on both griffons.”

Gnomish fingers clacked. “The griffons eviscerate your archers and return to their egg. There are now no units on the board accepting orders from either commander, so comparing the game-pieces each side has lost in battle, this is technically a victory for the minotaur.”

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While the audience laughed, Aria stood and clapped. “Homer! Whoo!”

Harvey marched around the table. “What did you do?”

Homer gave Harvey the brass card the gnomes had chiseled for him. “Grrffrn.”

“I had humanity’s only griffon.” Harvey realized his mistake while his gnome read Homer’s card. “But you had the griffon’s egg, so—”

“When your griffon saw Homer had its egg, it lost allegiance to you.” Aria marched to the table with her hands on her hips. “Your griffon called for its mate and they slaughtered your squads.”

“But…” Harvey pushed his glasses up his nose. “What are the chances its mate was so nearby?”

“What if,” guessed Aria, “centaurs built that wall because humans recently barged onto the wild wastes and took a griffon? Wouldn’t it be natural for the griffon’s mate to be found near there?”

“We had no statistics regarding the egg’s father,” said Septem Dicem, “but using all available information, the gnomish collective consciousness at the core was able to estimate the strength of the egg’s paternal guardian.”

Aria slapped Homer’s back. “Good game! You made it look easy.”

“Hm…” Harvey ran his own fingertips over the brass card representing the male griffon. “Nice match.” Harvey extended a hand for Homer to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, commander.”

Homer fumbled for Harvey’s hand. Aria untied Homer’s blindfold, but he covered his good eye to protect it from the light. “Still too bright, huh?” Aria took Septem Decim by the shoulder and removed the gnome’s goggles. With a little adjustment, they fit the minotaur perfectly.

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Homer sat in the commanders’ dining hall chewing the edges of a muffin. He could’ve eaten the whole platter himself, but Harvey and some of the other commanders liked muffins, too, and Homer was willing to share.

“That’s Jennifer across from you.” Harvey pointed down the table with a fork. “She likes constructing fortifications right on the battlefield. The boy next to her is Thad; he’s here because his mom’s a noble. Don’t tell him I said that, though, or he’ll start taking my lunch money again.”

Beside Homer, Aria ate scrambled eggs and silently judged every other commander in the room. There were twelve humans, half in their teens, and one elf eating a private bowl of elvish mashed-up-insects-and-honey. Were these really Queen Anthrapas’ best commanders?

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By announcing their intention to renege on the treaty, the dwarfs had issued a challenge. The dwarven table-war champion would fight the winner of a tournament between the humans, elves, and seafolk. The three races would each get four seats in the tournament, and Homer had secured his seat under humanity’s banner.

“We call the elf Sarah. I can’t pronounce her elven name. Sarah? Sarah?” Harvey waved his fork at the girl’s glittering eyes. “Sarah, what’s your real name?”

“Oh, no,” said Jennifer, “not at breakfast!” Sarah laughed. Her laughter released pheromones, producing a scent which conveyed her name in elvish. “Uuugh.” Jennifer pushed her plate away. “Gross.”

Sarah turned up her chin. “A species bearing live young instead of eggs has no right to complain about ‘grossness.’” Aria shuddered. Elves were weird. Homer sniffed the air. He’d never smelled a name before.

“Miss Twine, a letter.” Sir Jameson brandished a sealed envelope. “For Homer, from the queen.”

Aria opened the envelope while surveying the other commanders. Who would join Homer in the tournament? Harvey was a shoe-in, but who else? Surely Queen Anthrapas wouldn’t choose an elf like Sarah; the elvish queen’s pheromones could destroy any elf’s dependability. “Homer.” Aria tapped his shoulder. “I have good news and bad news.”

“Rr?”

“This letter officially seats you in the tournament. No turning back now.” Aria skimmed it again. “You might represent humanity in a match against the dwarfs. I’m jealous!”

Homer let the news sink in. Had he sold his labyrinth-life for muffins?

“The bad news: your first opponent is Ebi Anago.” Aria passed Homer the queen’s letter. “Seafolk.”

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