(This is part ten of a fantasy serial starting here. Homer the minotaur managed to beat a dwarven machine at table-war, but then lost to the machine the next round. It’s Homer’s first loss, ever, and he didn’t take it well. A maze has sprung up around him.)
When the ground stopped shaking, half the dwarven throne-room was rubble scattered over a labyrinth. Then the Mountain Swallower’s laughter rumbled the arena. “I suppose my opponent forfeits?”
“We allow breaks between matches,” replied a gnome. “The minotaur has 15 minutes.”
“Hmmm.” The Mountain Swallower sat back on their throne. “The sun sets on our world reclaimed.”
The audience scrambled for safety as the new branches burst from the labyrinth.
“Fear not, gnome.” The Mountain Swallower pat a gnome’s head; this gnome had one arm and no jaw. “Gnomes will have a place in our dwarven future. As fellow creatures of the earth, only gnomes are fit to serve us.”
The crowd hushed. The Mountain Swallower looked up.
Aria Twine wore a new military blazer and a blue ring on her left hand.
“Where were you?” asked Jennifer.
“With my tailors, of course.”
“Homer could have used your support,” said Harvey.
“He won a round without me, didn’t he? If I support him too much, I’ll hold him back.” Aria examined the labyrinth. The walls seemed to breathe. “Looks like I arrived just in time.” A shifting entrance opened like a mouth.
“Your highness, please retreat,” said a gnome. “Entering a labyrinth is a dangerous—”
“If I don’t make it out, choose another Queen.” She tossed her crown onto her throne. “I’m not fit for it.”
She stepped into the labyrinth, and the entrance closed to swallow her.
Aria expected total darkness, but a silvery light came from… her hand? The sapphires on her new ring were glowing. With her left arm outstretched, the walls of the labyrinth showed their brickwork.
She had no plan of attack. She walked with her gloved right hand on the right wall. Voices from the audience outside the labyrinth faded away as she turned corners and found dead ends. Aria swore the only sound was slow breathing—her own, or Homer’s.
She tripped on a loose cobblestone. She knew the walls moved because she’d seen them shifting from outside, but didn’t believe it until she tripped on the same loose cobblestone again.
Maybe the maze’s exit had moved as well. Maybe there was no exit.
“Calm down, Aria,” she said to herself.
Now listening for sliding walls, Aria noticed the floors sloped at odd angles or became staircases up and down. Ladders led into dark chasms. She wondered if the floor moved underneath her.
She felt humid heat pouring around a corner. “Homer?” She followed his breath down a staircase and up a ladder. “Homer!”
As soon as Homer heard her, he turned away. A wall slid to divide them.
Aria dove for the gap, but knew she’d be crushed if she tried to slip by. Instead she tossed a scroll through the closing slit.
Seconds passed. Aria still heard Homer’s breath through the wall. “It took me months to finish that,” she said, hopefully loud enough for him to hear. “Do you remember when Anthrapas separated us for national security? I spent a lot of time on it then. I guess I missed you.”
The wall slid back open.
Homer held the maze he’d drawn for Aria ages ago. Aria had solved it.
“I took advantage of you,” she said, “but you’ve done more for me than you could ever know. And not just me—everyone depends on you.” Homer followed Aria’s escape-line with his one eye. “I should have been there for you—but you handled the first round against the machine, and you showed you don’t need me. But now I’m here for you anyway.”
Homer shook his head. “Alreddy over. Lozt.”
Aria wasn’t sure if he meant he was lost in the maze, or he’d lost to the dwarven machine. Either way: “It’s not over till it’s over.” Homer shook his head again. His horns marked the walls. “Every maze has an exit. Every problem can be solved.”
Homer opened his mouth to speak but knew he couldn’t produce the sounds he wanted. He grabbed Aria’s shoulder so gruffly she recoiled, but then tapped his fingers on her shoulder in gnomish. Aria’s gnomish was rusty, but she’d brushed up since becoming queen. “I can’t win. In the second round, the machine knew everything.”
“But not in the first round?” asked Aria. “Why not?”
“In the first round I made a trap in the real world,” tapped Homer, “but that won’t work twice. The dwarven machine is simulating our reality, and the parallel reality of table-war.”
“Then… the walls moved.” Aria held Homer’s hand in both of hers. “But you’ve escaped a labyrinth with moving walls once before, haven’t you?”
Homer ground his teeth. “Maybe the machine can hear us now. Maybe it can hear our thoughts.”
“Then give it something to really think about.” She hugged him.
The walls groaned. The ceiling split. As quickly as it had come the labyrinth was gone, like a passing thunderstorm.
Homer threw his eye-patch and goggles at the Mountain Swallower. “Negst round.”
The Mountain Swallower smiled. “Gnomes, how long will it take to prepare a new table? More than three minutes?”
“Of course,” said the nearest gnome, crawling over the rubble.
“Then the contest is over,” said the Mountain Swallower. “You had 15 minutes, minotaur. It’s been twelve.”
Homer matched hands with a gnome. “He has far more time,” translated the gnome. “The contest was interrupted by natural disaster, and its conclusion can be postponed for days.”
Aria smirked as she took her throne opposite the Mountain Swallower, who was agape. “A natural disaster? You destroyed the table yourself, minotaur!”
“And it was a natural disaster,” said Aria. “Anthrapas agreed Homer could represent the wild wastes. As an animal from the wastes who isn’t owned by any army, his labyrinth is legally a natural disaster, just like a blizzard brewing around my ice-dragon if it escaped into the wild.”
The Mountain Swallower slumped in their throne.
“Prepare the table,” said Homer, through his gnome. “I’m ready.”
While the gnomes rebuilt the table and floor and seating, an elf tapped Homer’s knee; it was one of Stephanie’s shortlings. The shortling gave Homer some brass cards and figurines. “These are from Victoria and me, on behalf of the queen.”
The sphinx, harpy, and centaur brought their own brasses and figurines. They were all beautifully painted. “I hope you find some use in us,” said the sphinx.
“I’m sure you can use this, too,” said Harvey, with another brass and figurine.
A gnome in jewelry gave Homer yet more to hold. “From Emperor Shobai, and Ebi Anago.”
Homer couldn’t tap messages to gnomes with his hands full, so as respectfully as he could, he set the gifts on the ground and touched the gnome’s shoulder. “I don’t need these,” he tapped.
“You don’t need to use them if they’d be in the way,” said the gnome, “but if you could put these pieces on the table it would mean a great deal culturally speaking, or so I’m told. Feelings of unity, and such.”
“But they might be killed in battle,” tapped Homer.
“That would be even better,” said the gnome.
The table was reconstructed sooner than anyone anticipated, but the dwarven war-machine was always ready. The Mountain Swallower sneered. “Faster, minotaur!”
“Hey!” Across the throne room, Aria Twine lounged across her throne. She pointed her gloved hand at the Mountain Swallower. “That’s my favorite commander you’re addressing.”
“If he’s truly a wild beast, he’s not you’re commander to own, is he?”
“I don’t own him. I’m just his biggest fan.” Aria admired her ring. “Tell you what: let’s make a bet.”
The audience turned to the Mountain Swallower, who already sat beside Homer’s goggles and eye-patch. “When my machine wins, I control the planet. What more could you wager?”
“If your machine won, how quickly could you execute me? I’d still have at least a second left to live, hm?” When Aria raised her ring, it cast blue light across the throne-room. “Time enough to destroy this in front of you.”
“Childish.” The Mountain Swallower chortled. “Dwarfs eat gems, but I’m not so desperate as to grovel for one.”
“But dwarfs aren’t the only ones to eat gems.” Aria gestured for a gnome to come close. “Open wide.”
“Don’t!” The Mountain Swallower’s shout shocked even itself. Aria popped her ring into the gnome’s mouth.
“Nod yes or no,” she said. “Gnomes eat gems, right? Creatures of the earth, and such?”
The gnome nodded.
“But gnomes don’t enjoy it, do they? Gnomes don’t enjoy anything.”
The gnome shook his head.
“So you’re tasting that priceless ring, and you’re not even enjoying it?”
The gnome nodded.
“If Homer loses, swallow, got it?”
The Mountain Swallower grumbled. “Your stalling is embarrassing everyone. What wager were you envisioning?”
“Now you’re talking.” Aria plucked her ring from the gnome’s mouth. “If your machine wins even one point this round, I’ll give you the ring myself. If it wins no points at all, I’ll need…” She reclined across her throne. “Your brain.”
Murmurs swarmed the crowd. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.
“My life is a paltry ante for a sure bet. Begin the match. Choose the location for battle, minotaur!”
Homer gave a gnome a brass card. Gnomes pounced upon the table and finished the map in a minute. It was featureless and flat.
Homer put all the figurines he’d received onto the table: a centaur, a harpy, a sphinx, a griffon, a giant crab, and three imps. As if that weren’t enough, he added Scales the ice-dragon and, to the murmurs of the crowd, his own likeness.
A gnome tugged Homer’s vest. “Are you sure, sir? If your game-piece dies, you won’t ever play official table-war again. The dwarven machine will win by concession.” Homer nodded.
The machine clicked.
A drawer opened containing six brass cards and six metal beads. Gnomes somberly carried the beads to the table. “Truly these are the end times,” said the front-most gnome.
When Aria squinted at the beads, the Mountain Swallower chortled. “The great demons, in their dormant state. Did you think I would bet my brain if I did not intend to win?”
Homer frowned. “Hou?”
The Mountain Swallower explained: “Gnomes, with flawless and rigorous logic, are the only ones who can control the great demons of old. But our machine, with its own gnome-brains, has the same potential. Even the gnomes recognize this, as they obviously permit the machine to use the great demons on the table,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Usher in the day of the dwarf.”
The gnomes around the table turned to Homer. “The loser of the last round may begin.”
Homer pointed to his figurine. His figurine pointed toward the dormant demons. Homer’s army advanced.
The dormant demons, barely big as beads, suddenly swelled. Homer couldn’t imagine the intricate mechanisms in the demons’ figurines so they could expand in size a hundred times.
Homer’s sphinx expanded, also, and bounded across the table. She swatted the two-headed demon and sent it sailing. In the audience, the actual sphinx mewled proudly.
Then the other five demons leapt upon her game-piece. They kept expanding in size until they weighed her down. When they were big enough, they swallowed her whole.
Homer’s other figurines shivered with fear—the gnomes were meticulous in portraying the battle’s gruesome detail.
Homer pointed to Scales. His figurine boarded the dragon and led the charge.
The demons kept getting bigger, and bigger, but their forms were swirling, amorphous, and invulnerable. They smashed the imps underfoot. They crushed the centaur with big, clumsy hands. Scales reared back and unleashed a blizzard upon the monsters, but they didn’t even slow down.
One of the demons pulled a great, black sword from their own chest and used it to cut the crab in half. The other demons retrieved their own weapons from inside themselves and rolled toward Homer’s army brandishing them.
Homer pointed toward the ceiling and tapped fingers with a gnome. The gnome showed how Homer’s remaining army scattered; Scales, the harpy, and the griffon flew in different directions.
“Not soon enough, minotaur.” The Mountain Swallower giggled when a demon cracked his great, black whip and snapped the griffon out of the air. Another demon threw their spear and pierced the harpy through the heart.
Scales kept flying upward, with Homer’s figurine clinging to its neck.
“Too easy,” said the Mountain Swallower. The largest demon threw their ax into the sky. It cut Scales and Homer into two. “The game ends.”
The audience was silent. At the same moment, everyone in the throne-room realized why the silence felt so suffocating: the dwarven machine no longer clicked and clacked with calculations. It was utterly quiet.
Homer folded his arms awaiting the verdict.
“Indeed, the game ends.” Six gnomes took the table. “It ends with a tie. The contest is now over. Dwarfs remain bound to the treaty limiting bloodshed to table-war.”
The Mountain Swallower stood. “What do you mean? What happened? The opposing commander is dead!”
“Both commanders are dead,” said the gnomes. They showed Homer’s bisected figurine. “Zero points, all around.”
“My machine is not dead,” said the Mountain Swallower. “It wasn’t even on the table!”
“Correct.” The gnomes rebuilt the table to show how the thrown ax spun through the air, landing elsewhere. “Your machine is over here.” They built a model of the throne room, which the ax split open.
Homer put his hand to a gnome’s. “We’re more nearby your throne-room than you thought?” translated the gnome. The Mountain Swallower swallowed. “Homer says the first round, he forced your machine start simulating the real world in addition to the parallel world of official table-war. Because your machine has accidentally killed its own game-piece while killing Homer’s, your machine now believes it is dead.”
Now the suffocating silence even seemed to stop the audience’s hearts, until Aria laughed. “Homer, you really had me going!”
Homer released his translator gnome to recross his arms, and puffed out both nostrils. “My piece,” he said aloud, “for your machine.”
The Mountain Swallower swallowed again, and gestured for six dwarfs to open the machine and inspect the contents. The machine was totally inert.
“I see. Then…”
The Mountain Swallower stood.
“A deal is a deal. Your highness, Aria Twine, I present—”
The lord of the dwarfs opened up its own head.
It pulled its brain out and held it aloft. It looked just like a gnome’s.