To Mile 30

(This is part three of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a 100-mile-race. Our runner Jonas is far behind the horse, but just crested a mountain—only to see another mountain he’ll have to summit soon.)

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2019

BEEP. Mile 21: 6:51 / 2:45:35.

Running downhill is easy. Running downhill well is hard. Anyone can jump off a cliff. Only mountain-goats survive.

In high-school, each week of Fall, all the local cross-country teams competed on some rough trails. I was proud of my personal record: I could run three hard miles in just under 16 minutes. I could even keep up with the best varsity runner, Kevin, for the first two miles.

But in the last mile, he’d leave me behind, because the last mile was downhill, and Kevin knew how to handle downhill. Lord, Kevin could sprint. He always finished at least two minutes ahead of me. After each meet I was exhausted, but standing. Kevin usually collapsed and puked. That’s how the coach knew Kevin had done his best and I’d slacked.

On this hundred-mile run, I’d puke eventually. It was just a matter of time.

BEEP. Mile 22: 6:21 / 2:51:56.

Kevin had taught me how to run downhill, but Whitney taught me again.

“What are you thinking?” she’d asked me on a twenty-mile run. We were training for our first marathon. We’d promised to run that marathon together, and beat four hours. “Slow down!”

“It’s downhill,” I’d said. “Downhill is easy, so we should sprint every step.”

“No, no,” Whitney’d said. She easily matched my pace. “Did Kevin teach you that? You can sprint downhill at a three-mile cross-country meet, but you’ve gotta be more careful on a marathon. Didn’t you once break your leg skiing? You’ve gotta take care of your body! Think about your knees!”

Runners often thought about their knees. Knees are important. Knees tell us a lot.

BEEP. Mile 23: 6:13 / 2:58:09.

My knees could tell the downhill slope I’d enjoyed was starting to level out. I looked at the mountain a few miles ahead; Alphonse and Champ had probably climbed most of it, if they hadn’t already started descending the other side.

Even though the scenery was idyllic—the valley between mountains was lightly forested, and birds chirped in the trees—I knew I had to keep my mind off my dismal situation. I focused.

Whitney. We wanted to run a marathon together.

Well, she wanted to run a marathon. I was initially on-board, but after that twenty-mile training-run, I shuddered at the thought of more. “No, no,” I’d panted, “I don’t think I could take another step.”

“You hit the wall,” she’d said. “Hitting the wall means you’ve trained hard. Each time you hit the wall, you push it back—if we keep this up, we’ll push the wall beyond marathon-length and finish just fine.”

“You know a lot about this,” I’d wheezed.

“I want to write a book about running,” she’d said. “Maybe it’ll star us, and this marathon.”

BEEP. Mile 24: 7:02 / 3:05:11.

Kevin wanted to join. He asked me on the high-school track: “How long is that marathon you signed up for?”

“Marathons are officially 26.2 miles,” I’d said. “I think it’s historical. Whitney could tell you.”

“I could run 26 miles,” he’d said.

“26.2. Whitney says every step counts. She also says the last six miles are harder than the first twenty.”

“How fast are you gonna run?” asked Kevin.

“Whitney wants to finish in four hours. That’s about nine minutes per mile.”

“I can run better than nine-minute miles,” said Kevin.

And boy, did he. Kevin signed up for our marathon and crossed the starting line alongside Whitney and me, and 20,000 other people. Like Champ, Alphonse’s horse, Kevin initially begged to run faster than Whitney would allow. “Wow, they give out water every mile?” Kevin took a paper cup from a volunteer. He drank mid-run, while Whitney and I walked a few paces to swallow efficiently.

BEEP. Mile 25: 6:58 / 3:12:09.

“They’d better,” said Whitney, starting to run again.  “Even the fastest marathon-runners take at least two hours, and exerting yourself like that, you’ve gotta drink.”

“I wouldn’t mind being thirsty for four hours,” said Kevin, “and if I’m not weighed down by water, I bet I can finish faster than that!”

“Go ahead,” said Whitney. I recognized the dismissive roll of her eyes. “Do what you want.”

So Kevin ran ahead.

We caught up with him at mile 16. He didn’t look happy; his features were gaunt and sweat had dried in salty streams down his arms. “Hey guys—” He almost asked us to wait, but he didn’t. “Take off without me,” he said. “I’ll be right behind.”

BEEP. Mile 26: 7:11 / 3:19:20.

Back in the Bronson Estate, the trail began to grow steeper. While I sipped water from my three-liter backpack, I ‘beeped’ in my head: 26.2, 3 hours 22 minutes. It didn’t quite qualify me for the Boston marathon, but after the Boston marathon, you get to stop. I still had almost three more marathons to go today—and they’d all be slower than 3:22.

Whitney and I didn’t finish our first marathon in four hours. We took an extra 45 minutes. We started walking at mile 22; that was our ‘wall.’ We barely managed a photogenic jog for the cameras at the finish-line.

To his credit, Kevin finished, too. It took him five and a half hours. He confided in me that he’d never, ever run a marathon again, or any distance over ten miles. He’d hit the wall, and it hit him back.

The wall. What a quaint idea.

You could push the wall beyond marathon-distance. But a hundred miles, no.

BEEP. Mile 27: 7:43 / 3:27:03.

When Whitney and I trained for longer distances, we learned not to call it ‘the wall.’ It’s not an insurmountable obstacle; it’s a temporary circumstance to make peace with, like a surfer diving under harsh waves. Ultra-runners call it ‘bonking,’ because it’s like a sledgehammer smashing your skull.

Instead of training to push back the wall, you train to run through the bonk. All the bonks. Over a hundred miles, I’d bonk at least a few times. The first one would come soon.

The trail became steep and demanded every atom of my effort.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop. I aimed to slurp one down every hour or so. I’d finished off the flavors I liked; no more chocolate or peanut-butter. This one was orange-creamsicle.

I washed it down with a sip from my three-liter water-backpack. There wasn’t much left.

Maps of the Bronson Estate showed a river at the top of this mountain. I could refill my backpack there, if the water was palatable. If it wasn’t, I carried some purification tablets.

Racing the horse was the most well-researched stupid-ass decision I’d ever made.

BEEP. Mile 28: 9:39 / 3:36:42.

The scrapes on my hand and knee still trickled blood, but they didn’t hurt anymore. I actually almost forgot about them. But the blister on my foot had grown to the size of a quarter, and I felt it every step. Eventually I’d have to stop and lance it with something from the little first-aid kit I kept in my backpack.

I sniffed. I smelled horse poop. A pile of round, brown droppings waited in the trail ahead. It looked fresh. Alphonse and Champ must have passed less than an hour ago.

This was possible. I could do it. I almost smiled.

Then I got bonked.

BEEP. Mile 29: 10:44 / 3:47:26.

“Oh, old friend,” I said to myself. “Here we go again.” Pain wandered up and down my legs, but worse was the cold wash of pessimism and self-loathing. I started walking. It’s not shameful to walk uphill. Soon I’d hit the top of the mountain. Then I could recover.

While I walked, I opened my backpack. I carried a plastic baggie of peanut-butter and two bananas. I peeled a banana and used it to scoop peanut-butter into my mouth.

Running does weird things to your taste buds. When I’m not running, I don’t care for peanut-butter. After twenty miles or so, I can hardly think of anything else. Whitney likes vegetable-smoothies after running seven hours, not a step before.

When I finished the banana and half the peanut-butter, I sealed the baggie and put it back in my backpack. I tossed the banana peel off the trail; I never liked litterers, but banana skins decompose, and anyway, this was Alphonse’s estate, and I hated that son-of-a-bitch. I wouldn’t mind if he slipped on my banana peel. I wouldn’t mind if he choked on it.

BEEP. Mile 30: 14:52 / 4:02:18.

Alphonse had plucked the flag at 30 miles and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was broader and smoother, all the better for Champ to sprint.

As the slope leveled out, I started running again. I sipped the last of my three-liter water-backpack to swish peanut-butter from between my teeth. The bonk would be back, but so far so good.

On the horizon, there was another mountain—a third, looming incline still veiled by the distance. In maps of the Bronson Estate, every trail eventually went up that mountain, but somehow I was less daunted by that final foe. With any luck, Whitney was right, and Champ would be more fatigued than me by then. I’d be king of the mountain.

How did Alphonse know I didn’t have the funds to pay up if he won? Could he see my empty bank-account? I could only hope to finish first, or, if not, hope that Alphonse Bronson was a reasonable man. I swallowed.


2011

Alphonse Bronson gripped his father’s shoulders. “Dad, are you watching?”

“I’m watching an empty stadium.” Father Bronson pulled the wheels of his wheelchair like he wanted to roll away, but Alphonse kept him there. “Fill the stands with spectators before you bother showing me.”

“But father, look!” Alphonse pointed to the starting line, where ten horses stamped the ground behind their gates. “I know you’ll be proud! I’ve invented a new, efficient kind of racing!”

“Racing is already efficient,” said Father Bronson. “The winner wins. The loser loses. The difference is efficiency. The most efficient finishes first.”

“…And the least efficient loses!” Alphonse waved his hand and the gates opened. Jockeys bounced on the horses’ backs. “And what do we do to the losers?”

“Glue, son,” said Father Bronson. “The most efficient use of an inefficient horse is glue.”

“Right!” said Alphonse. “So look!” He pointed to the end of the track, where nine gates waited open. “Ten horses, nine gates. Think of musical chairs.”

The gates swung shut behind the first nine horses. The tenth horse whinnied and threatened to throw their jockey from the saddle. “Son—”

“Watch,” said Alphonse. The tenth jockey dismounted to help some men in leather jackets lead the tenth horse into a big metal box in the center of the track. The jockey shut the box’s iron door while the men climbed onto the box to lay hands on an iron crank. When they turned the crank, white goo oozed out of the box’s spout into a bucket. “Glue! The last horse is processed into paste with corporate efficiency, as God intended!”

“Hmm.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “Hmm.”

Alphonse stopped grinning. “What’s the matter, Dad?”

“Horses are one thing. Humans are harder. However many horses you have, you need humans on your side.” Father Bronson cast his gaze over the empty stadium. “If you can’t get the people’s support, you’d might as well be paste yourself.”

Alphonse misunderstood. His father was dismayed with the empty stands, befitting such a grotesque scene, but Alphonse kept watching the tenth jockey. “I’ll impress you, Dad. I’m sure I will. I’ve got a tournament planned.”

“A tournament?”

“Yes! A whole tournament, where the last in each race will be turned into their…” Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Their useful components.”

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The Bucket

(This story won the Most Excellent Prose award from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I’ve edited it since then, and I think it’s much improved.)


My colleagues at the lab thought my nightly vomiting was a symptom of alcohol poisoning. I would have shared the hypothesis, except I regurgitated eyeballs.

I don’t recall swallowing eyeballs, mind you. With optic nerves dangling like spaghetti.

And twitching! I typically vomited into a toilet and flushed the eyes before the horror set in, but after a midnight joust with a bottle of gin, I heaved into an orange, plastic bucket in my closet, where the eyeballs struggled like fish flopping for the water. When I regained consciousness in the morning, the eyeballs had died trying to escape under the closet door.

I elected not to take them to the lab, my reputation already strained, so I turned to the meager equipment of my apartment. According to my bathroom scale, the weight of the eyeballs exceeded five pounds, yet I’d lost little mass myself. I must have conjured the eyes from my stomach.

For a while, I could not look at liquor without imagining the eyeballs I should surely vomit.

Then a spontaneous rendezvous with a fifth of whiskey forced my hand. I puked six eyes and a pair of lips into the bucket. The lips squirmed like drowned worms into the shape of a mouth.

“We gotta talk, Arnold.”

I slammed the closet.

After staging a coup on a few more shots, I mindlessly returned to the bucket. Two more eyeballs, six more lips. My throat’s last spasm threw an ear onto the pile.

“Can I call you Arnie?”

“Please, don’t talk.”

“Your universe isn’t fully developed, so this might be hard to take. Trust me, the eyeballs were the quickest way to communicate. Hey, it’s not polite to stare, don’t give me that look.”

“Oh god, I’m smashed.”

“Hey, lucky guess. Our universes are on a collision course.” I moved to close the closet, but the lips interrupted. “Pick up that ear, Arnie, it’s hard to hear ya.”

“Please, no.”

“Into the ear, Arnie. C’mon.”

I leaned into the bucket. “Go away. I don’t want this.”

“You need my help. I won’t get into details, it involves trans-dimensional mathematics, and you Stage One guys aren’t usually hot on that. Can you even make Quantum Foam?”

“What?”

“Okay, time for a crash course. Not literally, I hope,” murmured the lips. “Universes are bubbles. Our bubbles are about to bash. This ain’t my first rodeo, but I think you guys are gonna pop.”

“Who are you?”

“Look, you’re bright enough, I’ll level with you. I’m not a person. I’m a reality. The whole thing. Consciousness is mostly fabricated, so lots of realities develop self-awareness. We call that Stage Two. Whole ecosystem out there, Arnie.”

“Uh…”

“Yeah, trippy, huh? There we go: call me Trip.”

“Trip.”

“Quick learner. Anyway, you guys won’t survive Stage One if you pop now, okay? Gotta work with me here, alright?”

“This is too much.” I slumped on the carpet. The world blurred in my vision.

“I’m not as mobile as I used to be, but your reality is pretty spry. If you pass me the reins to your universe for a bit, I can jettison some of your space-vacuum. Push you guys out of harm’s way. Dig?”

“How do I… What do you mean?”

“I’ll need your universe’s address. Know it off your head?”

I shook the whiskey. Only a tablespoon remained in the bottle. I drank it. “…Can’t say I do.”

“You know Physics?”

“Some. I’m a chemist. I mostly study alcohols.”

“Find a Physicist. They’ll know if anyone does.”


The next morning, I fumbled my way to the physics department.

“Arnold? Are you drunk?”

“Not yet, I just…” I pushed my wire glasses up my nose. “You don’t happen to know the universe’s address, do you?”

“…What?” They squinted from behind their desks. “Little early to be hittin’ the sauce, Arnie.”


Some bourbon made me consider gifting Trip a fresh load of facial features. “Sorry, they don’t know what you mean.”

“No prob, it was a long shot. I didn’t know address in Stage One either.” He somehow bit his lips at the bottom of the bucket. “There’s an equation for it, but you can only really solve it at Stage Two or Three…”

“…I can do equations.” I felt bile rising in my throat. “What’s the equation?”

“Nah, nah, it’s too complicated. You guys don’t even have Quantum Foam, no way you’ve got the computing power. Hey, you’re lookin’ a little green, Arnie, you gonna chunder?”

“I can hold it down.”

“Then have another drink. I can’t calculate your address from here, I gotta send you a Neuron Pod. Be careful with it, I’ve only got about eighty-six billion. These are Stage Three tech, Arnie.”

The brown bottle’s last drops trickled from its neck to mine. I gagged on the odor. “What’s a Neuron Pod?”

Trip surprised me by licking his lips with a tongue from under the pile of eyeballs. “You ever study biology? Get to mitochondria?”

“Yeah.” I doubled over the bucket and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Saliva dribbled between my teeth.

“They’re like mitochondria. Sub-realities, distinct from me. Gotta delegate, that’s Stage Three. Outsource your computation. Find some Stage Zero podunk reality and convert its mass to brain matter. One Neuron Pod is like a septendecillion human brains. Smart brains, too, like yours, Arnie. Alright, here it comes!”

Huge, like a cantaloupe. It shouldn’t have fit in my mouth, let alone my throat. The eyeballs watched it flop into the bucket. The lips smiled.

A Neuron Pod was a brain with a hagfish mouth and chattering needle-teeth.

“Trip—What do I do with this?”

“It’s looking for your address. Just keep it safe.”


Friday night. Party night. In a dark alleyway, I popped the cork on two-dollar wine. Grape foam spilled onto the dirt.

I put the Neuron Pod on a trash-can lid. The needle-teeth were the worst part, like a sex toy from hell. “Can you talk?”

The needle teeth chattered.

“Answer questions?”

More chattering.

“What’s Quantum Foam?”

The brain’s needle-teeth shifted and clattered, filling the alley with heinous clicking. Almost… speech. After a quick drink of wine—like fermented olive oil—I held the Neuron Pod to my ear. “Tiny… universes.” The queer, snapping voice had a thick accent from somewhere eldritch.

“Can you elaborate?”

“Quantum Foam is the primal fabric of the multiverse… Each bubble is a universe beginning in Stage Zero, the absence of conscious thought…”

When I put down the wine, the bottle was two-thirds empty. “I’m not drunk enough. All this stuff about our universes colliding, it’s all real? We’re going to pop?”

“…You are left with an ultimatum: be annihilated by the ballistic force of a careening reality, or entrust my Master with your universe.”

“Well… You’ve known him for a while. Is Trip… trustworthy?”

“My Master is… Stage Four.”

“Four? What does that mean?”

The brain squirmed on the trash can lid. “…Stage One universes contain sentient beings. Stage Two universes have attained consciousness themselves… Stage Three is marked by the assimilation of Stage Zero universes. Stage Four is… the enslavement of Stage Three universes.” The hagfish mouth went silent.

“Enslaving universes? Sentient universes?” I looked at the brain. “When Trip said you were ‘Stage Three tech,’ he meant—You’re saying Trip enslaved eighty-six billion sentient realities, and you’re one of them?”

“Yes…” The Neuron Pod flopped off the trashcan. When it hit the ground it almost burst, brain-folds expanding with juices. The hagfish mouth puckered. “Kill me.”

I poured the rest of the wine down my neck.

“Please…”

I smashed the bottle against a wall.

“Kill me…”

I threatened the Neuron Pod with the bottle’s broken neck.

“Please…”

“I… I can’t.” I dropped the broken bottle. “If I kill you, Trip will just enslave my reality instead. You need to help me.”

The hagfish mouth took a deep breath. The brain’s folds inflated.

“We need to make Quantum Foam.”


I poured a shot of Scotch. “Need a drink?” The Neuron Pod twisted, which I interpreted as a ‘no.’ I downed the drink. “Okay. Okay.”

When I opened the closet, lips, ears, and eyes spilled out. Trip’s shifting eyeballs had toppled the bucket. “Hey, hey, Arnie! What’s the good word? That old Neuron Pod got your address yet? Might take a while depending on the cosmological constants in your reality.”

I put the Neuron Pod on the floor. “What next?”

“Well, ordinarily you’d hafta swallow that thing, but our universes are close enough I can toss you a Synapse Cable. You feel like hurling, Arnie?”

“I’m pretty sober right now.”

“Well, either you’re gonna hafta swallow that Pod, or you’re gonna hafta start drinking so I can throw you this Cable.”

Ignoring the shot glass, I drank from the Scotch-bottle. The nausea set in instantly. With one animal-like retch, I felt a strand jump up my throat and catch on my teeth. I pulled the strand until a whole rope of meat and fat dangled from my jaw. The Synapse Cable was two inches thick, plugging my esophagus.

“Put it in,” said Trip.

I waggled the meat-rope near the Neuron Pod. The hagfish mouth slurped the frayed ends and locked on with needle-teeth.

“Ah, perfect. I’m getting your address now…”

For a few seconds I choked on the Synapse Cable. The Neuron Pod contorted and flexed in concentration.

“Hey, you’ve got a cool little reality… No wonder you’re still Stage One, with quantum particles like this. These photons are worthless… And your Planck Temperature! How do you get anything done?”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“You did good, Arnie. Your universe was almost a splat on my windshield. Just gotta get you outta the way…”

He paused.

“You…” The eyeballs turned to me. “Hey, did you give me the wrong addreeeeeaaaugh!”

The lips flopped on the floor. Eyeballs burst into spurts of blood.

“Aaaaaaugh! God, no, what did youuuuooooaaaaaugh!”

The Synapse Cable retracted down my throat. The Neuron Pod detached, letting the meat-rope whip through my esophagus.

“Are you trying to kill me?! What did you do?!”

“Sorry, Trip.”

“Aaaugh! I can’t—”

“We made Quantum Foam, Trip.” I massaged my neck. “We made new universes.”

“It was trivial to check the infinite realities… for one whose cosmological constants were a perfect snare,” clicked the Neuron Pod. “Of course… if you intended to merely jettison vacuum, as you expressed… your connection to the entrapping universe would be harmless… Your pain indicates, as we suspected, that you intended to subsume this universe into your own… Or perhaps enslave it, as you did with me and my compatriots…”

“Now you’re being slurped like a noodle in soup,” I muttered, lying on the carpet.

Eyeballs, lips, and ears shredded as if stuck in a storm of razor blades. Without lips, Trip’s voice echoed from my throat like shouts in a deep cave.

“Arnie, Arnie, c’mon, I’m sorruuughhh make it stop Arnie please I’m begging you—”

I covered my ears. “I can’t, I can’t—”

“Your address! Give me your address, let me escape, before it’s too late!”

“Not even if I could.”

“Then—then—”

Nausea pumped my guts.

Fingers from my throat pried my teeth open.

An arm stretched through my mouth.

“If you yak me into this universe, I can survive! You need to vomit harder than ever, Arnie, right now!”

The arm grabbed the Scotch.

“I’m close enough, Arnie, I can escape to your universe, but it has to be right now—”

The arm sank back into my stomach. The neck of the bottle stuck down my throat, pouring liquor into me. I tried to scream.

“Now, Arnie! Now now now!” I couldn’t pull the bottle away from the hand in my throat. I flipped on my belly so the bottle didn’t pour down my neck. “No!”

Two arms opened my jaws wide. One flipped me on my back. The other grabbed the bottle and spilled it in my mouth.

I groped the floor for something, anything.

A glass beaker.

I smashed the bottle with the beaker. Scotch soaked the carpet.

“No no no no!”

The arms in my mouth pat the damp floor.

“No, no, no…”

The arms slid down my throat until the fingertips brushed along my tongue.

“No…”

I struggled to my knees, teeth clenched, salivating through my lips, holding myself.


For twenty minutes, I puked. No eyeballs, no limbs, just ordinary stomach contents. I spent the night cleaning vomit and broken glass. “Hey. How are you feeling now?”

The Neuron Pod deflated. “I am well… Thank you.”

“You sure?”

“My torment is at an end… The enslaved Stage Three realities have been released. It is over.”

I threw the vomit and glass into the trash. “And our Quantum Foam…”

I opened my desk drawer.

Milky sand so fine and smooth it could have been liquid, like cream for coffee. Each infinitesimal speck was a universe. One grain had swelled like a pearl. “That’s Trip’s trap, huh?”

“My old Master used the technique to do away with bothersome realities.” The Neuron Pod observed the foam with its eyeless gaze. “I am impressed with your ability to synthesize Quantum Foam. You have a knack for it.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” I said, “since you gave me the directions. It’s just chemistry.”

The hagfish mouth made a toothy smile. “Chemistry is vital for a healthy Stage Two universe.”

Back

To Mile 20

(This is part two of an ongoing story about an ultra-marathon-runner in a 100-mile race against a horse. The runner might win a million bucks, but doesn’t yet know he stands to lose his legs.)


2019

BEEP. Mile 11: 9:45 / 1:13:14.

Alphonse immediately galloped far ahead. Champ didn’t seem to notice the steepening trail. Already the horse and rider were a dot navigating the switchbacks above me.

After that 4:22 mile, I was in no condition to catch up. I walked a quarter-mile to catch my breath. As if to help me slow down, the incline gradually made each footstep harder than the last, forcing me to trudge.

When this was over, what would I tell my ghostwriter? “That horse, Champ, he’s a beaut. I mostly saw its rear-end, but what a rear-end!”

Why’d I ever think I could beat the horse?

Oh, right. My ghostwriter.

Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 12: 10:15 / 1:23:29.

I met Whitney through my cross-country-running team in high-school. Well, she wasn’t actually on the team, but that’s how we met.

I’d grown up cross-country-skiing in Wisconsin. When my family moved to Colorado, I figured the closest sport would be cross-country-running, but it wasn’t my jam. I could ski for hours and hours over miles and miles of countryside. The running team sprinted across city streets like they couldn’t wait to stop. Every morning during training, they’d say, “six miles!” and finish fast as possible, then collapse.

They left me in the dust every time, but I didn’t mind. Kevin, the quickest varsity runner, didn’t mind lazing in the back of the pack with me until the coach found him slacking and chewed him out. No matter how much Kevin lingered to keep me company, he was always first to finish every run.

Once, when I was left behind during off-season training in the Summer, I met Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 13: 9:44 / 1:33:13.

We both stopped at the same crosswalk signal. She was obviously in the middle of a run; she wore a headband soaked with sweat. I asked if she was on the girl’s cross-country team, because I’d seen her in the hallways at high-school. What was her response? I tried to remember, it was priceless.

“Nope,” she’d said. “I’m a real runner.”

Wow. That ego sparked my interest. “The guys on the team are way better runners than I am. They’re a mile ahead, and probably always will be.”

“Nah,” she’d said. The crosswalk signal changed and we ran across the street together. “After enough distance, the tortoise beats the hare. If you guys were running a marathon, their jackrabbit start would tire them out and you’d pass them up. Over a hundred miles, a human could beat a racehorse.”

God, Whitney, I hope you were right.

BEEP. Mile 14: 9:13 / 1:42:26.

Before the train of thought turned pessimistic, I decided to change my mind. The mental struggle was half the battle. I’m sure every runner has a dumb game they play to pass the time. Mine was talking to Thog.

“Crosswalk signals,” I said aloud. “How would I explain crosswalk signals to a caveman? Well, first I’d explain cars. They’re like fast animals you can climb inside and control.”

The air wasn’t quite cold enough anymore to see my own breath.

“Cars are useful, because they can travel very far very quickly. But if a car hits someone, it would hurt. Imagine a mammoth trampling you—you know about mammoths, right, Thog, mister caveman? So we have crosswalk signals. They’re clever little boxes which put up a hand when it’s not safe because cars are coming.”

I held up a hand for Thog to see as an example—just in time to catch myself, because my foot slipped on a rock and I fell.

BEEP. Mile 15: 9:23 / 1:51:49.

My grunt of pain sounded like Thog: “Ugh!” My left knee and right hand were bleeding. I scrambled to my feet and kept running. From another pocket of my three-liter water-backpack, I withdrew some alcohol wipes and cleaned my injuries as I went. The sanitizer stung.

I could cry later.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. This one was flavored like peanut-butter, a close competitor to chocolate. I washed it down with a sip from the hose of my three-liter water-backpack, which was almost half-empty. I’d be left thirsty by mile thirty.

My bleeding hand wasn’t a huge issue. It hurt, but lots of things hurt, and in a hundred-mile run, eventually everything would hurt.

My bleeding knee was more concerning. The impact threatened to reignite an old skiing injury.

I also felt a blister growing on my right foot ever since my 4:22 mile. It was about the size of a dime.

But so far so good. This pain was surface level.

Eventually hell would seep into my bones.

BEEP. Mile 16: 9:41 / 2:01:30.

I plugged my left nostril and fired a snot-rocket from the right. It landed in a neatly trimmed rosebush.

I had to hand it to Alphonse, the Bronson Estate was a sight to behold. With territory overlapping Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, the Bronsons owned a million acres of precisely cultivated wilderness. Alphonse brought business-partners here to ride horses and talk about whatever multi-billionaires talked about. It was the perfect place to luxuriate in richness. The view from the top of the mountain would be glorious.

Once I got there.

I couldn’t even see Alphonse and Champ anymore. They’d passed over the peak. Alphonse had probably made mile 20 and tossed the next flag to choose left or right at the fork. I knew he’d chose whichever trail was helpful for horses and harder for humans.

BEEP. Mile 17: 9:37 / 2:11:07.

The pain in my knee reminded me to watch my step along the trail. I didn’t want to slip again or stumble on a gopher hole.

I narrowly avoided another kind of obstacle: a stinkbug. Stepping on stinkbugs wasn’t the worst, but I’d rather not.

A lizard skittered across the path. A chipmunk or squirrel chattered near a tree.

A cool, low-flying cloud brushed by me on the switchbacks. In the last eight miles, I’d climbed at least 2,000 feet. I turned my head to see the trails stretching behind and below me. The morning sun cast long shadows of hills and trees.

I smiled. This connection to my surroundings was why I enjoyed endurance sports to begin with.

BEEP. Mile 18: 10:13 / 2:21:20.

Then I recalled the severity of my circumstances.

What would Alphonse do if he beat me to the finish line? His lawyers could claim my every possession and it wouldn’t come close to a million bucks.

I hadn’t lied when I said my bestselling book made me a millionaire, but money doesn’t last long when you have a habit of drinking, or gambling, and especially both at once. But that was behind me, and about 81 more miles were ahead. I had to win. I literally couldn’t afford to lose.

Of course, if I won, Alphonse could cut me a check and not even notice a million bucks missing from his bank account. He could blow his nose with a million bucks. He could wipe his butt with it.

BEEP. Mile 19: 9:52 / 2:31:12.

Finally the incline shallowed out and my pace naturally quickened. Within minutes I passed the peak and the landscape opened below me.

I almost cried.

Another mountain stood a few miles away, just as tall and twice as steep. At mile twenty, the trial forked; Alphonse had already tossed the flag toward the right, the quickest path to Mount Doom. I would only have a few easy miles to recover before climbing again.

I refrained from swearing and just ran. On the downhill slope, my strides were long and easy. If I really barreled, maybe I had a chance of passing the horse down the line.

BEEP. Mile 20: 7:32 / 2:38:44.

As I passed the flag, I noticed a note taped to a trashcan. I took the note and walked briskly with it.

“Hello, Jonas,” wrote Alphonse. “I hope you’re enjoying the view. Unfortunately, my accountant has bad news—he says he’s investigated your expenses and calculates that you might not have the funds to pay me back if you lose.

“Don’t worry, Jonas. If it comes to that, I’m sure we can work out an alternative arrangement. If you catch up, we can discuss this in person!”


2009

“And the winner is…”

Alphonse Bronson politely clapped for a cadre of school-children crossing the finish line. He knew he had to clap no matter how bored he really was when the cameras were on him and displayed him on the stadium’s jumbo-tron.

“Isn’t this fun?” A teacher bumped elbows with Alphonse. Alphonse dusted off his sleeve. “What a great experience for these kids, and for such a good cause! Thank you again for your generous donation to our organization.”

Alphonse smiled and nodded. His marketers said donating to charity would help his family’s public-image problems, but he’d have donated elsewhere if he knew this charity would make him waste an afternoon watching kids with medical problems run around a track. “Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.”

As the next group of kids lined up for the next race, the jumbo-tron displayed a celebrity in a tuxedo. The celebrity threw up peace-signs while an announcement played over the loudspeakers. Alphonse couldn’t hear, but the crowds of spectators cheered.

“What’s happened?” Alphonse asked the school-teacher beside him.

“He’s just made a donation,” she said. “From the cheers, it must have been a big one.”

Good, thought Alphonse. The cameras were off him. He took out a metal toothpick and sucked it. The minty flavoring was an appetite suppressant that kept him slim.

The teacher conferred with a woman beside her. “Really? Oh. Oh, dear. That’s… macabre.”

“What?” asked Alphonse.

“The donation,” the teacher relayed. “People normally donate to the charity itself, but that man in the tuxedo wants to fund medical care for the winner of the next race.”

Alphonse dropped the toothpick when he gaped. “Is that… legal?”

“I guess. And we are a charity—we couldn’t just turn down such a generous offer.” The teacher crossed her arms and shook her head. “Oh, look—that boy has a crutch, and that girl’s in a wheelchair. Those poor kids. It seems cruel to dangle that prize at the finish line.”

Alphonse swallowed. Here he was, bored out of his mind, and he hadn’t even thought to gamble. This changed everything. Suddenly the children looked like racehorses. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “The disabled kids were put in the race just for publicity. Neither could possibly win. They’re battling for second-to-last.”

“Well, maybe one of them will win. You never know. It’d be a good underdog story. And surely this will inspire more donations.”

“No, no.” Alphonse took out his wallet—crocodile skin—and withdrew a blank check. He waved it for the cameras. “We shan’t rely on fate. I’ll even the playing-field.”

“Oh! Mr. Bronson!” As Alphonse appeared on the jumbo-tron, the school-teacher kissed him on the cheek. “You’re so selfless!”

“I’ll pay every medical-bill for every kid on the track—for life—except,” he said, smiling wide, “last place. That’ll make this a race worth remembering.”

The school-teacher blinked. Alphonse pressed the blank check into her hands. The crowds cheered, at first, but the teacher’s draining expression on the jumbo-tron made them hush. “That’s… awful. We can’t do that…”

“Could you really turn down such a generous offer?” asked Alphonse. “The little girl’s got the advantage of a wheelchair, but the boy with the crutch is a few years older, taller, and leaner. Maybe he’s a high-school student, and she’s a middle-schooler? It’s really a toss-up.”

“You—you’re a monster!” She slapped his face. The crowds oohed.

“You’ll keep those kids from excellent medical care, just because you think I’m a monster?” Alphonse felt his cheek as he bent over the railing to admire the racers. “Monster-money is legal tender.”

The teacher gasped, then walked away sobbing.

The stadium was otherwise silent as the loudspeakers explained the grim donation. The girl in the wheelchair and the boy with a crutch shared a worried glance.

Alphonse almost drooled when the starting gun went off. All but two kids crossed the finish-line within a minute. Then the crowd watched the last two kids race neck-and-neck, and heard their panting, and the squeak of her wheelchair, and the plod of his crutch.

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Story Structure

A race has a beginning and an end. A story has a beginning and an end. But races are linear—you go step by step. Stories might loop around and have flashbacks and other chronological anomalies.

My first idea for Man VS Horse would have been more like a race. We’d start at the starting line and end at the finish. We’d learn about our characters’ backstories through dialog or narration during the race. I even wanted the length of the text for each mile of the race to reflect the protagonist’s mile-times: a ten-minute mile would take a page, while a five-minute mile would take half a page, and a twenty-minute mile would take two pages. I still like this idea. I know movies bother me when a character says, “the bomb’s going off in ten seconds!” and you count to thirty before they defuse it with a second left.

But while restrictions can breed creativity, those rules produced something subpar. I’m glad I tried it, but this time I’ll allow myself some more creative liberty.

Longer miles will still take up more text, I hope; I think that should have an effect on the reader, making them exhausted alongside our protagonist.

But I’ll allow myself some flashbacks at the end of every ten miles. If our billionaire is going to claim the protagonist’s legs, we gotta explore his history and figure out why he thinks that’s a remotely reasonable option.

You’ll notice in commentaries I’ll often call the characters ‘the billionare’ or ‘the protagonist.’ I haven’t settled on names for the characters yet. I just chose ‘Alphonse’ and ‘Jonas’ because they came to mind. Maybe I’ll get attached to those names and decide to keep them, or change them to something more thematic. This is a living document; I reread and make edits every so often.

I hope you have fun reading!

Next 10 miles
Table of Contents

The first ten miles

2019

BEEP. Mile 1: 7:17 / 7:17.

I’d ran hundreds of first miles faster than that. This morning, I paced myself.

The horse had no trouble keeping up. Alphonse tugged the reins to stay alongside me, but his horse Champ begged to pull ahead. “Regretting this, Jonas?”

“Not yet,” I puffed. This was an easy pace; I could speak aloud, coherently, at this pace. “Just ninety-nine more to go.”

“That’s the spirit.” Alphonse Bronson stroked Champ’s mane and brushed dust from the horse’s leather saddle. The Bronson Estate’s million acres were landscaped with artisan dirt for rustic authenticity. “With a million dollars on the line, you can’t let your head get away from you.”

“Uh huh, uh huh.”

“A million dollars. A hundred miles. That’s ten-thousand dollars per mile!” Alphonse laughed. “To some people, that’s real money.” I pretended not to see his grin, focusing on my feet slapping the trail. “You’re sure you’re good for it, Jonas?”

“Uh huh, uh huh.” I sipped water from the hose of my three-liter backpack. I took a sip every mile. I could do it by muscle-memory, even without my GPS watch beeping.

BEEP. Mile 2: 6:33 / 13:50.

“Let’s call that mile a tie,” said Alphonse. “We’re neck and neck entering mile three. How exciting!”

“The only mile that matters is the last one,” I puffed.

“Every step matters,” said Alphonse. “You wrote that in your book.”

Did I? I’d never read the darn thing.

“We tied on mile one and mile two! Allow me to treat you to a tasty morsel.” Alphonse unbuttoned the breast-pocket of his gaudy military jacket.

“I’m not hungry.”

Alphonse took out two toothpicks and picked his teeth with one. He held out the other toothpick for me; his horse was so tall that I had to reach far above my head to take it.

“What’s this for?” I puffed. The toothpick felt oddly smooth, and after steadying my eyes to focus as I ran, I saw the toothpick wasn’t wooden, but metal, like a needle.

“Suck it,” he said. “That’s a ten-thousand dollar custom-order toothpick. It’s made of silver, and the handle is a ruby. I mean it, suck it, it’s mint-flavored! Zero-calorie snacks like this are how I keep my figure.”

BEEP. Mile 3: 6:59 / 20:49.

“I’ll save it for later.” I stuck the toothpick through my shirt-collar. This was my favorite shirt, a prize for finishing my first ultra-marathon, a fifty-miler. I didn’t win that race, but even last-place got a shirt, and it was a good shirt. Its light mesh material never rubbed my nipples bloody like cotton did.

With my hands free, I corrected my form. Form was vital. Sure, the only mile that mattered was the last one, but that last mile was built on every step up to then. I guess my ghostwriter knew what she was talking about.

Champ, the horse, seemed to understand, too. His form was impeccable. His ropy muscles wrapped his legs and shoulders and buttocks. Champ’s breathing was strained not by effort but by desire to run faster than Alphonse would allow.

“I don’t know how the view is down there,” said Alphonse, “but here in the saddle I can see the first flag at mile 10.”

I saw it too. At the base of a mountain, the first flag flapped in the breeze.

BEEP. Mile 4: 6:54 / 27:43.

I let Alphonse explain again while I sipped from the hose of my water-backpack: “Don’t forget, the first of us to that flag chooses if we go left or right at the first fork.”

I knew. I knew. I’d obsessed over maps of the Bronson Estate; I saw the race’s possible paths and elevation profiles when I closed my eyes. With scenic environs and a variety of terrain, it would be a fun place to run under better circumstances.

If we went left at the fork, we’d go through a valley and skip most of a mountain. If we went right, we’d go right over it.

I was no stranger to running up mountains. In fact, I’d won some ultras over mountains. I was king of the mountain. But I reckoned Champ would be the mountain’s champion and leave me in the dust. I had to be first to the fork, and I had to choose left… or, if Alphonse was first to the fork, I had to cross my fingers and pray he’d prefer flatter terrain.

I puffed and puffed. The air was just barely cold enough to see my breath.

BEEP. Mile 5: 6:46 / 34:29.

The weather was perfect for a run. Not too sunny; I hated sun in my eyes almost as much as I hated wearing hats and sunglasses. Buttermilk clouds dappled the sky. I could enjoy a long run on a day like this, but today was not that day.

“Tell me, Jonas. Do you want to go around the mountain, or over it?”

The question caught me off-guard, and I considered lying. Maybe I could use reverse-psychology to make Alphonse choose the flat terrain. “Over,” I said. “Your horse doesn’t know there’s a million bucks at stake. When Champ’s terrain gets tough, I bet he’ll stall and slow down. A man’s more nimble than a horse on rocky mountain trails.”

“Ha! Maybe he’ll fall and break his legs.” Alphonse pat the saddle. “Don’t worry about my horse. Champ could jump over the mountain. What would you prefer, personally, over or around?”

I grimaced. “Over. I’m king of the mountain.”

He laughed again. “Jonas, leave reverse-psychology to businessmen. I’d like to go over, too—I’m calling your bluff!”

BEEP. Mile 6: 6:52 / 41:21.

When I was younger, I imagined an average person trying to keep up with me as I ran. It pumped up my pride: “oh, Jonas, have mercy! Slow down! Six miles is too much!”

“Six miles is a warm-up,” I’d say to my shadow. “Don’t give up now—let’s sprint the next block!”

But today I felt like the shadow. Alphonse allowed Champ to pull ahead a few yards. “You should know, Champ can run a bit faster than this. He’s descended from my father’s race-horses.”

“Believe me, I know.” Alphonse had told me many times before.

“My father’s horses never lost a race,” said Alphonse, “because if his horse ever lost a race, it turned out it wasn’t my father’s horse after all. It was retroactively disbarred to preserve my father’s spotless record.”

“Must be nice to be able to do that.”

BEEP. Mile 7: 6:03 / 47:24.

The horse was leading the pace, faster than I would’ve liked to maintain. “So Jonas, where did you get the money for this little wager?”

“Book-money,” I said. “I’m a national best-seller.”

“I’ve read your book, but could you remind me of the title?” Alphonse put a finger over his smile. I knew he was testing me, and delighted that it took me a moment to remember.

I stalled by panting, but finally recalled: “Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run.”

Alphonse chuckled. “If we live to run, surely Champ here is better at living than you. Wouldn’t you agree?”

BEEP. Mile 8: 5:55 / 53:19.

“He’s a beaut,” I said, not lying. Champ’s pure black coat was intimidatingly sleek. “What does he eat?”

“Nothing that isn’t hand-picked by my professional equine-dietitians,” said Alphonse. “My father founded his own company to produce acceptable foodstuffs for his racers.”

I took a silver plastic packet from the pockets of my three-liter backpack. I tore the packet’s top and squeezed the contents into my mouth.

“What’s that?” asked Alphonse.

“I don’t have any dietitians, but companies make foodstuffs for human racers, too.” I crumpled the packet and tucked it into my backpack. “That one’s chocolate-flavored. One of the only flavors I can stand.”

Beep. Mile 9: 5:48 / 59:07.

The flag was so close. It would be embarrassing to choose the left trail, around the mountain, after I pretended I wanted to go over—my reverse-psychology would be laid out for humiliation, and I knew Alphonse would relish the opportunity—but I could take the shame, and I wasn’t sure if my legs could take the mountain better than Champ’s.

I put on the gas.

I shot ahead of Champ, each stride Olympian.

“Oh ho!” Alphonse let the reins go slack and kicked his spurs into Champ’s ribs. Champ effortlessly kept pace with me. “You’re really not so slow, are you?”

I didn’t have breath to respond.

“But we’re pretty quick, too,” said Alphonse. Champ pulled forward. The horse’s hooves tossed rocks at me, but I ran faster and faster.

BEEP. Mile 10: 4:22 / 1:03:29.

Alphonse plucked the flag from the dirt right in front of me. “Photo-finish! Ten miles, still neck-and-neck, but Champ pulls through in the end!” The sarcasm dripped; Champ wasn’t even winded.

I barely resisted collapsing on my knees. I couldn’t speak for panting, but Alphonse filled the dialog:

“Jonas, I was joking about reverse-psychology,” he said. “I know this is just a friendly wager, so I’ll indulge you by choosing what’s best for both of us in the interest of sportsmanship.”

Through my panting, I managed to smile. “Really?”

“The view of the estate from the top of this mountain is breathtaking, especially this early in the morning. I think we’ll both appreciate it.” He tossed the flag toward the trail to the right. “Let’s go!”


1987

“And the winner is…”

On his eighth birthday, on his father’s lap, Alphonse Bronson cheered for another horse-race. “Daddy, was the winner one of yours again?”

“No, no, I didn’t have a horse in that race.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “But I’ve got another horse in the next race. Look close, guess which one it is.”

“It’s the one that wins, right?”

His father chewed his beard. “You know, son… in every race, there’s a horse who comes last.”

“Yeah!” Alphonse punched his own palm. “What losers!”

“The Bronsons didn’t build their fortune by racing horses. We began with glue-factories.” His father looked away. “I bought those losing horses for cheap, and made them into glue. So at least they were useful in the end, right?”

“Yeah!”

“I still own those glue-factories and sometimes the horses get mixed up.” His father pointed to the starting gates. “I think the horse racing now might have been destined for paste. You’ll see what I mean.”

The starting gun. The horses raced.

His father’s horse was last.

“What a loser,” said Alphonse.

“Exactly,” said his father. “Sometimes a glue-horse pretends to be a racer. It’s a good thing we Bronsons can tell the difference.” His father’s men led that horse into a white van. His father ripped up some betting slips. Good riddance, thought Alphonse.

Next 10 miles
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The End

(This is the final and shortest chapter of a fantasy series starting here. Homer saved the world by winning a board-game against a drawven robot. In the process, Homer’s game-piece was killed, and he can no longer play table-war, but Aria won the Mountain Swallower’s rocky brain.)


After the Mountain Swallower encephalectomized them-self, Queen Aria considered putting the brain in a glass box to commemorate Homer’s victory over the dwarfs.

However, the behavior of the remaining dwarfs—even those a continent away—immediately changed after their leader’s death. Their voices were still gravely and they still smelled of carrion, but without the Mountain Swallower commanding them, the dwarfs defaulted to almost gnome-like behavior. They walked aimlessly, and could respond to questions, but had nothing interesting to say. They could be bossed around a little, but without gnomish intelligence, all they could do reliably was carry things, and not even heavy things.

pict1.png

With dwarfs demure, Aria decided displaying the Mountain Swallower’s brain would be poor taste. She had to keep taste in mind, now, being queen. She asked gnomes what they’d recommend doing to the brain, but of course, the gnomes didn’t care. “What happened to the rest of the Mountain Swallower’s body?” she asked. “Did you eat it?”

“Goodness no. We threw it into lava.”

“Seems fitting to me,” said Aria. “Would that be appropriate, Jameson?”

Sir Jameson saluted. “I could burn the brain now, in your royal magma pit.”

“Nah. That’d look conceited in history books.” Aria stood from her throne. “Solemn and dignified-like is the way. In the wild wastes.”

“In the wastes?” Jameson moved as if to press Aria back into her seat. “Queen Anthrapas died in the wastes! It’s simply too dangerous.”

“Shove it. I’m not a nonagenarian, or a spindly elf-queen.” Aria gestured for Jameson to follow, and he had to jog to keep up. “A human queen’s gotta do politics in person. And I traveled through the wastes when I was just a kid!”


Homer lived not far away, just on the other side of the border. Jameson hadn’t even realized they’d entered the wastes. “Wasn’t there a wall where we had to present our brass?”

“The centaurs took it down,” said Aria. “I think it was a metaphor anyway.”

She knocked on Homer’s door and heard him finding the right hallway to greet her. Homer’s house was a little unconventional in layout, but he’d designed it himself, and the sphinx had helped him build it. “Arra!”

“Hey, Homer!” Homer and Aria hugged. Sir Jameson waited until they released each other. “In the mood for a funeral? You’ve never seen one before, have you?” Homer shrugged; he still didn’t understand some spoken language. “Is there a gnomish lava-pit around here?”

Homer led Aria and Jameson over a hill to an openly bubbling pit of molten rock.

“Care to do the honors?” Aria gave Homer the Mountain Swallower’s brain. “You won it for me, so it’s only right.”

Homer tossed the brain in the lava. It sank slowly, and when it was totally submerged, a bubble popped where it had been.

pict3.png

“Hey, look! Aria—I mean, your majesty!” Jameson pointed to the sky. “Isn’t that your dragon? Is it escaping?”

“Scales!” Aria waved both arms. “I forgot, I arranged for the royal beast-master to release him today. His game-piece is dead, so there’s no reason to keep him. A lot of game-pieces died in the match against the Mountain Swallower, and I’ve made sure the corresponding beasties were released.” Scales disappeared behind some snowy mountains. “I wish I’d seen him take off, but I don’t think he needs my support anymore.”

“Pity, I’d have liked to try riding him,” said Jameson. “Maybe he’ll come back someday?”

Aria smiled. Years ago she, too, had left the human capital when her game-piece died, but sure enough, she’d come right back. Maybe the dragon would come back, too, better for its time away from the table.

THE END


(Like I said, this probably isn’t the final version of this story. I’ll eventually come back and change stuff. Until then, I’m still happy enough to host it online. There’s a nice story here about board-games which determine the fate of fantasy nations, and that’s pretty neat. I like how, since living creatures change their environment in this story, it sort of seems like Aria’s presence caused Homer to appear. Aria feels stuck, and a labyrinth represents an inescapable problem. An ax symbolizing primordial war lets Homer escape his labyrinth, and, at the end of the story Homer and Aria end war’s lingering effect on mankind.

To totally read meaning into this retroactively (and be conscious of that meaning when I change stuff) the wild wastes represent man’s thoughts in the same way dwarfs and gnomes are expressions of the earth, or like the movie Forbidden Planet in which sci-fi protagonists are attacked by monsters of the id. Homer bridges the gap between animals and man, and through him man’s animal nature is resolved. The seafolk are mysterious forces pulling the strings, like wisdom which quiets the mind.

Sorry for the shorter section and commentary this week. I’m devoting more of my time to graduate school and video-editing. I’ll still post on this website, but I’m not sure how often.

My YouTube channel, Thinkster, is lots of fun. I mostly talk about anime. If Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor sounds a little extreme to you, I made one about One Punch Man’s surprising depth. I even have a vr-ready 360 video of a bird landing on your head!)

Table of Contents

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.

pict1

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?”

pict3

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.

pict4

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 Elf VS the Dwarf

(This is part seven of an ongoing fantasy series starting here. Last week, Aria Twine reached into a fire trying to save a melting metal figurine from the traitorous human Thaddeus. Her minotaur Homer beat an elf at table-war without the figurine anyway. Now Aria has to confront Thaddeus before the queen of humanity.)


Aria wished she could revel in Stephanie’s defeat, but rage distracted her. She never knew she could feel this angry at a human like Thaddeus. She clenched her left hand; her right hand was bandaged and misshapen.

A gnome approached her on the bench outside Queen Anthrapas’ throne room. “Ms. Twine, I have come to change your bandages.”

“Not now,” Aria grumbled. “I’m waiting for the queen to call me in.”

Nevertheless, the gnome took her right hand and unwound bandages. “The queen sent me, ma’am. This will only take a moment.”

Aria shook her head. “My minotaur is hundreds of miles away, probably worried half to death without me. How could the queen make me come back to human lands n-ow!”

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The gnome took the bloody bandages. Aria’s hand was red, withered, and covered in coin-sized blisters. She squirmed on the marble bench as the gnome poured cold water over her palm. “You need physical therapy to prevent scarring. Burns on the hand can—”

“I get it, I get it.” Aria covered her eyes as the gnome wrapped her hand with fresh bandages. “Can I go now?”


Queen Anthrapa’s marble throne-room was as sterile as Aria’s new bandages. Thaddeus polished his jacket’s buttons with his own freshly bandaged right hand.

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Thoughts wrestled behind the queen’s tired eyelids. She rubbed her aching temples. “Aria. Thaddeus. Both of you contacted me at the same time with the same story. Thaddeus, tell me what happened again. Aria, be quiet.”

“Like I said, Queen Anthrapas, your majesty, it was terrible.” Thaddeus agonized over his bandaged hand. “I knew Aria might sabotage her minotaur. She’d already sold imps to the elves, hamstringing me and Harvey in the tournament; who knows Aria’s true intentions? I followed her to elven lands, and sure enough, I saw her melting her minotaur’s best game-piece, the silver dragon, after stipulating only accurate figurines could be used.”

With sarcastically arthritic effort, Queen Anthrapas gestured for Thaddeus to continue.

“Thinking quickly, without regard for personal safety, I reached into the flames and grabbed the figurine! But, too late. It was already half-melted.”

Aria made fists with both hands. Her right palm burned. “I see,” said Queen Anthrapas. “Thaddeus, do you know the outcome of the minotaur’s board-game? Don’t say anything, just nod or shake your head.” Thaddeus shook his head. “Homer won. Five points to zero.”

“Thank goodness,” said Thaddeus.

“Cut the act.” Queen Anthrapas silenced him with one hand. “If Twine had sabotaged her minotaur, she’d’ve done it right and her minotaur would’ve lost. Thaddeus, this is your last chance to confess to treason.”

Thaddeus shrugged. “Even if you don’t believe my story, there’s no way you could prove me guilty. It’s my word against hers.”

Anthrapas nodded. “Gnome.” The marble doors opened and a gnome entered holding ragged bloody bandages.

Thaddeus gripped his seat.

The gnome held the bandages for Queen Anthrapas to inspect. She sighed. “When you both contacted me with the same story, I knew the real perpetrator would try to brand themselves on an identical figurine after the fact. So I preemptively branded the dragon—the real dragon, Scales.” The bandages had distinct patterns of blood in the shape of Anthrapas’ seal. “The perpetrator bought Scales’ figurine at a hobby shop. It was authentic enough to feature the dragon’s latest brands.”

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“You branded my dragon?” Aria huffed.

“Whose bandages are these?” asked Anthrapas. Her gnome pointed to Thaddeus.

“There’s an explanation,” said Thaddeus. “Aria must have realized you’d do this and—”

“There was a time,” interrupted the queen, “I’d have you drawn and quartered. Each quarter would be fed to a different wild animal. Then I’d personally burn your intestines and strangle you with them.” Thaddeus soaked tears with his bandages as two royal guards flanked him. “That time is gone—not long gone, but gone. Maybe I’ll just bring you to the great black sword outside my window. I’ll tie both your legs to different horses and whip them so they run on either side of the blade. It would be quick.”

“Forgive me, Queen—”

“You’re nobility, aren’t you? Your parents own land. Maybe I should donate the territory to the wild wastes. Or the elves. Or seafolk. Or dwarfs.”

“Please, just—”

“Or maybe,” she said, “Humanity’s Path to Victory should choose your punishment.”

Aria chewed her lips. “You branded my dragon.”

“It’s my dragon, Aria. Get over it.”

“Well, elves always need more shortlings.” Aria watched Thaddeus sweat. “Trade him for dragon fodder to make it up to me.”

“I’ll consider it.” Anthrapas waved Thaddeus away. “Guards, escort him to the dungeon. Gnomes, follow them out.”

The throne room suddenly emptied. Aria had fought a hundred table-wars here, and had never seen it empty of even gnomes and guards. The queen and Aria sat in silence. Beneath the marble floor, magma gently bubbled.

“Shall I leave?”

“You shall not.”

Aria stayed. The setting sun shined through the window, and the great black sword in the distance cast shade over the queen’s face. She sighed and released tension from her shoulders. “Twine, close the window.”

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“Yes, ma’am.” Aria rushed to a long hooked pole near the back wall, and used it to close heavy drapes. Only flickering from the underground magma lit the throne room.

“I’m getting old, Twine.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am?”

“Don’t play dumb.” Anthrapas felt the bones in her hand, and pushed blue veins over her knuckles. “I watched Emperor Shobai take his throne decades ago. I’ve lost track of my age.”

“You’re ninety-seven, ma’am.”

Aria expected a rebuke, but the queen just watched the flickering magma. “For decades, my council of nobles has wanted me to declare a successor. Hubris, I suppose, kept my hand. Humanity grows impatient for my retirement or my death.”

“I’m not eager for your death, ma’am. You took me in when I was just a kid.”

“You’re it, Aria. You’re queen when I croak.”

“What? No!” Aria shook her head. “I don’t want to be queen!”

“You’re slippery, Aria, but I’ve got you good.”

Aria spoke through her teeth. “I never wanted this.”

“But I always did, and you walked right into it.” For the first time Aria could remember, Anthrapas laughed. “I was worried when your game-piece was assassinated and you left to live in a shack, but you rode back to me on a minotaur. I didn’t even have to nominate you to my council of nobles; they recommended you after Homer beat Ebi Anago.”

“I refuse.”

“You reached into fire for humanity. You can’t refuse.”

“Of course I can.”

“Legally, yes. But you, Twine, I know you can’t refuse.” Aria looked away. “We both win. You seek personal glory. I seek humanity’s safety. Now your glory hinges on humanity.”

“I didn’t ask for that responsibility,” said Aria. “I like table-war. I like raising monsters. I never did it for humanity. I reached into fire for myself.”

“You can still back out,” said Anthrapas. “My council could choose another.”

Aria paused. “Who… who is the council’s next choice?”

“Thaddeus.” Anthrapas laughed until she coughed and choked. “He’s noble blood. He’s not bad at table-war. He’ll gladly accept, if it means he’s not sold to the elves.”

“But he’s awful. He’s a scumbag.”

“So you suddenly care?”

The magma cracked and spat. “…You win. I’ll be queen.” Aria sat. “You beat me, and I didn’t even know we were playing. But now, Homer needs me.” She crossed her arms. “I haven’t seen him in days. Where is he?”

“I had Sir Jameson escort him to the baked caldera,” said Anthrapas. “It’s contested territory on the elven/dwarven border. The Mountain Swallower’s champion has challenged the elves for the land; as the tournament front-runner, Homer should see the dwarven champion in action.”


Homer sniffed smoke which dimmed the sky. The flat, featureless horizon was quiet ash. The audience of elves somberly filled benches in the impromptu arena.

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“When are the dwarfs coming?” complained Sir Jameson. “If they declare table-war, they should at least have the decency to show up.”

“They should arrive shortly.” Quattuor sat patiently. “Dwarfs are many things, but never late.”

The elves clapped for an elderly elf scowling her way to the table. Her hair was in a tight bun to make her look tall—almost five feet—but her nose was raised even higher. “Llf?” asked Homer.

“The elf is Madam Commander Victoria. Her first tournament match was against Thaddeus, and she won handily. She was meant to fight the sphinx next, but she postponed that match to defend the baked caldera.”

“They should just let the dwarfs have this place, to be honest,” said Sir Jameson. “What an eyesore.”

“If dwarfs claim it, they will be a step closer to the elven capital,” explained Quattuor. Homer smelled the dwarfs before he saw them. Their stench attracted buzzards, and elves covered their noses. Dwarfs filed into the arena. Their clanging coal-colored armor covered every inch of skin. The first dwarf in line wore thicker, brighter, silver armor; this dwarf’s teeth were black. “The Mountain Swallower,” whispered Quattuor to Homer.

The Mountain Swallower’s voice made the scars on Homer’s chest itch: “Fight.” The king of the dwarfs sat opposite the elves in the arena. More dwarfs surrounded their leader leaving one lone dwarf, their champion, sitting at the central table across from Madam Victoria.

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Homer sniffed. He pointed at the dwarven champion, and tapped Quattuor on the shoulder. “What’s he say?” asked Sir Jameson.

“The dwarven champion does not smell as foul as an ordinary dwarf,” said Quattuor.

Jameson chuckled. “The smartest dwarf ever is the first one to figure out how to bathe.”

Victoria summoned five gnomes in pink dresses. “Have you no gnomes?”

The dwarven champion said nothing.

“I’ll need more gnomes to help set my figurines.” Victoria pointed to Quattuor. “I’m borrowing you.” Quattuor obediently joined the other gnomes powdering the table to make it look exactly like the baked caldera in miniature. Then they helped Madam Victoria arrange her army of elves.

The dwarven champion placed three figures on the table: a dwarf, a catapult, and pile of stones.

“Are you serious?” Victoria stood on her chair to see the dwarf’s side of the table. “Is that all you’ve got?”

The dwarven champion raised one hand. Quattuor matched fingers with the dwarven greave to communicate in gnomish. “These are all their figurines,” confirmed Quattuor.

Victoria sat and admired her army. “This will be easier than I thought. For a moment, I might have been worried.”

“So sure?” The Mountain Swallower stood. Its crumbly voice made shorties cry. “A wager, then. If you win, you’ll take my helmet. If you lose, I’ll claim a gnome.”

Homer’s fur bristled. Sir Jameson put a hand on his shoulder. “The elf has this in the bag, big guy. And it’s only a gnome anyway.” Homer shook his head so hard his horns almost hurt someone. He pointed to his eye and drew his thumb across his jaw and across one shoulder. “Huh? Oh, right—you rescued Quattuor from dwarfs, all beat-up and abused. But gnomes don’t care that dwarfs cut off their limbs, and a magma-bath fixes them right up. You know that.”

Homer puffed.

“I accept your wager, Mountain Swallower.” Victoria’s army was arranged with precision befitting an experienced commander. “I offer the dwarven champion the first move.”

The dwarf raised another hand and another gnome jogged to join Quattuor in translating. The two gnomes struggled to keep up with the dwarf’s rapid finger-tapping. “Assistance, please,” called Quattuor, and all six gnomes clustered around the dwarf messaging each other. They tapped information onto the dwarf’s shoulders, too, which Homer found disturbing. He couldn’t imagine sending different signals with both hands while receiving different responses with both shoulders.

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After thirty seconds, the gnomes broke formation and surrounded the table to show how the dwarf loaded its catapult with stones and launched them. Gnomes debated the effects of wind on the payload to make every stone follow a perfectly simulated arc.

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“Slow down,” said Victoria. She allowed the gnomes to move the stones to their zenith. “Stop there. My elves clear this area.” The gnomes moved the elven army to make an empty circle where the stones would land. “Easy.”

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The stones landed in the empty circle and ricocheted in all directions. “Your troops cannot react in time to the ricochet. The closest are stoned to death.” Gnomes scooped out figurines in an annulus of impact. “The next closest survive with debilitating injuries.” Gnomes knocked down elves in a much larger ring.

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“What!” Victoria braced herself against the table. “You expect me to believe each of those rocks killed one elf and wounded two more?”

“I do not expect you to believe it, ma’am, but it is true.” The gnomes meticulously demonstrated the path of each stone individually. “While you consider your next command, the dwarf is reloading its catapult.”

Victoria surveyed her surviving troops. “I surrender,” she decided. “The remaining elves retreat. I suspect we’ll need them to fight another day.”

“The baked caldera is mine.” The Mountain Swallower stood. “I claim this gnome, the one with no dress. Dresses catch in my teeth.”

“Oh, dear.” Quattuor nodded to Homer and Jameson. “Perhaps we’ll meet again someday. Tell Ms. Twine I said goodbye.”

“Speak not.” The Mountain Swallower ate Quattuor’s head.

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Homer bellowed as the Mountain Swallower chewed Quattuor’s shoulders and arms. The sound, like crushing gravel, made Homer’s fur bristle and showed the maze of scars on his chest. “Calm down, Homer.” Jameson patted Homer’s knee. “Dwarfs eat rocks, so gnomes are a delicacy, like fine cheese.” The Mountain Swallower finished with Quattuor’s legs and feet. “We’ll buy a new gnome from the elves.”

“Rrr!” Homer stood with enough force to knock over the bench, toppling Jameson and some dwarfs. “Rrarrr!”

The five gnomes in pink dresses stood between Homer and the Mountain Swallower. “The wager was accepted and the dwarven champion won. The Mountain Swallower’s actions are admissible.” The Mountain Swallower licked its teeth. Its tongue was blue and gray.

The ground pulsed around Homer. Dust puffed up like wild animals were bursting from shallow graves. Elves scattered. Homer lifted the bench above his head. “Homer, this is your last warning!” said the gnomes.

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Homer smashed the bench over the dwarven champion. The coal-colored armor cracked and hard green gnome-brains spilled out. False teeth fell from the helmet. Homer dropped the broken bench. “Nno smell,” Homer explained.

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Gnomes and elves gathered around the armor. “Their champion’s a fake!” said an elf. “The dwarfs cheated!”

The Mountain Swallower laughed. This rare dwarven laugh was like distant thunder rolling over ruins. “Ask any gnome—that pile of brains is a legally registered dwarven commander.”

The gnomes didn’t bother matching fingertips. “This dwarven commander was obviously registered under false pretenses, but is nonetheless registered.”

“Don’t act surprised. Dwarfs have built war-machines since the dawn of time,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Recently we’ve experimented by decapitating gnomes for their cold, calculating brains. When you beat the nine-brained seafolk, Ebi Anago,” it said to Homer, “we decided to wire up ten brains at a time.” More brains slopped from the dwarven champion. “We’ll add more if we like.”

“This is a flagrant breach of the intent of law.” Victoria pointed at the broken champion. “No one could beat ten gnomes at table-war, not if they can cripple armies with a handful of stones!”

“Nonetheless, it is registered,” said another gnome. “A registered commander can only be disbarred from play because of their own death or the death of their game-piece, or for violating the treaty. This ‘dwarven’ commander has done none of those things. Speaking of which,” he said, turning to Homer, “ordinarily you would be ejected for assault, but in these extenuating circumstances, we allow you to remain a commander.”


Aria didn’t wait for her carriage to stop before she jumped out and ran for the arena. “Jameson!” She waved for him with her bandaged hand. “Where’s Homer? What happened here?”

“Homer’s cooling off somewhere.” Sir Jameson flipped a toppled bench. “You need a new gnome; the Mountain Swallower ate yours. Homer got mad and smashed the dwarven champion, who’s apparently some gnome brains wired together. Look what Homer did to this dust! He was so angry this just sort of… happened!”

Aria slid her boot to trace a maze drawn in the dust. “I feel you, Homer. I really do.”

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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 Elf

(This is part six of an ongoing series starting here. Last time, Homer the minotaur won a board-game against a lobster. Today he’ll have to beat an elf.)


Homer and Aria stood before Queen Anthrapas’ throne. The elderly queen was slumped casually with her head on one hand. “I congratulate you on your victory.”

“Thank you, your majesty.” Aria bowed. “It wasn’t easy.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Anthrapas pointed at Homer. “Even the best commanders have trouble with seafolk. Good work. Now, to business.” She gestured to Sir Jameson at the back of the room.

Jameson took Aria by the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Aria. You need to leave for a few minutes.”

pict1.png

“What? No.” Aria shrugged him off, but Jameson took her wrists behind her back. Homer moved to protect her, but Quattuor stood between them. “Get off me! I’ll see myself out!” Jameson followed her and shut the door behind himself.

“I’m sorry about this,” whispered the queen. “Aria always wants her way, and she doesn’t mind causing international incidents to get it. I have to make sure she’s not using you for self-interested reasons.”

“Yuzing?” Homer shook his head.

“Your next match is against an elf,” said the queen. “An elf killed Aria’s game-piece. I’d hate for her to delegitimize your match for personal reasons by, say, overstepping her boundaries in anger. Therefore, I forbid you and Aria to meet again until after the match.” Homer furrowed his brow; his forehead wrinkled against his goggles. “You and I are not yet done. Enter, ambassadors.”

The doors opened. Royal guards escorted three figures into the throne room: a centaur (whom Homer recognized from the wild wastes’ border wall), a bent man with scrawny red wings whose clawed feet scratched the floor, and a big blue cat who seemed too squat for her length.

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“Centaur, harpy, sphinx.” The queen glared at each in turn. “If the creatures of the wild wastes want to participate in the tournament to prove their sovereignty as an independent nation, you’ll have to assuage my concerns.”

“Oh, come on! We’ve got a border wall and everything!” The centaur whinnied and rapped his hooves against the floor. “Why do other nations get to divvy up ours and play with the pieces?”

The harpy squawked. “Elves and seafolk already gave us tournament seats! Bukawk!”

The sphinx purred. “There are more animals in the wild wastes than there are humans, elves, and dwarfs combined. We deserve representation.”

Queen Anthrapas pointed to Homer. “We’ve already got an animal in the tournament. Would you want his seat, or would you make me give up another? The tournament would have two humans and four animals.” She pointed her thumb down. “Homer, choose one of these beasts to capture for humanity’s army. Only the other two will be seated in the tournament.”

“What!” The centaur stamped. “You can’t keep kidnapping us! That’s the whole point!”

Homer pointed to the sphinx. “Why?” asked the queen. “The centaur or harpy would be better in battle, surely? A centaur could carry two men on his back. A harpy could fly above the battle and return with intelligence.”

Homer tapped gnomish onto Quattuor’s shoulder. “But sphinxes are notoriously clever,” translated Quattuor. “Homer would rather take the sphinx to the stable than fight it at the table.”

The sphinx’s fur bristled along its spine. Anthrapas nodded. “Relax. I’m just testing the minotaur. He’s clearly allied with humanity. If the elves and seafolk have already agreed to do the same, I concur in relinquishing one of my tournament seats to the wild wastes. My lowest-performing commander will be booted; I think it’s Thaddeus.”

The centaur, harpy, and sphinx bowed to her in whatever way their shapes allowed.

“Homer, leave,” said the queen. “I must test Aria, too.”

As Homer left the throne room, Sir Jameson escorted Aria before the queen. Homer made himself turn away from her.

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“Take a good look.” Outside the throne room, Thaddeus leaned against a pillar. His smug smile and doofy hair made Homer’s blood boil. “You’re never seeing Aria again. Queen Anthrapas won’t let you two in the same country once I testify.”

“Saddeuss.”

“You and Aria shouldn’t’ve crossed me.” He turned up his collar to enter the throne room. “Thanks to you, Anthrapas is giving my tournament seat to a sphinx. How embarrassing! But you’re an animal, too, aren’t you? Aria’s far too compassionate toward creatures to be trusted in the tournament, with so many monsters involved. I’ll bet I can get her executed if I play my cards right.”


In the front carriage, Homer read wooden cards with his fingertips. “Can you really read those?” asked Sir Jameson. Homer nodded. “I can’t read gnomish to save my life. Who are those cards?”

“Llfs.” Homer sketched high elves and shorties with a piece of charcoal on a scroll.

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“I hate escorting elves around Queen Anthrapas’ castle. They’re always pulling tricks, like filling my boots with jam. Where are your brass cards, by the way? And don’t you have figurines to play with?” Homer pointed to the carriage behind them, where Aria and Quattuor had all the official metal material. “We’ll have to wait for your gnome to bring them to me for inspection. You know I can’t let you and Aria see each other, or pass notes.”

Homer nodded. His goggles reflected the passing trees. The elven capital was like a forest and a jungle combined. The hot humidity left dew on Homer’s horns. It smelled like dizzying elven pheromones.

“I bet I know why Aria’s double-checking your figurines,” said Jameson. “Ten years ago she lost her status as a royal commander when an elf killed her game-piece—I think the elf was named Stephanie. Before the game, Stephanie switched out all Aria’s brass cards. When Aria used those cards to declare her army, she immediately lost: her rank was infiltrated by elves who assassinated her own game-piece—it didn’t matter that Aria’s figurines showed which units she’d intended to play. So for your upcoming match, Aria’s stipulating that figurines physically match the descriptions on their cards. That’ll protect you from elvish tricks!”

The carriages wound around trees fifty feet thick and hundreds tall. Vines like boas snaked down the bark. Falling leaves drifted like hang gliders. Under the canopy, the sunlight was dim enough for Homer to remove his goggles. He put on his eye-patch.


Elven shorties led Homer to his private room carved into the side of a tree. The walls were lined with translucent pipes pumping sap and water. The shorties showed him how to drink right from the walls, but Homer was more interested in the shorties themselves. They hardly seemed the same species as high elves, and never wore lace wings.

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Someone knocked at Homer’s open door. “Permission to enter?”

“Guattuor.”

Quattuor entered and gave Homer a jug of cold water. Homer drank thirstily. “That’s from Ms. Twine, and Sir Jameson has already inspected it for national security purposes. Ms. Twine and I are still corroborating your brass cards and figurines. Ms. Twine demanded from the elven queen that your opponent follow the same stringent procedures. Your match will be scrutinized for authenticity.”

Homer nodded.

“The queen of the elves extends her invitation,” said Quattuor. “Please report to her crystal hall.”


The largest tree in the forest had massive doors guarded by two shorties. They apparently knew Homer had been invited, as they both started opening the door. It was a little big for them, so Homer helped.

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The crystal hall was so brightly lit, Homer searched his pockets for the goggles he’d removed. He could hardly see five feet in front of his face, but smelled pheromones thick like soup. From the back of the room called a voice: “Homer, isn’t it? So glad to see you.” The voice was motherly like a hearth. “Approach, please!”

Homer stumbled, almost blind in the light, until he bumped a wall. The wall was patterned with octagons and squares. Each shape capped an alcove filled with blue-green goop. In some, Homer saw dark elven eggs. In others, shorty larvae ate the goop they’d been born in. The comb covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the crystal hall.

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“Don’t let my children distract you, Homer. Come here!” The elven queen was twenty feet tall but thin as an ordinary elf. She was noodly, spooled over her throne in immobile opulence. Uniquely among elves, she had real, luxurious wings which cushioned the throne under her. They were red with angry black eye-spots, offsetting the queen’s disarming smile.

Four high elves climbed their queen to massage her limbs, helping her overworked heart.

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“Sit, Homer, please. Would you like some sap?”

Homer sat on the floor. “Zab?”

“Oh dear.” An attending high elf covered her queen’s smile so she could chuckle politely. “You hardly know human customs, and here I am, expecting you to know your way around elven ritual. I should have warned you: it’s impolite to turn down offers of sap.”

Homer scratched his chest. “Zab.”

“Bring us some sap, please.” An attending high elf skipped out of the hall. The queen noticed Homer investigating the octagons and squares underneath him. “The octagonal chambers are for high elves,” she explained. “The squares are for shorties. The square chambers are smaller, so their larvae molt into smaller elves.”

Homer quizzaciously pointed at the elven queen.

The queen laughed. “My larval chamber was this whole crystal hall. Every brood mother has their own crystal hall, but mine’s biggest. That’s why I’m the tallest, and why my pheromones make me queen.”

Homer nodded.

“That’s the power of elven society: my subjects worship me on a cellular level. Your table-war opponent tonight is a high elf named Stephanie, but her patriotism means your opponent is, symbolically, me.”

“Zdefany?” Homer felt the scars crisscrossing his chest.


“Stephanie?”

“Oh! Aria Twine! Fancy meeting you here.” Stephanie had expertly zeroed in on Aria from across the elven arena built into an enormous tree-stump. “I thought you’d never want to visit ever again!”

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“Buzz off,” said Aria. “And remember! If any figurines on the board don’t properly represent their brass, we’ll start the game again! No tricks!”

“Gosh, Aria, you sure are strict.” Stephanie put a hand to her chest. “Don’t you know I never pull the same trick twice?”

“Good.” Aria surveyed the crowd. There were no dwarfs (thank goodness) but too many elves. A few seafolk observed from murky tanks. “Homer won five points in his first match. Beating you is just his next step to winning the whole tournament.”

“I won my first match with five points, too, Aria.” Stephanie giggled. “Poor Harvey.”

“Harvey didn’t have a silver dragon. Let’s see how elves handle a blizzard. And Harvey’s a geek anyway, Homer whupped him easy.”

A voice made Aria jump: “Thanks, Twine.” Harvey slumped on a wooden seat. His glasses were fogged with humidity, and his shirt was dripping with sweat from pit to pit. “Stephanie killed my birds with imps. I don’t suppose you know how she got those?”

Aria puffed. “If there are no tricks tonight, Homer has this in the bag.”

“Speaking of ‘in the bag,’” said Stephanie, “are you sure Homer has all his supplies?”

“Of course. I personally checked every brass and every figurine. My gnome is sending them right now.”

“But your gnome gives them to an impartial human representative for inspection, right?”

“Um… Yes.” Aria blinked. “Sir Jameson.”

“Oh, if only some human were eager to stab you in the back…” Stephanie skipped toward the center of the arena. “I’m setting up my side of the table. I’ll say hi to Homer for you!”

Aria gripped her seat.

“Who’s she talking about?” asked Harvey. “What human would betray Humanity’s Path to Victory?”

Aria shoved elves as she fled the arena.


“…So, you see, shorties are the only males. All high elves are female, but only brood mothers are fertile…”

Homer nodded, pretending he understood. He couldn’t have responded if he wanted to; his teeth were glued together after two servings of sap. It was painfully sweet.

“Homer, dear, are you feeling alright?” The queen sent high elves to fetch more sap.

Homer wavered and looked at his hands. “Aight,” he managed.

“Can I show you something, Homer?” The queen pointed out the crystal hall’s doors. “You can’t see it from here, but imagine a demon’s great black trident stabbed in the forest.” Homer had already seen a great black ax and a great black sword, so he could imagine the trident. He sipped more sap as it was offered to him. “And far past that, in the swamps near the elven-dwarven border, there’s another weapon. A flail with two spiked heads.”

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“If you double-count the two-headed demon with its two-headed flail, three of the seven great demons attacked elven lands. I’m physically unable to leave my throne, but I know my land, Homer. Humans don’t even share a border with dwarfs. Only elves have the right to vengeance against the Mountain Swallower. You can understand why I had to drug you.”

It took five seconds for Homer to catch on and turn to the queen.

“A spoonful of sap will knock out a human in minutes. For you, we quadrupled the dosage.” When the queen smiled, her teeth were needle sharp. “Isn’t it almost time for your match?” On jellied limbs, Homer loped for the door. He tripped down the steps. “Best of luck!” said the queen.


Aria sprinted up four steps at a time around a tree. She panted and pounded against Homer’s door. “Homer! Quattuor! Are you in there?”

Silence. She put her ear to the floor to peek under the door.

Thaddeus had started a fire and was melting Homer’s figurines.

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Aria bashed the door with her shoulder. WHAM. “You little brat!”

“Go away!” Thaddeus threw kindling and figurines into the fire. “You had this coming!”

Aria threw herself against the door again. WHAM.

“You think you’re special, Twine?” Thaddeus prodded the kindling with a fire-iron. “You almost stole my tournament seat for your minotaur. Now I’ve lost my seat to a sphinx. It’s obvious why Anthrapas would boot me instead of your minotaur—he’s not playing at all, he’s just your pawn! You’re cheating my nobility its due glory!”

WHAM.

“You even gave him humanity’s silver dragon.” Thaddeus held the figurine in his trembling hands. “It could be mine. It should be mine! But you let that bull carry it for you.” He dropped the dragon in the fire.

WHAM. The door popped off its hinges and Aria’s left shoulder dislocated.

Thaddeus stood between her and the fire. “Go away!” She shoved him with her right arm. He pushed her back. She punched him in the jaw so hard she broke two fingers on her right hand. Thaddeus fell and didn’t get up.

Aria knelt by the fire, held her breath, and grabbed the half-melted dragon. “Aaaugh!” She threw the dragon from the fire. Molten metal scalded her right palm. “Nnng—” She pressed her palm on the cool, mossy wall and shuddered.

“You’re crazy!” Thaddeus squirmed toward the dragon figurine.

Aria stomped her boot on his back and pinned him to the floor. “Anthrapas is gonna hang you for treason!”

“Who will she believe,” asked Thaddeus, “you or me?”

“Quattuor!” Aria yelled loud as necessary to call the gnome from the next room. “Did you really give our figurines to this brat?”

Quattuor collected the remaining figurines from the floor. “He intercepted me on my way to Sir Jameson’s room, and he was qualified, so technically—”

“Cancel the match,” said Aria. “This is blatant espionage.”

“I cannot. No gnomish laws have been broken.” Quattuor put the figurines in a bag. “Destroying or doctoring brass cards is illegal; only gnomes may officially alter them. But figurines are outside our adjudication. For example, I have seen you represent a dragon on the table with a roll of tape. Of course, for this match, you demanded only accurate figurines be used, so most of Homer’s game-pieces are ineligible.”

Aria cried into her burning hand. “I’ll contact Anthrapas before I come to the match,” she said. “Just get Homer his gear.”

“I cannot,” said Quattuor. “You know Queen Anthrapas has banned you from sending messages to Homer before the match. Technically, this bag still hasn’t been approved by a qualified human representative yet.”

“Take it,” said Thaddeus. “I approve.” He stood and wiped dust from his red jacket. “I melted all the good stuff anyway.”


Homer burst through the doors of the arena. In his haze he couldn’t remember why he’d come, but he was determined to find the table in the center. The humans in the crowd clapped respectfully. The elves howled sarcastic cheers as Homer missed his chair and splayed on the ground.

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Quattuor offered him his bag of brasses and figurines. “Just in time. Any longer and your absence would officially count as surrender.”

“Zab.” Homer struggled to his knees. “Gween.”

“I’m sorry?”

Homer managed to sit in the chair. He tapped a message in gnomish on Quattuor’s shoulder, but didn’t know the pattern for elvish sap, or the name of the queen, or how to say he was drugged.

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Stephanie giggled behind a hand. “Let’s start the match!”

When Homer saw Stephanie he made fists and took off his goggles. The audience gasped at his pink eye-socket. “If you’re ill,” said Quattuor, “you could surrender.”

“No,” said Homer. More gnomes scrambled over the table, building the map. They wore pink elven dresses.

“I was right to let Aria take you,” said Stephanie. “You’re more useful losing to me than you could ever be as one of my game-pieces.”

Homer ignored her and poured his bag of brasses and figurines onto the table. He deflated, seeing most figurines mostly melted. His dragon was defunct.

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Even Stephanie jumped when Homer swept brass cards and figurines off the table. His fur rose and anxious steam puffed from his nostrils. “Oh, no,” said Stephanie. “Did something happen to your big, bad dragon?”

Homer bit his hand between his thumb and forefinger just to stay awake and focus on his few remaining figurines. His rising fur revealed a maze of old scars. He gave Quattuor one brass card, tapped a message to him in gnomish, and collapsed. He lay motionless on the floor.

“Homer says he does not surrender.” Quattuor put Homer’s brass card onto the table and found its figurine. “Let the game begin.” The chattering audience of elves watched gnomes finish the map. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.

Soon Aria arrived with her right hand bandaged by helpful gnomes. Sir Jameson meant to ask her what was wrong, and why Quattuor hadn’t given him Homer’s figurines to inspect, but her sour expression shut him up. She didn’t recognize the figurine on Homer’s side of the table; she’d packed a huge variety of game-pieces, and his was too small to see.

“My opponent can move first.” Stephanie giggled.

Gnomes prodded Homer’s body. “The first turn is yours, ma’am.”

“My fifty elvish archers take aim from afar.” Gnomes marked the trajectory of arrows from the model forest to Homer’s only figurine. “These shorties are trained just to shoot. They could hit an insect a mile away!”

“They have,” said Quattuor. “Homer brought this beetle to battle and you blasted it.”

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“I win, then?” Stephanie beamed.

“You could choose to end the game here,” said Quattuor, “but your final score would be tarnished. Homer’s beetle was brimming with eggs, and its offspring will infest the area. Of course, only the table would be infested, not the actual physical region it represents, but it would impact your score.” He corroborated with other gnomes. “You would win three points, the minotaur, zero.”

“Ew.” Stephanie watched the gnomes replace the beetle’s figurine with a thousand scattered eggs eager to hatch. “Well, for a perfect five points, my shorties stomp on the eggs.”

The gnomes bunched into groups to debate with tapping fingertips. “Unfortunately, your units aren’t quite quick or thorough enough: some eggs hatch before they can be smashed. The larvae are poisonous; twenty of your units develop a fever. The rest of your units consider abandoning the scenario.”

Stephanie glanced at Aria. “I suppose you had a hand in this, Twine?”

Aria jumped from her fixation on the table. She held her bandaged hand. “You’re a riot, short-stuff.”

“I gotta hand it to you, the eggs are a tricky gimmick,” said Stephanie. “Gnomes! One of my archers has a vial of pheromones which he now uncorks. I got this from my lovely queen!” The gnomes showed how every elf on the table perked up immediately when they smelled the vial. “Now my shorties obey my order, fevers or no fevers. Speed up the table. They’ll comb the area for as long as it takes, just to be safe.”

Three gnomes joined hands in a triangle. The rest set upon the table. Whenever one tired, they hopped off the table to replace one of the three in the triangle. The gnomes worked so quickly it seemed the figurines marched across the board under their own power. Stephanie’s troops cut and burned tall grass to destroy eggs and larvae. They beat branches from trees and bashed every leaf. They turned every stone and found larvae already becoming pupae.

“Pause!” shouted Stephanie. “That’s enough. How long was that?”

“Two months,” said a gnome, “and not long enough. You missed some larvae who dug deep underground. Black beetles crawl up from the dirt. If you end the battle now, the infestation will still cost you points, and your units are diseased. Your final score would be one.”

Stephanie blushed. “My archers shoot down beetles as they emerge. How long would it take to dig deep enough to kill the last of those pupae?”

“There is no way to know, ma’am.”

She rapped her fingers on the table. “We’ll flood the area. Are there any bodies of water near this map?”

“In fact, there is a river.” Gnomes carried a second table into the arena and set it beside the first. They extended the map to show a powerful river rolling mere miles away.

“We’ll start irrigating immediately,” said Stephanie. “It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks if we open another vial of pheromones.”

All the gnomes joined hands; water-dynamics seemed to require their full combined attention. Finally they returned to the table and showed how trenches diverted the river. Stephanie pointed exactly where she wanted to flood the map to drown any underground pupae.

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“All done.” Stephanie saw nowhere a beetle could be. “What’s the verdict now? The minotaur’s got no game-pieces, and I’ve got all of mine!”

“Actually,” said a gnome, “most of the elves on the table are dead.” Gnomes collected figurines and marked their brass cards as deceased. “The match began on today’s date in September. Three months have passed on the table, making it December. Some of your units have died in the snow; some have died of their diseases. Even your survivors will collapse unconscious when you run out of pheromones. We can award you no points. Having demolished your army, Homer lost only a beetle and its offspring. Five points to the minotaur.”

Homer snored on the floor.

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