Play DüKKA!

Dukkha is the dissatisfaction intrinsic to existence.

DüKKA is dukkha’s dorky younger cousin who steals your tiles in my mobile-game, available now on the Google Play Store! (It’ll be on IOS someday, maybe.)

It’s free and it’s fun. Outsmart DüKKA for control of the board’s center in a jaunty metaphor for our meaningless lives.

I think the ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ difficulties are TOO easy, but I want to add a ‘custom mode’ where you can change the rules. Under some rule-sets, ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ might be the only way to stand a chance.

I also want to add a harder difficulty. ‘DüKKA’, the hardest difficulty at the moment, has an interesting flaw. Can you exploit that flaw to get 100 points when DüKKA only has 60?

I’m working on a video for my YouTube channel about all the pretentious philosophical bollocks behind this silly puzzle-game where the AI mocks your mortality. If you’d like to see it, subscribe!

Why Table-War, Why Minotaurs

In The Elf vs The Dwarf Homer the minotaur watches the mysterious dwarven champion beat an elf at a board-game, claiming land on the border of the two races. This is actually the first time we’ve seen land trade hands because of a table-war, but supposedly this happens pretty often. Table-war makes battle abstract, so nations have no reason to avoid conflict. I hope this reflects the futility of war in general and war in the age of computers in particular.

When I started writing what would become The Minotaur’s Board-Game I thought I’d make the minotaur play chess. I gave up because anyone who actually enjoyed chess would see I was talking out my butt. Chess has strategies and a history I couldn’t do justice without loads of research, and research is hard. Plus, even if including chess made the story popular among chess-fans, it would simultaneously limit the audience to mostly chess-fans.

For the same reasons, I wouldn’t include any real game. If I used Poker I’d have to study up or else skilled readers would think “that’s a dumb move” with every play.

One of my inspirations for this story is the anime YuGiOh, in which teens play children’s card-games to save the world. I can appreciate the cheesiness of a card-game ballooning to such high stakes. Unfortunately, while the card-game actually exists in the real world—we call it YuGiOh—the anime TV-show doesn’t follow the real rules. Rules are ignored or invented on the spot to increase tension and let the hero win. The anime invented its own game and still can’t get it quite right.

My solution to these problems is to make a game without stated rules. Table-war is supposed to be a perfectly accurate replacement for war, and war doesn’t have ‘rules’ beyond the laws of physics, so I can put war on a table and it’ll turn out okay.

The good news is I can still make up rules whenever it’s convenient for me. Do I need Homer to look clever? Let him paint his figurines; no rule against that. Do I need Aria to accidentally screw herself over? She can—by adding new rules for one match. I can always retrace my steps and fiddle with rules as I go.

The really good news—for me, not for my characters—is that dwarfs can use the war-simulation to their advantage. In a real war, dwarfs could be outsmarted; the dwarfs called upon demons to win their last war, and it didn’t even work. In table-war the dwarven robot is indomitable, and without real war, there’s nothing any other nation can do about it.

The bad news is that war isn’t always interesting. So far, most table-wars have been won before the match even started: commanders imagine how their opponents will play, and whoever thinks farther ahead wins. A game of chess can flow back and forth; a game of poker can have a twist; most of my table-wars are one-sided. Sometimes table-wars can showcase counter-play, but still, I hope my one-turn matches can be compelling. Two characters go in, the reader is on-edge because of the stakes, and the better commander wins.

At the same time, the “one-turn war” isn’t necessarily unrealistic. War, like life, can be nasty, brutish, and short. Said Dwight D. Eiserhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” So wars and plans for wars must be indispensable for the point of my story.

Computers can beat humans at chess. In the long run, I’ll bet computers can beat humans at Poker. If computers haven’t already taken war, it’s just a matter of time. The dwarven champion—a bunch of gnome-brains wired together—is a war-computer. When Homer eventually fights the machine, he’ll need to prove humanity (and elves, and seafolk, and monsters, and life in general) is more important than pure mechanical efficiency.

I figure table-war is the best place to prove that. If Homer won a game of chess, he’d just prove he’s better at chess. If Homer won a game of Poker, he’d just prove he’s lucky and steel-eyed. When Homer wins table-war, he’ll prove life has value.

Why is Homer the minotaur going to stop the dwarfs? The elvish queen seemed to think elves deserved the honor because elves and dwarfs are enemies, but I think a minotaur is the perfect symbol for life’s value in the face of machinery. Minotaurs are classically trapped in labyrinths; like an allegory for all sentient beings, they wake in the dark and stumble through an unhelpful world. Maybe minotaurs could be replaced with robots that walk aimlessly through mazes, but “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” and one must imagine minotaurs explore mazes with intent. Homer’s endless trials, in and out of his labyrinth, have shaped him and made him more than a maze-walker. He’ll never be free, because the outside world is a political labyrinth with no exit, but minotaurs can handle labyrinths.

In myth, Ariadne helped Theseus navigate the minotaur’s maze with a roll of thread. In The Minotaur’s Board-Game, Aria Twine ignores possible pupils like Thaddeus to lead her minotaur by the nose. Then, Aria realizes she herself has been led by the nose by Queen Anthrapas. In my next commentary maybe I’ll talk more about Twine’s role in the story, but so far I’m happy with how I’ve repurposed mythical figures.

Next Chapter
Table of Contents

Homer VS the Sea-Thing

(This is part five of an ongoing series starting here. Our story so far: Aria Twine has led her minotaur, Homer, to become one of humanity’s royal commanders. Now he’ll have to beat seafolk at the board-game which determines the fate of nations.)


Homer’s sweat dripped through his fur like tiny, salted streams. He adjusted his dark goggles to block out the fiery summer sunlight.

Despite the heat, a circle of snow suffocated the dry grass. The still air became a frozen gust when Scales the ice-dragon exhaled. It wore armor like transparent glaciers. Its wings were fifteen feet from tip to tip, dangling icicles.

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“Good boy, Scales! Good boy,” cooed Aria. The royal beast-master lent her a thick glove to pat her dragon’s muzzle. “He’s still on elvish fodder?”

“Yep. A barrel of crickets a week.” The beast-master scratched his scar. “This guy’s bigger at six months than most dragons I’ve seen at five years.”

“Is he spitting ice yet?”

“Hoo yeah. Every morning.”

The dragon puffed mist from its nostrils. “His frosty breath could be handy against seafolk.”

The beast-master shrugged. “You don’t see many dragons in table-war ‘cause they usually fly for the wild wastes as soon as their wings come in. If you wanna use Scales on the table, make sure the map’s far from the wastes, or his game-piece will escape. It’s no good keeping the dragon in our stables if its game-piece is bust.”

Aria nodded while checking the dragon’s eyes: light blue, clouded like cheap crystal balls. “I need exclusive rights to this dragon’s brass. Don’t let the other humans in the tournament use it.”

The beast-master cocked his head. “Aren’t you dead, Aria?”

Aria corrected herself: “Homer, the minotaur, needs this dragon’s brass.”

The beast-master called his gnomes and they waddled over to take Scales’ measurements. “Good luck,” he said to Homer. “Against seafolk, you’ll need it.”


“I’ve never been to the wild wastes,” said Sir Jameson. The Great Sword sank behind hills in the carriage’s back window. “I’ve never left human territory, actually.”

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Aria squinted skeptically at the centaurs’ border wall. “When I was a royal commander, I’d be carted across the wastes every week to fight elves and dwarfs. Sometimes we’d snag game-pieces on the way, to keep my brass collection unpredictable.”

“Game-pieces?” Jameson frowned. “You mean animals?” Aria shrugged. “Watch your language around the wall,” said Jameson. “Centaurs won’t like being called game-pieces, and they’ll call your griffon a prisoner of war.”

“Relax,” said Aria. “We’ll deal with stuff like that once we’ve beaten the dwarfs. Oh! Hey there, Homer.” Homer easily matched the pace of the carriage on foot. “Are you and Quattuor feeling cramped in the second carriage?”

“Awks.” Homer mimed holding an object in both hands.

“You want your box? Jameson, help me lift this thing.” Aria and Jameson hefted a wooden box from under their seats. “Careful, Homer, these figurines are heavy!”

Homer held the box as easily as Aria might hold a single brass card. “Ow ong?”

“We’re a few days from the seafolk’s dock.” Aria massaged her fingers. “You’ll love it, Homer. Seafolk can’t resist putting on a show, and there’s all-you-can-eat shrimp.”

Homer gave a thumbs up.

The carriage-driver pulled his horses’ reins as they approached the centaurs’ wall. “Get back in,” he said to the minotaur, “and everyone, have your brass ready for inspection.”

“Brass?” Aria tapped her foot. “But my brass says that I’m dead.”

“That won’t matter,” said the carriage-driver. “You’ll see why. I’ve made this trip before.”

Aria heard hoof-steps as centaurs approached the carriages. Two interrogated the carriage-driver, and another poked his nude torso into the carriage’s side-window. “Brass, please.” She and Jameson gave their brass identification cards to the centaur, but he declined to take them. “Those look like brass to me. You’re good to go!”


Beyond the wall humanity’s rolling hills gave way to desert, and across a river the desert gave way to mountains. Then thick forests buzzing with black beetles blocked the way, forcing the carriages to trek through tundra slick with ice to reach flat, black sheets of volcanic stone. A distant plume of dark smoke rained ash.

“I feel magma,” whispered Quattuor. He spoke up so Aria could hear him in the front carriage. “Ms. Twine, I request a stop to confer with the gnomish core for news.”

Aria leaned out the carriage window. “Driver, can you take us where the smoke’s coming up? Quattuor wants a lava-bath.”

The carriage-driver hesitated. “Lava spooks horses. This is as close as I’ll get.”

“Sounds like you’re walking, Quattuor.” The gnome stepped from the carriage and marched toward the plume of smoke. Aria tested the dark rock with her boot before stepping off the carriage. She arched her back to crack her spine. “Just a little longer to the docks, Homer.”

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Homer pointed in the four cardinal directions to four different micro-climates.

“Yeah, the wild wastes are sort of a biome quilt,” said Aria, “and it’s never the same from month to month. You know why?”

He shook his head.

“Elves, forests. Humans, hills. Seafolk, saltwater. Land changes for those living there. That’s why seafolk can’t own property above sea-level: they’d salt up wells just by proximity. But there are so many monsters in the wild wastes, and they move around so much, the land is a patchwork mess. I’m not sure how dwarfs affect the land.” She spat on the ground. “They just eat whatever’s underneath them. Homer, has Quattuor taught you how this tournament works?”

The minotaur nodded. “Ah iddle.”

“A little,” repeated Aria. “We’re holding a tournament to find the best commander to fight the dwarfs. When you fight Ebi Anago, the gnomes will award both of you up to five points based on performance. Then the gnomes pair people with similar point totals for round two. Think you can pull off a five-point match?”

He nodded again and pointed near the smoke. Their gnome returned shiny, white, and dripping magma. “Guaddorr.”

“Quattuor. Any news?”

“Queen Anthrapas has assigned her remaining tournament seats,” said Quattuor. “Harvey, Jennifer, and Thaddeus join Homer in representing humanity. Harvey and Thaddeus are fighting elves in the first round. Jennifer will join us on the dock to fight seafolk.”

“Perfect,” said Aria. “Homer can outscore those kids no problem.”


For the first time ever, Homer filled his chest with salty sea breeze. Waves fifteen feet high curled and crashed on white sand. A wide wooden dock stretched into the blue horizon. Sir Jameson’s gauntlet gripped the dock’s wooden railing like the boards beneath him might snap. “I’ve never trusted seafolk.”

“At least elves have legs,” agreed Aria. “You never know if seafolk are two steps behind or ahead.”

“I wonder what Jennifer thinks of them,” said Quattuor. “Here she comes.”

A sturdy black steed approached the dock. The mare’s mane stood on end like a trail of fire at night. Its nose twitched and unleashed a steamy cloud that enveloped its rider as she dismounted. She was about eighteen with red hair tied in a braid. She quickly spied Aria and sprinted down the dock after her. “Oh, great,” said Aria. “She’s a fan.”

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Homer sniffed. Behind the scents of salt and fish he smelled ash and cinders. Jennifer’s horse waited patiently on the coast. Around its hooves, sand sizzled into glass.

“Aria Twine! Humanity’s path to victory! It’s an honor to meet you,” said Jennifer with a deep bow. “How’d you teach a minotaur to play table-war like that?”

“Where’d you learn to ride a Night Mare?”

“Oh, I’ve studied horses for years! Inspired by you, of course.” Jennifer jogged to keep up with Aria’s quickening pace. “I’ve read all about how you won matches with awesome animals! You changed the whole meta-game!”

“Nice to hear,” said Aria.

Jennifer clapped. “Can you tutor me?”

“Ha, no.” Aria pointed to Homer. “I’ve got my hands full.”

Jennifer’s smile sunk. Homer waved to her. “Well, can you autograph something for me?” Jennifer opened her purse and dug through brass cards to produce one wooden hobby-card.

Aria recognized it by sight. “That’s a hobby-copy of my old brass, isn’t it?”

“I used to play with it all the time!”

Aria finally smiled. “Okay, I’ll sign it if you teach my apprentice about seafolk.”

“Oh.” Jennifer looked at Homer, who watched her behind dark goggles. “Deal.”

“Great. Get talking.” Aria swerved to put Jameson and Quattuor between her and Jennifer. Jennifer pursed her lips and turned back to Homer.

Homer’s face wasn’t built to smile, and his best attempt was a sickly grimace. “Heddo, Edafrr.”

“Hello? Was that hello?” Jennifer sighed. “You know, some of Anthrapas’ commanders are cross with you. Tournament seats were tight as they were, and you took one of them.” Homer shrugged. “But anyway, have you fought seafolk before?” He shook his head. “Really? The egg thing you pulled on Harvey seemed like a seafolk trick. How many official matches have you played?”

Homer scratched under his chin. “Doo.”

“Two?” Jennifer almost tripped. “You’ve played table-war just twice?” She folded her arms. “Well, seafolk is a catch-all term for sentient creatures from the ocean. They’re rich, because the war against demons submerged most of the planet’s land-mass. They’re so rich they paint all their figurines in true-to-life color!”

The end of the dock came into view; wooden benches formed a semicircular theater facing the empty ocean. A sizable audience was already present.

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“Seafolk are great at table-war, partly because they can buy the best game-pieces, but also because they don’t think like us. I’ve seen seafolk bring a warship to battle on a landlocked map. When the match started they toppled it to use as cover! The seafolk said, afterward, he didn’t even know what a boat was.”

“Hm,” mumbled Homer.

At the end of the dock, Aria made Homer lie on a bleacher in the front row. “Your game’s after sunset. Rest until then.”


The elves in the audience took turns diving into the ocean, screaming and cheering, then climbing back onto the dock to dry off. Homer knew elvish ambassadors were chosen by height, not political savvy, but they should have known to keep quiet when someone was trying to nap.

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Nonetheless Homer managed to fall asleep. He woke after sunset to gravelly voices:

“Minotaur.”

“Look. Scars.”

“Missing an eye.”

Homer pretended to stay asleep. He sniffed the dwarven odor of carrion and crushed rocks. He heard the clinking of their full-body armor.

“Missing an eye, but good at table-war.”

“Kill it?”

“Gnomes would kill us with demons.”

“Let gnomes kill us if death means victory for dwarfs.”

“If we’re lucky, gnomes would kill us. If we’re unlucky, the Mountain Swallower would take us.”

The chills down the dwarfs’ spines were so intense, even Homer shivered. “Mountain Swallower worse than death.”

“Just watch the minotaur.”

“Agreed.”

The dwarfs sat two rows behind Homer. Homer yawned and sat up. He saw Aria and Jameson talking to gnomes in the bleachers.

“Oyster, sir?” A gnome offered Homer a platter. “Shrimp and oyster, all ocean-fresh, courtesy of Emperor Shobai.” Homer took a shrimp. It had beady black eyes.

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“Take as much as you wish, sir.” The gnome wore shells and jewelry. “I am Emperor Shobai’s official translator. I will assist in the games tonight. Please find me if you have any questions.” Then the gnome left to offer seafood to elves. “Oyster, ma’ams?”

Aria snatched an oyster as she strode to Homer’s side. “Rested up?” she asked. “We’re in for a show. Shobai’s fourth wedding is tonight.”

“Eddin?”

“Didn’t you have weddings in your labyrinth?” Aria tilted her head back and drank the oyster. “It’s when people promise to stay together. Look, they’re starting!”

The ocean before them bubbled music like the calls of distant whales. A glass tank rose from the depths lifting enough water to fill a lake. Inside the tank was another semicircular theater packed to the gills with seafolk playing conch-like instruments. Most of the seafolk were eel-like with mouths gaping like goldfish. Other seafolk were more fishy, with long, finned tails. A few seafolk were unique, sporting tentacles or urchin spines or shells from which glowing tendrils grasped hungrily. Homer covered his ears as the music climaxed, then stopped.

Bright bio-luminescent sparks lit the tank like fireflies, revealing the underwater emperor. Emperor Shobai was a clam fifteen feet across. From its hinge jutted ten gnarled crab legs twitching like red robes. Each segment was wrapped with gold rings.

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The first stars appeared above the audience.

The official translator-gnome walked across the dock and raised his rocky hands. “Esteemed guests, Emperor Shobai extends his deepest gratitude for your attendance.” Behind him, the clam’s lips opened and closed. “We will keep the wedding short. Introducing the bride, Madam Kai Ba.”

A seafolk from the first row floated upwards. She wore a fluttery white wedding veil. The other seafolk lifted their instruments to blow haunting tones. Meanwhile, a second gnome joined the first on-stage. It wore a similar white veil.

Emperor Shobai opened his enormous mouth. Inside, three red tentacles three feet thick lifted the wedding veil with infinite care. Simultaneously, the first gnome unveiled the second gnome.

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Madam Kai Ba was a seven-foot tall seahorse. Emperor Shobai retracted his tentacles and released bubbles. “Do you, Madam Kai Ba, take me as your husband?” translated the first gnome.

Madam Kai Ba released bubbles from her snout. “I do,” said the second gnome. “Do you, Emperor Shobai, take me as your wife?”

Shobai bubbled. “I do,” said the first gnome. Emperer Shobai slipped out a red tentacle carrying a golden conch on a silver cord, and placed it around his wife’s neck. “Let table-war commence!”


The seafolks’ tank moved back from the dock while gnomes set up the table. Jennifer’s side of the table was a sandy beach.

“Here.” Jennifer gave a gnome a brass card from her purse. This card was twice the ordinary length to accommodate a longer grid of dots. “I’m building this fort before the fight.”

“Have you the time and resources?” asked the gnome.

“Right here.” Another brass card changed hands. Gnomes constructed a tiny stone tower on the table. It had a wooden door.

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Homer kept peeking over his shoulders at the dwarfs behind him. Their eyeless metal masks glared into his goggles. “Arra.”

“Hm?” Aria looked where Homer looked and saw the dwarfs. “Don’t worry about them.”

Homer struggled with consonants. “Oundain Salloer.”

“Mountain Swallower?” whispered Aria. “The Mountain Swallower is king of the dwarfs. A real piece of work. Oh, here comes Jennifer’s opponent.”

Another, smaller tank rose from the ocean between Shobai’s tank and the dock, opposite Jennifer at the table. A humongous sea star adhered to the tank wall with a thousand hydraulic suckers. A circular mouth of jagged teeth opened on its underbelly. The sea star’s side of the table was a turquoise ocean waving white foam against the coast.

“Sir Hitode will communicate hydraulically,” said the translator-gnome. He dipped his legs in the tank. The sea star wrapped the gnome’s legs with one of its five arms, and its hydraulic suckers puckered a message. “Sir Hitode welcomes Jennifer to the dock. He apologizes for keeping you waiting.”

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Jennifer trembled as Hitode sucked on the gnome’s legs to communicate secret commands. Hitode’s translator clacked fingers with another gnome, who put figurines under the model ocean. The faux water authentically hid Hitode’s troops.

On Jennifer’s side, two longbowmen manned her tower’s rooftop beside several barrels. Homer nodded; the tower’s interior could hide anything. Against seafolk, he’d decided, withholding information would be vital.

“Sir Hitode offers the first turn to you.”

“I decline.”

Five gnomes puppeted figurines under the model ocean. Two crabs crawled onto the coast; the figurines were the size of ordinary crabs, so the crabs they represented must have been meters across. The crabs dominated the left and right sides of the board. They left deep trenches where their abdomens scraped the sand.

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“My longbowmen take aim.” Jennifer’s soldiers nocked arrows while the gnomes carved the crabs’ path to the tower. Only after the crabs advanced across two thirds of the table did Jennifer raise a hand to pause the action. “Open the tower.” The gnomes pulled open the tower’s heavy wooden door.

Five figurines trotted out, dark steeds with fiery manes. Their jockeys wore fireproof leather. Aria whispered to Homer: “I wonder how many favors she had to cash in to get those Night Mares. They’re a pain to snatch from the wild wastes.” The gnomes placed orange spikes behind the horses to represent the fire they left in their path. “Good move, though. Seafolk hate fire. It’s alien to them.”

Jennifer crossed her arms. “My Night Mares crisscross the beach. Now I control the table.”

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Sir Hitode sucked his translator’s feet. “The crabs continue to advance.” The crabs encroached on the tower, pincers snapping.

“The crabs are now close together,” said Jennifer. “My Night Mares circle them at a safe distance, like this.” She waved her finger around the crabs. The jockeys made their mounts trap the crabs in a ring of fire which threatened to fry them in their shells. “Now we finish crisscrossing the beach.” The Night Mares drew long lines of fire across the sand. “My longbowmen fire on the crabs, aiming for eyes and joints.”

Bowstrings loosed arrows. Hitode gripped his translator’s hips. “The crabs flee into the fire.” Gnomes pushed the crabs into the flames. Crab legs spasmed as they cooked.

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Jennifer squinted at the burning crabs, blackened and scorched. “Cease fire,” she said, as if to her men.

Neither commander gave orders for two minutes. Jennifer’s jockeys made their mounts set the whole beach ablaze. The audience murmured, except the elves who communicated with pheromones.

The sea star switched which arm he used to wrap his gnome’s legs. “Sir Hitode would like to advance the table ten hours.”

“Fine,” said Jennifer. “My Night Mares keep the fires burning.”

Gnomes linked hands in a circle to corroborate. Then they stepped onto the table to demonstrate the passage of time at high speed. The crab carcasses crisped and fell into the inferno. The model ocean elevated as the tide came in. Two tracts of water rushed up the beach. “The crabs carved trenches. These trenches now flood.”

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The crabs’ paths made a horseshoe lagoon. Jennifer’s Night Mares were stranded on a semicircular island.

“Sir Hitode advises his challenger not to indulge in pride,” said the sea star’s gnome. “He knew you would use Night Mares when you arrived riding one. Seafolk advance through the newly made channels.”

The silhouettes of seafolk squads swam toward the tower. When they met in the horseshoe’s center, Jennifer raised a hand. “I figured you’d spy on me, and I knew you’d alter the terrain to trap my troops. So I came prepared. Release the barrels!” Her longbowmen rolled barrels off the top of the tower. The barrels spilled gallons of flaming oil over the water.

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The sea star pulsed. “Seafolk lift their net!” From the oil, two long metal poles protruded. The poles held a net between them. “Seafolk retreat to the ocean.” The poles fled along both sides of the horseshoe. The net caught jockeys and flung them into the fire. Horses fell to the ground, snapping femurs.

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“No!” Jennifer pointed to her remaining riders. “My jockeys try to vault the trenches.”

“Risky move,” whispered Aria. “Night Mares don’t do well in water.”

Only one steed managed to make the leap, landing safely on the sand.

Others crashed against the opposite bank and fell into the water. These Night Mares flailed, howled, and melted, making the water boil, killing their jockeys. The poles sped seaward, dragging Jennifer’s straggling horsemen through fire into the ocean.

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“The game is over,” announced a gnome. “The human has two longbowmen and one Night Mare with jockey surviving. Sir Hitode lost two giant crabs.” The gnomes held each others hands in a circle to calculate results. “Both commanders dealt damage, but neither can claim victory. To each side, three points.”

The crowd applauded. Emperor Shobai’s maw released bubbly chuckles.

“The next match commences shortly.”

“Not bad, kid,” said Aria to Jennifer as she sat with her and Jameson. Homer and Quattuor exchanged brass cards while more gnomes prepared the table. “Where’d you get so many Night Mare jockeys?”

“I know them personally,” she answered. “They’ll be sad to hear they’re dead, but I’ve got plenty more where they came from.”

“That’s the spirit, kid.” The seafolk’s side of the table was a clear ocean, but the beach gave way to rolling grassy hills on Homer’s side. “Homer’s fighting Ebi Anago. Do you know him? I can’t keep track of seafolk.”

“He’s Emperor Shobai’s nephew, next in line for the throne.” A new glass tank ascended into view. Within lay a lobster at least two hundred pounds with antennae two feet long. Its tail split into eight slender limbs like electric eels. “They say each of its tails has its own brain,” whispered Jennifer.

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The dwarfs behind them grunted. “Nine brains?”

“Nine brains.”

Jennifer turned to see the dwarfs, but quickly turned away. “I didn’t think dwarfs were allowed in civilized lands.”

“The dock’s neutral.” One dwarf spat mud. “We’re here to watch.”

“Minotaur’s broken,” said the other. It pointed to Homer and drew his scars. Aria wondered how they knew that without eyes. “Shameful.”

“Appalling.”

“Degenerate.”

Aria folded her arms. “You’d better watch him close, because that minotaur’s gonna win the tournament and beat your champion back into the ground.”

“With a red dragon?” The dwarf pointed to the table. Homer had painted Scales’ figurine bright red. Flames seemed to leap from its spiked tail and horns. On either side of the dragon, three archers prepared their bows.

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“I thought Scales was a—” Jameson grunted when Aria elbowed him in the ribs.

“Red dragons are perfect against seafolk,” she said to the dwarfs. “When they’re out of the water, they’re terrified of fire. Look, Ebi Anago is having second thoughts!”

The massive lobster dangled an eel-like limb over the tank wall to to the translator-gnome’s shoulder. “The esteemed Ebi Anago says seafolk intelligence was unaware of a red dragon in human lands and would like verification on this game piece.” More gnomes clattered their fingers together and rechecked the dragon’s brass card. They confirmed the brass was genuine. “Ebi Anago would like to alter his army. Would the challenger allow this if he, too, is given the opportunity?”

Homer folded his arms. He must have picked it up from Aria. “Ess.” Without looking from the lobster, he placed a minotaur’s figurine on the table.

Jameson leaned towards Aria. “Is he playing his own figurine?” She nodded. “He could die!” She nodded again and bit her lip.

“Ebi Anago would like to congratulate his opponent before the match,” said the translator. Three gnomes arranged figurines under the model ocean. “He says he remembers centuries ago, when Emperor Shobai had to demand seafolk-inclusion in the treaty signed by humans, elves, and dwarfs to limit bloodshed to table-war. He acknowledges you as a fellow intelligent creature.” The lobster’s beady eyes locked with Homer’s dark goggles. Ebi Anago snapped his claws. “Ebi Anago says the minotaur may choose to take the first move or second.”

Homer pointed to his dragon figurine and tapped a message to a gnome. Clever gnomish handiwork made the red dragon fly, supported by almost invisible scaffolding.

Ebi Anago’s eight tentacles flopped over the tank wall. Each tapped a message onto a different gnome’s shoulder. Aria recalled Jennifer’s warning: each of the tentacle’s brains had something to contribute to the tactical discussion. The gnomes showed how thirty seafolk soldiers like eels surfaced on the ocean. Each eel figurine held a glass ball like a bubble.

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The bubbles popped; there was a bird-figurine in each one. The flock flew six feet above the table with the eagerness Aria expected from birds kept in bubbles underwater. Ebi Anago spoke through his gnome: “Ebi Anago says that having owned dragons himself, he knows they are easily distracted by movement and color. These parrots will control your dragon.” Parrot-figurines spread around the air above the table, and the dragon’s neck twisted and turned to follow them. The crowd murmured.

Homer tapped the figurines of his archers. Said the gnomes, “these skilled archers are able to strike down over half of the distracting parrots.” They carried away dead figurines.

Ebi Anago contacted his translator. “These parrots were stuffed with glitterbombs.” Gnomes procured, from under the table, perfume bottles filled with glitter. A few puffs showed how the shot birds exploded into shiny clouds. The elves in the audience oohed and aahed. “The dragon is incapacitated in wonder.”

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Homer raised one hand to pause the table. He pointed to one of his archers in particular. A gnome checked its brass card. “Instead of arrows, this archer has an elvish cricket in his quiver. He holds the cricket in the air.” The smell of the cricket made Scales’ turn its head. “The dragon returns to Homer’s side of the field.”

While the gnomes showed how the dragon demurely begged for its food, Homer pointed to his dark goggles and tapped a message on a gnome’s shoulder. That gnome nodded and made Homer’s figurine approach the dragon. The gnomes carefully removed Homer’s figurine’s goggles and put them on Scales.

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Homer pointed to Ebi Anago’s side of the table. This time the dragon flew through the clouds and parrots undistracted. It breathed deep and opened its jaws for a mighty exhale.

“The seafolk dive underwater before the dragon breathes fire,” said Ebi Anago’s translator. “As the ocean boils, they will take only minor injuries and fire projectiles from the seafloor.”

“The dragon unleashes his freezing breath,” said the gnomes. They replaced the model ocean with ice. “All the seafolk instantly freeze to death. Homer has won the match with no casualties. Five points to the minotaur, no points to the seafolk.”

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Homer took his dragon’s figurine and rubbed it on his fur. The red paint smeared away. Scales, the ice-dragon, shined in the moonlight to impressed cheers of disbelief from the audience.

“Homer! His name is Homer!” Aria’s cheers rose above the rest. “I trained him!”

Homer luxuriated in the audience’s approval. He filled with a kind of warmth he’d never felt before. A gnome tugged his elbow. “A gift from Prince Ebi Anago.” It was a paper envelope.


On the return trip to human lands, they stopped for the night among quiet hills. Homer removed his goggles in the dark. Even without them, he had difficulty seeing the stars. Labyrinths demanded nearsightedness. To Homer, everything more than thirty feet away was a blur.

The unmistakable weight of a brass card gave the paper envelope some heft. The envelope was sealed with wax impressed with the image of Emperor Shobai.

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He broke the seal; indeed, the envelope contained only a brass card. He tried reading the gnomish dots himself. He could tell the brass card was a small animal. It could fly. It was bright red. It was well-trained. This was one of Ebi Anago’s parrots. But there was information on the card which Homer couldn’t parse with his fingertips. Recalling the match, he realized some of the card’s dots represented the glitterbomb the parrot was stuffed with, but there was something else, too. The parrot was fed some kind of plant.

Homer turned to carriages. While Aria, Jameson, and their driver slept in the carriages, Quattuor stood completely still staring at the moon. “Guadduor.” Homer tapped his shoulder.

The gnome’s fingertips twitched as if sleep-talking. “Homer,” it said. “I am conserving energy. What do you need?” Homer gave him the parrot’s card. “This is one of Ebi Anago’s parrots.”

“Bland.”

“Bland?”

Homer pursed his lips unnaturally . “Pland.”

“Plant! Yes, the parrot has eaten a plant called lillyweed. It grows in swamps between elven and dwarven territories.” Quattuor returned the card. “How interesting. Lillyweed is toxic to ice-dragons, but not red-dragons. Ebi Anago must have known the whole time.”

Homer furrowed his thick brow at the back of the card. Gnomish dots were engraved: “When you revealed your painted dragon, I thought I’d won. Your dragon couldn’t freeze my parrots without revealing your deception; you’d have to shoot them with arrows or let your dragon eat them, and both, I believed, would win me the game. But the better player won.

“If you ever need help from seafolk, give this card to a gnome and have them take it to the core to contact me.

“Ebi Anago.”

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Aria VS the Elf

When Aria woke, she was frigid. Her wood cabin’s interior was frosted with frozen dew. Her blankets’ edges dangled icicles. “Uuugh.” She pulled herself from bed. “Scales! Scales, get out of here!”

She quickly donned overalls, thick wool socks, and boots and finally stopped shivering. She pulled two heavy leather gloves over her hands and knelt to peer under her bed.

“Scales! I said get out!”

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A chill wind blew through her hair. There was a dragon under her bed, four feet long and covered in silver scales. Its white muzzle puffed icy flakes from two slim nostrils. When it stretched, the icy armor it accumulated overnight cracked and slid to the floor. Its stubby legs made Scales look like a salamander, but no ordinary lizard had talons quite so much like jagged icebergs.

“Come on. You belong outside.” Aria reached with her heavy leather gloves, but Scales slipped from her grasp. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood this morning, Scales.” She stood again. “Hungry?”

She returned to the bed waving a long carrot and Scales stopped slithering to watch. Aria offered the carrot, but when Scales bit its tip, she nabbed the dragon by its neck and plucked it into the air.

“Gotcha.” A smile trickled across her face as she pushed open the cabin’s door with her shoulder. “You’re getting new fodder today, Scales. Soon you’ll be too big to sneak indoors.”

The cabin’s interior was twenty degrees colder than the summer morning air outside. The sun’s first beams rolled over grassy hills. The light was split by the shadow of a colossal black ax lodged in a forest near the horizon. The ax’s handle towered a mile tall, dividing clouds just like its head scarred the glade.

Aria released Scales. She threw the carrot and the dragon scampered after it. Its footsteps strangled grass with frost tendrils. Aria knew it wouldn’t roam too far, because it could hardly leave her alone.

“You’re early, Mr. Gnome, sir.”

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The gnome stood between three and four feet tall. His rocky skin seemed to have gravel embedded in it. He wore a frilly little pink dress and dark goggles. “Good morning, Ms. Twine. I’m here on behalf of the elves buying your imps.”

“You don’t need to wear a dress just because elves tell you to. I’ve got wee overalls you could borrow.”

The gnome shrugged. “Novelties like wardrobe mean little to me. Dresses and overalls are equivalent.”

“Then change into overalls.” Aria tossed him a pair. “This is a monster farm. Dress like it.”

“Of course, Ms. Twine.” The gnome removed and folded his dress before donning the overalls. His skin was rough and gravelly all over.

“Follow me, the imps are in their enclosure. And call me Aria. What should I call you?”

“I am Septem Decim. Please show me your identification.”

“Right here.” As they walked she gave him a slim brass card about the size of her palm.

Septem felt the card with his stubby fingers. Engraved in the brass was a grid of tiny holes; the gnome’s fingertips detected their varying depths with perfect accuracy. “…This says you are deceased.”

“In the game, yeah. Ten years ago.”

“Ah, I see…”

“Hey, you speak great English for a gnome. Have you ever refereed?”

“I am a diplomat. I have only refereed unofficially in table-war hobby-shops.” Septem returned Aria’s brass.

“Oh really?” She gave him a slim wooden card. “How much would this be worth?”

Septem manually inspected the card. “This is a reproduction of your old brass for table-war hobbyists, isn’t it?”

“It’s me at my prime. Do the geeks use it often anymore? Do fans win matches in my honor?”

Septem didn’t sugarcoat it as he returned her card. “Perhaps it would have some value to historians, but I’ve never seen it used in competitive play.”

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Aria sighed and tucked both cards in her overall pockets. “Let’s change the subject.”

“Another gnome was found decapitated by the dwarven border.”

“Sorry to hear it.” They approached an apple-tree covered by translucent mosquito-netting. Aria untied a rope to open the net. “Breakfast! Piknik, Togdag, Gumdrop, get your milk.”

A tinny voice like a squeaking rat called from under the apple-tree’s roots. “We saw! Don’t think we didn’t see!”

“What did you see, Togdag?” Aria pulled the cork from a jug and poured milk into a shallow saucer.

A different voice, like a chirping bird, called from the upper boughs. “You fed Scales!”

“Why was he fed before us?” called a voice in a knothole.

“Tell you what.” Aria dropped three cherries in the milk saucer. “I’ll add cream today. Will that make up for it?”

“Barely!” called Piknik.

“But you all have to line up for Mr. Decim, here,” said Aria. “Bring your brass! Chop chop!” While Aria measured cream from a smaller jug, Septem Decim watched the imps emerge from hiding. Two were red, bat-winged creatures in loincloths of weeds and bark. The third was a fairy in a dress of leaves with an apple-blossom tied in her wild green hair. They all fluttered to the ground, barely a foot tall apiece, carrying brass cards almost too large for them to hold.

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The gnome scanned each brass card with his fingertips. “If it’s any consolation, to a table-war hobbyist, your imps would each be worth ten of you.”

“Thanks, I guess,” said Aria. The fairy-like Gumdrop giggled, revealing teeth longer and sharper than her pretty face suggested. “You three, come eat breakfast.” The imps swarmed her. “Ow! Gumdrop!”

“A parting gift!” giggled Gumdrop. Aria held her finger. The imp had drawn blood even through heavy leather gloves. “We’ll miss you, Twine!”

“What’re you trading us for?” asked Piknik. “You’d better not give us back to the dwarfs. You’ll never see imps like us again!”

“Ah, shoo. I’m glad to be rid of you,” she joked. “I’m trading you to the elves for dragon fodder.”

“It is not my place to speak of such things,” said Septem, “but the elven queen is procuring many powerful game-pieces. Tensions on the elvish/dwarven borders have heated. The pressure will only escalate. Ms. Twine, would you like me to brass your dragon, just in case?”

“No, not yet.” Aria cast her gaze around her farm.”Where are your elves, anyway? I thought they’d arrive with you.”

“We came across a distraction.” When the gnome left the net, the two red imps tried to sneak out with him. “Perhaps you could assist?”

Aria shoved the cork back in the milk jug. “What’s wrong?”

“You are a monster tamer, correct?”

She smiled. “Or so I’ve heard.” The gnome tilted its head, confused. “Sorry. Yes. I’m a monster tamer.”

“A minotaur escaped its labyrinth near the Great Ax’s fracture. The elves sent me ahead while they captured it.”

“A minotaur?” Aria scowled and adjusted her gloves. “Let’s go.”


The Great Ax had stood there for as long as Aria could remember. Its double-bladed dwarven design was hungry for war. Its massive head was buried in the forest as if some giant had tried to cleave the earth in half, creating a clearing ten yards wide and hundreds long.

“Ugh.” Aria groaned. “The Demons’ weapons have always freaked me out.”

“You are too young.” Septem adjusted the hem of his pretty pink dress. “What is ‘freaky’ are the monsters which forged them.”

“What?” Aria adjusted the straps of her backpack. “The Demons didn’t make those weapons, the dwarfs did.”

“I stand by my statement.”

“Oh. Harsh.”

“Not harsh enough,” said Septem. “Even the dwarfs agreed to a peace treaty to escape the war they started. You can’t imagine how awful it was, for even dwarfs to regret it.”

Aria held her tongue. Dwarfs and gnomes could live long enough to remember the war against Demons centuries ago, but humans didn’t have that luxury.

When they entered the thin clearing, Aria saw a few figures near the narrow crevasse carved by the Great Ax. She squinted to count three elves, two gnomes in dresses, and one big brown minotaur. “Septem, hurry!” Septem’s tiny legs carried him as quickly as they could while Aria sprinted ahead rummaging in her backpack.

The minotaur stood ten feet tall and was covered in fur like dead brown grass. Its twisted horns sprouted from its forehead like dead trees clinging to a mountaintop. The two shorter elves pinned the minotaur to the cold metal ax with spears. The spears made deep gashes across the minotaur’s torso when it struggled with the strength of ten men.

“You’re hurting it!” said Aria.

The tallest of the three elves scoffed. “Who cares? Look what it did to my cute little gnome!”

One of the gnomes lay on the grass with his head split open. A green, rocky brain rest coldly in its skull. The second gnome held the brain in place with one hand while gesturing to Septem with the other.

Septem reached into his dress for gnomish surgical implements. “All will be well, Octoginta Tres. Merely a cranial fracture.” Septem sat to tend to the fallen gnome’s exposed brain.

“See? He’s fine,” said Aria. “Get off that minotaur, these are human lands!”

The tallest elf’s eyes glittered like emeralds, and her skin sparkled; so-called “high elves” bathed in gold dust if they could afford it. Her beehive hairdo added a foot to her height. She wore a long dress which no doubt concealed platform shoes, and lace wings which made her seem to float. Nonetheless she stood five-foot-eight, about seven inches shorter than Aria. “Gosh, if it’s not Aria Twine! It’s me, Stephanie! Are you the farmer trading us imps?”

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“Not traded yet, Steph.” Aria dropped her backpack on the grass. “Tell your shorties to let the minotaur go.”

“Hmm, I don’t know, Aria,” said Stephanie, “under what jurisdiction?”

“You can’t steal game-pieces from human land,” said Aria. “He belongs to us. And you’re hurting him!”

Stephanie stroked her tall hairdo. “Hm… Shorties, let the beast go.”

The shorter elves—almost four feet tall—lowered their spears.

The minotaur’s gasps filled lungs the size of barrels. Its arms, packed with muscles like stacked melons, lifted three-fingered hands to rub the wounds on its chest and stomach.

“Let’s get something on those cuts,” said Aria.

Its ox-head turned on her. “Raaugh!”

“Hey! Easy, now! I’m here to—”

Its hooves stomped the grass.

It fled into the forest.

“Oh, what a shame,” said Stephanie. “We’ll have to go after it.”

Aria scowled. “You’ve done enough damage here.” The shorties looked to Stephanie, who shook her sleeves to the trees. The shorties took off after the beast, spears at the ready. “You’re out of line, Steph!”

Stephanie covered her mouth with her sleeve to hide a fake laugh. “Perhaps the gnomes have a different idea?”

Octoginta Tres was only distinguishable by his bandaged head-wound, and Septem Dicem by his goggles. Otherwise the gnomes were identical. “The high elf is correct,” said Septem. “An escaped game-piece belongs to no one. As you allowed the minotaur to flee, Aria, you relinquished humanity’s jurisdiction. The elves have the right to chase it and claim it.”

Stephanie giggled. “There you go, Twine. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the finer points of table-war?”

Aria picked up her backpack. “I challenge you for the minotaur.”

“The minotaur is already mine, dear. And besides,” smirked the elf, “your own game-piece is dead, isn’t it? That means you can’t command!” Aria grit her teeth. Stephanie coyly held her chin. “Who killed you, again? I can’t seem to remember.”

“You did,” Aria admitted, “but our match doesn’t need to be official. And I have something you want. I’m not ordering dragon fodder for nothing. I’ll wager my dragonling for the minotaur.”

Stephanie beamed. “Why, Aria, you just had to ask politely! Gnomes, would you care to referee?”

The three gnomes stood. After joining hands in a triangle, their fingers tapped messages in the same gnomish language written on brass cards. Septem nodded. “That is acceptable.”

Stephanie clapped. “Let’s set up a board!”


Stephenie’s tower of brass cards threatened to topple. Octoginta ran his fingers over each card apparently oblivious to his bandaged head-wound.

Aria had only a few brass cards. After Septem inspected them, he helped the third gnome prepare the table.

The table the elves had brought with them was sub-standard size, only five feet across and ten feet long. Stephanie demanded they construct the elven capital, but that required a full board. Aria and the gnomes talked her down to a smaller map.

Aria had played on this map before; it was popular among hobbyists. Stephanie’s side featured a thick forest. Aria’s side held rolling hills. The two sides were divided by a wide river. Even for an unofficial battle, the gnomes detailed the table intricately and effortlessly. Special gnomish clay built up the features of the terrain. The gnomes’ precise fingers carved trees and even grass. Beads in shades of blue painted the river’s speed, separating rapids from gentle banks.

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“It’s hardly a match if it doesn’t represent a real area.” Stephanie arranged silver figurines on her half of the table. Each one represented an elven soldier described by a brass card. “Do you have game-pieces, Aria?”

“Sure do.” She poured the contents of her backpack onto the grass. Besides medical supplies she brought for the minotaur, she carried five wooden figurines. “Whittled ‘em myself.”

“Aww, how rustic!” As the sun rose, the Great Ax’s shadow shortened. Stephanie cooled her delicate features with a broad fan. The fan must have cost a fortune, because it was decorated with seashells. Seafolk always charged exorbitantly. “I suppose when I killed you, your official figurines were confiscated? My figurines were made by the elven queen’s own smiths.”

Stephanie smirked when her gnomes brought another metal figurine: a giant squid, pulled from the depths of the ocean. “You must’ve made general,” said Aria, refusing Stephanie the satisfaction of seeing her expression sour. “That’s a powerful beast. Buy it from seafolk?”

“Commander, darling! I’m a commander. I have much more powerful monsters, but they don’t fit on this tiny board.”

“The elf-queen must be pretty desperate if you made commander.”

Stephanie blinked. “She’s a better judge of talent, perhaps, than you are. The dwarfs are preparing for war; we elves must protect ourselves.”

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“Septem.” The gnome turned to Aria. “Can you make me a brass for my dragonling, Scales?”

“I have not inspected it, ma’am. You must use the generic ice-dragon brass instead of one customized to your creature.”

“Fine.” Aria gathered her five wooden figurines from the grass. First she placed the wooden figurine representing herself—or, the version of herself described by the wooden hobby card, as her official brass claimed she was dead. Her figurine, accurately tall and lanky, stood behind three wooden imps.

“Are you just using any old units lying around your farm?” Stephanie hid her mouth with her sleeves to snicker.

“Plus one.” Aria placed a wooden cockatrice on the front lines. Aria remembered wearing dark glasses for two years raising the creature from an egg. “When I sold this monster to the human military, they said it was too volatile for table-war. I got to keep its brass. You can read on the card, I keep the cockatrice blindfolded for safety.”

The elf had perhaps a hundred game-pieces, while Aria’s side of the table felt more barren with each figurine she set on the field.

“Here,” said Aria, “we’ll use this roll of medical tape for the dragonling.” She placed it atop a grassy hill.

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Octoginta tugged Stephanie’s lace wing. “Hey! This is elven silk, gnome.”

Septem hopped off the board to hold hands with his wounded companion. “He says your army can’t fit on this map. You can use the giant squid or the army of elves, but using both would pack units too densely.”

“Fine.” The elf waved her hand over the board. “Aria, as you’re clearly outmatched, I leave the option to you.”

“Keep both.” Aria straightened her wooden figurines. “You’ll need them.”

Stephanie’s lower lip wavered. “You pompous—”

“I’m ready. Hurry up.”

“Is that really all you’ve got?” asked Stephanie. “Your biggest monster is a dragon barely months old! Your cockatrice has to be blindfolded or it petrifies its allies! You’ve even put your own game-piece on the board! Embarrassing.” Aria swallowed as Stephanie arranged the enormous squid-figurine’s horrible tentacles to infest the forest canopy; internal mechanisms allowed the figurine to be realistically puppeted. Hidden buttons controlled the squid’s beak and eyes. “It’s a tad one-sided, isn’t it?”

“I agree.” Aria brushed hair from her face. “You go first, to even the odds.”

Stephanie hid a grimace with a smirk. “All my elvish units march forward. My archers ready their bows.”

The three gnomes linked hands to communicate and calculate. Then they scrambled over the board. “Elves are not hindered by forest terrain,” said Septem. “They move unimpeded. Say when.”

The gnomes made the metal elf figurines march halfway to the river. In the dappled shade of the model trees, Aria saw the features of the figurines’ faces. These were no mass-produced generic figurines, but actual models of real elves down to their freckles and pointed ears. “Stop there,” said Stephanie. The gnomes halted the elves.

“My dragonling allows the imps and cockatrice to mount it,” said Aria.

Gnome fingers clacked together. “The dragonling is strong enough, and the cockatrice and imps are small and light enough, to perform the action requested. Because your own figurine is present on the table, Ms. Twine, your expertise in taming monsters keeps them from fighting each other.”

“My dragonling runs across the river.” She pointed to a specific spot on the board. The gnomes used white beads to show how the river froze under the dragon’s footsteps, forming a path. “Perfect,” said Aria.

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Stephanie covered her mouth. “Your dragon is too young to use ice-breath, isn’t it?”

“Maybe.”

Stephanie looked at the roll of bandages. “Better safe than sorry, right? My army retreats to the forest.”

The gnomes moved the elven figurines. “Is that all?”

“Not yet.” Stephanie leaned over the table. “Have you ever fought a giant squid, Ms. Twine?”

“Nope.”

“Then you might not know, being born in the arctic deep, they’re impervious to the cold! My squid engulfs my men with its tentacles, protecting them from the dragon’s breath.” She moved the tentacles herself. “There.”

Aria nodded. “Of course I knew that.”

“Ah, a guest!” Stephanie clapped. Her shorties dragged a net behind them. The minotaur pushed his three-fingered hands against the net, grunting with animal pain. The shorties pinned the beast with their spears. Aria noticed blood trickling from the minotaur’s closed eye. “Put it aside. This game ends soon. My archers will use Ms. Twine’s beasts as target practice.”

“It’s my move.” Aria pointed to the imps. “My imps remove the cockatrice’s blindfold, and Scales leaps face-to-face with the squid.”

“…My squid shuts its eyes!” Stephanie pressed hidden buttons to make the squid’s figurine blink.

“That kind of squid doesn’t have eyelids,” said Aria. “Too bad whoever made your figurine didn’t know that.”

The gnomes conferred. “The squid has turned to stone.”

Stephanie frowned.

“My imps fly through the stone tentacles.”

“My archers fire! The rest defend themselves from the imps with knives!”

As the gnomes held hands in deliberation, Aria left her chair to inspect the minotaur. “Let it out of the net. It’s calmed down.”

“No! Keep it restrained,” said Stephanie.

“Then put away the spears. You’re hurting it.”

Septem cleared his throat. “The stone tentacles are wrapped too tightly to draw a bowstring or swing a knife. Only the imps may move freely.”

Stephanie bit her lip. Gnomes showed how the imp figurines massacred her army. “…I forfeit.” Stephanie flicked over an elvish archer. “Why would I want a smelly, brainless beast, anyway?”


“Hold still.” Aria stroked the minotaur’s dense, prickly hair. “Shh, shh, shh.”

“It can’t understand you, you know.” Stephanie admired Aria’s imps in their tiny wooden cage. “Shorties, bring me their brass.” The cages were cramped even for imps. The devilish Togdag and Piknik pulled the metal bars with crimson claws. Gumdrop looked forlornly at their netted apple tree. “Are we sure this one’s an imp?” Stephanie stuck a finger into the cage to prod Gumdrop’s dragonfly wings. “It looks more like a fairy—Aaaugh!”

Gumdrop snickered as Stephanie clutched her chipped fingernail. “We’ll miss you, Twine!”

“Keep out of trouble, Gumdrop.” As the minotaur slept, Aria wrapped an eye-patch around its head. The shorties had injured its right eye; it would never see properly again. “Shh, shh, shh. It’s okay.” She poured clear liquid over the minotaur’s wounded chest. The sleeping beast grumbled at its stinging cuts. “You must be scared, so far from home. You’ll make plenty of friends when I sell you to the army.”

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The shorties rolled barrels from the elven wagon. There were twenty barrels in all. “Your dragon fodder is ready,” said Stephanie. “You know, Aria, if you knew what was best for you, you could live in elven lands. You could help tame that giant squid. You could even be royalty.”

“I wanna be royalty because I’m awesome, not because I’m taller than you.”

Stephanie bared pearly teeth. “Come, shorties.” One shorty pushed the wagon from behind while the other pulled it from the front. “We’ll be back in elven lands within a week if you trudge fast enough.”

“Take care, dear,” said Aria.

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