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.

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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.

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“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.

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The arena bustled with animals Homer had never seen: tall chickens sat beside upright pigs, and towering stick insects threatened to block the back row’s view of the table. These intelligent creatures of the wild wastes communicated with clucks, grunts, and clicks.

“Homer.” Aria elbowed his ribs, and Homer joined her in saluting Jameson’s white carriage. Sir Jameson opened the carriage door and helped Queen Anthrapas step out. With aid from Jameson and two gnomes in pink elven dresses, Anthrapas sat between ten royal guards to watch the table. “You should feel honored,” Aria whispered to Homer. “It’s been years since Queen Anthrapas left her throne-room to watch table-war.”

Homer nodded and sat at the table. “Sfinks?”

“That’s right. You’re up against the sphinx.” Aria pat him on the back. “You and the sphinx have both won ten points in two rounds. It’s only natural to pit you against each other.”

The gnomes brought Homer his bag of brass cards and figurines. Homer prepared his throat for a few unnatural words. “Houw sfinks uin?”

“How’d the sphinx win?” Aria licked her lips. “I asked audience members from those matches what happened. They say the sphinx fought with only one figurine: her own. She’s tougher than she looks and nigh invulnerable. Makes sense to me; if she weren’t, humanity would have captured her to use as a game-piece by now.” Homer puzzled over that while searching through his brass cards. He showed one to Aria. “Scales? Yeah, you can use my dragon. But if he escapes into the wastes, he’s never coming back. Good luck.” Aria sat beside Anthrapas and Jameson.

The sphinx entered the arena flanked by her centaur and harpy friends. The animals in the arena cheered; stick insects twiddled their antennae in satisfaction. Queen Anthrapas clapped by limply slapping the back of her other hand.

The sphinx leapt upon the seat opposite Homer. “How do you do?” Before Homer could answer, the centaur turned to show he carried three gnomes in strange costumes: one had a skirt of feathers, one had a horse’s tail, and one had ivory claws. The one with claws dismounted and gave the sphinx her brass card and figurine. “Have you selected your army?”

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Homer inspected the sphinx’s figurine. It looked just like her, and if it were killed, the sphinx would never play table-war again. If the sphinx was confident enough to play on the board, and had already won two table-wars, Homer would need his strongest units. He pulled out Scales’ figurine.

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Scales’ new figurine had an odd pattern on its neck. Homer recognized the brand of Queen Anthrapas, and apparently the sphinx did, too, because her whiskers twitched. “That figurine has suffered your selfsame fate.” Homer’s brow furrowed. “I heard you emerged from your labyrinth into human territory and you’ve fought for humans ever since. You and your dragon are both branded.”

Homer looked at Queen Anthrapas and Aria Twine.

“That’s why I’m fighting.” The sphinx’s tail swished. “I’ll never fight for anyone else, not as commander, not as game-piece.”

“Mmslf.” Homer put both hands on his chest.

“You fight for yourself?” The sphinx grinned. “Everyone says so, but humans and elves fight for their queens, and dwarfs fight for the Mountain Swallower. We in the wastes are slaves only to our natures.” Homer arranged more figurines. The sphinx’s tail’s tip flitted and she bit her lip with her fangs. “That said, I can’t resist a good riddle. I suppose it’s my nature. Is it your nature to hear my riddle?” Homer kept his hands on his figurines. “I told the same riddle to the other commanders before our matches. Neither of them seemed to get it. I can’t imagine you would, either,” she added, “having little control of the language.”

Homer nodded. “Rriddle.”

Said the sphinx:

“It’s weightless. It’s silent. It hides in the dark.
It’s grounded, but flies; it leaves not a mark.
We’ve all got our own, but they have the same name.
If you guess it, it might win you the game.”

Gnomes sculpted sandy dunes on the war-table. The sphinx pushed her figurine forward with a paw. Homer reconsidered the riddle and his choice of figurines; he set Scales beside six soldiers with slings. He reminded his gnomes that his troops wore desert-appropriate clothing, even though Scale’s presence chilled the air. Homer gestured to the sphinx to offer her the first turn. She declined by shaking her head.

“The game begins,” said a gnome in a dress. “Homer moves first.”

Homer pointed at Scales’s figurine, and at the sphinx’s figurine. He tapped fingers with his gnomes. “The dragon unleashes its icy breath.” The gnomes moved Scales’ articulated limbs and wings to show the awesome power of the maturing dragon. Scale’s figurine even had a hinged jaw so the gnomes could open its mouth. The gnomes scattered white powder to demonstrate the snowy aftermath of Scales’ freezing exhalation.

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The sphinx’s figurine was at the snowy epicenter, but the sphinx herself was unfazed. “The cold is weightless and silent, and flying snowflakes fall to the ground without leaving a mark, but they hardly hide in the dark, and you ignored line three entirely. Gnome.” Her gnome with ivory claws pulled the sphinx-figurine’s tail. The figurine ballooned twenty times in size.

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Homer grunted, and the sphinx giggled. “You didn’t know? Etiquette demands I restrain myself in public, but in my desert and on the table I’m free to expand to my true volume.” Her figurine was almost big as her, and mercilessly colorless.

Homer pointed to his soldiers. The gnomes showed how they gathered rocks around the desert and slung them at the giant sphinx, who batted the stones out of the air. With feline poise she sauntered to Homer’s side of the table and smacked his soldiers off the edge. The sphinx mewled with pride. “Slung stones are ‘grounded’ and could be called weightless and silent, and I suppose you can’t aim in the dark, but leaving no mark? And line three is giving you trouble, isn’t it?”

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The sphinx figurine leapt upon Scales and bit at his neck. Homer pointed to the sky; Scales flew five feet above the table, supported by almost invisible gnomish scaffolding. The sphinx pounced high enough to nip his wingtips; Scales sailed five feet higher before circling safely.

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“What a poor place to end the game,” said the sphinx. “Gnomes, what’s the score?”

The gnomes in dresses convened with the gnome with ivory claws. “You have four points for killing Homer’s men and injuring his dragon. Homer has two, for at least escaping with Scales alive—unless the dragon decides to flee from humanity’s custody.”

The sphinx watched Scales circle above the table. “What say you, Homer? Time to throw in the towel?”

Scales kept flying between the sun and Homer’s eyes, casting a—“Shdow,” said Homer. “Jadow. Sh—Shadow.” He pressed his hand against a gnome’s to tap a message. The gnome made Scales fly away from the table.

“It’s over, then?” The sphinx purred. “Pity I couldn’t get five points, but four will do.” As Scales’ shadow tracked across the table, the sphinx’s eyes widened. “Oh! No, no, no!” She whipped her tail against her gnome, who made her figurine try dodging Scales’ shadow, but too late. Scales’ shadow pinned the sphinx’s figurine in its tracks. She seemed unable to move a muscle. “I surrender,” said the sphinx. “Please spare my game-piece.”

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The gnomes convened. “The sphinx wins two points for killing Homer’s men and injuring his dragon. Homer wins four points for winning the round. If this were not a tournament-match, the sphinx and her land would be forfeit to humanity.”

Sir Jameson whispered to Aria: “What just happened?”

“I can’t tell.” Aria squinted at the table.

The sphinx’s mouth twitched like she couldn’t decide if she were outraged or impressed. She finally jumped from her chair and dashed out of the arena, growing larger and larger until her powerful bounds were shakily audible as she passed over the horizon.

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Homer collected his figurines, saluted to Queen Anthrapas, and sat beside Aria. As the harpy strutted toward the table and his feathery gnome scraped away the old map, Aria whispered to Homer. “She had you on the ropes. Why’d she forfeit?” Homer shook his head; for some reason he didn’t feel like disclosing the sphinx’s weakness. “Anyway, swell work—you’re tournament champion for sure. We’ll see what the gnomes say after all this.”

An elf approached the table. Homer recognized her as Madam Commander Victoria. She won five points against Thaddeus in the first round, but lost with zero points to the sphinx in the second, so her score was tied with the middling harpy. “Let’s make this quick,” she said. “Neither of us is tournament champion, but don’t imagine I’ll let you win out of the goodness of my heart.”

Her three gnomes in pink dresses built the map on the table. The harpy’s homeland was a hillside of pine trees. The harpy scooped figurines onto the table with his wings. Every figurine was a harpy. “These are my friends! They volunteered for battle, bukawk!”

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Madam Victoria’s gnomes brought her one enormous figurine. It was the giant squid Stephanie had used against Aria months ago. The harpy’s gnome objected. “Can you tell me how this giant squid will reach the landlocked location of the match?”

Victoria’s gnomes gave the harpy’s some brass cards. “These are elvish shorties,” they announced for the audience. “They prod the squid with spears to encourage it from its coastal home to this map.” The gnomes demonstrated how the squid could clamber over any obstacle the terrain presented. “The shorties keep the squid hydrated with barrels of water brought from nearby rivers.”

The harpy squawked at the size of its opponent. “Can I at least have the first turn?”

“I can’t even give orders to my untrained squid,” said Madam Victoria. “Make your move.”

The harpy pointed his wings over the table. “My friends fly in circles above, out of the squid’s reach!” The gnomes erected almost invisible scaffolding to hold the harpy-figurines five feet above the table circling the squid.

Victoria shrugged. “Go on.”

The harpy puzzled. Victoria’s gnomes made the squid’s tentacles wiggle threateningly. “We’ll dive-bomb,” said the harpy. “One by one, we’ll streak by and strike!” The figurines zoomed down.

Victoria yawned. Her squid snatched harpies and ate them alive. “Nice try. Your harpies couldn’t scratch my squid.”

The harpy chuckled. “Your squid?” The harpies who slipped past the squid pulled shorties into the sky and dropped them onto rocks from a great height.

“Spear them!” Victoria’s remaining shorties fought back with spears, but harpies flanked them and ripped the shorties to shreds. Then the squid snatched those last harpies and ate them, too. “Hm,” said Victoria. “Well, the table is mine.”

The gnomes convened. “Not quite correct, ma’am.” The gnome with the feathery skirt stood on the table. “All the harpies and shorties are dead. The squid has no one to care for it, and will die of dehydration in days.” The gnomes marked every brass card as unplayable and confiscated the figurines. “There is no clear winner. One point to both sides.”

“No clear winner?” The harpy squawked. “I killed the squid, bukawk! I won! I won!”

“You killed the squid by sacrificing the land’s inhabitants,” said the gnome. “We cannot say you won.”

Sir Jameson folded his arms. “How immature,” he said to Aria. “I’ve never seen a commander debate the gnomes like that before. And the harpy couldn’t be champion with even five points.”

“You didn’t know?” said Aria. “The creatures of the wild wastes don’t care about having a champion to fight the dwarfs. They needed two wins today for Queen Anthrapas to recognize the sovereignty of the wild wastes. The sphinx lost; if the harpy lost, too, then the centaur can’t salvage them.”

“I won! I won! My enemy has no army! Bukawk!”

“Your army was eaten alive,” said the gnomes. “We considered giving you no points at all.”

Homer looked over his shoulder at Queen Anthrapas. The queen seemed unmoved. “Gween.”

Queen Anthrapas spared him a glance. “What?”

“Animl.” Homer pat his own chest. “Ma uin.”

Aria grabbed Homer’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Queen, it’s nothing.”

“Ma uin,” Homer said again. “Animl.” He took one of his gnomes by the hand and tapped a message:

“Homer says that when you introduced him to the creatures from the wild wastes, you called him an animal and made him prove his allegiance to humanity. If he’s an animal, shouldn’t his win count for them?”

Aria stomped on Homer’s hoof. “Homer!” she seethed under her breath, “Keep this up and you’ll never play table-war again!”

Anthrapas waved a hand. “Fine.”

“What?” Aria turned. “Really?”

“If it matters to you that much, I’ll consider your opinion, Homer.” Anthrapas watched the centaur approach the table. “If the centaur wins this table-war against the seafolk champion Namako, I’ll agree to treat the wild wastes as an independent nation.”

Homer looked to the centaur and back to Anthrapas. “Sank yu.”

“Thank you,” said Aria. She wasn’t sure if she was translating for Homer or thanking the queen on her own.

The centaur’s opponent rolled into the arena: Namako was a sea-cucumber in a giant tank of water. His gnomes processed ahead of him; they were adorned with shells and jewels.

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When the tank reached the table, Namako’s whole body convulsed. White thread blasted out one end until the whole tank filled with forking innards. Gnomes explained: “Commander Namako preemptively surrenders. Five points to the centaur.” They rolled the tank from the arena while the audience murmured and pondered.

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“I think those were his intestines,” said Sir Jameson. “I’d surrender, too, if my intestines fell out.”

“I guess you did it, Homer,” said Aria. “The wild wastes are sovereign territory.”

Anthrapas fell from her seat. Her crown crashed on the ground.


The royal guards lay her in her long, white carriage to rest. Around sundown, Sir Jameson opened the carriage door. “Aria? She wants to see you.”

Jameson stepped out of the carriage and Aria stepped in. She and Anthrapas were all alone. “Your highness? Are you alright?”

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“Shove it.” Anthrapas tried to cough, but couldn’t. “Aria, it’s my time. I won’t live to see the sun again.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Aria. “Is your heart failing? Are your lungs weak?”

“I’m old, Aria, that’s what’s wrong. It’s my time,” she said again, “and yours. Tomorrow morning, you’re queen.” Aria’s face crunched in pain, but she shook her head and opened her eyes. Anthrapas managed to cough, and cleared her throat. “Your minotaur. He’s got to beat the dwarfs.”

“We don’t know for sure he’s champion yet. The gnomes haven’t—”

“He’s champion, Aria. He’s got fourteen points. Your minotaur has got to beat the dwarfs.” Anthrapas didn’t look Aria in the eye; she didn’t seem to know where she was. “Do you know what happens if that dwarven robot wins?” Aria nodded, but Anthrapas continued. “War. Real war, for the first time in centuries. The dwarfs have prepared for it. No one else has. It’ll be a bloodbath, and there’s no telling who’d survive to see the end.”

“The end of humanity,” said Aria.

“The end of everything,” said Anthrapas. “Can your minotaur beat the robot?”

Aria made fists. “I’m sure he can.”

“Can, or will?”

“He will.” She folded her arms. “Homer will beat the machine. He’s loyal to me. And did you see Scales fight the sphinx? That dragon’s game-piece could have fled to the wild wastes, and we’d have a worthless dragon in our stables, but it returned, out of loyalty.”

“Loyalty?” The queen rolled her eyes. It was all the movement she could muster. “Your ice-dragon returned because it was in the middle of a baking desert. It didn’t know where else to go. It cares for humanity only because humanity can keep it comfortable. If that sphinx had lived on a glacier, we’d be a dragon down. And your minotaur—”

Now Aria glared. “What about my minotaur?”

Anthrapas searched for words. “Homer… Homer is a man, Aria.”

“And?”

“And you’re oblivious,” said Anthrapas.

“Our relationship isn’t like that,” said Aria. “Homer wouldn’t be attracted to me anyway. I’m no minotaur.”

Anthrapas nodded, unconvinced. “You’ve lived alone in a shack too long.”

“Not anymore,” said Aria. “Now I’ve got a throne, and I’ll do it proud.”

“Thrones need no pride. No one does.” Anthrapas turned her head so her sightless gaze pointed to the window, as if looking for a great black sword. “Just… keep humanity going. Even if it means partnering with animals—or, god help you, even elves—keep humanity going.”

Those were her last words.

Commentary
Next Chapter

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.”

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“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.

Commentary
Next Chapter

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.”

Next Chapter
Commentary

Homer VS the Human

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Homer’s room was silent.

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

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

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

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

Homer nodded.

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

Homer nodded.

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

Homer chewed the muffin.

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

Homer covered his eye and turned away from the light.

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

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

“Show them what you’ve got.”


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

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

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Homer nodded.

“Gnomes, prepare the match.”

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

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

Aria curtsied sardonically and sat in the front row.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer waved his hand.

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

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

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

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The gnomes left the table to join hands.

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

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

Queen Anthrapas waved her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pictq


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rr?”

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

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

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

Next Chapter
Commentary

Homer VS the Dwarf

(This is part two of a series starting here. Our story so far: Aria Twine raises monsters in a fantasy world where war is replaced with board-games. She recently acquired a minotaur.)


That evening, the stench of unwashed bovine made Aria’s eyes water when she entered the barn. “Eesh…”

She checked her sleeping minotaur’s bandages. They were bloody, but the wounds under them had already half soldered shut. Scars crisscrossed like the maze from which the minotaur escaped. Aria had never heard of minotaurs escaping their labyrinths, because the walls shifted and morphed to trap them at every turn; just like Scales the ice-dragon froze nearby terrain, or like turtles carried their homes, minotaurs’ mazes moved with them. The Great Ax’s fracture must have opened an escape route.

“Healing pretty well.” She lifted the minotaur’s eye-patch. “Oooh. That’s never gonna be the same. Pity.”

She left the barn to let the minotaur rest. Outside, Scales slithered around twenty barrels of dragon-fodder. Aria opened a barrel and the icy dragonling opened its maw. Aria tossed Scales a dried grasshopper bigger than her forearm. “Pure protein, perfect for a young dragon. I had to buy these from elves.” While Scales devoured the grasshopper, Aria patted the dragon’s back with her gloved hands. “Your wing-nubs haven’t grown in yet. You’re not ignoring your veggies, are you?”

HomerVStheDwarfA

“Squraaa.” Scales opened its maw to ask for more. “Squraqura.”

“You’ll get more tomorrow. Go eat your veggies.” Aria put her hands on her hips. She’d have to store the barrels in the barn, or Scales might break into them, but it took all her strength to roll a barrel with the brunt of her shoulder.

The barn-door opened.

The minotaur stepped out onto the grass. He shaded his eye from the setting sun and picked at his bandages.

“Whoa! Hey! Easy, there!” Aria ran to him and pressed bandages back on.

HomerVStheDwarfB

The minotaur looked first at her and then the bandages.

“Go back!” Aria pointed back to the barn. She resumed rolling dragon-fodder.

“Rrr.” The beast easily hefted a barrel in each hand, tucked them under his elbows, and grabbed two more.

“Whoa. Don’t overexert yourself,” said Aria. “Those are each three hundred pounds.” The minotaur twisted his thick neck, cracking his back. “Well, if you’re up for it. Bring ’em in.”

The minotaur followed Aria back into the barn and set down the barrels.

“Um… Yeah. That’ll do.” She gave him a thumb up. “Perfect.”

He tilted his head to the left. His horns looked like they might catch on the rafters. He tried to emulate her thumb up with both his three-fingered hands.

“Yeah, good!” said Aria, with two thumbs up. “You’ve saved me some time! Can you bring in the rest?”

HomerVStheDwarfC

The earth trembled under the minotaur’s weight when he returned with six more barrels. Soon he brought the last barrels into the barn, then sat with his arms folded over his chest. His eye watched Aria, eager for more thumbs up.

“Sort of clingy, aren’t you,” she mumbled. “Well, I’m glad to have company. I’ve been talking to imps for weeks, and they don’t do yard-work.”

The minotaur nodded as if it understood.

“You need a name. How about Homer?”

The minotaur blinked.

“Aria.” Aria pointed to her own chest. “Homer.” To the minotaur.

Homer pointed to himself and grunted twice. “Rrm-rr.”

“Yeah!” She gave a thumb up. “Homer!”

Homer pointed to Aria. “Arr-rra.”

“Yeah, Aria. I won you in a game of table-war.”

“Rra-rr rar.”

“Table-war. You saw me fight the elf. Here, follow me.” Aria led Homer behind her cabin to a table ten feet by ten feet square. She reached under the table for chests of wooden figurines and wooden cards. “I used to play with table-war geeks all the time. I’ve still got some hobby-supplies. Look, this is a good one.”

The horse-figurine had jointed legs; she made it gallop for Homer, who watched with limited comprehension.

HomerVStheDwarfD

“You know, you’re healing pretty well. I’ll bet I could enlist you with the human military right now.” She pat her minotaur between the horns. “Let’s visit the market tomorrow.”


The market was hours away nestled in a valley. Humans trickled down hillsides to flood between tents and booths. A few elves shouted of their wares, and gnomes wandered assisting official transactions.

“You’re a pretty smooth ride,” said Aria. Homer pulled her wagon between booths. “Left! Left!”

HomerVStheDwarfE

Homer veered left. The awed stares from passerby didn’t bother him; he just shaded his eye from the sun.

“Homer, check this out!” Aria pointed to a glass tank of murky water the size of a swimming pool. The walls of the tank were soldered with gold. “Seafolk. Probably wheeled that tank all the way from the pier.”

A green face pressed against the tank from inside. Its glowing egg-shaped eyes ogled Aria’s minotaur. Webbed hands with suction cups rubbed gold coins against the glass.

“Trading, huh? You got a gnome?” asked Aria. The seafolk pointed to a gnome standing outside the tank. The gnome was adorned with jewelry and shells. “What’s your name?”

“Nonoginta Novem. My English being not good.”

“Tell your merfriend I’m selling my minotaur to the human military. If they don’t give me a good deal, we’ll talk more.”

The gnome and the seafolk communicated with finger-taps through the glass wall. “Giving a thousand golds for the walk-cow. It is the offer final.”

Aria licked her lips. A thousand gold coins could buy another dragon-egg. “I’ll think about it.”

She led Homer around a corner to an enlistment booth. Behind a wooden counter, a red-headed human man in iron armor reviewed brass cards with two gnomes. These gnomes were nude; humans didn’t often decorate their help. The armored man noticed Aria and squinted at the beast she’d brought. “I was warned you’d surprise me, Twine.”

HomerVStheDwarfF.png

“One minotaur, for the human military,” said Aria. “Whadya think, Sir, uh…”

“Sir Jameson.” He signaled his gnomes, and the gnomes vaulted the counter to measure the minotaur’s muscles with string. Homer lifted his arms and tried not to step on the rocky creatures. “Never taken a minotaur.” When Sir Jameson stood, his armor-plates clanged. “They’re hard to pull from their labyrinths, and some say it’s not worth the effort.”

“Really?” Aria hopped from the wagon. “Why?”

“Homesickness. Minotaurs just keep drawing mazes in the dirt. If you get two of them together, it’s all they ever do. One draws a maze, the other navigates it.”

The gnomes felt Homer’s calves.

“So what’ll you give me for him?” asked Aria. “Seafolk over there offered a thousand gold coins.”

“Yeah, but that’s seafolk,” said Jameson. “Queen Anthrapas gave you all you needed to start a farm, and you promised you’d only ever sell to us.”

“Sure, for any monster raised on my farm, but I didn’t raise this guy. He showed up just yesterday from the Great Ax’s fracture. He’s on the market.”

Jameson shrugged. “I’ll give you voucher for fifty gold coins, and you’ll be first in line to claim any monster we catch in the wild wastes. Best I can do.”

“A hundred gold, and I’ll take three monsters.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard,” said Jameson, “we’re in a state of emergency. Human farmers are required to sell to the military at market value. Fifty gold coins is generous, Aria.”

Aria crossed her arms. “I haven’t heard about any emergency.”

“Ten more gnomes were found decapitated near the dwarven border,” said Jameson. “We learned just yesterday that dwarfs challenged the elves to an official table-war match for land. War’s on its way.”

Aria considered her minotaur. The gnomes crawled up his fur to measure his horns; they noted his eye-patch in the grid of dots they engraved on a brass card. “Don’t worry, Homer, they’re harmless.” She turned to Jameson. “Why are you in armor, Sir? You’re not getting brassed today, too, are you? Is this your first day on the job? Posing for a figurine in your best get-up?”

“Take it easy, Aria.”

“Don’t talk down to me. Ten years ago, you’d be following my orders. I wouldn’t even know which figurine was yours among all the others under my command. How much will you pay for my minotaur?” she asked again.

Jameson sighed. “If you do me a favor, I’ll cut you a deal.”

“Whadya need?” Aria looked down when a gnome rugged her shirt. He passed her the brass card whose grid of holes described Homer.

“There are dwarfs nearby and its making my gnomes skittish,” said Jameson. “Make them leave.”

“Dwarfs?” Aria put her hands on her hips. “Well, that’s unpleasant, but they’re allowed here, aren’t they? It’s a market, people sell stuff.”

“They’re not selling anything,” said Jameson, “and if it worries my gnomes, it worries me. Make them leave or accept my original offer. If you sell your minotaur to the seafolk, I’ll get Queen Anthrapas to come down on you like a ton of bricks.”

“Geez, okay,” said Aria. “Where are they?”


As Homer and Aria approached the drawfs’ black tent at the edge of the market, the crowds thinned. Humans checked over their shoulders. Gnomes shuffled hastily. Elves avoided the area entirely. Even Homer sensed dark tension. He sniffed the air and flared his nostrils.

Aria understood. On the deepest level, there was something wrong with dwarfs. While gnomes emerged from magma in subterranean caves but frequently visited the surface, dwarfs mostly ate downward. They mined mountains like anthills until the peaks collapsed. Their faces were featureless and flat with foreheads down to their nostrils, leaving no space for eyes.

A dwarf in coal-colored armor opened the flap of its black tent. Homer touched Aria’s shoulder. “Sorry, Homer, we’re going in. Hey! You! What are you doing here?”

HomerVStheDwarfG.png

The dwarf turned. It was four feet tall and four feet wide. The only area exposed by its armor was its teeth, dingy like the hull of a shipwreck. Its teeth crunched a stone into crumbs, and it swallowed the crumbs hungrily. Dwarfs had no lips. Maybe they were born without them, or maybe they cut them off. “Here to play. Training new commander.” The helmet was constructed to reveal only teeth, even while it spoke. Gnomes were genderless and accepted male pronouns. With dwarfs, you just couldn’t tell.

“Play? Like, table-war?” asked Aria. “Sure, I’m in. Just one game, and win or lose you have to leave. I used to be a royal commander, so you know it’ll be a good one.”

“Accepted.” The dwarf shouted as if testing a battle-screech, shaking Homer’s fur. “Gnomes!”

From the black tent, three gnomes stepped into sunlight.

Aria’s stomach turned. She hadn’t seen dwarf-owned gnomes for years; the reintroduction made her bile churn. Homer balled his hands into fists.

Each gnome was missing its left arm. Their ankles were pierced by a chain connecting the gnomes in a line. The front-most gnome had only one eye, while the other two gnomes had no eyes, no lower jaws, and no tongues. Their rocky skin had chipped and fragmented.

HomerVStheDwarfH.png

The dwarf shoved its gnomes toward Aria. “Give brass,” said the gnome with a tongue.

Aria held her brass card for the gnomes, who read its pits and grooves with their remaining fingertips.

Inside the black tent another dwarf sat at an official war table, twenty feet by twenty feet square. The table’s terrain reflected the dwarven north in miniature: icy peaks reached like stalagmites.

The gnomes looked up from Aria’s card. “Says deceased.”

“Is that alright?” asked Aria. “If you’re just training a new commander, we can play unofficially.”

Somehow, without lips, the first dwarf sneered. “Leave.”

“You’ll play with me or you won’t play at all.” Aria crossed her arms. Homer investigated the table’s sculpted peaks and glacial crevasses. “No one else will even come near you.”

“Won’t play. Leave.”

“You haven’t got a choice, you morons.” Homer tapped Aria’s shoulder. “What, what is it?”

He made a rectangle with his hands. “Rrrss.” When Aria raised an eyebrow, he pointed to her pockets. “Rrrss.” He raised one hand and waggled his fingers. It was like a gnome reading a card. “Rrrss.”

“…Brass?” Aria showed him the brass card representing himself.

Homer gave two thumbs up, then took the card and held it for the gnomes to evaluate. “Intelligent creature,” said the gnome with a tongue. “Technically allowed to command.”

While the first dwarf spat, its seated companion remained silent. “An insult! You dare!”

Aria watched her minotaur sit at the table and survey the landscape. “Do you understand what you’re doing? This game is complicated. I played for years before my first official match. You’ve seen me play, just once.” Homer mimed moving figurines across the field, then looked back at Aria. She chewed her lips. “Hey, dwarfs, take it or leave it.”

The first dwarf squeezed its gauntlets. “Fine. Play.”

“Rrrr!” Homer pointed at the mutilated gnomes, then looked at Aria. She didn’t understand what he wanted. He pointed at the dwarfs, made a fist, and pointed back to the gnomes. He then gestured over the hills, toward Aria’s farm.

“You want…” She stood up straight. “If we win, we’re taking your gnomes. It’s a fair bet, he’s never played before.”

No one knew how dwarfs perceived the world without eyes. Aria suspected their trained nostrils could detect emotions. The first dwarf sniffed in quiet contemplation. “Accepted,” it murmured, “if it plays with its brass.”

Homer nodded. “No, that’s bad,” Aria told him. “When something dies in the game, gnomes mark its brass. They can never play again, as a figurine or as a commander. If you die, I can’t sell you to the military.”

Homer didn’t seem to hear her. His eye was cool and calculating, but anger leaked from behind his eye-patch like lava trickling from a volcano as he stared at the eyeless gnomes.

HomerVStheDwarfI.png

“If you lose, and I can’t sell you, you’re working on my farm for life,” said Aria. “I’ll get you some pieces.”


“Hey! Sir Jameson!”

“Aria.” Jameson saluted, probably out of habit. “Are the dwarfs gone?”

Jameson’s gnomes sniffed the air. “No. They remain.”

“They want to play table-war,” she said. “Do you have some brasses you don’t mind losing in battle?”

Jameson squinted. “You’re not allowed to play, are you? You were killed by an elf.”

“It’s not an official match,” she lied.

Jameson sighed and tapped his fingers on the counter. “I suppose I can trust you. Aria Twine, humanity’s path to victory. We’ve got plenty of brasses from enlistments at the market.”

She drew air through her teeth. “How about game-pieces you don’t mind losing?”

“Let’s see what we’ve got.”


Tiny dwarven catapults sat atop the spires of ice. Model dwarfs in full armor manned them.

Homer aligned his own figurines. His side of the table was a snowy expanse crossed with icy gorges. A handful of humanoid figurines surrounded three trebuchets.

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“These are skeletons,” explained Aria. Professional military quality meant their bones were individually sculpted. “These guys are totally disposable. We’ve got lots, and no commander likes to use them. Skeletons pop up in abandoned cemeteries, and it’s sort of a faux pas to make them battle.”

“Rrg-lr-drr.”

“Skeleton, right. They’re not bright, but they can follow basic orders like ‘man the trebuchet.’ Okay?”

“Silence.” The first dwarf surveyed their field. “No helping.”

“What good would that be?” asked Aria. “You can’t train against an opponent who doesn’t even know his pieces. Anyway, Homer, see this ammunition? It’s a supply of exploding barrels. You get me?” Homer shook his head. Aria put her fists together and blasted them apart. “Kaboom.”

“Gr-brrm.”

“Yeah. Dwarfs aren’t superb at table-war, but they know their way around a siege-engine. If your skeletons load your trebuchets with explosive barrels, I give you fifty-fifty odds.” She pulled a roll of bandages from her backpack. “Take care of this, okay? This is your game-piece, Homer.”

The minotaur took the roll of bandages. He pointed to it, then to his chest. “Rrm-rr.”

“Exactly. No, no, why—” He pressed the roll of bandages into position at the head of his army. His nostrils flared. “Hey, your funeral.”

“We tire! Begin!” shouted the first dwarf.

The three mutilated gnomes each pressed their remaining right hands onto each other’s left shoulder stumps. After communing with finger-taps, the gnome with a tongue addressed the table. “Minotaur begins.”

“Okay, it’s your move first, Homer. Tell—”

“Silence!” said the first dwarf.

Aria sat beside her minotaur. Homer waved his hands over the skeletons, then pointed to his trebuchets.

“What says he?” asked the first dwarf. With just one eye among them, the gnomes somehow understood. They scrambled over the table showing how skeletons loaded explosive barrels into the trebuchet’s slings.

“Our turn,” said the first dwarf. “Obviously our superior army would finish loading their catapults first.” The first dwarf patted its silent comrade on the back. For the first time, the second dwarf uttered the guttural language of the ore-eaters. The gnomes made the dwarf figurines launch their catapults.

“Projectiles land here, here, and here.” One gnome ran a hand through the fake snow, making tracks left by the projectiles. The other gnomes scooped away skeletons and marked their brass cards as unplayable. Aria puzzled; the dwarfs could have struck Homer if they’d care too.

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Homer motioned like he was throwing a spear.

“Human trebuchets are fired.” The gnomes tapped each others’ shoulders… for minutes.

Aria knew that no human, dwarf, elf, or seafolk understood every rule of table-war. Only gnomes could simulate the arena with accuracy. Aria wondered what had happened to make the gnomes lag. “It’s just barrels,” she said. “Plot the trajectories and move on.”

The gnome with the tongue shook his head. “Not completely true.”

“What?” Aria turned to her minotaur. Homer’s serious expression echoed the icy spires across from him. “What did he do?”

“Skeletons loaded themselves in the explosive barrels,” said the gnome. “A thousand pounds of flaming grapeshot sailing through the sky.”

“Hm.” Aria punched him in the arm. “Nice.” The almost-silent dwarf did not react, but the other covered its own teeth.

“Two dwarven catapults on fire,” said the gnome. “These dwarfs are dead.” He removed most of the dwarf-figurines from the table.

The almost-silent dwarven commander spoke in its grating language.

“Surviving dwarfs load final catapult,” translated the gnome.

Homer crossed his arms.

“Some skeletons still partially intact, and still on fire,” said the gnome. He pointed to the icy spires. “They ignite the final catapult.”

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The almost-silent dwarven commander let a single word escape its teeth. The gnomes conferred. “The dwarfs surrender.”

The first dwarf turned to Ida. “Five hundred gold coins for your minotaur.”

“Seafolk offered twice that.”

“Ten thousand pieces of gold for the minotaur!” shouted the dwarf.

“Sorry,” said Aria. Homer lifted all three mutilated gnomes. “He’s not for sale.”


“Hey. Sir Jameson.”

Jameson stretched and yawned. “The dwarfs are gone?”

“Yep. Some of these skeletons are still usable, I’m pretty sure, and all your trebuchets.” Aria returned the brass cards.

Jameson sighed and stood at ease. “We’ll pay double market value for your minotaur.”

“I’ve had a change of heart.” Aria watched Homer lay the dwarfs’ mutilated gnomes on the grass. They sprang right up and began communicating with the humans’ intact gnomes, forming a ring of five gnomes tapping each others’ hands and shoulders. “I want to meet with Queen Anthrapas. I can’t leave my dragonling on the farm, so I’ll have to take Scales with me. Can you give me a ride?”

“I suppose,” said Jameson. “What business do you have with the queen?”

Aria watched her minotaur raise his hands and flick his fingers, trying to emulate the gnomes’ rapid hand-language. “I’m taking an apprentice.”

Next Chapter
Commentary

 

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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