Homer VS the Machine, Part Two

(This is part ten of a fantasy serial starting here. Homer the minotaur managed to beat a dwarven machine at table-war, but then lost to the machine the next round. It’s Homer’s first loss, ever, and he didn’t take it well. A maze has sprung up around him.)


1

When the ground stopped shaking, half the dwarven throne-room was rubble scattered over a labyrinth. Then the Mountain Swallower’s laughter rumbled the arena. “I suppose my opponent forfeits?”

“We allow breaks between matches,” replied a gnome. “The minotaur has 15 minutes.”

“Hmmm.” The Mountain Swallower sat back on their throne. “The sun sets on our world reclaimed.”

The audience scrambled for safety as the new branches burst from the labyrinth.

“Fear not, gnome.” The Mountain Swallower pat a gnome’s head; this gnome had one arm and no jaw. “Gnomes will have a place in our dwarven future. As fellow creatures of the earth, only gnomes are fit to serve us.”

The crowd hushed. The Mountain Swallower looked up.

2

Aria Twine wore a new military blazer and a blue ring on her left hand.

“Where were you?” asked Jennifer.

“With my tailors, of course.”

“Homer could have used your support,” said Harvey.

“He won a round without me, didn’t he? If I support him too much, I’ll hold him back.” Aria examined the labyrinth. The walls seemed to breathe. “Looks like I arrived just in time.” A shifting entrance opened like a mouth.

“Your highness, please retreat,” said a gnome. “Entering a labyrinth is a dangerous—”

“If I don’t make it out, choose another Queen.” She tossed her crown onto her throne. “I’m not fit for it.”

She stepped into the labyrinth, and the entrance closed to swallow her.


Aria expected total darkness, but a silvery light came from… her hand? The sapphires on her new ring were glowing. With her left arm outstretched, the walls of the labyrinth showed their brickwork.

She had no plan of attack. She walked with her gloved right hand on the right wall. Voices from the audience outside the labyrinth faded away as she turned corners and found dead ends. Aria swore the only sound was slow breathing—her own, or Homer’s.

She tripped on a loose cobblestone. She knew the walls moved because she’d seen them shifting from outside, but didn’t believe it until she tripped on the same loose cobblestone again.

Maybe the maze’s exit had moved as well. Maybe there was no exit.

“Calm down, Aria,” she said to herself.

Now listening for sliding walls, Aria noticed the floors sloped at odd angles or became staircases up and down. Ladders led into dark chasms. She wondered if the floor moved underneath her.

She felt humid heat pouring around a corner. “Homer?” She followed his breath down a staircase and up a ladder. “Homer!”

As soon as Homer heard her, he turned away. A wall slid to divide them.

Aria dove for the gap, but knew she’d be crushed if she tried to slip by. Instead she tossed a scroll through the closing slit.

Seconds passed. Aria still heard Homer’s breath through the wall. “It took me months to finish that,” she said, hopefully loud enough for him to hear. “Do you remember when Anthrapas separated us for national security? I spent a lot of time on it then. I guess I missed you.”

The wall slid back open.

4

Homer held the maze he’d drawn for Aria ages ago. Aria had solved it.

“I took advantage of you,” she said, “but you’ve done more for me than you could ever know. And not just me—everyone depends on you.” Homer followed Aria’s escape-line with his one eye. “I should have been there for you—but you handled the first round against the machine, and you showed you don’t need me. But now I’m here for you anyway.”

Homer shook his head. “Alreddy over. Lozt.”

Aria wasn’t sure if he meant he was lost in the maze, or he’d lost to the dwarven machine. Either way: “It’s not over till it’s over.” Homer shook his head again. His horns marked the walls. “Every maze has an exit. Every problem can be solved.”

Homer opened his mouth to speak but knew he couldn’t produce the sounds he wanted. He grabbed Aria’s shoulder so gruffly she recoiled, but then tapped his fingers on her shoulder in gnomish. Aria’s gnomish was rusty, but she’d brushed up since becoming queen. “I can’t win. In the second round, the machine knew everything.”

“But not in the first round?” asked Aria. “Why not?”

“In the first round I made a trap in the real world,” tapped Homer, “but that won’t work twice. The dwarven machine is simulating our reality, and the parallel reality of table-war.”

“Then… the walls moved.” Aria held Homer’s hand in both of hers. “But you’ve escaped a labyrinth with moving walls once before, haven’t you?”

Homer ground his teeth. “Maybe the machine can hear us now. Maybe it can hear our thoughts.”

“Then give it something to really think about.” She hugged him.

Homer nodded.

The walls groaned. The ceiling split. As quickly as it had come the labyrinth was gone, like a passing thunderstorm.

5

Homer threw his eye-patch and goggles at the Mountain Swallower. “Negst round.”

The Mountain Swallower smiled. “Gnomes, how long will it take to prepare a new table? More than three minutes?”

“Of course,” said the nearest gnome, crawling over the rubble.

“Then the contest is over,” said the Mountain Swallower. “You had 15 minutes, minotaur. It’s been twelve.”

Homer matched hands with a gnome. “He has far more time,” translated the gnome. “The contest was interrupted by natural disaster, and its conclusion can be postponed for days.”

Aria smirked as she took her throne opposite the Mountain Swallower, who was agape. “A natural disaster? You destroyed the table yourself, minotaur!”

“And it was a natural disaster,” said Aria. “Anthrapas agreed Homer could represent the wild wastes. As an animal from the wastes who isn’t owned by any army, his labyrinth is legally a natural disaster, just like a blizzard brewing around my ice-dragon if it escaped into the wild.”

The Mountain Swallower slumped in their throne.

“Prepare the table,” said Homer, through his gnome. “I’m ready.”

While the gnomes rebuilt the table and floor and seating, an elf tapped Homer’s knee; it was one of Stephanie’s shortlings. The shortling gave Homer some brass cards and figurines. “These are from Victoria and me, on behalf of the queen.”

6

The sphinx, harpy, and centaur brought their own brasses and figurines. They were all beautifully painted. “I hope you find some use in us,” said the sphinx.

“I’m sure you can use this, too,” said Harvey, with another brass and figurine.

A gnome in jewelry gave Homer yet more to hold. “From Emperor Shobai, and Ebi Anago.”

Homer couldn’t tap messages to gnomes with his hands full, so as respectfully as he could, he set the gifts on the ground and touched the gnome’s shoulder. “I don’t need these,” he tapped.

“You don’t need to use them if they’d be in the way,” said the gnome, “but if you could put these pieces on the table it would mean a great deal culturally speaking, or so I’m told. Feelings of unity, and such.”

“But they might be killed in battle,” tapped Homer.

“That would be even better,” said the gnome.


The table was reconstructed sooner than anyone anticipated, but the dwarven war-machine was always ready. The Mountain Swallower sneered. “Faster, minotaur!”

“Hey!” Across the throne room, Aria Twine lounged across her throne. She pointed her gloved hand at the Mountain Swallower. “That’s my favorite commander you’re addressing.”

“If he’s truly a wild beast, he’s not you’re commander to own, is he?”

“I don’t own him. I’m just his biggest fan.” Aria admired her ring. “Tell you what: let’s make a bet.”

The audience turned to the Mountain Swallower, who already sat beside Homer’s goggles and eye-patch. “When my machine wins, I control the planet. What more could you wager?”

“If your machine won, how quickly could you execute me? I’d still have at least a second left to live, hm?” When Aria raised her ring, it cast blue light across the throne-room. “Time enough to destroy this in front of you.”

“Childish.” The Mountain Swallower chortled. “Dwarfs eat gems, but I’m not so desperate as to grovel for one.”

“But dwarfs aren’t the only ones to eat gems.” Aria gestured for a gnome to come close. “Open wide.”

“Don’t!” The Mountain Swallower’s shout shocked even itself. Aria popped her ring into the gnome’s mouth.

“Nod yes or no,” she said. “Gnomes eat gems, right? Creatures of the earth, and such?”

The gnome nodded.

“But gnomes don’t enjoy it, do they? Gnomes don’t enjoy anything.”

The gnome shook his head.

“So you’re tasting that priceless ring, and you’re not even enjoying it?”

The gnome nodded.

“If Homer loses, swallow, got it?”

The Mountain Swallower grumbled. “Your stalling is embarrassing everyone. What wager were you envisioning?”

“Now you’re talking.” Aria plucked her ring from the gnome’s mouth. “If your machine wins even one point this round, I’ll give you the ring myself. If it wins no points at all, I’ll need…” She reclined across her throne. “Your brain.”

“I accept.”

Murmurs swarmed the crowd. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.

“My life is a paltry ante for a sure bet. Begin the match. Choose the location for battle, minotaur!”

Homer gave a gnome a brass card. Gnomes pounced upon the table and finished the map in a minute. It was featureless and flat.

Homer put all the figurines he’d received onto the table: a centaur, a harpy, a sphinx, a griffon, a giant crab, and three imps. As if that weren’t enough, he added Scales the ice-dragon and, to the murmurs of the crowd, his own likeness.

7

A gnome tugged Homer’s vest. “Are you sure, sir? If your game-piece dies, you won’t ever play official table-war again. The dwarven machine will win by concession.” Homer nodded.

The machine clicked.

A drawer opened containing six brass cards and six metal beads. Gnomes somberly carried the beads to the table. “Truly these are the end times,” said the front-most gnome.

When Aria squinted at the beads, the Mountain Swallower chortled. “The great demons, in their dormant state. Did you think I would bet my brain if I did not intend to win?”

Homer frowned. “Hou?”

The Mountain Swallower explained: “Gnomes, with flawless and rigorous logic, are the only ones who can control the great demons of old. But our machine, with its own gnome-brains, has the same potential. Even the gnomes recognize this, as they obviously permit the machine to use the great demons on the table,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Usher in the day of the dwarf.”

The gnomes around the table turned to Homer. “The loser of the last round may begin.”

Homer pointed to his figurine. His figurine pointed toward the dormant demons. Homer’s army advanced.

The dormant demons, barely big as beads, suddenly swelled. Homer couldn’t imagine the intricate mechanisms in the demons’ figurines so they could expand in size a hundred times.

8

Homer’s sphinx expanded, also, and bounded across the table. She swatted the two-headed demon and sent it sailing. In the audience, the actual sphinx mewled proudly.

Then the other five demons leapt upon her game-piece. They kept expanding in size until they weighed her down. When they were big enough, they swallowed her whole.

Homer’s other figurines shivered with fear—the gnomes were meticulous in portraying the battle’s gruesome detail.

Homer pointed to Scales. His figurine boarded the dragon and led the charge.

The demons kept getting bigger, and bigger, but their forms were swirling, amorphous, and invulnerable. They smashed the imps underfoot. They crushed the centaur with big, clumsy hands. Scales reared back and unleashed a blizzard upon the monsters, but they didn’t even slow down.

One of the demons pulled a great, black sword from their own chest and used it to cut the crab in half. The other demons retrieved their own weapons from inside themselves and rolled toward Homer’s army brandishing them.

Homer pointed toward the ceiling and tapped fingers with a gnome. The gnome showed how Homer’s remaining army scattered; Scales, the harpy, and the griffon flew in different directions.

“Not soon enough, minotaur.” The Mountain Swallower giggled when a demon cracked his great, black whip and snapped the griffon out of the air. Another demon threw their spear and pierced the harpy through the heart.

Scales kept flying upward, with Homer’s figurine clinging to its neck.

11

“Too easy,” said the Mountain Swallower. The largest demon threw their ax into the sky. It cut Scales and Homer into two. “The game ends.”

The audience was silent. At the same moment, everyone in the throne-room realized why the silence felt so suffocating: the dwarven machine no longer clicked and clacked with calculations. It was utterly quiet.

Homer folded his arms awaiting the verdict.

“Indeed, the game ends.” Six gnomes took the table. “It ends with a tie. The contest is now over. Dwarfs remain bound to the treaty limiting bloodshed to table-war.”

The Mountain Swallower stood. “What do you mean? What happened? The opposing commander is dead!”

“Both commanders are dead,” said the gnomes. They showed Homer’s bisected figurine. “Zero points, all around.”

“My machine is not dead,” said the Mountain Swallower. “It wasn’t even on the table!”

“Correct.” The gnomes rebuilt the table to show how the thrown ax spun through the air, landing elsewhere. “Your machine is over here.” They built a model of the throne room, which the ax split open.

12

Homer put his hand to a gnome’s. “We’re more nearby your throne-room than you thought?” translated the gnome. The Mountain Swallower swallowed. “Homer says the first round, he forced your machine start simulating the real world in addition to the parallel world of official table-war. Because your machine has accidentally killed its own game-piece while killing Homer’s, your machine now believes it is dead.”

Now the suffocating silence even seemed to stop the audience’s hearts, until Aria laughed. “Homer, you really had me going!”

Homer released his translator gnome to recross his arms, and puffed out both nostrils. “My piece,” he said aloud, “for your machine.”

The Mountain Swallower swallowed again, and gestured for six dwarfs to open the machine and inspect the contents. The machine was totally inert.

“I see. Then…”

The Mountain Swallower stood.

“A deal is a deal. Your highness, Aria Twine, I present—”

The lord of the dwarfs opened up its own head.

“My brain.”

It pulled its brain out and held it aloft. It looked just like a gnome’s.

13

Final 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rr?”

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

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

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

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