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 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.

pict1.png

“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.”

pict2

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.”

pict4

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.”

pict5

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.

pict7

“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.

pict8

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.

pict10

“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.

pict12

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.

pict13

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.

pict15

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.”

pict16

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.

pict24

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 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.

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“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!”

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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.”

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“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?”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

HomerVStheDwarfK.png

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.”

HomerVStheDwarfL.png

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.”

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