The Bucket

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“We gotta talk, Arnold.”

I slammed the closet.

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

“Can I call you Arnie?”

“Please, don’t talk.”

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

“Oh god, I’m smashed.”

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

“Please, no.”

“Into the ear, Arnie. C’mon.”

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

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

“What?”

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

“Who are you?”

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

“Uh…”

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

“Trip.”

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

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

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

“How do I… What do you mean?”

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

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

“You know Physics?”

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

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


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

“Arnold? Are you drunk?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

“I can hold it down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trip—What do I do with this?”

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


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

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

The needle teeth chattered.

“Answer questions?”

More chattering.

“What’s Quantum Foam?”

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

“Can you elaborate?”

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

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

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

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

“My Master is… Stage Four.”

“Four? What does that mean?”

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

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

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

I poured the rest of the wine down my neck.

“Please…”

I smashed the bottle against a wall.

“Kill me…”

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

“Please…”

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

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

“We need to make Quantum Foam.”


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

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

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

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

“I’m pretty sober right now.”

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

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

“Put it in,” said Trip.

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

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

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

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

I nodded. It was all I could do.

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

He paused.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, Trip.”

“Aaaugh! I can’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even if I could.”

“Then—then—”

Nausea pumped my guts.

Fingers from my throat pried my teeth open.

An arm stretched through my mouth.

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

The arm grabbed the Scotch.

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

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

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

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

I groped the floor for something, anything.

A glass beaker.

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

“No no no no!”

The arms in my mouth pat the damp floor.

“No, no, no…”

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

“No…”

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


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

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

“You sure?”

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

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

I opened my desk drawer.

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

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

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

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

Back

To Mile 20

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


2019

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right. My ghostwriter.

Whitney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, Whitney, I hope you were right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could cry later.

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually hell would seep into my bones.

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

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

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

Once I got there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I recalled the severity of my circumstances.

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

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

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

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

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

I almost cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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


2009

“And the winner is…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” asked Alphonse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher gasped, then walked away sobbing.

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

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

Next 10 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

Story Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you have fun reading!

Next 10 miles
Table of Contents

The first ten miles

2019

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh huh, uh huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I? I’d never read the darn thing.

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

“I’m not hungry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Must be nice to be able to do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” asked Alphonse.

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

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

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

I put on the gas.

I shot ahead of Champ, each stride Olympian.

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

I didn’t have breath to respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1987

“And the winner is…”

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

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

“It’s the one that wins, right?”

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

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

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

“Yeah!”

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

The starting gun. The horses raced.

His father’s horse was last.

“What a loser,” said Alphonse.

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

Next 10 miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

The End

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


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

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

pict1.png

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

“Goodness no. We threw it into lava.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pict3.png

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

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

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

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

THE END


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

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

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

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

Table of Contents

Notes to the future (plus a video about Black Mirror)

This chapter is a little short; I just started graduate school, and on top of that I’m having fun experimenting with video-editing, so I’m beginning to move on from this project.

But I’ve had a lot of fun with The Minotaur’s Board-Game, and I don’t think I’ll be done even after I post the last chapter two Fridays from now. I like the world I’ve made, but I think my exploration of it leaves something to be desired. Maybe a year later I’ll revisit this project and spruce it up a bit.

That’s the good thing about having a website instead of publishing a book. I can always change stuff. It’s a living document. It’s only public because I enjoy sharing my stories with anyone who wants to read them.

So let’s leave some notes for myself in the future. What needs to be spruced up in The Minotaur’s Board-Game?

The beginning needs expansion. I’m in such a rush to introduce core concepts, and just get on with the story, that Homer wins his first table-war the day after meeting Aria. I can convey my world to the reader in a clearer, more compelling, but still compact way. What if Aria put Homer to work on her farm, and they bonded a little over board-games?  Aria could explain table-war to Homer and the reader. Then Homer’s first victory is more plausible, and the bond between Homer and Aria presented in this chapter is more convincing.

Also, I think Homer should get along more with the sphinx. Minotaurs haunt labyrinths; sphinxs propose riddles; they gotta buddy up. In the current draft Homer beats the sphinx at table-war and that’s that. Maybe Homer should run into the desert to console the sphinx on her loss.

I like Homer the minotaur proposing to Aria the human in marriage. The reader has watched Homer’s whole existence on the surface, so obviously he doesn’t know much about marriage. He can’t know that humans don’t marry beasts. But this book has a theme of accepting beasts; is Aria just closed-minded? Their platonic relationship is probably more fitting.

I started this project focusing on the snowflake method, in which a story is built up in phases. It only makes sense to return later to fill in the gaps, and it bodes well that I’m eager to do so. If I have fun writing it, maybe someone will like reading it.

But that’ll have to wait. After The Minotaur’s Board-Game, I’ll be focusing on graduate school and occasional YouTube videos. I’m having a lot of fun making videos about my favorite shows like Kaiji the Ultimate Survivor. It’s a new kind of content I’d like to practice on; I figure people are more willing to watch a ten-minute YouTube video than read ten-thousand words on my website.

Speaking of, here’s my latest video on Thinskter! Karl Pilkington describes Black Mirror episodes. Maybe next time I’ll discuss a dataset I’m studying about witch trials?

Final Chapter
Table of Contents

 

Homer VS the Sphinx

(This is part eight of a fantasy series starting here. So far, Homer the minotaur is the front-runner in a board-game tournament whose champion will protect the world from a dwarven robot. Today’s final round of the tournament will determine the fate of the monsters of the wild wastes.)


The centaur, sphinx, and harpy entered the tournament after the first round, so they agreed to host the final round in the wild wastes to wrap up all their matches at once. On the way there, Homer and Aria watched the ever-changing horizon from their carriage; Aria wore a black glove over her burnt right hand. Sir Jameson rode in a mysterious white carriage behind them. “Big day, Homer,” said Aria. “If you win well, you’ll be champion for sure. But the monsters will give it their all; I’ve heard Queen Anthrapas won’t recognize the wild wastes as sovereign unless they win two matches today.”

As they stepped from the carriage, Homer sniffed the air. On the journey through the wild wastes he’d passed icy tundra, baking desert, and dense jungles. Now he entered broad savanna. The arena was circled by a great black whip three miles long. “Arra.”

“Hm?” Aria followed Homer’s gaze. “The whip is one of those demon’s weapons, like the ax, or the sword.” The savanna was still scarred by the whip’s ancient lashes.

pict1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pict3

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

pict4

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

Homer looked at Queen Anthrapas and Aria Twine.

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

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

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

Homer nodded. “Rriddle.”

Said the sphinx:

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

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

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

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

pict6

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

pict7

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

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

pict8

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

pict9

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

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

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

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

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

pict10

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

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

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

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

pict11

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

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

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

pict12

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria shrugged. “Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Anthrapas spared him a glance. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

Anthrapas waved a hand. “Fine.”

“What?” Aria turned. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

pict14

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

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

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

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


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

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

pict16

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

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

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

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

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

“The end of humanity,” said Aria.

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

Aria made fists. “I’m sure he can.”

“Can, or will?”

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

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

Now Aria glared. “What about my minotaur?”

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

“And?”

“And you’re oblivious,” said Anthrapas.

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

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

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

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

Those were her last words.

Commentary
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The Circular Pangolin

(I wrote this in 2017 and it won second place at UCSB’s 2018 Most Excellent Prose competition! I was inspired by an anthropology class where we learned about pangolins, small armored mammals often compared to armadillos. In Mary Douglass’ classic anthropology book Purity and Danger the pangolin stars in Lele rituals despite being “always spoken of as the most incredible monster of all” for its peculiar physiology. Douglass’ examination of religion’s paradoxical fascinations made me imagine my own weird fantasy pangolin cult.)

Circular Pangolin

In the desert you’re always leaking. When you’re out of sweat, and you’ve pissed your last drop, your sanity seeps into the sand. Clouds drift into the drought just to die. Only curled-up critters can handle the caustic heat. Them, the cacti, and the cultists.

Townsfolk call me Doc because that’s what I am. I used to have a nurse named Fernando, but Fernando lost his mind, so I lost Fernando. I spend most of my days reminding townsfolk to hydrate, but sometimes I get to stitch someone together, or cut them open, and they’d better hope I care to sew them back up when I’m done.

Night’s the only time you can take a decent walk, so one full moon I staggered out with a bottle of tequila. I liked to circle the farms drinking until the dunes looked like waves and I could pretend I was lost at sea. That night, before I could enjoy myself, a cultist confronted me on my porch.

The junior cultists came to town on moonless nights to beg for food. They wore black, hooded robes and slippers made of old rubber tires, and sunglasses, and scarves. That’s how I knew this particular cultist meant business: he (she?) wore the full rubberized regale. His black rubber bodysuit had footies an inch thick. I couldn’t see eyes through his dark glass goggles. He unzipped his fetishy face-mask to talk. “Doc, we need help.” Having spoken, he zipped his mouth shut.

“I’ve got plans tonight.” I shook the tequila. He just motioned for me to follow. “C’mon, cactus-herder! Can’t you even tell me what’s wrong?”

He unzipped again. “God is leaking.” And, zipped.

Well, what can you say to that? I brought my first-aid kit and followed him over the dunes.

We walked hours over the sand. Dunes looked like arctic tundra in the moonlight. Ordinarily I’d never venture so far from town, but the cultist seemed to know the way. “How do you navigate out here?” The question wasn’t worth unzipping; the cultist just pointed at the sky. His rubber gloves were so thick his fingers could barely bend. “You can see the stars through those thick goggles?”

He nodded.

“Doesn’t that suit get uncomfortable?”

He nodded, vigorously.

“So what’s it for?”

He unzipped, and I never thought I’d hear something so sane from that black mask: “In the desert you’re always leaking.” And, zipped.

When we crested the next dune a sandy caldera opened before us. Junior cultists scrambled from cactus to cactus like bats sucking nectar from flowers. They cut limbs from cacti to replant and propagate the species. They wrapped wax paper around red blossoms to preserve pollen. They sliced fruits and pulled down their scarves to lick the liquid which dripped. Not one member of the strange congregation revealed an inch of skin under their tunics and rubber.

I heard my guide unzip as he led me through the throngs. “Avoid eye contact with the students. Life-essence leaks at every opportunity.” And, zipped.

“Is that all you folks drink? Cactus-juice?”

Unzip. “The cactus is like all organisms: it transmutes foreign substances into its own flesh. But the cactus doesn’t lose what it drinks. We drink the cactus to become like the cactus. We don’t lose what we drink.” And, zipped.

We walked past scattered huts made of animal skins draped over long bones. I thought twinkles in the huts were stars, but realized they were glints off voyeuristic sunglasses and goggles. The huts’ inhabitants looked away when I noticed.

“What do you eat? Cactus?”

Unzip. “We grind cactus into a paste. This paste sustains us without causing us to urinate or defecate.” And, zipped.

“How do you fuck with these suits on?”

Unzip. “To do so would be unthinkable.” And, zipped.

“Now that’s no way to live.”

Deep in the caldera the sand was pebbly and coarse. Past the last of the huts more rubber-suited figures like my guide stood across the pathless path. My guide unzipped. “I am not holy enough to go further. You must approach the caldera’s center alone.” And, zipped.

Another rubber guide unzipped. “Stomp and shout when you reach the center. A holy man lives there whose renunciation leaves him almost totally senseless, who therefore has not lost a drop of essence in a decade. His sacred potential is so great, a cut in his robes would beam like the moon. He will lead you to God.” And, zipped.

“Okay, okay. I get the picture.” The sand below was rocky and steep. I put my first-aid kit in my lap and descended the slope on my ass. “What’s the name of this holy man?”

Unzip. “To utter it would tarnish its purity.” And, zipped.

I climbed down into the caldera longer than I thought was possible. The depth dimmed the moon and the stars. The sand turned into stones turned into rocks until the ground was paved with boulders. I finally came to a place where the boulders sloped upward in all directions, so I reckoned it was the center. I stomped and shouted at the dark.

Movement rumbled from the dark: a silhouette I thought had been a boulder stood up and lumbered toward me on a gait restrained by thick black rubber. The holy man looked like an inflated cartoon character with outlines eight inches thick on all sides. His rubber gloves allowed only the barest use of his fingers. His rubber helmet was spherical with a mere pinprick for breathing and no other orifices.

“Listen,” I started, then, realizing he probably couldn’t hear me, amended myself: “If you can, I mean, listen. I’ve been more than cooperative.” The holy man managed to move his arms to twist his helmet so the pinprick for breathing was aligned with his left ear. I spoke quickly so he wouldn’t suffocate. “Just show me what I’m here to do.”

He swiveled his helmet back to breathe. Slowly as dunes roll over the desert, slowly as stars roll over the sky, he shifted weight from one foot to the other to walk. I followed, wondering if I could roll him to his destination faster than he would waddle. He led me to a gap between boulders in the ground. The gap was just large enough for someone to spelunk. I prayed it would not be necessary.

The holy man tugged my collar. “What? No clothes allowed underground?” He nodded, somehow, and I unbuttoned my jeans. “Am I here just because you don’t fit down the crevasse with your dumb rubber suit?” He shook his head. “Well, why am I here, then?”

The holy man drew letters in the air with a bulky glove. He spelled, “because you’re the best, Doc.”

I paused on my descent into the ditch. “Fernando?” I covered my mouth. “Sorry. I’m not supposed to say your name, am I?”

The holy man pat my head, and he pushed me downward.

Deep in the crevasse the age of the air weighed on my shoulders. I lowered myself ledge by ledge while holding my first-aid kit with my teeth. The ditch was so dark I had no clue how deep it ran. More than once I cut my soles on black cacti. I realized I didn’t know whether I was approaching God’s wound, or climbing inside it. Either way, the innermost lacerations would need to be sutured first.

After a duration whose length I couldn’t guess I felt nothing below me but cacti. I bouldered left and right but still felt sharp spines below. I whimpered, having no strength left to climb from the crevasse. I cursed myself for following cactus-herders.

When my strength gave out I fell. My back cracked cactus fronds and three-inch spines stuck me like a porcupine.

I landed in an empty cavern. I hardly remember falling, or how long I fell, and only recall waking nude and bloody. The walls of the cavern were dimly lit by shelves of glowing fungi.

I crawled to my first-aid kit. I started by injecting painkillers, though it felt counterproductive to puncture myself more. Then I set to work plucking each spine with tweezers. When I plucked my left arm bare it was polka-dotted with pox-like perforations. Before plucking my right arm, I examined my surroundings. The cave rocks were bigger than the boulders in the caldera above; they were sheets of stone slotted together like plates of armor.

Behind the glowing fungi, the walls were subtly transparent. I shuddered when I looked deeper: human figures were frozen in stone like bugs preserved in plastic. Some stood at military attention. Some sat with crossed legs. Some were balled in the fetal position. I turned away to pluck spines from my flesh.

When I was finally spineless I packed my first-aid kit and walked around aimlessly. Maybe God would transport me to the surface if I patched him up, but I didn’t find anything Almighty, just more rocks and fungi. I wandered to the walls for guidance. “I don’t suppose you frozen folks know where to find God, do you?”

“They already have.” The voice boomed from everywhere. I felt stones beneath me rumble and writhe. “I did not hear you come in. Welcome, Doctor.”

“What kind of God can’t feel someone crawling on them?”

“I feel everyone crawling on me,” said the earth. Rocky plates unfolded like flower petals with only more petals underneath. Sliding sheets of stone threatened to crush me, but I found a safe spot to stand: the center was stationary like the eye of a hurricane. The surrounding rocks bunched up like a bundt cake. When it finally finished moving, it looked like a circular pangolin wrapped around me.

“So.” I brushed stones with my fingertips. “Where does it hurt?”

Stone sheets rustled. Plates parted like elevator doors. More plates behind them parted vertically. More plates behind them parted diagonally and pure white light leaked through a slanted slot. “Prepare, Doctor. This will not be a sight for which your vision is accustomed.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“I cannot.”

I donned sterile gloves and ran a finger along the shining slot. The circular pangolin’s inner light showed me the shadows of bones in my finger. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“The holy man said you were the best available for sewing someone up.”

“It helps if I know what cut them open.”

The circular pangolin’s plates contracted. “I harvest mana from ether. The astral planes resist me with a hazardous…” It searched for a word. “Exoskeleton.”

“You cut yourself cactus-herding?”

“Metaphysically speaking.”

“Lemme take a look.”

The innermost plates parted and the brightness increased ten-thousand-fold. I couldn’t tell the difference between opening and closing my eyes, so I closed them and covered them with both hands. This hardly dimmed the light, and I felt utterly transparent. I wondered if my thickest bones still cast shadows or if the light penetrated even my pelvis and femurs when I walked into the rocky armor. I heard the stone sheets close behind me like air-locks. I felt labored breathing from all directions. The floor was warm and wet. I blindly felt for walls.

“So, why am I naked?”

“My inner light would disintegrate your clothing. The holy man will guard your garments.”

My hands brushed a warm wall. “Is this you?”

“It is.”

“Am I close to the wound?”

“You’ve been walking inside it.”

I considered the contents of my first-aid kit. “I didn’t bring enough anti-bac.”

“It is not necessary.”

“We can’t leave foreign objects when I sew you up. It’ll getcha whatever the metaphysical equivalent of an infection is.” In the blinding light I had to assess the wound by touch. I could barely brush both sides of the laceration with my arms outstretched. I couldn’t reach the top of the wound even jumping with my hands above me. I walked hugging the left wall to gauge the laceration depth: the left wall ended twenty paces from the deepest portion of the wound. I’d found the pangolin’s real flesh: even under plates of stone armor, its skin was a foot thick and covered in hard, sharp scales the size of my palm.

“Doctor, what is your professional opinion?”

“I need to perform debridement.” I tugged a loose scale until it popped off. “The astral plane burned your tissues. I have to remove the char.”

I used the scale to cut dead flesh from the walls and floor. The circular pangolin contracted mysterious musculature to bring the roof within reach, too. I was blind in the impossible light, but I knew which flesh to flay because the dead flesh was dry. Each time I brought a new armload of dead flesh from the wound, my old pile of dead flesh was gone. I suspected the pangolin ate them. I estimate the debridement took eight hours in total.

“Now I’m going to sew you up,” I said. “I’ll start by suturing the deepest parts of the wound.” I carefully opened my first-aid kit so each instrument remained in position. I felt where I expected needle and thread. I blindly, painstakingly threaded the needle. When I tried to pierce the pangolin’s internal flesh, the needle snapped. “Damn!”

“What?”

“You’re tough.”

“But you removed flesh with my scale!”

“I can’t sew with a scale.” I felt the wet floor for my first-aid kit and searched for another needle. I pricked myself on a cactus spine. “Ow!” It must have slipped into my kit in the fungus room. “I might be able to work with this.” I tied thread to the spine. Just as I suspected, the spine pierced the pangolin’s innards easily. The pangolin rocked and rolled; I struggled for balance mid-suture. “Stay still!”

“It hurts!” The circular pangolin squirmed as I sewed a zig-zag at the back of the gash. I retreated and tugged the thread taut.

“Just twenty more times, big fella.”

The pangolin groaned, but subsequent sutures were swifter. Soon enough I poked the cactus spine through the full foot of thick skin and pulled the whole wound shut. My roll of bandages was barely enough for a courtesy-wrap. “I’m afraid that’s all I can do.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

I felt my way back to the stone-plated outer walls. “Can you open up your armor and let me leave?”

“But Doctor, you haven’t claimed your reward.”

I turned to the circular pangolin. Its light was brightest along the sutured wound, so its edges were shaded and I saw its silhouette. It stretched like a serpent into the infinite distance. “I just wanna drink myself to sleep in my own bed.”

“You’ve rendered unparalleled service to me,” said the pangolin. “You must join my highest order.”

“You mean the folks frozen by the fungi? No thanks.” I pried at the plates. “Let me out!”

“But you must have some reward,” said the pangolin.

I gave up opening the armor. I wasn’t leaving without a gift. “How about…” I searched the bloody floor. I collected the scale I’d removed and stowed it in my first-aid kit. “How’s that? Can I go now?”

“Thank you, Doctor. Yes, you may.”

The plates opened.

I couldn’t see anything as I walked out because my eyes were adjusted to the bright light, but I felt a cool evening breeze. The plates closed behind me and sunk under the sand, leaving only the bulge of a new-born dune. When my eyes adjusted to the dark I found myself a quarter-mile from town, and my clothes were folded beside me.

I haven’t seen any cultists since then—at least, not on purpose. On new moons junior cactus-herders come to town to beg for food, and when they do, they stop by to pay respects. Not to me; I have to let them worship the razor-sharp pangolin-scale.

I asked, one time, “why do you want to see it? This is sharp enough to cut through the thickest rubber suit.”

The junior cultist pulled down her scarf and said, “you can only worship what you fear. It’s the only way to keep yourself from leaking. In any case, this scale touched the skin over the muscle connecting the bones around the heart of God, and therefore it gleams like the moon in my eyes.”

Whatever floats their boat. I use the sharp edge for whittling.

But I always carry the scale when I step out at night to drink. It reminds me to climb the new dune the pangolin left bringing me home. There I drink tequila until the dunes are waves and I’m lost at sea.


(I think this short story conveys the meaning of Akayama DanJay in 2% as many words. If you liked it, why not follow me? I try to post something every week.)

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The Broiler

(I wrote this in ten minutes with my writing group. I like it!)


My sixth-grade science-teacher Mr. Huffman assigned us a chapter to read about heat and thermodynamics. I, like my classmates, read nothing. The next day Mr. Huffman made us take out pens. “Only pens,” he barked, “and just one piece of paper, put everything else away.” Then he asked, “did you read the chapter? Write it down.”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Next,” said Huffman, “list the three methods of heat transference, and if you can’t, but wrote ‘yes,’ write your parents a letter apologizing for being a liar. Make them sign it and bring it in tomorrow as homework.”

I’d never felt fight-or-flight adrenaline. It broiled me from within. I knew nothing about heat, but couldn’t face my parents as a liar. Sweat slicked my palms and I looked to my friends, who already morosely resigned themselves to writing apology letters. I wouldn’t have it.

My textbook was under my desk. With the toe of my shoe, I opened to the table of contents. Under the Thermodynamics chapter heading the first three subsections were Radiation, Conduction, and Convection . I scribbled those words and stomped the book shut before Mr. Huffman saw.

I pinky promise that’s the only time I’ve cheated in class. On the plus side, on Mr. Huffman’s final exam, I remembered the three methods of heat transference, and I still do.


I’m trying to recall whether Mr. Huffman was all bark and no bite. His barks definitely made me skittish.

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Homer VS the Sea-Thing

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


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

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

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

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

“Is he spitting ice yet?”

“Hoo yeah. Every morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer gave a thumbs up.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

“Hm,” mumbled Homer.

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


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

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

“Minotaur.”

“Look. Scars.”

“Missing an eye.”

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

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

“Kill it?”

“Gnomes would kill us with demons.”

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

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

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

“Just watch the minotaur.”

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

“Eddin?”

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

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

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

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The first stars appeared above the audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer struggled with consonants. “Oundain Salloer.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir Hitode offers the first turn to you.”

“I decline.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The next match commences shortly.”

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

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

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

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

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The dwarfs behind them grunted. “Nine brains?”

“Nine brains.”

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

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

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

“Appalling.”

“Degenerate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Bland.”

“Bland?”

Homer pursed his lips unnaturally . “Pland.”

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

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

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

“Ebi Anago.”

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