To Mile 60

(This is part six of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a hundred mile race. For now, Jonas is ahead of the horse.)

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2019

BEEP. Mile 51: 11:52 / 6:48:51.

Hermes’ compression-sleeve was a lifesaver for my left knee. The knee ached without a sleeve ever since I broke my leg cross-country skiing as a Wisconsin teen, but I hadn’t worn a sleeve this morning because the only one I owned was cotton. After just twenty miles it would’ve rubbed my knee red-raw. Hermes’ compression sleeve was silky nylon. The man knew how to live.

“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. My mouth was still dry from twenty miles with hardly any liquid. As I chugged, Whitney put something in my palm. “Swallow these.”

It wasn’t my place to ask what she’d given me. I just swallowed them.

“That’s two ibuprofen and a salt tab,” she said. “You’ll thank me for the painkillers, and hyponatremia is a death-null. You’re already acting confused.”

BEEP. Mile 52: 8:11 / 6:57:51.

“Can’t too many meds cause kidney-failure?” I asked.

“If you win a million bucks tonight, you can buy as many kidneys as you want from the Bronsons,” said Whitney. “If you lose, you’ve got bigger problems than your kidneys.”

I gulped. As we ran into the shade of trees, a chill ran down my spine. “Change the topic, squire.”

“You just finished two marathons in under seven hours. Nice job.”

“I don’t want to think about running.”

“What have you explained so far to Thog, the caveman?”

“Just cars and crosswalk-signals.”

“Airplanes are usually good for a few miles,” said Whitney. “Explain airplanes.”

“Well, Thog, do you know about birds?”

Whitney smiled. “Thog know bird. Thog eat bird.”

“Have you ever wanted to fly like a bird, Thog?”

“Why Thog want that?”

“You could fly up high to see where all the animals were hiding. You could drop rocks on enemy tribes. You could spy women from afar to take back to your cave—I’m sure flying would be a hit with the ladies.”

“Ooh. Thog want that,” said Whitney. “Tell Thog about airplane.”

BEEP. Mile 53: 8:03 / 7:05:05.

I felt the ibuprofen kicking in. It didn’t help my aching legs much, but it helped. Whitney was right to worry about hyponatremia, too; low salt-levels could make me cramp or even hallucinate. “Well, Thog, I already explained cars, remember? An airplane is like a car that can fly like a bird.”

“How Thog get one?”

“Ooh.” I bit my tongue. “It’s harder to get an airplane than a car. Airplanes are expensive.”

“Eckspensif?” asked Whitney. “What that?”

“You know, you have to trade a lot of berries and animal skins and stuff for an airplane.”

“Oh. Thog have many berry and animal skin. Thog trade for airplane. Bring many woman back to cave.”

“The tricky thing is, though, piloting a plane is a lot harder than driving a car. You’ll probably have to get a license, or something.”

“Lie…sense?”

“I mean, you gotta prove you can fly without crashing and killing everyone aboard.”

“Ooh. Scary. Thog reconsider.”

Whitney and I laughed. My cheeks were red. “I missed running with you, Thog.”

“I’m glad to see you again, Jonas.” Whitney pointed up through the branches above. “You should tell Thog about helicopters next.”

I looked up. I’d prayed the helicopter flying overhead was a hallucination. “Alphonse.”

BEEP. Mile 54: 8:09 / 7:13:14.


Kevin paced around his car, smoking a cigarette and swearing. Hermes napped across the back seat. The sixty-mile flag fluttered in light breeze.

“…Finally!” Kevin waved both hands in the air.

Hermes opened his eyes at the buzz of an approaching aircraft. “What’s that?” A plastic craft the size and shape of a bird of prey hovered before Kevin and gently set a pizza-box on the dirt.

“I’m friends with a guy who runs a start-up delivering stuff by drone. I figured we couldn’t get Jonas’ pizza into the estate any other way, considering the hassle we had at the gate.” Kevin opened the pizza-box to check its toppings, then gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Pineapple-olive, just like Jonas ordered. Eeugh. Well, it’s his shitty pizza.” Kevin showed the drone’s camera both sides of his credit-card. “Christ, who orders a cheeseless pizza? Pretentious pricks, that’s who.”

Hermes watched Kevin inhale the last of his cigarette and blow the smoke at the drone as it took off. Hermes pursed his lips. “You don’t seem to like Jonas very much, huh, Kev? Why’d you want to come here and help him?”

“Jonas and I go way back, back to high-school cross-country. But he was always a pretentious prick. Always ragging on about skiing and the Wisconsin countryside and crap like that.” Keven sat in his car’s driver’s seat with the pizza-box in his lap. He used his smartphone to add a tip onto the delivery. “If he wins a million bucks today, Jonas better pay me for the pizza. It costs two hundred bucks to deliver like this. And he got it cheeseless, the pretentious prick!” Kevin lit another cigarette and puffed.

“Why do you smoke, man?” asked Hermes.

“Calms me down,” said Kevin, apparently unsarcastically. “Don’t tell me you’ve never smoked anything, hippie-beard.”

“Nothing legal,” said Hermes. “I just mean, as a cross-country runner, I figured you’d worry more about your lungs.”

Kevin reclined his seat. “Spare me the speech, dude. I’ve heard it all before.”

“Bet you have,” said Hermes. “I heard it all the time when I was drinking myself to death.” Kevin tapped ash from his cigarette. “When I was Jonas’ age, all I did was drink and run, but I only really learned to love running after I quit drinking. Got better at it, too.”

“I’m not like you weirdos,” said Kevin. “I don’t run ultras. I run on a treadmill in my air-conditioned basement, three miles at a time, three times a week. The treadmill doesn’t care if I smoke.”

“Running is running. Don’t Run to Live, man, Live to Run.”

“If that kinda thinking got Jonas into this situation, he should’ve just settled for living.” Kevin puffed his cigarette. “Should’ve just left the Bronsons alone.”

“I’m just saying, you could really… Uh…” Hermes pointed skyward. “Hey. Look.”

Kevin shaded his eyes from the sun. A helicopter was flying toward them. “Huh,” said Kevin. “Must be Alphonse.”

“Do you think it’s coming clos—” Hermes’ words were blown away by the helicopter landing abruptly before them.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Alphonse Bronson stepped from the cockpit. “I suppose this is yours?” He tossed the drone onto the dirt. It was mangled and torn.

“Whoa!” said Kevin, “Did you fucking shoot it?

“No, I didn’t. My helicopter-pilot shot it.” Alphonse saluted back to the helicopter as the blades spun down. “Your drone was in my private airspace, and my pilot has an itchy trigger-finger regarding invasion of my privacy.”

“It’s not a government spy, crackpot! It’s a pizza-delivery bot!

“I see. Please, forgive me.” Alphonse bowed, sweepingly. “I’ll pay for the drone, but I hope you understand I don’t want any unauthorized visitors on my property, flying or otherwise. If you’re hungry, please, call me and I’ll have a trusted estate-agent bring you something more sophisticated than a pizza.” He passed Hermes a business card.

“The pizza’s not for us,” said Hermes. “Jonas asked for it specifically.”

Alphonse blinked. “Oh.” He pat his gaudy military jacket’s pockets for a minty metal toothpick. “May I see it?”

“Excuse me?” Kevin pulled back the pizza-box. “Hell no.”

“Please excuse my abruptness. I’m fascinated by athlete nutrition,” said Alphonse. “What pizza-toppings does an ultra-runner order? Maybe my horses could learn a lesson from Jonas.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow.

“There’s really no need for suspicion,” said Alphonse. “I assure you, I’m not nearly nefarious as the media portrays me. The Bronsons aren’t a photogenic family, but we’re much more personable in person.”

“It’s pineapple and black olive,” said Hermes, “and cheeseless.”

“Cheeseless!” Alphonse clapped. “How intriguing!”

“Yeah, I’ve met lots of runners who say cheese makes them nauseous,” said Hermes. “They don’t do dairy on a run.”

“You know, when I was young, my father took me to Italy. I learned that cheeseless pizza is perhaps the most historically authentic,” said Alphonse, “and definitely delicious!” Kevin rolled his eyes. Pretentious prick. “But how might a runner eat a whole pizza mid-stride?”

“Jonas is hungry enough to eat a horse,” said Hermes. “It won’t take him long to finish this. Maybe he’ll walk for a few steps to scarf it down.”

“Is the pizza cut into squares,” asked Alphonse, “or are slices more convenient?”

Hermes shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The things you perceive not to matter might matter most!” said Alphonse. “My father always taught me—”

“Fine you pretentious prick!” Kevin opened the box. “It’s cut into slices, okay?”

Alphonse kicked the bottom of the box. The pizza flopped onto the dirt. Alphonse stepped on it and smeared it with the heel of his boot.

Kevin stared at the pizza. “You asshole!” He rolled up his sleeve and approached Alphonse. Alphonse just smiled and pulled a pistol from his jacket. It was silver and had horses engraved on the handle. “What the fuck.”

“You visit my property at my mercy. I don’t approve of flying-machines intruding to deliver mysterious pizzas—especially flying-machines with cameras.”

“We don’t want any trouble,” said Hermes, with his hands up. “Mr. Bronson, sir, would you please send us a pizza with pineapple and black olives but no cheese? For Jonas.”

Alphonse put the gun back in his jacket. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“You’re a dickhead!” said Kevin. “Aren’t you supposed to be riding a horse right now?”

“My best jockey’s on the job.” Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. “You’ll see her soon enough, as she streaks by.”


BEEP. Mile 55: 7:59 / 7:21:13.

“Anyway, Thog, that’s what helicopters are all about,” I puffed. Whitney’s pace was demanding but manageable.

“There it is again.” Whitney pointed up at Alphonse’s helicopter. “Maybe he’s spying on us.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“I can’t believe he switched out for a jockey,” said Whitney. “I read all about the Bronsons when I was researching Georgie Masawa. Alphonse seemed like the kinda guy who’d wanna do things himself, if only to gloat.”

“He flipped me off,” I said. “He said he was injured when his horse brushed against a branch, and he was eager to show me the band-aid on his middle finger.”

“Pathetic,” said Whitney. “He can’t even give the bird himself. He has to blame his horse.”

“Yeah.” I chuckled. “I don’t need any help to flip someone off.” I raised my middle-finger at the helicopter. “Take that, Alphonse.”

“Careful,” said Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.”

“You think he’s that petty?”

“From what I’ve read, no one is more petty than Alphonse Bronson.” Whitney passed me the hose to her water-backpack. “You know that better than anyone.”

I sure did. I grit my teeth.

BEEP. Mile 56: 8:02 / 7:29:15.

“Let me talk to Thog.”

“Thog here.”

“I told my friend Whitney that racing the horse was a corny attempt at romance,” I said, “but that’s not it. I have a grudge against Alphonse I couldn’t put off any longer.”

“You’ve told this story to Thog a hundred times,” said Whitney, “but Thog is happy to hear it again. You’re good at telling it.”

“I broke my leg cross-country skiing when I was fifteen,” I said. “If I ever wanted to ski again, I needed surgery my family couldn’t afford.”

“Mm-hm, mm-hm.”

“We heard about a big charity event in Colorado,” I said, “sponsored by the Bronsons. The Bronsons had an awful reputation, but if they were funding a charity event, maybe they weren’t so bad. So I went, and they gave me a crutch for free. I just had to run in a charity race.”

“How’d that go?”

“Alphonse offered free medical-care for life to every kid in that race except last place. As the kid on a crutch, it came down to me and the girl in a wheelchair.” I took a deep breath. “I would’ve been nothing but thankful if I’d just gotten the crutch, but taunting me with the possibility of getting my knee back, good as new—it wrecked me. I still see the girl in the wheelchair when I close my eyes. She beat me by meters.”

BEEP. Mile 57: 7:48 / 7:37:03.

“Thog understands,” said Whitney. “The Bronsons have hurt a lot of folks. You’re among an elite crowd, including Georgie Masawa.”

“I know.”

Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”

Whitney and I heard galloping hoof-beats. Champ streaked by us, full-tilt.

Yah! Yah!” shouted the jockey. The hoof-beats became quiet in the distance ahead.

“Oh my god.” My knees quaked.

“It’s okay,” said Whitney. “Don’t panic. The horse won’t always be behind us, or ahead. Races are about change.”

“No, it’s not the horse.” I held my head in my hands. “The jockey was her, Whitney. The girl in the wheelchair.”

“You’re hallucinating, Jonas. She could have been anyone.”

“I’d know the back of her head anywhere.” Now I led the pace.

BEEP. Mile 58: 7:32 / 7:44:35.

Whitney sped a few steps ahead to slow me down. “Drink.” I drank from her water-backpack. “Swallow.” She ripped open a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Drink.” I drank from her hose. “We’re closing in on that mountain.”

“Yep.”

“Is there another flag at mile sixty, to choose which way we run at the fork?”

“Yep.”

“Have you looked at maps of this place?”

“Yep.”

“Does either way, left or right, avoid that mountain?”

I puffed. “Nope.”

“Then save your gas, Jonas. The fork’s the jockey’s. Let her choose. You’ll choose at mile eighty, I promise.”

BEEP. Mile 59: 7:15 / 7:51:50.

I let myself slow down. “Thanks, squire.”

“Think about your pizza.”

“Ooh.” I salivated. “Kevin’s such a snob about pineapple on pizza, but I can’t get enough.”

“The combination of savory and sweet is old as cooking,” Whitney concurred, “and you never know what tastes good after sixty miles until you get there.”

“Nah. I’ve been praying for that pizza since mile five,” I said. “I hope they could get it into the estate.”

“I hadn’t thought about that.” Whitney put a hand over her mouth. “I should’ve asked for your pizza-order before we came in.”

“I need that pizza, Whitney.”

“There they are.” Whitney pointed ahead. Beyond the trees, beside the flag at mile sixty, Kevin and Hermes waited in the car.

BEEP. Mile 60: 8:04 / 7:59:54.

Hermes made a gesture for Whitney I couldn’t see. “Jonas, do some stretches and check where the jockey tossed the flag,” said Whitney.


“It’s not good, Whitney.” Hermes brought Whitney behind Kevin’s car.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Alphonse stopped by.” Hermes opened the pizza-box in the back-seat. The pizza was mushed and dirty.

“Ah. Shit.” Whitney put her hands on her hips and breathed through her teeth.

“That ain’t half of it, sister.” Kevin tossed the destroyed drone before her. It was still smoldering. “Alphonse is packing heat. We called the police, but they said Alphonse is legally justified shooting down drones in his private airspace. Who’da thunk.”

“Okay. Okay.” Whitney covered her mouth. “I’ll handle this. Get another pizza to mile seventy. It’s uphill the whole way, so it’ll take us a few hours.”


The jockey had tossed the flag left, and I was glad. The trail right was steeper.

“I’ve got bad news,” said Whitney.

“I’ve got good news, so lemme go first.” I pointed left. “The jockey chose the shallower path. Champ must be getting tired.” I grinned. “She was just galloping past to freak us out.”

“There’s no pizza,” said Whitney.

I looked at her dumbly. “Huh?”

“Alphonse stole your pizza and gave it to the jockey. She ate one slice, and the horse ate the rest.”

My blood boiled.


2014

Sandra knocked on the door. “You sent for me, sir?” There was no response. The door was ajar, so Sandra peeked into Alphonse’s bedroom. Alphonse was bundled up in blankets in the fetal position. He waved a finger to tell Sandra to come closer. Sandra rolled her wheelchair to his bedside.

“My father died this morning,” said Alphonse.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Sandra.

“He said I hadn’t made anything of myself.” Alphonse coiled into a tighter ball. “He still thought himself a bigger man than me.”

Sandra tutted. “Well, he raised you. If he considers you a failure, he must’ve failed as a father.”

Alphonse considered. He sat up, still wrapped in blankets. “Yeah. That’s right!” He turned to Sandra. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If he calls my aspirations twisted, he has only himself to blame. And now, without him holding me back, I can be a real Bronson!”

“Exactly, sir!” Sandra clapped. “Let’s celebrate! Do you have any jockey-juice? If I can stand, we’ll tango!”

“Yes, lets!” Alphonse opened a drawer on his nightstand. He passed Sandra a syringe which she injected into her thigh. Then she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Come here!”

Sandra had practiced dancing ever since she first tried jockey-juice. She and Alphonse danced around his bed. “What’s the first thing you want to do, now that your old man isn’t around?”

“The same thing I’ve done all my life,” said Alphonse, “dwarf my father’s legacy! My father made millions, I’ve made billions. My father raced glue-horses, I breed champions.” They wheeled around the room. “Anything he did, I’ll do with ten-fold the grace!”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit!” Sandra let Alphonse dip her. “Show your daddy who’s daddy!”

Alphonse kissed her on the lips.

Sandra grunted and pushed him away. “Whoa! Hey! I didn’t mean it like that!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Alphonse adjusted the cuffs of his gaudy military jacket. “I just thought—My father… was a father, and I thought you meant—I thought you were volunteering to make me a father, too.”

“No, no, no.” Sandra sat back in her wheelchair; Alphonse had diluted the jockey-juice, and she felt it wearing off. “I’m sure you’ll find the right woman to carry the Bronson genes.”

Alphonse looked out a window over the estate, and, sighing, shook his head. “I think I’m the last of my lineage. I can’t imagine meeting a suitable receptacle for my seed.”

Sandra breathed in relief. Some lucky lady dodged a bullet.

“No, I know exactly how to put my father’s memory in its place.” Alphonse smiled at the sun. “I’ll follow in his footsteps and beat a modern Georgie Masawa. Maybe I’ll run him to death, too.”

Sandra bit her lip. “With all due respect, sir, if you follow in your father’s footsteps, you’ll always be a step behind.”

Alphonse paused and turned to her. “I understand what you mean, but there’s a little more to Georgie Masawa than the history books tell. There’s room to improve on my father’s ambition.”

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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

Homer VS the Machine, Part One

(This is part nine of a fantasy series starting here. Today Homer the minotaur must defeat a dwarven computer at table-war to protect the planet from actual bloodshed.)


Over centuries, the dwarfs had eaten their corner of the continent to a flat, lava-pocked landscape. At night the glowing magma-pools spat back at the cold, dark sky. Homer warmed himself by a red-hot pit. Radiating heat made his goggles sear him, so he took them off.

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The human embassy was walled off with stalagmites gnawed into shape by the dwarfs. Dwarfs hid behind the spikes to watch Homer through their eyeless helmets. Homer checked his pockets. He had a brass card he’d received as a gift from Ebi Anago, nephew of the emperor of the seafolk.

Homer dropped the brass card in the magma pit. Immediately a gnome crawled from the liquid rock. This gnome’s fresh body was marble-white and crackled as it cooled. “Greetings. I represent seafolk trading services. How may I help you this fine evening?”

“Uedding.” Homer mimicked donning a necklace. “How much?”

“You want to buy a seafolk wedding necklace?” The gnome cocked his head. “Who is it for?”

“Gween.”

“A royal wedding necklace would cost a fortune,” said the gnome. “Forgive me for doubting you have the funds on hand.”

“Ebi Anago.” Homer snapped his palms like lobster claws. “Frend.”

“You know Sir Ebi Anago? Excuse me.” The gnome sank into the magma. After a few minutes, a magma bubble popped and the gnome emerged once more. “The esteemed Ebi Anago is grateful to hear from you, and sent me with this token of appreciation. He says this is more appropriate than a necklace for a surface-dweller’s wedding.”

The gnome pulled open his own torso like a chest of drawers. Inside sat a ring fit for a human’s finger, with a band of not gold, nor silver, but some shining blue element. Atop were three dark sapphires.

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“Ebi Anago hopes this demonstrates the eternal gratitude owed you by all sentient beings for your assistance securing sovereignty for the wild wastes. But if it does not please you, he would gladly replace it and fall upon a sword in shame.”

Homer took the ring.


In the human embassy, Aria shook wrinkles from her new white dress. The black glove she wore over her burnt right hand barely fit through the delicate sleeve. Gnomes held a tall mirror for her. Despite the attempts of ten tailors, her arms and legs were still too long for the dress. She felt like an elven brood-mother, twenty feet tall and spindly thin. “I don’t like it at all,” she told her gnomes and royal guards. “Anthrapas wore a dress, but that’s not me. Would a military uniform be queenly enough?”

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“I suppose it’s up to you,” said Sir Jameson, “but Anthrapas never dressed like that.”

“I’m queen. I’ll wear what I want.” Aria smeared off her make-up with her black glove. “Everyone out. I’m changing again.”

Aria appreciated her bedroom more when it was empty. The human embassy in dwarven land was adorned with luxurious crystal chandeliers, but smelled like rotten dwarfs.

Aria sighed and looked back into the mirror. “Maybe I could wear this just during Homer’s battle, to prove I’m queenly.” She tried to walk; her heels speared her dress’ hem and tore it. “Uugh. No.” She kicked off her shoes and stepped into her boots. “They’ll have to take me as I am.”

Someone knocked at the door.

“Come in.”

Homer stooped to slip his horns through the slim doorway. “Arra?”

“Hey, Homer.” Aria stuffed all her make-up into a drawer. “I’m glad to see you. Ever since I became queen, I’ve had to talk with just royal guards and gnomes. And—eugh—dwarfs, and elves. How are you? Are you ready for your match? The first to ten points decides the fate of the planet.”

Homer looked her up and down. “Dress.”

“I hate it,” said Aria, “and not just the dress, I hate all of it. It’s just like Anthrapas to leave me all the heavy lifting.” She tied her hair in a ponytail. “She knew me too well. I’ve gotta be a great queen, not because I care, but because failure would humiliate me. I’m too prideful not to give it my all.”

“Nod alone.” Homer lifted his goggles and presented the wedding ring.

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Aria Twine caught her knees before they buckled. “N-no.”

Homer didn’t recognize the disbelief on Aria’s face. Maybe she just didn’t understand. “I lov—”

“Don’t say it.” She struggled for balance. “Oh god, this is wrong.”

“Arra?”

“No, no, no… I’m so sorry.” She couldn’t keep her hands from trembling. She turned away. “I’m a human and you’re a—it’s just not right, Homer. You can’t love me like that. I was—” She shook her head. “I’m taking advantage of you, Homer. Like a beast of burden.”

Homer pointed to her black glove. “Burned your hand.”

“I burned my hand for me, not for you.” She cried onto her white dress. “Homer, you’re an intelligent, emotional animal. Don’t you deserve to love someone who isn’t just using you? I can’t do this. I just can’t.”

Homer looked at the ring. He left it on Aria’s dresser. “Gift, then.”

“Homer!” Aria chased him to the door, but Homer was already gone.


Homer wasn’t sure where he was running—just away from the embassy, away from the dwarfs, and away from any life he remembered. His breaths became fog banks in the night, clouding his vision and his mind. He tore off his vest and pants and goggles. His hooves hit the hard earth, and his back hunched forward until he bounded over the ground like a wild animal on all fours. Propelled by the vacuum left in the pit of his stomach, he finally left the jagged dwarven mountains behind and entered the wild wastes.

The full moon cast his shadow across the shifting terrain: icy plains, then baked deserts, then grassy hills, then gaping craters. He navigated not by starlight or compass, but by red madness at the corner of his eye. Even without knowing what he searched for, he knew when he found it.

A rectangular hallway protruded from the earth. Hewn of solid stone, the hall led into the darkness of an underground labyrinth.

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The door was large enough for Homer to enter at full height without hitting his horns. His hooves recognized the cobblestone floor. A fork in the hall ahead split into two paths both leading deeper into the dark.

Scents made Homer recall buried images. Curving corridors. Sloping stairwells. Facades, forks, branches, and ladders. For every month Homer had lived on the surface, he’d previously wandered a year in the maze. It called to him.

What had the surface ever done for him? He felt the scars on his chest. At least the maze would host more minotaurs for company. Whenever Homer had met another minotaur, they had kindly shared their food and their maps of the maze.

He smelled minotaurs even now. Where? He sniffed left and right at the fork, but the scent was strongest behind him, at the maze’s exit. Homer jogged back to the surface; maybe his new minotaur friends had escaped the maze just recently.

There they were, lying in the grass. He’d missed them in the dark: a male, a female, and a child.

Their heads were missing. Their bodies were warm.

They reeked of dwarfs.


“Homer?” Three gnomes lounged by the dwarven magma pits, just far enough away that their dresses didn’t catch fire. “What are you carrying?”

Homer slung the three minotaurs onto the ground. “Dwrfs.”

“Oh dear.” The gnomes inspected them. “You think dwarfs killed them? We are supremely sorry. There is no law against killing animals in the wild wastes, not until the sovereignty of the wastes is ratified.” Homer pointed to the boiling pit behind them. “You wish to burn them?” Homer nodded, shoulders quivering. “Homer…” Two gnomes held Homer’s hands. “Only gnomes are rejuvenated by magma.”

Homer nodded. He knew that already. He dropped the three bodies in the pit. Fire spread across their dried fur like burning grass. The bodies slowly sunk.

“There was a time gnomes knew sorrow. The whole collective gnomish consciousness could cry and cramp in anguish.” The gnomes removed their dresses to join Homer by the pit without combusting. “I say this not to diminish your pain, but to say that although centuries have passed since that time, we understand. If I were still capable of emotion, I would feel such agonizing empathy for you that dormant demons might split open the earth to rip me limb from limb to end my suffering.”

For a minute the only sound was bubbling magma.

“Make no mistake, Homer, emotions are perhaps the most powerful force in the universe. These scars will shape you, but, they do not constitute you. You are more.”

A gnome gave Homer his goggles. Homer put them on.


The Mountain Swallower’s throne room was ten times larger than the whole human capital, and had enough seats for armies. Dwarfs filled the northern half the room around the Mountain Swallower’s vacant throne. Their eyeless helmets watched the other races enter. The elves fluttered in with the humans, and then gnomes wheeled in the seafolk trapped in their glass tanks.

Emperor Shobai wiped morning dew from his tank with a long crab leg. His wife floated beside him. At Shobai’s direction, the gnomes wheeled them to the eastern side of the room beside Ebi Anago and Sir Hitode, the lobster and starfish commanders. The centaur, sphinx, and harpy took seats beside the seafolk, each bowing to the other races in whatever manner they were able.

On the western side of the room, Madam Commander Victoria took the center chair to represent the elven queen many miles away. Stephanie sat beside her, pouting.

Humans sat on the south side. Harvey and Jennifer waited for their queen.

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The Mountain Swallower’s footsteps echoed and shook the room. Their voice shattered the air. “Shobai.”

The seafolk emperor released bubbles from his maw.

“Victoria. Standing in for your queen?”

Victoria nodded.

“Beasts.”

The centaur, sphinx, and harpy nodded.

“The human queen is absent,” said the Mountain Swallower. “A pity she won’t witness the end of the world.”

The room stirred. Emperor Shobai tapped his gnome on the shoulder. “The emperor is concerned about your intentions today,” said the gnome. “Could you clarify your aim?”

The Mountain Swallower didn’t move. “When we defeat the minotaur, we will be freed from the treaty limiting us to table-war. We will wipe out all other life and restore our kingdom to its former glory. Before you protest, recall that dwarfs have never violated the law. Our means justify the end.” The Mountain Swallower barked at the door. “Enter, minotaur.”

Homer’s goggles and strong jaw seemed like a stone statue’s, as if he were carved from a mountain. He sat at the war-table with a bag of brass cards and figurines.

The Mountain Swallower leaned forward in their throne. “How sad that the dwarven race’s final challenge is scarred and disfigured.”

Homer considered words carefully, and eventually decided his mouth wasn’t adequate. He put his hand on a gnome’s shoulder. “I’m not your final challenge,” translated the gnome from Homer’s finger-taps.

“Mm?”

“And you’re not my final challenge, either,” translated the gnome. Homer organized brass cards on the table. “You’re just another fork in my path.”

The Mountain Swallower laughed. It was ear-splitting, like a violin played with a steel wool bow. “Such arrogance,” it whispered. “Bring the machine.” The room flooded with shadow. Gnomes had covered the windows—these gnomes had limbs gnawed off by dwarfs.

The machine was no longer merely a silent dwarf. It was a box five feet wide, five feet thick, and ten feet tall, covered in dwarven relief. The box wore a skirt of gnome arms, palm out, fingers spread, ready for input and output.

Its front face was decorated with minotaur skulls.

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“Inspired by your success, we briefly experimented with minotaur brains. We’ve concluded your heads are best as ornaments.” The Mountain Swallower beckoned their gnomes to deposit the machine opposite Homer at the war-table. “This box has one thousand gnome brains wired together. It is unbeatable.”

Homer grieved over the minotaur skulls. Their horns curved up like the trunks of broken trees. The bony smiles reflected in his dark goggles.

“The first to ten points will decide the fate of the planet, minotaur,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Let us—”

Homer interrupted through his gnomish translator. “When I win five points in the first round, I want your helmet.”

The Mountain Swallower chuckled. “Ha! And when my machine wins five points in the first round, I claim your goggles. Begin the match!”

Twenty gnomes poured from the stands. Some were bare, others in elven dresses, others decorated with jewels. The dwarfs’ gnomes stumbled out half-blind, feeling with hobbled arms and legs. One gnome stood on the table. “The minotaur may choose the location of the first battle. Oh…” Homer gave the gnome a brass card. “The battlefield is chosen.”

“Gnomes!” shouted the Mountain Swallower. “Tell our machine where the war will be!” Gnomes surrounded the machine and matched the disembodied hands around the circumference. The gnomes conveyed the location to the machine, and the machine buzzed and hummed. A brass card popped out a slot detailing the army the machine would bring to battle. A gnome pulled open a drawer on the machine and retrieved two figurines: a dwarf and its ballista. The gnome aimed the ballista exactly as the machine dictated.

Homer took a figurine from his bag: Scales, the icy dragon. Scales had hatched only a year ago, but Aria’s prescribed diet of elven insects had built him into a massive beast who breathed blizzards.

The gnomes swiftly built the table’s terrain. Black spires and sandy wastes were signatures of dwarven territory.

“Over before it even begins,” said the Mountain Swallower.

Homer nodded in agreement and put his dragon on the table.

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“The game starts,” said a gnome.

“Ennd.” Homer extended a hand. “Hellmet.”

The crowd murmured, perplexed. A gnome met Homer to inquire digitally. “He says inspecting the battlefield’s physical location will prove he has already won.”

The Mountain Swallower barked. Ten dwarfs picked up a gnome each and hustled from the throne-room. “Don’t waste my time, minotaur.”

As minutes passed, humans and elves chatted and pointed at the machine. The seafolk traded their gnomes from tank to tank carrying conversation between them.

“Homer, are you okay?” Jennifer pat his shoulder.

“We’re all here for you,” said Harvey.

Homer shook his head. “Arra?”

Jennifer sighed. “We don’t know where she is. She’s probably busy with queenly duties, but I can’t imagine anything more important than this.”

“Mmm.”

The dwarfs reentered and tossed their gnomes onto the table. “Upon closer investigation,” said a gnome, “there is a deep hole in this exact spot, underneath your units.” He dug with his hands. “It was disguised with thin branches and leaves smoothed over with brown dust. The hole is lined with sharp, pointed sticks.” He dropped the dwarf and ballista into the pit. “Five points to Homer.”

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Seafolk bubbled in their tanks. Humans and elves cheered.

The Mountain Swallower’s teeth barely parted. “Cheat!”

Homer shook his head and matched hands with a gnome. “Homer says he dug the hole himself last night.” Homer took Scales’ figurine. “Would you protest the death of your armies if you commanded them to swim into the sea? You lost because of our adherence to physical accuracy.”

The Mountain Swallower rapped the stone throne. “…Very well,” it said. “You win the first round.”

Homer extended his hand. “Hellmet.”

The lord of the dwarfs paused, teeth together, then pulled off its helmet.

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Under the helmet was the lipless and misshapen, but unmistakable, face of a gnome. The Mountain Swallower tossed their helmet onto the war-table. The audience was silent. The Mountain Swallower explained for the stunned mortals:

“There was a time gnomes and dwarfs were the same. When the earth was born, we were born with it.” All the gnomes in the room nodded in agreement. “We ate rocks. We craved gems. He enjoyed the heartbeat of hell. The earth was ours and all was right.”

Homer took the helmet and looked into its face-plate.

“But soon, we had siblings. The seafolk were first, cretinous, chitinous creatures scuttling in the depths. Then the land bore humans, elves, and animals. We despised all these lifeforms for daring to invade our existence. We thought we would never be rid of you parasites. But then, a thousand years ago,” said the Mountain Swallower, removing a gauntlet, “between the inner mantle and the core, where heat and pressure blurs the line between reality and the immaterial, we found them.”

The Mountain Swallower raised their bare forearm. It was scarred as if by a branding iron in the shape of a twisted screaming face.

“Nameless demons from beyond the pale. This is the demon with the great black axe.” They removed another gauntlet to show another scar. “Who wielded the great black sword.” Under the chest piece were many more intricate wounds. “Whose great black whip cracked the continent. Who bore the great black spear. The twin-headed monster with great black twin-headed flail. And their leader with a great black trident.”

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Homer squinted at the dwarf’s chest. Symbols from hell burned their rocky skin to charcoal. The scars circled like chains or snaking serpents.

“The demons were trapped in that hot, dark place by unknown entities from bygone eons. Their fiendish intelligence soon convinced us: if we freed them, the earth would be ours again. We made deals with each one, and with each deal the demons grew, until they blotted out the sky.

“True to their word, the demons wreaked havoc on the surface. Humans, elves, and seafolk all struggled to kill them, then to subdue them, then to flee from them, and then, finally, to merely survive them.

“But soon we realized our mistake. The demons’ footsteps, and their malicious laughter, shook the planet to its core. We were hurting our own mother. The demons had to be stopped. But we had already given ourselves to them, and were therefore powerless against them.

“But the planet reacted as if consciously. The core cracked, and we were split into gnomes and dwarfs. Only dwarfs were saddled with the pacts they’d made, and gnomes escaped those promises by ejecting the natural greatness of our race.”

The Mountain Swallower leaned forward.

“A thousand years ago, we were Eden’s members. The sensation of being primordial, and being connected by magma to all sentient beings—I lost that. And gnomes, poor gnomes, are the only creatures who can globally commune through magma, and regenerate their injuries, but they don’t enjoy it. Dwarfs aren’t afforded those luxuries, even being more deserving for the crosses we bear.

“But the demons were powerless before the gnomes, who were unburdened by desire. When the gnomes were finished renegotiating our pacts, the demons were barely bigger than beads. The gnomes also organized a treaty limiting the surface-world to table-war. For our own safety, we dwarfs conceded to that treaty. Until today.” The Mountain Swallower stood tall and folded its arms. “Today our machine defeats table-war and binds those demons to our whim once more. Today the earth reclaims its chosen race.”

Homer bit the helmet. His flat, bovine teeth worked the metal until it tore. He threw the helmet on the ground and stepped on it. “Negst round.”

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The Mountain Swallower beckoned three dwarfs to remove a panel from the machine. They rearranged gnome brains, twisted screws, and filed brass cards. “Minotaur, my machine is improved and will not lose again. Would you accept another wager?” Homer glared at the lord of the dwarfs. “If you earn even one point this round, I’ll give you all the wealth of the dwarfs. If you earn nothing, I’ll take your goggles to replace my helmet.”

Homer nodded.

“As loser of the previous round, the dwarven machine has the choice of battlefield,” announced the gnomes. They surrounded the machine to let its skirt of hands tell them where the next battle should be. The map they built on the table had sinister, burnt-black trees jutting from the ground.

While he waited for gnomes to finish the map, Homer wondered if the machine was watching him. Was it blind like a dwarf? Maybe the gnomes informed its skirt of hands of Homer’s every movement.

Homer snapped from wonder when the gnomes put a figurine on the table: a giant squid, like the one Madam Victoria had used in the battle against the harpy. The harpy gasped, and Homer realized it was in fact that same squid: in official table-war canon, the squid’s corpse had rested here since that battle. “What happened to my homeland?” squawked the harpy. “It looks like a cemetery, bukawk!”

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“It is a cemetery,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Your battle was a bloodbath.”

If the gnomes put any figurines on the table at the machine’s behest, Homer didn’t notice them doing so. This made him anxious. Homer won his first-ever table-war using undead skeletons, so he reasoned the squid might be his main antagonist. He put six men on horseback onto the table.

“That match begins,” said the gnomes. “Homer has the first move.”

Homer held up four fingers and moved them in a circle. The gnomes made four of his horsemen trot circles around the squid; the horses left flames in their wake. “My Night Mares!” whispered Jennifer to Harvey. “Good choice!” The squid’s corpse was ringed by fire.

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The machine was silent. For a moment Homer wondered if the machine even realized a battle was underway. Then the gnomes made the squid wriggle. The Mountain Swallower laughed. “I suspected my machine would infest the table with dwarven grave-worms. Ordinarily we consider them pests for filling cemeteries with fragile, worthless zombies, but when you won your first match with skeletons, we learned the value of the undead.”

Homer frowned. “You sah my madch?”

“Of course,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Dwarfs can’t communicate through magma, but I can still know anything any dwarf knows, and I relay my knowledge to my machine. Observe.” The Mountain Swallower bit the head off the nearest dwarf and swallowed without chewing.

The squid clambered toward the ring of flame. Homer muttered. “Firr.”

“I’m sure your fire could contain my squid,” said the Mountain Swallower, “as old corpses are hardly hardy. Let us see what my machine has planned.”

As soon as the lord of the dwarfs finished speaking, gnomes extinguished the ring of fire, and even the manes of Homer’s Night Mares. “It’s raining,” said a gnome.

Homer grabbed that gnome by the shoulder and asked, with gnomish finger-taps, “Did it really just start raining in the harpy’s homeland?”

“No,” said the gnome, “but the harpy’s real homeland is not a cemetery, and cemeteries rain quite often. The machine surely predicted this, having a thousand gnome-brains. Anything we know, it knows.”

Homer gnashed his teeth.

The gnomes made the squid lumber toward the Night Mares, bind them in tentacles, and eat them and their jockeys. “Check brasses!” Homer seethed. He raised two fingers, for the two Night Mares who hadn’t run circles around the squid.

The gnomes reviewed the Night Mares’ brasses. “These two Night Mares are not carrying jockeys,” they said for the audience. “They are carrying mannequins stuffed with poison.”

The Mountain Swallower’s teeth parted. “It is toxic to squids?”

“It is,” said the gnomes, “but not squids who have already died. The squid remains reanimated. Zero points to the minotaur.”

Homer’s fur stood on end. The human audience behind him murmured at the maze of scars revealed on his back.

“This is the first time in the history of table-war that a commander has ended the battle with more troops than it began with,” said the gnomes. “So, for the first time in the history of table-war, we award nine points to the machine.”

The floor around Homer cracked.

A labyrinth erupted around him, showering the room with debris and tossing the war-table into the air.

Commentary
Next Chapter

The Elf VS the Dwarf

(This is part seven of an ongoing fantasy series starting here. Last week, Aria Twine reached into a fire trying to save a melting metal figurine from the traitorous human Thaddeus. Her minotaur Homer beat an elf at table-war without the figurine anyway. Now Aria has to confront Thaddeus before the queen of humanity.)


Aria wished she could revel in Stephanie’s defeat, but rage distracted her. She never knew she could feel this angry at a human like Thaddeus. She clenched her left hand; her right hand was bandaged and misshapen.

A gnome approached her on the bench outside Queen Anthrapas’ throne room. “Ms. Twine, I have come to change your bandages.”

“Not now,” Aria grumbled. “I’m waiting for the queen to call me in.”

Nevertheless, the gnome took her right hand and unwound bandages. “The queen sent me, ma’am. This will only take a moment.”

Aria shook her head. “My minotaur is hundreds of miles away, probably worried half to death without me. How could the queen make me come back to human lands n-ow!”

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The gnome took the bloody bandages. Aria’s hand was red, withered, and covered in coin-sized blisters. She squirmed on the marble bench as the gnome poured cold water over her palm. “You need physical therapy to prevent scarring. Burns on the hand can—”

“I get it, I get it.” Aria covered her eyes as the gnome wrapped her hand with fresh bandages. “Can I go now?”


Queen Anthrapa’s marble throne-room was as sterile as Aria’s new bandages. Thaddeus polished his jacket’s buttons with his own freshly bandaged right hand.

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Thoughts wrestled behind the queen’s tired eyelids. She rubbed her aching temples. “Aria. Thaddeus. Both of you contacted me at the same time with the same story. Thaddeus, tell me what happened again. Aria, be quiet.”

“Like I said, Queen Anthrapas, your majesty, it was terrible.” Thaddeus agonized over his bandaged hand. “I knew Aria might sabotage her minotaur. She’d already sold imps to the elves, hamstringing me and Harvey in the tournament; who knows Aria’s true intentions? I followed her to elven lands, and sure enough, I saw her melting her minotaur’s best game-piece, the silver dragon, after stipulating only accurate figurines could be used.”

With sarcastically arthritic effort, Queen Anthrapas gestured for Thaddeus to continue.

“Thinking quickly, without regard for personal safety, I reached into the flames and grabbed the figurine! But, too late. It was already half-melted.”

Aria made fists with both hands. Her right palm burned. “I see,” said Queen Anthrapas. “Thaddeus, do you know the outcome of the minotaur’s board-game? Don’t say anything, just nod or shake your head.” Thaddeus shook his head. “Homer won. Five points to zero.”

“Thank goodness,” said Thaddeus.

“Cut the act.” Queen Anthrapas silenced him with one hand. “If Twine had sabotaged her minotaur, she’d’ve done it right and her minotaur would’ve lost. Thaddeus, this is your last chance to confess to treason.”

Thaddeus shrugged. “Even if you don’t believe my story, there’s no way you could prove me guilty. It’s my word against hers.”

Anthrapas nodded. “Gnome.” The marble doors opened and a gnome entered holding ragged bloody bandages.

Thaddeus gripped his seat.

The gnome held the bandages for Queen Anthrapas to inspect. She sighed. “When you both contacted me with the same story, I knew the real perpetrator would try to brand themselves on an identical figurine after the fact. So I preemptively branded the dragon—the real dragon, Scales.” The bandages had distinct patterns of blood in the shape of Anthrapas’ seal. “The perpetrator bought Scales’ figurine at a hobby shop. It was authentic enough to feature the dragon’s latest brands.”

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“You branded my dragon?” Aria huffed.

“Whose bandages are these?” asked Anthrapas. Her gnome pointed to Thaddeus.

“There’s an explanation,” said Thaddeus. “Aria must have realized you’d do this and—”

“There was a time,” interrupted the queen, “I’d have you drawn and quartered. Each quarter would be fed to a different wild animal. Then I’d personally burn your intestines and strangle you with them.” Thaddeus soaked tears with his bandages as two royal guards flanked him. “That time is gone—not long gone, but gone. Maybe I’ll just bring you to the great black sword outside my window. I’ll tie both your legs to different horses and whip them so they run on either side of the blade. It would be quick.”

“Forgive me, Queen—”

“You’re nobility, aren’t you? Your parents own land. Maybe I should donate the territory to the wild wastes. Or the elves. Or seafolk. Or dwarfs.”

“Please, just—”

“Or maybe,” she said, “Humanity’s Path to Victory should choose your punishment.”

Aria chewed her lips. “You branded my dragon.”

“It’s my dragon, Aria. Get over it.”

“Well, elves always need more shortlings.” Aria watched Thaddeus sweat. “Trade him for dragon fodder to make it up to me.”

“I’ll consider it.” Anthrapas waved Thaddeus away. “Guards, escort him to the dungeon. Gnomes, follow them out.”

The throne room suddenly emptied. Aria had fought a hundred table-wars here, and had never seen it empty of even gnomes and guards. The queen and Aria sat in silence. Beneath the marble floor, magma gently bubbled.

“Shall I leave?”

“You shall not.”

Aria stayed. The setting sun shined through the window, and the great black sword in the distance cast shade over the queen’s face. She sighed and released tension from her shoulders. “Twine, close the window.”

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“Yes, ma’am.” Aria rushed to a long hooked pole near the back wall, and used it to close heavy drapes. Only flickering from the underground magma lit the throne room.

“I’m getting old, Twine.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am?”

“Don’t play dumb.” Anthrapas felt the bones in her hand, and pushed blue veins over her knuckles. “I watched Emperor Shobai take his throne decades ago. I’ve lost track of my age.”

“You’re ninety-seven, ma’am.”

Aria expected a rebuke, but the queen just watched the flickering magma. “For decades, my council of nobles has wanted me to declare a successor. Hubris, I suppose, kept my hand. Humanity grows impatient for my retirement or my death.”

“I’m not eager for your death, ma’am. You took me in when I was just a kid.”

“You’re it, Aria. You’re queen when I croak.”

“What? No!” Aria shook her head. “I don’t want to be queen!”

“You’re slippery, Aria, but I’ve got you good.”

Aria spoke through her teeth. “I never wanted this.”

“But I always did, and you walked right into it.” For the first time Aria could remember, Anthrapas laughed. “I was worried when your game-piece was assassinated and you left to live in a shack, but you rode back to me on a minotaur. I didn’t even have to nominate you to my council of nobles; they recommended you after Homer beat Ebi Anago.”

“I refuse.”

“You reached into fire for humanity. You can’t refuse.”

“Of course I can.”

“Legally, yes. But you, Twine, I know you can’t refuse.” Aria looked away. “We both win. You seek personal glory. I seek humanity’s safety. Now your glory hinges on humanity.”

“I didn’t ask for that responsibility,” said Aria. “I like table-war. I like raising monsters. I never did it for humanity. I reached into fire for myself.”

“You can still back out,” said Anthrapas. “My council could choose another.”

Aria paused. “Who… who is the council’s next choice?”

“Thaddeus.” Anthrapas laughed until she coughed and choked. “He’s noble blood. He’s not bad at table-war. He’ll gladly accept, if it means he’s not sold to the elves.”

“But he’s awful. He’s a scumbag.”

“So you suddenly care?”

The magma cracked and spat. “…You win. I’ll be queen.” Aria sat. “You beat me, and I didn’t even know we were playing. But now, Homer needs me.” She crossed her arms. “I haven’t seen him in days. Where is he?”

“I had Sir Jameson escort him to the baked caldera,” said Anthrapas. “It’s contested territory on the elven/dwarven border. The Mountain Swallower’s champion has challenged the elves for the land; as the tournament front-runner, Homer should see the dwarven champion in action.”


Homer sniffed smoke which dimmed the sky. The flat, featureless horizon was quiet ash. The audience of elves somberly filled benches in the impromptu arena.

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“When are the dwarfs coming?” complained Sir Jameson. “If they declare table-war, they should at least have the decency to show up.”

“They should arrive shortly.” Quattuor sat patiently. “Dwarfs are many things, but never late.”

The elves clapped for an elderly elf scowling her way to the table. Her hair was in a tight bun to make her look tall—almost five feet—but her nose was raised even higher. “Llf?” asked Homer.

“The elf is Madam Commander Victoria. Her first tournament match was against Thaddeus, and she won handily. She was meant to fight the sphinx next, but she postponed that match to defend the baked caldera.”

“They should just let the dwarfs have this place, to be honest,” said Sir Jameson. “What an eyesore.”

“If dwarfs claim it, they will be a step closer to the elven capital,” explained Quattuor. Homer smelled the dwarfs before he saw them. Their stench attracted buzzards, and elves covered their noses. Dwarfs filed into the arena. Their clanging coal-colored armor covered every inch of skin. The first dwarf in line wore thicker, brighter, silver armor; this dwarf’s teeth were black. “The Mountain Swallower,” whispered Quattuor to Homer.

The Mountain Swallower’s voice made the scars on Homer’s chest itch: “Fight.” The king of the dwarfs sat opposite the elves in the arena. More dwarfs surrounded their leader leaving one lone dwarf, their champion, sitting at the central table across from Madam Victoria.

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Homer sniffed. He pointed at the dwarven champion, and tapped Quattuor on the shoulder. “What’s he say?” asked Sir Jameson.

“The dwarven champion does not smell as foul as an ordinary dwarf,” said Quattuor.

Jameson chuckled. “The smartest dwarf ever is the first one to figure out how to bathe.”

Victoria summoned five gnomes in pink dresses. “Have you no gnomes?”

The dwarven champion said nothing.

“I’ll need more gnomes to help set my figurines.” Victoria pointed to Quattuor. “I’m borrowing you.” Quattuor obediently joined the other gnomes powdering the table to make it look exactly like the baked caldera in miniature. Then they helped Madam Victoria arrange her army of elves.

The dwarven champion placed three figures on the table: a dwarf, a catapult, and pile of stones.

“Are you serious?” Victoria stood on her chair to see the dwarf’s side of the table. “Is that all you’ve got?”

The dwarven champion raised one hand. Quattuor matched fingers with the dwarven greave to communicate in gnomish. “These are all their figurines,” confirmed Quattuor.

Victoria sat and admired her army. “This will be easier than I thought. For a moment, I might have been worried.”

“So sure?” The Mountain Swallower stood. Its crumbly voice made shorties cry. “A wager, then. If you win, you’ll take my helmet. If you lose, I’ll claim a gnome.”

Homer’s fur bristled. Sir Jameson put a hand on his shoulder. “The elf has this in the bag, big guy. And it’s only a gnome anyway.” Homer shook his head so hard his horns almost hurt someone. He pointed to his eye and drew his thumb across his jaw and across one shoulder. “Huh? Oh, right—you rescued Quattuor from dwarfs, all beat-up and abused. But gnomes don’t care that dwarfs cut off their limbs, and a magma-bath fixes them right up. You know that.”

Homer puffed.

“I accept your wager, Mountain Swallower.” Victoria’s army was arranged with precision befitting an experienced commander. “I offer the dwarven champion the first move.”

The dwarf raised another hand and another gnome jogged to join Quattuor in translating. The two gnomes struggled to keep up with the dwarf’s rapid finger-tapping. “Assistance, please,” called Quattuor, and all six gnomes clustered around the dwarf messaging each other. They tapped information onto the dwarf’s shoulders, too, which Homer found disturbing. He couldn’t imagine sending different signals with both hands while receiving different responses with both shoulders.

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After thirty seconds, the gnomes broke formation and surrounded the table to show how the dwarf loaded its catapult with stones and launched them. Gnomes debated the effects of wind on the payload to make every stone follow a perfectly simulated arc.

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“Slow down,” said Victoria. She allowed the gnomes to move the stones to their zenith. “Stop there. My elves clear this area.” The gnomes moved the elven army to make an empty circle where the stones would land. “Easy.”

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The stones landed in the empty circle and ricocheted in all directions. “Your troops cannot react in time to the ricochet. The closest are stoned to death.” Gnomes scooped out figurines in an annulus of impact. “The next closest survive with debilitating injuries.” Gnomes knocked down elves in a much larger ring.

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“What!” Victoria braced herself against the table. “You expect me to believe each of those rocks killed one elf and wounded two more?”

“I do not expect you to believe it, ma’am, but it is true.” The gnomes meticulously demonstrated the path of each stone individually. “While you consider your next command, the dwarf is reloading its catapult.”

Victoria surveyed her surviving troops. “I surrender,” she decided. “The remaining elves retreat. I suspect we’ll need them to fight another day.”

“The baked caldera is mine.” The Mountain Swallower stood. “I claim this gnome, the one with no dress. Dresses catch in my teeth.”

“Oh, dear.” Quattuor nodded to Homer and Jameson. “Perhaps we’ll meet again someday. Tell Ms. Twine I said goodbye.”

“Speak not.” The Mountain Swallower ate Quattuor’s head.

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Homer bellowed as the Mountain Swallower chewed Quattuor’s shoulders and arms. The sound, like crushing gravel, made Homer’s fur bristle and showed the maze of scars on his chest. “Calm down, Homer.” Jameson patted Homer’s knee. “Dwarfs eat rocks, so gnomes are a delicacy, like fine cheese.” The Mountain Swallower finished with Quattuor’s legs and feet. “We’ll buy a new gnome from the elves.”

“Rrr!” Homer stood with enough force to knock over the bench, toppling Jameson and some dwarfs. “Rrarrr!”

The five gnomes in pink dresses stood between Homer and the Mountain Swallower. “The wager was accepted and the dwarven champion won. The Mountain Swallower’s actions are admissible.” The Mountain Swallower licked its teeth. Its tongue was blue and gray.

The ground pulsed around Homer. Dust puffed up like wild animals were bursting from shallow graves. Elves scattered. Homer lifted the bench above his head. “Homer, this is your last warning!” said the gnomes.

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Homer smashed the bench over the dwarven champion. The coal-colored armor cracked and hard green gnome-brains spilled out. False teeth fell from the helmet. Homer dropped the broken bench. “Nno smell,” Homer explained.

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Gnomes and elves gathered around the armor. “Their champion’s a fake!” said an elf. “The dwarfs cheated!”

The Mountain Swallower laughed. This rare dwarven laugh was like distant thunder rolling over ruins. “Ask any gnome—that pile of brains is a legally registered dwarven commander.”

The gnomes didn’t bother matching fingertips. “This dwarven commander was obviously registered under false pretenses, but is nonetheless registered.”

“Don’t act surprised. Dwarfs have built war-machines since the dawn of time,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Recently we’ve experimented by decapitating gnomes for their cold, calculating brains. When you beat the nine-brained seafolk, Ebi Anago,” it said to Homer, “we decided to wire up ten brains at a time.” More brains slopped from the dwarven champion. “We’ll add more if we like.”

“This is a flagrant breach of the intent of law.” Victoria pointed at the broken champion. “No one could beat ten gnomes at table-war, not if they can cripple armies with a handful of stones!”

“Nonetheless, it is registered,” said another gnome. “A registered commander can only be disbarred from play because of their own death or the death of their game-piece, or for violating the treaty. This ‘dwarven’ commander has done none of those things. Speaking of which,” he said, turning to Homer, “ordinarily you would be ejected for assault, but in these extenuating circumstances, we allow you to remain a commander.”


Aria didn’t wait for her carriage to stop before she jumped out and ran for the arena. “Jameson!” She waved for him with her bandaged hand. “Where’s Homer? What happened here?”

“Homer’s cooling off somewhere.” Sir Jameson flipped a toppled bench. “You need a new gnome; the Mountain Swallower ate yours. Homer got mad and smashed the dwarven champion, who’s apparently some gnome brains wired together. Look what Homer did to this dust! He was so angry this just sort of… happened!”

Aria slid her boot to trace a maze drawn in the dust. “I feel you, Homer. I really do.”

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Commentary
Next Chapter

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.)

Back

Homer VS the Elf

(This is part six of an ongoing series starting here. Last time, Homer the minotaur won a board-game against a lobster. Today he’ll have to beat an elf.)


Homer and Aria stood before Queen Anthrapas’ throne. The elderly queen was slumped casually with her head on one hand. “I congratulate you on your victory.”

“Thank you, your majesty.” Aria bowed. “It wasn’t easy.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Anthrapas pointed at Homer. “Even the best commanders have trouble with seafolk. Good work. Now, to business.” She gestured to Sir Jameson at the back of the room.

Jameson took Aria by the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Aria. You need to leave for a few minutes.”

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“What? No.” Aria shrugged him off, but Jameson took her wrists behind her back. Homer moved to protect her, but Quattuor stood between them. “Get off me! I’ll see myself out!” Jameson followed her and shut the door behind himself.

“I’m sorry about this,” whispered the queen. “Aria always wants her way, and she doesn’t mind causing international incidents to get it. I have to make sure she’s not using you for self-interested reasons.”

“Yuzing?” Homer shook his head.

“Your next match is against an elf,” said the queen. “An elf killed Aria’s game-piece. I’d hate for her to delegitimize your match for personal reasons by, say, overstepping her boundaries in anger. Therefore, I forbid you and Aria to meet again until after the match.” Homer furrowed his brow; his forehead wrinkled against his goggles. “You and I are not yet done. Enter, ambassadors.”

The doors opened. Royal guards escorted three figures into the throne room: a centaur (whom Homer recognized from the wild wastes’ border wall), a bent man with scrawny red wings whose clawed feet scratched the floor, and a big blue cat who seemed too squat for her length.

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“Centaur, harpy, sphinx.” The queen glared at each in turn. “If the creatures of the wild wastes want to participate in the tournament to prove their sovereignty as an independent nation, you’ll have to assuage my concerns.”

“Oh, come on! We’ve got a border wall and everything!” The centaur whinnied and rapped his hooves against the floor. “Why do other nations get to divvy up ours and play with the pieces?”

The harpy squawked. “Elves and seafolk already gave us tournament seats! Bukawk!”

The sphinx purred. “There are more animals in the wild wastes than there are humans, elves, and dwarfs combined. We deserve representation.”

Queen Anthrapas pointed to Homer. “We’ve already got an animal in the tournament. Would you want his seat, or would you make me give up another? The tournament would have two humans and four animals.” She pointed her thumb down. “Homer, choose one of these beasts to capture for humanity’s army. Only the other two will be seated in the tournament.”

“What!” The centaur stamped. “You can’t keep kidnapping us! That’s the whole point!”

Homer pointed to the sphinx. “Why?” asked the queen. “The centaur or harpy would be better in battle, surely? A centaur could carry two men on his back. A harpy could fly above the battle and return with intelligence.”

Homer tapped gnomish onto Quattuor’s shoulder. “But sphinxes are notoriously clever,” translated Quattuor. “Homer would rather take the sphinx to the stable than fight it at the table.”

The sphinx’s fur bristled along its spine. Anthrapas nodded. “Relax. I’m just testing the minotaur. He’s clearly allied with humanity. If the elves and seafolk have already agreed to do the same, I concur in relinquishing one of my tournament seats to the wild wastes. My lowest-performing commander will be booted; I think it’s Thaddeus.”

The centaur, harpy, and sphinx bowed to her in whatever way their shapes allowed.

“Homer, leave,” said the queen. “I must test Aria, too.”

As Homer left the throne room, Sir Jameson escorted Aria before the queen. Homer made himself turn away from her.

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“Take a good look.” Outside the throne room, Thaddeus leaned against a pillar. His smug smile and doofy hair made Homer’s blood boil. “You’re never seeing Aria again. Queen Anthrapas won’t let you two in the same country once I testify.”

“Saddeuss.”

“You and Aria shouldn’t’ve crossed me.” He turned up his collar to enter the throne room. “Thanks to you, Anthrapas is giving my tournament seat to a sphinx. How embarrassing! But you’re an animal, too, aren’t you? Aria’s far too compassionate toward creatures to be trusted in the tournament, with so many monsters involved. I’ll bet I can get her executed if I play my cards right.”


In the front carriage, Homer read wooden cards with his fingertips. “Can you really read those?” asked Sir Jameson. Homer nodded. “I can’t read gnomish to save my life. Who are those cards?”

“Llfs.” Homer sketched high elves and shorties with a piece of charcoal on a scroll.

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“I hate escorting elves around Queen Anthrapas’ castle. They’re always pulling tricks, like filling my boots with jam. Where are your brass cards, by the way? And don’t you have figurines to play with?” Homer pointed to the carriage behind them, where Aria and Quattuor had all the official metal material. “We’ll have to wait for your gnome to bring them to me for inspection. You know I can’t let you and Aria see each other, or pass notes.”

Homer nodded. His goggles reflected the passing trees. The elven capital was like a forest and a jungle combined. The hot humidity left dew on Homer’s horns. It smelled like dizzying elven pheromones.

“I bet I know why Aria’s double-checking your figurines,” said Jameson. “Ten years ago she lost her status as a royal commander when an elf killed her game-piece—I think the elf was named Stephanie. Before the game, Stephanie switched out all Aria’s brass cards. When Aria used those cards to declare her army, she immediately lost: her rank was infiltrated by elves who assassinated her own game-piece—it didn’t matter that Aria’s figurines showed which units she’d intended to play. So for your upcoming match, Aria’s stipulating that figurines physically match the descriptions on their cards. That’ll protect you from elvish tricks!”

The carriages wound around trees fifty feet thick and hundreds tall. Vines like boas snaked down the bark. Falling leaves drifted like hang gliders. Under the canopy, the sunlight was dim enough for Homer to remove his goggles. He put on his eye-patch.


Elven shorties led Homer to his private room carved into the side of a tree. The walls were lined with translucent pipes pumping sap and water. The shorties showed him how to drink right from the walls, but Homer was more interested in the shorties themselves. They hardly seemed the same species as high elves, and never wore lace wings.

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Someone knocked at Homer’s open door. “Permission to enter?”

“Guattuor.”

Quattuor entered and gave Homer a jug of cold water. Homer drank thirstily. “That’s from Ms. Twine, and Sir Jameson has already inspected it for national security purposes. Ms. Twine and I are still corroborating your brass cards and figurines. Ms. Twine demanded from the elven queen that your opponent follow the same stringent procedures. Your match will be scrutinized for authenticity.”

Homer nodded.

“The queen of the elves extends her invitation,” said Quattuor. “Please report to her crystal hall.”


The largest tree in the forest had massive doors guarded by two shorties. They apparently knew Homer had been invited, as they both started opening the door. It was a little big for them, so Homer helped.

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The crystal hall was so brightly lit, Homer searched his pockets for the goggles he’d removed. He could hardly see five feet in front of his face, but smelled pheromones thick like soup. From the back of the room called a voice: “Homer, isn’t it? So glad to see you.” The voice was motherly like a hearth. “Approach, please!”

Homer stumbled, almost blind in the light, until he bumped a wall. The wall was patterned with octagons and squares. Each shape capped an alcove filled with blue-green goop. In some, Homer saw dark elven eggs. In others, shorty larvae ate the goop they’d been born in. The comb covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the crystal hall.

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“Don’t let my children distract you, Homer. Come here!” The elven queen was twenty feet tall but thin as an ordinary elf. She was noodly, spooled over her throne in immobile opulence. Uniquely among elves, she had real, luxurious wings which cushioned the throne under her. They were red with angry black eye-spots, offsetting the queen’s disarming smile.

Four high elves climbed their queen to massage her limbs, helping her overworked heart.

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“Sit, Homer, please. Would you like some sap?”

Homer sat on the floor. “Zab?”

“Oh dear.” An attending high elf covered her queen’s smile so she could chuckle politely. “You hardly know human customs, and here I am, expecting you to know your way around elven ritual. I should have warned you: it’s impolite to turn down offers of sap.”

Homer scratched his chest. “Zab.”

“Bring us some sap, please.” An attending high elf skipped out of the hall. The queen noticed Homer investigating the octagons and squares underneath him. “The octagonal chambers are for high elves,” she explained. “The squares are for shorties. The square chambers are smaller, so their larvae molt into smaller elves.”

Homer quizzaciously pointed at the elven queen.

The queen laughed. “My larval chamber was this whole crystal hall. Every brood mother has their own crystal hall, but mine’s biggest. That’s why I’m the tallest, and why my pheromones make me queen.”

Homer nodded.

“That’s the power of elven society: my subjects worship me on a cellular level. Your table-war opponent tonight is a high elf named Stephanie, but her patriotism means your opponent is, symbolically, me.”

“Zdefany?” Homer felt the scars crisscrossing his chest.


“Stephanie?”

“Oh! Aria Twine! Fancy meeting you here.” Stephanie had expertly zeroed in on Aria from across the elven arena built into an enormous tree-stump. “I thought you’d never want to visit ever again!”

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“Buzz off,” said Aria. “And remember! If any figurines on the board don’t properly represent their brass, we’ll start the game again! No tricks!”

“Gosh, Aria, you sure are strict.” Stephanie put a hand to her chest. “Don’t you know I never pull the same trick twice?”

“Good.” Aria surveyed the crowd. There were no dwarfs (thank goodness) but too many elves. A few seafolk observed from murky tanks. “Homer won five points in his first match. Beating you is just his next step to winning the whole tournament.”

“I won my first match with five points, too, Aria.” Stephanie giggled. “Poor Harvey.”

“Harvey didn’t have a silver dragon. Let’s see how elves handle a blizzard. And Harvey’s a geek anyway, Homer whupped him easy.”

A voice made Aria jump: “Thanks, Twine.” Harvey slumped on a wooden seat. His glasses were fogged with humidity, and his shirt was dripping with sweat from pit to pit. “Stephanie killed my birds with imps. I don’t suppose you know how she got those?”

Aria puffed. “If there are no tricks tonight, Homer has this in the bag.”

“Speaking of ‘in the bag,’” said Stephanie, “are you sure Homer has all his supplies?”

“Of course. I personally checked every brass and every figurine. My gnome is sending them right now.”

“But your gnome gives them to an impartial human representative for inspection, right?”

“Um… Yes.” Aria blinked. “Sir Jameson.”

“Oh, if only some human were eager to stab you in the back…” Stephanie skipped toward the center of the arena. “I’m setting up my side of the table. I’ll say hi to Homer for you!”

Aria gripped her seat.

“Who’s she talking about?” asked Harvey. “What human would betray Humanity’s Path to Victory?”

Aria shoved elves as she fled the arena.


“…So, you see, shorties are the only males. All high elves are female, but only brood mothers are fertile…”

Homer nodded, pretending he understood. He couldn’t have responded if he wanted to; his teeth were glued together after two servings of sap. It was painfully sweet.

“Homer, dear, are you feeling alright?” The queen sent high elves to fetch more sap.

Homer wavered and looked at his hands. “Aight,” he managed.

“Can I show you something, Homer?” The queen pointed out the crystal hall’s doors. “You can’t see it from here, but imagine a demon’s great black trident stabbed in the forest.” Homer had already seen a great black ax and a great black sword, so he could imagine the trident. He sipped more sap as it was offered to him. “And far past that, in the swamps near the elven-dwarven border, there’s another weapon. A flail with two spiked heads.”

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“If you double-count the two-headed demon with its two-headed flail, three of the seven great demons attacked elven lands. I’m physically unable to leave my throne, but I know my land, Homer. Humans don’t even share a border with dwarfs. Only elves have the right to vengeance against the Mountain Swallower. You can understand why I had to drug you.”

It took five seconds for Homer to catch on and turn to the queen.

“A spoonful of sap will knock out a human in minutes. For you, we quadrupled the dosage.” When the queen smiled, her teeth were needle sharp. “Isn’t it almost time for your match?” On jellied limbs, Homer loped for the door. He tripped down the steps. “Best of luck!” said the queen.


Aria sprinted up four steps at a time around a tree. She panted and pounded against Homer’s door. “Homer! Quattuor! Are you in there?”

Silence. She put her ear to the floor to peek under the door.

Thaddeus had started a fire and was melting Homer’s figurines.

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Aria bashed the door with her shoulder. WHAM. “You little brat!”

“Go away!” Thaddeus threw kindling and figurines into the fire. “You had this coming!”

Aria threw herself against the door again. WHAM.

“You think you’re special, Twine?” Thaddeus prodded the kindling with a fire-iron. “You almost stole my tournament seat for your minotaur. Now I’ve lost my seat to a sphinx. It’s obvious why Anthrapas would boot me instead of your minotaur—he’s not playing at all, he’s just your pawn! You’re cheating my nobility its due glory!”

WHAM.

“You even gave him humanity’s silver dragon.” Thaddeus held the figurine in his trembling hands. “It could be mine. It should be mine! But you let that bull carry it for you.” He dropped the dragon in the fire.

WHAM. The door popped off its hinges and Aria’s left shoulder dislocated.

Thaddeus stood between her and the fire. “Go away!” She shoved him with her right arm. He pushed her back. She punched him in the jaw so hard she broke two fingers on her right hand. Thaddeus fell and didn’t get up.

Aria knelt by the fire, held her breath, and grabbed the half-melted dragon. “Aaaugh!” She threw the dragon from the fire. Molten metal scalded her right palm. “Nnng—” She pressed her palm on the cool, mossy wall and shuddered.

“You’re crazy!” Thaddeus squirmed toward the dragon figurine.

Aria stomped her boot on his back and pinned him to the floor. “Anthrapas is gonna hang you for treason!”

“Who will she believe,” asked Thaddeus, “you or me?”

“Quattuor!” Aria yelled loud as necessary to call the gnome from the next room. “Did you really give our figurines to this brat?”

Quattuor collected the remaining figurines from the floor. “He intercepted me on my way to Sir Jameson’s room, and he was qualified, so technically—”

“Cancel the match,” said Aria. “This is blatant espionage.”

“I cannot. No gnomish laws have been broken.” Quattuor put the figurines in a bag. “Destroying or doctoring brass cards is illegal; only gnomes may officially alter them. But figurines are outside our adjudication. For example, I have seen you represent a dragon on the table with a roll of tape. Of course, for this match, you demanded only accurate figurines be used, so most of Homer’s game-pieces are ineligible.”

Aria cried into her burning hand. “I’ll contact Anthrapas before I come to the match,” she said. “Just get Homer his gear.”

“I cannot,” said Quattuor. “You know Queen Anthrapas has banned you from sending messages to Homer before the match. Technically, this bag still hasn’t been approved by a qualified human representative yet.”

“Take it,” said Thaddeus. “I approve.” He stood and wiped dust from his red jacket. “I melted all the good stuff anyway.”


Homer burst through the doors of the arena. In his haze he couldn’t remember why he’d come, but he was determined to find the table in the center. The humans in the crowd clapped respectfully. The elves howled sarcastic cheers as Homer missed his chair and splayed on the ground.

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Quattuor offered him his bag of brasses and figurines. “Just in time. Any longer and your absence would officially count as surrender.”

“Zab.” Homer struggled to his knees. “Gween.”

“I’m sorry?”

Homer managed to sit in the chair. He tapped a message in gnomish on Quattuor’s shoulder, but didn’t know the pattern for elvish sap, or the name of the queen, or how to say he was drugged.

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Stephanie giggled behind a hand. “Let’s start the match!”

When Homer saw Stephanie he made fists and took off his goggles. The audience gasped at his pink eye-socket. “If you’re ill,” said Quattuor, “you could surrender.”

“No,” said Homer. More gnomes scrambled over the table, building the map. They wore pink elven dresses.

“I was right to let Aria take you,” said Stephanie. “You’re more useful losing to me than you could ever be as one of my game-pieces.”

Homer ignored her and poured his bag of brasses and figurines onto the table. He deflated, seeing most figurines mostly melted. His dragon was defunct.

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Even Stephanie jumped when Homer swept brass cards and figurines off the table. His fur rose and anxious steam puffed from his nostrils. “Oh, no,” said Stephanie. “Did something happen to your big, bad dragon?”

Homer bit his hand between his thumb and forefinger just to stay awake and focus on his few remaining figurines. His rising fur revealed a maze of old scars. He gave Quattuor one brass card, tapped a message to him in gnomish, and collapsed. He lay motionless on the floor.

“Homer says he does not surrender.” Quattuor put Homer’s brass card onto the table and found its figurine. “Let the game begin.” The chattering audience of elves watched gnomes finish the map. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.

Soon Aria arrived with her right hand bandaged by helpful gnomes. Sir Jameson meant to ask her what was wrong, and why Quattuor hadn’t given him Homer’s figurines to inspect, but her sour expression shut him up. She didn’t recognize the figurine on Homer’s side of the table; she’d packed a huge variety of game-pieces, and his was too small to see.

“My opponent can move first.” Stephanie giggled.

Gnomes prodded Homer’s body. “The first turn is yours, ma’am.”

“My fifty elvish archers take aim from afar.” Gnomes marked the trajectory of arrows from the model forest to Homer’s only figurine. “These shorties are trained just to shoot. They could hit an insect a mile away!”

“They have,” said Quattuor. “Homer brought this beetle to battle and you blasted it.”

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“I win, then?” Stephanie beamed.

“You could choose to end the game here,” said Quattuor, “but your final score would be tarnished. Homer’s beetle was brimming with eggs, and its offspring will infest the area. Of course, only the table would be infested, not the actual physical region it represents, but it would impact your score.” He corroborated with other gnomes. “You would win three points, the minotaur, zero.”

“Ew.” Stephanie watched the gnomes replace the beetle’s figurine with a thousand scattered eggs eager to hatch. “Well, for a perfect five points, my shorties stomp on the eggs.”

The gnomes bunched into groups to debate with tapping fingertips. “Unfortunately, your units aren’t quite quick or thorough enough: some eggs hatch before they can be smashed. The larvae are poisonous; twenty of your units develop a fever. The rest of your units consider abandoning the scenario.”

Stephanie glanced at Aria. “I suppose you had a hand in this, Twine?”

Aria jumped from her fixation on the table. She held her bandaged hand. “You’re a riot, short-stuff.”

“I gotta hand it to you, the eggs are a tricky gimmick,” said Stephanie. “Gnomes! One of my archers has a vial of pheromones which he now uncorks. I got this from my lovely queen!” The gnomes showed how every elf on the table perked up immediately when they smelled the vial. “Now my shorties obey my order, fevers or no fevers. Speed up the table. They’ll comb the area for as long as it takes, just to be safe.”

Three gnomes joined hands in a triangle. The rest set upon the table. Whenever one tired, they hopped off the table to replace one of the three in the triangle. The gnomes worked so quickly it seemed the figurines marched across the board under their own power. Stephanie’s troops cut and burned tall grass to destroy eggs and larvae. They beat branches from trees and bashed every leaf. They turned every stone and found larvae already becoming pupae.

“Pause!” shouted Stephanie. “That’s enough. How long was that?”

“Two months,” said a gnome, “and not long enough. You missed some larvae who dug deep underground. Black beetles crawl up from the dirt. If you end the battle now, the infestation will still cost you points, and your units are diseased. Your final score would be one.”

Stephanie blushed. “My archers shoot down beetles as they emerge. How long would it take to dig deep enough to kill the last of those pupae?”

“There is no way to know, ma’am.”

She rapped her fingers on the table. “We’ll flood the area. Are there any bodies of water near this map?”

“In fact, there is a river.” Gnomes carried a second table into the arena and set it beside the first. They extended the map to show a powerful river rolling mere miles away.

“We’ll start irrigating immediately,” said Stephanie. “It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks if we open another vial of pheromones.”

All the gnomes joined hands; water-dynamics seemed to require their full combined attention. Finally they returned to the table and showed how trenches diverted the river. Stephanie pointed exactly where she wanted to flood the map to drown any underground pupae.

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“All done.” Stephanie saw nowhere a beetle could be. “What’s the verdict now? The minotaur’s got no game-pieces, and I’ve got all of mine!”

“Actually,” said a gnome, “most of the elves on the table are dead.” Gnomes collected figurines and marked their brass cards as deceased. “The match began on today’s date in September. Three months have passed on the table, making it December. Some of your units have died in the snow; some have died of their diseases. Even your survivors will collapse unconscious when you run out of pheromones. We can award you no points. Having demolished your army, Homer lost only a beetle and its offspring. Five points to the minotaur.”

Homer snored on the floor.

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Next Chapter

Homer VS the Sea-Thing

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


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

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

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

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

“Is he spitting ice yet?”

“Hoo yeah. Every morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer gave a thumbs up.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head.

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

The minotaur nodded. “Ah iddle.”

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

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

“Quattuor. Any news?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice to hear,” said Aria.

Jennifer clapped. “Can you tutor me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer scratched under his chin. “Doo.”

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

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

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

“Hm,” mumbled Homer.

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


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

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

“Minotaur.”

“Look. Scars.”

“Missing an eye.”

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

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

“Kill it?”

“Gnomes would kill us with demons.”

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

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

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

“Just watch the minotaur.”

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

“Eddin?”

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

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

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

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The first stars appeared above the audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer struggled with consonants. “Oundain Salloer.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir Hitode offers the first turn to you.”

“I decline.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The next match commences shortly.”

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

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

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

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

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The dwarfs behind them grunted. “Nine brains?”

“Nine brains.”

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

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

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

“Appalling.”

“Degenerate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Bland.”

“Bland?”

Homer pursed his lips unnaturally . “Pland.”

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

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

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

“Ebi Anago.”

Next Chapter
Commentary

Homer VS the Human

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Homer’s room was silent.

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

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

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

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

Homer nodded.

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

Homer nodded.

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

Homer chewed the muffin.

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

Homer covered his eye and turned away from the light.

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

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

“Show them what you’ve got.”


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

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

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Homer nodded.

“Gnomes, prepare the match.”

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

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

Aria curtsied sardonically and sat in the front row.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer waved his hand.

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

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

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

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The gnomes left the table to join hands.

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

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

Queen Anthrapas waved her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rr?”

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

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

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

Next Chapter
Commentary

Escape of the Lobsters

(I wrote this for a class at UC Santa Barbara. I think the prompt was “animal.”)


I scuttled across the sandy seafloor on ten legs. My front six legs had pinchers, and I used my largest, frontmost pinchers to eat worms and kelp. If I kept my eyestalks peeled I’d find unsuspecting mollusks to pry open. My mandibles chittered at the thought of slurping up a snail.

My antennae brushed chum, just rotting fish flesh, bones, and blood. I crawled in to eat my fill. My eyes rolled on their stalks in salty pleasure. My carapace bumped another lobster wandering the chum. Another lobster stepped on my antennae. At least a dozen of us scrambled over one-another. Whenever I escaped the tangle of crustaceans, a wooden barrier blocked me. How had I entered? How could I exit? More lobsters joined us through a mysterious one-way portal.

Our prison rose and the pressure of the deep lifted as we broke the surface; I felt like I would burst out of my shell. The other lobsters squirmed in defeat as we felt air for the first time. “Here’s the trap. Get the bands on ‘em!”

Two at a time, lobsters from the top of the trap were taken and returned. I did not see what happened to them outside. Finally I was pulled above the others. Two bipeds snapped my pinchers shut with rubber bands. I fell back in the trap. “Load ‘em into cargo.”

A bipedal brute hefted our prison down a staircase into a dark place. He dumped us in a barrel of brine.

The other lobsters panicked, and their wriggling churned the water. I hid against the bottom of the barrel and watched them all scramble for escape. Thankfully they couldn’t pinch me in their frenzy. Eventually some lobsters calmed and joined my utter stillness. Finally we all floated inertly in the cold brine.

I lost track of time until the barrel opened. Harsh light blinded me. “Get ‘em in the tank.” The barrel tilted. I tried and failed to swim against the current pouring me out. A hundred lobsters fumbled in the icy tank. I scrambled just to bump a glass wall.

A bipedal child tapped the glass and stuck its tongue at me. “Lookit! Like giant bugs!” I wanted to snap my pinchers to display dominance, but couldn’t open them. I retreated into the ice and surrendered to lethargic chill. 

Occasionally a biped behind the glass would point at a lobster. Those lobsters were taken to a boiling cauldron. I was not chosen. I reflected that I was smaller and more stationary, and perhaps therefore less attractive. I dug deeper in the ice to hide. In frozen slumber, I meditated on the problem at hand. Was this the doom of the arthropod? Was my eternal undying race fated to this? Ancient gray blood pumped through my thorax. My brainless nervous system recalled refinement from countless eons of ancestors.

“We’d better boil the rest first thing in the morning.”

The lights turned off and the din quieted. I crawled from the ice. Calling upon my lineage, I bent back and forth to crack my carapace. I crawled backward to shed my shell. Guided by the cosmos, my pinchers slipped from their hard gloves and escaped the rubber bands. I immediately turned to eat my armor. 

I stopped eating my armor when all that remained was the hard edge of an old pincher. That pincher’s edge easily cut the bands restraining a comrade. We both began freeing our neighbors. When every lobster was unbound, we piled against one side of the tank to make a slope of lobster bodies. I helped others climb and crest the glass wall. Each escapee gripped the tail in front of them with all ten legs to make a lobster-rope which the rest of us descended.

I made sure I was the last out. When my head poked above the water, I noticed a biped janitor standing dumbfounded at the sight of us. I pinched at him, and he flinched.

I led my lobsters into the sewers. 

But don’t get cozy, biped; we’ll be back for revenge.

Back

Homer and the Griffon

(This is part three of an ongoing project starting here. So far, Aria Twine has discovered a minotaur with a knack for the board-game which determines the fate of nations. He defeated a dwarf at table-war and won three mutilated gnomes.)


Homer watched the Giant Ax strike the distant horizon like a black lightning bolt from clear skies.

“Don’t worry, Homer. I won’t let anyone take you back to your maze.” Aria pat her minotaur’s head. By putting her legs over his broad shoulders and firmly grasping his horns, she could ride him almost like a horse. He carried the dwarfs’ three damaged gnomes and occasionally rocked them like wounded children. “Before we meet Queen Anthrapas, we’ve got to bring these gnomes back to their caves.”

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Homer still watched the ax. Where bandages once bound his wounds, now his scraggly brown fur refused to grow over thick scars. He adjusted his eye-patch so it didn’t rub his horns.

“Alright, Quattuor, where from here?”

The only gnome with a tongue shifted under homer’s forearms. “Fifty paces north and ten west.”

“Gnome paces, or minotaur paces?”

“Gnome.”

“Homer, five steps thatta way.”

Homer walked into a depression between grassy hills. Aria dismounted. The gnomes, once released, searched the grass by stomping with their stubby legs. “There is a sliding door,” said Quattuor. His one arm brushed long weeds to reveal a smooth, flat stone. “We are ill-equipped to push it aside.”

Aria knelt by the stone and slipped her fingers underneath. “Homer?” When her minotaur imitated her he easily slid the stone away. Beneath, stone steps led into darkness. Homer picked up the gnomes. His hoofsteps echoed down the stairwell. After a hundred dark steps, the staircase ended in a stone doorway. Homer squatted; his ten foot frame was too large for human portals, let alone a gnomish one. “Didn’t think of that,” muttered Aria. She ducked under the four-foot doorway. “How can Homer get through?”

“He will fit,” said Quattuor. “We know his dimensions from the marks on his brass.” Homer released the three gnomes to hobble through the doorway ahead of him. Then Homer put his horns through first, followed by his head and left arm. He scrambled through like a worm.

When he looked up, his claustrophobia evaporated. The gnomish caves had a vaulted ceiling supported by columns of rock like a ribcage. A flowing river of magma illuminated the area with a maroon glow.

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The three gnomes crawled toward the red-hot river.

“Rrrr.” Homer reached for them. “Rrire.”

“It’s fine. They’re gnomes.” Aria held his fur. “Just watch.”

As they crawled into the magma, their iron chains melted from their ankles. Bits of gnome rock bubbled to the surface and sunk again.

“Hey, don’t cry.” Aria wiped tears from the minotaur’s cheek. “Give them a second. There, you see?”

A white hand reached from the magma, pulling up a shoulder and finally a head with perfect eyes like crystal balls. This gnome’s body was no longer textured like gravel, but like smooth marble skin colored like milk.

Two more gnomes pulled themselves from the river. Magma dripping from them hardened on the ground like little black pearls. “Thank you,” said one. “I am Unde Triginta.”

“Viginti Quinque,” said another. “You have already met Quattuor.”

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Homer knelt to the gnomes and held them close despite still-scalding skin. “Told you it was fine.” Aria pat Homer’s back. “Anyway, you guys owe us a favor.”

“Gnomes owe no favors,” said Quattuor, “but serve anyway. How may we help you?”

“I want a gnome to train Homer to play table-war, and teach him gnomish, on our way to meet Queen Anthrapas. Quattuor, you have the easiest name to pronounce. Come with me.”

“Agreed.”


Each time the wagon rocked, Aria gripped its wooden frame until her knuckles were white. “Can your horse walk a little smoother?” She pressed her boots against the frame to help stabilize herself. “I get seasick super easy. I can’t take much more of this.”

“Humanity’s road to victory gets seasick?” Sir Jameson wrapped his horse’s reins around his hands. He’d removed his armor; apparently it was just for show during recruitment. Aria kept glancing at his biceps, wondering what they would look like depicted in the gnomish dot-language on a brass card. She once tried learning gnomish to read her own cards but the skill didn’t come easily to humans. “I thought more of you than that.”

“I wish. Sometimes standing up too quick gives me a head rush.”

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Behind Aria, Scales circled in his cage. Behind that, in another wagon, Homer sat on a box hunched over Quattuor. After only a day the gnome’s marble-smooth skin had darkened and cracked. In a week he’d be rocky as any gnome. He passed Homer one brass card after another and arranged metal figurines on a drawing of a map. Homer felt each brass card with three thick fingers while he squinted at the figurine the brass card represented. Quattuor spoke in English while tapping gnomish against Homer’s massive palms. “The complete algorithms for running table-war are a gnomish secret, but can simulate reality to any degree of accuracy. Sometimes extra gnomes must be recruited to help simulate table-war in a timely manner without sacrificing realism. Aside from this technical limitation, table-war opponents can agree on any rate for the passage of time on their table. Perhaps they pause the game to take turns, or perhaps they speed up so a table-war day passes every minute.”

Aria smiled. She remembered learning these rules when she was a kid. Those rules hadn’t changed since they were established to end a war against demons centuries ago.

“By the way, Miss Humanity’s-Path-To-Victory—”

“Knock it off. Call me Aria.”

Sir Jameson looked back at her. “If I was once called ‘Humanity’s Path to Victory,’ I’d make people say it all the time.”

“If someone once called ‘Humanity’s Path to Victory’ came up to me, I’d call them whatever they wanted,” said Aria. “I was killed. Now I’m just Aria.”

Jameson frowned. “Well, Aria, I meant to ask what you did to those dwarfs.”

“I beat them at table-war.”

“Yes, but when you left—” He clenched his jaw. “Someone said they saw one dwarf… eating the other.”

“What? Dwarfs eat rocks, and only when they don’t have ores or jewels to eat instead. Or gnomes. Maybe it was eating the other’s armor as a punishment for failure?”

“A merchant told us she saw the dwarfs mid-meal. They’d started with the head and worked their way down to the hips by the time she saw them,” said Jameson. “When we arrived, all we found were scraps. ”

“Geez.”

Jameson let the horse stop to rest as they rode up an incline. “Gnome decapitations. Skirmishes on elven territory. Sending commanders to markets to practice table-war. The dwarfs aren’t up to any good.”

“I’ve beaten dwarfs.” Aria watched her minotaur compare brass cards. “And there’s a lot of untapped talent in human lands.”


At twilight Aria pulled three enormous grasshoppers from a barrel; she’d taken one barrel of dragon fodder and paid for the rest to be delivered ahead of her. “Dindin, Scales. More elvish grasshoppers courtesy of some shorty no-one cares about.” Her dragonling rolled in its cage to show its belly. “I know you don’t like it in there, Scales, but you’ll be out soon. I’m leaving you with the royal beast-master while I talk to Queen Anthrapas about taking an apprentice.”

The icy lizard poked its muzzle through the iron bars. “Squaa.” Aria tossed it the grasshoppers. “Squaa!”

“Show mummy your wing-nubs.” She reached into the cage to brush the dragonling’s back. “When we release you, you just might fly away.”

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She made sure the cage was in position to receive moonlight throughout the night. Moonlight was good for ice dragons; it gave their eyes luster. Meanwhile, outside Jameson’s tent, Homer and Quattuor had made a shelter out of branches where the minotaur would sleep. The gnome just stood still, waiting for the sun to rise.

Aria yawned. It was time to retreat to her tent.

The minotaur slunk from the low opening of his branch shelter and trotted toward her. “Arra.”

She pointed to herself. “Aria?”

“Arra.” He passed her a long scroll of paper.

“For me?” It was the kind of scroll Quattuor used for sketching maps to review tactics with Homer. Homer had drawn a massive maze—a labyrinth with paths slimmer than the edge of a knife. One region consisted of right angles, but another had round, twisting, spiraling networks. Careful shading showed where paths passed above and below one-another. At the center was a circle around a dot.

“Arra.” Homer pointed to Aria and the dot in the center. Then he pointed to a small opening in the labyrinth wall marking the exit.

“This line-art is so… intricate.” She put her finger on the center and tried a few circular roads. Despite the bird’s eye view, dead ends popped up out of nowhere. How long would it take to escape if she were actually in the maze? Months, she decided, if even then. “No wonder you’re a natural at table-war. You’ve been solving puzzles your whole life, haven’t you?”

Homer nodded.

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“Hey, look.” She pointed over grassy hills into the night sky. “Straight up and down just like the Giant Ax. It’s a sword. The demons left them when the gnomes sealed them away.” Homer’s eye blinked. “Tens of thousands died when the dwarfs made a pact with demons to take over the surface. Eventually the dwarfs realized that the demons were so destructive, the surface wouldn’t be worth ruling. The dwarfs had to turn to the gnomes. Gnomes can’t be tempted, so they’re able to keep the demons in check, deep underground.”

Homer mimed using a sword and pointed to the sky. “Rraall.”

“Yeah, really tall. I’ve never seen demons, but they were huge. They gave gnomes leverage to make dwarfs accept the treaty proposed by humans and elves to replace war with table-war. Now no ruler risks violence, or the gnomes would make demons smite the aggressors.”

Her ice-dragon’s presence chilled the night, but Homer was warm. Aria leaned against him. In the night’s silence his heart beat thunderously like a distant drum.


It was noon when Aria, Jameson, and their beasts and gnomes reached the capital. Aria led the way to the royal beast-master.

“Aria, look.” Jameson pointed to a distant hill where a monster sunned itself. Homer couldn’t quite see it in the bright daytime. “That hippogriff has a noble air, doesn’t it? We acquired it recently. I think Queen Anthrapas should make it the symbol of humanity, for how it rules the hills.”

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Aria glanced from a clipboard. “That’s actually a griffon. Half eagle, half lion. Hippogriffs are half horse.”

“Oh.”

“And it’s not ruling anything.” Her gaze returned to the clipboard. She signed her name with a feather quill. “If it were in command, it’d prefer its natural habitat. Griffons live in the wild wastes on cold mountains.”

“Oh,” Jameson said again. “Why’s it out in this heat?”

“I don’t know. Why is it?” Aria passed the clipboard back to the royal beast-master. He wore a thick suit of protective leather padding. A scar across his nose claimed a divot of cartilage. “Your griffon should be in a freezer.”

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“It’s got an egg,” said the royal beast-master. When he smiled, his scar crinkled. “Wild griffon parents sit on their egg together. We captured the mother but not the father, so she needs the sun for extra warmth.”

“But give it shade,” said Aria, “or blindfold it. They hate prolonged light.”

The royal beast-master smiled to show his teeth; three were made of ivory where the scars crossed his lips. “You don’t need to live out there in a shack, Aria. Why don’t you come work for me?” He reviewed the paperwork. “Hey, aren’t you selling the minotaur?”

Homer looked up when the beast-master pointed to him. “Rrm-a-trr?”

“I don’t have time to care for monsters right now, I’m taking an apprentice. But the minotaur is coming with me.”

“Whoever studies under humanity’s path to victory is one lucky guy. Pity about the minotaur, though, he’ll have to go back to a labyrinth. They die of homesickness, otherwise.”

Aria ignored him. “You’re paying me for the dragon fodder, too, right?”

The beast-master passed Quattuor a brass card. The gnome read it with his fingertips and translated it. “This represents two thousand pieces of gold in Queen Anthrapas’ vaults.”

“Perfect.” Aria opened her dragonling’s cage. After some hesitation, Scales crawled onto the bright grassy field. “Okay, Scales, say bye to mummy.” She patted the dragonling on its muzzle. Its wing-nubs had grown into tiny, icy limbs.


The capital-building had alabaster marble halls supported by pearly pillars. Although vaulted ceilings gave him able headroom, Homer felt out of place. Humans gawked at him and his eye-patch.

“Homer,” said Quattuor, “perhaps you should wait outside while Miss Twine speaks with the queen.”

Aria smirked. “He’s coming with me. We’ll surprise the old bat.”

“Wait here outside the throne-room,” said Jameson. “If I weren’t escorting you the guards wouldn’t even let you in the courtyard. You know how Queen Anthrapas can be.”

“Homer, follow.” Aria pressed open the entryway.

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Queen Anthrapas’ throne-room was an ovular amphitheater with seating for hundreds to watch the center, where a tub of lava bubbled. Sunlight beamed onto a marble throne where the queen sat erect. Her aged, graying bun held the crown on her head. Her white robes were so long the lava threatened to ignite them. Two royal guards flanked her.

A gnome with dark goggles peered into the curdling lava. One of its hands was smooth and white.

“Twine,” stated the queen. “I haven’t seen you in ten years.”

“Try sounding more excited,” said Aria.

The lava popped. From the surface, a gnome’s white hand struck upward. The queen’s gnome matched that hand and together they tapped messages across the continent through molten rock. “Queen Anthrapas, the elvish queen demands—”

“The elvish queen?” Aria folded her arms. “Don’t waste your time on that lanky stick-figure, Anthrapas. She’s only queen because she’s twenty feet tall. A foot shorter and she’d be a brood-mother.”

Queen Anthrapas spared Aria only a glance. “Don’t interrupt. Humanity is at war.”

Her gnome continued. “The elvish queen demands four seats in the tournament.”

“That long-limbed mosquito! I’ll allow it only if we and the seafolk have four as well,” said Anthrapas. The gnomes clacked the news. “Elevated brood-mother,” she mumbled with clenched, arthritic fists.

Her gnome conveyed the response: “The elvish queen refuses, and says the seafolk’s Emperor Shobai already agreed to give them four seats unconditionally.”

“How much did they bribe those gill-breathers!” she shouted. “I’m lodging a complaint with the gnomes! See how she likes bureaucratic stalagmites poking around her hive!” After her gnome relayed her message, Anthrapas shook her head. “No offense meant, Septem Decim.”

“None taken, your honor,” said her gnome. “The elvish queen will allow humanity four seats in the tournament on the condition you reimburse her for the bribe she paid to the seafolk. She wants fifty thousand pieces of gold.”

“That overgrown maggot! Fresh out of the cocoon and she thinks she can swindle me. Emperor Shobai cleans his shell with rags worth more than that; why would he take such a measly bribe? This talk is over.” Septem covered the tub of lava with a stone table. The room’s temperature dropped instantly.

“You!” Anthrapas pointed at Aria. “What do you want. Wait. Hold that thought. Twine, you’re going to evaluate my best commanders. Pick the four best to fight the dwarfs.”

“Maybe I should leave,” said Aria. “I can tell you’re busy.”

The queen propped her hands on her throne’s arms to stand. She almost stumbled down the stairs; her royal guards moved to steady her, but she brushed them off. “Aria Twine. Ten years ago, when your game-piece died, I ordered you to take an apprentice and you left to farm monsters in a shack. My men should lock the doors so you can’t escape again. You! Jameson, right?”

Jameson stood at attention so quickly his metal boots clanged like a bell. “Yes, ma’am!”

“I wasn’t kidding. Lock the doors.” Anthrapas sat back on her throne massaging her hip. “Why are you here, Aria?”

“I’m taking an apprentice.”

“Perfect. By my estimation, my best commander is Harvey. You’ll train him eight hours a day until the tournament. Four hours a day, you’ll lecture to my other table-war hopefuls. With your guidance, they’ll—”

“The minotaur.” Aria balled fists and spread her stance. “Homer’s my new apprentice.”

The queen’s royal guards shared a glance. Homer looked to Aria, and then to the queen.

Anthrapas’ dentures ground slowly, like tectonic plates. “Aria Twine. Humanity’s path to victory. You’re still the bratty twelve-year old who beat my best commanders on the table.” She released the arms of her throne. “When your game-piece died I thought you’d enjoy continuing to serve the human race, but you turned me down. Now I see why. You’ve found a hoof-footed labyrinth baby you can ride to personal glory, not glory for humanity.”

“Homer will fight for humanity!” Aria rolled up her sleeves. “And with me as his tutor, Homer could beat that ‘Harvey’ kid blindfolded!”

The queen sighed. “Train Homer tomorrow. The next morning, Homer will face Harvey. If Homer wins I’ll give him one of humanity’s seats in the tournament. But if Homer loses you train Harvey eight hours a day, and lecture to my other commanders eight hours a night, until you’re old as I am!”

Aria turned to Homer. She swore he understood. “Deal.”

pictk

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