The Challenging Handful (Part Three)

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handfultitle

There was little time to prepare, so Snaps worked feverishly to replace his missing arm. Yahoo watched, quietly to his credit, as the commander rolled out fresh dough on a lap desk, kneaded in the appropriate ingredients, pressed it into the mold, and locked the mold into the vertical smokeless oven mounted on the wall.

While it baked the other members of the handful opened their doors so they could all convene. They were all courteous and professional, so Snaps didn’t have to explain the embarrassment of his missing limb, but Mygdenia pointed out the time. She suggested that as soon as the limb was in place they should depart from the bag and make their way on their own, so as not to get the Scot embroiled in their affairs anymore than they had to.

While they packed and prepared the bag stayed on the move. The Scot spoke infrequently, but when he did it was usually alongside three or more other voices. It seemed the representatives were shifting in and out of tight circles, sharing information, trying to guess where the evening and the waves might take them. Mustardseed’s donkey ears overheard enough for her to tell the rest of the handful that they had successfully left port.

I don’t believe this boat is going anywhere,” Mygdenia guessed in a whisper as they all crawled out of their canteens and snapped them shut. “Whatever the Challenger has in mind, I wager it’s best revealed and acted upon in lawless waters. That is one of two reasons we’re at sea.”

What’s the other?” Vitruvian asked.

Insurance,” Snaps said. “The Challenger is like us, so anyone here could take it upon themselves to simply step on them and end all of this, but since they’re all aboard their ship they have to assume there is a built-in way to sink it in case of such events. The Challenger is making the terms.”

Until I get my hands on him,” Yahoo said, cracking his knuckles and licking them at the same time.

For now we stay out of sight,” Mygdenia warned. “Gather information and look for opportunities.” The bag leveled out and stilled. “Spirit, would you please check for us?” The spirit of Christmas past nodded and passed through the wall of the bag, her head returning a few moments later.

It’s safe,” she said. “Everyone’s seated in a circular arena, and we are down between the Scot’s legs. The center of the arena you better see for yourselves.” Mustardseed and Yahoo helped the others up to the clasps so they could slide down the exterior of the bag. Snaps, fresh arm still soft, used his other one to guide him down the leather. He was the last out, saber on his hip and rifle over his shoulder. The others stood in a row between the Scot’s ankles, safely in the shadow of his seat, staring out at something both familiar and perplexing.

There was something like a podium down at one end of the center, surrounded by peculiar devices, but it was the least notable thing in the middle of the maelstrom of pant legs and shoes. Most of what they saw could easily be mistaken for one of the neighborhoods in Minimil, though even more work had gone into making it look like a miniature civilization rather than objects converted into dwellings.

There was a cathedral church, no doubt built brick by brick, each one the length of a human eyelash. In its stained glass window a green skinned figure stood atop the world. Bells in its tower tolled, but aside from that the building and its surrounding neighborhood were silent. Nobody seemed to live in any of the homes, work in the garment factory, or tend to the fields of honeysuckle and clover that existed on the outskirts, just centimeters from the hem of Ms. Morocco’s dress.

Though uninhabited, the village seemed to have prepared for some kind of significant disaster. Sandbags were piled up in many of the streets, often at intersections. Medical tents were set up at the base of the foothills. Snaps picked up on something else as well, though he couldn’t place it exactly: a strange feeling.

Nothing about the village seemed arranged realistically. The streets were too much like a grid, and some of the blocks had buildings that would never be placed next to each other, like the orphanage next to what appeared to be a betting establishment. The shapes of the buildings didn’t always match their signage as well. The barbershop was too large and the grocer’s too small. No sewer access. No vehicle storage.

We should make our way down and investigate,” Vitruvian suggested. He was using a collapsible spyglass that unfolded from the palm of his hand, but it didn’t reveal anything more. The handful split up and searched the area around the Scot’s feet. It only took a moment to spot the door, sized perfectly for them, in the wood at the back.

Beyond that there was little strange about it. With a quick run under the legs of neighboring Mr. Spain, Yahoo confirmed there was a door under each seat. The six fingers of the handful were in disagreement over whether they should attempt to open it, but then it made up their mind for them, swinging out and forcing them to jump back.

Two myrmidons emerged wearing green uniforms and carrying long guns with bayonets like wasp stingers on their backs. Their tan carapace didn’t have the ceramic pottery look of Solenos’s, and they were further distinguished by rough ridges between the antennae. What set them apart the furthest was their startled chitters and immediate reaching for their weapons. Yahoo and Mustardseed pounced, wrapping around behind them to hold their arms down and cover their mandibles.

Soldiers of the Challenger I presume,” Mygdenia said while the bug folk tried to thrash their way free. Myrmidons had some of the strength enhancement of ants, but each was nothing compared to a yahoo and a fairy with the stubbornness of a full sized ass. “I don’t suppose interrogating them will do any good.”

Not likely,” Snaps said, examining their eyes closely. “I’ve dealt with many of their kind. You can tell how far gone they are by how expressive their faces are. These… they have almost no humanity left. They get their pleasure from following orders… and dying for a cause.”

Will you tell us who the Challenger is?” Vitruvian asked one of them. More insistent thrashing was the only response. “Where they are?” Another thrash; he turned to the others “Will we have to kill them to protect our secrecy?”

Fine by me,” Yahoo said. “I just have to squeeze a little harder…”

Even they have the chance of a redemptive Christmas,” the spirit said, pulling her snuffer lower over her face. “I’d rather not.”

She makes a good point,” Snaps added, unusual given that he didn’t actually agree. A short while ago he was waving his remaining arm around and raving about an unforgivable act. “Perhaps we can just lock them in one of the canteens.”

They could escape any number of ways,” Mygdenia flouted, surprised at his softness. Perhaps his fresh arm was to blame and he would be back to his old self when it hardened. “Yahoo can snap their necks in an-” She was interrupted by the biggest thrash of all, from the myrmidon held by Mustardseed.

It was so violent that it altered the soldier’s form. When he came back after a flick of his head his antennae had become fuzzy ears. Another flick made his boots explode, hooves having grown right through them. He leaned forward so much that Mustardseed was forced to release her grip. The poor soldier never came up from dropping to all fours; instead his neck and face stretched out and grew a frankly lovely coat of tan fur.

The end result was a donkey, dark brown eyes as placid as any full-sized example. The animal seemed to have forgotten why it was so upset moments ago; its lips probed at its ripped uniform on the floor to see if it was worth eating.

You didn’t mention you retained the ability to use that transformation spell,” Mygdenia chastised the fairy.

I had no idea!” she insisted, examining her own hands. “I’ve touched lots of people before; they never did this.” Vitruvian approached and gently took her wrist, swapping out the spyglass for a magnifying one.

She had her hand over his mouth,” the automaton noted. “I think the magic activated because he aspirated some loose hairs from her palm.”

It’s pretty old magic, so it can’t possibly last,” the fairy guessed, scratching at one of her own animal ears. “He’ll turn back in a while… or when those hairs work their way out.”

That’s actually perfect then,” the golden treasurer said. “Do it to the other one to keep him quiet.” The myrmidon thrashed on an entirely new level, but Yahoo lifted his legs off the ground so he couldn’t go anywhere.

Relax buddy, donkeys are better than ants anyway,” Yahoo said as he pulled his hand away from the soldier’s mouth, only for Mustardseed’s to instantly replace it. The fellow tried not to breathe, but myrmidons didn’t have open nostrils, so eventually he succumbed to the pleasant scent of her palm: something like the tiny smell of squirrel footprints. The comparison died in his brain as his concerns turned to grass and how to acquire it. The two donkeys examined each other while the handful took their door to the seat’s interior.

The chamber was dim, the ceiling creaking loudly with even the slightest shift of the Scot’s weight. There was another door at the back, and it was a simple enough deduction that it would be a hallway connecting the rooms under each seat, a network for the minions of the Challenger to distribute themselves across the ship with none of the passengers noticing.

It wasn’t empty. A syringe, about the size of Yahoo’s forearm, was mounted on the wall in a brass casing. The liquid within was bright green. Following a hunch, Snaps scanned the ceiling and pointed out a small round hole, through which they could see the fabric of the Scot’s pants. He voiced the opinion that the syringe contained deadly poison, and if the Challenger so chose they could order the myrmidons to deliver death to each and every diplomat with a simple pinch on the bottom.

Let’s have a lick,” Yahoo said, reaching up and pressing the plunger. A drop of green fluid squeezed out into his waiting palm. Snaps asked if he was mad. “Relax. My stomach can take anything. My roommates back in New York were rats, and I never turned down their cooking.” His tongue dragged across his hand. Lips dyed green, tongue smacking against the roof of his mouth, he assessed its composition. A wince. “Wow. Yeah, that’ll put you in your grave and etch your name on the headstone.”

They were quick to destroy it as a favor to the Scot, but its presence meant all the others were in immediate danger if their meeting with the Challenger went sour. From there they had the spirit check through the back wall. She confirmed the presence of the connecting hallways ringing the arena, and unfortunately that of the myrmidons walking them as well. There was no chance of using the passages without being seen.

No doubt they’ll take to the podium,” Snaps plotted aloud. “We should be down there, ready to strike if they order anything foul.” They cast a quick vote to confirm that as their plan before reemerging between the Scot’s shoes to hammer out the details. Two further options arose: striking from within the cover of the miniature town or from underneath the closest seat behind the podium.

The tallest buildings had numerous windows which would serve as excellent vantage points for a sniper. Snaps was the only one among them with a firearm and the only one trained in their use, so it was agreed that he and Mygdenia would use their freshly crafted donkeys to make their way down and into the village to set up a nest for the shot.

The remaining members of the handful, more skilled in hand to hand combat as well as flight, would take the cave under the seat, allowing them to pounce on the Challenger’s back. The spirit of Christmas past was free to move between the two teams, flying underneath the deck to stay hidden, relaying information and signals back and forth by lifting her snuffer and revealing the flame as a series of coded flashes.

Restlessness spread among the diplomats, their feet shuffling and scraping more with each passing minute, so the handful quickly split up. Mygdenia and Snaps, on donkey back, rode to the stairs at the end of the aisle and descended the single titled strip of wood lining its side. Meanwhile the others rotated around the rim of the village, moving in and out of leg cover, resting under any conveniently placed dresses.

As their entry point to the village Snaps and Mygdenia chose an artificial treeline along the edge. Its foliage provided plenty of cover for their steeds and would allow them to assess their visibility as they made it further towards town. The first thing they noticed when the animals made the small jump from wood to soil was that the ground was, in fact, ground, rather than papier-mâché. The foundation was made up of several vegetable gardens’ worth of dark loam, with a thin top layer of slate-colored gravel.

The trees, while providing shade the same as any other, were artificial. They made note of their unusual construction, the trunks having several open ports in random places where branches could be snapped into position. This implied there would be some need to reuse the trees, shift them, and rearrange their shape.

From under their cover the two fingers of the handful were free to observe the outskirts of the town and the winding dirt road they could use, obscured by rolling hills, to make it into the buildings without being seen. In all likelihood they would be spotted by at least one of the diplomats, but they were far enough away to be mistaken for clockwork toys moving along a track.

They made their move swiftly, as there didn’t appear to be any myrmidons guarding the village’s border. Even without them, something made the asses nervous as they crossed from gravel to cobblestone. Their ears swiveled this way and that; each hoof step was hesitant. Snaps worried their wits were returning to them, but they made it all the way to the church without the beasts becoming bipedal once more.

To be safe they led the animals into the cathedral, closing and barring the tall wooden doors. Though grand in its molding, the church was essentially empty of meaningful structures: pews, pulpit, organ, and not even a solitary cross. It matched what they had observed through the windows of the shops in town. Nothing was for sale. Nobody was home. Neither of those things had ever been different.

What could this model possibly be for?” Snaps asked Mygdenia as they made their way up a tight spiral staircase toward the tower with the stained glass window.

Did you see the shape of the cobblestones?”

Yes, identical squares. What of it?”

The floors in here match. Each of these steps is the same size square as well.” Snaps halted briefly to look down and confirm it, but she flicked his lower back to keep him moving. “There was no interruption of this pattern at the threshold of the door either. This is no model; it’s a game board.”

Good gumdrops! What kind of nefarious game?”

One in which the small are the pieces.” The staircase terminated perfectly, one square to the next. The chamber was awash in green light as it poured through the stained glass window. Snaps lingered, staring at it, until he realized what was so familiar.

That’s not actual glass,” he told the golden woman as she approached and examined it. “It’s dyed sugar. A few sets of my dentures are made of a similar substance.”

Good, then it should break more easily.” She crouched down and forced her fist through the smallest panel along the bottom. It crumbled like nothing, without anything close to a shatter. There was just enough room to view the podium through it, as long as they both laid flat on their stomachs and didn’t mind touching hips. Snaps got into position alongside her, readying his rifle and steadying its barrel on the edge of the cleared frame.

Their only company was a spider, about the size of a rabbit to them, perched in the corner on its web, silently deciding if its silk could handle such large prey. While it made up its mind the handful’s prey finally showed itself, doing Snaps the favor of highlighting its own position with a magnifying glass.

The glass rose from within the podium as a spring-loaded screen, one for each side so all the diplomats could get a view. It warped the image some, so all they saw at first was a bubble of green dropping into the box from above. It straightened itself out on long legs, slicked back its equally long antennae, and looked back at his audience with bulbous pale-green eyes like ectoplasm drifting across a street lamp. When he spoke his voice was amplified through the tin ears wrapping around the podium.

Welcome nations of the world, one and all, to my challenge!” His voice was a droning buzz, less like a stopped up nose and more like a saw through timbers. “Yes, it is I.” The diplomats waited with held breath for the sentence to finish with a name, but it was apparently over already. “My loyal soldiers were the ones who carried out-”

Excuse me,” Mr. Germany interrupted. “Weren’t you going to introduce yourself?” The figure rocked on his feet, allowing other details to move in and out of the clearest part of the lenses. He had a face like a myrmidon’s but longer. He wore a golden monocle, but his eyes were compound, so the monocle was actually over a hundred monocles, all stuck together like the bubbles of a frog nest, tethered by a single chain down to his shirt pocket. His dress suggested he was the manager of something dignified that was just about to occupy its first skyscraper, perhaps an architectural firm.

Surely I need no introduction,” he scoffed, but the diplomats couldn’t find the challenger’s name in their neighbors’ clueless expressions. “The lot of you aren’t making the best first impression, and I will introduce myself first as someone whom first impressions are very important to.”

Snaps spotted a tiny flicker behind the Challenger’s glass cube. The spirit’s flame flicked in carefully controlled bursts, communicating that they were in position under the seat. That was all well and good, but Snaps was more concerned that, should a bullet be required, it would not penetrate the glass. He voiced the concern to Mygdenia, and she agreed, adding that the crack would at least be a suitable distraction so Yahoo or Mustardseed could make a move.

I’ll refresh your memories,” the Challenger sighed. “You’ve read all about me in Aesop’s histories. My deeds are the foundation for much of history itself, more so than the Buddha, the Christ, or Confucius. I was there when Beowulf slew Grendel, when King Arthur pulled Excalibur from the testing boulder, and when Lysistrata set all those men straight and ended a war.

Each of them has inspired me to put forth this challenge. Like Beowulf I will strike deadly blows to make myself known, as I did with the archduke. Like Arthur there will be symbols of my power known the world over; this hamlet before you is about to become one. And like Lysistrata I will end war, not just one but all of them. Yes, this voyage is the dawn of peace the world over.”

Aesop’s histories?” Mygdenia muttered. “Does he mean Aesop’s fables? I’ve been managing markets nearly as long as he claims to have been alive, and I know most of those to be apocryphal.”

By the very biscuits… I think I know who he is,” Snaps said. “I know that story: the simple parable of the impertinent insect.”

I don’t recall that one.”

As you shouldn’t. There are far better ones in the collection. There are several versions, some starring a fly, and others a… challenging gnat. Always an insect. Everywhere he goes he claims to be greater than he is. Once he rode upon a camel’s back across a desert, departing at the end, saying he didn’t wish to burden the beast any longer. The beast replied that he didn’t even know he had a passenger.”

So he’s a raving delusional.”

In every version. I recall others where he rides on chariots and brags about how much dust he has kicked up. And another where he challenges a bull to a test of strength, only to declare himself the bull’s equal because it deigned to accept.”

Suppose that’s why he calls himself the Challenger.”

An insect too foolish to learn how to die… to think that is our opponent in this affair. He put all this together, raised a colony of obedient assassins, and the dense blighter never learned the one moral he’s famous for demonstrating.”

That could mean we don’t need to act. His challenge could be foolishness that is immediately dismissed.” As she said it the insect began his elucidation.

Just a few years ago, the inventor and author Herbert George Wells, for some reason known more for the latter, created a game called Little Wars. He was so kind to share the instructions for it with the world.

In this game tin soldiers are used upon the floor, with household objects acting as terrain and structures. These soldiers are permitted to move in timed turns, but only as far as a standardized length of string. A foot for infantry, two for cavalry and guns. The guns, via spring mechanisms, could actually fire and knock these men over, counting as their deaths.

He went over his many versions of the rules, going into detail regarding the counting up of points, the qualifying circumstances for moving a gun that could not move on its own, the isolating of a force, the results of melees when soldiers tried to occupy the same space, and the taking of prisoners.

But it was at the end of his instructions that he, a known pacifist, couldn’t help but add his own opinions of actual warfare between men. He said, and I quote:

And if I might for a moment trumpet! How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster – and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence.

This world is for ample living; we want security and freedom; all of us in every country, except a few dull-witted, energetic bores, want to see the manhood of the world at something better than apeing the little lead toys our children buy in boxes. We want fine things made for mankind – splendid cities, open ways, more knowledge and power, and more and more and more – and so I offer my game, for a particular as well as a general end; and let us put this prancing monarch and that silly scare-monger, and these excitable “patriots,” and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers – tons, cellars-full – and let them lead their own lives there away from us.

My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size. Here is War, done down to rational proportions, and yet out of the way of mankind, even as our fathers turned human sacrifices into the eating of little images and symbolic mouthfuls…

…I would conclude this little discourse with one other disconcerting and exasperating sentence for the admirers and practitioners of Big War. I have never yet met in little battle any military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.

Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but – the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.’”

The boat had gone silent. Even the creaking had ceased, as if all the myrmidons scurrying around under the floor were bracing the beams for dramatic effect, which struck Snaps as something the impertinent insect may very well have instructed them to do.

Is just a game,” Ms. Mexico said, the frog in her throat seeming to think it was more than that.

But why!?” the Challenger snapped, pointing at her. Many recoiled as if they’d just seen a lion roar and swipe its claws. “Actually take in what the man said! It was a proposal! One I bring to you now. From now on, all wars, all global conflicts, shall be fought on this stage, in this town before you, which I have called Little Essex in Wells’s honor. It will be made more than a game by the soldiers I supply.”

He snapped his chitinous fingers, thousands emerging in response. Myrmidons scuttled and scurried out of every crack, so many that the handful immediately realized what a miracle it was that they hadn’t been spotted more than once. Diplomats were forced to hug themselves tightly as the vermin soldiers crawled across their armrests and stood at attention. They stood on the rails of hanging lamps, casting long shadows across the arena.

Think of it,” he continued. “Adopt Little Wars as you’ve previously adopted rules of engagement. Current ideas of military strength go out the window. If you hold each other to its rules, even the smallest of countries will be able to assert its will against the biggest of opponents. All that will matter is your strategists, and their skill here. Concrete ends to complex conflicts, nothing but handshakes beyond the war-torn borders of Little Essex.”

Insanity,” a diplomat from eastern Europe said, syllable by syllable so everyone was sure he meant to use that word. “There is no advantage to those already in power. They would never keep to the terms.” There were murmurs of agreement. “Also, what are you? A bug?”

The bug, if you’d please,” the impertinent insect corrected coldly. “Your concern has already been addressed, by the act that brought all of you here in the first place. I killed the archduke with the utmost ease, despite his ample protection. None will be safe from my retribution, no president, no emperor, no chancellor… as long as they have cracks under their doors and drains in their sinks.”

I think the archduke would’ve appreciated an invitation rather than what you gave him,” a brave young woman added.

His fate was not random. None of you have been around long enough, but I saw the signs of conflict brewing. He was the fuse for a conflict, the biggest of Big War, an indicator that it would never learn to constrain itself the way it should. You were all going to fall into it blindly, and worse… you weren’t going to include me.”

This is the end of Minimil,” Mygdenia whispered to Snaps up in the tower. It took such a statement for the commander to look away from his aim.

What? How do you mean?”

If such a shift goes through, every citizen of our nation will become a prized asset. A soldier capable of competing and dying in Little Wars. Our sovereignty will not be allowed to stand. We will be captured, divvied, and sold.”

How can you be so sure? This pest sounds full of manure to me.” He’d never seen her expression so paralyzed, even with it being entirely composed of metal. Tension pulled on her cheeks, like a gold bar melting over the edge of a table and cooling mid-hang.

The economy is my expertise Commander, and it has revolved around gold less than people think. Manpower is the truest currency, and you must recall how stubbornly it has held when they were one and the same. This will be slavery. The Challenging Gnat must die.”

Is it our place? What if this can end Big War? It would mean children like Clara were forever safe-”

I have been both big and little,” she said gravely. “I should think you understand by now that the size of a life does not change its value. We would not be saving them from their darker impulses, just quieting them.” Quick-witted as she was, her racing fears couldn’t quite keep up with the insect’s rehearsed speech. Their foe was already on to the next phase of the proposal.

…and you will find that behind all of you there are a number of private stalls, each containing a wireless telegraph. My soldiers will help you connect with receiving stations in your respective countries. You can relay my offer to them before the demonstration begins.” Nobody moved. “Go on.”

All at once the diplomats were out of their seats and in the aisle, such chaos of movement that it caused an earthquake in Little Essex, shaking the sniper and his associate loose from their perch and throwing them into the spider’s corner. They ruined a perfectly good web, rude even if the only bugs in Little Essex were too large to catch. Mygdenia got the worst of it and started pulling the sticky strands off her shoulders. Snaps hadn’t even popped his saber out of its sheath to attack his threads when she suddenly stopped.

Damn… no… damn damn damn!” She stood using only the power in her legs, arms pushing up to break free while still leaving a coat of silken rags around her torso. Without explanation she jumped and grabbed the spider out of the corner, its legs kicking wildly out in front of her. The golden woman ran to the window and kicked out a much larger pane of sugar glass, large enough to fit through.

She rubbed the panicking spider on the exterior edge of the window until it attached an anchoring line of silk. Then she wrapped the animal around her waist once and jumped, rappelling all the way to the ground. From there she took off running, Snaps forced to follow her with his scope and try to figure out what in the devil’s food cake she was doing.

From her general direction she appeared to be heading toward the swarming diplomats, who were themselves headed for the curtained telegraph stalls. Despite his planning the insect didn’t seem to understand the cornered animal nature of politics, otherwise he would’ve sprung for wooden doors to the stalls. As it stood hands were swatting in and out of the curtains, participating in arguments over how private the communications were supposed to be exactly.

Snaps strained his mind to understand why Mygdenia would abandon him there without instruction. Never had he seen her react so viscerally, so it only made sense that an emergency had suddenly come to her attention… and it had done so just as the insect announced the telegraphs.

What was the logical chain of events, should everything go as planned with the sending of messages? Heads of state around the world would quickly find out about the Little Wars proposal. They would be scurrying about, readying a response as fast as possible. In doing so the information would almost certainly slip out early.

Who was likely to hear it then? Snaps knew, just from the trajectory of rumors within Minimil. His country’s currency was backed up with ingots made from melted pennies of other countries, often still bearing the date atop the bar as verification. They had bankers just like anywhere else in the world, and the bankers seemed to know everything about the goings-on in the barn before even the angels and devils.

That was when it hit the gingerbread man like a blast of cold air when the oven opened. The money men would react first, and most likely overreact. Markets would fluctuate at the very possibility of Little Wars, and the values of many commodities would shift, albeit temporarily. Gold was likely one of them. That was her fear. If people got word of this and even suspected that the small were about to become big money, perhaps the value of gold would alter drastically. That could mean that, within minutes thanks to the wonders of telegraphy, she could be devalued into a giant and send them all to a watery grave.

She likely didn’t even know how she would disconnect the telegraphs, or perhaps it was an effort to just get outside and throw herself into the sea. Either way, Snaps thought it his duty to step in and both distract from her efforts and achieve their ultimate goal. He turned his rifle back to the bug. Their plan was a pincer attack, and the time was now.

From his belt he pulled a small black box with a glass porthole. Depressing the switch atop it activated the florescent fire fly phial within, allowing him to signal just as the spirit of Christmas past did. Time was of the essence, so he left out the details and ordered Vitruvian, Yahoo, and Mustardseed to immediately attack from behind.

The spirit, who had positioned herself between the two teams, relayed both the order and confirmation of its delivery to Snaps. Any moment now they would leap in, so he prepared to fire as soon as the insect turned his back.

He was left waiting, thinking perhaps he should’ve signaled his own intent to fire the first shot. Myrmidons were flooding into Little Essex; at that very moment a spring-loaded gun was being wheeled through the streets below him. It must have been preparations for a demonstration of the rules. Snaps could just hear the braying of their donkeys downstairs; he would soon be sniffed out.

Come along Yahoo,” he said, being one of the first beings to growl and pray simultaneously. “You were so eager to take a bite out of me earlier. There’s a fat juicy bug right there, all for you you Lilli-livered-putian weas-” Krrshh! The back lens atop the podium shattered thanks to the locked, swinging, hoof-like hands of Mustardseed. No sooner had her spinning swoop broken it than Yahoo was pouncing through the raining shards, brown claws outstretched.

The impertinent insect instinctively took up a pose like that of his ancestors, dropping onto his stomach and letting his long legs arc up behind him, like a katydid. Yahoo sailed over him and landed on all fours, like a cat clinging to a lifted bed sheet. Snaps assumed the yahoo’s low profile was for his benefit, clearing up the line of sight. He fired. Bok! Ting!

Hell!” Bok! Ting! Bok! Ting! All three rounds would have been direct hits, his aim was flawless as long as crumbs didn’t fall from him during the process, but none of the three bullets was powerful enough to do more than crack the front lens. The insect had slowly stood between shots, the impacts following him up, and they allowed him to better discern the angle they were fired from.

Even with such strange mouth parts his wicked grin was clear. The challenging gnat bowed his legs again and leapt, disappearing from the podium, leaving Yahoo and Mustardseed to deal with a swarm of converging ant people.

Snaps spun onto his back and leaned further out of the window, searching the sky for his target. The bug landed on a Little Essex chimney, but was crouched for only a split second, not even enough to get a shot off. Then he was airborne again. Snaps heard a whoosh just before the window’s humiliation was complete; it shattered inward. The impertinent insect kicked the gingerbread man across the floor, ripping the gun out of his hands at the same time.

This was to be a meeting of big reputations only,” the bug barked, “and I’ve never heard of you.” They both heard the doors beneath them forced open and the scratching march of tens of myrmidon feet.

We just couldn’t wait to try out your little game,” Snaps spat as he got to his feet, but soldiers were already atop the stairs. He was grabbed by both arms and forced a few centimeters from the Challenger’s face. He was examined closely, the insect running a plated claw along his cheek. For the second time that day he was tasted without consent.

Can’t blame you for that, whoever you are, but killing me outside of a properly refereed match is unforgivable. Take him downstairs and put him with the others. Question them, and if they don’t reveal their employers shoot them.” He took his leave via flying leap from the empty window while Snaps was dragged all the way down the spiral stairs and back into the light.

It only took minutes for Mustardseed, Vitruvian, and Yahoo to be rounded up, tied with rope, and dropped to their knees near a false fountain in Little Essex’s town square. Snaps was placed next to them. He thanked the stars the spirit was absent, even though her ethereal form faced little danger from the myrmidons. The insect landed in front of them, having leapt over half the town to get there. He observed the questioning dispassionately.

Who sent you to kill the Challenger?” one of the soldiers asked, clawed hands gripping the sides of Vitruvian’s carved face.

I will say nothing,” the automaton answered, easy for him considering that Leonardo didn’t see much reason to give him the capacity for pain. The bug moved on to Mustardseed and asked again.

I flew in on a chilly wind,” was all she would say, the ominous statement undercut by the swiveling of her large fuzzy ears. Yahoo was next.

Oh yeah I’ll tell you,” he said with a smirk. “Tom Thumb sent me. He’s hopping mad at you.” He flicked his eyes toward the insect, who chose to take over the interrogation.

Why?”

Because he thinks you give thumbs a bad name, what with both of yours stuck so far up your ass.” He cackled, even doing it through the cough when he was kicked in the stomach.

End them,” the insect ordered. “We can hang them in the Little Essex gallows as ornaments. It’ll be immersive.” The guns were raised and aimed, one even fired, but the whole ship was rocking. The stray bullet made it halfway up the stairs outside Little Essex, losing its velocity as if frightened by the sight of her.

Mygdenia, suddenly nine meters tall, was crouched down to five so she wouldn’t rip the roof off. Diplomats gasped and screamed, but not all of them, for some of their countries had been served by her formal advice before. Her first act was to reach into the telegraph stalls and remove the people clinging to the devices, gently handing them over to their peers. Golden palms blocked any others from entering.

What is the meaning of this interruption!?” the insect shouted. Snaps whipped his head back to see that their foe was gone, having jumped the whole town again to get back to his voice amplification system.

Little Wars will not come to pass,” she said, her voice ringing like the flick of a large wineglass. “Steer this craft back to shore at once.”

I’ve never been afraid of the big,” the challenging gnat asserted, his many myrmidons voicing throaty cheers. “It’s a weakness. Go ahead, kill all these meaningless people. Little Wars is already here, so they’re just hills in the way. Sink us, and see who clings successfully to the debris!”

Snaps saw the stalemate forming. Not a word he was overly fond of, having been a stale mate once after a week aboard another ship in the hot sun, but it applied nonetheless. Their golden goddess couldn’t fight in this space effectively, not without damaging the only thing keeping them alive. She looked stuck in fact, if not by the space then by fear that moving might cause her to slide down all the stairs and straight through the bottom of the ship.

All she could do was prevent any more information from getting back to land. Her growth was a scare, most likely. Just the wrong huddle of bankers or buyers making snap judgments based on how much sweat was in their handkerchief after a swipe across the forehead. It wouldn’t last. Once she came back down they would have no leverage against him. All of this had to be decided, and quickly, from a position that was much weaker than it appeared.

The challenge,” the gingerbread man whispered. It was just like the story starring the insect himself, the one he would repeat without ever studying. If the challenge was accepted, then they were to be treated as equals. “We challenge you!” he shouted, but his voice couldn’t make it all the way to the podium. The myrmidons were staring, clearly wondering how loud he could be from within a stomach. “Don’t just stand there; tell your master! We challenge him!”

To what?” a perplexed ant asked.

Little Wars! You all believe in it don’t you? That’s what this is supposed to all be about, the only sensible way to solve conflicts… or would you rather risk drowning?” By now there were myrmidons scuttling across every roof, sitting in the gutters with their legs dangling to watch, and it only took a moment for them to pass a signal to their leader.

What is this intriguing idea I’m hearing about?” the impertinent insect asked as he descended back to his prisoners. His demeanor had changed, as if they were about to play croquet and he needed to ensure he got his favorite color ball.

There was to be a demonstration, yes?” Snaps asked. Rather than answer the insect had his underlings pull Snaps back to his feet. He brushed himself off, but purely out of habit, as Little Essex had no dust. “Why not just carry on, but actually demonstrate your faith in your creation. Our force versus one of yours, of equal ability of course.”

I’m not so good with dice…” Yahoo muttered, misunderstanding the very nature of the game.

My rules,” the insect said slowly, clearly dreaming up said rules as they went. “Little Wars can’t be more than a game unless real blood is spilled. I’m just changing floods to dribbles. One wrong move, and you die. Should someone be injured you cannot go to their aid; you must remain in the exact space the game prescribes.”

Agreed.” Snaps realized he should’ve sought his team’s approval before saying that, so he turned to them. Vitruvian affirmed the strategy with a nod; Mustardseed didn’t seem worried either. It was Yahoo who was surprisingly apprehensive, but he puffed his chest out anyway as he rose to his feet. To show her willingness the spirit of Christmas past finally reappeared, rising out of a space next to the others but staying firmly within its square sides.

Two phases to our preparations,” the insect explained. “One: I set out the rules and units.” Up went a second segmented finger. “Two, you reveal your abilities so I may set their limits.” The handful agreed. “Excellent. Do remember to enjoy yourselves; I know I will. Listen closely:

We’ve done away with lengths of string. Your turns will be timed at thirty seconds. You can move up to ten squares, switching direction whenever you like, but not traveling diagonally. Attacking and moving are done on separate turns. Any single strike constitutes your one and only attack for a turn: one punch thrown or one bullet fired.

Pieces may not defend themselves from attacks. If you don’t wish to be killed, position yourself well. Victory can be achieved in two ways: either eliminate the entire enemy force or eliminate the enemy commander. I will act as the commander. Yours will be…”

He pointed at Snaps, who tried to step out of the way so the claw would land on the spirit, but the insect saw right through her as well as the tactic.

I doubt she can be physically harmed easily… so you, Mister Baked Good, are designated as the commander.” He demonstrated the finality of the judgment by returning Snaps’s firearm to him. “Now seeing that you arrived as a team of assassins, I will honor your element of surprise by selecting my forces before you tell me exactly what you can do.” What followed was several minutes of myrmidon battalions coming and going from the square while the nervous confused diplomats settled back into their seats.

From the troops, which looked nearly identical in the eyes of the handful, the insect carefully chose six soldiers and presented them to his opponents, reasoning that the strange nature of their abilities entitled him to two additional units on the field. They didn’t see much way of arguing with him, so they simply allowed the process to continue. Snaps noted each myrmidon had a long gun, a sword, a knife, and a sidearm.

Now for the pieces with special privileges,” the insect crooned, polishing the many lenses of his monocle with practiced speed. “As the god of this game and possessing boundless strength in my legs, I am permitted to move any number of spaces or to any elevation in a single turn. Should I jump, I am still not permitted to attack in the same turn.” One of his soldiers handed him a fancy saber and a dueling revolver. “Now, you must reveal all your strengths to me so I may set your limits.”

Mustardseed went first, demonstrating her strength by lifting a surprised myrmidon and tossing him up to a roof where his kin caught him. She also hovered with her wings briefly. The insect nodded, mulled it over, and informed her that her strength had no additional limits. Her flight however would grant her a total of five extra squares of movement per turn, though if she used it to attain a roof square that alone would take her entire turn.

She was followed by Yahoo, who performed the same feat of strength, except his myrmidon went sailing over the building completely, fate unknown to the handful. He insulted their host when he was given no special privileges, thinking himself poorly appraised.

Next was the spirit of Christmas past, who demonstrated her ability to walk through walls and burn objects with the hidden flame upon her head. She also felt obligated to mention that she would not be taking any lives, no matter the opportunity. Snaps had anticipated that, but she was still extremely useful as a provider of information. The insect granted her an additional ten steps per turn to account for her pacifism, but set passage through walls as a move requiring three steps.

Vitruvian’s willingness to participate was not just an act of bravery, as there was something of an ace mechanically tucked away in his sleeve. Several wooden nodules, previously trivial as imperfections in the carving, popped open, revealing their linear arrangement along his limbs, neck, head, and sides.

The front half of the automaton stepped forward while the back half remained in place, the two held together by unfolding metal joints. Out from within stepped a metal armature, a sort of skeleton with lidless eyes, copper teeth, and a glass orb at its center housing something that looked like electricity one moment but water the next.

The armature took its own square while the shell resealed, both halves demonstrating their ability to operate independently of one another. He’d effectively added one more unit to their force, making up for the spirit refusing to participate in the deadly play. The insect chuckled, wagging a finger at the space between the two Vitruvians, but he let the surprise stand. No special abilities, but each half could have a turn of their own.

That left just Snaps who was proud to declare that he got by on nothing but his wits, that his baked flesh would crumble just as easily as a man’s or an ant’s, if not more so. His only advantage was that he was better at operating with a wound than a more organic being. He was given no special consideration, which he deemed wholly appropriate.

We have our rules then,” their foe said as he clapped his hands. “The world will be watching. Your communication is limited only by how loud you can shout, and who else might hear. Referees of sorts will be on the roofs, wearing black. Obey their calls or forfeit your life. Is everyone ready?”

Uhh, one question mark over here,” Yahoo said, raising his hand like a student but waving it wildly so he felt less like one. “Outside the town there’s dirt paths and trees and things with no squares. Can we go out there?”

Ahh yes, the wilderness. You may. Out there you are limited only by your time, but you are fully exposed and must end your turn the moment you touch a square. I don’t mind giving you this advice; even I wouldn’t want to be caught out in those sight lines.” With that he leapt away, his squad of six rushing down an alley after him.

From there most of the myrmidons emptied out of Little Essex, the only remaining antennae sticking out from the roofs belonging to the black-clad referees. One of them pointed aggressively, instructing the handful to stand in a line of squares, one apart from each other, as their starting positions. They were told that the impertinent insect and his squad would be starting from the street nearest the podium.

Their foe announced the proceedings from there, finally quieting the diplomats. Many of them scratched their chins and leaned forward, much too interested in the demonstration for Snaps’s liking. It was good to defeat Little Wars here and now, but there was no telling if the idea could gain traction without the challenging gnat to run it as a supposedly impartial party.

He looked to Mygdenia, whose face towered over all the buildings from her uncomfortable position outside the telegraphs. She couldn’t see him thanks to the size difference, but she knew to give her approval with her resting expression. She also held her eyes open wide, moving her pupils around their circumference in exact increments, clockwise. She indicated that time was limited.

We need to stay together, but not too close,” Snaps advised the others. “If we wind up in a line a single cannon shot could take all of us down. Try to stay in one turn’s reach; that should keep us in earshot of each other as well. If not, the spirit can use her turns to help guide you back to the group with signal flashes.”

I understand,” the spirit said.

Agreed,” both halves of Vitruvian voiced.

I think I’ll try throwing rocks,” Mustardseed said, “as soon as I can punch a building and make some.”

Yahoo, do you understand?” Snaps asked when the New Yorker dug an amber glob out of his ear rather than affirm the strategy. “Yahoo? I’m talking to you!”

Continued in the Finale

2 thoughts on “The Challenging Handful (Part Three)

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