Kling-kling-king-kling! The bell from the church’s tower. The starting pistol. The referee pointed at Yahoo first, holding up a clock on a chain with a large face and crimson hands so they could see the passage of their turn’s time.
The furry fellow took off running; completely unnecessary given that he could only go ten spaces. Those ten took him around a corner and out of sight. The myrmidon blew a whistle when his turn ended, but didn’t point at anyone else in the handful. One of the Challenger’s men must have been moving.
“Where are you going?” Mustardseed called after him, voice straining into a donkey’s bray when it got too loud.
“Don’t want the refs to know!” Yahoo shouted back. “Don’t trust this is on the level.”
“We’re on a ship, so technically nothing is level,” the armature of Vitruvian muttered, apparently a little more ill-tempered and bitter than his prettier shell.
“Let him go!” Snaps warned in a harsh whisper. “And be as quiet as you can. Shouting reveals our position to the enemy.” He made sure his rifle was properly loaded and then reached under his jacket to produce a sharpened peppermint stick bayonet that he attached.
“Are we really starting down a man?” Mustardseed asked, but she couldn’t get her answer. The referee pointed at her, and the seconds were dwindling. She crouched and then flapped her wings powerfully, landing on a roof to survey. With a shake of her head she conveyed that she couldn’t yet spot any of them.
Their next two turns belonged to Vitruvian, each half taking up forward positions on opposite sides, with it being clear that they could somehow silently share information. After that was Snaps, but already he was soured on this game. If it was chess he was the king, and so his positioning had to be entirely based on the defensible. It only made sense to keep between the somewhat armored halves of Vitruvian and use them as bodyguards.
On the last turn of their first round, silky smoke crept in around his feet. Being burned was almost as bed as getting soggy, so the commander whirled around to investigate, mind already consumed by the possible exceptions to the various rules when fire was involved. The culprit was the spirit; she held a broken piece of the sugar window’s frame over her exposed flame, twisting it back and forth as it blackened, melted, and generated the gray curls that slowly enrobed him.
“A smokescreen,” she said. “I can probably cover three squares in any direction around you, so if they fire into it they’re likely to miss. And I can keep it from rising so it won’t give us away.”
“Brilliant, thank you,” Snaps commended.
“You’re not mad at Yahoo, are you?” she asked in a whisper, the first in the game to catch him off guard.
“Well you shouldn’t apologize to me; don’t forgive the messenger. That’s something I think we spirits say.”
“I… are you referring to the incident just prior to leaving the bag?” She nodded, spilling more smoke down her nose and chin. “He ate my arm, so yes I am angry with him.” Yahoo’s turn came again, but they didn’t hear from him, stoking Snaps’s irritation.
“It could be why he left us. People like that think they’re better off alone as soon as they get scolded once. That’s why it’s so difficult to bring them around come Christmas dinner. You set a place for them, but they don’t come. Then if they do come and don’t see a place set for them they leave again. Very tough Christmases.”
“He was nasty and untoward. Can’t trust someone who’s going to haul off and devour your limbs. That’s not much of a saying with anybody, but it’s true all the same.” Mustardseed made a move, jumping from one roof to another. Her wings flattened before her hand stuck out over the edge and signaled. She had spotted someone approaching from the left.
“Perhaps he didn’t mean any offense,” the spirit suggested. “Christmas cookies are usually very welcoming of that sort of thing. You had me consume a piece of you.”
“That was different,” he hissed, swiping enough smoke away to steal a glance at the corner most likely to produce a myrmidon. “I offered it to to you because… because you met my standards.”
“So the ant man back in Minimil did as well?” she asked, curiosity so obviously genuine that thinking about rebuffing it burned a little. “I saw that he liked your beard; you two looked very happy.” Vitruvian’s armature disappeared, but he couldn’t get out of earshot in a single move.
“Yes… that was Solenos. He… We were on a mission together once, a long time ago. We became trapped in a hole for days and he ran out of food. Myrmidons are famous sugar-hounds, so I was consumed by fear.
But he just sat there, as far from me as he could. They aren’t very expressive creatures, faces stiffened by chitin, but you know when they’re in pain because they have the insect instinct to twitch uncontrollably. With his back to the dirt wall, hands plunged into the soil so his fingers weren’t visible, his antennae vibrated. So much I could hear them.
And he never said a thing. Never hinted at whether or not I was on the menu. Do you know how rare it is for manners to extend into a being’s soul? Most of the time people commend themselves on being civil, but that’s just the reflex of being in a civilization. Out there, in the world of eat or be eaten, Solenos still wasn’t an eater. So I gave him enough to sustain.
Take that family you observed on that Christmas. If it wasn’t Christmas, if there wasn’t a house, and a tree, and presents, what would they have looked like? A cozy loving huddle? Or would there have been insufficient humanity on display to summon you?”
“You think I’m only present because of obligation?”
“That’s not quite what I mean.” The other half of Vitruvian put his back to a wall to hide his profile around the corner.
“Have a little faith,” she said sharply, but it was not a tone she could maintain, like a knife of peanut brittle attacking a dinner plate. “Set a place for him; that’s all that I mean.” She receded into her smoke. The commander immediately wanted to apologize, but it was his turn. Despite the circumstances, the pain in her voice was at the forefront of his heart, but he realized he could honor her request in a slightly dishonest way. She never said who should be the target of his faith.
He didn’t see the harm in having faith in her, acting on her advice without sparing concern for the gluttonous yahoo. Wordlessly he reached down and scratched at his left side, just above the hip. It was his least vulnerable area, so the best to trim for his purposes. With each step he took he crumbled some of his flesh and let it drop. A trail of gingerbread crumbs, for him to follow should he return. Surely she would notice and consider it a place set.
It wasn’t five seconds past the end of his turn before the impertinent insect fell from the sky and landed behind the central pillar of Little Essex’s fountain. The bold move caught the handful by surprise, as every member of their party now had him in sight. The Challenger didn’t look at all worried, peaking out from behind the pillar cheerily to watch them. He even aimed his revolver at the shell of Vitruvian.
That was when his strategy became apparent. He was well out of reach of a single turn by any of them except the spirit, and the only member of their team with a firearm was Snaps. There was no point in taking a shot at the bug because he could simply stand tall and let the fountain block it, but when his turn came he was free to lean, as long as his legs didn’t leave his square, and take a shot at the exposed Vitruvian half.
“I might be shot,” the wooden shell of the automaton said matter-of-factly.
“Slip around the corner on your turn,” Snaps advised.
“I fear there are four members of his force in this alley. And a spring cannon they’re escorting. It’s just a guess, based on the vibrations.”
“I can help,” the spirit said as her turn began. She drifted toward their foe, toes dangling just above the squares. Fully capable of occupying the same physical space as him, but prevented from doing so by the rules, she took up residence in the square to the bug’s left, keeping her smokescreen about her. She stretched the cloud, putting as much of it between Vitruvian and the Challenger as she could, making aiming between them impossible.
“Oh very clever,” the insect chirped. “You see? Isn’t this so much more interesting than whoever can spill the most red blood?”
“You should add a rule about opposing sides not talking to each other,” the spirit hissed in what she assumed was his ear. The next round of turns started, with the handful hitting another snag when Mustardseed attempted to attack the approaching gun, which she spotted right where Vitruvian guessed it would be. Her intent was to rip off the corner of the roof she was perched on and toss it down on their heads, but as she was about to do so the referee blew a whistle and issued a warning.
“You can’t throw in the same turn you destroyed something,” he ruled. “The destruction counted as your attack.”
“You mean it counts if I attack the building?” she brayed. The referee confirmed this, so she was forced to hold her debris under one arm and wait patiently. The one thing she could do was inform her teammates that four enemy units were able to conglomerate their turns in order to escort the cannon, though it appeared they had to take a separate turn to aim and fire it.
“I’ll lead the way out of the square,” Vitruvian told the others. “We use the building as cover so they can’t aim the cannon properly.” It was as good a strategy as any, though the closest alley was disconcertingly narrow. Plus, with the insect behind the fountain and four of his underlings manning the cannon, that left two enemies unaccounted for. They could appear at both ends of the alley, and Snaps would only be permitted to shoot one of them before the other got the chance to fire.
When his turn rolled around there seemed few other options, so he squeezed himself past one half of Vitruvian so that the automaton covered his front and back, providing an unfeeling shield.
The Challenger was next, and rather than attempt a shot through the spirit’s smokescreen he pulled an entirely unexpected tactic. He leapt again, but this time much less of his power was put into height and much more into forward velocity. The insect sprang out of the square, straight at Mustardseed on the roof corner, and delivered a flying knee directly into her chest. The poor fairy spun in place, dropping her rubble down into the square.
Clearly their foe had been formulating strategies for a long time. Not only had he effectively removed the ammunition from her means of attack, he had also dealt a blow while repositioning himself, circumventing the rule about separating movement and attacks. He landed on the opposite corner of the roof as her, well out of her reach, and with a clear sight line down to Snaps. All he had to do to avoid Snaps’s potential fire was duck and let the roof take the hit.
The Spirit moved, again bringing her smokescreen so that it covered Snaps and the Vitruvians. That left them mostly in quiet blindness, waiting for Yahoo’s distant turn to pass. The commander would’ve swatted away the image in his head, of the creature lounging in the prop bed of a little Essex Inn, eating whatever he scraped off the floor as if it was pâté, if that didn’t risk clearing the smoke that obscured him.
Then it was the gunners’ turn. Twenty seconds passed. Twoing! There was no time to react to the earsplitting release of the spring, as its missile crashed through both sides of the thin building and rebounded in the handful’s alley. They had expected a projectile of metal, like a harpoon nail or screw, but that was only the projectile’s shaft.
Its head was hardened black rubber, harmless to the big, but weighty enough under simple gravity to split the handful’s heads. It bounced around the narrow walls repeatedly, almost as if searching for them, only stopping when it struck the armature in the chest and bent the metal of its rib cage.
“Vitruvian? Are you still with us?” Snaps hissed.
“Yes,” the unharmed wooden half answered. “My other self has lost his speech and the use of his arms, but he can still move. He’s little more than a shield now.” The armature couldn’t protest, but Snaps heard his joints squeak at about heart height, indicating he was perhaps aiming a rude gesture at himself.
Even if they had sustained no damage the problem was obvious: myrmidons were now free to pour into the building through the hole they created, closing any distance the handful had left. The spirit had plenty more debris to burn now, but her control of the smokescreen was still limited in size. If too much of it was given to the interior to confuse the pursuers, their master would have a clear shot with his revolver.
“Can anybody reach that… thing?” Mustardseed asked, hands on the gutter. When she saw that everyone was still functioning she grew a smile. Snaps caught on, and happened to be the only one who could reach the cannon bolt from his current square. Foraging and tossing could hardly be called attacks, so the referee had nothing to complain about when he hefted the heavy thing and threw it up to her.
“You imbeciles,” the impertinent insect buzzed at his cannoneers. He tucked away his monocle and crouched, readying himself for the coming throw. “Alright then, have at me. I lived in the cherry tree George Washington felled while it was falling. I was a committee leader in one of the swarms of the biblical locust plague! I can handle one measly fairy.”
“Funny,” she said, tapping a black hoof-like nail on her chin, “I don’t remember you in any of those stories.”
“You want me fuming,” he said darkly.
“Actually I want you fumigated.” Even she hadn’t realized she could be so clever; it must have been all that obnoxious waiting for everyone to take their turns, giving her witticisms too many chances to bloom. It was entertaining for a moment, but she quickly found herself nostalgic for old fairy tactics: poking the eyes of the big and tricking them into colliding with their own doors and cabinets.
Mustardseed had in fact never even known the popular tale of Washington’s cherry tree nor any stories of the bible, having spent most of her life in the timeless fairy realm, but it was trivial enough to glean that the Challenger was a braggart, and braggarts were braggarts because they could be nothing more.
Even recognizing her strategy, he still fell for it. Just like a myrmidon his irritation could be seen in the vibrating of his antennae, though they were quite a bit longer, making it look more like self-flagellation.
The fairy’s turn started ticking away, so she lifted the cannon bolt like a javelin and took aim at the insect’s chest. Taking note of his crouch, seeing more force stored in those legs than was likely in the cannon’s spring, she feigned a throw. It worked. He rocketed upward in an attempted dodge, but if he came down in any other square it would be a violation. So she waited for him to come back down and, before he could reconnect, threw with Washington honesty.
The missile struck its mark, popping the buttons off the challenging gnat’s shirt and sending him flying a considerable distance off the roof. The spirit cleared a spyglass through the smoke so those in the alley could see where he landed. See they did, but they also witnessed his rise from the rubble, the damage apparently limited to his wardrobe.
“I think we need something sharper,” Mustardseed guessed.
“His carapace does seem to absorb shock,” wooden Vitruvian noted. “I had some hidden wrist blades, but they’re in the armature and the arms are broken.”
“My bayonet is the only blade left,” Snaps added, “unless we scavenge something from our pursuers.”
“First get yourselves out of this alley,” the spirit advised. Excellent advice it was, for now that the myrmidons were abandoning the cannon, rather than reloading, their turns were splitting up into individual ones once more. They wasted none of their thirty seconds each making their way through the holes in the walls. Snaps’s last alley act was to scratch off a few more breadcrumbs to honor his promise.
So their plan changed to flight, though they had the disadvantage of not knowing where or to what structures each street led. The smoke provided cover, but whenever one of the Challenger’s soldiers had a shot they took it, the bullets ripping through the cloud like needles. The spirit was far from passive though, and let her shoulders show through in order to bait the guns in her direction. She was struck five different times, as were the buildings behind her.
Mustardseed was the only member outside the smokescreen, using her wings in a war of back-and-forth positioning with the impertinent insect himself. Whenever she was in his sight line she would come down from the roof and hide between the buildings. On one such occasion she noticed a pursuing myrmidon had miscalculated, forgotten which roof she was on, and remained within one square of her reach.
Using the same trick as the insect, her jump down became her attack, both legs joined as a driving hammer. Even though her feet were bare her muscles were denser than Yahoo’s skull, coming down with a crushing force that crumpled the enemy and ended him. It was their first victory, but they weren’t the ones to enjoy it.
The diplomats erupted in applause and cheering. They never even considered that their din would drown out the handful’s chance to strategize, but they were too disturbed to do so anyway. This noise, this congratulations, did not feel like it was for them. No, it resonated in the bedrock of the board, rattled in the sugar glass of the streetlamps, and echoed in the church that would known neither parishioner or god.
They congratulated the game on running smoothly. Already the Challenger’s idea was planted and grew shadowy roots in their scheming power-positioning minds. Had his plan gone that far into detail to recognize exactly what sort of person had been sent to board his vessel? Expendable nephews, upstarts tricked into thinking they were highly valued already, and crackpots that could be trusted to relay information but never act on it.
The kind of people who would look at this ridiculous display and see their ticket to the throne. The kind that would love nothing more than to declare that muscle was out and mind was in, and that it was only coincidence that they’d played very good chess back in school. They were all impertinent insects, and they felt right at home.
With one down that left six members of the opposition, but they were still outnumbered by one thanks to Yahoo vanishing. To Snaps that meant taking out the insect was still their best chance, but he knew to stay well away, matching Mustardseed’s aerial superiority with his own. The only way Snaps could take out his frustrations was with a shot at one of his flunkies when they tried to position behind a bench. It went right through the slats and struck them in the head. Five to five.
“The longer this goes on, the closer we are to losing,” Vitruvian noted when the crowd’s roar died down again.
“I know,” the commander said through gritted royal icing teeth. “We’re being turned into pawns. Minimil into a toy chest and a war chest. Even if we survive the world will see our efforts here as an employment interview.”
It appeared they were doing very well in that interview, at least until they came to a halt on one of Vitruvian’s turns. That was when they realized they weren’t just being pursued, but corralled. The street ahead, the pretend back alley of a butcher’s, ran crimson with paint mimicking the blood drippings of hung shanks of meat. Menacing hooks lined the wall, cardboard cow limbs skewered.
At their feet sat a hundred of the hooks’ more menacing cousins: iron traps. They looked rather like bear traps, but square in shape to fit the spaces and with pressure plates so large that there was no tiptoeing around them. Every space in every row was filled in a stretch thirty long; they couldn’t advance without losing limbs or wasting their turns triggering a few at a time.
“This must be a violation!” Snaps yelled at one of the referees staring down from the nearest roof. “These weapons were not declared at the beginning.” The Myrmidon’s laugh was a dry rasp.
“Pre-existing hazard,” he said. “These were laid out before you showed up. They’re legal, and it’s your turn.” The seconds started ticking away, despite Snaps having plenty of complaining left between his crumbs.
“There’s no point in moving then,” the gingerbread man muttered. “Spirit, do I have a shot at anyone?” Tiny viewing holes opened across the smoke, allowing him to see for himself. Antennae around corners, but nothing else. In one more set of turns they would be surrounded, and he would have but one shot to respond to all four of the Myrmidons and the Challenger. Memories took advantage of his panic, flashing in his mind like lightning. Being stuck, injured and stale, on a wooden floor, pests in the distance getting whiffs of him as his aroma flooded between the boards.
Rather than waste a bullet he turned back to the traps and crouched. Putting the stock of his rifle as flat as he could, he swept it across the ground in his only allotted attack, triggering the traps in a wave. A dozen of them snapped shut in an instant, some with so much pressure loaded into them that they jumped and triggered another on the way down. Effective, but only if they had two more turns to finish clearing the path.
The insect landed not a moment after his turn began, intent clear. He was too far for anything but Snaps’s rifle to reach, and even then there was a decent chance of missing. Mustardseed wouldn’t be able to get to him in time. The bug preened, wiping the dust from his vest and polishing his revolver with a handkerchief. It was clear he’d already declared checkmate in his mind.
“That confidence means your bullet won’t kill,” Vitruvian whispered. “It’ll likely just crack his exoskeleton at this distance… even if you can land the shot.”
“I’m open to suggestion.”
“We could signal Mygdenia. Break the rules. She can scoop us up and fend them off. Perhaps get us onto a piece of floating wreckage before she sinks.”
“Take the boat down just to survive? All these people could perish.”
“I don’t like that plan,” the spirit interjected, clear in her tone was the knowledge that she couldn’t stop them if they chose such a path.
“It would stop the game from spreading,” Vitruvian said, being pragmatic. “Saving our lives and any others that might get swept up in it.”
“Your choice,” Snaps told the automatons; he could tell by the squeaking that the mute one was nodding along with his brother. “But I would see this through. None here have earned my condemnation quite yet. The only one to take a bite out of me is on my team!”
“I’m sorry,” the spirit said, but she wasn’t talking about Yahoo. The smoke screen had thinned to untenability, and now all of Little Essex could see exactly which spaces they each called home. “I don’t have anything left to burn.” The only loose objects left around were the sprung traps, and even if her flame had the strength to melt them they wouldn’t produce much smoke anyway.
She used her turn to move in a straight line through the remaining traps, just tangible enough to trigger them, but that only penetrated so far as well. Any actual feet attempting to complete the journey wouldn’t make it out intact.
One of the myrmidons, emboldened by the insect’s positioning, stepped out from behind a building and took aim with her rifle. Stepping out was her turn, but by the way she held her gun it seemed things were already over. The Challenger had selected his troops carefully, and this particular sniper had seven tally marks scratched into the dusky chitin on her jaw: confirmed kills in the name of her leader. The first Little Wars legend just waiting to spread.
“The furry one’s turn,” the referee snickered.
“Thirty seconds to lament then,” Snaps sighed. “To think that his spot could’ve belonged to Solenos, and we could’ve shared-” Krikak! The tile underneath the sniper’s feet snapped down the middle. Her aim pivoted ninety degrees, but she was prohibited from firing. The ground exploded under her as if from cannon fire, dirt clods raining in all directions. She was thrown, squirming, nearly a meter into the air. She landed on her neck, and while she might have survived, the cracking sound that came from her indicated it would at least be a miserable existence from that day forward.
The biggest clod in the brown geyser was none other than Yahoo, thick lumps of soil stuck his fur coat, bits of root tangled around his teeth. The creature was careful not to land, but to place the soles of his feet on the edge of the exploded space. From there he sprung a great distance, landing with a smack next to the rest of his team and shaking the filth from his fur like a wet dog.
“Mission accomplished!” he crowed. With that said he went to undoing the roots around his teeth with naught but his tongue, making sounds like someone navigating an old piece of taffy.
“Where were you!?” Snaps exploded. “By the way; you’ve gone and gotten yourself cornered with the rest of us!” Yahoo froze, tongue cresting up and out, awfully close to his nose, suggesting it had gotten much more intimate with his nostril in the past.
“Relax, I got one,” he said. “I know you didn’t want me hanging around and ruining your plans, so I went and did my own.”
“Stop the clock!” the impertinent insect demanded. The referee grabbed the top of his watch and twisted, stalling the hands temporarily. “Do tell exactly what you’ve just done furry fellow. I want to make sure you haven’t violated any rules.” Yahoo started to pace, so lacking in subtlety that he appeared to be pacing condescendingly, with his arms behind his back. He hadn’t forgotten that he was limited to a single square however, so he had to turn with every step.
“I’d never be so unsporting!” he shouted back. “I just went straight for those wild lands outside the town. When I got there I tunneled.” He pulled his arms out to display his filthy claws, which the others of the handful now realized were somewhat mole-like. “I was under the spaces, so still out in the wilds. I could move as much as I wanted… and I didn’t touch one of these squares until the one I’m on now. That’s what we call a technicality. It’s like cheating, but you can’t do anything about it pal.” Snaps groaned. The challenging gnat, if he felt like it, certainly could do something about it. If not for the watching throng he might have.
“Resume,” the insect said, recovering his composure. It was almost as if he respected Yahoo’s erroneous insistence that he was the cleverest in Little Essex. Before the referee could obey however, they all heard the clop of hooves coming down the street. Too simple-minded to understand that they were interrupting the redefinition of military conflict the world over, the two donkeys came into view.
“I forgot about them,” Mustardseed said from the butcher’s roof. The animals displayed an unusual level of focus, making their way straight for the handful, keeping their noses to the ground. And their lips. And their tongues. Snaps looked down and saw the line of rich brown crumbs that led all the way to the asses.
“They’re lapping up your blood,” Yahoo said as he noticed the same thing.
“That trail was intended for you,” the commander hissed, “in case you decided to rejoin us.”
“What did you do that for?” he asked with a scrunched nose, even though Snaps had included the reasoning already. He tapped his nose and flared his nostrils. “I could smell your cinnamon if I was on a different boat.”
“Well you didn’t bother to tell us that did you!?”
“This is my fault,” the spirit said, twisting her snuffer back and forth as if trying to screw it down over her mouth. “That was my idea everyone. I thought… I should’ve known better. Having ideas that don’t come from my Christmas. Should’ve known it was worthless… and now I’m going to lose you!” Tears as bright as her flame fell down her ashen cheeks. “I want to go back to the past, where you’ll all live forever!”
“Please spirit, this is not your doing,” Snaps said. He wanted to reach out and comfort her, but the game wouldn’t allow his aid to extend the seven squares to her.
“Nobody needs to worry,” Yahoo added. “Look!” The donkeys had reached the last of the crumbs and were eating them placidly. Yahoo stroked one of their manes. “This is good. Looks like we’ve got them outnumbered now, and these dumb blocks of meat can be shields.” They were positioned directly between the handful and the encroaching infestation, but it was at that moment that they slimmed down and regained their footing.
Spitting out wet lumps of gingerbread, as soon as they regained the ability to spit, the myrmidons stood and looked around, intelligence flooding back to their growing minds. As the furry mammalian ears crimped back to antennae their shame rushed back as well. Their transformation left them without clothes, so they threw their hands over their nether regions.
“Don’t either of you move a muscle!” the impertinent insect ordered. They whirled around to face him before they could even comprehend what he said, but they managed to stay in their squares. “How did you do that?”
“That was me,” Mustardseed admitted. “They swallowed some of my hairs earlier and… that happened.”
“I see.” He stroked his green chin. “So you have an ability, which could instantly incapacitate any of my soldiers, and you didn’t disclose it at the beginning of the game.” Snaps groaned.
“I didn’t even know I had it until today! I just forgot,” the fairy moaned. “It’s not my team’s fault.”
“No matter! There must be consequences!” It only took him three seconds to think them up. “You two are now in the game,” he told the former donkeys. “We’ll count this as a surprise attack. The enemy will be allotted but a single unit’s turn before you can make your attacks. And you will attack, with your full strength, regardless of how naked you are when all eyes fall on you. Do you understand?”
The new additions saluted, which notably took but one hand to do. Mustardseed took the threat seriously though, especially as the first seconds of her turn went by. The fairy dutifully fluttered down from the roof and put herself between Yahoo and the naked soldiers, ready to take the brunt of their attacks as penance.
“I could handle it,” Yahoo said behind her.
“I can handle it better,” she insisted, steadying herself and closing her wings behind her so the ant people would have a hard time reaching the delicate things from their squares. Her last seconds passed.
Each of them had thirty seconds to assault her as they saw fit, but they could only do so with single blows, and they had none of their weapons on them. What they did have was the rage, grown over the course of their brief life as ungulates. As half-insect creatures, being returned to a fully mammalian state felt like an insult to every brother and sister they had under their queen. When they struck they were blows for all of pest kind.
Mustardseed took one set of sharp knuckles to the cheek, opening four gashes, which to Snaps looked like the hatching meant to vent steam from a cherry pastry. Back when he experimented to find a suitable body he had tried a similar technique, but it left him feeling open, wounded. He could only imagine what it took for the fairy to stay stoically silent.
The second punch targeted her abdomen instead, aiming up under her ribs to try and rob her of breath. It tore her clothes and left several cuts as well. She wheezed once, but then stood tall and fanned her wings, hiding Yahoo and half of Vitruvian behind them.
“We are the challenging handful!” she declared, timbre returning to her voice. “Hand in hand we will defeat you!” Despite her best efforts, the audience was too far to hear. Those in Little Essex just laughed, those still behind corners not even concerned that the sounds gave away their positions.
“The challenging handful? I’m flattered to inspire such a name,” the impertinent insect preened. “You know, this doesn’t have to end this way. It is built into the game that you can surrender and keep your lives to play another day. In fact, you could serve in my military-for-hire. We’ll be in high demand once Little Wars kicks off.”
“Why would you make those of us that share this size so vulnerable?” Vitruvian asked. “We were much safer when war was large. No nation has ever aimed a rifle at a mosquito.”
“And don’t you feel disrespected by that?” the Challenger shot back. “Besides, you haven’t spent as much time with the movers and shakers as I have. Sitting on the edge of their tea trays, sharing their food and drink whether they acknowledged me or not, I heard their plans. The thing about Big War is that, under a black night sky that goes on forever, scaling up will always seem like a revolutionary strategy, one that always wins.” Enemy turns were passing. Myrmidons showed themselves. Took aim. The handful futilely cleared traps and went close to nowhere.
“They themselves are too small to see,” he went on, “what that will do to the world. When the war gets big enough, everything will die. Including us. And we won’t have a say in it at all. That’s why I’m making sure our say is the only one. Appeal to their petty survival instincts, make war about wagers, and games, and money, and lives that don’t matter to them. Unlike Big War, Little Wars must stop shrinking when it becomes invisible to their eyes. It has a hard limit, just like the one you’ve reached.”
It was the challenging gnat’s turn, and he was already right where he wanted to be. With a cock of his head his long limp antennae swiveled, gathering information about the precise movements of the stale air inside the ship, the only hints of a breeze the warm breaths of a hundred hungry diplomats as they leaned in.
Bok! His revolver bullet tore through Mustardseed’s wing and found its true target: Snaps’s chest. The commander crumbled to his knees, hand immediately over the wound to keep it from cracking further. He didn’t need to peek under it to assess the damage, as he could feel it in his core, sandwiched in a vein of roux-glue between some of his original crumbs.
The pain was extraordinary, a degree he had forgotten since cloaking himself in numb freshness. The object was so small, yet he felt skewered through and placed over a bed of live coals. A tormenting reheat before he was divided up among a slavering swarm of ants.
The spirit used her turn to reach his side and steady him. His vision blurred, which coupled with her transparent form to make her nearly invisible to him. Still he reached out, but she was so fluid, not the cliff side shoulder of Clara Silberhaus, not the big who could just put him away in a tin and keep him safe.
Yahoo’s turn came. None of the myrmidons were close enough to strike, and moving toward them would only make him easier to shoot. Instead he grabbed one of the metal traps, swung it around by its chain, and tossed it at the nearest foe. They managed to duck under it.
“Get on with it!” someone shouted from beyond the borders of Little Essex. “Just surrender!”
“See how eager they are to elevate us?” the insect boomed. “You should rejoice! You’re being hurled into the upper echelons!” Snaps put his hand down on his space. Some of the pain died, extinguished by the frigid blast of an icebox thought. It was clear and sharp and sturdy. It was possibly checkmate. But did the turns work out favorably? Who was next on their side? Mustardseed!
“It’s up to you!” the gingerbread man said from behind the fairy, pushing against the agony to rise back to his feet.
“What, me?” the fairy asked. “What would I even do? There’s nothing to throw but these traps, and he’s too far for that to do any good.”
“You just need to know the… story,” Snaps panted. He looked at the spirit of Christmas past. “The story of Winifred Pebblebear’s ornaments.” The spirit gasped. This fed her flame a gulp of air, and its resulting surge nearly popped the snuffer off her head.
“We don’t have time for a story,” Vitruvian said. Another bullet whizzed into the handful and struck him in the eye, but his mechanical mind was so entrenched in planning that he barely reacted. “That was the last turn before Mustardseed’s.” They looked to the referee, who wasted no time in starting her clock. Thirty seconds.
“Abridged then,” Snaps grunted, “if I have the spirit’s permission.”
“Yes!” she squeaked.
“Winifred saved a life by throwing a man-shaped ornament, bending his limbs so he was like an arrow. Do that. Throw Yahoo!”
“What?” blurted the fairy and the yahoo simultaneously.
“You borrowed one of my arms, now I must borrow both of yours,” Snaps said. “Your claws!” The yahoo held up his hands like he’d never seen them before. If they were sharp enough to dig tunnels at that speed, they might just be sharp enough to take a scoop out of the impertinent insect, and if their leader fell the game would be over. Mustardseed didn’t wait for his permission, grabbing him by the shirt and belt to hoist him over one shoulder. The yahoo did his best to hold straight and put his palms together, arms forward so he was like a javelin.
The insect saw this. Trying to dodge the fairy’s last throw had gotten his shell cracked, so he decided to withstand it this time instead. He planted his feet and puffed out his chest, antennae winding up tightly in anticipation.
“This will not stop me!” he declared in a booming chirp. “Among all those who remember the Alamo I remember it best of all! I jumped on the apple and Newton saw it roll! Zeus the swan tried to devour me! This is my time!”
“Heeyaaahh!” With that bray and enough donkey strength to bust down a barn door, she threw Yahoo. The Challenger quieted as he passed, landing and rolling some fifteen spaces behind. The insect was still standing, still partly crouched, bracing for an impact that couldn’t possibly fell the most pivotal figure in nearly-recorded history.
Yahoo got to his feet as well, flicking chips of green off his shoulders. Some of them were stubborn, coated as they were in a thick yellow goo, globs of which ran down his clothes. He tried to comb it out of his mane, but his claws had the worst of it stuck under them.
It had all been inside the impertinent insect, fueling his grand speech, until the spear of Yahoo pierced his chest and went fully through. All his words went with his innards, but the expression was frozen on every lens of his compound eyes: unstoppable confidence. Obviously the ego had known to abandon ship just before the crucial moment, not allowing itself ever to fall.
The Challenging Handful, as well as the stunned myrmidons, stared straight through the circular hole in the challenging gnat. Yahoo smiled back at them through that same hole, but had to spit a moment later, for even though he stomached deadly poison like it was cheese and crackers there was something about the insect’s meat, stringy like pumpkin flesh, that set him off his appetite.
The referee had let Mustardseed’s turn run over. The seconds were just ticking by now, not caring that the surrounding minds hadn’t caught up. Though most of them lost all sense of time, one was keenly aware of its motion, and how the hole through the Challenger had finally set things right.
“A Christmas can fix things that aren’t Christmases,” the spirit whispered. “I see now.” Snaps turned to her, her smile filling him with heavy wet dread. Her hand drifted to his cheek, more solid than ever, caressing golden brown. “The past is the past once again.”
“Spirit I-” Her gray face vanished into wisps of silky candle smoke, but bright like the rays of Christmas dawn. The snuffer was all that remained, falling through her dissipating form until Snaps caught it and hugged it to his chest.
“Where did she go?” the fairy asked.
“Back to the Yule fireplace,” Snaps sniffled. “Back to a single flame… her individual lick gone. She is no more. Why did I-” Kreeek. All eyes turned away from Little Essex for the first time since the game began. A few pieces of broken wood dangled and then fell from the ceiling, where moments before Mygdenia’s scalp had been pressuring them.
It looked like the markets were beginning to calm, especially since they’d heard nothing more. The golden giant shuddered, and it was clear by the end of it that she’d lost a tenth or so of her size. Her threat was ending imminently. They turned back to the stiff husk of the impertinent insect.
Yahoo took a deep breath and blew. The history-spanning challenges came to an end as the hollowed braggart tipped over, face and limbs still locked in defiance. Immediately the myrmidons scrambled, more like the ants they were descending back into than ever. They were on all fours, guns thrown aside, scurrying upside down across ceiling beams and into every seam in the walls, including the ones not intended for their use.
The handful huddled together, protecting Snaps who still had not looked away from the snuffer. He didn’t care when the swarming got so loud and so violent that the whole boat shook, thanks mostly to the equal panic of the diplomats.
As an avalanche of evening wear they tumbled toward Little Essex, shouting and grabbing and acting offended by the very acts they performed. The Challenger was dead, but none of them had the slightest idea if his proposal was. Each knew what kind of hyena they were surrounded by, and so refused to go back to their country empty-handed. If they were called into an office a month from now and asked what they had to show regarding the Little Wars sweeping the world, they could at least dig into their pocket and pull out some Little Essex debris.
Some of them scrambled after the myrmidons instead, eager to build an army already. Those that couldn’t escape into the woodwork fast enough lost their lives to unintentional squeezing and squishing.
The handful knew they were next, the scrambling horde already at the borders, tearing out chunks of Little Essex’s wilds. One man leapt into the city and pulled one of the tallest buildings up from its foundations, shaking it in the hopes that miniature recruits for his country’s new military would fall out.
Obviously Snaps and the others were the most desirable, as they’d defeated the game’s sole architect, discounting the Wells fellow of course. Mygdenia barely beat them to the claim, still tall enough to wade through them like a pack of voles and dip a giant golden hand down to their position. Yahoo snatched up the commander and boarded her palm with the others.
The treasurer sealed them inside the oyster shell of her clasped hands, leaving just enough room to watch as she ascended the stairs again. Someone clung to her leg, trying to make a verbal contract out of shouts and flattery. She couldn’t quite shake them off until another shudder came and her thinner shorter leg slipped free. Barely taller than the doorways now.
Though the Scot had feigned disinterest in hauling them, he was one of very few who had not left his seat. Without a word he drew the canteens and their rack out of his bag and threw it to Mygdenia, who caught it under one elbow.
Her crown caught the door on her way out, splintering it. Some of the pieces went overboard, and she followed right after. There was nowhere on the vessel that would be safe once she was fully reduced; she was certain. In the time it took them to stop fighting and actually change course they would also tear open everything they could like anteaters on a termite mound, capturing every last myrmidon they didn’t unintentionally end.
The open sea with its endless gulls was much safer. The canteens landed with a splash and bobbed back to the surface. Mygdenia sunk immediately, but she held her palm flat and arm up, giving them all a chance to disembark. She would’ve been invisible in the depths within moments, but she shuddered again and was this time fully reduced, perhaps even shorter than when the handful had formed.
Vitruvian pulled her up, and before they could catch the attention of any birds they cracked open a canteen, squeezed inside, and sealed it. The sound of the lapping waves settled in. Yahoo jumped to the glass ceiling and clung to its seam, driving his claws in enough for a trickle of alcohol to come out. He lapped it up greedily. None protested; everyone felt like they deserved a stiff drink whether they wanted one or not.
“I killed her,” Snaps moaned, stroking the snuffer.
“That was what she wanted Herschel,” Mygdenia assured. “She was just a story, left out in the cold until the moral finally stuck. You saved her.” The gingerbread man nodded. After all, he was just a baked good, his life equally unnatural. At least she could have peace. All he could be was stale, but at least stale in good company, he realized.
“Did we win?” Mustardseed asked, tending to the hole in her wing before the gashes in her flesh despite the bloodiness of the latter.
“Not fully,” Vitruvian said, stowing his metal armature brother back inside the wooden frame to make more room in their cramped quarters. He snapped shut with a satisfying sound, like a walnut uncracking. “At least one of them, likely a country already small and unimportant, will attempt to take his place. Little Wars may yet happen in some capacity.”
“There’s a target on Minimil’s broad side,” Mygdenia agreed, “and ours.”
“No, we’re messengers,” the fairy said, “and you can’t shoot those right? We’re just like a message in a bottle! The water will take us to those in need of our help, I know it. The spirit of Christmas past is gone, but that’s because she saw us together and knew we would stay that way now. We’re friends. We’re the challenging handful!”
“Anybody else hungry?” Yahoo asked from his upside down position, wiping liquor from his wet lips with a sleeve. Snaps looked up warily. “For fish,” the yahoo clarified, pointing out beyond their thin metal walls.
“I don’t know,” the gingerbread man said, swirling some beard icing around a finger and holding it out. “I feel like a rather large portion right now… and there’s plenty to go around. We’re the handful, and I’m happy to be the finger food. Come my friends, partake! It’s Christmas!”