The small have their own country, and it fits in a barn! The place is called Minimil, and it is home to Lilliputians, Shakespearian fairies, and the angels and devils of the shoulder that help you make all your decisions. Minimil doesn’t yet know it, but it is under attack from an elite team of scoundrels in its gutters, threatened into service by an unknown entity. They will sabotage the tiny government, to keep their heads and achieve their wildest dreams.
This is the second in a trilogy, though each novella tells its own whole story. To get caught up please check out the original: The Challenging Handful.
(reading time: 36 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 3 hours, 2 minutes)
The Left Challenging Handful
Pinch the Handful
Typically a man of his stature would have no trouble moving through tight spaces. At only fifteen centimeters tall there were several carved conch shells among the furniture in his palace that were positively roomy, but this welcome, if that’s what it was, was far from that.
He was squeezed front and back by musty wood, the only way to orient himself being the various splinters poking the capitals on the map of his body. The predicament was made all the tighter by the finery he rarely took off: a crown of fused amber glass, shoulder pads of the same, a layered cape of blue and white like ocean waves lapping at the sand, and the decorated saber sheath on his hip.
“Houyhnhnm hinny! What kind of travel was that!?” he growled in his strange accent, somewhere between French pidgin and the cooing of an actual pigeon. “I suppose it suits the destination!” There was no light to see by, so he was forced to use his ears and nose. The smell was singularly musty wood, but the sounds were much more telling, even if none of that telling was coherent.
A city existed somewhere nearby, one unlike any he was familiar with. The high whistle of a tiny train. The tittering of animals suited to life in the kinds of crevices where he found himself trapped. The occasional slamming of a door.
All of that was behind the creaking of the wood itself, and something else. A skitter. A thousand skitters. That one made his skin crawl. Gumbonero Ludmenti, sovereign lord of the seven sand castles, was no fan of insects. That’s why he kept his small empire on the beaches of his home island, where the crustacean company was calmer and politer.
Something moved above him, raining wood flakes into his eyes and mouth. He accosted whatever it was after spitting them out, trying and failing to unsheathe his sword. A supple bare foot touched his forehead, the toes wiggling to figure out what exactly they had met.
“Hello down there,” a woman’s voice dribbled down on him like honey. “Are you friendly?” Gumbonero responded by nipping at her biggest toe, which she retracted with a yip.
“Are you the devil that arranged this farce?” he asked her, thrashing all the more instead of waiting for an answer.
“No, my name’s Delicious. Delicious Appleseed. Pleased as a peach to meet you.”
“Where the hell are we?”
“I haven’t a clue,” the woman admitted. “I was just speaking with someone about, well not exactly speaking-” It was Lord Ludmenti’s turn to yelp as a wet and foul-smelling tendril came up from under his chin and slapped him.
“What was that!?” the lord barked.
“That was me,” another woman’s voice answered, in front instead of above. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. Or anything else anywhere. Why oh why didn’t I pick a nocturnal creature?”
“Don’t say zat,” a fourth voice responded, this time a man, coming from above and behind. Claws scraped across the wood as he grunted his way closer to the other three. “Now zat I’ve fallen in love vis zat tail of yours, and zose big eyes, you have to keep zem.” Whoever, or whatever, he was, his German accent was so thick that it made the tailed woman’s milder variant sound like the King’s English.
“Right, I’m clearly surrounded,” Nero grumbled. “Except for down below! Haha!” He pulled his shoulders together like he was squeezing an accordion. He did shift centimeters lower, but his high-laced sandals stopped flat on something hairy.
“Mmmmph!” that something declared, its lips smushed too firmly for words to form.
“My dear,” the male German creature addressed, “could you use your vitch’s fire?”
“We’re surrounded by kindling Orlof! We’d be roasted in moments. We’ll have to find light some other way.”
“Oh, I have some light!” Delicious declared from above. “It’s in here somewhere. From the dawn-breathing cultivar of the snapdragon. It’s just, no not that one, this one!” There was a sound like a squirrel bashing a nut against a tree to open it, but it was actually a seed. Nero knew this because the two halves of its hull fell away and struck each of his ears, tinkling against his shoulder pads.
The seed itself followed them when Delicious accidentally dropped it. It landed luminously in the lord’s hair, forcing him to wobble his neck and keep the strange lamp balanced. It gave off just enough light for him to see the one face in front of him, that of a northern crested newt, a rather common amphibian in Great Britain and Europe proper.
Her skin was mottled and dark, with a patchy stripe of yellow like a dying shedding evergreen along her stomach. The round flat eyes were normally the color of his glass crown, but this one’s captured the seed’s light with a vibrant ring of green. Her only clothing was a dark witch’s hat sewn from the soft pocket lining of a woman’s coat.
“A talking salamander?” Gumbonero sputtered.
“Newt,” the amphibian corrected. “My name is Formaldeheidi Dӓmonen.” Even to a foreigner like Ludmenti it was obviously a constructed moniker. The surname was the German word for demons, and the first explained her powerful smell, something like a corpse floating on a mostly-stagnant river of grain alcohol.
“If you don’t believe her, vait until you see me!” her partner Orlof said from behind Nero’s head, but he apparently couldn’t wait for that to happen. “I’m a talking bat!”
“Then can’t you see in the dark?”
“No actually, bats have very poor eyesight. My hearing however is incredible, vich is vy I know ve’re about to be inundated vis hundreds of frightened termites.” That explained the skittering, and mere seconds later the rest of them didn’t need the honed ears of a bat to know they were in its path.
“Quickly, my sword!” Nero demanded, pointing at the scabbard with his chin, nearly sending their only light down into the woody chasm below.
“I think I can manage that,” Heidi said as the flat webbing of her tail curled up once more. It pressed against the saber’s hilt, jeweled with beach glass, and slowly lifted the blade out. When it toppled, cutting into his shirt, Nero grabbed at it, finally having a tool with which to express his frustration.
Back and forth he swung it, hacking away at the wood until he had enough room to turn around. He might have fallen, but luckily whoever was underneath him was sturdy enough to hold his entire weight. Once he spun he got a face full of the upside down bat, every bit as strange as he’d promised to be. Though Nero first noticed the many fleshy flaps of his nose, the most notable feature was an engraved silver ring about his furry neck.
“Move!” the lord ordered as he caught a glimpse of a waxy, yellow, insect leg between the bat’s large ribbed ears. The animal tucked his head closer to his body, clearing the way for the blade just in time.
A swarm of eyeless pale termites, some with hooked black jaws nearly as large as Nero’s weapon, was upon them, squeezing by their heads, carapace hooks catching on their clothing, pushing them slightly in the direction of their flow. The lord swung with impunity, cleaving heads from chitinous thoraxes, hacking off legs.
“You stay out of my bag!” Delicious shouted from above. They heard the slap of something cloth but nonetheless heavy, culminating in several insects tumbling down on Nero. One of them snatched the luminous seed in its jaws and tried to run off with it. He grabbed its leg, slowing it enough for Formaldeheidi to lean forward. One whisper of her foul breath killed it, collapsed its legs in on itself. She took the seed in her tail. The last of the swarm passed over them, and continued on.
“Where are they off to in such a hurry?” the newt asked.
“Zey vere running from ze liquid,” Orlof explained. “Everyone hold your bres!”
“What do you m-” Nero started, but then he heard the rushing. Its odor reached them before the sight of it, making a few of them gag and retch. “It’s poison! Insecticide! I refuse to drown in that!” Nero stabbed at the wall, hoping he chose whichever one was closer to the outside world. “All of you push! On the left you idiots, the left!”
As he chipped away the others obeyed, pushing against the opposite side with their feet, and tails if they had them. It creaked and bent. Cracked. Light poured in from a fissure. A gasp of fresh air overpowered the smell, but the substance had arrived: frothy, green, and emitting a noxious vapor.
Nero pulled his sword back and kicked. The section of wood finally gave way, all of them tumbling out just as a wave of poison splashed their backs. It formed a powerful stream on which the scrap of wood surfed, its prisoners forced to grip the edges tight and keep their balance as they were flung out and down, a troubling distance of one meter.
With a splash and a crash they landed in the dry dirt and crackling twigs of a neglected herb garden. If alive the dense rosemary bushes could’ve cushioned their fall, but their skulls and ribs had to do it instead. There was no time to linger where they landed, poison pooling and bubbling around their heads.
Orlof took to the wing, snatching his newt lover’s shoulders and flying her free of its spilling influence. Someone, presumably Delicious Appleseed, stomped through it, splashing some on Nero, as she got clear. Through a speck of burning insecticide doing battle with his sclera, he finally saw what the bubbly woman looked like.
She was no Blefuscan, of that he was certain, but no arcane creature like the other two either. A crop of fluffy cinnamon hair topped a stout buxom figure with short limbs, large hands and feet, and very thick wrists and ankles. Her small sprightly eyes, vividly green, did not suit her otherwise cherubic or rotund features, including a very bulbous nose, as prominent as the swollen eye domes of a damselfly. From the shoulder of her worn dress hung a strapped burlap bag, full to bursting.
Gumbonero scrambled to his feet, but it was as if the stuff chased him, a shedding ball of it racing toward him. He shielded himself from its splatter with his cape as he continued on. Once they were both clear the ball wobbled to a stop. The lord saw the imprint of his own sandal in the ball’s greasy hair.
“That would’ve killed me if I wasn’t already dead!” the ball said, still dripping green all over. These beings he’d been forcibly trapped with kept getting more and more monstrous. The ball was actually a head, likely human at some point, but it had been shrunk down to a fraction of its original size. The flesh was a mummified charcoal gray, the hair pulled back slickly and tied into a frayed knot.
He couldn’t see any eyes through the stitching holding them closed, but the head, male it seemed, could open them just enough to see, evidenced by him spinning on his neck stump and eyeing them all. His accent was American, a little distorted by the stitching holding half the mouth closed.
“What sort of horrible thing are you?” Ludmenti demanded of the shrunken severed head.
“I’ve misplaced my name somewhere,” the head admitted. “I am a ghost, I know that much, in possession of this head, which I suspect was once mine.”
“Zere are tribes zat do zis to zeir enemies,” Orlof noted, sniffing at the head, which was just tall enough to reach his furry waist. “Zey peel off ze face und fill it vis hot rocks.”
“There must be another explanation,” the head insisted. “I’m far too good-natured to become anyone’s enemy!”
“What do we call you?” Delicious asked the only limbless member of their group.
“Footstool,” Nero suggested, wringing insecticide from his cape with a scowl.
“I suppose anybody who misplaces their own name deserves one like that.. so be it. I am Footstool,” the head accepted. “Now what are we doing here? And where is here?” For the first time they were all free to look around, but they had nothing in their experience to compare the place to.
They were inside a human building, a large one at that. Walls of wood divided both sides into hutches, and they could see, in the distance, a small second floor. Nero realized the hutches were for horses, the loft for hay. A barn then. Squatters, of comparable size to the unwilling intruders, had obviously laid claim, and done it some time ago.
The barn contained a city. Once he grasped this fact completely, Gumbonero understood there was only one place in the entire world they could be. Minimil, the melting pot of the small, the tiny, the miniature, and the itty bitty alike. The Earth was a strange and big place, so every once in a while a small life came into being when it wasn’t supposed to, or in the wrong place, or in the wrong configuration. If that life wished for safety, for a society of those like them, Minimil was the only such haven.
Many of Nero’s own people, defectors and emigrants from the island nations of Lilliput and Blefuscu, first introduced to the rest of the world by the giant Gulliver on his travels, made up one of Minimil’s populations.
There were also fairy folk, stranded outside of their own realm ruled over by Oberon and Titania. Most lost their delicate butterfly wings in the harsher world, becoming elemental sprites. Others still had been stranded generations ago, and became different sorts of creatures altogether, better adapted to the human world, like leprechauns, elves, and gnomes, the last of which Nero guessed Delicious Appleseed represented.
Then there were the homunculi, creatures generated within human minds, representations of their various traits and aspects, sometimes flung into the material world by violent head injury. The most common were shoulder angels and devils, the prosecution and defense for various moral quandaries, as their role required them to exit the head in order to function. Nero recalled that a governing body made up of these angels and devils both founded and ran Minimil.
He couldn’t forget the Myrmidons. They were a people created from ants, long ago by a Greek god, but as the generations wore on they were slowly transitioning back, many now rivaling Lilliputians in size but looking very different thanks to their exoskeletons, insect eyes, and antennae.
Eggties existed there as well, and the lord of the seven sand castles was immediately eager to meet one of them. There was a very important question that needed asking, and only an eggty could know the answer.
Finally there were all the scraps of the tiny world, those whose existences were truly anomalous, not fitting into any category. These were objects, often toys, enchanted to life by fae or godly magic. Sometimes they were animated by the spirits of the dead, as was the case with Footstool. There were those that kept the details of their genesis to themselves, forcing every kind of guess under the sun, all of which were correct at least once within the borders of Minimil.
“This is Minimil,” the lord declared. “Which puts us in Scotland if all my maps were correct.”
“Minimil!” Delicious squeaked. “That’s so exciting! I’ve never left America before!”
“America?” Heidi repeated, scratching her chin with her tail. “So how did you leave? We came from Deutschland, much closer.”
“I was ripped from one of my many homes,” Nero added, “off Tasmania in the Indian seas.”
“And ve vere all put into a vall about to be flooded vis poison,” the bat pondered aloud. “Curious indeed. It could only be ze vork of magic.” They all looked to Footstool, but his wobble, which could only be a shrug without shoulders, was all he had to offer.
“What about him?” Delicious asked, pointing behind them all. Her expression shifted to one aghast. “Oh no!” The gnome bounded off, back into green puddles, until she reached a dark heap of something. She grabbed it by a rigid part and dragged it into the clear, its weight much lighter than expected.
Examination did little to reveal exactly what it was, but certainly a dead body of a sort. The creature was a brown beetle with drooping antennae, but its empty eyes were soulful like a man’s. It wore the tattered clothes of the European business world, the ensemble of a salesman who released himself from the mortal coil on the same day he was released from his position. All six legs touched at the tip, the familiar tent of the desiccated bug.
“The poison killed him!” Delicious cried. “How terrible. I think he was supposed to be standing here right now, talking with the rest of us.”
“Or he ate a fellow and liked his garb,” Orlof suggested.
“Either way, I’m done with the standing around and the talking,” Gumbonero moaned. “I’m headed there.” He pointed and then stomped off in that direction, toward what the rest of them quickly recognized as an inn. The desert of a spice garden they’d washed into was its backyard.
Inside the place was even deader: a tavern with but one server and one patron. The only other person was the owner, who came out from behind the bar as soon as the lord barged in. She glared at the fireplace, the fanciest fixture present despite being coated in ash, and it ignited on its own.
“Welcome sir!” the young woman bubbled. She eyed the green dripping from his various glass precipices. “Oh no! Were you caught in the fumigation? It’s only supposed to get the termites I think.” He stared at her, eyes narrowing. She shifted uncomfortably. “Of course, it already got my business too. Nobody wants to stay at an inn right next to what they’re unhelpfully calling the ‘extermination zone’.” She chuckled painfully. “And they had to announce it weeks ago too, so people had plenty of time to avoid my place.”
“This is Minimil, correct?” he asked gruffly. She nodded. Nero examined her closely, finding something familiar in the way she knotted her apron: a traditional knot on a certain tiny island shaped like the bottom half of an egg. “You! Haha! You are Blefuscan, are you not?”
“My parents were,” she confessed with a nervous smile. “I was born here.”
“Of the best stock all the same,” the lord declared, throwing off the bulk of the toxin when he detached his cape and let it fall. He surprised her with open arms, pulling her into an embrace. “Finally someone who can explain this madhouse to me.”
“I would be happy to, especially if you’re staying the night. In fact, you look famished, why don’t you come over here and have a seat. We’ll get you a decent meal too.” She directed him to a table and pushed him into a chair. They got a good look at each other, with her making note of his close suspecting eyes, impressive curled mustache, and tense snaggletoothed jaw.
Nero saw her brown eyes, olive skin tarnished by drab surroundings, and her long ponytail barely more tame than the straw of the gnarled broom hanging on the wall.
“My name is Dubiny Marood,” offered she.
“A fine traditional name. Perhaps you’ve heard mine already: Gumbonero Ludmenti.” Her head tilted.
“I’m sorry, can’t say that I have. Your name sounds as if a little Latin got mixed in.”
“Good ear! That would be Gulliver’s influence. I am a descendant of his.”
“Really? I had no idea he took lovers in the isles. How… how did he even achieve such a thing? He must’ve been twelve times their size at least!”
“Do you really want me to explain, in detail, how conception was achieved?” he asked, dead eyes assuring her he could provide every last one.
“On second thought, no, I will take your word for it Mr. Ludmenti. What can I get for you? A roasted frog leg perhaps, with some hazelnut stuffing?” He took a deep breath and nodded. “Excellent.” She started to scurry away, but whirled back around. “You have money, yes?”
“Do you take Blefuscan glass?” he asked, reaching into a deep pocket and pulling out a handful of coins that he let scatter across the table. Each was carved from beach glass, an assortment of blue, green, pink, white, and purple.
“I would take shoe leather if it was all you had,” Dubiny said, heading off into the kitchen. Moments later the backdoor burst open again, and the other creatures from the wall poured in. Apparently the delay had been caused by Delicious, who insisted on hauling the caustic bug carcass along with them, though she did decide to leave it at the door rather than let it track the pesticide in.
“All of you come and sit,” Nero ordered them, snapping his fingers. “I will buy the food. You have information I need.” The bat, newt, and gnome joined him, all squeezing into the seats. Footstool rolled up alongside, and didn’t object when the lord put his feet on his scalp to stretch them. It was his name after all. “Each of you explain yourselves, and do it before my frog gets here. I like my food hot.”
“I am Orlof Schreck,” the bat introduced. “I vas a most feared vampire of ze Black Forest, but I vas bested by a very clever voman. She tricked me into my bat form, and vile I vas incorporeal betveen ze two, slipped zis silver ring around my neck.” His animal claws awkwardly fondled the brace. “Now if I vere to expand to my true size it vould cut my head off, vich is sadly vun of my vulnerabilities. Melting it vould ignite me, und any attempt to break it has me fearful of accidental decapitation as vell.”
“So now he’s stuck with me until the flames of hell take us both,” Heidi purred, nuzzling the fur of his cheek. “As for myself, what you see and smell before you is not my true form. I am very human, but also a powerful witch.
This amphibian is merely my familiar. I choose to experience as much life through it as I can, infuriated as I am by the world of men. I am no thief however; this creature was long dead before I took possession. It was a specimen in the laboratory where I worked before embracing my powers. I took it from its jar, from its formaldehyde grave, and filled it with life once again.” She demonstrated her magic by holding out all of the long slimy digits on one hand. Each fingertip ignited a flickering green flame.
“And you know that I’m Delicious,” the gnome said, as ecstatic to talk about herself as she was literally everything else. “I took my husband’s last name of Appleseed, though Death took my Johnny some years ago.”
“Johnny Appleseed?” Footstool said from below them. “I don’t remember much, but I do remember his story! An American saint they call him. Traveled the nation up and down, planting apple trees everywhere he went, scattering seeds by the fistful! Jolly good tale.”
“Oh no it was much more selective than that,” Delicious insisted. “I know because I was doing the selecting. We met in a bush when he stopped to relieve himself. He’d never met a gnome before. We conversed for hours, and he said his bladder nearly burst because he forgot why he stopped in the first place.” She giggled before continuing.
“Anyway I rode around in his bag of seeds, handing off only the right ones in only the perfect places! We made so much of the land green together.”
“Hmmmmmmmmmm,” Footstool hummed, thinking over whether the thing he thought over should be talked over. “I thought I remembered him never marrying, or rather married to the land in what I assume was a figurative sense.”
“Well that’s a lie!” Delicious said with stinging words. The rest of the table was taken aback by the sudden sharpness in her eyes and feral twitch of her lip, but she was quickly back to her old self. “We were never legally married, but I saw to it that we were. I whispered the ceremony from inside his bag and made my vows and said ‘I do’. I never made him say it, because it is a small marriage, so it was not of consequence to him. If he had married a human he would’ve had one and one tenth wives, and everyone would’ve rounded that down anyway.”
“So… you two never…” Heidi said, trying to see if she could get the gnome to snap and snarl again.
“It doesn’t matter because he is dead and nobody cares,” Nero said to get the conversation back on track, despite Johnny Appleseed’s status as a legend indicating that Delicious was significantly older than she looked. “Next I must ask if you wound up in that wall the same way I did. I was alone, in my highest tower-”
“Vait, who are you even?” the vampire asked. “I also like to know who I’m associating vis.”
“If you must know I am Gumbonero Ludmenti, lord of the seven sand castles of western Blefuscu. Do not confuse me with the little-endians over in Lilliput and we will not have trouble. Now, about-”
“Do you need so many castles because they wash away in the surf?” Heidi asked. Nero’s breath escaped his nose as a deflating hiss.
“For your information, sand is the ultimate architectural material. The application of water alone transforms it from one state to another. It can be fused into glass. Construction takes very little time with a well-trained team. A man can build himself an entire town in a day.”
“And the tide can take it in minutes,” the witch countered. Nero stood and slammed his hands against the table.
“Which is why you employ tidal charts! The primary castle is close to the surf for ease of access to hydrated building material and for a superior scenic view. If threatened by an anomalous wave, you can simply retreat to your more permanent inland castle. Though the view may be obstructed at first, once the first castle has fallen it will be clear. It is a neat and tidy system, and the perfect way of life for me and my people. Are there any more questions about the obvious efficacy of my beloved sand!?”
There were none, with the silence broken only by the arrival of his roasted frog leg. The skin was blackened, just the way he liked, but the hands of the server put him off his appetite slightly. They were covered in soft white fur, as was the rest of his body, the whole coat ending in a long white beard.
The hunched figure avoided eye contact, which was easy to do given his floppy purple hat like an overlong sleeping cap. The barefoot creature said nothing after setting down the platter, simply shuffling away and disappearing.
“Don’t mind him,” Dubiny said as she emerged from the kitchen. “He’s a tonttu: a Finnish household spirit. All he cares about is how well the household is running, and it’s not going well.”
“Is your business that poor?” Nero asked, concerned for any Blefuscan who didn’t have a strategic stockpile of sand with which to build emergency shelters.
“Yes, but that’s not exactly what I mean,” the innkeeper explained. She came over and welcomed the others, paying no mind to their strange forms. Apparently such a menagerie was mundane in Minimil. She took their orders, after confirming that Mr. Ludmenti would be paying for everyone, including lodging that evening. Only then did she explain what she meant.
“The household in this case is the whole country, since we live in a barn. My employee’s temperament is based on the state of affairs here, and that state is disorganized at best. The eldest oyster has announced his retirement this past week… and there’s still no word from the Challenging Handful.”
“I’m very new to Europe,” Delicious said, “so new that I don’t even know how I got here! Could you tell me who the oyster is supposed to be?”
“Of course,” Dubiny chirped, anything for a paying upfront customer. “Him being an oyster isn’t of much consequence. What matters is his role. Minimil is run by our parliament, the Shoulders of Government: a body made up of the shoulder-strutting angels and devils that rediscovered and founded this place after it was dilapidated and forgotten.
New recruits to their voting body can only come in pairs, and they are, by nature, always opposed to each other’s opinion. Every vote since the dawn of our nation has ended in deadlock, and it is has always been broken by the oyster’s vote. Without him, we can’t make any new laws or decisions.”
“And this Challenging Handful?”
“That’s what people are calling the team we sent out to deal with the impertinent insect.” She saw their confused looks, even through animal countenance. “My inn may not be much, but I’m sure it’s a step up from the rock you’ve all been living under! The insect was the one who killed Archduke Ferdinand. He’s reported dead now, at the hand of our handful, but his philosophy is spreading across the globe. It has put all of us small in danger.”
“Ah, I know what you’re talking about,” Nero said. “The specter of H.G. Wells’s Little Wars. Some in Blefuscu are calling it the 1917 shrink.” He too saw how lost his new associates were. “The man Wells invented a war game you see, where tin soldiers stood in place of real ones, players taking turns to move and attack with them. He jokingly suggested that actual conflicts should be resolved with his game rather than bloodshed.”
“Only it’s not a joke to many now,” Dubiny warned. “The insect proposed a system, that he was planning on running I’m sure, where the rules of Little Wars would be followed, but the soldiers would be alive. They would be all of us. So now we’re concerned Scotland will stop hosting us and will instead plunder our walls, conscripting us. If Little Wars is established, Minimil will be the most powerful army in the world, thimbles of our blood spilling to spare their buckets.”
“If that’s going to happen we should leave,” Delicious said, her face a touch white. “Are you listening?” she asked the air above them. “Whoever brought me here, I would like you to send me back.” There was no response. Nero politely asked the innkeeper to give them some privacy. It was best if only those of the wall heard what they were about to discuss. He checked to see if the only other patron was listening in, but the fellow, whose curious round shape and pale brown color could only be barely gleaned around the back of his booth, seemed unaware.
“Whoever brought us here did so with magic,” the lord stated plainly. “All of you were in your homes one moment and then stuck in the wall the next, correct?” Everyone nodded, with Footstool’s affirmation pleasantly rocking the balls of his feet. “Were you also tempted by a woman’s voice?”
“Ve bose heard her,” Orlof said, wrapping one wing around Heidi. “She promised us a perfect home. For me zat is somevere dim, avay from ze sunlight.”
“And a place where I can keep my human body,” the newt added. “It is vulnerable while I possess this form. Currently I must abandon my dear Orlof during the day to attend to its needs.”
“It is terrible ven she goes limp in my vings,” the vampire sniffled, hiding his eyes in a dark membrane between long knobby fingers. “It is like she dies every dawn.” The two creatures hugged each other tightly and shared a nauseating kiss. Nero was too famished to let it stop him however, tucking into one of Formaldeheidi’s closer relatives with a large juicy bite. His eyes shot to Delicious as he ate, expressing the same query.
“I too heard her,” the gnome confirmed. “She has promised me two things. First is the return of the pot that my Johnny liked to wear on his head during our travels. I lost track of it somewhere and would very much like it back. Second was also a place, somewhere I could plant a garden in his honor that would never be threatened by loggers.”
“She said she could tell me who I was, back when I had a brain and a body,” Footstool offered from beneath them.
“There is something of a common element in many of these,” Nero noted as he wiped clear frog juice from his chin with a napkin. “I have been promised a large supply of the finest sand in the world, fine-grained black volcanic, and a place to build that will be safe from wind, water, and man. Do you suppose all these empty places are one and the same? I don’t like to share.”
None of them had an answer, but there was one more thing of note about their mysterious transporting voice. Apparently it had forgotten to tell them what to do. It was obvious from the voice’s intelligent reserved quality that it did not intend to give these prizes away for free. She wanted something from all of them, but what? There were no theories around the table, or under it, but the ensuing silence was the other patron’s cue to approach. He had a hard time doing so, given that he had no arms or legs with which to maneuver himself out of his seat, having to very carefully twist and slide off the cushion.
He rolled on his side all the way to their table and then wobbled upright. The brief denizens of the barn wall stared, but if it was a contest they would surely lose, as the patron’s eyes were simply drawn onto his shell in charcoal gray, along with a nose. Below that was a small device embedded in the speckled brown shell, an oval grate of metal. Through it he spoke.
“Salutations to all of you. My name is Humpty Dumpty.”
“You’re an eggty,” Nero pointed out. Indeed he was. Even wearing a fitted, sleeveless, legless suit, even with features drawn on, he was still just a chicken egg. Eggties were simple anomalies of nature, only one in several million being laid that way. They were becoming more common though, as the humans increased the scale of their livestock endeavors.
In order for an eggty to form the nervous system of the chick embryo had to experience an overabundance of a certain naturally-occurring compound. This in turn caused rapid brain development, to the detriment of everything else. An eggty was essentially a chicken, or other fowl, experiencing all of the thoughts and intelligence it would have across its entire life in every single moment. They rivaled humans in their intellect.
For the longest time there was no way for them to act on their genius. With underdeveloped bodies they could never emerge from their shells, and while their consumption of the internal yolk was slowed they still did not live very long. They were trapped in their own wet warmth, largely unaware of the existence of other beings.
Minimil changed that, as the small could hear the tapping of soft weak beaks on the shells. Encoded language was quickly developed using taps, and from there some of the greatest small scientists of the world invented a device, to be carefully drilled into the shell, piercing the membrane, that would allow them to speak with actual voices.
Humpty Dumpty’s words came out of the device as they spoke, sounding tinny and only very slightly underwater. Like the rest of his people he was blind, but sound traveled strongly through the liquid medium surrounding him, so he was able to swivel and aim his friendly charcoal eyes at whoever spoke.
“Yes sir, I am an eggty.”
“I have a question for you,” Gumbonero stated, leaning forward, tapping the egg to see if he would wobble, which he did.
“I’m sure you have many questions for m-”
“Which end would be better to open?”
“You’re an egg, so you should know. If you were hard or soft boiled, which end should be peeled open and eaten from? Big or little?” Heidi and Orlof rolled their eyes. Lilliputians and Blefuscans were forever locked in this absurd debate over egg eating etiquette. It was the main divide between their civilizations, the cause of multiple armed conflicts and hundreds of dead.
“If I saw myself as a foodstuff, which I do not,” the eggty stressed, “I suppose the bigger end would be the better option. It is wider, therefore more like a bowl, therefore easier to eat from. The experience would be more pleasant. I am stuck eating through this narrow metal tube, and I would like it a good deal wider.”
“I knew it!” Gumbonero hollered, slamming his hand on the table several times. “Straight from the shell’s mouth. The big end!” He relaxed suddenly as if overwhelmed by herb-infused steam. “It’s such a relief to finally know for sure.”
“Yes, but there is another matter,” Humpty reminded. “Mr. Ludmenti.” The lord perked back up at the sound of his name. The earless shell knew how to listen. “I was told to meet all of you here.”
“By a woman’s voice?” the newt asked.
“Yes, but I am not to serve the same purpose as you. Like you she has promised me something I very much desire, but my only role is as liaison. Your mission is to…” The egg swiveled. “I’m sorry, how many of you are there?”
“Five,” Footstool said. “I am also here.”
“There should be six, to match the Right Challenging Handful.”
“If you mean the man that looks like a beetle, I’m afraid he perished in the fumigation,” Delicious sniffled. “His body is just outside. I was going to bury him in the garden as soon as we figured out everything.”
“A handful should only have five anyway,” Nero pointed out. “Like the fingers on a hand.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Humpty said, flustered. “I… I’ll have to pass that information along to our benefactor, who chooses to remain anonymous for the time being, as the task she has for you is highly illegal and very dangerous.”
“I make the laws where I come from,” Nero declared, “so it is impossible for me to break them. Tell us the task. Bellow from your big end.”
“The eldest oyster is retiring, as you’ve heard. There are five individuals in the running to take his place. Whoever does will shape this nation’s warpath as it faces the scourge of Little Wars.
They are as follows: Gildny Mildny who represents the banks, Drookarkus Polooko of the fire brigade, Queen Zoukas who leads Minimil’s architects and construction workers, the fairy with the turquoise hair who runs the hospitality guild, and the Danger who resides between the Shoulders of Government.”
“Vat of zem?” the vampire asked.
“Our benefactor doesn’t want any of them to take the oyster’s position. She wants what is best for Minimil, and they are not up to the task. The new deciding vote will be determined by contest, arranged by parliament.
As with everything they do, there are two ways to participate. The candidates can either submit an act of charity, kindness, or sacrifice to please the angel homunculi, or they can offer a so-called ‘boot-licking gift’ to the devil homunculi. From these offerings they will choose the winner.
Your task is to visit every one of them, find out what they plan to offer, and sabotage it, by any means necessary, even if that means…” The egg swiveled one way, and then the other. His voice dropped to a hiss. “Physical assault.”
“Oh my,” Delicious gasped.
“That sounds like quite the challenge,” Nero said, crossing his arms. “We already know what’s in it for us… but what proof do we have that she can deliver?”
“Please,” the eggty said after a silent moment, “keep in mind that I am only the messenger. She suspected that such a mighty lord, already respected and successful, might say something to that effect. Her response is as follows.
‘I stuffed you in a wall once, and I can do it again. Next time, when you break out, it’ll be from the ceiling, and you will fall to your death.’ I’m sorry.”
“So we comply… or we die,” Heidi summarized.
“That is the big and little of it,” Humpty said.
“You mentioned the Right Challenging Handful. Are you saying we’re the wrong one?”
“Not exactly Miss Dӓmonen. The first handful were very brave, and accomplished their task admirably. Unfortunately they are presumed dead, and they cannot help us now. They were handpicked by the Shoulders and the oyster, but your selection wasn’t sanctioned.
Our benefactor has called you the Left Challenging Handful. You are a rarer breed, with a unique outlook. You are outliers, feared when you should be respected, sufferers of unjust suspicion, artists of unexpected works. You will save Minimil, even if it does not thank you for it.”
“Right,” the lord said, stripping the last bit of fat from his frog leg with a pinch and letting it dangle. “So which of us takes this threat seriously?” The glob of fat dropped as he raised one finger. Heidi and Delicious raised one as well, Orlof a claw. “And you Footstool?”
“No more being sandwiched in the wall for me, thanks.”
“It’s settled then,” Humpty said with clear relief. “You should start tomorrow, as time is short. We can use this inn as a base of operations, seeing as it is nearly abandoned.”
“Excuse me!” Dubiny chided as she appeared with platters of food. “You watch your mouth or they’ll be having scrambled egg for breakfast!”
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