(reading time: 53 minutes)
Knead the Handful
Forty Myrmidons marched across the walls of Minimil after a hard day’s work. Marching sideways was possible for them, as long as they stayed on all fours, thanks to the clasping hooks on the wrists and ankles of their exoskeletons. Their progress would’ve been extremely slow if not for the divot network.
It was invisible from a distance, which in Minimil was anything greater than two meters. Up close it could be seen as nothing more than even rows of gouge marks in the old wood of the barn walls. Their purpose was to provide footholds to any and all arthropod citizens capable of wall-crawling, the most numerous of which were the Myrmidons.
The divot network’s presence doubled the speed of vertical commuters when compared to untouched wall, and eased pressure on the train and streetcar systems greatly. The network was in the process of being expanded to include divot-covered roofs and ladder bridges, essentially making a second set of higher streets in several neighborhoods.
The Myrmidon procession was currently heading down, their hill already visible below them, looking like a volcano made of cocoa powder, but with several dollhouse balconies and windows attached. Inside Queen Zoukas was waiting to welcome them back, shower them with affection for a job well done, which half of them felt entitled to since she was their biological mother.
It hadn’t looked like particularly grueling work to those that passed by. All they had to do was stand outside a house and guard it. Sore knees might have resulted, but not the antennae-drooping fatigue currently weighing them all down.
All that mattered was that the angels would understand it come the day of the vote. They would understand it, and Queen Zoukas would be elevated to the highest throne in the country. Then the divot network would be only the beginning of a swarm of Myrmidon-friendly policies. No more risky fumigations for one.
The small army had spent the day guarding a gingerbread house that sat anomalous between two dollhouses on an extended windowsill in the neighborhood known as Bonsai Park. From its translucent caramel weather vane down to its ice cream cone window wells it was completely edible, and to Myrmidons barely resistible.
They had stood at its outer wall for hours, facing away, for seeing its beauty might make them crack and devolve into a chewing flurry of insect instinct. Sugar was the most powerful intoxicant for them, but that gingerbread abode, though abandoned, would remain standing as a testament to their commitment to Minimil.
A full day of temptation had little impact on the man leading them home, one Solenos Pestidicé. A veteran of the leafcutter combat school, he could be easily recognized by the cut, folded, and saliva-glued bits of fresh greenery that held his clothes together and sat on his hip as an unusual, green, veined sword.
Solenos had not only visited the gingerbread house many times before, he had even spent evenings inside, with the air saturated by saccharine scents, and never once taken a bite out of the furniture. He had built up an impressive resistance, so when Queen Zoukas had crafted the plan there was really no other man for the job.
He didn’t work directly under her normally, but as a part of her colony he was obligated to respond to any direct call to action. It had been ages since he’d had soldiers under his command; he would never admit how tempting it would be to trade all of them away just to get the owner of the gingerbread home back from the depths he’d likely dissolved in.
The ant-people reached the ground and transitioned to walking upright, circling around the queen’s sculpted palace until they reached the front gates. Solenos issued a halt, surprised to find they weren’t the only ones waiting outside. Four figures stood there, loosely grouped, the one in the lead bearing an amber glass crown upon his head.
“Low and hello,” Solenos hailed them, approaching. Even with four very different faces their confusion was clear. He’d used a common greeting on the ground floor of Minimil, so they had to be foreigners.
“Hello to you,” the woman gnome among them said back warmly. She was wearing a saucepan atop her head, but there were some small gems affixed to the front, so he guessed it was meant to be finery.
“Are you here to see the queen?” he asked them.
“Yes,” the hatted newt said. “We’re with the Minimil Minutes.” They at least knew the name of the nation’s newspaper. “We’re doing a story about the upcoming gifts and acts. We were hoping to interview Queen Zoukas about her offering.”
“Oh, well there’s no need for you to wait!” Solenos said in a much friendlier tone. He presented himself again with a deep bow and a bob of his single segment antennae. He was a beautiful smoky brick color, tiny, lidless, foggy eyes still somehow expressing his gregarious nature. “Her majesty is making no secret of our act of charity! The more who know of it and witness it the better!”
“You could tell us about it?” the bat asked.
“I would be more than happy to. We’ve just come from another day of it in fact. Of course the day is not full until…” His eyes turned to the sky, those of the Left Handful following. A warm light ignited, bathed the barn in a cozy orange-yellow glow. It was an oil lamp hanging from a hook in the ceiling, which kept the busy nation’s day going when the natural one was too short. “There we are.”
The heat on their carapaces was soothing; the tension slipped out of the Myrmidons as if they’d sunk into a warm bath. Delicious held her bag open, let some of the rays enter and feed her seed bank. She forced it closed when a vine tried to crawl out.
Orlof nearly cried at the sight of it. As a vampire the sun was deadly to him, but the barn’s roof protected him at all hours. With the lamp so high it was like getting to see a sunrise again. Overwhelmed with emotion, he had to sweep Heidi off her feet and kiss her. Nero merely scowled; it was hardly the behavior of experienced Minimil journalists. He didn’t spare a thought for how many of the employees at the Minimil Minutes wore capes and crowns.
The lamp was surrounded by a track and a post built into the ceiling, which could be rotated to cast a long shadow and indicate the hour. It was getting late, and they were running out of days until the ceremony. Nero saw himself making some excuse for not quite completing their mission on time to a blank wall, only to drop dead in the middle of it.
“You were telling us about your day, Mr…”
“Pestidicé,” he said, snapping out of the lull. “Solenos Pestidicé.” The Myrmidon looked at them expectantly; Heidi flinched. She muttered an incantation, summoning paper pad and pen from behind her back so she could write his name down. “To demonstrate our queen’s loyalty and respect we are, until they day of the vote, providing protection for the residence of our hero: Herschel Pflaumen Snaps.”
“Of the Challenging Handful,” Heidi said, knowing the others had not bothered to research the group as she had.
“The one and the same,” Solenos confirmed. “We of course hope he still lives, and that we can return it to him in pristine-praline condition when he arrives, but if not his home should become a memorial and stand in this country eternally.”
“Has there been some kind of threat against the house?” Nero asked.
“No. Our protection is a gesture. If there was a threat to it, we Myrmidons would be that threat.” He saw they were puzzled. “His house is gingerbread, and sweets call to us more than liquor calls to humans. Guarding it closely, without giving in, is symbolic but still quite difficult. The angels will be able to see what a sacrifice it is for us.”
“So you’re saying you should lead the nation because you can keep yourself from eating the houses?” Nero mocked. “Where is this abode that would be better à la mode?”
“You cannot quite see it from here, but you can see underneath it.” Solenos turned and pointed, at the bottom of the windowsill above them. The hour shadow cast by the oil lamp conveniently pointed out the straightest path to it.
“Right. Thank you for the tidbit. We’ll just be on our way.” Nero gestured for the others to follow him and tried to walk by Solenos and his troops.
“Wait a moment,” the Myrmidon called out, forcing them to stop. Delicious refused to turn around; if she had they would’ve seen she was holding her breath. “You’re headed there right now?”
“Of course,” the lord shot back as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “We have to get some pictures to run with the story.”
“Then where is your camera?” The lord swallowed, sand suddenly in his throat even though he hadn’t put any there. His eyes darted desperately to Heidi, but she looked just as frightened.
“I can’t conjure one of those!” she hissed. “It’s too complicated!” Before Nero could scold her lacking magical skill, Delicious’s held breath exploded out of her.
“Fine! You’ll have a bigger concern!” she shouted, just as she had at the fire brigade, apparently unable to come up with another line. An identical seed to the last one she used came out of the bag, took to the soft dirt around the anthill with gusto. Another arching root appeared, separating the two groups, allowing the handful to take off running, using the shadow as a trail.
When Nero looked over his shoulder he saw that this hurdle would be a touch more difficult than the last. Myrmidons coursed over the fresh wood in seconds, skittered across it on all fours, jumped down and sprinted toward them. Solenos led them, and he had already pulled his leafy blade.
“Now might be a good time to exercise those wings!” the lord shouted at Orlof. “Get there and destroy it!”
“But vat about you!?” the vampire asked, tiny furry body looking like the embodiment of chafing as it tried to sprint.
“We’ll survive as vermin always do my love!” Formaldeheidi assured him. The newt spun once to build up force, then slammed her tail into her lover’s back, tossing him upward. He flapped and took off.
“Haha! Of course you vill my darling!”
“Drones!” Solenos shouted from behind them. Two Myrmidons launched off the ground, unfurling wings that had been folded and hidden in the throngs moments before. Their shadows passed over Heidi and the others, headed straight for the vampire. Orlof may have been stronger than either of them, but their forms were more streamlined, faster in flight.
They pulled on his wing membranes, sliced with knives, forcing him to repeatedly tumble as a ball and recover his altitude at the last moment. The dogfight disappeared over a roof, Orlof shouting an apology. It was up to the remaining three then, and now would be their only chance. The Myrmidons would triple the guard, make it twenty-four hours a day now that they suspected sabotage.
By that point they had left the anthill’s property and rejoined regular streets along the north wall of the barn. The abundance of bonsai trees indicated they were still in Bonsai Park, regrettable considering their branches provided excellent stepping stones for the Myrmidons to transition from the ground to the divot network on the rooftops.
“They’re gaining on us!” Heidi informed the others, as her more flexible neck made it easier to turn and check.
“Alright!” Delicious shouted back, taking it as criticism of her tactics. She redeemed herself by pulling out yet another of the round black seeds and tossing it, but this time ahead of them. It rolled to a stop and then sank into the ground, erupting as a root-ramp that led straight up to a rooftop corner. The gnome took the lead and ran up it, the others right behind.
The divots, shaped for insect feet, were no help to them, an active hindrance in fact, but at least they were no longer trapped on the low ground. Above the houses they were able to see a new way to proceed with their plan: an elevator. It was quite large, meant to ferry numbers of minimils to and from the windowsill as well as vehicles and freight.
It was on its way up, pulled by chains, and there was already doubt that they could catch it in time. Of even greater concern were their pursuers. Solenos and three of his best had pulled ahead of the others. He was slashing at Nero’s cape, forcing the lord to undo the clasp and let it fly. Before it could smother and blind the Myrmidon he sliced it in half, not losing a step. Nero was equally ready for a fight however, and he had trained intensely against his own guards back on the beaches of Blefuscu, handily beating men and women armored from head to toe in crab shell suits.
That was with sand under his feet, and a full third of his maneuvers involved kicking that sand into his opponent’s chitinous visors and eyes, but he would have to make do. He drew his own sword, and each time he heard Myrmidon joints clicking behind him he spun and deflected their strikes.
The divot network included horizontal ladders from one roof to the next, but they were barely better than tightropes to fleshy feet, especially the long awkward toes on Heidi’s borrowed body. She tripped, floppy pieces of her falling through several rungs. The ants were upon her, at least until a howling Orlof, still pursued on the wing, appeared from street level and barreled through them, forcing them upon the road instead.
The bat and his tails disappeared again, just as they reached the edge of the rising elevator’s platform. Heidi and Delicious scrambled over the lip, but Nero lingered, turning his back to them, to keep the Myrmidons from boarding.
“What foul sealant is upon your weapon!?” he barked at Solenos as they crossed swords. Somehow the plant material was holding up to his expertly forged steel.
“I make it myself,” Solenos shot back, spitting a wad of the sealant onto Nero’s shirt. The lord of the seven sand castles would’ve been less offended if the leaf had gone straight through his lung, so he roared and lunged, intent on seeing what the guts of a Myrmidon looked like. Before he could swing, Heidi’s tail wrapped around his chest and tightened. He was lifted off the last roof, forced to watch his foes restrategize as he dangled.
It only took Solenos a moment to make a decision. The ant-people pivoted toward the wall, transitioned to its divots, and started climbing at a pace frighteningly similar to their sprinting. The elevator only had the slightest edge, but the swarm nonetheless shrank as they ascended. Heidi pulled Nero up onto the platform, only to find themselves faced with more enemies.
The citizens of Minimil riding the elevator were not blind, and some of them closed in aggressively.
“Now all of you listen here!” a breathless Gumbonero shouted at them. “You keep your greasy urban hands to yourselves! This is official business of the Challenging Handful!” Some of them showed hesitation, but not all.
“You’re not the handful,” a water sprite accused. She looked quite tough, like she had spent a few months trapped in the upper atmosphere by prevailing winds. She clenched her fist, a skin of solid ice forming over it. “The handful’s dead.”
“What? No they aren’t!” a Russian nesting doll argued. It opened up to a smaller face that also spoke. “These guys definitely aren’t the handful!” An even smaller face, indignant and puffy like a child’s. “But the real handful is alive! They’re coming back, you’ll see!” This turned into an intense argument among them, saving the possibly fraudulent handful the trouble of throwing the civilians off a moving elevator.
The trio moved to the back, out of sight, and tried to plan the rest of their mission in the brief moments before the elevator came to rest even with the windowsill. Delicious had a workable idea, for after they successfully demolished the gingerbread house of course, involving growing a vine down the other side of the window and sliding down, but they would never get that far.
When the car stopped they saw a line of Myrmidons already headed their way. Solenos must have communicated with some in the area already; perhaps one of the flying drones chasing Orlof had broken off to inform them. They were blocking the way across, so surely blocking them from accessing the edible home of Herschel Snaps.
“We’re being boxed in!” Nero shouted at the others as they disembarked the elevator. The Myrmidons spotted them and started running.
“I don’t see you pulling anything out of your bag that you don’t even have!” Delicious shouted at him, her plump face red as a feverish cardinal. She had more angry sputtering in her, but it was interrupted by a cracking and creaking sound that drew all of their attention.
Past several rows of tiny trees and houses they saw the window frame. A piece of the old barn wood had split from those surrounding it, peeled up. As they watched a second one appeared above it, and a third. A ladder was being built.
The handful made a run for it, figuring out what was happening along the way. Gumbonero guessed it was their magical benefactor, fully aware of their situation as she had claimed to be. She had already demonstrated influence over the walls by transporting all of them to their interior. Twisting them into ladders did seem far less complex.
By the time they reached the first peeling step there were more above them than they could count, and they were not passive in their assistance either. Whenever Nero put his full weight on one of them it moved like a diving board under greater pressure, launching him upward over five to six others. Each time he had to desperately grab at their lips to prevent a fatal fall.
Poor Delicious, who was quite a bit heavier and less coordinated, was bounced around on them like a rubber ball, limbs flailing, seeds spilling out of her bag in spiraling patterns. It was Heidi who took to it the most skillfully, skittering upward like a lizard between each launch, and it was her who spotted the item above that was likely their destination.
It hung from the head of a nail by a greasy loop of hair: a desiccated fleshy lump. Despite its lifeless mummified appearance it was swinging back and forth, humming absentmindedly as it stared out the open window into the deep greens of the Scottish countryside.
“Unbelievable!” Heidi voiced. “Footstool! Is that you!?”
“Oh hello!” the shrunken head called down to her. He obviously tried to twist and angle so he could look at her, but it just resulted in more chaotic swinging. “Is that my witchy friend I hear?”
“Hang on! We’re coming up to you!”
“I think I can manage.” It took another minute, but they all wound up on the last peel of the ladder, which was wider than all the rest, and well above Bonsai Park. Delicious looked over the edge, the red of her cheeks disappearing faster than a hungry Houdini’s breakfast. She grabbed the handle of the saucepan on her head and pulled it over her eyes, her voice echoing tinny from within.
“We are quite high, aren’t we? It’s the funniest thing. I can dance atop a tree that’s thirty men high, but on anything else I get a little…” She sputtered. “Oh by the way, the ants are almost here.”
Heidi craned her head over the edge, saw the climbing horde. Solenos was at the top, verdant sword clenched vertically in his mandibles, the tip waving like a battle flag. She growled, a sound of slimy bubbles deep in her amphibious chest. The witch ordered Nero to think of something and vowed to hold them off as long as she could.
The newt dropped down, sticking her bulbous digits into the divots to cling to the wall. Tens of the Myrmidons would be in grabbing distance of her tail shortly, so she only had a moment to experiment.
“You will learn, by a burn, what I have earned!” she swore, weaving magic with her words. A green flame ignited in the squishy cage under her joined fingertips. She swung her hand, producing a small arc to test. The fire caught the dry wood of the wall, but burned only for a moment before fizzling out.
As she thought, their benefactor would help here as well by separating the outermost burning layer from the rest. She was free to sling flames as much as she wanted without worrying about the whole country going up. Of course it would’ve been much easier for whoever-she-was to just crush the approaching Myrmidons with sections of the wall, but that would be far too conspicuous. The citizens would start looking for her, and not the flunkies she had bribed and threatened into service.
Heidi blew on the palmed flame, spraying it down. The bugs recoiled, but only for a moment. They immediately split up, looking for paths around her, some already moving in a massive circle out of her range so they could approach the others from above. While she did her best to target them, Lord Nero gave Footstool an earful to replace the mouthful he’d lost.
“What do you mean you spent my money?” he snapped, pulling on the head to try and free it from the nail. He forced Footstool’s dry lips open and practically stuck his head inside in search of even a chip of remaining glass.
“Weww I mewt wis wovewy wady,” Footstool explained through his mouth full of fingers until Nero finally took them back. “I mentioned to her that I had lost my memory, and that I very much wanted it back.”
“What are you babbling about? What lady?”
“She was of those ant-looking ones. There was a large pin stabbed right through her chest, but she seemed alright.” Nero slapped his own cheek, and then Footstool’s, but the possessed remains felt no pain.
“You gave my money to her?”
“Not for nothing! It was in exchange for information and transportation. You see, after I told her my woes, she suggested that talking to a real human might jog my memory, since that’s what I am. She happened to know the only human that actually visits Minimil, a fellow everyone just calls the Scotsman.
He comes to this window every week to check up on the place. In fact he was by just a few hours ago. We had a nice talk, but alas, no memory came loose.”
“And that pinned woman took my glass… and just left you hanging up here with no way down.”
“Oh I could only afford to pay one way.” Nero was about to find out how many spins it would take for Footstool’s hairs to pop out of their follicles when they were interrupted by a Myrmidon scuttling over the edge and taking a fighting stance between him and Delicious. Queen Zoukas chose her commanders well, as Solenos had broken away from the others and somehow slipped by Heidi.
Before they could react he slid his leaf blade behind the gnome’s back and used it as a lever, forcing her right over the edge. She started to scream, but a new piece of the wall peeled away and caught her.
Nero let Footstool swing, grabbing for his sword, but Solenos was too fast. With an expert thrust he sliced the sheath away from the lord’s belt, and the weapon went tumbling down. Their benefactor didn’t bother to save it, something he made a mental note of, to be turned into a grievance should he survive his encounter with the oddly furious ant before him. Solenos’s blade climbed toward the Blefuscan’s chin, but he had a few more tricks up his sleeve, and only one of them was yet more sand.
He reached into his waistband and drew a new weapon, and though its initial brandishing seemed pathetic and floppy, Solenos leapt back in terror all the same. The bug bristled at the smell of it, his antennae cringing, his mandibles thrashing to find the most effective way of sealing off his throat from the air.
“What’s the matter?” Nero mocked, advancing. “Is this not your superfluous leg!? I’m sure I saw you drop it. Here, take it back!” He swung, forcing the ant’s claws to grip the edge of the wood peel. The lord’s weapon was a dark segmented insect limb, as long as his own arm. It had a powerful scent of chemical death about it.
Pilfering from the suited corpse that had washed out of the wall with them was actually the witch’s idea, not surprising given her fondness for bat wings and newt eyes. Knowing they might be combating Myrmidons, she and the lord had dug up the shallow grave dug by Delicious, pulled the strange beetle-man from the ground, and each helped themselves to a leg, freed with one crunchy snap.
Since the poison was an insecticide it had successfully infused into all of the corpse’s tissues, and, as they had hoped, even the stink of it was enough to make any fellow insects recoil. One poke with its tip and Solenos would collapse and contract in a pest’s death throes.
“Give up! A gingerbread house can’t be worth your life!” Nero argued as they crossed weapons. “It’s much easier to rebuild with sand you know.”
“I would gladly lay down my life for any single memory of the man who lives there,” the Myrmidon spat back. “He is a man of honor! Not like you, whoever you are!” He tried to take the offensive again, slashing at the lord’s bug leg, trying to separate the joint. Nero pulled it back, swung from low as if it was a sickle cutting grass. Solenos had to twist onto one foot to avoid it, and was made thus vulnerable to a kick in the side that left him dangling off the edge by one set of claws.
“Who am I? I am the middle finger of the Challenging Handful, and I stand alone!” He stomped on the ant’s fingers. His foe fell, sword spinning away like any other leaf litter caught in a gentle breeze. One of Solenos’s flying drones swooped in and caught him, so he was able to rejoin his swarm in moments. Soon they would overwhelm Heidi and they would be right back where they started.
Gumbonero tucked the limb back into his clothes and turned his attention to their target. He scanned the neighborhood below, and sure enough, there was a candy weather vane sparkling in the lamp’s light. Below it he saw tan walls, licorice supports, decorative icing. It was there for the eating, but it was too far, and Myrmidons had already built a perimeter around it.
Despair might’ve been humbling for the lord of seven sand castles, but he only had a sliver of time to feel it. The ladder beneath him cracked and shifted, all the rungs joining end to end. Then it began to curl up as a single piece, and angle to the right. Dust and chips fell in a curtain as it crackled and bent into its final shape.
Nero figured out its purpose by letting his eyes travel all the way down its angling length. It terminated in line with the gingerbread house. It was a ramp, but could only be useful if he had something to roll down it…
“That’s a long way!” Footstool gasped.
“Yes, be sure to tell me exactly how long afterwards.” Nero snatched the shrunken head, pulling his hair loop off the nail. His size and weight were unwieldy, but he could leave it up to the ramp to make the necessary adjustments. With what little room he had left he heaved back and threw Footstool down the incline.
Their benefactor kept the ramp more rigid than the thin material should’ve allowed, helping the head build up speed. He flew over most of Bonsai Park, over the heads of dozens of fretting Myrmidons. With the force of a wrecking ball he smashed into Herschel’s home, punching a hole straight through a wall, a floor, and a few more walls.
With a blast of sugary powder he broke through the back, and would’ve kept falling all the way to the barn floor if Orlof hadn’t snatched him out of midair by the hair and flown off, toward Dubiny’s inn.
Nero watched with gritted teeth. A crack spread. Candy canes crumbled. The licorice bent. All at once the structure fell over like a house of cards, and once it had the Myrmidons saw absolutely no point in controlling themselves. They swarmed into it on all fours, scurrying under toppled walls, gnawing at windowsills and the chimney.
“Ha!” The lord had but a moment to celebrate before Delicious called to him. The ants upon the wall were still charging their way. They looked to be out of options for escape, until the gnome showed him that was not the case. She was climbing the wall below him, and slipped into the crevice under the ramp.
Heidi followed moments later, the last of her bewitched fire flicking off her tail like the spark from a flint. Of course! Their benefactor had the ability to transfer them into the wall, so doing so between two sections of it should be no trouble at all. Nero quickly hopped down, grabbed the ramp’s edge, and swung under it.
The darkness of the wall’s interior overtook him, and he felt a snapping whoosh like the wind biting down on him. The ramp flattened back into place, leaving not even a seam by the time the Myrmidons reached it.
Solenos drove a leafy knife into the wood, crying out in frustration, but his attention was quickly drawn to the sugar cloud below. The house was gone, but some of Herschel’s belongings surely remained, and his people would consume them if he didn’t hurry. Punishing the perpetrators would have to wait.
For a second time they emerged from the wall, still smelling quite caustic, just beyond Dubiny’s inn and dead garden, though Delicious was well into the process of transforming the latter. The new bushes she’d grown provided excellent cover as they dragged their bruised and scraped bodies inside for some nourishment and rest.
Their transportation from one wall to the next had been instantaneous, so they’d beaten Orlof and Footstool back by several minutes. When they arrived the newt and bat embraced; Gumbonero’s foot embraced Footstool’s forehead repeatedly. The lord lamented that the shrunken head could not feel any pain as recompense for the lost glass.
Humpty Dumpty welcomed them back and offered his congratulations, but the eager egg couldn’t even wait until after dinner to provide them with the details on their next target. Dubiny and her tonttu served them mouse tail goulash and gooseberry wine while he told the handful of the fairy with the turquoise hair.
She was one of the scheming fairies, a loosely defined category of fae folk that stood out from both the fairy royalty and the commoners of the magical realm. King Oberon and Queen Titania were the rulers of all fairies, but their visits to the mortal world were rare. This was in contrast to most of their subjects, who came through, or more likely were left behind after these visits, by accident.
Scheming fairies were another matter. They had great presence of mind, an unusual thing to praise in humans, but not in the fae. Their own reality was dreamlike, so adjusting to the starkness of the mortal realm was like learning to breathe underwater or see in the dark.
Schemers had significant magical power that they worked to grow, often inserting themselves into the lives of humans to create a justifying purpose for the instinct. The living gingerbread man who lived in the house they’d just demolished was, in fact, enchanted to life by one such fairy: the sugarplum fairy. Other notables that made their mark included the fairy godmother and the tooth fairy, though what the latter did with all those teeth was sometimes discussed as a matter of national security in the parliament.
The fairy with the turquoise hair had spent a century in Italy, adopting the accent and styles, amusing herself by turning images of man into the real thing. When she tired of that she moved to Minimil, and through unknown, but almost certainly magical, means, bought up the country’s fancier hotels, making her fabulously wealthy within the confines of the barn.
Her act of charity or bootlicker’s gift was unknown, but not her location. She resided in the neighborhood of Swallowdown, in her most luxurious property, the Hotel Trogolo, which had been built to fill an old drinking trough.
After another withdrawal, this one paining him greatly, Lord Ludmenti had sufficient funds to make a reservation for three of their finest suites, and enough to request that the owner of the establishment check them in and show them around personally.
The next day they all wore the nicest outfits they could muster as disguises. Nero kept his crown, but replaced his cape and weapon with a brown suit bearing cream-yellow accents. His mustache was waxed to perfection, and then beyond that to general greasiness. Orlof had his fur professionally shampooed and combed as well as purchasing some pearl caps for his fangs.
The women each donned giant ruffled dresses, Heidi in moss green and Delicious in daffodil.
There was no fixing up Footstool, so they decided he would act as their servant. There was a special kind of luggage cart used around town, meant to be pulled by eggties, but Footstool’s generally round shape allowed for him to be slotted in instead. The Challenging Handful loaded a few trunks with weapons and supplies, placed them in Footstool’s cart, and off they went, riding a train into Swallowdown.
A level of increased agitation was plain on the faces of the citizenry as they passed by. The decision was drawing closer, and they’d no doubt heard or witnessed some of the chaos caused already. Gildny Mildny had dropped out of the public eye, someone had destroyed the jail and sent criminals rolling into every corner, and the home of one of the digits in the Challenging Handful had been destroyed.
The Left Handful prayed they had not connected all the dots. With luck, each inconvenienced party was not sharing information so as not to disadvantage themselves in any way when the actual presentation came.
For now the new wardrobes would have to be sufficient. After they disembarked the Hotol Trogolo was before them, casting a shadow over several streets. The trough was metal, but the various roofs atop it were an assortment of folded colorful papers: lilac, white, and a foggy purple. The main door had been cut out of the side with a can opener, which now stood out front, welded upright at an angle after its conversion into an art installation. The lid of a can hung punctured on its tip, polished into a mirror so guests could examine themselves one last time before entering the place where much hush-hush business was often handled.
Footstool faltered and stopped under his reflection. His mummified eyes couldn’t water, but they made their best effort. He sniffled.
“What’s the delay?” Heidi asked as the others shuffled back to him.
“I see something,” Footstool wept. “In myself! Yes, there I am! When I was a boy I had a sled, and it was a better friend to me than any dog or cat. What was its name? I Think my memories are coming back!”
“Not while you’re on the clock they’re not,” Nero snapped, circling around behind the cart and kicking it, forcing Footstool to roll out of the way. The others stared at him in horror. “What? He can look at a mirror any other time. Quickly now!” He clapped his hands, a command the shrunken head obeyed. Once he was out of sight of himself he went right back to his vacuously cheerful nature.
“Righto! You’re the boss Lord Ludmenti!”
“What?” the lord said again to the others as Footstool pulled ahead. “We can’t have him developing any moral qualms in the middle of the mission.” In a sense he was correct, but the action still unsettled the others enough that they allowed Nero to take the lead, marching them up a ramp with velvet ropes into the lobby of the hotel.
The place smelled tinny, but that was covered by plentiful vases full of potpourri. The lighting was quite dim, dyed calming shades by glass and cloth alike. A musician tucked into a corner sat upon a stool, playing a fiddle melodiously.
Though they should’ve been lost among the other guests, a member of the staff still managed to pick out the handful immediately and approach them. He gave Delicious quite the start, as he looked a little like the dead beetle-fellow she had buried, but upon closer inspection she saw he was a different type of insect entirely: a cricket.
At least, he had been a cricket at one point. The fellow was just the husk of one, animated by a glowing spirit within, light leaking from all his seams. He bowed to them, dead antennae flopping so far forward that they touched the floor.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the shelled ghost chittered. “If you’ll follow me please.” The handful did as asked, and were taken via elevator to the highest floor, and then past most of the rooms to one of the suites they’d reserved. The cricket let them all inside, but then closed the door behind them without another word.
“Congratulations on making it this far!” the fairy with the turquoise hair welcomed them. She stood behind the room’s bar, mixing and pouring colorful drinks, each glass topped with a bubble dome. Her guests approached cautiously, all except Footstool, who was bashing their luggage with his forehead to knock it off the cart, as well as chuckling every time he succeeded.
The enchanting woman was a vision, but that was simply the equivalent of telling a fairy that they looked nice that day. Her hair was richer than any gemstone, cascading down one shoulder into multiple shrinking whirlpools. Her thin lips were equally blue, drawing the eye to her dimpled chin. Her wings, when unfurled, were massive copies of those on the lunar moth, but for now they were tightly rolled on her back like a pair of scrolls. Pure magic, like fine sugar, sparkled on her dress and in the air about her, some of it getting in the drinks, surely enhancing their taste and bestowing luck upon the drinker.
“I’m sorry?” Formaldeheidi said, grabbing a sparkle out of the air and examining it. A tiny puff of smoke indicated she obliterated it with a flash of witch’s fire.
“You should never apologize for a job well done,” the fairy crooned, sliding a drink forward. Running out of bar was no problem for the glass, as it kept going through the air until Orlof snatched it. The fairy slid three more, one for each, but Heidi slapped hers away, sending it slowly spiraling toward the ceiling. Its shimmering blue contents spilled, but did not fall, hanging in the air like a cloud of ink in still water.
“What job would that be?” the lord inquired.
“There’s no need to be coy anymore Gumbonero,” the fairy insisted with a toothsome grin. “You are the Left Challenging Handful. You neutralized the golden eggty Gildny Mildny, ruined a very particular pot of soup, and demolished the house of Forward Commander Snaps. All as I instructed you to.”
“What did she say!?” Footstool blurted, in a rare moment where his general confusion represented the entire group’s.
“You’re the one who brought us here?” the newt witch asked skeptically, suddenly looking very uncomfortable in her dress.
“Prove it,” Nero demanded. He went to sniff at his drink, but the tip of his nose popped the bubble atop it. The rushing scent overcame his defenses, forced him to take a sip. It was the most delicious thing he’d ever had, tasting like tributaries of more berries than actually existed waltzing across his tongue. He downed the whole thing in seconds, leaving a bright foamy mustache over his regular one.
“Gladly,” the fairy said. “I made all of you promises, yes? Step forward and ask for a small sample of them so that I may provide it.” Nero volunteered and requested she refill his glass, but this time with the world’s greatest sand for the purpose of building castles.
The fairy with the turquoise hair picked up a cocktail shaker and tumbled it around in her delicate hands. The handful heard it filling up with something, more with each slosh. Removing the cap, she proceeded to pour a stream of sand into his glass, equal parts obsidian black and clearest quartz. She even finished it off with a pleasing spiral, not a single grain dropped.
Nero ruined it with a pinch, but he needed to check its consistency between his fingers, under his nails, running through the dry riverbed creases on his palm… None of them had ever thought they’d see out of the man what they saw in that moment, as he collapsed to his knees with watering eyes in a fashion not too dissimilar to Footstool under the mirror.
Back when he was a young man, before he’d ever raised his first parapet on the beaches of Blefuscu, he had fallen victim to the whims of the tide. Rogue spray had blasted him off a rocky outcropping and ripped the pail from his hands. Humans were already helpless in a strong tide, and Nero was but a speck of dust compared to them.
The water rolled him at high speed, destroying up and down as well as left and right. He wasn’t even sure if his various pieces were still attached when he happened to come in contact with sand. He grabbed at it, but his fingers slipped through. His pail returned and struck him in the head before vanishing in the green murk once again.
His head rolled backward and became stuck, which was the best thing he could hope for in his current state. There was a pocket of air, but the water was pulling away at the barrier. He needed to squirm deeper. Deeper. Deeper until he could no longer feel the waves. Gasping for breath, shaking, he finally made it far enough into the pocket to fall, cutting himself on pieces of shell on the way down.
It looked like he would have to perish after all, for he landed right next to the architect of the pocket: a white crab about as large as he was. Surely the beast didn’t appreciate its den being invaded; Nero braced for the sensation of its knobby vices crushing his limbs. It never came.
The crustacean just stared back at him, eyes dark behind palest gloss, expression impenetrable, yet Nero did learn its entire soul as the waves blasted and raked just centimeters above. The crab was at peace. Nobody knew it was there, and the world could not touch it. So secure was this tranquility that it didn’t even acknowledge Nero as another being, just an extension of its rudimentary arthropod imagination.
Every grain sparkled like a crystal in their shared cathedral tube. The Blefuscan’s ideas echoed within, back down to him, reassuring their own sweeping grandeur. Sand acknowledged change. And power. And cycles. It flowed when it needed to. Held when it needed to.
When the tide went out Nero would begrudgingly follow the crab out onto the damp surface, joining an army of others emerging from their burrows. He walked among them as they harvested the tide’s leavings from between the grains with delicate pinches. These were his wheat fields, his farm hands.
Blefuscu would be invaded by its neighbor Lilliput, one cracked half of the egg-shaped island couplet attacking the other, all over which end was better for breakfast. The Blefuscan nation would fall, become a mere territory of the little-endians despite their bigness. But not Gumbonero Ludmenti, lord of the seven sand castles. His lands were the last independent stripe of Blefuscu, unassailable thanks to the tides. Who even wanted them? The silly things seemed to collapse with every powerful moon. His subjects were surely mostly dead, and definitely not waiting it out in deep tubes with their decapod neighbors, chomping at the bit and grit to rebuild.
“It is a miracle,” he wept into the fairy’s sampled sand. “It is a miracle!” For the first time he retreated from a suspicious situation, sitting himself on the bed, next to Footstool. He stroked the shrunken head’s greasy hair as if it was a cat while he swirled the sand in his glass and stared into its depths.
“I would like to go next, prettiest of the pleases!” Delicious bubbled, bouncing up to the bar. “My Johnny’s pot please.”
“Johnny Appleseed? The pot he wore atop his head?” the fairy clarified. Delicious squealed affirmatively.
“Obviously I can’t just give it to you, as your mission isn’t quite complete, but I hope this sample will suffice as proof.” The fairy closed the shaker again and shook. This time there was only one thing inside, but it rattled loudly. The fairy flung her hand out, letting the scrap roll across the bar like a jack. Delicious snatched it in her plump callused palm and looked closely: but a chip of tarnished gray metal.
The gnome knew it was the right shade, but gave it a hearty sniff to confirm. It was most certainly the scent of her late husband’s scalp, from years of contact. It was from the pot she sought, evident by the dewy tears welling up in her eyes. She too joined Nero in sitting on the bed.
“Und ve vere offered safe places,” Orlof said, stepping forward and resting a wing membrane on the bar. “Free of ze sun. Somevere ve can store my dearest’s human form.”
“Of course it’s difficult to offer a sample of that,” the fairy said, “given that we’re indoors and, on top of that, indoors again. But, you have already seen the proof in your work here. Minimil is both of those spaces.
You five have done enough for me to wrest control of it away from the Danger and the others. Once I am in charge you will be pardoned and given living quarters, including for your human body Ms. Dämonen. There will be guards on it every hour of the day that you’re not using it. You won’t need to ever worry for its safety again.”
“It does sound ideal,” the vampire muttered, tapping his silver collar with one claw. “vat do you sink my dear?” The newt narrowed her massive eyes; her tail was coiling and uncoiling so rapidly it nearly tied itself in a knot.
“I want to know what the rest of our work is really supposed to be, since we’ve apparently done enough to flip the barn in her favor.” That succeeded in getting Nero’s attention. He poured the perfect sand into one of his pockets, rested his glass on the flattest part of Footstool’s head, and returned to the bar to second the question.
“Astute of you,” the fairy with the turquoise hair said, “and correct. Ruling Minimil will make my life a good deal easier, but there is a task far more important to me. Are any of you familiar with my story?” They answered in the negative, which seemed to wound her slightly. She shook the shaker again, violently this time, throwing out a small wooden doll with jointed limbs and an absurdly long nose. It sat there, limp, with vacant yet somehow cruel eyes.
“I bring things to life with my magic. I am a mother to many here in Minimil and abroad. Many times a human has wished for a favorite toy, or illustration in a book, to come to life and befriend them. I have facilitated it.
It has been very rewarding… heartwarming, to me and those involved, but life is a many-sided die, and a rare number of those sides should never be rolled. Some forms, through idiosyncrasies that yet elude me, tend toward evil. I think only King Oberon and Queen Titania know how to tell, but they never shared such wisdom with me.
One of these risks has come back… His name is Pinocchio. I thought he was safe. Gepetto, the old carver who created him, was the kindest man I’d ever met. He’d toiled as a woodworker for decades in Italy, never taking a wife, never having children, but he made such wondrous toys for the children of his town regardless.
He never took a penny in recompense even though he ate gruel and bland fish for most every meal. It saddened me so to see the loneliness bend him in his advanced age. The idea that anything crafted by his nurturing hands could be evil was the furthest thing from my mind. One night I visited him and bestowed my magic upon his newest creation: a wooden boy.”
The fairy stuck out a finger. The tiny replica on the bar glowed blue and stood up.
“He was called Pinocchio. I wanted him to be Gepetto’s son. At first it went well. He raised the boy, and they both were happy. Normally boys can be difficult to control, so I gave Gepetto a special tool to help him deal with a parent’s burden. Any time the boy lied his nose would grow.” Her finger twirled, and the model’s nose shot out yet more, causing its head to loll and peck a crack in the bar.
“Sadly, this did nothing to slow his slide into degeneracy. He ran away so he wouldn’t have to tell Gepetto lies, partnered with some criminal urchins. They had a reign of terror mostly involving local livestock before I stepped in.
I threw everything I could at the boy to get him back on the path of righteousness. A donkey-transformation curse, a favorite in my realm, did nothing. Turning a jackass into a jackass is pointless from the start I suppose.
Even having a whale swallow him failed to grant any perspective. That was when I decided I had to change my approach, for Gepetto’s sake. Pinocchio’s lack of empathy seemed to be stemming from his lack of a heart, and his desire to mutilate from a lack of flesh. So,” she rubbed her forehead, “I thought it would be a good idea to transform him into a real human boy.”
“I could’ve told you that was a terrible idea,” Heidi spat. “Even the devil doesn’t dabble in such things, and he likes to add magma to his tea.”
“Yes, well, what I’ve done is what I’ve done. Pinocchio returned home, but he hadn’t lived one week in his new bones before he murdered his dear sweet father and ran away again. I was devastated, but I hoped to be done with him.
But he has graduated, in a way a parent could never be less proud of, to having actual plans for his own future. He has discovered that, by telling a particularly bold lie in a single breath, his nose can grow with explosive penetrating force before returning to normal… and he has used this ability to commit several murders… leaving distinct marks on some very unfortunate eye sockets.”
“Oh sweet pine pajamas!” Delicious squeaked from the bed. She threw her hand over her mouth and fought back vomit. “How -mmf- grotesque!”
“I’m afraid it gets worse,” the fairy said, looking barely able to go on. She seemed tossed about on the deck over a sea of fraught emotions. Her hair’s character shifted, from tight swirls to crashing waves, licks of jealous green seawater like discolored glass that crashed only to snatch you and drag you into the depths. There was fairy rage somewhere deep inside her, a rare emotion indeed, one that any psychologist would proudly mount on their wall as the ultimate quarry.
“Pinocchio isn’t just a murderer stalking the streets, doomed to be caught one day. His plans have intersected with those of a man named Mussolini, for whom he does much gutter work. The pair plans to rule all of Italy one day, and one day soon I fear.
So… the true mission of the Left Challenging Handful is to rest here for now. In the morning you will be arranged transportation for your journey there. You will assassinate Pinocchio and free the world from my overzealous giving. And you will bring me his severed nose as proof. In exchange you will have everything I have promised you, and you will have saved a country much larger than this one in the process.”
She slammed the shaker down on the tiny puppet, but they all heard it explode within, a thousand splinters of wood tinkling against the metal. When she lifted it again there wasn’t so much as a trace.
“Italy has some fine beaches,” was the sentence that broke the silence, and of course it came from the curled mustachioed mouth of the lord of seven sand castles. “Are there any objections?” He twirled around to look at the people he might call his subordinates if he was feeling generous.
“I’m not a murderer!” Delicious insisted, but her eyes were glued to the speck of metal tumbling between her fingers. “But for my Johnny I suppose I can travel with murderers, provide conversation for them, and give them a boosting tree up to the throat they may need to open.”
“Italy is very romantic,” Orlof crooned, cradling his newt in his membranous wings and knobby umbrella fingers. He swished back and forth, getting Heidi to dance along in his embrace. Her distaste for all this fairy magic seemed to melt away under the influence of his.
“And it is for a good cause,” the witch agreed.
“Hear hear!” was all Footstool had to say, though he couldn’t be too loud with it, as his enthusiasm made Nero’s balanced glass wobble on his scalp.
“Splendid,” the fairy with the turquoise hair said, relieved, though delight was clearly far from her mind. She snapped her fingers and a moment later the cricket husk that had escorted them reappeared in the doorway. “We can discuss more tomorrow, but for now he will show you to your luxury accommodations. I daresay you deserve an upgrade from the squalor you have been stuck in.”
“Oh, poor Dubiny will not be pleased with us,” Delicious noted as she waddled to the door.
“Don’t worry, I’ll see she’s taken care of,” Nero assured the gnome as he let the others leave ahead of him. “She’s Blefuscan after all. Big-endians become happy-endiands.” The door clicked shut behind the handful, leaving the fairy alone. She watched its frame for a few moments, but when she could no longer hear their steps she finally sighed, arms and elbows collapsing onto the bar.
“At last. I will be free of that wooden pricking bastard…” she muttered, cooling her forehead in a water ring left by one of the glasses.
“Squalor?” someone posed from the other end of the suite, behind the curtains. The fairy started, her vibrant hair coiling and glowing. Her hands lit up with magic as well.
“Who’s there!?” A figure stepped out from behind the drapery, came forward some: a young woman, brown of eye, olive of skin, with her hair back in a long messy ponytail. She wore a simple dress and apron. “You’re that innkeeper out by the wall. They’re staying with you.” The fairy did not let down her guard. She of course knew all the competition in Minimil’s small hospitality industry, but not how the lowest rung of it could sneak to the top floor of her nicest property.
“You’ve been spying on them,” Dubiny Marood said, uncharacteristic anger stewing in her words. The handful would’ve guessed she was capable of nothing worse than frustration and nothing more powerful than disappointment.
“They work for me.”
“Bite your fae tongue!” Dubiny boomed, storming to the bar, so literally that the curtains and bed skirt blew about with a mysterious gale. “Bite it off so that you cannot blaspheme again! The Left Challenging Handful is mine!”
The young innkeeper transformed before the fairy’s awed eyes. Olive skin came to life, gold and bronze and bursting with unseen currents like rivers of panacea sap running under tree bark. Her eyes now contained all of Arcadia, a soul with the raw power of one hundred thousand mortal ones. Her face matured into something like middle age, but the middle of an age, like Stone or Iron.
Her hair burst out of its braid into glorious locks strong enough to be a ship’s rigging. It cascaded over her shoulders and past her waist, simply making the point with its length that it was mightier than the fairy’s turquoise crop.
Stained apron became the gown of a bygone and lofty civilization, Greek by the fairy’s guess. It glowed just as her skin, hair, and eyes did, not with a color or a light but with a unity of being only seen in primordial creatures: those that were there, in some form, when disparate things decided to become the world and the stars.
“Who are you?”
“I am Hestia! Daughter of Cronus! Daughter of Rhea! First and last born of the Olympians!”
“An Olympian!? I knew Eros remained in this world, and Atlas of course… but I thought the rest of you gone.”
“My older and younger siblings left when the devotion of the people dried up, but I still believe Earth is the only world that will matter in the end. I will remain, and I will rule as I used to. Minimil is the key to my return.”
“I don’t understand. What interest have you in a barn?”
“We both know it is more than that. I am the goddess of the hearth, the domestic, the home. I’ve always been limited to the affairs conducted within, but Minimil is building, home, and country all in one. Here I can be god of an entire state, not just scattered peppercorns underneath its table.”
“So you’ve enlisted those… scattered souls,” the fairy puzzled out. “I confess I did not know who hired them-”
“Just that you saw an opportunity to steal them away and knead them toward your own goals,” the goddess accused, to which the fairy nodded solemnly. “I am not unsympathetic to your guilt. By the sound of it this Pinocchio character should be destroyed, but you won’t use my saws and axes to do it. Their work for me is not yet complete.”
“They’ve been sabotaging the other applicants for the oyster’s vote, presumably so you can install a puppet of your own without revealing yourself. I’ve forced your hand.”
“And so I must threaten you directly. You will not show up to parliament, or I will destroy you. My powers aren’t what they once were, but you won’t be safe in any place called home, a very dangerous notion for one in your business.”
“Speaking of danger,” the fairy said, recovering some of her composure, “what are you going to do about The Danger. He’s a bigger risk than any of the others.”
“That will be left to the handful. They’re fighting for their lives as well as their deepest desires. They’ll think of something, and they will do it without your interference. Am I understood?”
“Yes, your ladyship,” the fairy with the turquoise hair said, bowing slightly. “If I had known someone such as yourself was behind this, I never would have acted as I did. Everyone’s in a tizzy, including myself. The Little Wars are marching.”
“Indeed they are, so Minimil needs a leader that has seen the injured of countless battlefields dragged across her doorsteps to die by her roaring fires.”
“Perhaps I could assist you, and when all is said and done you could lend me this handful, or even just a pinch, to deal with my fascist puppet?”
“Such things can be discussed later. For now you will keep those magical lips of yours sealed, you will stay out of the way, and you will summon that cricket bellhop.” The fairy with the turquoise hair didn’t appear to do anything, but she must have obeyed, for moments later the dapper little bug husk was coming through the door.
The goddess Hestia engaged in equally subtle sorcery of her own, and out from behind the curtain came the tonttu. The fairy already understood the divine woman’s intent, so she aimed the open cocktail shaker at her underling. The wispy blue spirit that animated the exoskeleton was sucked out through the seams, down into the metal tube. The dark chitinous plates collapsed into a heap.
“You know what to do,” Hestia told her loyal tonttu. Though he was a spirit from an entirely different pantheon his habitat was still the homestead. He’d seen with his own eyes what happened when household sprites like himself didn’t obey the goddess of the hearth. Piece by piece he slipped into the cricket’s clothing and its shed sections until he wore it all like a suit of armor. The fairy crated a few wisps of blue magic to fill the cracks and complete the illusion. He departed to get the handful back on track.
“So…” the fairy said to move things along, “can I interest you in a room? No charge.”
“I am the rooms. When you charge you’re attempting to whore me out. Money has no place in hospitality. Soon it will have no place in Minimil. Respect for its goddess will be the currency.” With that she returned to the curtains, disappearing behind them with a resolute flutter.