Challenging Applause (part three)

(back to part one)

(reading time: 1 hour, 3 minutes)

Scatter the Applause

It wasn’t hard for her two lieutenants to guess where the Olympian went directly from under Formaldeheidi’s dress, as within the hour the entire country knew the situation. Minimil was put on lockdown. All traffic in and out that was not Foraging and Reconnaissance was ceased. The main overhead lantern was given special oil so it burned with a reddish alarm flame. All citizens were encouraged to get doubly indoors and pack their most essential belongings should they need to evacuate.

Their escape route was not mentioned however, so many of the citizens assumed they would be alright. Minimil was a country of refugees where not many were born who were not myrmidons, and all the ones who were came from Queen Zoukas alone. Confidence was not placed in parents, or even in the goddess, but in Forward Commander Snaps and Lord Gumbonero Ludmenti of the twin handfuls, of the freshly announced Challenging Applause.

Snaps felt the weight of their expectations cracking his crust, even though most of them were far below on the barn’s floor and he was as high as he could get, standing once more on the black outer wall of the Castle of the Grip with Hestia’s blazing throne behind him.

Humpty Dumpty was there again, perched right on the compacted sand edge, speaking to no one even though they could give him the details as their foes emerged from the forest and sent those on the wall into a flurry of planning and conversation.

Minimil’s myrmidon troops were mustered in various places below the loft, ready and waiting to be deployed. None had met their field commanders, these claps as they were called, but that was nothing compared to the ignorance of the claps themselves. They’d only learned of their qualifications that very day.

Atop the gritty sparkling parapets, standing alongside Hestia, the brooding eggty that must’ve hard-boiled himself by that point, the lord of the castle, the most famous digit of any handful, and other key high officials like Mygdenia and Formaldeheidi, stood the Challenging Applause.

Among them they had no immediate leader, but Hans stood out as the best candidate given that he had almost two hours more experience than any of the others. He showed up in a full suit of armor, the quills on his back fed through his chain mail one by one. He carried an ax meant to fell saplings, but it looked more than ready to take on any enemy at the gates.

Beside him was Momotaro, one of very few small beings to ever come out of the land of Japan. Similar to Hans, his childless parents had begged various forces living in the sky to give them an heir, and they had also received a blessed babe. Momotaro was born from within a very large peach, and he still bore the markings and character of it.

His skin was somewhere between the fruit’s and its flesh, rippling red and spotty in places, richly orange-gold in others. It made it impossible to judge his age, for despite his youthful appearance his musculature was robust and intimidating, layered with what looked like decades of endless exercise.

A stony pit stuck out as his sternum, and he knocked on it like a door whenever he wanted to get someone’s attention, but that was not very often. He was a quiet man, with his immense strength doing most of his communication.

Next in line was Root Beer the fifth, who was one Saint Nicholas’s elves living in the Less-Northern Pole. She was easily the scrappiest of the bunch, and had been quite high on Snaps’s list. While many of her people had emigrated from the North Pole, she had been banished for trying to organize the first elfin labor union.

She contended, when confronted with the fact that regulations would reduce the number of toys children would receive on Christmas night, that labor was not a plaything. It didn’t matter what it was turned toward, even childhood merrymaking, if it was done so in a harmful fashion. She had a raspy voice, which she claimed was the result of the saint himself nearly squeezing the life out of her at the tail end of her largest picket line before her banishment.

R.B. had swapped out the characteristic pointy hat of the workshop with a newsy’s slumped cap and the traditional green clothing for blue. She was deep in discussion with the only other woman of the applause, one Felicity Lace, though in some ways she was more like two women.

Miss Lace was a topsy-turvy doll from the American antebellum south. Stitched from cloth as two torsos attached at the waist, her figure appeared normal when the lower half was hidden under her dress. You might never know that her feet were hands or that she had a second head if she chose not to flip herself over and let the falling of her skirt transform her outfit.

Such dolls of that period and place typically depicted both a white side and a black side, ostensibly to prepare slave girls for a life in which they would have to raise their master’s child and their own. Felicity was different, as both of her faces were black, and identical to boot. The only difference with her orientations was the outfit, with one side being the stained robes of a scullery maid and the other the decadent ball gown of a very wealthy woman.

She was very well-spoken from both ends, and assured the curious that despite her two heads she was of one mind, though she wasn’t sure which mind that was precisely. Several things were known to her: that she was made by a mother and gifted to a daughter to show her both what she already was and could become, that one of these two people had worked their entire adult life to free slaves utilizing various networks of tunnels, and that when that woman was violently killed her spirit had possessed the doll.

A member of the Left Handful had suffered similar ghostly amnesia, the shrunken head named Footstool, and given his general uselessness the lord of seven sand castles had his doubts about her, but when he saw that she conducted herself with supreme confidence those doubts vanished.

The last member of the applause wasn’t stood there at all, as he could not stand in the traditional sense, being of only two dimensions. To notice him it first had to be noticed that R.B. had two shadows, and only one had pointy elf ears, or indeed ears at all. This second shadow was that of a severed human hand stood on two of its fingers, with two more held out to the sides like arms against the hips.

Once he had belonged to the eternal youth called Peter Pan, whose story was well known across Europe. The boy, who could fly with the theft of fairy dust, occupied a space outside most flat maps called the Neverlands, similar in origin to Wonderland but without the corrupting chaotic influence of ionic mineral mischief.

The boy had a nemesis in that place, a pirate with a hook for a hand, and at some point in their many battles he finally claimed revenge, slicing off Peter’s left with it. Naturally this action also removed the left of his magically animated shadow, and the shred of shade took off on its own, escaping fully where the larger shadow was never able to succeed.

What the fellow lacked in physical presence he more than made up for in spying capabilities. No foe was likely to pay attention to him listening in, slithering in and out of their shadows, when they were in the middle of a round of Little Wars. He was now called Panhandle, and it took an awful long time to communicate that name since he had no voice and had to spell it out with contortions of his entire shape. Most of the time he was arranged like the common shadow puppet of a hound’s head, but for the occasion of the Swedes’ arrival he tried to stand as proud and firm as the others.

This was the Challenging Applause, and thanks to an incredible stroke of luck the randomly selected names were all willing. All in Minimil wondered what would oppose them, what was in that large case a flustered Swede had to rip out of an ornery thorn bush as he stepped into the clearing surrounding the barn.

It wasn’t being treated delicately, but neither was the surrounding property. The Swedes were nearly thirty in number, men and women all dressed for a rough trek through untamed countryside. The last leg of their journey was surely miserable, but as they emerged they had mostly smiles on their faces, as if the barn was a giant treasure chest. They thought making it there was the hard part.

Negotiations were part of the rules the international community had codified, and they had to occur before any fighting, but the Swedes didn’t need permission to prepare the battlefield. They brought out numerous shovels, mowers, trowels, and pairs of pruning shears. Without a word to the residents of Minimil they went to work on the terrain, all the way up to the wall at the foot of the loft. Shrubs and flowers were viciously ripped out, rocks chucked aside, grass cut to barely anything in neat stripes. The pungent smell of the mowing reached those standing in the window like the first smoke plume of war.

After the terrain had been flattened out there came stakes and twine and measuring tape. A grid of squares was constructed, one much larger than any chessboard. The Swedes also had with them stacks of some kind of paperboard, already cut to exact specifications and perforated in places to allow for easy folding.

The sheets made a snapping sound when bent, and Minimil heard much snapping as they were transformed into pseudo-buildings, placed on the grid in a formation resembling a city’s main street. There were doors and windows in them, but they were mere holes. The structures would serve as cover, allowing for more entertaining battles and clearer focal points of strategy.

One man among their foes could not take his eyes off the construction project: Bragi Tarkower. They knew him without introduction; he could be no one else. Tall, but bent like a sunflower, the man had obviously spent much time lording over game boards like a god, moving each piece with confidence, never once in his life cheating or asking for a do-over.

There was a scarf striped with gray and black wrapped around his neck, but each end terminated in strings attached to little fluffy gloves fitted over his ears. A strange item to be sure, especially since it wasn’t chilly enough to warrant such warmers.

His silver hair hung over his forehead in slick strands, hiding any creases in his brow. Bragi wasn’t giving his opponents much; his hands were tucked in his pockets as if sealed in them with cement. His slate eyes were locked on the board, already running through hundreds of possible scenarios, even without knowing the nature of the Minimil forces.

The Swedes were so confident that they did not mind showing their hand, as it would have to be disclosed in the imminent negotiations anyway. Brought forward and set to face the barn was their heavy trunk. With an attendant on each side they grabbed the lid and opened it. What emerged was not easy to discern from the loft window until one of Nero’s guards, armored in a crustacean crust, came and distributed spyglasses to each of them.

Everyone extended them and looked through. The sound of the devices was unmistakable, finally convincing Humpty Dumpty to ask what they saw.

Hundreds of little floaty men,” Lord Ludmenti answered him. “And they have rocks.”

Why do they have rocks?” Felicity asked no one in particular.

You can do a lot with a rock,” R.B. insisted, “mostly damage.”

They do seem very fond of those rocks.”

Can’t imagine why. Each one is identical.”

The men or the rocks?”

Both I think. Yes, most assuredly both. They won’t let go of each other. What came first I wonder, the floaty men or the rocks?”

Every last one of them has a name,” Hestia stated, her voice rising above all the others. She was the only one without a spyglass, yet saw the rival army in the greatest detail, aided by her childhood memories from prehistory. “That name is Atlas. He is a cousin of sorts to me, but from the branch of our family tree that fell and rotted in the Titanomachy.”

And he is punished to this day, forever bearing the weight of the globe upon his shoulders,” Momotaro said, moving his own shoulders uncomfortably as he did his best to imagine the burden.

Then how is he joining in our doom, and at this scale?” Snaps asked the goddess. “He couldn’t have left his post. I certainly don’t feel as if I’m plummeting into the depths of the cosmos.”

You were created by a fairy, so I’ll forgive the misunderstanding of our nature,” she said, awfully cold and bitter for a goddess of the hearth. Snaps even heard a distinct dying down of the giant pyre behind them. “Fairies are like mortals in that they have a singular focus. When they create something and send it on its way they have to find it again to know how it fares.

Not the Olympians. Our substance is in our miracles, our curses, our wrath. There’s a part of me in every single homestead in the world. When you see me here you are merely seeing the most powerful concentration of me.

The same goes for my dear cousin out there. He holds up not just the Earth, but every single body in the heavens, all on different sets of shoulders. The Atlas that holds up the Earth is far from the largest. Though Helios manages the sun, there is an Atlas for Mars, Saturn, Jupiter…” She trailed off, irritated at the astronomers of the world for naming the planets after her kin and making the explanation all the more confusing.

So those rocks they’re so attached to-”

Are tiny meteorites,” Hestia confirmed. “They must have fallen over Sweden in a meteor shower, and with each one came its Atlas. After a few ages drifting in the cold dark they’re probably overjoyed to be somewhere green and alive again. I imagine they’ve been swayed to the Swedish flag with simple carnal promises like food and women. They won’t even need to be tiny women.” She spat, a molten glob that ate straight into the castle, leaving a tube of glass in its wake. “Nothing’s too big for him to handle.”

Can they be defeated?” Snaps asked.

Yes, but not easily. He is immortal, but each manifestation only exists as long as there is a mineral charge in need of it. If the meteorite crumbles so too does the Atlas, into smaller and smaller incarnations until he is too small to interact with.”

Great, we’re fighting rocks,” R.B. grumbled with crossed arms. “What are we arming the ants with?”

Rifles,” the golden Mygdenia answered flatly. “They don’t have the caliber to break apart rocks.”

We’ll need explosives. There’s a supply of matches for the lantern. We could cut off all their heads and-”

Wait! There’s more! What’s he doing with that nail?” They shoved their eyes back into the spyglasses. A few straggler Atlases were still drifting out of the open trunk, gravity barely applied as they tucked and rolled down to the grass, but past them Bragi Tarkower removed his scarf with one hand and held a long nail in the other.

The object was purest polished silver, clearly made by a master of metalwork more accustomed to wedding bands and diadems. A woman stepped up to assist the grandmaster of games, but she was too short to do anything until he got to his knees, setting his scarf under them to avoid dirtying his pant legs.

Out of her pocket came a small hammer. She took the nail from him, which looked longer and longer the more those watching realized the nature of its use. With the delicate but insistent hand of a surgeon, which she most likely was, the Swedish woman inserted the insistent and decidedly indelicate end of the nail into the base of Bragi’s right nostril.

She repositioned herself for her grim work, blocking the view of their spyglasses, but even from that distance they all heard the tapping. Even those without nerves and flesh cringed with the sound of each strike. She might as well have been John Henry driving in a railroad spike.

No one had reported what was being done to Humpty, but he was able to figure it out from the sound alone. Suspended in yolk fluid, every sound hit and resonated through his entire feeble body. He knew the vibrations of both metal and bone, and the peculiar tightrope act of their interactions. It reminded him of the always-risky procedure by which the eggty shell had a small hole carved out so a metal speaking and eating device could be installed in its place.

Normally this is a sideshow act,” Humpty explained while the others had their hands over their mouths. “I believe it’s called the human blockhead stunt. The audience is led to believe the nail is being driven through bone and into the brain, but it’s actually just occupying the relatively empty nasal cavity.”

Why in Lemuel’s name is he doing it here?” Gumbonero growled. “It’s making me sick.” None of them had to speculate, because as soon as the hammering stopped the doctor stepped aside and they witnessed the outcome of the procedure.

Bragi’s hands hit the grass at the edge of the battle board. He rolled his head around his neck, tilted it, and began slapping one ear. Out of the nostril that wasn’t occupied came several figures, vaguely human, equal in size to a micrometeorite Atlas. Gravity applied to them in full, so some of them swung off the head of the nail in order to aim their landing.

What they were was not a mystery to Minimil; only one sort of tiny being came out of a human’s head: homunculi. Homunculi, in the form of shoulder angels and shoulder devils, had been the ones to found the country after all. They were the most common sort, as their function required them to leave the head and appeal to their host on various moral quandaries.

But a homunculus was just a personification of one or more faculties of the larger mind. Anything in their personality, imagination, or memory could become a homunculus if a head injury forced it out the ear, or as they were now forced to accept, the proboscis. What exactly the ten that tumbled out of Tarkower’s snout embodied wasn’t immediately clear, but the majority of them bore an exact copy of the man’s attire and face.

He just produced homunculi at will,” Snaps marveled, “where previously it’s only been done as a result of accidental trauma. How? How is such a thing possible?”

Sneezing!” Formaldeheidi said suddenly, as if she was about to perform one herself. Her newt tail flicked behind her excitedly. “Sneezing is a lot like hitting your head. There’s whiplash. He probably practiced sneezing, until he learned just the right way to do it, to get something other than snot.”

Something like that might store the resulting homunculi in the nasal cavity,” Humpty guessed.

Which is then turned into a doorway by the blockhead procedure,” Felicity concluded. “Disgustingly brilliant.”

They will not be as strong of fighters as the Atlases, so why bother?” Hans asked.

They’re meant to command,” Hestia explained. “Bragi will give the orders from beyond the board, but he can do so silently, communicating with deployed homunculi with a mental link. We will have no way of intercepting their communications on or off the battlefield.”

But he has sacrificed those parts of himself!” Snaps scolded the man from afar. “And he is all the less alive for it.”

As long as he doesn’t give up any logical faculties, he’s only making himself a more efficient difference engine,” Nero countered. “It’s a move that both enhances his army’s strength and blows away any emotional fog that might cloud his judgment.”

So how do we beat any of this!?” R.B. shouted, ripping off her cap and throwing it onto the packed sand. Panhandle barely dodged it, contorting himself into a rude gesture involving the most challenging digit of any handful.

We can come out ahead in the negotiations phase,” Mygdenia offered.

To that end, I would have all of you follow me,” Hestia ordered, turning and walking into the tower. There was no protest, as they were all weary of seeing what they were up against. It felt like their first battle was already lost. Humpty Dumpty remained behind, confident he was not needed.

They returned to the map room high in the tower with the carved conch ceiling, only now the table was cleared of documents and filled with trays, platters, and bottles. An assortment of very exotic food and drink was piled high, and every item was labeled, either on its container or written on its surface in icing, with one of two phrases: ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’.

Two men stood proudly behind the offerings, each in a chef’s coat of vibrant and unusual color. The taller fellow with dark skin wore orange, and the shorter, rounder, mustachioed man, with a hat that nearly reached his colleague’s scalp, wore green.

Welcome! I hope you’re hungry,” the shorter one proclaimed, scurrying around the table and shaking all their hands in no particular order. His palms were coated in powdered sugar that changed color on contact with someone else’s sweat, and never the same shade twice.

He means thirsty,” the taller chef said, popping the cork out of an olive bottle with a long threaded neck like a screw. Snaps’s worst suspicions were confirmed when the cork sprouted wings, hurled itself deep into the sand, and burrowed out of sight.

You two have concocted this smorgasbord with ingredients from Wonderland, haven’t you?” he asked, drawing worried stares from the applause. “Which you… must have had imported.”

Oh, these were in Alice’s story,” R.B. said, approaching with little fear, gripping the edge of the table, and taking a big whiff of the various scents, some of which could be seen as vapor. There were cakes that didn’t look capable of holding the irregular shapes they held, crackers that popped and bounced like kettle corn, and fruit tarts that were upside down no matter which way you held them. The drinks were no better, occasionally pouring out of their sealed bottoms rather than their necks.

I know I’ll regret this, but what exactly did you take from Wonderland to make these?” Snaps asked. The shorter chef took the largest breath of his life to fuel the longest sentence of his life, but Hestia interrupted before he could begin.

It’s of no importance. All that matters is that these offerings are fully capable of doing what they did to Alice when she consumed them. The food will make you grow, and the drink will shrink you back down.

I ordered these made to put us on equal footing in negotiations. We will send a delegation of three, at human size, out to bargain with the Swedes, setting the conditions for if they should win. They in turn will send three that will shrink down to our size, who will bargain against our interests should we be victorious. The only matter now is who will go to speak with them.

I will take volunteers, but know that these substances only work on those who have a biology. Herschel, Felicity, Panhandle, I’m afraid none of you qualify.” There were no objections from the gingerbread man. He had a hard enough time avoiding being eaten as it was. Standing nearly two meters tall would just make him a magnet for every bird, mouse, and rural urchin in the area. After a quick discussion a trio of emissaries was decided. A cake would be saved by sending out Formaldeheidi in her native human body. No sooner had the newt gone limp than her husband, the vampire bat Orlof Schreck, appeared in a sandy window and carried the deceased amphibian off to a safer place.

Accompanying her would be Root Beer the fifth, no stranger to negotiations with giants, and the lord of seven sand castles himself. Nero’s efforts to appear nonchalant were embarrassingly transparent, as his fingers practically danced when they snatched a growing biscuit out of the air after it hopped toward him. He brought it close to his mouth.

Ah! The effect is rather swift,” the chef warned him.

Both of you head outside before you accidentally destroy the castle,” Hestia ordered them. “Formaldeheidi has already been briefed on the goals for negotiation, so she can fill you in. Only make yourselves available to the enemy at the exact time they hand over three of their own.” R.B. took a biscuit for herself before the pair left. Once they’d gone the goddess asked for volunteers again, for the other side of negotiations.

Snaps kept certain thoughts to himself, mostly questions concerning Hestia’s unwillingness to engage with their foe directly. She could change her own size at will, yet didn’t wish to represent herself in either side of the discussion? It had to be chalked up to her divine nature. As a god there must have been an anxiety deep within her. Direct action was what the titans had preferred, and look where that landed them.

No, it was safer to do everything by proxy, through the official channels of nature and worship. Running Minimil too much like a dictator would shrink her in the eyes of the world, strip her of ethereal and vital abilities. This made her strategy understandable, but no less inhumane. The disconnect between her and her subjects meant she was willing to march them all into Wonderland.

Better for the gingerbread man, who was fully apprised of the stakes, to reinsert the compassion by volunteering for the negotiations. He would be joined by his fellow Right Handful veteran Mygdenia and Felicity. Momotaro and Hans would serve as security.

Schreck returned to gather up a few Wonderland bottles in his claws and fly them to the Swedes. Things were moving swiftly. They needed to pick a location for the negotiations, and it didn’t seem wise to show their rivals any part of the hayloft, as it was the brain of the barn. Better they not know the layout of their government, or see Hestia’s burning seat. It was Mygdenia who suggested the Bootyard, with the others quickly agreeing it was ideal.

Mygdenia and Felicity were flown there on the backs of hummingbirds while Snaps took Nero’s flying tassel. He asked it to go slower as they exited the loft, allowing him to examine the Bootyard from above for any issues or weaknesses in their plan.

What he saw was a fenced-in rectangle up against the barn wall, just below the hayloft. One side was Heidi’s stall where her human body slept, another was a cat door leading to the outside world. It wasn’t meant for any animal, but for Heidi. She needed a storage place for her shoes, so when her big work was done she took them off and passed them through the cat door so they could sit safely in the Bootyard.

It was a little-frequented place, with the only conflict in its brief history involving a shriveled old Lilliputian woman who insisted one of the shoes was large enough to live in, and that she should be allowed to do so with her many children, but she had been shooed away, and the footwear remained empty of anything but feet.

There they sat peacefully, with the fencing being high enough to hide them completely. The space in the yard was quiet, open, and offered a terrible view of the rest of the country, so it suited the negotiations well. Heidi was not a fanciful woman, and owned just two pairs: boots on one side of the yard and something a little daintier and more comfortable on the other.

The tassel set Snaps down between them, onto soft dirt that would be occupied by a desk and chairs brought in minutes later. A few blades of grass poked out from under the cat door, cut short and fragrant to stop any incursion. Everyone’s relative silence made Snaps nervous, so he piped up, slapping the tip of a giant boot.

I suppose it’s time to put our best foot forward.”

Once they were clear of the barn Gumbonero wasted no time, taking a massive bite out of his biscuit. The instructions were actually a touch more complex than ‘eat me’, as the biscuit had smaller print around its frame advising him to take but one bite at a time, lest he grow to the size of a human barge.

Such a transformation would’ve been a perfect solution to their problems in the lord’s eyes. He would be more than happy to step on the Swedes coming to knock down his castles, but alas, the whole world had adopted Little Wars, and its stability hinged on everyone following the rules. Stomping them would have been victory but for a day, and all the world’s reserves of human-sized weaponry would come down on them if the infraction was discovered.

It almost certainly would be, as the meadow outside the barn had already received a few new arrivals who were not with the Swedes. They had cameras, so Nero guessed they were journalists who had picked up on the clues to the conflict. More humans milling and towering about made him all the more eager to puff out a chest equal to theirs.

Bigger than theirs in fact, thanks to the absurdly large bite that filled his cheeks. The chef was a master of his craft in every respect; the taste was exquisite and as indefinable as a spiritual revelation. Lemon, strawberry, and curd danced on his tongue, then they all married each other, then they fought a bloody civil war, then they reconciled at the memorial, and then they all worked together on rewriting the history books.

The flavors would’ve kept going through centuries in seconds if Nero hadn’t swallowed. The bigness of their activity transferred to his stomach, rumbled there, and then blasted out to the rest of his body. He felt like an ocean poured into a goldfish bowl. Nearby blades of grass became as tall to him as doors, then gates, and then doorstops.

Standing over two meters high, the lord of seven sand castles was now the biggest creature in an impressive radius. What he assumed would be a slight chuckle turned out to be a booming laugh, one that drew the attention of all those walking and talking human full-time. He had his picture taken, and despite the newness of his surroundings he still managed a pose and a sneer.

A door opened in the side of Minimil, and out stepped Formaldeheidi. She was little more than a black dress and a bush of snarling ringlets on top. With positively devilish flexibility she bent this way and that, cracking her spine in all the places it could be cracked. A moment later Root Beer the fifth shot up out of the grass to join them. She had taken a much more reasonable bite, standing only as tall as Heidi.

This is what all the fuss is about?” the elf dismissed, touching the pointy tip of one of her ears to test if its springiness remained the same. “I feel… hollower. And… like everything is stiller? Quieter? All these people look awake, but they feel like they’re napping to me.”

You’re feeling all the vibrations less,” Heidi explained. “Down in Minimil the rustle of a dog can be an earthquake. Here it actually takes an earthquake. It is rather muted in comparison.”

No wonder you joined us in smallness,” Nero said, strutting around to test out his giant legs. He nearly strutted into one of the Swedes, who took his hand and shook it before he could protest, then offered to escort them to the negotiations site.

On the way they passed the shrunken Swedish delegates, but only briefly. They were all traveling on the palms of the woman who had so precisely spiked Tarkower’s nasal cavity; she showed even more care in transporting the three tiny figures. Nero’s passing glance revealed that one of them had Tarkower’s face, and he couldn’t tell if it was the man himself or one of his homunculi.

Their foes had made another clearing before emerging, just past the treeline. Wooden folding chairs and a table were set up, the table bearing several angular shadows, suggesting various game boards had been left out on it in bright sun over several years. Sitting on one side, answering Nero’s question, was Bragi Tarkower, flanked by two officials with impressive facial hair and at least a decade on the man in the middle.

The three minimils took their seats opposite them, with the entire table creaking as the massive lord smugly settled in. R.B. and Heidi were at his sides, each staring with their own flavor of feminine fury. Their expressions were so intense, so immediately dismissive of the whole affair, that one of the older Swedes cleared his throat thrice before moving along to actual sentences.

Shall we do introductions?”

Most of them won’t be necessary,” Nero declared. “I am Gumbonero Ludmenti, the lord of seven sand castles, empowered by the goddess Hestia herself. You,” he pointed at Tarkower, “are Bragi. You are the challenger here today, not these peons. I’m here on behalf of the entire country of Minimil, and I will speak only to you.” The other Swedes looked quite offended, whereas the elf and the witch just looked at each other across the Blefuscan’s barrel chest and shrugged.

Alright, I understand,” Bragi said with a thick Swedish accent. “Are you ready for our offer?” Nero folded his arms, leaned back, and after several seconds of feigned contemplation, nodded. “We will play a single round of Little Wars, with one hundred units per side. We will disclose the nature of all active units, but not their specific abilities.

Those will be told to the referee. We have brought one from an impartial country. She will decide to ascribe movement per turn and attack per turn capabilities based on that information. Injured pieces may be removed from the battlefield, but they will be counted as lost. When fifteen pieces are lost by either side, the game is over and that side has lost. Any quarrels?”

No, we read the cockamamie manual the nations have printed up,” Nero insulted. “We were there when the first game was played, remember? Let’s move on to our pieces. We have ninety-five myrmidons, an elf, a hedgehog-man, a peach-man, a shadow puppet, and a two-headed doll.” The older Swedes looked at each other wide-eyed, confirming they were ill-equipped for such discussions in the first place.

I see,” Tarkower said, nonplussed. “We have ninety- how should I say in English- pocket Atlases. Our remaining ten are homunculus.”

Your remaining ten,” R.B. pointed out. “Your homunculi. We saw your blockhead stunt. You’re putting pieces of your own soul on this battleground. This should be just a game to you, so why?” Bragi leaned forward. The elf saw in his eyes determination, but also something else within that determination, could it be the tense fluttering breath of exhilaration?

Games have never been serious business, until just now, until the impertinent insect opened hidden doors. Their nature has shifted. They have come to soul. Only a coward would keep his distance now.”

Is that why you quit chess before becoming world champion?” the elf asked.

Yes. That game is nothing to me anymore. Little Wars is the only one that will ever truly matter. I am the commander. I am the foot soldier. I am the game itself. My heart will only continue to beat as long as I can issue challenges, carry them out to my most dedicated and vulnerable, endure the consequences, and reap the rewards. I will be the first man in the world to earn the passion of gaming.”

That price isn’t just blood,” Heidi pointed out, which she was fully able to do, having sold a portion of her soul to the devil in exchange for her abilities in witchcraft. “If one of your homunculi falls you can’t just shove their corpse back up your nose like a wad of tissue. You’ll lose what they embody forever. If your sweet tooth homunculus gets shot in the head you’ll never crave dessert again, and if you eat any it will taste like sawdust.”

That’s a fate worse than death,” R.B. said, as three quarters of her diet consisted of sugar in various states of matter. Bragi grinned.

Thank you for telling me that your myrmidons will be using guns.” Heidi’s face flushed red. She bowed her head, letting her mass of curls hang down and hide her face so her expressions couldn’t give anything else away.

Right, I suppose your common sense homunculus perished in practice, seeing as you’ve come to challenge us,” Lord Ludmenti boomed to regain control of the discussions. “Should fate fall over drunkenly and spill victory on you, what would you take from us as your spoils of war?”

Every piece in your collection. Sweden will annex Minimil. I will become a specially appointed minister within our government, overseeing you. You all will be my playthings… and my brothers in arms.” He sounded almost respectful, like they should welcome him.

Hestia is excluded from all looting. She is a goddess, and mortals such as you are in fact her pawns.”

We accept this condition,” Bragi dismissed. What fun would it be to use such an overpowered piece anyway?

There’s more!” Nero barked. “You can’t just claim a whole country so easily, like a cookie jar. We as a people must not be found liable for anything you feel denied. In your attempt to claim us we shall bear no responsibility for individuals that flee or fight back. You have only our word that the government of Hestia itself will accept the results of the game.”

Agreed.”

If you win and enter you are entitled only to what you find inside. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Agreed.” Nero suppressed a smile. There, it was done. If the worst happened and the Swedes stormed the barn they would not get most of the populace, as they would be evacuating down the tunnel into Wonderland. There would be no legal recourse for enslavement, though that hardly stopped humans when they could easily snatch something and hide it in their pocket.

Now,” the Blefuscan said to transition, “tell me what foods are best enjoyed as a giant.”

The cat door was lifted by a dainty woman’s hand, just enough for the three representatives from Sweden to stroll in. She was careful to let it down gently so it didn’t smack them and send them flying. Forward Commander Snaps loved to stand on ceremony, so he approached first with his nutmeg-scented hand outstretched.

Only one of the visitors met his hand with theirs, and they did so with enthusiasm that almost made up for the coldness of the other two. The excitable woman nearly broke his arm off. Mygdenia and Felicity were all too ready to match the already icy atmosphere. As everyone moved to the table, with both Hans and Momotaro seated on shoes and observing, Snaps examined the visitors closely.

Aside from the woman there was a man, rather young and svelte, with hair as blazing yellow as a buttercup. He had a sharp chin, a smug mouth, and eyes that undressed everything they saw from people to bananas to classic works of art. He fidgeted uncomfortably, like he’d been stuffed into his formal attire by his mother in front of several of his friends, but that easily could have been a side effect of the shrinky-drink.

The gingerbread man assumed the one remaining member had to be one of Tarkower’s homunculi, but in scanning the man up and down he could find none of the telltale markings. While they almost always bore an identical copy of their wellspring’s visage, no homunculus was perfectly identical. There was always something fantastical about their body that gave them away, aside from their diminutive size.

A writer’s block homunculus might have a cubed forehead. A drunken hallucination homunculus might have the ears and trunk of a pink elephant. Yet this Bragi had nothing of the kind. Could he be the real thing? Snaps couldn’t avoid asking as much.

It appears as if you’ve come yourself, Mr. Tarkower. Do you not think that risky? We could claim there was an accident with a runaway rabid rat, and that you would not be returning to lead the Swedish forces.”

Yes I am he,” Bragi confirmed, “and I do not think so little of this city, if you’ll pardon my wordplay. I have done much research, and those efforts of course included Forward Commander Herschel Pflaumen Snaps of the Battle of the Nutcracker.” Snaps pursed his lips, mussing his lilac frosted beard; he didn’t like hearing his rank and all three of his names out of a human mouth. They were small names; it should’ve been difficult for them to hunt down even one, like a four leaf clover. “I’m looking forward to what will be the most famous game of Little Wars for some time I think.”

You look forward to it?” Felicity snapped, beating Snaps to anger. “You look forward to killing us? To us killing you? No, of course not. I forgot that you’ll be sending homunculi instead. You won’t be doing even a paltry pinch of dying like we will.”

Au contraire my lady. Each of my generals is a part of me, and they can die. And they will. I would not ask you to risk anything I am not willing to risk myself. An unfair game is no game at all. That’s called war.”

Setting aside the misconception that our reduced stature makes our lives worth only a portion of yours,” Mygdenia interjected, “I assume the decision isn’t entirely about egalitarian efforts. I wonder which parts of yourself you are risking exactly. Frivolous things. Unnecessary things. Your bedwetting homunculus and your tongue-tied homunculus. Should they fall you only become more focused, a better game-playing engine, although less of a person by all measures.”

Whether or not you understand my true motives, you have elucidated the methods perfectly,” he complimented the golden woman. Someone swore at him under their breath, but Snaps wasn’t sure who until he remembered that Felicity had a second head hidden away. The curse was less under her breath and more under her skirt.

None of that is what we’re here to discuss,” Snaps reminded them all. Looking to Tarkower’s companions, he waited for one of them to speak up, to overrule the grandmaster’s musings with something more formal, but neither of them did so. They just sat, anticipation on their faces, but for what exactly wasn’t clear.

This is, as they say, your party,” Bragi noted. “What is it that you would have out of our match?” Mygdenia had her thoughts the most organized, so she spoke for the three of them, and in a sense for every soul ever blown in or out by the draft of the barn.

Sweden will recognize Minimil’s sovereignty, now and forever. The only reason you can bring such a challenge as this under the Little Wars rules is that we have never been viewed as a legitimate nation in the eyes of the world. You will be the start.

You will also establish an embassy in your own country, a place in the name of Hestia, a cozy building where she can come and go as she pleases. Any business she takes up in any Swedish homestead, with any Swedish citizen, will be viewed as both private and legitimate. There will be no governmental interference of any kind.”

This is level with our conditions,” Bragi said, nodding. “We are in agreement.” Papers were brought out and signed to the stated effects. A courier myrmidon claimed them while the ink was still wet and scurried off. The delegates stood and stepped away from the table as Hans and Momotaro slipped off the toes of their shoes, ready to approach and escort the Swedish representatives back through the Bootyard’s cat door.

That could’ve gone much worse,” Snaps muttered, adjusting buttons on his coat.

Oh it’s about to,” Bragi said, drawing all their stares. The man smiled, and all at once the minimils knew that they were already playing, that a trap was being sprung. “You see we’re not responsible for the actions of rogue agents.” He looked at the people to his left and right. “I have no idea who these two are.”

Partially introducing himself, the man with the young face and the blazing hair ripped off his shirt, buttons flying in all directions. He seemed to be wearing something else underneath, something iridescent and indigo, but it wasn’t clothing. The vest-like thing unfurled around both his sides, revealing a sharp pair of butterfly wings, like the blades of decorative scissors. He kicked off his shoes and flapped, suddenly hovering out of their reach.

Haha! It’s me you silly mortals!” he cried out in rapturous glee, in mischievous euphoria. “Puck! Watch this!” He clapped his hands together with the sound of a fairy bell chorus, and when he slowly pulled them apart there was something stretching between them: a spike of multicolored shimmering magic.

With a sound that was both grunt and laughter, the fairy hurled it as a javelin, and it traveled what was to them a great distance, to the air at the exact center of the barn, where it stuck. Puck flew off toward it, and he was joined by the woman, who had also disrobed and taken to a pair of fiery red wings.

In mere moments they would understand what he was trying to do, but they already knew he was extremely dangerous, for there was no fairy living in the mortal world more infamous than Puck the trickster. Many human deaths were attributed to his practical jokes, and he had a habit of tracking down their ghosts to ask if they understood the punchline.

Puck was one of the scheming fairies, like sugarplum, like turquoise hair, like tooth and godmother. To them any worlds outside the fairy realm were just playthings, and though some, such as the fairy with the turquoise hair, attempted to hide this flaw in perception, to be helpful angelic presences, none of them succeeded perfectly.

Puck was the one who embraced the mentality most egregiously, and he had many followers, no doubt including the fairy woman that joined on the opposite side of the magical spike stuck in the air. Together they grabbed its edges and pulled, causing it both to expand vertically and widen, from a spike to a seam, and from a seam to a tear.

Soon it was so large that they could all see exactly what Puck and his accomplice were tearing into: the fairy realm. Through the rift an enchanted forest could be seen, pale trees growing endlessly upward faster than an elevator, gold and silver sparkles dancing in the air, and even a cloud of raindrops milling about without falling like a swarm of gnats.

By default most fairy folk had stature matching Minimil, but the ever-increasing size of the rift meant it could only be intended for use by the two greatest fairies of all, who regularly strolled through that wood at human size: King Oberon and Queen Titania. This could not be allowed to happen, as the royalty of the fairy realm had a tendency to bring the fairy realm with them. The Midsummer Night’s Dream wasn’t quite as awful as the horrors within Wonderland, but all the same it was not a blessing.

No one took more offense to Puck’s hijinks than Hestia, who was able to sense the rift the moment it opened into the fairy realm. Olympian power did not extend there, and she could easily lose her foothold in the city if the king and queen, even oblivious to Puck’s intent, came for a visit.

She appeared in Minimil’s enclosed sky, even taller than the overinflated Gumbonero, hair, eyes, and skin burning with divine rage. Her feet might have destroyed several residences, except that she was careful to have them become incorporeal and invisible just below the ankle, though any time it appeared her foot should go through a building the structure was heard groaning miserably.

All at once she was swatting at Puck and the other, trying to force the rift shut whenever they were diving to dodge her strikes. The scheming fairy wasn’t close to giving up, plucking at the rift every chance he got, cackling even as Hestia roared like a lioness who had guzzled the entire contents of an active volcano.

Not all trouble had left the Bootyard to participate in the epic clash of magical forces; there was still Bragi. While they were distracted he snuck up to Snaps and grabbed one of his hands, pulling it forward.

I’ll take that handshake now,” the Swede said with evil intent alight in his pupils. With one squeeze he crushed Snaps’s hand to dust, but he didn’t stop there, reaching just a little further up and ripping off the baked good’s entire right arm. The grandmaster stepped back, fingers flitting so the sugar and crumbs fell away as powder.

Snaps was not a creature who could feel pain, so he was mostly stunned by what he saw on the man’s hand as it pulled away. There was a second thumb on the opposite side, so perfectly shaped that it couldn’t have been a deformity of birth.

You’re not the real one after all!” Snaps declared, holding his wounded shoulder to make sure any cracks didn’t spread through his crumb. “You’re a homunculus.”

Representing his ambidextrous capabilities,” the creature admitted, holding up both hands to reveal his second set of thumbs, “which also means I have all the strength… of two human hands!” He laughed in awe of his own power, even with the Challenging Applause already on the attack. Felicity was the closest, but the ambidextrous homunculus saw her coming and attempted to strike her with one of his deadly palms. It was only avoided by the narrowest margin as she flipped backward, putting her half in poorer clothes on top, and allowing her to move right in again.

Mygdenia joined her, and did so fearlessly. Not even a full-sized man could bend gold with his bare hands. But the battle was not his goal; he turned away and leapt. The incredible strength of Bragi’s hands was everywhere in the little creature’s body, so the flying leap sent him far over the Bootyard’s fence. He broke straight through the wall of Formaldeheidi’s privacy stall and disappeared.

The sight of the resulting black hole opened a trapdoor under Snaps’s heart. Heidi was off negotiating, so her human form wasn’t present. He couldn’t be attempting an attack on her, and there was only one other thing of note in the stall: their ‘escape’ route.

We’ve got to get in there!” he shouted to the others, with only Mygdenia having an inkling as to what had him so frightened. “Tassel! Tassel where are you!” The item came to his call obediently, flying out from the interior of one of the boots. “My rifle!” Momotaro had been watching the man’s weapon for him while diplomacy was underway; he tossed it over just as Snaps grabbed the silken threads of the tassel and was lifted into the air. With but one arm he was forced to catch it between his legs.

His gun was of fine fairy make, with no iron of course, and he’d recently replaced the metal bayonet with a showier one carved from striped peppermint. It would have to do the job until the others could join him in the stall. Nothing about having the strength of two hands suggested the homunculus would be able to withstand a bullet.

The flight up to the wound in the stall was a short one, but still enough time for Snaps’s fear to force his mind to several conclusions. The Swedes’ confidence in their challenge of Minimil, the first of all countries to do so, came not just from the strength of their army and its strategist, but from the depth of their information-gathering.

They had known about the entrance to Wonderland. Not every angel and devil from the Shoulders of Government had remained in Minimil. One of them could be the culprit, having fed the information to the Swedes in exchange for anything the giants might provide.

In addition, they had somehow found and convinced Puck to aid them. He would’ve agreed to it merely to cause chaos, but with Hestia now preoccupied it seemed obvious he was there simply as a distraction. The Wonderland opening was their real goal, and Bragi had set his powerful homunculus to the task.

The tassel passed through the hole, darkness swallowing Snaps. He couldn’t see anything until his transportation took him low enough to see under Heidi’s seat, but then he wished he hadn’t. The deceptive creature was already bent over, tugging at the edge of the metal grate. Snaps could imagine two purposes, and at the moment it didn’t matter which one he was attempting.

In one scenario he ripped Wonderland open, freeing its denizens to wreak havoc on all of Minimil, thus damaging their chances of staying composed and on task in Little Wars. In the other scenario he collapsed the route’s opening, giving them no means of escape at all should they lose.

Snaps dropped off the tassel too early, breaking pieces off his feet inside his boots. Even as he toppled onto his back he looked up at the tassel and ordered it to fetch the others. Turning his attention back to his enemy he nimbly worked his one remaining arm, having it place the barrel of his rifle on one raised knee to help him target.

With the steady aim of an arm baked crisp and firm he fired off his first shot, hitting the homunculus in the left shoulder. A trickle of sky-blue blood came out, but it wasn’t enough to dissuade the saboteur. He rolled to the back of the grate and started pulling again, hoping to raise it fast enough to use as a shield.

It was almost happy to oblige the invader; Snaps heard the earth creak as it gave way around the grate. Roots that hadn’t been attached to a leaf or blade in years snapped and a cloud of dust rose with the slab of metal. Hope wasn’t lost yet, not as long as Snaps could spy a piece of homunculus flesh through the holes in the grate.

Squeezing the trigger again, his next bullet sailed through the intended hole and hit the homunculus squarely in the chest with a splash of bright blue. Without waiting for him to fall over, Snaps fired several more times. His knees had been baked soft in order to absorb the impacts of his own footfalls, but they couldn’t withstand the repeated power of the gun’s recoil. More pieces of him fell away as he snarled and fired, losing track of his quarry in the dust.

Bragi’s ability to use his left and right hands interchangeably was doomed, and that piece of him knew it. He didn’t really mind, as he’d felt mostly useless within the man, as he always defaulted to his right hand anyway to avoid scrutiny. This was that piece’s chance to actually contribute to their shared life, to secure a future for him: a map of many countries loaded with shadows that were not valleys, but the strangulation bruises of Tarkower hands.

As he bled he freed the first grate, reached down and freed the second, and didn’t even need to touch the third, for he’d already created ample opportunity for the thing waiting underneath, roused to rage and indignation by the ruckus overhead.

With the sound of a manhole cover flicked like a coin, all the grates were launched out of the dust, colliding with the homunculus’s jaw, knocking him out, as well as the seat of Heidi’s chair. They fell back down, into the luckiest configuration possible for Minimil, one that once again blocked the Wonderland opening, but not before she had hopped out.

Off with their heads! Off off off!” The shriek was like a swarm of bats, all shouting, all chasing each other’s tails through the air thinking they were onto an insect. It was like a pod of sirens all singing the same song, but each one singing it as an argument with all the others. Snaps didn’t want the dust to clear, but it did, and he was forced to witness a creature altogether worse than the one he was just shooting at.

She was not much bigger than he, but she loomed with an overwhelming glowing redness, like a hazy sunset through a pane of frozen blood. Her dress may have been some kind of exoskeleton, the constantly reshaped wings of a fairy perhaps, for even with great volume and fluff the skirt and its under-layers were papery and painted with aposematic hearts.

Her frame was thick, both muscular and fat, but with an otherworldly smoothness to the features below her collar, with the exception of her elbows. Snaps had never had to describe elbows as obese before, but hers were. The puckered skin there spoke of endless hysterical swinging of the arms, of fatigued and dead blood gathering there, like it hid from the rest of her.

Of course she wanted their heads to come off, because hers had. There was no neck connecting it to her body, though it still occupied roughly the correct position. Calling it a head in the first place was something of an approximation. There was no focal point, with single eyes situated at various vertices. In overall shape it was like a many-sided die, with the faces mostly occupied by gaping mouths full of brilliant white teeth.

It spun at a high speed, only allowing a detailed glimpse when it suddenly stopped and changed direction, which it did frequently and on all axes. Sometimes tongues came out of her mouths, and sometimes the prongs of a golden crown. Her crown, perhaps swallowed at one point, must have fused with her through the mutating madness of Wonderland air. Snaps knew her by reputation, and thought the girl Alice had done a disservice to the absolute terror her sight instilled: the Queen of Hearts.

Her highness wanted to begin her rampage by taking off the first head she saw, which was that of the collapsed homunculus. With drilling intent the queen lowered her head-orb, invisible blades chattering. Snaps imagined ropes of sky-blue innards were about to splash near his feet, so he scrambled backward despite it worsening the condition of his legs.

Just then the Challenging Applause rejoined him, Nero’s burdened tassel setting down in front of the gingerbread man so that Momotaro, Hans, and Felicity could disembark. All three were aghast at the sight of the monster, so Snaps shouted an explanation to help them adjust. Yes, they were looking at a grave threat. It was from Wonderland. It needed stopped immediately.

Admirably, all three charged headlong toward her, with Felicity taking up Snaps’s rifle and bayonet, as he could no longer use it, or do much of anything, in his crumbling condition. He was not left alone though, as he had crawled backward into the one shaft of light created by the homunculus and saw Panhandle sticking out from the edges.

You’re here, excellent! Listen closely. I need you to go and inform those Wonderland chefs what has happened. Tell them to act if they know how! Fly!” Panhandle contorted himself into a gesture like a salute and then dove back into the darkness. There was no one better than Hestia to handle this single small invader, but she could still be heard doing battle with Puck, even through the stall’s wall. They were on their own, and with half the applause gone to bigger and hopefully better things, all of this was just the sound of one hand clapping.

The queen’s invisible shearing force clashed with the blade of Hans’s ax, throwing rainbow sparks. Her strength was going to quickly overwhelm his, but Momotaro leapt into the air over her, swinging a large wooden hammer. It came down with bludgeoning force, enough to crack a sealed pistachio wide open, but the bubble-aura all about the monstrous woman’s head shredded it into sawdust like it was nothing.

With one slap she sent the peach-man flying into a chair leg, nearly knocking him out. Hans fired back by turning around and throwing his cloak of quills at her body. It was a direct hit, the first real blow in their favor, causing her carapace dress to crackle and flake. An anguished shriek was her response: the sound of something deeply victimized in its own mind. The queen then fled, at a top speed none of them could match, like a rat on racing wheels with a propeller tail.

There was nowhere for her to go, boxed in by the stall, but she refused to acknowledge the walls, heading straight for the thickest one, which was shared with the entire entrance to Minimil. In Wonderland a wall was likely just a suggestion, or something that would melt out of the way if it lost an argument, so she must have expected something like that when she impacted.

Instead her body bounced off, the force traveling through the entire wall as if a human had struck it with a sledge hammer. Her die-head did not get the message, continuing up the wall a ways, eating splinters out of it until it lost all momentum and fell back to her.

The focus of the applause was surely going to recover for an encore, but her slam into the country’s foundations had a dire consequence far above them, atop the Castle of the Grip. Poor distracted Humpty Dumpty was listening to the Little Wars preparations below him, considering his own role in the genesis of the situation.

He kept looking for something in the conversations of the press, but he wasn’t sure what, so he just swiveled closer to the edge, leaned further over it. All he’d wanted was the ability to look down on something he took care of from a high perch, like a bird with its nestlings, like his ancestors had. He wanted to soar without the fear of cracking, the fear he’d lived with his entire life. Now they all might crack under international pressure, and he was right in the middle of it, not above anything at all… except the unpleasantly-shaped rocks below, some big enough to use as doorstops for the barn.

If he hadn’t been so cavalier about the edge he would’ve been in the safest place in Minimil for a minor tremor, as Lord Ludmenti would’ve strenuously attested. The loose structure of the sand castle would’ve absorbed the shock wave just like the spongy gingerbread in Snaps’s knees, but the eggty was up on the outer wall, which joined directly with the wooden frame of the window. He was too close for it to do much in the moment that the Queen of Hearts slammed into the wall far below him.

He knew his own abilities perfectly, and never would’ve fallen if the world was just him and the ground, but there were others, others he’d never even gotten to see. At first he didn’t know what was happening; he’d never fallen more than a few centimeters in all his life. There was a rushing sensation all about him, like he was in the middle of a crowd of people all heading somewhere without bothering to inform him of the destination.

The eggty was not over the curiousness of it before smashing into the rocks at the foot of the barn. His embryonic eyes never developed an opening, so there was no first and final glimpse of sunlight, just its new warmth on what was left of his delicate skin. Albumen slid down the end of his beak and onto stone. Sharp flecks of shell made clear what he didn’t have time to realize. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

It took several minutes for one of the Blefuscan castle guards to notice that their guest was not on his usual perch, as, deep within the recesses of the castle, they hadn’t felt a thing. With one look down, and one traumatized gasp, a team was dispatched to collect what was left.

Other casualties would be imminent if something wasn’t done to stop the rampaging queen. Once recovered from her collision she absorbed just enough information from the experience to try it a little differently next time. But first, there were plenty of heads around her in need of renovation from the ground up.

Felicity used this to their advantage, recalling the details of the girl Alice’s story. She whistled as loud as she could to draw the mad queen’s attention. It was difficult to tell if she had it by the spinning flicks of the creature’s topper, but when the doll thought its gaze was on her she made a point of cartwheeling and showing off her second head, its knitted tongue stuck out disrespectfully.

Two heads!?” the abomination wailed. “Two like shoes!? Then just like in the house! Off with them! Off off off!” She charged at Felicity, literally kicking up dust behind her. Snaps threw his remaining arm over his face so as not to distract her as she sped by. With the flexibility that only a cloth and stuffing physique could provide, Felicity tumbled out of the way just as the queen hit the wall, this time smashing straight through the thinner wood and into the Bootyard.

Mygdenia was standing right in her path, almost as if she’d predicted exactly where the fight would break out into the wider barn. The golden titan of Minimil fearlessly wrapped her fingers around the lips and teeth of one of the queen’s many disturbing mouths. She held the beast fast, and now that the head was stilled it was the rest of the body that started jerking and flailing, slapping against the dirt all around Mygdenia like a flopping fish.

Hans and Felicity followed through the fresh hole to aid the mighty Midas maiden, leaving one clap left to attend to Snaps, as Momotaro had recovered his wits. He picked up the gingerbread man in his fragrant velvety arms, and was preparing to take him through the hole and a safe distance from the battle.

No! We must go back,” Snaps protested, “back to the grates!”

What on Earth for?”

It won’t be easy to kill such a thing; we need to put her back where she belongs. For that to happen the way needs to be open.” Momotaro turned around and hurried to the shade of Formaldeheidi’s seat, propping Snaps up against a leg. “Do you think you have the strength to lift all of these, enough for her to get through?” Momotaro looked at the haphazard stack of grates. He tried lifting the top one and found it doable enough.

I think so, now that they’re not grounded. Now?”

No, something else might come through. Only at the opportune moment, which is hopefully any minute. I’ve sent Panhandle to fetch the experts.” It felt wrong for both of them to sit idly by, especially as they watched their comrades fight for their lives, and the lives of everyone else in Minimil, through both holes in the stall.

Through the lower they saw the claps and Mygdenia wrestle with the Queen of Hearts to keep her contained in the Bootyard, all of them unaware she had already claimed her first victim. Even with their combined strength it was proving the sort of difficult that would quickly become impossible. Merely being too close to her bobbing head bauble resulted in a slash wound. Felicity was already leaking cotton from several places, and the tips had been cut from most of Hans’s lower quills.

Things weren’t going much better through the upper fissure. It was a clear view of the fairy realm, with Hestia’s torso moving to block it only sporadically. Puck and his partner zoomed by like agile mosquitoes, and then more ordinary fairies, those who happened to flutter through the opening into what might not be Olympian country for much longer.

Snaps imagined Nero and R.B. were being purposefully stalled with conversation and paperwork technicalities, but even with his low opinion of the lord he didn’t guess that the delay was caused by Nero himself asking far too many questions about how a man as tall as him should lead his life, should he choose to stay that way.

After an interminable wait, one so long that Snaps feared he had put his trust in the wrong people, the flying tassel finally returned with two passengers: both of the Wonderland chefs. Each of them had a hand under something, a dish, carefully balanced between them and secured with multiple knotted threads from the tassel.

Panhandle had done his job, with the greatest problem being how to communicate with the chefs once he had their attention. It had to be spelled out, letter by letter, and some letters were very difficult to make with just the fingers of a single hand. Being mute, none would ever know the anger the shadow puppet felt at the Queen of Hearts for having a name made up of three separate words.

The chefs were set down very gently; they brought their cargo over to Snaps for inspection. He asked what it was, as the silver dish was covered.

A red gooseberry tart,” the ‘eat me’ chef explained, sweat pouring down his forehead. “It is lucky we already had one made from the earlier assortment. We just had to warm it up and restore some fragrance.”

It’s her absolute favorite,” the ‘drink me’ sommelier added, “at least according to Alice. There was a whole trial over them down there, which is quite unheard of, as they usually just carry out the sentence.”

Will it draw her in?” Snaps asked, cutting through their frilly details.

Oh yes,” they agreed. “Wonderland creatures lack all impulse control.”

Good, give it to me, then you two stand back. Momotaro, open it.” The peach-man obeyed, using all his strength to get his arm underneath the lowest grate so all of them could be lifted at once. Only when the fissure into the depths was wide enough for Snaps to hear a few loony bars that could only be sung by flowers did he whip the cover off the tart’s dish.

He didn’t have a second hand with which to fan the scent toward her, so instead he shouted.

Oh your highness! Our finest gooseberry tart right over here! Just for you! With a gingerbread crust!” The fight would’ve had any creature with fewer eyes completely preoccupied, but not the monarch of Wonderland. At his words she immediately squeezed out of Mygdenia’s choke hold, which had been forced to target the queen’s shoulders without a neck present.

Gooseberries! All gooseberries are royal property! Servants to the crown!” She bit down on all crown-tongues that were sticking out with a sound like dinner bells introducing themselves to each other. “You stole them from me! Off with your head!” She rocketed to him, head trailing behind her like a kite caught on the wing of an aeroplane.

Momotaro propped up the grates further, but Snaps didn’t make his move yet. He wanted her closer, for her to have not half a moment to reconsider her appetite. The monstrosity closed the gap in seconds, the wet sparkle of saliva visible on all her fleshier tongues. Loath to betray a fellow dessert, Snaps still had to act in the best interest of his countrymen, so he tossed the tart down into the depths.

The queen’s cranium pulled out ahead, diving after the tart first. Once it disappeared Momotaro acted, but it was premature. In dropping the grates he slammed them down right on the queen’s midsection, and for a few nauseating seconds they had to watch her inert body wave its limbs about languidly, like the tentacles of a sea anemone in a light current.

Fast as he could Momotaro lifted it again to let the pinched thing fall and rejoin its other half. All sign of her was gone, so he dropped them again, and then everyone present piled on top of the grates to weigh them down: Mygdenia, Hans, Momotaro, and the chefs. Felicity was too light to make a difference, but even Snaps lost a few crumbs to Wonderland as he rolled over on top of it.

Is everyone alright?” he asked, voice drained of all vigor. They answered in the affirmative, but it wasn’t true, not outside the barn.

Gumbonero and the others were returning from negotiations. He wasn’t looking forward to sipping from a bottle that he could balance on a single fingertip and returning to an obscurity his soul had never embodied. But even at his gargantuan size his eyes still spotted the flecks of white that never should have been where they were.

He rushed over, causing quakes that nearly bowled over his men as he leaned down and examined their recovery efforts. There was no recognizing the misshapen foetal bird dashed upon the rocks, but a face he was very familiar with, drawn upon a piece of shell, was leaning against the stone under it like an artist abandoning a nearly-completed canvas to the elements they were trying to paint.

Gently he scooped the face onto a fingertip. Humpty Dumpty. The fellow who had kept the Left Challenging Handful together as long as possible, who had softened Hestia’s more callous side and secured their safety and their rewards multiple times. A good egg. A good friend.

(continued in the finale)

One thought on “Challenging Applause (part three)

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