The Sin du Jour procurement team has been tasked with acquiring a substantial cache of rare Welsh gold for a rather important event, but when they stumble upon rivals factions of the smallest warriors they’ve ever encountered, they’ll need to bring out the big guns if they’re to survive.
Now—Cardiff Airport, Wales
“And what do you do in America?” the customs agent asks Ritter, staring at the nondescript man’s passport.
“I’m a steward. I work for a catering company in New York City.”
“Is that like a host, then?”
The customs agent looks up from the official document and stares at him. There’s nothing aggressive or short in Ritter’s tone, but his passivity, something wholly and comfortably removed, is somehow always more disconcerting for people.
“I’m head of stocking and receiving. You could say I keep the cupboards full,” Ritter explains just as passively.
Recognition that’s really little more than a scant point of reference widens the custom agent’s eyes.
“Ah, I see. And are you here on vacation, then?”
“Right. Well, if you’re planning on returning with any of our local fruit and veg or the like you know you’ll have to declare it.”
“I’m not here for either. No worries.”
“All right, then.” Ritter’s passport is returned. “Welcome to Wales, Mister Thane.”
Ritter stashes his passport and picks up his aging rucksack.
Within two hours of arriving in Wales, Cindy O’Brien is convinced the Welsh language has been conceived solely as a practical joke played on tourists.
“They’re making that shit up as they go along,” she insists. “There’s nothing even vaguely consistent about a single motherfucking word I’ve heard said or written on a sign so far. And that includes every word spoken in English.”
There are five of them in the rented Ford Transit cargo van: Ritter and the three other members of Sin du Jour Catering & Events’ stocking and receiving department, and the freelance alchemist who has joined them for this particular assignment.
Ritter is behind the wheel. Moon, diminutive and poorly groomed and perpetually clad in a dirty T-shirt representing some bit of cultural arcana (today it’s a Turkish soccer team) is riding shotgun. This was agreed upon by the others less because he called it and more to convince him to stop calling it every time they crossed a new time zone.
Cindy sits behind him, earbuds firmly in place as she attempts to finish the audiobook of Toni Morrison reading her essays that she was unable to finish on the plane due to a constant stream of disruptions around her.
Ryland Phelan, the rumpled-from-head-to-toe Irishman seated next to her both on the plane and in the van now, caused most of those disruptions.
Utterly filling the final row of seats behind them is Hara, the mountainous fourth member of Ritter’s team and the eternal stoic.
Ryland drunkenly cranes his neck to focus on Cindy in the loosest possible way. “That presupposes the Welsh are in possession of something recognizable to the civilized world as a sense of humor. I can’t imagine a more dangerous assumption.”
“Don’t even get me started with you again, Jesus of Nazawrecked,” she warns him.
“What?” He seems genuinely confused. “What have I done?”
Cindy yanks her earbuds out. “Are you kidding me? Are you so wasted you don’t remember being drawn down on by a damn air marshal midflight?”
Ryland’s red eyes widen. “Was that who that irate gentleman was? Well, that makes much more sense, then.”
After having his beverage service cut off less than two hours after takeoff, Ryland began requesting cups of water and changing them into white wine.
The only reason they weren’t all detained upon arrival was because, when confronted, the air marshal couldn’t find any hidden supply or alcohol or a corresponding empty vessel.
“Did we have to bring him?” Cindy asks Ritter. “He couldn’t have just given you instructions and some of his funky stones?”
“Growing gold from bare rock is a little advanced for me, Cin,” Ritter informs her.
Ryland is genuinely offended. “I would expect more than a cheap rebuke such as that from a fellow countryman . . . person . . . thing. You know.”
“I am none of that.”
“You may not possess my rustic brogue, but O’Brien speaks of Irish ancestry.”
“Black Irish,” Moon adds with his typical lack of taste, sensitivity, or actual knowledge.
Cindy thrusts the flat of her palm into the back of his head hard enough that he has to shake off the blow afterward.
“That’s not even what black Irish means, you little shit.”
“She hit me again,” Moon complains to Ritter.
“You deserved it again.”
“Children,” Cindy curses them under her breath, replacing her earbuds. “All of you. Fucking children.”
2011—Las Vegas, Nevada
The ballroom of The Pirate’s Doubloon Hotel and Casino, miles from the Strip.
Home to countless cold-roast-beef-and-string-bean Shriners convention dinners, arts and crafts expos, and wedding receptions bereft of a single tuxedo.
A vinyl banner that was printed at FedEx Kinko’s proclaims the event to be “Hot Zones 3rd Annual International Combat Knife-Fighting Tournament” in a discontinued Windows font. About two hundred people are in attendance for the popular so-called “mercenary” magazine’s keystone yearly event. The walls are lined with merchandising tables crewed by knife dealers, survivalists handing out pamphlets ranging from useful to paranoid to batshit, and several companies hocking paintball warrior weekends and related “experiences.”
Ritter enters the scene just in time for the finals of the tournament that has lasted for two days and drawn competitors from all over the world (and in true “all over the world” fashion, 90 percent of those competitors are Americans, who’ve been joined by a handful of Scandinavians on holiday, a surly German war fetishist, and a Filipino ex-soldier whose entire village took up a collection to send him to the tournament).
The final two competitors stand shirtless in the ring. Cindy wears a basic black sports bra while her male opponent is allowed to freely flaunt his nonfunctioning nipples. They both have numbers scrawled on their stomachs in thick red marker, and they’re armed with knives fashioned from hard nylon that are typically used in training and demonstrations.
They wear no protective gear.
This isn’t a safety-oriented crowd.
Their ring is composed of four elongated plastic folding tables arranged in a haphazard square, allowing them just enough room to maneuver. Two referees in Hot Zones T-shirts observe the match from different angles.
Cindy’s opponent is a determined-looking Jicarilla Apache who has traveled to the tournament with a small battalion of supporters from the reservation, all of them wearing T-shirts that declare them “Team Perea.”
When one of the refs gives them the command, the two finalists begin slashing at each other, dipping forward and leaping back with frantic speed. There’s some technique to be seen among the spastic feints and strikes, but actual combat is a messy, disjointed affair. Speed and determination often win out over casual martial-arts training.
Cindy is a pit bull, her knife hand obsessively going for her opponent’s throat. Each time the plastic blade connects with flesh the referees separate the two of them and award her a point.
They fight to five points.
Cindy harmlessly slashes Perea’s throat five times without positive contact from his blade even once.
When the final point is awarded no one in the crowd seems particularly happy she’s won.
Unsurprising, considering she’s one of maybe five women in a ballroom of two hundred men.
The top prize is fifteen thousand dollars. Within four hours of accepting her title and check Cindy has gambled half of the money away in the casino. Ritter observes her from a safe distance the whole time. She pounds rum and cokes with alarming rapidity and rarely speaks to anyone around her.
When she anoints herself too buzzed to make rational card-playing decisions, Cindy retreats to a video poker machine far away from the nearest other patron.
That’s where Ritter approaches her, taking a seat in front of the machine one removed from her own.
“You want something?” she asks him after a few awkward minutes.
Ritter nods. “I do. I want to hire you.”
“What I look like to you, dude?”
That statement briefly takes Cindy aback, and then she looks down at the exposed ink on her arms. An Explosive Ordinance Disposal “crab” badge is tattooed on her right forearm while a navy anchor whose shaft is a lit stick of dynamite opposes it on her left.
“All right,” she says, more composed. “So what?”
“So I’m going to talk for sixty seconds, and if you want to hear more I’ll be in the McDonald’s in back of this shit-hole waiting with two cups of coffee. Fair enough?”
Cindy shrugs. “Whatever.”
“You’re what, six months out? You’re drifting. You’re drinking too much. You’re gambling too much. You can’t remember the name of anyone you’ve fucked since your discharge because you never really asked their name in the first place.”
Cindy starts at that, angrily, but when she searches his expression for some bullshit gender-based judgment she finds none.
She realizes he sounds like he’s speaking from experience.
She realizes he’s one soldier speaking to another.
“You’re still a soldier,” he continues. “That’s all you want to be. You’re not built for civilian life, but that’s where you are. You need a mission. But with your service record the only mission anyone is going to give you would be wiring the car of a drug lord or sweeping the caravan of some profiteering corporate fuck overseas. And you don’t want that. Because despite why they booted you, you have a conscience.”
“Who the fuck are you?” she asks him, on the verge of tears.
“I can offer you a mission you can be proud of. One that’s about serving people instead of blowing them to hell and gone. It’s straight work. It’s well-paid work. And I’ll never ask you to do anything that will make you hate yourself.”
Ritter stands up. “That was a little more than sixty seconds, but I thought that pitched better. Like I said, I’ll be in the McDonald’s over there.”
Ritter exits the casino. He crosses the hotel lobby to the small food court that operates twenty-four hours. He orders two large coffees from the McDonald’s kiosk and occupies a table in the common area.
Cindy joins him before the coffee has cooled.
They drive northwest, to Bontddu, near Barmouth, in Gwynedd.
None of them except Hara have any idea how to pronounce the names, and he doesn’t feel the need to comment.
They pass the more famous Clogau mine, which remains active to this day. A few short decades ago there was still as much as five hundred thousand ounces of gold waiting to be unearthed in its bowels, but since the late nineties it’s been mined completely dry.
They drive off the beaten path to a far less known, smaller mine that has been abandoned for years since its veins ran dry. It’s removed and set against a Tolkien-esque wilderness.
Ritter halts the van and they all get out, Ryland reluctantly and uncoordinatedly. They pull coveralls on over their clothes, fitting the straps of air filtration masks around their necks and attaching devices to their forearms that monitor air-toxicity levels.
The entrance to the abandoned mine isn’t simply boarded up, it has been blasted shut. Behind the dusty, rotted wood planks is a wall of tightly packed-in boulders of varying shape and size.
Hara helps Cindy unload a portable drill press attached to an eight-foot-high jack from the back of the Transit. The drill’s bit is diamond a half-inch thick. As they wheel it up to the entrance Ritter and Moon use crowbars to pry away the boards zigzagging the collapsed rock face.
“If I can be of any service at this point in the proceedings you’ll inform me immediately, yeah?” Ryland calls from where he’s reclining against the open back of the van.
“I really dislike him,” Cindy casually informs Ritter.
“He dislikes himself more, I promise you.”
Cindy cranks the press several feet up the jack and begins drilling a hole through one of the boulders packed in the entranceway. She repositions the press seven more times and drills seven more holes at various points and heights in the obstruction.
Once that’s done, she removes and uncaps several airtight containers from one of the main rucksacks in the van. She pulls out thin lines of high-tensile cord, the ends of which are weighted with thin cylinders. Attached to the lines at three-foot intervals are what look like compressed wads of tissue paper drenched in bright pink liquid.
Cindy carefully and meticulously begins feeding each line through a hole she’s drilled in the rock.
“Is the van out of your blast path?” Ritter asks her.
She never takes her eyes off her work or halts her hands. “Yeah, we’re good. It shouldn’t push the debris past a twenty-foot diameter. It should mostly just collapse.”
“I’m hearing should a lot,” Moon comments from the sidelines.
No one says anything, but Hara stares down at him with a rare showing of emotion, that emotion being highly annoyed.
Moon shuts up.
“All right, we’re ready to go hot,” Cindy announces. “Everybody behind the van.”
They all obey, joining Ryland who already has two cigarette butts crushed into the ground at his feet.
Cindy reaches inside her coveralls and removes an iPhone.
“Moon, if you ask me if I have an app for this I’ll perforate your chest cavity with my middle and forefinger,” she warns him in a neutral tone.
“You’re still pissed about the black-Irish thing, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” Cindy says, and taps the iPhone’s screen.
The blast itself isn’t loud, but the sound of the rocks breaking apart is particularly grating on their ears. Debris no bigger than pebbles sprawls down the hill, none of it touching the van.
What’s left is a pile of rubble that rises to about half the height of the entranceway.
The darkness beyond is now visible.
“Artful as always, Cin,” Ritter tells her.
For the first time since arriving in Wales, she smiles.
Hara is able to clear away most of the rubble with a shovel before the rest of them have even retrieved theirs. Instead, Ritter passes out the rest of the gear and large digital torches to each of them.
“It smells like a Welshman’s arse,” Ryland complains.
“I look forward to that chapter in your memoirs,” Cindy says.
“Let’s go, Ryland,” Ritter bids him. “You’re on.”
Removing the current lit cigarette from his mouth and flicking it away with a sigh, Ryland enters the mine ahead of them.
“Why gold?” he demands as they trek through the main shaft. “Why must they eat gold?”
“Matters of goblin digestion don’t concern me,” Ritter says. “This is the job.”
“Why Welsh gold, then?”
“Because it’s the rarest in the world and it’s a royal goblin wedding. They want the best.”
“Overcompensating gombeens,” Ryland mutters.
He reaches inside his coveralls and removes a large gemstone.
Even in the almost total darkness it gleams bloodred.
Ryland begins holding it up against the walls of the shaft as they tread along.
“So you’re really going to grow new gold here?” Moon asks him.
“Even though there’s none left in this pit?”
“Traces enough remain.”
“And it’ll be real? The gold?”
“As real as the odor now assaulting us.”
“I don’t get it. If you can literally fucking grow gold, why the hell are you working at Sin du Jour?”
“Alchemic karma,” Ryland says as if that’s all the explanation required.
“What the hell is that?”
“If I attempted to profit personally the gold would turn to shite. Literally.”
“That sounds made-up.”
“If it wasn’t a very real thing do you imagine I’d currently be dwelling in a disused recreational vehicle behind a catering firm in Long Island City?”
Moon thinks about that.
“Yeah. Fair enough.”
Someone snickers in the dark.
It might even be Hara.
The gem in Ryland’s hand begins pulsing.
“What the devil—”
“What’s up?” Ritter asks. “You find a vein?”
“No, that’s not what this means.”
“Then what does it mean?” Cindy asks with alarm.
Ryland turns to the anterior wall, squinting into the darkness.
There isn’t a single break in the rock, yet somehow a golf ball–sized sphere of rusted metal emerges from the wall of the chamber, flies across the space, and cracks him in the left temple.
Dozens upon dozens of spheres begin firing through the wall, brutally pelting them. Ritter, Moon, and Cindy break for the side walls, trying to clear the strike path.
In the next moment Hara is there over Ryland, his back to the sphere-spewing rock, scooping up the drunken alchemist as easily as a father picking up his toddler.
“Go!” Ritter orders him. “Get him out!”
Hara hesitates for less time than can be practically measured, then charges back down the entrance shaft.
“What the fuck—” Moon yells before catching a sphere in the face and dropping to a fetal ball at Ritter’s feet.
Ritter looks down, shining his light on a half dozen of the assaulting objects as they roll to a halt and unfurl themselves.
They’re not spheres.
They’re tiny bipedal beings.
Each one is the height of an index finger, bearded and with flesh that looks as hard as the rock from which they emerged. Their entire bodies and all their appendages are adorned with curved pieces of armor obviously designed to become near-solid spheres when tucked together.
As he looks on, the armored creatures begin dog-piling one another, more spheres rolling to join what at first looks like a chaotic mass of metal but soon begins to take a definite shape. The sound of tumblers falling in a lock echoes throughout the chamber as the small armored figures interlock with one another, their mass building in height and defining in shape until it begins to resemble a full-sized human form.
Ritter’s seen enough. He turns to grab Cindy, but sudden streaks of color crackling with repellent energy knock him back, separating them.
It looks like a wall of rainbow-colored caution tape has been unfurled in front of him.
Ritter turns from it to find himself face-to-face with a gargantuan automaton fashioned from hundreds of armored bodies; they’ve even arranged themselves to give it a vague double-wide face with hollow eyes and curving lips.
“All right, that’s a new one on me,” Ritter says, and it sounds like a disturbingly casual admission under the circumstances.
The construct doesn’t banter with him.
In the next moment Ritter’s casual demeanor has turned dire as he ducks and rolls from the path of a sweeping metallic limb intent on decapitating him. Ritter bounces to his feet, now behind the automaton, curling his right arm and driving the thick ulna bone of his forearm into the thing’s many-eyed “back.”
It’s a blow that would painfully readjust the spine of a human opponent.
This opponent, however, has no spine and a backside made of modular refined ore from the bowels of the Earth.
As such, the impact bruises Ritter’s forearm down to the bone, which also splinters and sends chemical signals of agony to his brain.
Ritter steps back, half a dozen curse words blending into one unintelligible oath that only ends when he has to duck to avoid the automaton’s next swing as it turns around.
The construct advances on him, Ritter backpedaling and scantly avoiding several more blows. He feints and ducks the metal limbs, the facilities of his mind generally tasked with such things collectively shrugging at him as he requests a plan of action.
“Oh, fuck it!” he yells out loud.
Ritter ducks under the next swing and dips briefly against the construct’s body, reaching out with both hands and gripping one of the interconnected armored creatures balled up there. With a berserker’s cry and every ounce of strength he can muster, he rips the sphere free of the rest of its fellow and leaps back.
The act causes the briefest moment of confusion among the rest of the things composing the creature’s body.
More important, it causes the briefest moment of hesitation.
Ritter jumps back in, still holding the armored ball, and smashes its surface against the “face” of the construct, detaching several other spheres from their host and sending them flying.
He immediately reverses the position of the armored ball in his hand and backhands the other side of the construct’s “face,” depleting it further. Ritter continues bashing it with a piece of itself until finally he drops down and smashes the best approximation of a knee joint he can locate on one of the thing’s “legs.”
The construct is forced to one knee.
A grating chatter, like a thousand squeaking voices, rises from its every nonexistent pore.
It’s a confused sound.
It’s vulnerable sound.
It’s stopped lashing out.
Ritter rears back for a coup de grâce, but halts as his entire body abruptly seizes, pain shooting up through his arm. He turns to look at his hand and can’t help freezing further to marvel at the sight of a much tinier hand protruding out from the armored sphere.
That tiny hand is holding an even tinier dagger.
That tinier dagger is buried in the meat of Ritter’s palm.
As he squints in puzzlement at the sight, the tiny hand twists the tinier dagger.
Ritter curses and drops the sphere altogether. He hears it skitter over the dank, rocky terra and in his anger and pain scans the ground in the dark, hoping to crush the thing underfoot.
An eternity might as well have passed by the time he remembers his main opposition isn’t the thing that stabbed him.
It’s behind him.
And the confused chatter has ceased.
Ritter already knows he won’t have time to turn around, but he tries anyway.
The gargantuan construct raises a four-fingered hand and swings it into the side of Ritter’s head, breaking itself apart and sending a dozen bearded warriors flying upon contact.
Their elated hollers are the last thing Ritter hears before the darkness takes him.
The average Westerner finds little reason to travel to the Saharan interior of North Africa, much less the middle of the desert, life-threatening miles from anything resembling civilization.
Ritter has never been average in any respect.
As such he currently finds himself staring at a horizon made of fire in the hottest season of the year, when there’s not a cloud to be seen in the sky and the air is so dry it sucks at every pore like a thousand microscopic vampires.
His guide is an ancient, withered Igbo man draped in a woefully oversized Isiagu who sits in the back of their jeep obsessively playing Angry Birds on his smartphone.
“How much longer, you figure?” Ritter asks him.
“Not long now,” the old man’s raspy voice replies while its owner never takes his eyes from the tiny screen. “They will come for the water.”
“The water beneath our feet.”
“Oh.” Ritter looks down at the seemingly unending sand. “And how long is ‘not long,’ again?”
This followed by an inaudible curse and some kind of digital rebuke from the man’s game.
Ritter nods. “Right.”
He looks back at the horizon.
Three hours later a trio of figures on horseback appears out of the illusory blaze. They descend and gallop toward the spot where Ritter and his guide have parked their vehicle.
As they close the gap Ritter can see the blue veils covering their faces, stark even in the waning sun. Two of them are Berber while the third is the largest human being Ritter has ever observed. He sits astride a horse twice the size of the others’ mounts, and it still looks burdened by the man’s weight.
“I tell you,” Ritter’s guide says, followed by a cluck of victory as he reaches a new level in his ceaseless game. “Soon.”
“You’re the man, Diji,” Ritter assures him.
The riders halt several yards from their position, and the giant urges his mount forward, away from the other two. When he’s within a few feet of Ritter he climbs from his saddle, momentarily blotting out the sun.
“The whole desert-rider mystique works for you, man,” Ritter tells him. “How’re the Touaregs treating you?”
Hara doesn’t answer, but Ritter doesn’t expect him to.
Instead he removes his veil. His wide features aren’t painted with the brush of Africa, any part of it. He’s clearly a hybrid, but there’s more of Mongolia in his face than anything.
“I need you,” Ritter says. “I don’t know for how long.”
Without a word he leads his horse by the reins back to his Berber companions and turns them over to one of them.
For the first time, Diji looks up from Angry Birds.
“Does the big one owe you a life or something?”
“Something,” is all Ritter says.
He comes to with a hundred tiny pains in his wrists, a dry mouth, a throbbing cranium, and a pore-seeping feeling in every inch of his skin.
“You know,” Moon says miserably beside him, “this job is the big sweaty tits right up until it absolutely fucking sucks.”
Ritter blinks away dampness and waits calmly for his eyes to adjust to the relative dark.
They’re in a small chamber with no apparent entrances or exits. They’re both pressed against an unnaturally smooth wall of rock, and their hands are bound above their heads by what seem like natural formations, as if their wrists have been there for millennia and four thick bands of stone have shaped around them.
Or they’re restraints fashioned by tiny magical creatures that can manipulate the Earth.
“Where are Cindy and the others?” Ritter asks him.
“Fucked if I know. I woke up with a headache just like you. And I’m not even gonna try to explain what I saw back in the mine shaft.”
It’s not like in the movies, when prisoners awaken and their captors march right in to explain everything.
They wait a long fucking time.
Eventually there’s a gentle rumbling and a barrage of the metallic spheres emerges seamlessly from the far wall, landing on the ground and rolling to a halt in perfect unison. Each sphere unfurls and they begin to interlock themselves into the cyborg-automaton form that attacked Ritter and the team back in the mine shaft.
It’s somehow even more unsettling, standing there inert, a thousand tiny eyes staring at them while the hollow shapes of two large eyes appear to blink in the thing’s “face.”
“We are the Gnomi,” a voice made up of each individual creature speaking in unison announces.
“Yeah, I kind of figured that,” Ritter says. “I’ve never seen a gnome, but I wouldn’t exactly have pegged you for pond sprites.”
“Are you in league with the Tuath Dé?” the choral voice of the gnomes asks Ritter.
“Then what are a human warrior and his squire doing in such a place forsaken by your kind?”
Moon is irate. “Squire? What, like I’m his medieval secretary or some shit? Whoa, hold the fucking phone—”
“Shut up, Moon.” And to the creature: “I’m not a warrior. I’m a gatherer.”
“You wear the scars of many battles. You hold the death of many enemies in your eyes.”
“Gathering has become a rough business up there.”
“Then you aren’t mercenaries retained by the Tuath Dé?”
The gnome construct pauses. The hundreds of them composing its body seem to whisper among themselves before answering in their unified voice.
“Good. You are a great warrior, whatever your protestations to the contrary. You nearly bested the Gnomi in our horde form. No human has ever come so close. You’re worthy. Consider yourself conscripted.”
Moon looks at him expectantly.
“They want us to fight for them,” Ritter explains.
“Just you,” the Gnomi correct him. “The little one is of no use. He will be a gift to the rocks.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Moon demands in horror.
“He’s my squire,” Ritter says quickly, resolutely. “He serves me in battle. He’s experienced. Broken in. I don’t fight without him.”
Then: “Very well. Consider yourselves both conscripts.”
“I don’t know what your conflict is down here, but we want no part of it. We just came to forage. We didn’t know this was your . . . domain.”
“It’s too late for such concerns. We’ve met with our enemies and agreed upon the hour and place of our final battle. The Tuath Dé have no doubt already conscribed a giant of their own to fight in that upcoming battle. With such an advantage they’ll crush us. Unless we have giants to fight for our cause.”
“Cindy,” Ritter whispers to himself, wanting to smash his own head against the wall behind it.
“What the hell do you need us for?” Moon demands. “You’re all magic and shit. You move through solid rock, which appears to be your total bitch.”
“The Tuath Dé have their own magic. And try as we might, small magic never seems to win out over giant meat.”
That last spoken so bitterly, suggesting eons of learning that lesson over and over.
“There is nothing to discuss,” they pronounce with finality. “You will die in battle fighting with the Gnomi or you will die in this room as interlopers. Choose.”
“Hey, I’m all for championing a good cause,” Moon says immediately. “You should see my Gears of War rankings.”
Ritter glances over at him with open disdain.
“Wise choice, humans,” the gnome construct says, and in the wake of those words begins disassembling into hundreds of the furry, rock-faced armored creatures.
“Squire?” Moon whispers to Ritter.
“Would you rather be a ‘gift’ to the rocks?”
“Right. Fine. What the hell is a ‘ta-wath’ whatever?”
Ritter sighs. “Tuath Dé,” Ritter pronounces flawlessly. “It means ‘Tribe of the Gods.’ They’re more popularly known as—”
“Leprechauns,” Cindy practically spits in anger. “Fucking leprechauns. I’ve been trussed up with rainbow beams by a bunch of goddamn Lucky Charms four-leaf clover motherfucking leprechauns. I cannot even . . .”
She’s berating herself more than speaking to the assemblage of tiny creatures gathered a few yards from her feet. Cindy futilely tugs at the multicolored beams of pure energy binding her wrists behind her back. It doesn’t feel as if solid matter is restraining her, yet she can’t move it.
Leprechauns are as physically far removed from gnomes as possible, excluding their relative size. Each one is lithe with an angular, almost ant-like face. They’re naked save for leaves tied as loincloths and shredded into wreath-like hats that strongly resemble bowlers.
Which answers the question of where that bit of imagery came from.
In truth, Cindy is less interested in the assemblage of magical creatures at her feet and more drawn by the far corners of the cavernous space.
They’re filled with gold.
Mounds of it.
Mounds as tall as ancient oak trees.
She can’t even begin to calculate the worth of the fortune in direct view.
More than that, it looks almost forgotten, cast aside as if it were all shoved there to get it out of the way. The golden mounds are covered in the dirt and dust of immense age and utter neglect.
But then, what good is gold in the bowels of the Earth?
That’s the brief, obvious conclusion at which she arrives.
A fractal ribbon bursts forth from the tiny ranks spread out before her and its lip unfurls to within an inch of her chin.
One of the creatures, feminine to Cindy’s perception, practically glides up the beam until she is staring up her nose. She raises a wicked-looking spear.
“We are the Tuath Dé. We were gods when your people were covered in fur and copulating in the muck.”
The leprechaun isn’t actually speaking, Cindy realizes.
In point of fact she’s hearing her words inside her head, which may in fact be translating their meaning for her for all she knows.
“Well, I seem to recall killing God seven, eight times before you took me down,” Cindy answers aloud.
“And you’ll pay for each death!”
In reply Cindy works up a wad of spittle and hocks a loogie equivalent to a Buick at the tiny god who has gotten in her face.
It blasts the leprechaun like a fire hose, knocking her halfway down the rainbow-colored beam. It takes several attempts for her to right herself, slathered from head to toe in sticky, viscous spittle.
With a shrill battle cry the leprechaun charges back up the illusory ribbon and slashes Cindy above her right eye, splitting her brow open deep enough to expose bone. Blood quickly begins filling her eye.
Cindy grits her teeth, shutting her eyelid against the sudden, warm flood.
“You great ape,” the leprechaun rages. “You’re no better than those rock worms, with your stone and steel dwellings. Once my kin built great cities of pure gold that spanned oceans—”
“That’s not possible,” Cindy interrupts, sounding more annoyed than anything. “Even as small as you are there isn’t enough gold in the world—”
“That spanned oceans!” the creature insists. “Your kind melted them down. We were forced beneath the canopy at their feet, and now they drive us from that to these pitiful mud veins, and even here we must fight the Gnomi for what cramped space is available to us.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Cindy replies blandly. “What would a black woman know about having her history and culture stolen and raped for hundreds of years?”
The leprechaun either doesn’t understand or ignores the statement. “We use what remains to live and to fight. That now includes you. We go to meet the Gnomi in battle.”
“They have taken their own giants as prisoners. We saw the big one in battle. He’s a fierce fighter. The Gnomi love conscripting dangerous creatures to fight for them. And as you said, you killed a score of our own. You’re also a great warrior. We must battle giants with giants. You will fight for us.”
“The fuck I will.”
The leprechaun presses the tip of her spear into the pulsing center of flesh covering Cindy’s carotid artery. It must sound like the beating of a war drum to her.
“You will fight, or you will die. In bondage. If you be a warrior, you’ll want to die on your feet with your axe in your hand. So you will fight.”
“Those boys are my comrades and my friends. I won’t fight them.”
“Then they’ll kill you. On your feet. With your axe in your hand. But in the end your kind always fights. You kill everything, until there’s nothing left.”
The leprechaun raises her spear.
This time, however, a tiny crimson ribbon, like a thin stream of blood underwater, flits from the tip and touches Cindy’s wound, closing it.
“The touch of a god,” the leprechaun says wryly. “If only your kind appreciated it instead of damning it.”
The gnome’s name is Auch and he looks ancient even for a creature made of grizzled beard and stony flesh.
“I was a prisoner of your kind for a time,” he explains as he balances on Ritter’s shoulder.
It’s not the high-pitched helium voice of a microscopic character in a fantasy film. It sounds more like an aged whisper.
“I learned to speak your modern tongue. Brought it back to the Gnomi. Comes in handy when some wise-ass plastic-helmet-wearing worker bungles into these shafts.”
The old gnome grinds the granite meat of his own palm into a fine powder and sprinkles it on Ritter’s wounds.
The Gnomi want them both in optimal condition for the battle.
“Why live so close to the surface with the kind of power you have?” Ritter asks. “Everything I’ve heard about elementals has them dwelling much deeper.”
Auch sighs. “Once we kept the whole world spinnin’,” he says, the single gnomish voice barely a whisper to them both. “’Twas our task. We formed and re-formed and moved the great rocks to keep the surface from tearing itself asunder. We moved the great wheel of its core to keep it from being spun off into oblivion.”
“What happened?” Ritter asks.
“The world changed. The need for elementals lessened. The core became molten. The heat gave rise to creatures like the ones who fathered your kind. We were forced farther and farther from the fire.”
Auch works his way around to Ritter’s other shoulder, concentrating on his wounds. “Yessir. The Earth you’ve made is not a place for gnome nor sylph nor salamander anymore. The undine’ll be next. When you’ve spoiled the land you’ll delve to new depths of the sea. You don’t know no better.”
Ritter has nothing to offer that assessment, or its truth.
“Why fight the Tuath Dé? Why not band together to make the most of what’s left?”
“They still think they’re gods. We still think we’re the wardens of the Earth. Nowhere shall the two meet, I reckon. So we’ll keep killing each other over who’s the right to these miserable mined-out hollows till we make slaves of the few of them’re left or they do the same to us. And there’ll come a time when those that’ve survived the battle to come fade into the rock and that’ll be the end of us both.”
“Wow,” Moon says weightily (for him, anyway). “That’s some fucked-up shit, little dude.”
“I’m sorry for everything that’s happened to your people,” Ritter says. “I really am.”
Auch snickers. “Aye. Your folk always are. Shame they never feel that way before they do a thing.”
“Is it always like this when the lot of you go out?” Ryland asks.
He’s sitting on the ground, one hand cradling a half-smoked cigarette while the other holds a clotting, blood-soaked compress against his skull.
Hara doesn’t answer.
He’s busy smashing a heavy pickaxe against the cave-in that’s preventing them from searching for the others.
“I’ll abstain from now on, if it’s all the same to you,” Ryland adds.
Hara just grunts.
Whether it’s a reply or a sign of exertion from bringing the axe against the rock futilely and for the three hundredth time is unclear.
Neither Ritter nor Moon can guess how deep beneath the surface they are now, but they both feel as far removed from the world above, their world, as they ever have in their lives.
The Gnomi and the Tuath Dé have chosen a vast, stalagmite-filled cavern as their epic battlefield. The armies are mustered on opposite sides of it. They’re too small to take a proper counting, but there can’t be more than five hundred in either force.
Ritter wonders fleetingly if those numbers represent their entire respective species.
If the lives of his team weren’t in immediate peril he might be filled with sorrow and sympathy for both collectives.
“Is there a plan here, boss?” Moon asks nervously.
“For you? Stay in the background and try not to get killed.”
“Check. What are you going to do?”
“Get to Cindy. Try to hack our way out of here. Keep an eye on us.”
Ritter stares at Cindy across the subterranean cavern. She looks very much the way she did when he first put eyes on her, stripped to the waist and prepared for combat, only this time, rather than a plastic knife, she’s armed with the razor-edged tomahawk he once gifted her.
He can’t read her expression.
He doubts she can read his, either.
“Hígado del chupacabra!” the fat master of ceremonies announces, holding a slick, fetid organ high before plopping it down on the tabletop between Moon and his opponent.
The crowd packing the tiny bar cheers raucously as bet takers move through their ranks exchanging hand-scrawled tickets for cash.
Moon is too busy sucking the pickled scorpion from a bottle of mescal to fully take in his next challenge.
His opponent, however, a fierce looking curandera who must be pushing eighty years of age, is focused solely and intently on the piece of offal between them. She grips a knife and fork in her withered fists and steels herself.
Somewhere in the back of the bar Ritter wedges himself between drunken tourists and sober locals. He spots an American in a floral resort shirt flirting with one of the bartenders and wades to him.
“Migs!” Ritter yells through the cacophony.
The man dressed for a Hawaiian vacation turns at the sound of his name and grins wide when he spots Ritter.
They embrace briefly a moment later and then Ritter motions to the center attraction of the evening.
“That him?” he asks Migs.
“Shit, Ritt, this kid is unbelievable! I never seen nothing like him even when we were chasing rogue brujas through the Andes with the WET team. He’s been down here a month and I’ve watched him eat and drink shit that would turn a harpy inside out. It’s like he has some natural immunity to curses and hexes. And the metabolism of a billy goat on meth on top of that.”
Ritter just nods, although inwardly he feels a sudden rush of adrenaline, the kind that occurs at the end of a quest.
“Just the boy I’ve been looking for,” Ritter comments casually.
In the middle of the room the master of ceremonies unsheathes a machete and cleanly severs the organ atop the table in half. He sweeps one piece directly in front of Moon and the other in front of the curandera.
The entire bar abruptly goes silent.
All eyes are on the table.
Moon, humming a tune that sounds vaguely like a Green Day song, picks up his knife and fork and cuts into the meat as if it were a grass-fed, medium-rare porterhouse.
He’s on his fifth bite by the time the curandera slices one tiny, carefully considered bite and forks it resolutely into her mouth.
She immediately spits it onto the floor, grasping her throat.
A few seconds later her flesh has turned green.
Half the crowd cheers while the other half jeers.
Money is exchanged and tickets are torn apart and cast to the floor.
Moon continues eating happily.
Hours later the bar is empty and the fat MC is getting thoroughly plastered with Migs and his new bartender companion.
Moon is in a corner booth counting the evening’s take in half a dozen forms of currency.
Ritter slides into the booth across from him.
He’s only carrying one form of currency.
Ten thousand of them.
Which he plops in a bundle atop the table.
“What’s this?” Moon asks.
“A signing bonus,” Ritter explains. “I want to hire you to come to New York and taste test a bunch of weird magical shit for me on a regular basis.”
Moon reaches out and picks up the bundle.
“Like, a regular job?” he asks.
Ritter nods. “Trust me,” he says. “For you it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
It’s like no battle Ritter or Cindy has experienced.
They’ve both been soldiers, but never living war machines, and that’s what they are now. The gnome and leprechaun leaders are each directing them to combat the thickest throngs of both sides, decimating front lines on the ground with kicks of their feet.
Cindy is tasked with beating back the Gnomi construct of balled-up armored warriors with her tomahawk, keeping it at bay so it can’t break through the leprechaun’s multicolored pathways being shot through the air.
Ritter, meanwhile, has been given a short sword with which he severs those same beams as if cutting through a jungle thicket, dissolving them and causing the leprechauns surging across the strips of light to tumble to the ground.
The cavern is streaked with rainbows, over and between and around which spherical armored gnomes are flying every which way. The air is filled with tiny spears, and Ritter is punting leprechauns while trying not to step on any.
Cindy, meanwhile, is using the flat of her tomahawk’s blade to bat away gnome balls coming at her from every angle.
Moon watches his teammates from behind a stalagmite. Thus far he’s gone unnoticed by both sides.
It’s all relatively chill, he thinks, until a gnome flies out of nowhere and banks the side of his skull.
In the next moment Moon is reflexively chewing grit, the crunch more than the mossy taste causing him to spit the dirt from his mouth.
He blinks away blood and sees Ritter besieged by leprechauns, dozens of them scrambling up both of his legs.
Moon turns his head just in time to watch a gnome collide with Cindy’s gut and knock the wind from her.
For the first time in a long time Moon—who is insufferable in his nihilism on most days—feels genuinely pissed off.
A warrior of the Tuath Dé leaps into his field of vision, a spear in his hand and a battle cry on his lips.
Moon doesn’t even think.
He reaches out, grasps the leprechaun in his fist, and stuffs the entire being into his mouth.
Fortunately the tiny god drops his spear.
The worst part isn’t the chewing.
The leprechaun’s screams echo in the chamber of Moon’s skull.
That’s the worst part.
When he swallows it’s agonizing and Moon can feel his mouth and throat being shredded by tiny bones and it is all he can do not to vomit immediately.
Just when he thinks he can’t choke it back any longer the urge goes away.
What replaces it is far worse.
Fae magic fills him like a virus, and his body rejects the unnatural energy. It would certainly rip most humans apart rather than be expelled, but Moon was born different for reasons none can guess or discern.
He vomits magical waste from every pore.
And every stream is a projectile.
It sweeps across the cavern floor in waves of blue fire, toppling every gnome and leprechaun in its path. It even sweeps Ritter and Cindy off their feet.
And it just keeps coming.
Moon rises to his knees, screaming as the magic continues to vent from his pores.
The next thing of which he’s truly conscious is Ritter tackling him to the ground.
“Stop!” Ritter is begging him, and the raw emotion in his voice, so uncustomary for Ritter, is enough to break Moon’s consciousness free of the rapture.
“Moon! Please, stop!”
Appealing to his conscious mind seems to have an energetic effect on the rest of him.
Slowly, he’s able to force his body under a shaking, fragile form of control.
The remaining fae magic is reduced to a trickle.
Groaning, his face sticky with sweat and tears, Moon stares blearily from underneath Ritter at the desolation he’s created.
The entire cavern floor is littered with tiny bodies.
They all seem even smaller now.
It’s like staring across a mass grave, though many are still alive, moaning in their semi-conscious state.
What happens next shocks Ritter more than his own pleading startled Moon.
Beneath him, Moon begins to sob.
Ritter cradles him like a child, stroking his damp hair and whispering comforting words in his ear.
Moon clings to his arms, unbidden, tears pouring from him as fiercely as the magic did.
Several yards away what’s left of the Gnomi force scrapes across the stony ground, drawing to a center point and slowly forming an even more grotesque, bastardized version of their battle construct, this one missing key portions throughout its form.
The construct limps towards the spot where the few dozen conscious leprechauns are attempting to regroup and attend to their wounded.
Ritter opens his mouth to protest, but in the end he doesn’t have to speak a word.
Hara bursts through the armored form like a star running back shredding the opposing team’s banner before a game.
Unfurled bodies of armored gnomes are scattered everywhere, most of them knocked unconscious by the force of Hara’s dense, almost inhuman mass.
Hara, a true giant among his people, stands there, ever the stoic, surveying the damage without expression.
Ryland staggers around him from behind, looking at Ritter.
“Oh,” he says, as if he’s just popped in for high tea. “There you are then.”
Cindy limps over to where Ritter is cradling Moon, her breath ragged, her torso bleeding in dozens of places and gnomish blood dripping from her tomahawk.
“I think we can go now,” she says.
Ritter looks up at her, still holding Moon in his arms.
He nods. “What about the gold?”
“I know where we can find as much as we need,” she informs him.
Then, looking over the littered leprechaun bodies: “I don’t think they’d mind even if they could stop us at this point. It’s no good to them to anymore.”
“We all end up that way,” Ritter says. “Eventually.”
Then: “Let’s finish the mission.”
“Aye-aye,” Cindy affirms.
Back in their rented Transit, driving away from the abandoned mine filled with its two forgotten, waning worlds, none of them speak for a long time.
The cargo vehicle is weighted down heavily and moves like a sluggish drunk running from his bar tab, but it will get them there.
Them, and all of the gold pressing the back end of the van inches from the road underneath it.
They’re silently worried about Moon, who seems to be the worst for their shared experience (except for Ryland, who, even if he fully grasped what had happened while they were separated, probably wouldn’t appreciate it).
Moon sits, almost catatonic, for an hour.
Then, abruptly and with deep gravitas, he says: “It sucks being small.”
They all look back at him, even Ryland, who has spent just enough time with Moon to know he’s not the sort of person who speaks introspectively.
Moon doesn’t seem to notice the gazes he’s drawn.
He’s very much in his own head at that moment.
“I’ve been small my whole life. It really sucks, you know? And you figure out pretty quick it’s useless fighting about being small and about how fuckers treat you when you’re small. No one cares. But you still want to fight. So you fight about stupid shit. You’ll fight about anything, really. When really you’re just fighting because it’s better than being shit on and taking it. But it’s always about being small. Always.”
There are no immediate replies or comments or reassurances offered.
Cindy stares openly at him, completely taken aback.
Ritter keeps his eyes on the road, but the truth of those words, and the illustration of them to which they’ve all just born witness, digs at the back of his brain.
Ryland lights his thirty-fourth cigarette of the trip.
In the end it’s Hara who breaks the wake of oppressive silence.
“It’s not easy being big either,” he says in a voice that always sounds to Ritter like everyone imagines their father sounds when they’re young.
Hara pauses before adding: “But it’s a lot easier than being small.”
The rest of them seem to wait for Moon to decide the fate of that statement.
Eventually he laughs, just a little.
“Yeah,” he says. “It is.”
They all leave it at that.
“Small Wars” copyright © 2015 by Matt Wallace
Art copyright © 2015 by Goñi Montes