Chapter Eleven: Conversations

        That evening, as the heaps of corpses burn down in the courtyard and outside the wall, the leaders, on the observation deck of Thoranc, lounge and sip their beverages.
        “So, Barkenfist,” says Imlig, “I believe we’re all more than a little curious about your past; perhaps you wouldn’t mind acquainting us with your life-history?  And you too, Rifka Lorne; I’m sure we’re all a little curious about your past.”
        “Okay,” says Gnarl Barkenfist, who sits upon the floor, against the deck’s low wall, “should we begin with me, or do you want to hear from Rifka first?  Let’s start with me.  My father was a Dwarf named Grebenthor who got himself expelled from Dwarfenberg for never shutting up about his doubts and irritation with your many rules.  He went and lived among the Bearmen first, where he picked up the skills you’ve got to have if you plan on surviving in the woods.  Then he decided that he’d had enough of their stupidity, and wandered on beyond the Highlands.  After several days he heard a Treeman’s angry bellowing; he didn’t know it was a Treeman’s voice, since he had never met one of those guys, but he was curious.  He went to look, and found the Treeman lying on the ground beside a Greatworm with a bashed-in head; he’d killed it, but his arm had been torn off, and he’d be dead of sap-loss very soon; the stuff was oozing quickly from the hole, right through the leaves his mate was pressing there.  The Greatworm’s baby was some yards away, reared up and waiting; it was obvious that when the Treeman died it would rush in and eat the Ladytree.  My Dad cruised in to save the day; he winged a heavy rock directly at the baby Greatworm’s head and stunned it, then he went and tore away the pinky from the Treeman’s severed arm and beat the baby to a pulp with it.  My father held the bloody finger up to show the Treeman.  Dad said, ‘Awesome, man, you killed it with your finger while you lay relaxing with your woman in the shade.’  The Treeman laughed – some humor can be nice when you’re about to die of nasty wounds received in combat with monstrosities, as I can tell you from experience, but that comes later in my narrative.”
        “I’m puzzled,” says the Wizard; “I had thought that Treefolk live contemplative, calm lives and never have to worry about things like Greatworms, which live in the Southern Swamps and not up in the forests anyway.”
        “You’re right about that, Wizard,” Gnarl says.  “This Greatworm-incident was pretty weird; I think the Greatworm was a bit insane, or else she wouldn’t have gone slithering out of the Swamps into the Northwest woods.”
        “You’d think the Treefolk all would be on edge lest it occur again,” says Asmuran.
        “No, they’re not like that.  It’s improbable that it would reoccur, so what’s the point of worrying about it?  That’s the way the Treefolk think, and it makes sense to me – that’s pretty much my attitude as well, although I’m not content to hang around the same old meadow for a thousand years, as Treefolk are; I have this need to roam from place to place, and I chase after threats so I end up in danger constantly.”
        “I’m right there with you, Gnarl,” Rifka says.  “Don’t make it sound as though you’re all alone.”
        “Yes, Rifka always has to tag along; I never get a moment to myself.”  (She punches him; he pokes her in the side.)  “Well, anyway, should I go on?  Okay: the Treeman, with his dying breath, asked Dad if he would please escort the Ladytree up to the Sacred Waters – that’s West Lake – where she’d be taken care of by her kin.  Of course my Dad complied, and he was pleased to do so, since he found her beautiful, which was a bit peculiar for a Dwarf, but then he was a quite peculiar Dwarf.  Unfortunately for my dear old Dad, the baby Greatworm’s teeth had scraped his leg while he was killing it; its poisoned spit, which doesn’t hurt the Treefolk, sickened him, and he began to weaken more and more as they approached the Lake.  When they arrived, the Ladytree, in order to express her gratitude to him for saving her and bringing her to safety by the Lake had sex with him that night beside the shore; she told me he had one last burst of strength and pulled her down and got on top of her and pinned her somehow while he twisted off the blossom covering her you-know-what, and growled fiercely as he entered her, which was an unconventional approach from her perspective, but a lot of fun.”
        “You’re certainly your father’s son,” observes the half-Dwarf’s mate as she inspects her nails.
        “Your mother,” Asmuran reflects, “if this indeed is she, as I assume it is, is not unduly guarded when it comes  to certain facts that many other moms would probably not share with their own sons.”
        “Yes, she was never very reticent,” says Barkenfist.  “No doubt, she wanted me to know all that she knew about my Dad, which wasn’t much, so she shared all of it.  He died that evening, and she buried him, then found the Elders living by the Lake, who tended to the saplings growing there; she joined them and became a gardener of Treefolk-saplings, one of which was me; eventually, she extended roots into the soil, and began to grow; she must have gotten fairly big by now.”
        “I keep on saying we should visit her,” says Rifka, “but he thinks that we should wait until we have some children we can bring, to show her that we’re really serious about each other, not just having fun; these Treefolk seem to be tremendously monogamous, and marriage is for life among them, which I totally respect.”
        The Princess asks, “Do you want children, then?”
        “Yes, definitely, Princess Kalia, but children need a safe environment, stability – a home, in other words – and this man never wants to settle down.”
        “I’m just not ready yet,” says Barkenfist.  “I feel as though there’s some climactic fight awaiting me; when I’m victorious I’ll know the time has come to settle down for several decades and have lots of kids.”
        “Perhaps,” says Imlig, “this climactic fight is going to occur in Sinister between you and the source of Horror there.”
        “You might be right.  Shall I continue now?  Since I’m half-Dwarf, I grew up rapidly compared to all the others – not in size; in that, the other boys exceeded me – but in my progress toward maturity.  My mother named me “Gnarl”, seeing me as small and cute, like gnarls on a tree.  I had a pleasant childhood, but still I was increasingly dissatisfied; I wanted something more – my Dwarfish side was acting up.  When I was thirty-four, well into adolescence, Mooga came – a big fat bald guy, full of wise remarks.  The guy was wandering around the world, accumulating wisdom all the time.  He camped there at West Lake, where he conversed with rooted Elders, learning much from them – I couldn’t tell you what, but lots of things.  When he was ready to take off again he told my Mom that I should come with him to see the world – it would be good for me – and she agreed, so I went off with him, and he taught me some basic fighting skills, although I never mastered all of it; I always went for shortcuts, favoring a cruder, smashing-things-to-bits approach  instead of his more delicate technique.”
        His girlfriend smiles, patting Gnarl’s hand: “You had to learn to do it your own way.”
        “I guess I did,” he says; “I’m easily distracted by stray thoughts and fantasies; it’s kind of hard for me to concentrate the way you have to if you want to learn the stuff that Mooga’s into, so I guess I wasn’t really what he’d bargained for, but he was always very nice to me and gave me lots of interesting advice.”
        “I’m sure he liked you just the way you were,” says Rifka, patting Gnarl’s hand again.  “In any case you had the fighting skills that were required when the two of you went north to help the Eskimos fight off the woolly monsters that were hunting them.”
        “I’ve heard a bit about the Eskimos,” says Asmuran –  “Small, furry, chubby folk who build their houses out of blocks of ice and get from place to place by riding sleds pulled by four-legged social carnivores?”
        “Yes, those are known as ‘dogs’,” says Barkenfist.  “She’s right that when I went up north with him we started fighting monsters side-by-side, and once or twice he really needed me.  Those fights were fun – but kind of scary too.  In any case, here comes the turning point.  One day we crossed an icy, jagged ridge and found a little valley clear of snow and filled with tree-high mushrooms; in their midst there was a wooden house raised off the ground on giant birds’ legs.  Sitting on the porch there was a nice old lady – so we thought.  She asked us in for tea, and while we sipped she told us that the valley’s name was ‘Har’ and that she was ‘the Hag’.  ‘Your name is “Hag”?’ I asked her; ‘Is that short for “Hagatha”?’  She answered, ‘No, boy, I don’t have a name.  I’m just “the Hag”, so you can call me “Hag” as though this were my name, although it’s not.’  We chatted.  I was curious about the giant dog’s head she kept in a jar upon a shelf across the room from us; it blinked its eyes at us and licked its lips and now and then it groaned and bared its teeth.  ‘That’s Bloodmouth, my old hound,’ the Hag explained; ‘I keep his head up there for company.  It gets a little lonely here in Har.’
        “Then Mooga said, ‘There’s poison in this tea!  Quick, Gnarl, do the ninth Boodita-dance; it counteracts all poisons!’  He arose and started gracefully performing it, but I was never very diligent at practicing those intricate routines and found that I could not remember it.  I tried to copy what I saw him do, but I performed the moves too awkwardly for it to work; I felt the poison spread throughout my body, and, as I collapsed, I saw my master finishing the dance by launching his twelve hundred pounds of flesh across the table at the Hag of Har.  As he was hurtling toward her, lightning bolts were shooting at him from her fingertips; they laced around his neck just as his feet connected with her face and I passed out.  When I woke up again and looked around, her empty shell was lying on the floor and there was Mooga’s body next to it.  His head had rolled away across the room.  I picked it up and wept – my Master, dead!  But then I heard a fiendish snickering,  and turned around to see it was the dog, or rather dog’s head, laughing down at me.  I took the jar down, pulled old Bloodmouth out and threw him on the floor, and stomped on him.  Crushed heads don’t snicker – there’s a motto, hunh?  I said to myself, ‘Hmm, well let’s try this,’ and put my master’s head inside the jar where Bloodmouth’s head had been.  It frowned a bit, and then its eyelids opened and it spoke.
        “‘Thanks, Gnarl,’ said my Master; ‘That was smart.  You’d better take the two of them out front and burn them both to ashes; otherwise they might regenerate – you never know.  Then take my body out behind the house  and bury it, so that my spores can sprout.’  I followed his instructions – burned the Hag and dog’s head out in front, beneath a swarm of wheeling bats, then dug a pit out back and put his body there, and packed the earth on top of it, just like a gardener.  We lived there in her house for several weeks; inside, the place was full of splendid rooms, though on the outside it was very small, uneven, made of planks and bits of junk, and seemed about to topple on those legs of giant birds that stuck down under it.  So that was nice – the lap of luxury as far as I’m concerned, but kind of slow; there wasn’t much to do around that house but chat with Mooga, which would always turn to endless lectures pouring from his mouth on any topic that occurred to him.
        “But then the spores he’d spoken of shot up – at first just little tendrils poking through the soil where I’d buried most of him, but then these tendrils thickened into stems with buds like little peas on top of them, and they kept growing; soon those slender stems were flexible, soft stalks bent by the weight of their protuberances, which were now the size of melons.  As these first shoots grew, more tendrils poked their way up further out and started thickening as well; they’d grown from Mooga’s body outward underground before emerging upwards vertically.  The melons growing at the center soon were pumpkin-sized, the tendrils further out becoming stems, then melon-bearing stalks, as more of them emerged still further out.  Within a month, or six weeks at the most, the whole backyard was full of those strange plants at different stages of development.  The first ones got to be a yard across and then stopped growing, waiting for the rest.  When all of them had reached that final size they all got sort of squishy and began transforming into copies of their Dad – three hundred smaller versions of himself asleep upon the ground, curled up in balls.  When they were fully grown, they all woke up and stood, their stalks detaching from their guts, and I brought Mooga out to greet his sons. 
        “They all began to cheer for him – ‘Hurray!’ – three hundred of them jumping up and down, their fat fists pumping – and he said to them, ‘My sons, I very much appreciate your Joyful energy and evident affection, and I thank and love you all; you kids are wonderful!  You’re beautiful!  You’re shining crystal bubbles in the froth of Being’s ever-flowing emptiness’ – or something of the sort.  Then he went on, ‘Now, how about a new round of applause for Gnarl, my disciple and my friend, without whose splendid efforts none of us would be alive today.’  They cheered again, but this time for yours truly.  You can guess how good that felt.  But then he said to me, ‘Now listen, Gnarl, and don’t get upset; I think it’s time for you to move along.  Entrust me to my children and set off wherever your heart pushes you to go.  You need to wander here and there for years and have adventures, growing strong and wise until you have achieved the awesomeness that is your destiny.  When you receive a surname that declares your awesomeness in no uncertain terms, conferred on you by those you’ve saved from monsters, then return back to the Realm and visit me; we’ll talk like equals and old friends remembering the things they did together long ago.  But if, for three nights running, in your dreams I tell you that I need your help, please come immediately; that will be my way of summoning you if there’s some big threat that I can’t handle on my own down there.’  So I left Mooga in his children’s care and set off on my travels, heading east along the arctic circle, on the ice in wintertime.  I lived on walrus-meat, and for dessert I’d eat a baby seal.
        “I’ll skip three fights I had along the way against huge animals that hassled me.  In thirteen weeks I’d gone halfway around the arctic circle; then I saw a flash of fire to the north.  I headed there as fast as possible – my outspread toes kept me from sinking down into the snow – and seventy-five miles from the pole I came upon this little woman’s ship – of course, I didn’t know that it was hers – crash-landed in the snow, with crumpled wings.  I found her trail of footsteps heading off in this direction – southwest, toward the Realm – and caught up with her two-thirds of the way from her crashed spaceship to the Vale of Har where I’d been living five months earlier.”
        “Imagine my surprise,” says Rifka Lorne.  “For weeks on end, alone and in despair, I had been trudging through the ice and snow in winter-darkness, heading for this ‘Realm’ that I had noticed on the map I found of Earth within an atlas that survived the crash, along with my survival kit.  Now I hear heavy footsteps, look around and see this monster chasing after me.”
        “But I was waving in a friendly way!”
        “And I’m supposed to trust a monster’s wave?”
        “I’m not a monster; I’m a Treeman-Dwarf.”
        “Well, anyway, I leapt away from him – and that’s the first time I became aware that I had changed in some peculiar way since coming through that storm of cosmic rays that knocked my ship off course and crashed it here – I landed more than fifty feet away from where I’d been.  I turned around and laughed and taunted him – ‘You’ll never catch me, Creep!’ He said, ‘Oh yes I will, and when I do I’ll give you kisses and I’ll tickle you.’  I saw that he was really very nice, so I said ‘No, you won’t, you’re much too slow!’ and ran away, with this guy chasing me for several miles; then I let him win.  He carried out his threat, and asked my name and where I had been going when I crashed.
        “I told him my sad story – born and raised on Eurohuda, where, like every girl, I grew up watching television shows and went to college and continued on through fifteen boyfriends until I had earned my Ph.D. in Feminist Complaints, and then was captured in a pirate raid by Torks, who sold me to a slimy Wugg who hated me because his dick was limp.  I had to steal his spaceship to escape back to my planet, where my mom and dad would no doubt let me have my room again.  While passing near your sun en route to them I ran into the storm of cosmic rays  that crashed me down on Earth, so there I was – more than a hundred lightyears from my home and at the mercy of this fearsome beast.
        “He told me that there was a house nearby where we could stay until the winter passed.  ‘Nearby’ meant two more weeks of traveling through snow and darkness; now, though, it was fun, or, anyway, more fun than it had been, since Gnarl carried me behind his head where it was nice and warm, and we conversed and got to know each other on the way.  The house he’d mentioned was of course the Hag’s, about which you’ve already heard so much.  I must say, I enjoyed the time we spent inside of it – so many memories.  The things he did to me in every room!  I’d almost managed to convince the man that we should stay there, making it our home year-round, when an enormous creature came – ”
        “A Hypertroll,” her boyfriend interjects.
        “– and started smashing it to get at us.  So Gnarl went outside to fight the thing.  It grabbed him and it threw him on his back, and he looked over at me; I could see that he was worried, thinking he might lose.  But all at once I felt an energy that I had not experienced before coming surging through me from some inner source; I leapt to him, and took his hand and said, ‘You’re awesome, Gnarl; you can kill this thing.”  I felt the power flowing into him, and as the Hyper-Troll came charging down upon us and I leapt away again, he rolled out of the way, and grabbed its foot and brought it down and pounded it to death.  Our lovely little house had been destroyed, so he suggested that we go and see his friends, the Eskimos, and stay with them.”
        “We headed south to find them,” Gnarl says, “and came upon a group of Eskimos in flight from Wolfmen who’d been hunting them for several days.  We cleared that problem up with necessary violence, and we learned while doing so that Rifka’s influence can be conveyed to me in many ways.  Whenever, through her smile or her touch or even simple words like ‘You’re the best!’ the lady offers me encouragement she strengthens me tremendously – you saw how she was strengthening me earlier with her encouragement while riding me while we were circling the wall down there and killing hundreds of your enemies.  The Eskimos were grateful, so they threw a banquet for us, and their aged chief officially conferred upon us both the hero-names that were revealed to them as they passed pipes of burning Likluk-leaf and giggled at hallucinated beasts embedded in kaleidoscopic webs.  Since Rifka doesn’t want her name revealed I won’t be sharing it with you tonight, but I am proud to introduce myself as ‘Gnarl Barkenfist’ to everyone – yes, ‘Barkenfist’ is only my last name because a bunch of drugged-out Eskimos decided that the Spirits of the Snow had named me this before the world was made.”
        “We know her last name, though,” says Kalia.  “It’s ‘Lorne’, right?  It has been revealed to us already, Rifka.  Sorry – secret’s out.”
        “No, Lorne is just my father’s family-name, which I received from him when I was born.”
        “So what’s your hero-name?  We need to know!  Don’t keep us guessing!  Aren’t we friends of yours?”
        “‘The Sexy Sidekick’,” Rifka says, and laughs with some embarrassment.  “And, yes, of course, the Spirits of the Snow gave me this name before the world was made.  Imagine that!”
        “You are a sexy sidekick, aren’t you though?  No, I’m just kidding, Rifka; you’re yourself, whatever you would like to be, okay?”
        “She’d like to be my sidekick,” Gnarl says, and Rifka whacks his knee.  He pulls her ear.  “We lived among the Eskimos up there for fifty years, and then we spiraled down around the Earth, on land, across the sea, and sometimes underground, then back again, not moving very quickly, having fun and fighting monsters if they bothered us.  Some monsters, though, were nice; we’d let them be.  Some monsters were both nice and pretty smart; we’d chat with these.  (Remember Bookaboo?  That guy was entertainingly insane.  I’m glad we didn’t kill him.  He’s okay.)  But some of them pretended to be nice and then would get obnoxious rapidly and end up trying to devour us.  It was while dealing with the latter sort of monster that we realized Rifka’s got another power, kind of the reverse of her enhancing friendly influence; when she expresses scorn, the butt of it is weakened.  But this power only works on things that are intelligent enough to realize how much she despises them – and only when these things express contempt for me, or indicate in any way that they despise me.  Then she hits them back with her own enervating waves of scorn.”
        “My own wife has a power much like that,” says Imlig, “but she uses it on me and on her other husbands when she feels that we are not attending to her needs.  I’ve tried explaining patiently to her  that treating us like bugs won’t motivate us to attend to her more carefully, but does she listen?  No, she never does.  These Dwarfish wives of ours are something else.”
        “I feel for you,” says Gnarl.  “Anyway, we found ourselves back in the arctic zone and Rifka finally got me to agree to settle down for several years at least with the descendants of the Eskimos that we had helped a thousand years ago.”
        “I wanted kids,” says Rifka, “and I thought the Eskimos might influence the man in that direction.  But he’d always say, ‘The time’s not right; there’s something I must do; I don’t know what it is; it’s coming, though.’”
        “Yes, plus I felt a bit uncomfortable among them, even though I liked them all; they felt compelled to worship us as gods and that’s not what I’m into, even though I know you liked it, Rifka, didn’t you.”
        “I didn’t always mind it, I’ll admit, but you know I would always plead with them to treat me like an ordinary girl.”
        “I know.  The two of us were constantly attempting to convince those Eskimos: ‘We’re just immortal super-heroes, guys, not gods, so you don’t have to worship us,’ but they insisted, so we went with it.”
        “Immortal?”  Imlig says.  “But you’re half-Dwarf, half-Treeman, and although your Treeman-genes might keep you going for millennia that hardly counts as immortality.”
        “I know,” says Gnarl, “but the energy that her encouragement sends into me keeps me from aging past maturity.”
        “And what about yourself, then, Rifka Lorne?  Those cosmic rays made you immortal too?”
        “That seems to be the case – when they gave me my other powers, they affected me so that I’d never age beyond the point that I was at when I passed through the storm.”
        “Your other powers – are there any more, beyond those you’ve already mentioned here?  I notice that the muscles of your arms and shoulders are extremely well-defined; you haven’t got some sort of super-strength above the waist, beyond your leaping-skill?”
        “Unfortunately, I’m not super-strong in any way; I leap extremely far, but I’ll bet Kalia can squat more weight.  It’s only my own body I can move in this extraordinary way.  My arms  and shoulders, and my chest and upper back are – thank you very much, Judge – well-defined because I exercise to stay in shape.”
        “She does five pullups with a narrow grip,” says Barkenfist.  “That’s awesome for a girl.”
        “Five pullups,” says the Judge, “and you weigh what, one hundred twenty pounds?  No, I agree, that’s not exactly super-strength, my dear.  Why bother, then?  Why spend your time on this? 
        “Because it makes me cuter,” she replies, “and it’s my duty to be cute for him.”  She laughs.  “No, I’m just kidding, everyone.”
        “She isn’t kidding,” Gnarl interjects.
        “Well, maybe not entirely, okay?  The thing is that when I don’t exercise I feel as though I’m rotting.  I prefer  the feeling of integrity I get from straining all my muscles now and then.”
        “We Elvish ladies never exercise,” says Kalia; “we’re naturally this way.”
        “That’s wonderful,” says Rifka.  “Good for you.”
        “Thanks,” says the Princess.  “Okay, let me guess – you two are up there with the Eskimos, who worship you as gods, and feeling cute, and super-powerful; and then one night you get the call from Mooga in your dreams.”
        “Yes, three nights running,” Barkenfist replies, “that Head was floating there in front of me and telling me, ‘The Realm requires you; go to the tower in the midst of all; expel the Horror from the Joyful Land.’  The tower-part was what I didn’t get – I’d left the Realm before you built this place – nor did I know exactly what was meant by ‘Horror’, but I figured something bad was happening, and Mooga wanted me to help him deal with it.  We headed south.”
        “It’s strange you’d never visited the man,” Judge Imlig says, “since he’d invited you to come and visit him once you’d received your hero-name, which you had now possessed for centuries.  Do you have the same excuse in this case that you’ve offered to explain the fact that you have never visited your mother?  It seems hard on both of them.”
        “Not quite the same excuse.  In Mooga’s case, the thing is this – he’d wanted me to be an awesome super-hero on my own, but it turns out that I in part depend upon my lady-friend’s encouragement.  I’ve always felt as though I never quite attained the status that he had in mind for his disciple, that I’ve fallen short of his high standard – failed to measure up – and so the thought of meeting him again makes me uncomfortable; I think I’d be embarrassed, knowing that I’ve let him down.”
        “Oh, don’t be silly, Gnarl,” Imlig says.  “If Mooga is the decent sort of man that he appears to be, from all I’ve heard, he’ll see your co-dependent awesomeness as being not a bit inferior to that more self-sufficient awesomeness that he expected from you in the past.  Well, better late than never, right?  You’re here, and Mooga will be glad to see your face.  So will your mother, when you go to her with Rifka and the children she will bear within the coming years.  I’m sure of it; the Holy Awesome One won’t let you down.”
        “Thanks, Judge.  So, anyway, we made our way down from the tundra to the forestland north of the Realm.  When we came to the cliff we saw this tower – just a tiny prick that sparkled in the sunlight – and we knew that this was where we were supposed to go.  We climbed down very carefully – in fact it was a little easier for her than me; she used her leaping skills a bit.  We traveled south along the line of hills, some fairly high, that ends just north of here; a lot of Elves were at the southern end; we managed to avoid detection, though.”
        “The Barons’ men,” says Princess Kalia.  “I’m sure they’ll be arriving pretty soon.”
        “I thought they might be friendly.  They looked nice.  We didn’t want to take the time to stop and chat with them, though, so we moved along without allowing ourselves to be seen.  When we arrived this morning, we hung back and watched the battle.  First we figured out you were the good guys; after that, our task was to decide on whether we should help your side to win, and, if so, when to start.”
        Judge Imlig says, “Duke Timonar, explain how it is even barely possible that these two weren’t detected by your Elves.”
        “Don’t be too hard on him,” says Barkenfist; “I looked like part of any tree I chose to lean against, half-Treeman as I am, and she was in the limbs above your heads and leaping like a squirrel over you.”
        “We did get some reports of moving trees and giant squirrels; I discounted them,” the Duke says quietly; his face is turned as though he’s speaking mainly to himself.
        “So how long did it take you to decide that our side was the good one?” Imlig asks.
        “The Molemen made it pretty obvious.  “They’re just so ugly.  Ugly things are bad.  And then, of course, they were attacking Dwarfs, and I’m half-Dwarf, so I’d be on the side of Dwarfs unless, of course, their enemies were Treefolk, in which case I just don’t know.”
        “So why, then, did you wait so long to help?  If you’d come in a little earlier, you would have saved a lot of Dwarfish lives.”
        “We thought that you would be annoyed at us for intervening when you still believed that you could win the battle by yourselves; we’re used to helping out the Eskimos, who never want us to become involved until they’re just about to be destroyed.”
        “Well, anyway, you came,” Judge Imlig says, “and saved the day for us, so thanks a lot.”
        “You’re welcome, Judge; that’s basically our job.”
        “And now you two are off to Sinister tomorrow morning?  You won’t wait for us?”
        “That’s right,” says Barkenfist.  “We gotta move.  Especially now that she has that Sword – it’s obviously what we’re meant to do.”
        “Well, I’ll be bringing lots of Dwarfs out there within the coming weeks, to occupy Mount Sinister and start transforming it.  If you can terminate Horroria, the monstrous female in the Lower Depths who started all of this unpleasantness, you’ll have your father’s people’s gratitude.  I hope you we’ll see you there when we arrive.”
        “Well, I don’t know.  We might not stick around.  I’d like to locate Mooga; after that we might be settling ourselves somewhere in his vicinity – I mean, that is, if this is really that climactic fight that I have been expecting all my life.”
        “I hope it is,” says Rifka.  “I want kids.”
        “Remember, though,” says Asmuran, “to stop  by Fuzzyville on your way west, okay?  Remind him, Rifka; don’t let him forget.”
        “I won’t forget,” says Gnarl Barkenfist.  “We’ll stop by Fuzzyville and have a look around, and make sure everything’s okay, and if there’s business to be dealt with there we’ll deal with it; you have my word on that.”
        “Well, gentlemen and ladies,” Imlig says, “it’s getting late.  It’s time for me to go and say my late-night prayers together with my people down below.  The five of us who will still be here after these two leave should meet again tomorrow afternoon to make sure that our plans are all aligned.”

        At midday, on the observation deck of Thoranc, Asmuran sips lemonade (or some such thing) and watches as the Dwarfs haul corpses from the courtyard down below.  He hears ascending footsteps, looks around, and greets Humberto.  “Hey, man, how’s your leg?  It’s not too bad?  Good.  Thanks for joining me up here before Judge Imlig’s meeting starts.  I want to talk to you about the girls.  I’m worried.  They seem inextricably  conjoined with their machines, and lost to us as human beings.  Yes, they exercise as much as possible within their seats, and eat from tubes, excreting into bags that we replace for them three times a day, and even let us sponge their bodies off, but they do so as organs of the whole in which they are involved and not at all as separate selves accepting help from us.  We’re caring for the Megagirls, not for the Japanese girls stuck inside their heads.  And it’s my fault.  I led them into this.”
        “You didn’t know this would be happening.  You shouldn’t blame yourself.  We all believed that it would be a lot of fun for them, and, when the fighting started, they themselves were so excited to be heroines – it was adventurous and meaningful, and, who know, maybe worth the sacrifice of separate individuality.  Without the Megagirls, we might have lost, and Horror would have conquered everything.”
        “We could have run.  We could have gone up north, or tried our luck down in the Southern Swamps; the people on the Island of Japan would probably have let us live with them.”
        “I’m not so sure; would they want Mexicans confusing their archaic social code?”
        “Well, maybe not, but what I’m getting at is that we had alternatives, and so I’m pretty much responsible for this.”
        “Well, now we have to see it through, you know?  We’re in this to our necks; we can’t back out – not that, at this point, backing out would help the girls in any way, since, as you’ve said, they’re pretty much stuck where they are right now.”
        “I’m thinking that if we put them to sleep – I mean the Megagirls – for several weeks, the interface might loosen just enough to let us carefully remove the girls with little or no neural injury, but one more battle and we’re out of luck – we’ll never, ever get them out of there.”
        “You have no way of knowing, Asmuran; for one thing, you might hurt them anyway, and for another thing you and the boys might figure out some clever new technique that you can use to get them out of there regardless of how long they stay inside or what they go through while they’re living there –  a process that has not occurred to you, but when you think of it, you’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah!  How come I didn’t see it earlier?’  That’s how ideas happen; they pop up from nowhere and you wonder where they were before they came to you, and why they’ve come just at this minute and not earlier.”
        “I hope you’re right, Humberto.  I don’t know.”
        “We don’t know either way.  And two more things.  The first is that you owe it to the Elves to make sure Horror’s crushed, so they can feel like everything is back the way it was, the party can continue, life goes on.  You know our presence weirds them out a bit; they’d rather have us here than have the Dwarfs among them, but it’s kind of hard for them to put up with this factory of ours, so let’s reward them for their tolerance.  The second thing is that perhaps the girls are better off as part of Megagirls; it’s hard to say.  Suppose you could be part of something bigger, better than you are, not really losing your own consciousness, but having it join with another one to make a larger whole.  Would that bad?  It might be, but, again … well, maybe not; it’s hard to say.  We really can’t be sure. So let’s just go with it.  Let’s win this war and then we’ll worry more about this stuff.”
        “I guess you’re right.  I really miss her though.”
        “Ah, see?  I knew it!  Don’t be selfish, man.  It’s not about your love-life, Asmuran; we’re fighting Horror.  I lost twenty guys just yesterday.  You’ve lost your girl – okay, but there’s been lots of losing in this war, a lot of people losing their best friends.”
        “I see your point, Humberto, but fuck you.”
        “See?  That’s the spirit.  Fuck you too, my friend.  Oh, here they come, amigo.  Get prepared.”
        Judge Imlig and the Duke and Princess climb up through the opening; Judge Imlig climbs one-handed – and one hand is all he has; his arm, too badly damaged for repair, and hanging uselessly, was cut away last evening by the surgeons, and the stump is wrapped in bandages.  “Whew!” Imlig says.  “We’ve finished burning all the carcasses of enemy combatants.  Now the job of burying our own is underway.  These two were nice enough to let us dig a ditch around the wall of Disengar to hold the bodies of the Dwarfish dead – about two thousand of us died down there.”
        “We’re burying our own beneath the roots of their own family Trees,” says Kalia.  “We lost five hundred.  They won’t be reborn for many decades; we’ll miss them a lot.  The rest of us have healed, except about a hundred who are still re-growing limbs.”
        Humberto says, “The courtyard down below has got a bunch of headstones showing where the Mexicans who died here yesterday are buried.  We’ll remember them with pride.”
        The Princess asks, “Do you guys also think that when you die you wake up right away in some nice other universe, to live forever there and look at pretty things?”
        “Yes, more or less,” Humberto answers her.
        “I thought so, since Judge Imlig has explained that this is why dead Dwarfish bodies go down in the ground – it symbolizes sleep, from which you wake up in that other world.”
        “I guess that’s right,” Humberto says, “although I never thought about it very much before; I just knew it was what we did.”
        “Do you believe, then,” asks Duke Timonar, “as Dwarfs do, that a person made the world – the guy they call ‘the Holy Awesome One’, and do you pray to him, and fantasize that you are serving him throughout your lives?”
        “Well, kind of, but we’re more laid-back than that, and we like focusing upon his Son, who came here twenty thousand years ago and was devoured by a giant slug while rescuing a baby who grew up to be the Mother of all Mexicans.”
        “That’s totally insane,” says Kalia.
        “To each his own, Señora,” he replies.
        “Well, people, shall we start?” Judge Imlig asks.  “I’ll get straight to the point, if you don’t mind.  We Dwarfs have not achieved our main goal yet – the occupation of Mount Sinister.  Now, Gnarl Barkenfist and Rifka Lorne are heading there right now, and they intend to kill the monstrous female entity beneath the mountain that we understand to be the source of all these Horrible perversions that have swept across the Realm in recent weeks.  We hope that they’ll succeed, and given what we’ve witnessed may in fact expect them to – but even if they do the Horrifying creatures that infest the mountain must be scoured from its guts, and I don’t think that Barkenfist and Lorne will want to stick around to get this done.  Nor do we Dwarfs expect you Elves to help; we’re sure you’d rather stay here and rebuild your city, if you can rely on us to get the job done out at Sinister so that new threats to your existence here do not emerge from its interior.  That’s fine with us, but given all the deaths and crippling injuries we’ve undergone we’re going to attempt a new approach.  It’s highly technical, so we will need assistance and advice from Asmuran and his smart boys, and will appreciate whatever help Humberto’s Mexicans are willing to provide to us.” (The Judge nods briefly to the gentlemen he names.)  “I promise you that in exchange for this assistance and support, you’ll have our help with any special projects of your own as long as they comply with Dwarfish Law.  As for your people, Princess Kalia, Duke Timonar, …” (he gives them each a nod as he addresses them) “… I only ask that they be fairly tolerant of us; there will be lots of Dwarfs in Disengar throughout the coming year or two, until we’ve laid a Highway through the Southern Swamps and can divert our flow of colonists to Sinister through that new conduit.  I’m well-aware that this may cause some stress, for which I certainly apologize, but, really, there is no alternative.”
        “Well, Imlig,” says the Wizard, “Tell us all what you have got in mind; we’re curious.”
        “Okay,” Judge Imlig says.  “So, it’s like this.  A thousand of my men are missing limbs or had their noses, ears, or lips torn off by Molemen’s claws, or lost at least one eye – and, obviously, I’m among these men.  Our Law tells us we may not copulate for reproductive ends unless we’re whole, and if it’s known that we can’t reproduce we can’t participate in several rites that play a central role in Dwarfish lives.  My own judicial status will persist, because administrative functions are assigned on grounds of expertise, but what about our ordinary mutilated Dwarfs?  The loss of status they’ll experience will hurt them more than any present wound – unless I compensate them in some way, give them a special status of their own that’s based on some advantage they possess.
        “Well, this is what’s been going through my mind.  It looks as though the giant Insect sprawled outside the wall, where it fell yesterday, was somehow fused together with his suit.  The same is true of those dead Power-Trolls that have been moved down to a basement-lab where your boys, Asmuran, as well as some of my own experts are examining the interfaces and the circuitry that Nausor’s engineers designed for them.  The Insect will be moved down there as well, and we’ll set up a team to study it.  We’re hoping that once we have understood the basic mechanisms and techniques involved in the creation of these things, we’ll have attained the power to transform those mutilated Dwarfs who volunteer to be so altered into Cyber-Dwarfs, augmented like the Insect and the Trolls.  I’m sure that every single one of them will want the alteration I propose, since in this way they’ll be contributing to our community and will receive due honors for their service and retain the social status that they would have lost.  Moreover, I will undergo this too, and thereby serve as an example, which I’m sure they’ll follow – Dwarfs, in general, are followers, except for those who lead.  The men back home at Dwarfenberg, who lost a body-part in battle there are next; they’ll serve us well when we begin to build that Highway through the Swamps to Sinister.
        “We cybernetically-augmented men will end up looking like metallic Dwarfs with legs that telescopically extend until we’re standing taller than the Elves, and telescoping arms that can extend ten feet or more to end in instruments that will project when needed, or retract like fingers: hammers, pliers, saws, and spades.  Our feet will be equipped with metal springs on which we’ll bounce along at least as fast as running Elves when we desire to.  Implanted lenses will replace lost eyes; I’ll have one in this bandaged socket here, and these will be adjustable, so that they can be used to see great distances, and in the dark, while eyes that are intact will be augmented with additional hinged lenses to achieve the same effect – night-vision will be useful underground.”
        “Wow, that’s a major undertaking, Judge.”
        “Whatever raw materials we need can be transported here from Dwarfenberg along with any mass-producible components we can manufacture there.  I’m summoning our leading engineers; they’ll work together with your Japanese – that is, if you agree to go ahead with my proposal, and I think you will, in view of all the help you’ll get from us on future projects that may interest you.”
        “Well, that sounds nice.  This project in itself sounds fascinating, and I’d like to help.  It needs a name.  Hmm.  ‘Project Disengar?’”
        “‘The Thoranc Project’, Boss,” Humberto says.
        “‘The Thoranc Project’ – yes, that packs a punch; I like it,” says Judge Imlig, who perceives that it can only benefit his folk to reinforce the Wizard’s bond with them by making his involvement in the work of manufacturing these Cyber-Dwarfs explicit in this title – everyone who hears it will think ‘Asmuran!’ at once.
        “I’ll make sure that Enrique understands we’re giving top priority to this,” Humberto says; “Whatever we can do to help you will be done; just ask, okay?”
        “You have our gratitude,” Judge Imlig says.  “I’m going to direct – I mean, advise – my colleagues at Dwarf Mountain to refrain from sending any more brigades to us.  If we can win this war with Cyber-Dwarfs, there isn’t any point in massively disrupting all the normal processes of our society, with husbands pulled away from wives who need their company and fathers separated from their kids, who need a certain regularity of family-life if they are to become successful grownups actively engaged in playing out the roles assigned to them.”
        “Aren’t more brigades already on their way?” asks Asmuran; “I thought that you had planned on having them head west from Dwarfenberg at ten-day intervals.  Do you intend to have them turn around and go back home?”
        “The two brigades already on their way will take the places of the veterans who fought here yesterday, except for those who will be Cyberized, including me, and any others with the expertise demanded by our ‘Thoranc Project’ – these will have to stay until the work is done.  With these exceptions, all our veterans will be returning home to Dwarfenberg – they no doubt want to see their wives and kids, return to work, and spend time studying.  The new brigades in turn will be replaced, say, in six weeks, but by a single one, since things will certainly have settled down by that time.  One brigade at Disengar, replaced at six-week intervals, will be sufficient to protect the colonists who will be flowing west from Dwarfenberg through this location to Mount Sinister until the Highway through the Southern Swamps has been completed in a year or two.”
        “Hello,” says someone who has just arrived from down below – they hadn’t noticed him ascending through the opening to join their party on the observation deck.”
        “Oh, wow, it’s Areton!” says Timonar.  “You’ve finally come!  Is Agathar below?”
        “No, Agathar and Sophrosunia are heading west with all their Green Berets; they joined a little army passing through the Highlands on its way to Fuzzyville, comprised of Boodles and a major force of Bearmen, led by someone who believes that he’s our king – his name is ‘Valorix’.
        “That’s right,” says Asmuran; “I do recall that when we spoke to Mooga on the Road near Boodletown, on our way east to ask the Dwarfs to help us take this city back, the possibility of something like this sort of expedition did arise.  My green- and gray-robed colleagues, Dagastar and Fladnag, were with Mooga at that time, and Sumiko, my girlfriend’s daughter, too – did you see them with Valorix as well?”
        “I did indeed,” says Baron Areton.
        “Do you have any sense,” Judge Imlig asks, “of what this army’s leaders plan to do once Fuzzyville’s secure?  Will they remain at that location, waiting there for us to come join forces with them, or go on to Sinister? – which seems unwise to me, but I might be mistaken; after all, you never know for sure what should be done; the situation’s always too complex for certainty.  I’m Imlig, by the way – Judge Imlig.  Well, High Judge to be precise.  I’m normally in charge of Dwarfenberg’s commercial and industrial affairs.”
        “He’s sort of unofficially in charge of operations here,” says Asmuran.
        “I see,” says Areton; “just as one would expect.  That’s why they’ll probably proceed to Sinister, Judge Imlig.  Valorix is well aware of your propensity to end up ‘unofficially in charge’ of everything, if not officially.  He’s thinking that if he establishes a presence at the mountain, waiting there for your arrival, this will guarantee that he and everyone he represents will be a factor later, when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of this upheaval; everything’s turned upside-down, and no doubt new arrangements will be made once we’re victorious.  They want to play an active role, negotiating from a strong position, equal to your own.”
        “I’m glad you didn’t go with Agathar,” says Kalia; “we need your people here.”
        “I thought so,” he replies.  “It seemed to me that it was my responsibility to stick around here, to enforce the point that Elfpark’s Elvish.  People might forget.”  He smiles at Judge Imlig in a way that makes it clear he has the Dwarfs in mind.
        “Don’t worry,” Imlig says; “We’ll stay right here inside the compound’s walls, out of your way.”
        “And how long will you be in Disengar?”
        “A year or two, but in about eight weeks it’s going to be quieter – you’ll see.  The Cyber-Dwarfs that we plan to produce are going to head west to Sinister, and we will cut our presence here in half – down to about five thousand, to protect the colonists that will be travelling through Elfpark from Dwarf Mountain, on their way to Sinister – a fairly constant flow; we’ll make sure they’re polite and orderly as they pass underneath your palaces.  Don’t be distressed – this flow of colonists through Elfpark will be ceasing once we’ve got our Highway laid down through the Southern Swamps; as soon as it’s completed, we’ll be gone.  Your patience and your gracious attitude are well-appreciated in advance, and are, in fact, expected, Areton, in view of our enormous losses here.  I’m sure you’re glad that you can now return to Elfpark with your people, who were spared the suffering my own experienced in battle yesterday.  We’re glad as well, and hopeful that we all will get along with minimal contention and ill-will.”
        “Oh, come on, Judge,” says Princess Kalia.  “I’m not denying that a lot of you were killed and hurt in battle yesterday, but, please, it wasn’t just a generous and noble altruistic sacrifice; you want to occupy Mount Sinister, and Elfpark’s on the way; the battle here got you a whole lot closer to your goal.”
        “You know,” says Imlig, “if it hadn’t been for Fladnag’s special pleading on behalf of Fuzzyville, his home, where I believe he has a special friend, we’d still be back in Dwarfenberg, producing weaponry, so there’s some altruism in the mix.  But let’s not bicker.  I’m more interested in what this fellow, Areton – what’s that?  Excuse me, Baron Areton – has said about the Bearman who commands this force that’s heading west, an army that perhaps will fight the final battle that occurs outside of Sinister’s interior, while Gnarl Barkenfist and Rifka Lorne descend into the mountain’s Lower Depths and find the source of all the Horrors there and put an end to it.  I really hope that this is how it happens; credit goes to that brave fellow – Valorix? – if he succeeds in conquering the outer slope.  I’ll be the first to give him my sincere congratulations if this is the case, if he’s still there, as I assume he’ll be, to greet us Cyber-Dwarfs when we arrive to clean out all the halls and passageways inside the mountain.  Now, what troubles me is that this Bearman-leader, Valorix, is calling himself ‘king’, which indicates an egotistical ambitiousness without clear limits.  Baron Areton, is that your sense of this man’s character?”
        “Well, I’m not sure; he is ambitious, yes, but so are you – I mean, collectively.  He wants to counterbalance Dwarfish strength with that of his united followers, including us.”  (He gestures in a way that folds the Duke, the Princess, and his himself within this “us”) This makes a lot of sense, it seems to me.  It’s worth considering.”
        “I see,” says Imlig.  “Asmuran, I fear that if he’s in possession of the slope when I arrive there with my Cyber-Dwarves he may feel so emboldened that he’ll claim more than we would be willing to concede.  He might attempt, for instance, to restrict our claim to Sinister and render it conditional, which we would not accept, and conflict might ensue, which no one wants at that point, after all that we’ve been through.  We might perhaps avoid that sort of thing if you came too, you and your Megagirls.  This would project enough authority to keep him from becoming bothersome.”
        “Humberto and I spoke here earlier about the Megagirls and whether we should take them out to Sinister with you, and we concluded that we should and would, along with a reconstituted team of power-suited Mexicans, to help with field-repairs and fend off enemies who try to climb them, as the Gobbins did at Dwarfenberg.  The suits will be repaired, and new men chosen from among the best of Hummy’s people – those who want to come.”
        “I’m very glad to hear that, Asmuran.  Our expedition will be fairly small in numbers, but extremely powerful – a thousand Cyber-Dwarfs, your Megagirls, and thirty power-suited Mexicans.  We won’t need baggage; we will carry kits of gear, replacement parts, and nutri-gel, which we will be consuming from now on.  Make sure your Megagirls are carrying their own equipment.  If you need to make external chambers for transporting gear, please do so; it will be an easy task.”
        “Perhaps the Duke and I should go along with you as well,” says Princess Kalia.  “We’ll have some influence with Agathar, and that should smooth things over when it comes to dealing with the army waiting there, since his folks are a major part of it.”
        “You’re right,” Judge Imlig says; “Thanks, Kalia; that would be helpful.  Yes, the Duke and you are more than welcome.  No, that’s not enough; I’ll put it this way: I officially request that you and he accompany our little army when we head out west.”
        “Request approved,” she says.  “Duke Timonar?”
        “Yes, certainly,” the Duke replies.  “But what will our tough little army’s title be?”
        “Ah,” says Humberto; “that, as always, is the most important question for us all.  ‘The Cyborg Super-Squad?’  The Megagirls are also cyborgs, so the name seems right, and it’s impressive.  People would be, like, ‘Oh shit!  The fucking Cyborg Super-Squad!’”
        “That has my vote, Humberto,” Imlig says.  “Does anyone dissent?  No?  Okay then, we’re calling it ‘the Cyborg Super-Squad’, or ‘Super-Squad’ for short.  Will that be all?  It’s time for me to head down to the yard, pray with my people, and get right to work.”