Frank didn’t want no Trouble. Thing is, Trouble had a way of tracking him down, taking his lunch money and shoving his head into the proverbial (or in some cases quite literal) toilet bowl. It had been like this ever since Frank could remember. Which is why he wound up here, in the very armpit of nowhere, tending bar in what can only be described as a glorified favela in the sorriest excuse for a village you’ve ever seen. It was too small and insignificant to even warrant a name, and the locals (of which there was a grand total of 36) simply referred to it as “The Town.” Which was generous at that.
He had seen more than his fair share of Trouble and knew it was just a matter of time until it tracked him down again.
Well, tonight appeared to be the night.
Frank could feel it in the air as a shadow fell over the stained glass in the front door of the bar and completely blocked moonlight light from entering the room. It was obviously not a human shadow. Way too big for that. Frank had a second to consider diving out of sight underneath the bar, but he’d been here before. When Trouble came a-knockin, there was no use pretending not to be home. Trouble would break the door down with a battering ram and drag him out, kicking and screaming. There was no avoiding it.
The room was filled with the usual crowd, humans, gnomes, goblins and orcs sitting mostly silent, sipping their drinks in peace. Bobby O’Mally was playing his guitar in the corner, and singing one of his numbers, Under The Killing Tree.
My baby’s always loved me, as I loved she
Until I took my baby down to the killing tree
What is it with human singers, Frank thought? Why all the death and murder? Can’t we ever just sing about candy and nice weather?
When the door swung open, the guitar went silent and the room went from quiet to devoid of all sound. In the doorway Frank saw a belly. Looking closer he saw two legs sticking down from the belly. He was fairly certain there was more to the individual standing outside, but he was too big to fit in the doorway.
With a grunt, the stranger ducked down and scrambled through the entrance. It was a big ogre, and he just barely managed to squeeze in. When he cleared the doorway he tried to stand up, but the ceiling was just a little bit too low, so he had to stoop.
Frank swallowed and took the ogre in. He always tried his best not to be prejudiced, god knew he’d been the victim of racism plenty of times, as most humans had, but he couldn’t help being slightly scared of ogres. Looking at this one, with his leather vest and bulging belly, the large rimmed hat and absolutely enormous revolvers on each hip, he had a very hard time keeping an open mind about the species.
“Can I h-help you?” he managed.
The ogre looked around the room. Everyone present stared at him.
“Lookin for a lady,” the ogre boomed.
“Not sure I can help you there, buddy,” said Frank and tried his hardest to smile.
“Lianna de Marcan,” the ogre said and Frank wasn’t sure if that was a name or some sort of ogre dialect he was unfamiliar with. The ogre kept glaring around the room.
“Listen,” said Frank, painfully aware of the fact that he was a very small human addressing an ogre armed to the sharp and quite large teeth. “We don’t want no trouble.”
And yet Trouble was here, yet again. Frank found himself thinking about his next move. He might jump a freight train and seek out a dwarfish mine to work in.
“No trouble,” said the ogre. “Where’s Lianna?”
“I don’t know a Lianna,” said Frank.
“What the fuck do you want, Mokk?” Frank looked into the corner and saw Larna the peyote farmer rising from her seat. She was an incredibly old female tiefling. Frank couldn’t be sure, but he estimated her to be at least 120 years old. Her hair was snow white and her horns were a very pale blue but had probably been ocean green at some point in her younger years. She was skinny and tall, and despite her advanced age, her posture was impeccable. Her face was gaunt and wrinkly. She snarled, baring her four remaining teeth. She glowered at the ogre, her eyes seeming to shoot sparks.
“Time to pay what you owe,” said Mokk the ogre.
“I don’t owe you a damn thing,” Larna said.
“Boss wants his gauntlets back.”
Everybody in the barroom was staring at Mokk and Larna. Eyes darting back and forth as if they were watching a particularly intense match of flame tennis.
“Look,” said Larna. “Do you seriously think I would be livin’ in this piece of shit town if I had actually taken them gauntlets?”
“Boss don’t pay me to think, Lianna.”
Frank felt the tension in the room growing. Mokk the ogre stretched his shoulders and cracked his knuckles. As he did, he bumped his head against the ceiling, sending the chandelier swinging back and forth. Frank was suddenly positive that the gas flames of the lanterns were going to go wild and burn the place down, but after the chandelier had swung around a bit he calmed down on that front. There was still plenty more for Trouble to wreck, though.
“I didn’t find them at your house,” said Mokk.
“You went to my house?” Larna shouted.
“So you must have them. Where?”
“Frank, will you please throw this savage out?” said Larna. Frank looked at her, mouth agape. Then looked at the ogre. Throw him out? How?
“Let me search your bag,” said Mokk. “If it’s not there I leave. Yes?” Frank almost sighed with relief, because this sounded so reasonable. Everybody can go home, all will be well. Alas…
Larna shook her head. “No way.”
Frank shouldn’t have been surprised.
Mokk the ogre could move remarkably fast for such a big creature. His fist slammed down on the bar before Frank could even register the movement. A large section of the bar counter was reduced to splinters in an explosion of wood and Trouble.
“Mokk!” Larna screamed. “The hell you think you’re doin’?!”
“Give. Me. The. Gauntlets.”
“Read my lips, you moronic son of a plankton eater,” Larna spat out. “I. Don’t. Have. Them.”
“Fine,” Mokk said and punched a wall, his fist going through the corrugated iron and out into the warm night air. He yanked his hand back and swept Bobby O’Mally over. He fell on top of his guitar, which splintered underneath his considerable frame.
Mokk twisted his head and the vertebrae in his neck cracked. He clenched his fists and started walking very slowly and menacingly towards Larna.
“Now,” she said. “Don’t go doin’ nothin’ you’ll come to regret, Mokk.”
The ogre said nothing.
“Let’s suppose I actually do have the gauntlets,” Larna said. “What are you going to do if I pull them out?”
Frank thought he saw the briefest look of hesitation pass over Mokk the ogre. He hardly slowed down, though.
“Are you sure you want to take me on?” said the old woman to the massive ogre. “I mean, if I have tangium gauntlets, what do you suppose your chances are?”
Frank blinked. Tangium gauntlets? That sounded to him like a weapon of mass destruction.
Tangium was not only an exceedingly rare and valuable metal. It was also incredibly powerful.
Tangium had been discovered only a few centuries prior. That discovery was widely considered the beginning of the downfall of civilization. Before that, the races of the world had lived mostly in harmony, give or take the odd religious war here and there. Tangium changed all that when its power became apparent.
Not only does the metal have incredible properties that are the closest thing to actual magic that exists in this world. It also appears to be the only element that can be said to have a sense of humor. To this day, no one really understands why tangium reacts as it does, but when force is applied to it (or when it is applied with force) it is not only incredibly destructive, but also tends to be absolutely hilarious. Unless you’re on the receiving end, of course.
If you shoot someone with a bullet made of tangium, they’ll not only die – they’ll do so in a most amusing way. A fat person might deflate like a punctured balloon, or a skinny one could take flight with the bullet and do somersaults in the air like an acrobat. Hitting someone with a rod of tangium could send them into a parallel dimension filled with hilarity. On the other hand, sometimes tangium has an even more twisted sense of humor and the rod hits back, knocking out the person swinging it. That’s what makes it so unbelievably dangerous.
At the mere mention of tangium, Frank winced. He was afraid of ogres, yes, but he was absolutely terrified of tangium. He had only even known it to bring Trouble.
Mokk the ogre kept advancing, and now he drew his revolvers out of his hip holsters. “Give me the gauntlets,” he said.
Larna’s face screwed up in a mocking expression and she mimicked the ogre surprisingly accurately: “Give me the gauntlets…” She went on: “You’re a moron, Mokk. I don’t have them.”
“Give them to me.” Pointing two enormous barrels at her.
“What do you want me to do? Will them out of my bag? Here, let me check.”
Larna grabbed her leather satchel and plunged her wrinkled hands inside. She had never looked older or more frail to Frank. He tried to look away, not wanting to see the nice old lady ground to flour by the angry ogre, but found himself unable to avert his gaze. Larna rummaged around in her bag.
“Nope, I don’t see ‘em,” she said. Mokk took one more step and then stopped, pointing his guns at her.
“I know you’re lying,” he said.
“Do ya now?” She kept rummaging around. Then she withdrew her hands in a flash. “Oh, that’s right.” Frank was astonished to see two shiny, bluish gauntlets on her old hands. They looked comically large at the end of her skinny arms.
Mokk fired both of his revolvers at once, but the gauntlets, seeming to have a mind of their own, swatted the bullets out of the air. One went into the floor, sending an explosion of splinters up out of the weary plywood. The other one whizzed past Frank’s ear, shattering the mirror behind him. He wished the section of bar Mokk had destroyed was still there, to shelter him from the violence.
“I knew it!” Mokk exclaimed. “Give them to me!”
“I don’t think so,” said Larna, baring her sparse gums in a grin.
She lunged toward Mokk the ogre and then everything happened in a blur. One second, a decrepit old lady with gauntlets of power and comedy stood in the corner while a scary ogre pointed two revolvers at her, and the next, she was punching the big baddie in the face with her tangium gloves. Frank braced himself for what would happen. It could be that Mokk would be disintegrated, or just as likely that Larna would turn inside out from the unpredictable madness of the metal.
But the force of the first punch actually sent the ogre flying. Which was catastrophic in the confined, flimsy space of the bar. His massive body tore away the rest of the bar counter. And two of the walls.
The bar’s patrons finally moved from their suspenseful stupor and ran. Not a minute too soon, as the ceiling started to collapse upon them.
Frank jumped out of the way as a rafter came down toward him, and in a rare stroke of luck landed right next to the gas shutoff valve and was able to turn off the flow to the lanterns before the whole place went up in a ball of fire.
The bar was reduced to rubble. The guests had gotten out, Frank had escaped by the skin of his teeth, but Larna and Mokk the ogre had been buried underneath the collapsed ceiling. Frank stood and looked at the ruin, almost impressed at how spectacularly Trouble had hit him this time. He was a little concerned about Larna. He had always liked the old lady and was sure her frail body must have been crushed underneath the rafters.
Then he saw the roofing stir. And then they both jumped up at the same time. Mokk was furious, and roared up into the night sky. Larna was quiet and lightning fast. She punched him again. And again. And again.
The gauntlets hit Mokk’s cheek, chin, nose, neck. It seemed like Larna was defying physics, she moved so fast. Every time the tangium touched the ogre’s skin, he appeared to shimmer. It was almost as if Frank was looking through him. He pulsed and it seemed like each punch made him shrink. Surely it was his imagination, Frank thought. Only it wasn’t. Mokk the ogre was really shrinking. With each punch he grew smaller.
Larna kept raining blows on Mokk. The ogre shrank and Larna kept punching until he was about the size of a poodle.
“Please stop,” he said, in a voice that was comically deep for such a tiny ogre.
“I did warn you, you bastard.”
“Yes. You did.”
Frank felt like laughing, but he found Mokk just as frightening as a doll-sized ogre, so he didn’t dare.
“I’m still going to need those gauntlets,” Mokk said.
“Are you completely insane?” Larna said.
“The boss is going to kill us both, Lianna.”
“Who is he going to have come for us, Mokk? Cause it didn’t work out great for you, now did it?”
Mokk looked up at her.
“He’ll come himself,” he said with an ominous tone in his voice.
“Himself?” Lianna said. “Last I heard he was bedridden.”
Mokk shook his head. “Don’t you remember his plan?”
She scoffed. “The insane plot to become immortal, you mean?” Mokk nodded. “That was a fantasy.”
“No fantasy,” Mokk said. “His transformation is almost complete.”
“You’re tellin’ me,” Larna said, “that his highness, the batshit-crazy elven king of Tangenia, is turning himself into a living tangium machine-man who’s going to live forever?”
“In a nutshell,” said Mokk.
“Well shit,” said Larna. She scratched her chin with a gauntlet-clad hand and looked down at the ogre. “You do realize,” she said, “that if he gets his hands on these here gloves it’ll spell the end of civilization as we know it.”
Mokk looked confused. “Really?”
“He’ll essentially be a demi-god,” she said. “I mean, I’m not one for politics, but a single bein’ havin’ that much power… It’s just not a great idea.”
Mokk took a second to mull it over. It appeared to require great effort, Frank thought.
“So what do we do?”
“We stop him, o’ course,” Larna said.
“We’ll think of somethin’.”
Larna stooped down and picked Mokk up in her arms. She turned her back and carried him away from Frank, like one of those rich people with their fancy, way too tiny dogs.
“There’s a freight train comes through every couple of weeks,” Larna told Mokk. “We’ll hop it where it slows down. We should be able to ride it most of the way to Tangenia.”
“Could you put me down?” Mokk asked. “This is humiliating.”
“Sorry, hon,” said Larna. “You’ll slow us down. Sorry about the shrinkage, by the way. But it could have been worse. I’ve seen these turn folks into puddles of sweet tea.”
“Not sure that would have been worse,” Mokk said sullenly.
Frank watched them go. He looked at Larna (or Lianna, or whatever her real name was) walk away and felt almost as if she was carrying Trouble away with her, as well as Mokk the tiny ogre. Sure, his bar was gone. But was it possible Trouble was finally leaving him?
He wanted to believe this was so. But deep inside, he knew better.