By Eirik Gumeny
Logi’s All-Hours Buffet was more public than Thyrsus would’ve liked, but a minotaur had to eat. And after everything that’d gone sideways with the Tartarus Syndicate, he needed to do it fast and cheap, too. A smarter minotaur probably would’ve stuck to the back booths, the darker corners, might’ve even tried to hide his busted knuckles in something more than a thin and increasingly unwhite napkin – but “smarter” wasn’t an adjective Thyrsus heard thrown his way particularly often.
No, Thyrsus of Knossos – enforcer and blunt-object-for-hire – well, he was who he was, and he knew who he was, and so here he sat: dead center in the cavernous warehouse of a restaurant, a spotlight shining down over his behemoth frame, his stained and rumpled suit, in plain view of everyone else. (It was close to three in the morning, so there weren’t many everyones, but still.) Steaming troughs of frogs legs and Jell-O and eggplant parmesan, rows and rows of pastries and macaronis and rices, spoked out around Thyrsus like the rays of the sun.
Logi’s had a longstanding gimmick: anyone who could eat the restaurant’s entire salad bar within three contiguous hours ate for free. Of course, the salad bar ran the entire length of Logi’s – mounted into the eastern wall, into the load-bearing beams, too heavy to stand on its own – and the restaurant was the length of an entire city block, so there weren’t many takers.
But, then, sometimes having four stomachs came in handy.
A red-and-white checkered napkin was tucked into Thyrsus’s bloodied collar by the waitress, announcing his attempt to be one of the buffet’s vaunted Porkiest Pigs. Most places like this had a “No Minotaurs” policy, or “No Cave Trolls” or some other of their oversized ilk, a size limitation written into the fine print, but Logi’s either hadn’t thought about such a circumstance or simply didn’t care. What either of those options meant for the quality of the salad ingredients on display was not something Thyrsus considered.
He was going to eat up, load up all four of his bellies to bursting, and then get the hell out of Los Fantasmas. There was most assuredly going to be a price on his head, and soon. He’d left the bodies, the associates he’d mistaken for enemies, as they were. Obviously, he hadn’t told his employers – even Thyrsus wasn’t that stupid – and he’d managed to evade the Tartarus handler who’d been waiting in the getaway van. But a big and bloody bludgeoning, a bank job that failed to yield any loot – well, they weren’t exactly the kinds of things the syndicates made a habit of ignoring. The buffet, then, a test of not just endurance but speed, and free to anyone desperate and determined enough, seemed the most propitious avenue to escape.
Thyrsus looked to the waitress next to him, an older human with hair like steel wool, and nodded. He was ready. But before the waitress could say go, before she could push down on the novelty stopwatch she was holding, another minotaur sat down opposite Thyrsus. The wooden chair whined as she settled; the small circle of a table nearly splintered beneath the weight of her crossed arms. A single black horn rose from one side of the minotaur’s head; a jagged stump rested, barely visible beneath her shaggy, rust-colored mane, on the other.
Roan of Clan Xochitl. Thyrsus would recognize her anywhere.
“Shit,” he mumbled.
Roan raised a single, enormous finger and requested to enter the contest.
“Oh,” the waitress said, “it’s not really – I’m not sure how two of you are supposed to –”
“We each start at one side,” the minotaur replied, her voice dragging with all the gravitas of a concrete block. Her scowling, emerald eyes never moving from Thyrsus’s. “The first of us to reach the center of the salad bar wins. Logi’s will neither supply nor lose more food than it would have otherwise provided, so the costs should be about the same. But the spectacle – a scene like this, like us, that is priceless for a place like this, no? The very stuff from which sideshow-barker daydreams are born.” Roan paused. “And, of course,” she continued, cocking an enormous eyebrow and looking briefly to the waitress, “should you personally facilitate such an endeavor, I’m certain you may even get a much-needed day off as reward.”
“Yeah, all right,” the waitress replied, shrugging.
Thyrsus stared at the red-haired minotaur opposite him, taking in his opponent. Roan didn’t have a gun on her, any weapon that Thyrsus could see – neither did he, for that matter – but Roan didn’t need one. Thyrsus knew for a fact she never carried one. He knew, too, that she called herself a private investigator, but wasn’t above a little freelancing on the side. Mercenary muscle whenever the syndicates needed something done dirty, whenever they wanted to make a point of not bloodying up their own hands. But most importantly, he knew that Roan of Clan Xochitl was well-known in the circles that she and Thyrsus traveled – and that only ever meant one thing.
Even if Thyrsus wanted to, even if he hadn’t broken his fist against that stone golem’s jaw – even if he was ten years younger, a hundred pounds heavier, and twice as skilled as he’d been at his best – he wouldn’t be able to take her in a fight.
But this wasn’t a fight.
“If I win, I’m free, right?” Thyrsus asked. “That’s the point of this?”
“If you win,” Roan agreed. “Are you ready, Thyrsus?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Roan sat up straight, rolling her shoulders forward. Her muscles flexed beneath her suit, straining the already-strained fabric. Her chair screamed again, struggling with the sudden shifting of mass. Roan exhaled, hard, through her ringed nostrils.
“You always have a choice,” she said.
“I don’t think you and I use the same dictionary.”
Thyrsus and Roan stared at one another, waiting and worrying, plotting and planning –
– and then the waitress shouted “Go!”
The two minotaurs scrambled from their seats, overturning the table along the way, and made for opposite ends of the quarter-mile-long salad bar. Thyrsus threw himself into a bowl of romaine with such force that his elongated snout slammed against the bottom of the metal basin, thundering the entire salad bar. Maybe it hurt, maybe it did damage, to him or the wooden bar or the joists along the wall – but he didn’t notice. He didn’t care.
He didn’t look up again for almost an hour.
When he finally did – when Thyrsus finally took the briefest of moments, lifting his head to breathe and digest – he saw that the salad bar had been all but demolished. Destroyed. He was standing amid actual wreckage, standing where the salad bar itself had once, only moments before, been. The cabinets beneath, the troughs and slots and sneeze guards above, had been reduced to an almost unidentifiable mess of splintered wood and rent metal, a glittering snowfall of broken glass. A trail of dishware and detritus stretched out behind Thyrsus, his footprints left in French dressing.
In front of him, not more than three feet away, Roan had done the same – had done worse, actually. Roan, Thyrsus realized, had been eating not only the offered fruits and vegetables, but quite literally everything: the dishes, the bowls, and bits of the salad bar, too. The very fixtures themselves added to her menu. Her suit, her fine fur, was stained with oil and vinegar, with mushed watermelon and dark shadows of olive juice. With blood. Slivers of wood and shards of glass stabbed out from her face.
Thyrsus held up a hand to his own head; he was bleeding, too.
But before he could do anything about it, before the pain could even register, he saw Roan see something of her own. She shifted, started forward. Toward the only remaining part of the salad bar, a singular pedestal rising up from the vegetable carnage beside it.
A singular pedestal holding a hubcap-sized plate of sliced habaneros.
Thyrsus got to the plate first. He grabbed it and lifted it up and swallowed the peppers down, swallowed them like he was chugging a beer. Ignoring the burning, the fire threatening to close his throat. Ignoring the bile and the urge to vomit.
He threw the empty plate to ground, the dish thudding against the carpet.
Through a blur of tears, Thyrsus looked to Roan, to the minotaur standing in front of him. Standing exactly where she’d been a minute earlier – she hadn’t actually tried for the habaneros. She hadn’t tried to win. She was bowing slightly toward him, conceding the defeat.
“Why?” he asked, snorting back snot. “Why did you let me win?”
“Because,” she answered, “there is no honor in bringing only the second Porkiest Pig to meet his fate.” She lowered her eyes. “You have one hour before I resume my search, Thyrsus. I suggest that you make it count; I will not be so amiable when we meet again.”
Thyrsus of Knossos, for possibly the first time ever, did not need to be told twice. He was halfway to the restaurant’s exit before Roan was finished talking. By the time the waitress shouted “What the hell did you two do?!” Thyrsus was already outside, the cold of the night stinging the shattered glass sticking out from his face.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of Beggars Would Ride and the Exponential Apocalypse series, and the founder of Jersey Devil Press. His short fiction has been published by Andromeda Spaceways, Kaleidotrope, and Shotgun Honey, among others. He currently lives in Albuquerque, N.M., where he regularly has to fight giant atomic ants with a flamethrower.