The interviewer closed his portfolio, setting it aside. “We call the organization Ducks Unlimited, of course. But we want you to tell us: how unlimited are they? What, if anything is the limit of the ducks where Ducks Unlimited is concerned?”

The CEO candidate, Mr. Smith, folded his hand and smiled. “A limitless duck exists,” he said, “whether now–in which case we must seek it–or in the future–in which case we must prepare for its arrival. Once this unlimited duck is known to us, we will steadily feed it, small things at first, and then greater, until it contains all things and all is unified within the flesh of the ur-fowl.”

Looking to his right and then to his left, and finding smiles and nods on both sides, the interviewer rose and extended his hand. “I think you’re our man, Mr. Smith,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”

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No one screwed with Mama Roneck.

She didn’t say much, serving primarily as a maid and monitor for her unruly brood following the early death of her husband. When times got lean and the boys began turning to petty crime, Mama Roneck made sure that they were well-fed and well-clothed doing it. Whenever the police stopped by the ramshackle Roneck homestead, she would greet them, serve them tea, and calmly hand out terse alibis that were backed up by neighbors.

It wasn’t like Mama Roneck didn’t reward them for their loyalty. The Schmidts got a gold watch chain after insisting Elmo Roneck had been with their boy fishing on the night that the Philips 66 had been knocked over. Essie Billingsley found Ray and Ernest Roneck sullenly and silently helping bring in her harvest after she’d sworn up and down they’d been nowhere near the ditch where Sammy Carruthers’ torso was found. But while these little gestures were welcome, most folks in those parts would have played ball anyway, carrot or no, because of the stick involved.

No one screwed with Mama Roneck.

One day, as she was wont to do, Mama Roneck showed up at Jeremy and Carol Shire’s little patch. “You were with the boys fixing a wagon last night,” she said. “Swear to it if the cops come by, and we’ll look on it as a favor.”

Jeremy, sick of her demands and with only a silk handkerchief to show for the last time he’d lied for a Roneck, angrily spat his tobacco in his cup. “You’re going to have to to better than your usual if you want that,” he said. “I want twenty bucks this time.

Carol had tried to stop her husband, tried to apologize over him, but Jeremy–fortified by a little hard cider–held firm. He was not telling Roneck lies unless cash was attached.

“All right then,” Mama Roneck said. “Sorry to trouble you, Jeremy Shire.”

“Does that mean you’ll be back with my money?” Jeremy said.

“You’ll get what I owe you, and no mistake.”

The next day, a plume of smoke was seen rising from the Shire farm. When the cops got there, they found what was left of Jeremy and Carol upstairs, in their bedroom. No one could quite get their story straight after that, whether the cops had found evidence that the couple’s throats had been cut, or whether burned bits of rope showed they’d been tied to their bed as the house came down about them.

Either way, everyone was able to get their story straight about where Mama Roneck had been the night before, and where her boys had been the night before.

No one screwed with Mama Roneck.

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“Gently, gently, now. There we go.” With the grace and elegance of a nurse drawing poison from a wound, Nyartha drew the memories from Codswallop’s skull. They materialized briefly as wisps of steam in the air between them before Nyartha breathed them in like the steam off of fresh-baked bread. She let out a shuddering, gaspy sigh of pleasure as the last wafts of vapor–if vapor it was or had ever been–vanished up her nose.

“What a truly brilliant, magical adventure I had in the Grimsby Heights, Mr. Codswallop,” said Nyartha. “The sensations are so real, so vivid, like a strong wine. I was so terrified by the end, granted, but what a rush of life!”

“Grimsby Heights?” said Codswallop, twitching his whiskers. “Hm. Never been. Always wanted to go, though, in my youth.”

That’s what you meant by sharing memories?” Rags cried. “Sucking his life right out of his head?”

“Oh please, don’t be so melodramatic.” Nyartha reclined back in her chair, a golden goblet in her hand. “I’ve not hurt your precious manservant. He’s lost nothing, so far as he’s concerned, and I am able to live the life of adventure I so richly deserve without breaking the terms of my…imprisonment.”

Rags swept the feast off of the table before him. “You won’t get anything like that from me!” he shouted.

“Of course not, boy,” said Nyartha, gently. “You’ve barely had any life or any memories to take, after all. I’ll have to find another use for you. Perhaps a nice fillet, fresh-cut and preserved with a little magic. You might sustain me for the time it will take to scoop out what’s left of your Codswallop and lure in some fresh meat.”

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We sweat in the streets
Bake in the shadows
The hottest month ever
So they say online
We all know it’s wrong
In the eyes, looking up
In the mind, looking out
We know how dire it is
Yet we sit inside
In artificial winter
And pretend that things
Can keep going like this
Until next summer

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“I do, as you say, have the power to grant your request,” said the Empress. “But what, then, will I do for the other seekers that will come here, just as worthy as yourself, seeking just such a boon?”

I bowed as politely as I was able. “That would be up to your majesty to decide,” I said.

“Would it, though?” said the Empress. “In making the decision to grant such a favor to one such as yourself, am I not stating that the palace is open for business, and that anyone who thinks themselves worthy of such a gift needs but to tickle my ear with it? When, then, would I have time for affairs of state, besieged as I would surely be by those seeking royal favor?”

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Through the slits of the fence, he could see the thing shambling out of the darkness, illuminated by the streetlamps’ pools of sickly light. It stumbled about on digitigrade paws, leaving definite footprints in the softer asphalt it trod across in an acrid cloud of vapors. There were no arms, at least none that he could see, only a long beck with a ruff of bristly black hair that stood out against the velvety brown hue that made up the rest of the creature.

But it was the end of its neck that truly made his stomach turn, even from his hidden vantage point. No face, no eyes, nothing recognizable as an analog of any terrestrial life. Just a gaping black hole, brimming with milky fluid and undulating with a cruel parody of respiration. Every few steps, a tendril of whatever roiled within that lipless maw would trickle down in mucous strands, with the same effect that the being’s path had on soft and exposed asphalt: any surface, even hardened concrete or the cast iron bases of streetlamps, began to liquify and slough away wherever the horror’s noisome secretions touched it.

Each streetlamp would subtly change its hue as the thing passed beneath it, loudly snuffling and pacing as if looking for something. The spectrum would dim, grow strange, almost like a blacklight, before gradually returning to normal once the creature had passed.

He looked up. The streetlamp closest to him, the one that showed his shadow clearly to anything with eyes that might seek it, was beginning to grow ever more pallid and uncanny with each passing moment.

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“THE TREE THAT OWNS ITSELF FEARS US,” the yellow aspen said, projecting the words into the minds of the adventuring party. “THAT IS WHY IT HAS SENT YOU HERE TO FELL US.”

“No need to flip your wisk there!” said O’Reilly. “I don’t even know if that tree is anything but a normal tree, its gold and McScroggins’s insistences aside.”

“Is that why you brought in the gnolls?” said Runthorn. “To protect yourself?”

“NO. THEY ARE AN IRRITATION IN THEIR CONSTANT WORSHIP. GOOD RIDDANCE.”

“What could one beautiful, natural tree have to fear from any other beautiful, natural tree?” said Willow.

“ASPEN ARE DIFFERENT. WHERE ONE TREE GROWS FROM ONE ROOT, WE GROW A FOREST. IN TIME YET TO COME WE WILL SPREAD OVER THE OTHER TREE’S ROOTS AND DESTROY THEM. IT KNOWS THIS.”

“Or! Or, maybe, it’s just a tree that tourists like,” Ellie said. “And they don’t want a new tree taking all the tourist money.”

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