After seeing the man from across the street push an empty Walmart shopping cart into the Sonic parking lot, only to abandon it there, for a week straight, Josiah decided to call out to them the next time they appeared.

“Hey! What are you doing there?”

The man walked stooped, the white parts of his owl cut dyed a bright, chipper teal. “Of course, of course. It’s not always obvious to everyone, and I’m happy to explain.”

“Please do.”

“Every shopping cart that Walmart makes contains an atom of shopcartium,” the man said. “Now, being so close to Walmart naturally cancels that effect out. But by bringing them over here, I’m letting the shopcartium react with the cosmic rays properly.”

“And what will that do?” Josiah said.

“Oh, it will bring about the end of the world,” the man said. “It’s time, don’t you think?”

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Unmei no Fuguhiki was carried by Takenaka Chihiro, the most famous wandering chef of the Sengoku Jidai period. Highly sought-after as a maker of sashimi by daimyo, their retainers, and even the Imperial Court, he had pledged as a youth to never settle in an area permanently until he found his brother. Once poor farmer’s children in the Takeda realm, Takenaka Chihiro had been apprenticed to a chef after his parents’ death, while his brother Takenaka Akira had been apprenticed to a fisherman. After making a name for himself in Osaka, Takenaka Chihiro had made his way across wartorn Japan, searching for Akira while earning his way through cooking.

Takenaka’s rotund physique belied his strength and speed, but nevertheless he was continually beset by bandits while traveling and by assassins when he refused his services or refused to serve as a tool of assassination himself. On one occasion, after refusing to deliberately serve improperly prepared, deadly fugu to Matsudaira Kiyoyasu, Takenaka was attacked by no less than five assassins. To protect himself, he carried Unmei no Fuguhiki. It had been made for him by Sengo Muramasa as a gift following a particularly exquisite meal, and despite its appearance as an ordinary fugu knife, it was forged to the same quality and with the same techniques as a samurai blade of the finest quality.

So although Takenaka preferred good humor and abhorred violence, when he was pushed he could wield Unmei no Fuguhiki with the skill of any swordsman, and it could easily parry any blows rained upon it. The same knife that created exquisite sashimi for the greatest nobles of the age was also plunged into the hearts of their darkest assassins when necessary.

When Takenaka died aged 75, Unmei no Fuguhiki was buried next to him at his request. While history does not record whether he ever found his brother Akira, relatives tend his grave to this day. Takenaka never took a wife, and his living relatives believe be was with a nephew at the time of his death.

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“And now,” laughed Takenaka Chihiro, “I must ask your staff and cooks to leave me to prepare this part of the meal alone. I will call them when I am finished.”

“Why is that, Takenaka-san?” said one of the senior cooks to Matsudaira. “We can assist you ably. You may be one of the most respected cooks in the countryside, but even the best swordsman needs retainers.”

“You mistake my intent, and for that I am sorry. I meant no offense, so if it was given please blame fat, silly Takenaka and the fine words that turn to hollow ash in his mouth. No, friend, I ask you to leave because I am to prepare the fugu, and if the slightest mistake is made, it will be deadly. I work alone so that, if a mistake is made, it is mine and mine alone.”

“Surely such a thing could never happen, Takenaka-san,” said the senior cook.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Takenake with a rueful smile. “Especially if their hands and head are deadened by sake. I once cooked for a daimyo and allowed his chef to assist me. I had too much to drink and cut the fugu liver improperly. Three people were sickened and nearly died. The next day, the daimyo came to me personally. He apologized for the incompetence of his chef, and told me the man had been put to death. For my mistake. Friend, I cannot and will not allow that to happen again.”

Seeing the wisdom in this, the other chefs allowed Takenaka to prepare the final dish himself. He was cutting the fugu with the utmost concentration when a voice broke in: “We have a proposal for you, O Takenaka Chihiro.”

Takenaka did not look up from the fish; he was carving thin, translucent sections off of its flesh and layering them into intricate flowers. “Speak if you must,” he said, relying on his peripheral vision to pinpoint the man who had crept up to him in the abandoned kitchen. “Then leave me to my work. I enjoy a good joke, but now is not the time for levity.”

“No joke, Takenaka-san,” the interloper said. “My master bids you welcome and bears a message: it would be most wise if you were to allow an accident to befall your client, Matsudaira Kiyoyasu. If you allow your concentration to slip, you will be well-rewarded by my liege.”

“My reputation would be forfeit.”

“Not to my liege. He would take you on as a chef, full time, and pay double, triple, what these provincial fools can. You would also have his gratitude, and his resources, both of which would be useful in locating your brother.”

Takenaka laid another paper-thin slice of fugu upon the plate. There were four more interlopers now, each dressed in black, each motionless and speechless aside from the one who had already spoken.

“Begone,” said Takenaka. “I refuse to debase myself and my art to that level.”

The sound of drawn swords followed. “That is…unfortunate.”

“My sashimi knife, Unmei no Fuguhiki, can cut more than fish,” said Takenaka with a smile. “It can also parry a swordstroke. Do you trust your life to being quicker than it, a blade that has sliced every flesh from minnow to man?”

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The elves of Tiramoor had as the second in line to their kingship one Naluri, who despite reaching her majority had never grown beyond the stature of a child. Their erstwhile enemies, the dwarves of Marrowdun, meanwhile, had a princess who would have been first among her peers had tradition allowed for any but males to succeed to the Diamond Throne. Inacha, their princess, was of exceeding height for their kind, nearly two dwarven cubits tall. Indeed, were it not for her characteristically tough skin and close physical resemblance to her father, one might have mistaken her for a human.

It was a human, of the kingdom of Al-Urdin, who first had the idea of an exchange. After a particularly brutal skirmish between a group of Tiramoor rangers and Marrowdun prospectors, the Bey of Yiddah intervened, petitioning his uncle the Sultan to arrange an exchange of hostages for mutual peace and to increase understanding. Having hunted with Naluri and Inacha, the Bey suggested them as the hostages.

And so it was that the tallest of all the dwarves and the shortest of all the elves found themselves at the Al-Jazīrah, an island at the confluence of three great rivers traditionally used for negotiations. The notion was that, with the humans of Al-Urdin as mediators, the princesses would seal the peace between their squabbling peoples.

As fate would have it, they would never be exchanged.

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“It’s not merely enough to cry out to the dead,” said Seth. He tapped a long, bony finger to his temple. “Think about it. There’s naught but mush betwixt their ears; it’s the spirits that you’re truly calling out to. Maybe it’s the spirit that animated them in life; maybe it’s a malevolent thing of hatred looking for a cheery shamble and murder.”

Cherie looked at the tottering forms, leathery skin on some, liquefied putrefaction on others. “Speak not to them, but to what animates them…”

With a gasp, she saw what Seth was talking about as her focus improved and the veil cleared. She could see the spectral lights of spirits moving within the stumbling shells. Some looked like ordinary folks, while some were raging cacophonies of spirit energy, lightquakes hanging onto physical forms.

“How do you speak to something like that?” Cherie whispered.

“We’re called ghoulcriers for a reason,” replied Seth, sinking a bit to whisper in Cherie’s ear. “It’s not a civilized conversation, it’s a primal howl of command. They do what you ask because they’re terrified of what will happen if they don’t–even beyond death.”

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“Hmph, a succubus?” The demon spat on the ground, where wisps of smoke soon began to rise from the abyssal iron. “Weaklings. Trash from the gutter.”

“Oh?” Nuby crossed her legs daintily, the metal sequins lightly jangling. “Tell me then, Daot, how my kind are ‘weaklings’ and ‘trash.'”

“An orgy is all well and good. I’ve had plenty in my time. But you’re obsessed with it. So hungry for constant carnality that you can’t think of anything else. Can’t plan worth a damn, always flighty. And of course, strength.” The demon took up a metal chair and bent it nearly in half, with the metal squealing and heating cherry-red as he did. “Here, the weak do what the strong tell them to do. You succubi are weak, and you’ll never be able to hold a thought in your head for long before sex crowds it out.”

“I see,” Nuby said evenly. “And what would a real demon, like yourself, one who is neither weak nor trash, comport himself?”

Daot puffed out his chest. “I take what I want from those that are too weak to stop me,” he said. “When I want an orgy, I do it, but I don’t allow that to get in my way. I’m not constantly mewling for sex, not when there’s things to plan, things to think of, and skulls that need a bashing-in.”

“I wonder,” Nuby said. “Do you remember a little get-together in the Brass District some months back?”

“Huh?” said Daot. “Sure. Fun party. Thirty people in five beds. That was a night.”

“You said something to the same effect that night,” said Nuby. “That succubi were easily distracted, weak, unable to plan, all that nonsense.”

“Hmph,” the demon snorted. “Was it nonsense?” He dipped a great paw into his vest and procured a watch, checking the time. “Now, if there’s nothing else, hand over the money and let me be on my way.”

“Of course.” Nuby handed over the satchel with Daot’s protection money, letting it jangle to the floor. “A word of warning, though. I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”

Daot seized the bag and began greedily rifling through it. “What would you know,” he snorted. “There are no orgies in the bag, so you are FAR outside your realm of experience.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” Nuby examined her nails nonchalantly. “You know what would be a pity, Mr. Daot? It would be a pity, a real pity, of some go-getter of a succubus overheard your blustering that night and thought to learn you a thing or two about strength and focus.”

Looking up, eyes narrowed, the demon showed his full set of teeth. “It would be a pity if I had to rip her to shreds for it.”

“And do you know what else would be a real live tragedy? If that succubus murdered one of your bagmen, one of your little errand boys, and you didn’t even notice because you’re so disconnected from your own extortion business. The idea that such a rough, tough, FOCUSED demon like Mr. Daot could let something so slight slip through his fingers…embarrassing, to say the least.”

Daot looked up. “Perhaps, but an embarrassment that is easy to deal with thanks to a snapped neck.”

Nuby smiled. “Ah yes, but what if your new bagman took it upon herself to concoct a poison? Why, think of what a waste it would be to have every one of those loot bags dusted with a fractional dose of something that, at the right potency, means a screaming death even for a denizen of the abyss?”

Again, Daot looked at the succubus. “What’s that?”

“Imagine the last dose, the last fraction, working its way up through the miserable ranks of Mr. Daot’s pathetic and ramshackle excuse for an organization. Bagman after bagman dropping dead with Mr. Daot’s coin in their hand and on their lips.”

When she glanced up, it was just in time to see Daot topple to the floor, hard enough to dent even the iron. Angry-looking fluid was already beginning to leak from his mouth, his eyes. Nuby rose and sauntered over to him, kneeling down to look him in the face. “Perhaps you’re right about succubi being too distracted by sex to see the larger picture, Mr. Daot,” she said with an icy chill. “After all, I’ve spent months rather single-mindedly obsessing over how best to screw you.”

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Elwyn Morrowshire was not pleased to the Duke’s goblins in her vegetable patch.

“The Duke offers protection to those who accept his rule and pay their taxes,” said their leader, who held a rusty broadsword in one hand and a sack of Elwyn’s fresh-dug potatoes in the other. “If you fail to do so, why, there’s no one to protect you from all manner of unsavories. Like us.”

Planting herself in their path, with a sickle in one hand and a scythe in the other, Elwyn responded tersely. “I accept the Duke’s rule,” she said. “I pay my taxes. There’s a sack of potatoes just like that at the Duke’s manor.”

“Ah, but that’s just what a rebel and an anarchist and a tax-avoider would say, isn’t it, hmm?” replied the goblin. “I have it on good authority that your burg here has been deficient. Even if you did fork over your measly mealy potates, if your neighbors neglect to do the same, your crops are just as forefeit.”

Elwyn straightened her back. She was not a short woman, nor was she slender; a lifetime of work in the fields had given her a powerful stocky build to go with her height. “And why is that? They made the decision to break the law, I made the decision to obey it.”

“But you also made the decision not to encourage them to do what was right. You did not convince them. So you are as guilty as they, don’t you see?”

“I think the Duke has hired you as mercenaries to shake even more money and food out of people who have already given all they can.” Elwyn said. “I think you’d better leave my meager potato field, which I work alone with my bare hands, and never return.”

The goblin leader waved his followers forward with his sword. “Take all she has. If she resists, cut her down.”

He didn’t even have time to utter a surprised squawk when Elwyn brought her scythe sweeping down and cleaved his head from his body. The nearest of his posse found themselves sorely put upon, with one sent flying by the butt of the scythe and another hooked in the ear with the sickle and badly bloodied.

“I’ve raised, and buried, three children on this land,” Elwyn growled. “I’ve met, married, and buried two husbands here as well. Nearly sixty years I’ve been quiet and loyal to your duke, and this is my reward, eh?”

Casting aside her farm tools, Elwyn picked up the fallen goblin leader’s sword. It was rusty and dull but well-made. She took a few practice swings as the remaining goblins circled her warily, trying to get a feel for how the thing balanced. She remembered the few sword strokes her first husband, Mougin, had taught her thirty-five years ago—strong strokes for self-defense from a man who had been at war.

Without their mouthy leader, the goblins attacked in a disorganized fashion, one at a time. Elwyn crushed the first one’s skull and took his shield. The second instead unslung a crossbow and crannequin, circling and cranking before loosing a bolt. Elwyn’s shield took the blow, her skills as an occasional hunter of small game on full display. Before the goblin could fire again she was upon him; he escaped with his right arm broken, dangling, and flopping uselessly at his side.

Elwyn Morrowshire did not know if then, but she had taken her first step to becoming Grandmother Elwyn, the most skilled and feared rebel in the history of Solanshire.

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