The reigning King of Pexate, Axtyn II, and the reigning king of Layyia, Fraen IV, met at one of the relatively few mountain passes between their two nations to discuss the end of the war that had ravaged both kingdoms for ten years.

Seeking to impress his enemy, Fraen IV emptied his capitol of splendor and staged a military parade before the pass the like of which had never been seen before. Swordsmen, archers, and a line of gob camp-followers, cooks, and attendants that stretched a mile behind them. Each, from the mightiest marquis to the lowliest stablehand gob, was clad in glittering plate and mail that sparkled in the noonday sun.

For that has always been Layyia’s strength; its inestimable beauty and fine culture.

For his part, Axtyn II brought his best and most experienced troops, and as the Layyians paraded, he arranged them in a classic bull-horns pincer form upon the slopes. The men were bedraggled and dirty, everything they owned coated with campaign grime. Only the signal and unit flags were clean, for even the king himself wore unadorned armor with only a gold circlet and his personal standard betraying his rank.

When the two kings met, Axtyn II complimented his rival on his parade formation. Fraen IV, who had been hoping to witness an equal display from Pexate as a spectator, asked why there had been none, and commented upon the shabbiness of the men he saw.

The men were there to do dirty jobs, Axtyn claimed, and to attack for their king and their country if the need arose. He had always found it better to have a well-drilled if shabby army than a glistening and inexperienced one.

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A memory, or sensory, stone is a gem which is enchanted with some or all of a thinking being’s memories. Normally, only the being that imparted those memories to the stone can retrieve them, but it is possible to “unlock” a stone to allow it to be shared with anyone, though this is a complex and arcane process if not done by the memory-holder or the stone’s creator.

Sometimes, natural memory-stones will be created during traumatic and/or exceedingly magical events. These stones have no single creator and gather together numerous memories from beings nearby, and as such are impossible to read under normal circumstances. The unlocking ritual is necessary to reveal the secrets of these rare and valuable stones.

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“It is a simple cantrip, but an effective one,” said the Confessor. “Shall I explain?”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” said Lukis, holding up his shackled arms.

“One always has a choice,” laughed the Confessor. “Why, not two years ago, I was interrogating another heretic and she refused to speak and howled when I spoke at her. Such is the dire insanity that grips those who have turned away from the Font, is it not? She died in horror, with no idea what had happened.”

“If you’re trying to scare me, remember that I’ve been a soldier, and a prisoner of war,” Lukis replied. “Dying in horror for no reason is something I’ve seen.”

The Confessor pursed her lips. “The cantrip represses your ability to sleep, but not the need your body, mind, and soul have for slumber. Until you confess your heresy and seek the divine forgiveness of the Font, you will know no slumber.”

“Is that all? Try being under enemy attack for five days straight, and see how much sleep you need then.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt you’ll last five days. On the sixth day the hallucinations will likely start, and after that the seizures. Your body will simply shut down on or around the twelfth day, though occasionally heretics have lasted as long as two and a half weeks.”

Lukis sneered. “And you’re willing to imprison me, to feed me, to water me, during all that rigamarole?”

“Why, my dear heretic,” said the Confessor. “Time, food, water, even the stone that was hoisted into these walls…it all comes from the Font, and to the Font it shall return. We faithful have nothing but time and an abundance of resources.”

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“An old man,” Abdullah said. “A Bedouin, Al Murrah, by the look of him.”

“That is correct,” said Richat. “Your contract is to kill him as soon as possible. It need not be secret or silent, and collateral damage is acceptable.”

“Why lavish such attention on an old nomad?” Abdullah said. “Time will kill him with no fuss in a year or two.”

“We are hiring an assassin, not a reporter,” was the reply. “You are not being retained for your ability to ask questions.”

“I also have a reputation as being a choice for sensible people, and a payday like this for a job so seemingly unnecessary…people will talk. Some will say it is a payoff, or that drugs are involved. Surely you understand that I cannot allow that.”

“Very well,” Richat growled. “That old man is the last person on earth that knows a certain story. He has told it to no one that yet lives, but while he is alive, the chance exists that he might impart it, or that—worse yet—record it.”

“I see,” Abdullah said. “Killing someone for something they know is very much my business, and if I let it be known—without any details, of course—that he was silenced, that should be enough.”

“Good,” Richat said. “You have work to do, then?”

Abdullah paused. “Out of…curiosity…what is the danger of this particular story?”

“It is the last clue in living memory to the location of Irem of the Pillars, the lost paradise of the Rub al-Khali.”

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The arena’s architecture was magnificent, and like everything else in Ur, it was entirely coaxed. Trees and other plants had been encouraged to grow in the proper shapes, and far more quickly than their usual glacial pace. The old arena, abandoned, was already rotting away and would soon be noting but another load of mulch-soil for the farms.

Beneath a canopy of leaves overhead, the spectators watched as Neith was dragged out on a travois borne behind a grunting aurochs, the lashes of her recent imprisonment still fresh on her skin. Above, Iry looked down upon her smugly, clad in the robes of the high priest rather than his usual kingly garb. Duanna was beside him, draped in a queen’s raiment that had not even been resided to fit her yet.

“Behold, how the mighty are brought low before the eyes of Asiku,” Iry proclaimed, his deep voice easily resonating to the assembled people of his capital. “For her crimes against Asiku, against I, his priest, and against this city of Ur, which I rule, the one known as Neith will be executed here this day by Asiku himself!”

On Neith’s right, a coaxer stepped forward. He planted a small seedling, gently scooping the arena earth over its fragile roots. Then, retrieving a wooden container from the travois, he emptied its cargo of sticky pitch all over Neith–completely covering her in flammable liquid.

“When the execution plant reaches its zenith and grows its amber lens, immolation shall follow at the hands of Asiku and his mighty sun!” Iry looked down at Neith. “If the condemned wishes to speak, she may do so,” he added, indifferently.

Neith pursed her lips; a slight bubbling of the pitch was her only response.

“So be it.”

By now, the execution plant had developed its first leaves, and the amber lens that would focus the light–a modified fruit–had already begun to bud. But just as the first rays of focused light played across Neith, bringing a small bit of pitch on her shoulder to a near-boil, the sun was abruptly blotted out.

Iry’s satisfied grin turned to doubt as he, and everyone else, looked skyward.

A towering dust storm, the color of night, loomed on the horizon. The bitter fruit of Ur’s long depletion of its soils had bloomed, and it blossomed into destruction.

As the first stinging, lashing particles blew into the arena, and the crowd fled in terror, blinded and choking, Neith simply closed her eyes, let the now-cool pitch slide over them, and rode out the storm.

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In time, though, as the bōs were restricted further and further into the mountains by the hand of man, their songs turned more and more to dirges for the dead. Even the mastery of iron by the bōs, given to them as a result of Gervos’ Treachery, proved only a temporary respite.

For many years, the only sign of the bōs were their death-songs, mournful operas in a tongue no man could ever speak and only a few could comprehend. They served as living monuments to the deceased, a song of all their noteworthy deeds and even some deeds of their sires. The valley-folk, fearful of the strange sounds, would only redouble their efforts to pen in the mountains and slaughter the herds of goats and deer which provided the bōs with their only sustenance.

Nearly fifty years after the last living bōs has been seen by human eyes, and more than a decade since one of their songs had been heard, a new and powerful death-ballad echoed over one of the most fertile valleys in the realm. With only the barest breaks, it went on for days. At the lord’s request, an aged scholar from the College was brought in to listen. Perhaps the last human alive who could interpret even a word of the bōs language, he listened intently as the song went on, taking notes as it did.

Finally, after nearly a week, the bōs fell silent. The scholar, with tears in his eyes, finished his writing and began to pack his things for the long journey home.

“Wait, father,” said one of the farmers, a man who had greatly expanded his lands at the expense of the bōs. “What does it mean? Are they to make war on us?”

“No, son,” said the scholar, sadly. “The bōs are no more. That was their last, singing the death-song not only for himself, but for all his people.”

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“It’s quite simple,” said Johnny, spinning a neuroadaptor around one spindly finger. “Someone’s been up in your noggin.”

“What?” I said. “You mean…literally?”

“That’s right. Remember the old Sierra Club motto? ‘Leave No Trace?’ Well, someone’s been leaving traces in your subconscious. Letting things get just a little ajar, and then your mind swoops in and makes them into dreams and waking nightmares.”

“Who?”

“Can’t tell that. Tests might help, but they’re kind of expensive, and not–strictly speaking–legal. Whoever is doing it is good but not great, unless…” Johnny trailed off. “Unless it’s been going on for a while. Even the most skilled jacker leaves a trail eventually. But they’ll be doing it while you sleep.”

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