July 2013

“They flooded the valley to fill the reservoir upstream…drowned the waterfall. It brought the water to the hotel’s front doorstep, but there was nothing anyone wanted to see anymore.”

“And the rebels, right? I heard they started attacking cars on the road.”

“Yes, but never this far up in the hills.”

“Why not?”

“When the rebellion was first finding its feet, back when it was about freedom and equality instead of protecting drug profits, the rebels sent a patrol to the hotel, which had been closed almost thirty years. They’d heard that some right-wingers were hiding there.”


“And they were never seen again. The rebels are powerful here, but they’re not stupid. Spirits do not read Marx and Mao.”

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“See you tomorrow.” That’s what Perry had said to Marie when he left on the launch for the mainland. He might have given more thought to his words, if he’d known they were the very last he would ever say to his wife.

The Brandon Sea Fort was a few kilometers off a major estuary in eastern England, built during the Napoleonic Wars to forestall a French invasion. It had eventually been occupied by the French after all, but as hoteliers rather than conquerors. Converted into a low-capacity super-luxury hotel with just eight bedrooms, it had seemed like the perfect honeymoon getaway when Marie picked it out. The cost was steep, but the brokerage had a good year.

“See you tomorrow.” Perry had grimaced more in embarrassment than pain when the management had ordered him evacuated to the mainland. Cavorting poolside had exacted a heavy toll when he fell on a champagne glass, which caused a surprisingly deep gash and superficial but profuse bleeding.

The NHS nurse onshore had rolled her eyes at Perry’s poor attempts at humor as she had stitched him up. Seventeen stitches, five more than his personal record acquired during an abseiling expedition to Iceland not long after he and Marie had become an item. The doctor insisted on keeping Perry overnight after labwork for blood poisoning came back inconclusive; the pilot of the tiny boat which had brought him ashore agreed and refused to make the trip at night. Perry later learned that he had used the paid leave time ashore for a liaison with his mistress.

“See you tomorrow,” Perry whispered, a hand pressed against a pane of glass agains the roiling cauldron which the sky had become. A vicious early-season storm had swept in, lashing the estuary into a frenzy of whitecaps and hurling ferocious oily swells into the seawall. The Brandon Sea Fort Hotel was occasionally visible in the distance; it had been designed to endure, and had endured, worse storms over its 200-year existence.

There had been a total wireless signal disruption when a local tower fell in the storm, and the harbormaster expected that similar damage to the hotel kept them from responding. Once the weather had calmed after three days, Perry boarded the boat back over the still-angry waters. The hotel had a 14-day supply of food and water; there was no cause for concern.

“See you tomorrow.” Perry could only whisper the words as he stood inconsolable in the hotel’s central promenade. There had been seven couples staying there, supported by a hotel staff of twenty-five; the only living thing in the fort on his return was a goldfish. No signs of struggle or inundation; meals were laid out and hotel doors hung open and unlocked.

A five-day search by the local authorities and Royal Navy search and rescue turned up nothing; no bodies, no clues. The media was agitated into a froth by the mystery, hounding Perry and the boat pilot mercilessly. An inquest eventually concluded that a rogue wave had swept the fort early in the storm, and that the survivors had drowned trying to rescue those swept out to sea. As to why no such wave had been observed from shore, and why there had been no flooding of the lower machine spaces, the official record was silent.

“See you tomorrow.” Perry silently swirled his finger in the goldfish bowl and stared out to a sea as unwilling as ever to divulge its secrets.

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Grandmother had used to tell stories about the rhinoceros, about how he was wise but jealously guarded his wisdom, about how he was quick to anger but quick to forgive, about how the powder of his horn could bring youth and health to even the oldest and most impotent of men. Nguyễn had listened, rapt at her feet, even as the hills had echoed with the combat of two wars.

For a long time, everyone had assume that the rhinos had long since been hunted to oblivion. And in the hard times during the war and the lean times after its thundering conclusion, Nguyễn had never given it any mind other than to chuckle at the counterfeit horn powder peddled by the local Chinese pharmacy. But then the government had announced with great fanfare that a few rhinos still remained, and began building a wildlife preserve nearby to attempt to reap tourist dollars. Nguyễn saw the occasional Western tourist, often with long hair and clothing that made a pretense of being half as expensive as it was. They often wore clothing with the stylized rhinoceros logo of the Cát Tiên park.

Nguyễn had been unable to get a job working for the park, and his small farm produced failed crop after failed crop. Even the small store that his wife operated on the side of their ramshackle home facing the road, seldom did enough business to cover the purchase of the items for sale. After Đức in the village had led a group into the forest to kill a rhinoceros and returned weeks later flashing crisp fans of đồng, Nguyễn’s wife had asked him to venture into the forest to set a snare and kill a rhinoceros of his own.

“The girls are hungry,” she said, over and over. “A rhinoceros horn could provide for all of us for years, and the snares are easy to make.”

Each time, Nguyễn made the same answer: “I do not want to be the man to kill the last rhinoceros in these hills.”

“They are not the only ones left,” his wife sniffed. “There are more in Africa and Indian and Indonesia. And who are you to put a dumb animal before the life of your family?”

Still, with the specter of Grandmother foremost in his mind, Nguyễn had resisted his wife’s calls year after year. In the rainy season of 2010, though, a flood and a herd of cows who had escaped from their pen combined to annihilate the rice crop and caused five hundred thousand đồng of damage. The dam was owned by the government, and the cattle farmer was a wealthy man with Party connections; no aid was forthcoming from any other quarter, and Nguyễn’s extended family could offer little but sympathy.

Quietly, Nguyễn dug up the rifle that he had buried in 1975. He spent a day silently cleaning it behind the chicken coop, using motions which had once been second nature, and took a roll of barbed wire from the destroyed fence as well as what little food he could scrape together.

The Cát Tiên rangers patrolled regularly but stuck to wide roads and trails; by drawing on long-ago experiences, Nguyễn was able to penetrate deep into the hard of the forest to set his snares near where Đức and his fellows had caught their rhinoceros. A day passed, and then another, and then another. Nguyễn made camp near a small creek, checking each snare daily and living off his meager supplies as well as whatever small animals happened to wander into his traps.

On the fifth day, Nguyễn had come across a sprung snare with a writhing mound of smooth, dark flesh caught therein. He saw flashes of frightened eyes, flicking of terrified ears, and perceived a series of low moaning bellows which seemed to echo in the deepest part of his stomach. The creature was small, male, and rather pathetic looking, but there was still the opportunity to release the snare and let it fade back into the foliage of Cát Tiên.

Nguyễn regarded the rhinoceros for a time. He saw Grandmother by the fireside, his emaciated wife and family, the rich Westerners, and the villagers lucky enough to work for the reserve. If, as he suspected, he had snared the last of its kind, the action to follow would affect all of them in turn.

“Forgive me.” The bolt of Nguyễn’s rifle cycled smoothly as he shot the rhinoceros. The shot tore open the animal’s leg, cutting its femoral artery; its cried redoubled but became weaker and weaker as it bled out into the thick, damp soil of Cát Tiên. After a time, the rhinoceros breathed its last through a film of bloody foam, and Nguyễn cut off its horn with a borrowed hacksaw.

The park rangers found what was left of it months later; DNA testing confirmed that it was the very last of its kind. And, ever since, Nguyễn’s waking and slumbering hours have been troubled by the gentle sound of heavy inhuman breathing and foliage parting in the dark.

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It has entered the annals of history as Libris, but to those who lived there and trod its white marble streets it had no such name. They knew it only as the City of Literature.

Nestled at the edge of the great floodplain, against the backdrop of the mountain range which had ever been the border of the known world, the City had been the pet project of a long-dead and long-forgotten emperor. He had realized, in the canny way rulers often do, that culture and learning were potent weapons in their own right, and even more so when combined with strength of arms. So he had laid out a city to attract the great writers, sculptors, painters, and artists of all persuasions throughout his land.

The Old Laws were promulgated by him. Those who traveled to the City of Literature and demonstrated their skills would be admitted to live for free among the columned gardens and terraced cascades of the Great River that made up the Inner City. All that was required of them was to produce their art. Those of skilled trades related to art–bookbinders, paint mixers, canvasmakers–were also admitted and lived for free, though only in the less opulent area of the Outer City.

Beyond the great walls of the Outer City was the great sprawl of the Warrens. It had originally been nothing but a few dusty inns and hitching posts to service travelers who arrived to apply for admission, but over time it grew into a city of its own, ten times larger than the Inner and Outer Cities combined, that saw to their needs. The Old Laws levied a tax on the farmers of the area, requiring a portion of the harvest for the City; they also stipulated that the mundane day-to-day affairs and policing of the city be done by outsiders admitted for the purpose at sunup and expelled at sundown.

The City was a light unto the world for hundreds of years, even as the great old empire fell and the fierce winds of time swept away its successors one by one. There eventually came a time when the great army of the Conqueror approached, in the process of building an empire that would stand a thousand years after his death. As was his custom, the Conqueror paused a week’s ride from the City and demanded an audience with its elders to negotiate a peaceful surrender and the protection of their property.

This touched off a fierce discussion about who the elders were, and which of the artists was qualified to treat with the Conqueror. No conclusion was reached, and thus no emissary was dispatched. With no one to treat with, the Conqueror assumed that his offer had been rejected. His army advanced, and the smallholders he encountered pledged their fealty in exchange for the lifting of the Old Laws. The soldiers and peacekeepers of the City, drawn from the Warrens, had tired of their treatment at the hands of the artists and deserted their posts en masse to join the Conqueror.

Even so, the Conqueror was greatly vexed. The City was protected by walls of the oldest and strongest making, of a sort that mankind no longer had the skill to create or destroy. A token force could have held it against all comers indefinitely. Yet the artists in the City were unable to agree to a unified command, and to a man and to a woman they each held themselves too important to be sullied with the menial task of fighting, to say nothing of representing an unacceptable loss to the City should they fall in combat.

Advancing through the unfortified Warrens to a wary welcome, the Conqueror found the walls undefended and the gates open. His forces burst in on the final meeting of the Artists’ Moot, leading the luminaries therein out in chains. The Conqueror was a pragmatic man with little patience for ostentation or ornamentation, and he was frustrated by his inability to find leaders to execute or turncoats willing to serve. In a fit of anger, he massacred the entire Moot and dispersed the remainder of the Inner City as slaves. The Outer City was purged of its craftspeople, who were appropriated for military purposes, and the art and literature of a thousand years was dispersed over the new empire as the spoils of war.

The City itself became little more than a military garrison and stockpile of building materials…and a monument to the simple axiom that art and literature are only as strong as the will to defend them.

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Hideous screeching monstrosities borne on the irradiated embers of the old world lurch forth and attack!

3 ÜBER-MUTANTS appear at 5 feet.


MAD MAXINE attacks ÜBER-MUTANT B with her MEGA UZI. She rips through a clip, the bullets peppering ÜBER-MUTANT B like a cheap steak for 15 points of damage.

attacks ÜBER-MUTANT C with his Laser Rifle. A flash of ionized light and a whiff of ozone lances forth, searing ÜBER-MUTANT C like a Father’s Day bratwurst for 20 points of damage.

LADY HUMUNGA attacks ÜBER-MUTANT A with her CHAINSAW SWORD. Blood and ichor spout like the Trevi Fountain as ÜBER-MUTANT A takes 30 points of damage, reducing it to a red smear and a sky-high dry cleaning bill.

ÜBER-MUTANT B shambles toward PLISS SNAKEKIN and rakes him with its claws for 20 points of damage.

ÜBER-MUTANT C shambles toward PLISS SNAKEKIN and rakes him with its claws for 15 points of damage.


reloads her MEGA UZI.

attacks ÜBER-MUTANT C with his LASER RIFLE. Tasty, tubular waves of plasma ripple forth and ionizing key parts of ÜBER-MUTANT C‘s anatomy for 20 points of damage, bursting it like a blood sausage in a convenience store microwave.

LADY HUMUNGA attacks ÜBER-MUTANT B with her CHAINSAW SWORD. A glancing blow, it only severs a single writhing appendage in a spray of biohazardous fluids for 5 points of damage.

ÜBER-MUTANT B shambles toward PLISS SNAKEKIN and rakes him with its claws for 10 points of damage. PLISS SNAKEKIN is poisoned! PLISS SNAKEKIN‘s health is critical!

PLISS SNAKEKIN tries to reload his PHOTON CANNON and misses.

DOG ABOYANDHIS attacks ÜBER-MUTANT B with his LASER RIFLE. Critical hit! Coherent packets of photons more organized than the Library of Congress arrive at the speed of light, inviting ÜBER-MUTANT B‘s torso to emigrate to Smoking Holeville for 35 points of damage. Covalent bonds between ÜBER-MUTANT B‘s constituent atoms break down, and it crumbles to ashy goo.

PLISS SNAKEKIN gains 0 EXP and 0 AP.

MAD MAXINE gains 50 EXP and 5 AP.

DOG ABOYANDHIS gains 200 EXP and 20 AP.

LADY HUMUNGA gains 100 EXP and 10 AP.


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“The necromancer! The necromancer is coming! Faster, you thickheaded simplecog!” The gnome swatted the mercenary at the reins of his dogsled team–the last survivor of an assassination squad that had once numbered ten men–with his wand.

Looking back, the mercenary beheld their pursuer: a team of four skeletons, armed and girded for combat, lashed like draft horses to a floating disc of magical matter than glided silently over the deep Minotian snow. At their reins: a katana-brandishing figure with a dark cloak cast over one shoulder and a magnificent hat of the finest quality beside an overall-clad holy man wielding a rock strapped to a staff (both ablaze with the holy wrath of Clohl, god of light and potatoes).

The mercenary handed the reins over to the gnome and cast himself off the side of the sled, landing heavily in a snowbank and fleeing into the woods.

Vic Savage, master thief but definitely NOT a necromancer, drew a bead on the gnome’s sled with his bow. “S…sorry about this, Fluffy, Muffy, a-and all the…y’know, rest of you. You were good fuzz-type dog-sled-puller guys.” The dogs were in fact the same team that had borne them to the Lillandel Mines and the fabulous treasures which lay within (to say nothing of the fabulous treasure that was Sirea Lossberg’s ass), viciously stolen a month earlier.

“Wait just a moment,” drawled Cecil, one-time noble and now-time priest thanks to an unfortunate potato-related riding accident. “That there is against th’ teachings o’ Clohl. For it is written in the Book o’ Jehosephat (which is a real page-turner), Book of Canis Major, Canto 117, Line 32b: ‘And they shalt not slay th’ puppies o’ thine own self or Clohl, who smiles upon ’em as divinely as his potatoes.’ There’s some debate on th’ meaning o’ that there passage, especially on th’ subjunctive tense o’ th’ Old Runic, but…”

“Well…w-what should I, y’know, do instead?” Vic snapped. “That nasty…short…gnome-guy is, y’know, getting away-like. Fastly.”

“Here,” said Cecil. He handed Vic a portable hole, all rubbery and black. “The Book o’ Jehosephat is silent on that there flinging of puppies yea into holes.” He’d give the hole to Namor, Junior Bro of the Order of the Tri-Delts (a feeder organization to the Knights of Clohl), but that magnificent slab of barely animate meat hadn’t needed it.

Vic wrapped the portable hole around the head of his arrow and loosed it straight and true, which was a big deal considering how often he loosed pointy things any which way but straight and true. It landed just ahead of the fleeing gnome with a satisfying *schlopp* and the sled pitched into the chasm that opened suddenly before it.

Pulling back on the reins of his Dragon Tooth Warriors (which were not necromancy at all but simple automatons he had gotten as a birthday present before his family’s ruination at the hands of Lady Faxhall, the nymphomaniac hypochondriac universal spider of the Minotian underworld), Vic stopped them at the side of the hole. The gnome was fumbling for the wand that he had used in the assassination attempt earlier, the one that had nearly singed Sirea to death (in between beatings by Roxie the porcelain sex doll golem).

Cecil brandished his potato-shaped rock and holy symbol, reciting a verse from the Book of Jehosephat (a real page-turner) about how the blinding light of revelation from Clohl yea did scorch the unbeleivers and yea didst melt the eyeballs from thine faces. A blinding gout of holy fire sprang forth, engulfing the gnome and singeing off his magnificent beard (leaving only his much smaller and downier childhood beard beneath it).

“I surrender!” sputtered the gnome, struggling to put out a dozen small fires on his person. “I surrender!”

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In addition to being one of the highest-ranking members of the “Friends of Constitutional Government” party, Hara Tsuyoshi was a great admirer of Western philosophy and literature. His home in central Tokyo was famous for its library of Japanese translations of Shakespeare and Locke, and he functioned as a sort of lending library to younger members of the “Friends.”

The Japanese military was implacably opposed to the “Friends” program of constitutional democracy, and after the assassination of Tsuyoshi’s patron, Prime Minister Takashi, the old man knew that he was in danger. So when he returned home one afternoon to find junior officers of the Imperial Army standing over the bodies of his wife and son with bloodied daggers, he calmly walked into his library.

They found him seated in his favorite armchair with a Japanese translation of Macbeth in his lap. They did not approach, wary of the Type 26 revolver that lay conspicuously on the end table nearby. Tsuyoshi read to them from Act IV, Scene 3, in which Macduff learns of his murdered family. The assassins, not understanding, assumed that he was laying a curse upon them. They charged; Tsuyoshi took up his revolver and ended his own life before they covered even half of the distance.

What became known as the “Murdered Deer” incident, from a line in the bloodstained scene Tsuyoshi was reading at the moment of his death, might have been forgotten before long if not for one final irony.

There were five assassins that night, and each of them died during Japan’s subsequent conquests–each on the anniversary of Dr. Tsuyoshi’s suicide.

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Interstellar Statute 24 § 38 prohibited police actions against “sovereign worlds” without the consent of the Council. Seemed simple enough, but as always the devil lies in the details.

As it happens, Interstellar Statute 977 § 119 set a minimum size limit for sovereign worlds. Because grandfathering was strictly prohibited by IS 48 § 12, the lower limit had to be small enough to recognize tiny worlds that had already been settles and recognized as sovereign like Charon and Ceres.

Pirates and ne’er-do-wells quickly seized on the loophole implicit in the spaghetti of case law: they located planetoids just above the legal minimum size, fitted them with engines, and operated them as pirate havens protected as “sovereign worlds.”

That’s how Quaoar Station came to be, and why pilots like Chuck were always sure to triple-lock their spacecraft when they docked.

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Sit tight, child, and let me tell you the tale of the Masked Queen.

No one could say where she came from, what noble family or poor line of farmers, but whispers of a female warrior of peerless skill and outstanding fairness spread in the Rosca Woods long ago. Long oppressed by the cruel and arbitrary kings of the great riverine city of Seven Isles, the people of the Woods flocked to her banner. After the defeat of the King’s men at the terrible Battle of the Fords, she entered the city in triumph and was pronounced its leader by acclimation.

A curious turn of events, as none had ever seen her face. Nor did any know her name.

The new queen of the Seven Isles was always berobed, and always wore a mask. In her early days it had been wooden, but the only luxuries that she allowed herself in latter days were masks of ornate silver and robes of fine silk. She would choose different masks for different occasions, to express pleasure or displeasure, as her words were always perfectly free of inflection.

The Masked Queen, as she became known due to her refusal to give her true name, was a fair, just, and equitable monarch. By the time of her passing, the Seven Isles had expanded its territory a hundredfold; an elected Duma ran most affairs, and the Queen’s Code regulated the formerly chaotic and despotic lands over which she ruled.

Upon her passing, the Duma removed the Queen’s mask and robes, curious to see at last the form of she who had been their guide for so long. To their great and lasting surprise, there was no face at all beneath the mask, and no body beneath the robes.

There was, instead, only a tangle of brambly branches, grown weak and wormy with age.

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“Okay, I step forward into the municipal dump, keeping an eye out for the assassination contract,” said Arimo Warraven.

“Roll a d19 to see if you notice anything,” said the game master, Kotak Bravequest.

Arimo let his d19, hand-carved from dragonbone, fall to the table, where it rattled the miniatures and the piles of oily rags representing the dump. “2. Gods and their pasty asses!”

“You see nothing amiss,” said Kotak, grinning. “Sirne?”

Sirne Strikerider tapped his brow thoughtfully. “I throw a water balloon into the dump using my slingshot.”

“Okay, give me a d19 to see if you hit anything, and a d7 to see how much splash damage it does if it hits anything.”

“Is there anything to hit?” asked Sirne, his dove-white brows knitted in concern as he rolled. “17 and 1.”

“You’ll know soon enough.” Kotak leaned back in his chair, hand-hewn by his grandfather from the God-Tree of Elddir. “That’s a miss. Your water balloon doesn’t hit anything…but the splash alerts the garbage dragon that was hiding in the mound of refuse. It attacks with its sewer-gas breath! Roll to save against odor-based attacks.”

“Did you ever stop to think that, with all the garbage dragon and file cabinet kobald and gas station goblin attacks, the people in the Papers & Paychecks would never have survived long enough to get back to their apartments, much less create a civilization that’s hundreds of years ahead of our own?” said Arimo.

“It would probably be a lot like real life, with 90% of what they do being serf-work or studying for Scholam Magicum exams,” added Sirne.

“And that would be boring as hell, wouldn’t it?” Kotak replied. “Just for that, the sound of the dragon attracts two garbage Army Rangers from their patrol. Roll initiative.”

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