February 2015

Theirs was a world of tranquil waters and still air.

The waters ran to a glassy and infinite depth, and none who had swum deeper than a few breaths had ever returned. Therefore, they did not concern themselves with the depths save for what they could fish from it or the distances one could travel.

The still air was infinite, and rare was the day it was not lit by an even glow that flared and faded at regular intervals. The occasional crimson-tinged clouds appeared on the horizon around sunset, but those who set of in pursuit thereof never returned. Therefore, they did not concern themselves with the skies save what they could catch from it and how long it carried a shout.

Betwixt water and sky were their homes, great orbs of soft and malleable material that bobbed placidly in the waters. The orbs were easily worked, and if carefully laid out to dry pieces of them could be used to make doors or even boats. In time, they were hollowed out, with many generations of the same family sharing a sphere. Subtle tides amid the waters were always bringing together and breaking up groups of spheres, and it was in that way that they spread far and wide.

One of the oldest and hollowest spheres returned from a long sojourn across the drifts with a curious passenger atop its apex: a portal through which a bright golden light continually shone. It was quite unlike the portals they used to enter and exit the bobbing spheres, which were always circular or oblong, and it always remained at the top of the elder sphere even after curious gawkers worked together to turn it.

But, like the depths of the sea and the horizons, those brave few who ventured through it never returned.

However, unlike the depths or the horizons, one day something ventured into their world from the other side.

Inspired by this.

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“What’s your family like?”

“It’s…blended. My grandpa and grandma divorced, and my grandpa remarried and had more kids, so I have three sets of grandparents and a bunch of half-aunts and half-uncles.”

“Three sets? Did your grandma remarry?”

“No, not officially, but she has a…a friend. They’ve been together so long.”

“Aw, that’s cute.”

“Yeah, they’re really cute together. Especially when you remember that he’s shivving her in secret.”

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The lands of Haymet, crossroads between the oasis-hopping trade routes between the vast interior deserts of Rutas and the fertile valleys nearer the its coast, have been fought over for millennia. It was a motley collection of city-states and petty principalities when Islamic invaders swept through the area led by the great emir, and later self-appointed Caliph, Karim Al-Usman. The Usmanid Emirate embraced Sufism to an extent unrivaled elsewhere, and was therefore viewed as schismatic or bid’ah by other emirs and rival Caliphs, each of whom had good reason to covet Usmanid lands.

Haymet was also among the earliest conquests by Hamur, the great unifier of the orcish peoples and promulgator of the Hamurabash code under which most contemporary orcs live. Orcish memory halls are still rife with references to ancestors who fought at the great battles of Alyd, Garyssh, and Al-Khopesh, at which the Usmanid armies were annihilated and the last Emir, Tariq Al-Usman III, was captured and executed.

Hamur therefore inherited lands with a centralized administration and an institutionalized religion. Hamur himself was an atheist and his Hamurabash allowed private worship but harshly punished proselytizing. This was a problem for Haymet in particular, as the new orcish rulers found themselves suddenly in charge of an overwhelmingly human, and overwhelmingly Islamic, population. Hamur took an indulgent route, with relaxed standards on what he considered proselytizing; only areas that resisted the imposition of orcish rule had their imams massacred and their mosques converted for use as orcish memory halls.

After the death of Hamur, betrayed and murdered by his lieutenant Ramuh in his moment of victory at the Battle of the Kyssel Pass, Haymet was ruled by one of the cadet lines of his house headed by his son Aluhamur. In the years that followed, however, the fragmented Islamic rump states on the coast of Rutas were reunited and energized by the Fahimid emirs. The Fahimids launched a series of lengthy assaults on Haymet and gradually brought more and more of it under their control. This resulted in considerable strife on both sides: the orcs who had settled in the areas, as well as humans who had begun adhering to the Hamurabash, discarded Hamur’s tolerant stance and began aggressively seeking to suppress Islam in their territories. For their part, the Fahimids refused to consider adherents of the Hamurabash as Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book.

As a result, anyone following the Hamurabash in the reconquered lands was viewed not as a dhimmi who was eligible for protection so long as they paid the jizya tax. Instead, such humans were regarded as apostates and orcs as musrikun, idolaters, who were required to convert or face execution. These two stances–the orcish authorities’ increased persecution of Muslims as “proselytizers” and the Fahimids’ insistence on the Hamurabash as apostasy and idolatry–led to an unprecedented slaughter and wave of violence throughout Haymet.

Though the Fahimids managed to conquer 85% of Haymet at one time or another, and counterattacking orcs in turn retook up to half of their former lands in return, the conflict eventually became known to both sides as “the open wound,” inflicting ruinous violence and occupation costs on both the Aluhamurids and the Fahimids. In time, both states collapsed; the increasing desertification of the interior of Rutas ruined the orcish state, which had no solid access to the coast, while the Fahimids fragmented in a series of dynastic struggles and were eventually all but occupied by foreign powers.

But the “open wound” of Haymet remains–a patchwork of orcs and humans, Hamurabash and Hadith, both hardened by centuries of warfare and massacres on both sides. Rivers of ink have been spilled over who was in the wrong, who was the aggressor, and who ultimately owns the rich and fertile lands of Haymet. One thing remains certain, though: it remains both a focal point and a sore spot in relations between the largest factions of orcs and humans on the continent of Rutas.

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White white. Endless frigid, colorless expanses, its desolation sparkling in crystal. All the more pale, all the more cold, all the more colorless for the few shades that try to color it, snowy white wearing fresh-ground dirt. Endless in all directions, the doom of the ill-prepared.

What’s that? A blizzard? No, I was talking about the Oscars.

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“Over 150 murders, most of them with no known rhyme or reason,” said Special Agent Johnston.

“Sixty-seven prior arrests and sixty-six subsequent psychological evaluations,” added Special Agent Smythe. “Each reporting more complexes, syndromes, and shades of outright insanity than the next.”

The Snickerer, terror of Cityopolis, had been brought to the interrogation cell in a straitjacket and bite mask. Just recently recaptured, he still wore his trademark motley cap and bells, though it had been checked for sarin nerve gas and other explosives. “Thank you,” he chuckled. “I’m touched you’ve been keeping track.”

“Why’d you do it, Snickerer?” cried Special Agent Johnston, pounding the table. “What was it that drove a former chemical engineer to go so bad and commit such acts?”

“I think it’s time you knew the truth,” snickered the Snickerer. “It was…a wooden banana.”

“A what?” spat Special Agent Smythe.

“A wooden banana. I saw one for sale once, and…why? Why would anyone make such a thing? It served no purpose. You couldn’t eat it, and who’d want to display it? It was an object with no rhyme or reason.”

“A wooden banana? Really?” Special Agent Johnston said.

“If something like that could exist…why, then all bets were off. Anything was possible, all rules were repealed, and there was no reason not to do whatever you wanted. If a wooden banana with no purpose could exist, why…the universe was ultimately meaningless.”

“People put them in bowls,” said Special Agent Smythe. “They’re wood so they don’t rot in decorative fruit bowls.”

“Really?” said the Snickerer. “I had no idea.”

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The tutor sketches her as she poses next to the trophy case, spread across the tarnished scores, the forgotten pride of students long since dead. Stumbling fingers dance across a canvas propped up by textbooks. Her pose is one meant for sunshine and vinyl appliques, not the dusk of after-hours school and the cool light thereof.

She is as a wolf, hunting for what she needs from a mankind that owes her a livelihood, and the tutor’s sketches are her first kill.

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Jake started, jerking his chin out of his palm and focusing on the desk in front of him. Otto Luther, the last remaining Ranger rookie for the time being after the promotion or expulsion of the rest, was standing at the desk with a pile of receipts for reimbursement.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jake said. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“That’s okay, mine was too,” said Otto. “Back to that Orleans madam and her wiles, and the man I had to kill in cold blood in front of her…”

“That never happened,” snapped Jake.

“Well, it could have! Play along, we’ll get people talking at least.”

Jake sighed. “Just give me your receipts. The excitement of being a deputy marshal under virtual house arrest begins.”

Otto dropped a pile of paper scrips, and Jake wearily began to go through them with his good hand, copying each into a ledger in ink.

“Box of 20 rounds, .45 Colt cartridges, Scroggins’ General Store…one breakfast platter, with eggs, Portia’s Saloon…one iron horseshoe, Strasser & Niece Smithy…one-” Jake paused and flipped through the remainder of Otto’s receipt stack. “…make that seventeen receipts for ‘ladies of the evening’ and ‘services rendered’ at the Fantastic Filly in Dunn’s Crossing.”

“And you know what goes in there, don’t you?” said Otto, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. “It’d be a ‘shame’ if that got out, wouldn’t it? Poor, sweet, safe Otto is really a stallion in disg~//122.31.822

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~//122.31.822ver the desk. “Otto,” he said. “Whorehouses do not give receipts.”

“They might if they’re a classy establishment!” Otto cried.

“Otto,” Jake continued. “Even if whorehouses did give receipts, they would not be reimbursed by the Rangers as they do not constitute Ranger-related expenses.”

“Sure they would,” countered Otto. “Says so right in the by-laws that we are to be reimbursed for the ‘riding of mounts’ and the ‘exhaustion and keeping of mares, mustangs, colts, fillies, and geldings.’ The Fantastic Filly is a good, hard ride if you catch my drift.” More suggestive eyebrow action; Jake half expected them to leap off Otto’s face and frolic about on his desktop like hairy caterpillars.

“Otto,” Jake added, “even if whorehouses gave receipts and we decided to reimburse said receipts as ‘riding expenses,’ you have already used your allotment of ‘riding expenses’ for this month. You will have to pay for your escapades out of your own pocket…”

“Aha!” crowed Otto triumphantly. “So you agree I did have them! So you may let it slip out that I had them!”

“…if in fact you had them at all, which I doubt,” Jake continued with a deep, rattling sigh that made his mostly-healed wound ache from inside. “Or, considering that these receipts spell ‘Dunn’s Crossing’ with a 5, you’ll be responsible for paying whoever forged them out of your own pocket.”

Otto turned away from the desk, disconsolate. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he sobbed, “people always thinking you’re boring and harmless and weak.”

Jake gritted his teeth. At least Virginia’s idiocy had been in the saddle, about real things, instead of trumped-up notions of what it meant to be a Ranger influenced by bad newspaper articles and worse books.

“I just need some rumors, some innuendo, to get my reputation started. I’ve tried everything I can think of, and a few things other people thought of, but even with all the Ranger duties I’ve been discharging—I brought the dismissals to Prissy and Virginia!—people still think me a milquetoast babyface and a plain fool.”

When no response was forthcoming, Otto turned around. Jake’s desk was vacant, and the cotton drapes around his open ground-floor window were fluttering in the breeze. In the distance, he heard a rider spurring a horse out of the Ranger stables.

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