July 2017

He was girded for war, with sword and shield. But moreso than that, he had girded his mind with facts, with riddles, with trivia. The first challenge was sure to fall easily, and he had to be confident about this because he knew the penalty for failure was death.

There was no challenge, physical or mental, he did not feel prepared for.

When the doors opened, he was confronted with a woman in a fool’s makeup, glowering as she slouched on the pedestal of a ruined statue to Alab.

“Make me laugh,” she said.

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All Vyaeh ships of a certain size carried a transmitter capable of tapping into their FTL communications network. It was a power-hungry operation that demanded every ounce of energy not needed for life support, but its efficiency was unparalleled. Other species still relied on moving data ship by ship, lugging around bulky drives with images of their networks; compared to that, the Vyaeh FTL network was a thing of rare and subtle beauty. How the idiotic Krne had wondered, during the Verge War, why the Vyaeh always seemed to be one step ahead!

If only they had known.

Ryll arrived breathless on the bridge, the spiracles on either side of his abdomen pumping madly through the provided ports in his uniform. There was an incoming message on the FTL network in response to the earlier report of combat.

Subcommander Lhayr was astonished. An incoming message? That was a significant, one might say unprecedented, expenditure of resources. She demanded an explanation; Ryll had none to give. Instead, the only detail was more worrying.

It was a live signal with simulated pheromones. And it bore the unmistakable seals and metadata of the Orphaned Court.

Lhayr immediately ordered the Cunyak to move to the part of orbit best suited for transmission, and for the crew to report to quarters. To make sure that ample power was available, she shut off life support to every area of the ship aside from the crew quarters and her own personal executive suite. She took the message there after the necessary preparations had been made, wearing her dress uniform.

The shape before her was shrouded in shadow, as was the custom of the Court. None of its inner members were ever seen, instead relaying their missives through intermediaries. Those intermediaries had intermediaries, and none of them revealed their faces to the vile ranks below them. If Subcommander Lhayr distinguished herself in battle, gained a fortune, and retired wealthy and honored, there was a chance–a chance–that her children might be permitted to look upon the lowest-ranking envoys of the Orphaned Court in normal lighting.

Bidding her welcome, the intermediary identified herself as Vy’Gryr, with the honorific reserved for those associated with the Court plain in both her speech and in the synthetic pheromones which flooded the chamber, bringing with them a musky hint of metal and gears. Vy’Gryr demanded that the Cunyak immediately depart its station and report to a world whose coordinates were to follow.

Prostrate, and with her own pheromones being sensed and transmitted across impossibly vast distances of space and time, Lhayr responded with the truth. She was confused by the order, and by the coordinates, which seemed to specify an underdeveloped world which was beneath notice and contempt.

To her surprise, Vy’Gryr the intermediary was pleased. A group of primitives on that rock had earned themselves a death sentence from the Orphaned Court, she said, and none could under no circumstances be allowed to escape. There were to be no survivors. Every structure, every trace of human occupation within this small sector of the planet’s surface was to be razed and destroyed. After this was secured, further orders would follow.

Lhayr agreed wholeheartedly. What of the curious structure at the center of the coordinates? She asked if the intermediary of the Orphaned Court would like it preserved or investigated.

At the mention of the ruins, though, there was a sharp difference in the pheromones of Vy’Gryr. If the subcommander hadn’t known better, she would have interpreted the scent as…fear. But that was, of course, impossible. Intermediaries, even comparatively lowly ones like Vy’Gryr, were conditioned almost from pupation to express no fear and to suppress any and all pheromones related to it.

Was the subcommander, Vy’Gryr asked, familiar with the Vyaeh military’s last expedition to that world?

Lhayr had to admit that she was not. There had been no mentions in the archives, no notes, nothing. An automated probe scan for celestial navigation purposes, that was all.

In fact, the intermediary said, there had been a battle over the world almost six thousand years ago, in the late phases of the Vyaeh empire’s aggressive expansion. A native population had been wiped out, driven to extinction without even the benefit of conscription extended to those like the Krne who had proven themselves in battle. A single ship, one of several that had escaped this purge, had disappeared in the sector in question.

The subcommander, in response, was so bold as to wonder why a single, ancient ship was of any concern. They had routinely found ancient crashes and derelicts during their time in the Verge, and found them to be unremarkable in every way. There was typically no reason to believe that the ship’s technology had anything to offer the Vyaeh or posed any sort of threat.

Vy’Gryr swatted down the question with a wave of hostile pheromones. The subcommander presumed too much, she said, and such answers were generations beyond her right to ask.

Chagrined, Lhayr apologized. What was needed of her? That was the only question to be asked, it seemed.

The intermediary was more receptive to this. Lhayr was to command a raid on this world, and explicitly authorized to use the resources at her disposal in wiping out the humans in the vicinity of the crashed ship. Then, every single soldier, engineer, or other personnel to have entered the ship was to be summarily executed. She was also thereby ordered to destroy, ruthlessly and without prejudice, any human vessels attempting to flee the planet or any Vyeah ships that lifted off without express authorization.

Lhayr agreed. Of course. No sacrifice was too great for the Orphaned Court; her troops would understand. Furthermore, she pledged to detonate any ship that appeared to be so much as warming up for takeoff without the proper authorizations and network stamps.

Vy’Gryr was sure the troops would welcome the opportunity for sacrifice, and praised Lhayr for her initiative. Further orders and authorizations were forthcoming, but they had been issued at the very highest levels. Whatever reasons there were behind it did not concern the subcommander, but it was important that she know how deeply the Orphaned Court had chosen to involve itself in this seemingly provincial matter.

Lhayr agreed, and the connection was terminated, leaving her confused.

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“I have spoken to the men in port, at a congress of my fellow-captains,” said Ramirez. “It is a direct violation of Viceroy Balthazar’s orders, but none of the men seemed to think that was of great importance.”

“Wonderful,” Exposito cackled. “What a glorious piece of providence to give me the services of someone so able as you, Ramirez! What did they say?”

“Most of them have been aboard, or known someone who has been aboard, a ship with the so-called Spanish plate and Spanish guns,” said Ramirez. “They consider such things essential for the continued survival of the empire in the face of its many enemies. You can rely on the fleet commanders, and the few that are untrustworthy may find themselves set aside in favor of their seconds.”

“Brilliant, simply brilliant!” laughed Exposito. “They know as I do that good, obedient boys rarely are able to do what is necessary. What about you, Samuels?”

The pirate smirked. “Well, I saw to it that Balthazar’s message never made it to Delgado. I had to slit a throat or two, after I’d drank my fill of course, as you showed me.”

“They were no trouble?”

“No man is trouble for me anymore,” Samuels said with a very grim smile.

“None but me, anyhow,” said Exposito. “Pretend you didn’t hear that if you must,” he added as an aside to Ramirez. “Those were Spanish couriers, yes, but their screaming deaths were necessary for the greater good.”

“I don’t agree with your…unsettling methods,” said Ramirez. “And, if I may speak frankly, I find your affect rather off-putting. But your course is a win for the empire, one it sorely needs. I would rather put my faith in a man I don’t agree with that I think will bring glory to Spain.”

“And well-spoken at that!” chortled Exposito. “I make no compromises, Ramirez. Your reasons are your own, but I do expect your full loyalty. Do I have it?”

“You are what is best for the empire, and that has my loyalty,” said Ramirez.

“Ambiguous phrasing! Divine,” Exposito laughed. “I accept. The Fifth Sun will dawn, and it will be thanks to the empire that the new age is a thing of beauty and peace!”

“All that remains is that you go see Delgado then?” said Samuels cautiously.

“Yes, the remainder of the Viceroy’s Very Own Philosophers have their uses in the practical points, but Don Delgado is the key to our scheme. We must know what he knows. I will go there personally and deal with it myself.”

“Does that mean,” Ramirez said, “that the ships of the fleet will be granted the protection that was stripped from my poor Magdalena?”

“Yes, that and more,” Exposito said. “If you’ll excuse me.”

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Cooke tumbled to the floor, coughing. “I’ll thank you…not to call me…Ebenezer,” he choked.

“You’ll have to forgive her, Cooke,” said Vega. “She’s been through a lot.”

“Speak for yourself, old man,” Sally snarled. “I know Cooke better than you, and I’ll be damned if I sit here while he makes light of the catastrophe that has befallen our kind.”

Cooke tottered to his feet. “Making light is the only way I have of dealing with the terror of life and the horror of every day, Sally,” he said. “Don’t mistake my levity for frivolity. Surely Mercedes told you about our prizes and the first officer that I had to promote.”

“You’ll find your pistol a poor match for me all the same, Cooke,” growled Sally. “Turn your levity elsewhere.”

“I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who finds themselves put upon, especially if it is being done so in the name of law and order, as these Spaniards are,” Cooke added. Then, thoughtfully: “What should I call you? Surely Sally Coxswain isn’t your true name.”

“It will do as well as any other,” Sally said. “Surely old Vega gave you his pontification about true forms? True names are the same.”

“To your question, Cooke, there is no question of us remaining here for long,” Vega said. “We shall help you repair your ship, and crack open these monstrosities to give the tormented souls of our brethren peace. Then we shall abandon Villanueva in favor of another retreat. We must ask you not to come looking for us.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Cooke. “But I think that’s best. My men will spin tall tales, but would-be fortune seekers will find only an abandoned mission. What about Mercedes?”

“Yes, what about her?” said Sally. “You never told me that you would hide the truth of her origins from her, Vega.”

“Our situation is so dire that we, like you, must remain as inconspicuous as we can,” Vega snapped. “What better practice than maintaining this charade? And what better way to make my daughter safe?”

“You indulged her too much all the same,” Sally hissed. “A pilgrimage? It could only have ended in disaster for Villanueva. Even if she had made it to Mexico City, what then? Surely the true believers there would have seen through her as easily as Cooke saw through you!”

“When I was eight years old, just a few years before he died, my father took me to Savannah to attend a formal party with him and with Mom,” Cooke said quietly. “He must have known, in his heart of hearts, how it would turn out. Him ejected in disarray after showing up with his freed slave wife and mulatto son, months of harassment on the plantation, and a scandal which saw people turn up their noses when Bess pulled her great trick on me.”

“Why do you think he did it then?” Sally said.

“Love, naturally,” Cooke said. “When one loves deeply, one is blinded to the self and sees only the other. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt since they died, but I think that’s what kept Vega from seeing what would happen as clearly as you do, Sally. I can’t be too hard on him for it. In fact, it makes me wonder if you alux are as alien as you claim. It’s a very human notion.”

“Thank you, Cooke,” Father Vega said. There was a flash about him and he resumed his former aspect as a greying priest. “I wish I would say I agreed with you about love being a human notion. Even in the days of the Aztec, Inca, and Maya we lived in fear of humans, took on frightening aspects to chase them away as often as we blended in with them. Despite our power, we have always been vulnerable and there has never been much love shown us.”

“Enough talk, then,” said Sally. “We must get to work. I fear that this Balthazar is in danger of losing control of his mad dog Exposito. And based on what he told me, that man would murder every single one of us in our sleep if he thought it would bring about the Fifth Sun.”

“The what?” said Cooke.

“The end of this cycle of the world, and the beginning of a new one,” Sally said. “Exposito thinks he’s the one to do something reserved for a god.”

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“Do you know much about the humans who inhabited these lands before the Spaniards swept them away like a prairie fire?” Father Vega said.

“Only what I’ve read. I imagine the story is rather different if you were there.”

“They learned centuries ago of the power of certain configurations of crystal to draw the souls from objects, and to do things with that power,” said Sally. “To consume knowledge gathered by other minds, or to put the power of a soul to work.”

“But the old ones, the Aztecs and Incas and Maya and all the others…they used the power with respect,” said Father Vega gravely. “In times of great need, or to save a failing harvest, or to guide a leader in time of war.”

“I’m not sure I’d call that using a power with respect, when people’s souls are being ripped from their bodies. Assuming that’s what it was. Seems to me that the more respectful thing would be to never make such a thing in the first place.”

“They never would have turned such a power on an alux,” Sally said. “It would have been inconceivable to them, like using the bones of a legion of saints to build a boat.”

“The Spanish, too, would never have been aware of it if they hadn’t been put to poring over the ancient codices by this new viceroy,” Vega added.

“So they’ve been hunting your kind to power invincible battleships ever since, is that it?” said Cooke.

“Imagine, Cooke,” Father Vega said. “Imagine what else a power that could protect a ship like that could do, if put to it. Viceroy Balthazar and his crony Exposito have just discovered gunpowder, do you think that fireworks are all they will eventually do with it?”

“I fear they have already begun,” said Sally. “Exposito was able to draw on the power of slain alux without the need for the skull to be in his hand. And he was able to rip a portion of my own essence from me after I stabbed him through the heart with that accursed mermaid of his.”

“Truly?” Vega said. “That is most worrying.”

“Wait,” Cooke said. “You stabbed him in the heart?” He cast an admiring eye on Sally. “I knew you were no ordinary strumpet, Sally, but my respect for you has reached new levels. He was thoroughly unpleasant when we met.”

“I gave myself over to him to save Jolly Port, to save the people who were ready to lay down their lives for me and my kittens. He killed Josiah Stroop, you know. Emptied out his head like a flagon of grog just to find me and Father Guilden.”

“I’m not going to say I’m sorry that Stroop got his, considering that the last exchange we had was him trying to scuttle my ship before it sailed. But Guilden? I never would have guessed that he was…well, one of you.”

“He had his problems, just as a human might. And we never did see eye to eye on many things. But Exposito drained his power and he crumbled to ash before my eyes. And I worded my surrender very, very carefully. So if Exposito had died, I would have been free to escape. But when you sank his ship, it did the job just as well.”

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“My warrior walks forward carefully, looking for traps,” said Jai.

“Okay, roll for traps,” Myassa replied.

Jai’s dice rattled in his hand. “13” he said.

“Slasher Phillips: Battle Warrior sees nothing!” Myassa crowed. “He walks into the trapped hall and…” her own dice clinked on the plastic supply crate doubling as a table. “By a miracle, he makes it out unharmed!”

“YEAH!” Jai cried “OH YEAH!”

“Roll for random encounter,” added Myassa.

“Aw, crap,” said Jai. “Three.”

“A horde of vicious gibberlings lurch forth from the shadows and attack!”

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On July 9, 1997, the state of Massachusetts declared the chocolate chip cookie to be their official state cookie.

It replaced the previous state confection, the barley-and-oat cookie, which had been adopted in 1697 by the legislature of the Province of Massachusetts. The barley-and-oat cookie was a deliberately bitter and unpleasant-tasting baked good, with the whole oats providing a particularly unpleasant mouthfeel.

This was deliberate, as the Puritans who had invented the cookie thought that its poor taste and texture would present “a bulwarke againste Idleness” and that sweet treats were “tooles of the Devil and temptations to Sinne.” By limiting themselves to unpleasant cookies, the Puritans thought, they could resist sin and temptation.

It is worth noting that a contemporary account, from 1698, notes that “as poore as these Cookys are” that they are still “bettere by a League than thee usual Fare” at a Puritan dinner table.

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“You understand me?”

“I understand all tongues.” The great being heaved a deep breath as it spoke. I saw no tremble other than breath upon its lips, and I knew not how it spoke.

“You have not eaten me.” It was an obvious statement, but it was all I could think of.

“I am not hungry, and you have been polite so far,” it said. “I hope that you do not begin to bore me, though. One need not eat to silence an annoyance.”

“No, no,” I said quickly. “I come with a request, o great one.”

“Spare me your flattery,” the beast said again. “I will hear your request, but mind that you do not ask too much. Many have come and done the proper obescience only to ask too much and then balk at the price.”

“I wish only to pass through your wood unharmed to the Crystal Grove beyond.”

“Hmph. Then why not do so? Passage is free to all those who do not annoy me.”

I chose my words carefully. “There have been…others…who have not returned.”

“I have eaten or slain many of your sort,” was the reply. “Some had the misfortune to meet me hungry. Others asked for impossible favors. Still others returned having disturbed the Grove, tracked by its defenders. None of those I can abide.”

“Allow me to pass through unmolested, and bear one hence who is pursued,” I said.

“Ah, now that is more of the sort of request I have become used to.” A pause. “Bring me a fitting repast, a thinking being to consume and so build my legend. If you do this for me, I will not only allow you passage, but I will block your pursuers, whoever they be.”

I gasped. “A…thinking being?”

“As I say, many balk at the price I demand. If you see fit not to provide it, that is your concern. But if you appear before me again, or walk more than an arrow’s shot deep in my woods, without what I ask…I will slay you and set your body out to rot, so that my purpose will be accomplished anyway.

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When they came upon the settlement, it was only ashes. Dead men lay where they had fallen, and those few homes that remained were empty. The Nomarch of Ament had taken the surviving inhabitants of Khaset, presumably as slaves or trophies of war.

“This is inexcusable,” said Zau. “We must write to the Pharaoh at once, to inform him of this barbarity.”

“Why bother?” said Apis. “The pharaoh is a useless old fool. He married the great-aunt of Ament to his second son.”

“That is not a license to murder,” Zau replied.

“It is when the pharaoh sits about playing with his favorites and doing nothing to restrain the nomarchs,” Apis said. “He is too busy dallying with his favorites like Sasenet to challenge someone upon whom his power rests.”

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“Bring them forth.”

The cultists shoved John and Mary forward, bruised and bloodied from where they’d been torn from their station wagon.

“Bow before the Gourd God!” one of the cultists snarled.

“Why have you come to this place?” cried the apparition in the center of the field, a pumpkin-headed man in a scarecrow’s vestments that was not consumed by the flames that encircled it.

“We…we just wanted directions,” John whimpered. “We were going to Gatlinburg and got lost.”

“Oh, well that’s easy,” said the Gourd God. “You get back on 33 and follow it east until it meets up with I-32. Just make sure you get off at Exit 185, or you’ll get caught up in construction.”

John looked around, confused. “Can you…can you write that down?”

“Sure.” One of the cultist’s eyes glowed and they scrawled out the directions, in their own blood, on a page torn from a holy book.

“T-thanks,” said Mary.

“Hey, don’t mention it,” said the Gourd God. “I’m sorry about the kids roughing you up, they have a little more passion than sense sometimes. Safe travels!”

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