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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“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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