July 2018


“He’s amazingly talented,” Neith said. Then, after a moment’s further inspection, she added, “…but he is only painting the same person, over and over.”

Indeed, every figure in the schizophrenic’s paintings was the same, whether rendered in pencil, ink, or gouache. A willowy woman with long blonde hair of a summery shade. Neith thought for a moment that the woman might have been some kind of an ideal form, but as she looked, she became convinced that it was, or had been, a real person. It was the nose. The nose was not perfect, too wide and too far outside the boundaries of ideal.

“Yes, funny that,” said Chester. He giggled loud enough to attract the momentary attention of an orderly before continuing. “What would you say if I told you that she is his lost love, dead at an early age and now doubly so in poor Garvey’s madness, and that inserting her into every painting is his only way of recalling who she once was to him, and who he once was to himself?”

“I’d say that’s one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard,” Neith said.

Chester snickered again. “And what if I said that, just after the madness really set in, Garvey started stalking that poor girl, believing her to be psychically reaching out to him, even though she wanted nothing to do with him, and that harassment is one of the things that brought him here, to us?”

“That’s less sad. More…horrifying,” said Neith. “Which is the truth?”

“I don’t know,” Chester said. “He never tells the same story twice!”

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The Valley of Needles contains, at its parched and arid heart, the Great Needle, a pillar of stone so sheer and so smooth that only its broken top clarifies it as a natural wonder rather than a manmade one.

Around the Valley are the ancestral lands of the Oscoda, who have long regarded the area as sacred. Their repeated pleas for outsiders to leave the Needles be, whether made politely or by force of arms, have routinely been ignored by later settlers.

One reason the Oscoda insist that the Valley must be as undisturbed as possible is a part of their creation story. They hold that the Great Needle is a link to Toscodai, their creator-god. At the making of the world, it was prophecied to fall three times. Once at the dawn of all things, when the clay was not yet sunbaked and hardened. Once at the noon of all things, when the people in their hubris thought themselves equals of Toscadai and were cast down for their impertinence.

The last time will bring about the end of the world. As the Oscoda say, awdegnonowukil okizd awgi onagnis enemap; “When the Needle falls a third time, the world will most likely come to be destroyed.”

Settlers once attempted to force the Oscoda into an unequal treaty by aiming cannon at the Great Needle. When the settles saw that the ancestral people of that place were unbowed, they fired—only to see the cannonballs bounce harmlessly off the hardened rock. This event is routinely celebrated by the surviving Oscoda as Aketewpol Ukist, or “Bouncing Day.”

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I thought I was safe.

I had changed my name, moved, and laid low. Working odd jobs for cash, living off the grid. And then one day a letter showed up, addressed to me, at the lumber yard where I’d done some off-the-books work.

It said: “EVERY MINUTE YOU’RE NOT RUNNING I AM GETTING CLOSER.

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“What do you think?” Sjn said. The Callistan modulated its voice as it spoke, coming up to a register that equaled Marie’s within a few short phonemes.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Marie, nodding. “You’ve copied me with all the warts and ugliness I’d see in a mirror, or in a twin. You’ve got your directions memorized?”

“I wouldn’t be very good at this if I didn’t,” Sjn said. “Just make sure the payment goes through. You wouldn’t like what Callistans do when they’re cheated.”

“Yes, yes, you’ll be paid in full,” said Marie. “No need to unmask our little deception in public.”

“You misunderstand,” said Sjn. “If you fail to come through as planned, I will out you as a Callistan and live your life as you are interrogated, laughing from your living room until I abscond with everything I can carry.”

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Rather than being raised or formed in a traditional way, wire golems arise where huge quantities of barbed wire have been deployed, most often in the trenches of worlds hither and yon. The shattered souls of the unburied and the vaporized often leave shards behind, and these shards may coalesce in the crucible of combat.

The wire golem then arises, most often in the shape of a beast like a tiger or wolf but occasionally in a formless fury of rust and burrs. It then stalks the battleground relentlessly, killing to shatter souls from which it can derive further tortured fragments and prolong its existence.

It is vulnerable to anything that would destroy barbed wire aside from rust, to which it is seemingly immune aside from a very light coating. But consisting as it does of mostly empty space, it tends to be very resistant to projectile weapons and explosives. Melee weapons also tend to get snarled in its protrusions, making the most effective weapon against it shrapnel shells and grenades, which were capable of cutting many of its supporting wires at once.

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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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Alf Malcolm was a well-regarded lawyer. He charged reasonable fees, he didn’t spread gossip like that sorry excuse for a district attorney Duncan Haversham, and he prided himself on being as staid and predictable as white bread.

“White bread’s just fine for most people,” he was fond of saying, “It may not be as exciting as chocolate cake but it also won’t get you sick if you eat it every day.” He hadn’t had many people to say that to since his wife Mary had left, but it was enough to think it strongly, to hold that idea to his starched shirt and grey tie like a warm blanket.

Alf had a habit of walking from his practice to his home a few blocks away, a stately old place build by a lumber baron before the county had been denuded. He cut through the park, a few back alleys, and through the vacant lot that had once been the Amoco, even on pitch-black new-moon nights.

Five people saw Alf leave his practice the night of July 15: his law clerk, his secretary, the stockboy at the IGA, a salesman spending the night in his car, and a delivery boy. None of them noticed anything unusual, though none of them saw him after he cut across the old Amoco lot and then she, presumably, through Linus Park.

The only unusual thing anyone noticed was his failure to report to work the next day. Alf Malclom’s 8:15 AM arrival was the sort of thing a local could set their watch to, and he’d only ever taken a day for his mother’s funeral in Twin Forks. The law clerk at Harris, Malcolm, and Petty called the police around 9:45, asking for a welfare check.

A rookie beat officer was sent over to the Malcolm house alone, on foot. That was a mistake. By the tie the ordeal was over, the officer had lost a finger, 50% of the sight in his right eye, and was concussed. Half the police in town were swarming the Malcolm house, and the old white-bread lawyer himself was dead of an overdose of .38 Special, with the rookie cop’s blood still on his lips.

“He was hopped up on something,” was the only statement a shocked chief of police could make the next day. “Whatever happened, that wasn’t the Alf Malcolm anybody knew in there.”

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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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