September 2018

Molecular disruptors work by interfering with the bonds that hold matter together–hence the name. By disrupting these bonds, the material in question can be pulverized into smaller molecules or even its component elements. As many of the by-products from this process are toxic, areas that have sustained heavy disruptor fire tend to be hazardous for days, weeks, even years after combat has ended. The toxic by-products also increase mortality among those who survive the terrible injuries wrought by the molecular disruptors, as well; even a glancing wound or total miss can produce free elements like chlorine gas.

For this reason, molecular disruptors are completely banned by treaty. Unfortunately, the same principles behind their operation are widely used in power cells, ovens, and other day to day technologies, meaning that it is relatively easy to convert them into crude but effective disruptors. This makes them extremely popular with criminals, terrorists, and black-market mercenaries, who often use the weapons against police and military that are armed with less effective but treaty-permitted ordnance.

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By taking the blood of Vedic, last of the great scaled wyrms of the southern wilds, the usurper Shalyis was able to draw upon the creature’s guile, its cruelty, and its simmering alien gamesmanship.

Within a year, Lady Shalyis had overthrown the ruler of the Oasis and installed herself in his place. She was able to rally monarchists by falsely portraying herself as the daughter of the Shah’s older brother, whose brief reign had ended under suspicious circumstances. To the merchants she offered favorable taxes in return for increased shipments, and the disenchanted saw in her someone who was not like the typical aristocrat.

Once Lady Shalyis was in power as the self-proclaimed First Subject of the Oasis, the various brokers behind her rise were each rewarded and punished to ensure their continued loyalty—rewards for many, to reap the benefits of their support and to show what they could expect in return for more, and executions for the few who were popular enough in their own right to oppose her.

But the mingling of her blood with that of Vedic was already beginning to make itself known even as she seized power. She took to wearing colored spectacles in all public appearances, and over the next few years gradually assumed a more and more modest dress until no part of her body was visible beneath a richly embroidered burniq of the sort that noble wives sometimes wore.

The Lady Shalyis also began speaking less, relying on an orator to deliver her remarks even when she was physically present. By the jubilee to mark ten years of her rule, she never spoke in public. Though her great natural beauty had helped with her rise to power, the First Subject no longer took concubines as was her right, and the marriage negotiations which had begun with an eye toward providing the new regime with an heir were called off.

After twenty years of rule, no one could remember seeing the Lady Shalyis, even concealed beneath her burniq, for years.

In time rumors grew that, beneath the old palace, a grand subterranean chamber had been constructed, and into it was heaped all the gold and treasure to which the ruler of the Oasis was entitled. Though no lights were allowed within the chamber, and only the vizier and a few trusted retainers ever entered, information about it still leaked out in whispers.

A great form lay there, they said, with eyes aglow with inner flame and wings spread wide, exulting in the feel of coin upon scaly flesh.

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“I am a tea elemental, steeped in the hot water of magic and bound together from the leaves and stems that bring this most potent of drinks to life. Though I may seem fragile, and dry, you will find that I am a powerful foe and not to be underestimated. For when it is tea time, the world stops, all water boils, and even the hardest china cups may shatter from thermal shock.”

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An entire ecosystem evolved under the city, with the barest traces of the magicks used in food, or in cosmetics, or to keep the labyrinthine sewers unclogged all mingling in the tepid and noxious waters.

On the one hand, there were the usual animals–vermin, insects and rats–that would consume and become contaminated by magicks. This often twisted or mutilated their forms unpredictably, resulting in everything from the hive-mind roaches of the Sythr Spillway to the rat metropolis of Hmin that was constructed in the storm drains under the Boulevard of Roses.

On the other, there were purely magical forms of life that arose, inanimate matter brought to shuddering life by misguided sparks of power. The muckmen of the forgotten cesspool, for instance, and the terrifying scrap striders of the junkyard runoff. Aboveground pests like the enormous tuglen crickets were sometimes blamed on this process, though without any real proof.

In both cases, periodic sweeps by the artificers in public works would identify and destroy any nascent magical life that posed a threat to the stability of the system. Until the sweep teams stopped coming back, that is.

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The 78 was nothing but scratches at first, even under the laser needle. Kelly gave it a blast of compressed air to help clear away dust, but even then it was clear the LP had been well-loved and there were signs of extensive play with a steel needle. After a few moments, she could hear what sounded like a woman’s voice. At first it sounded like low speech, but after a minute Kelly realized it was tittering.

A moment later, a male voice joined in with a full belly laugh. Then another deeper female voice. Then another male. In the first minute of play, a cacophony of howling laughter issued from the thing–so much that Kelly would have thought it had been multitracked, if the technology had existed in 1921.

“So, Fayr Records Presents: The Fayr Pandemonium Record” she said, tapping the sleeve on her desk. “You’re yet another failed cash-in on the laughing record fad.”

Kelly pulled the record off and added it to the pile for later digitization with a harrumph. The laughter, which had been taking on an increasingly manic, almost desperate air, died.

Moments later, as Kelly was preparing another record from the pile, she heard something in her headphones. Dismissing it as an autorun ad in one of the open tabs on her browser, she kept fiddling with the record until something resolved from the faint noise: a giggle.

A tinny, scratchy, manic desperate giggle.

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The Morphic Expanse is sometimes a mountain range, sometimes a searing desert, occasionally tundra, and often an impenetrable swampy morass. It’s suffused with the old energy, that which made the world and the heavens, such that anything taken from there will fade and crumble to dust in just a few short weeks.

Many people, seeing the Expanse from a safe distance, wonder how it grows the trees and rotting vegetables that make up its biomass so quickly. What they really ought to wonder is what happens to those unfortunates caught within when the land changes.

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“I know just how it will be, for me,” Edward said, his voice a weak rasp above the machinery keeping him alive.

“How’s that, Ed?” Sheena said.

“The orchestra will take up a sweeping Golden Age melody, just like they used to in the pictures when we had live sound. I’ll get up out of this infernal sickbed, put on something more stylish than this bedsheet, and step out into the spotlight. Madelyn will be there, and we will dance together like we used to, when everyone was watching. And that’ll be that. Oblivion.”

“You think that’s what heaven’s like?” said Sheena. “That’s beautiful.”

“No,” Ed coughed. “I don’t believe in any of that nonsense. It’s what I hope the last hallucination my oxygen-starved brain will see as I strangle to death. I’ve been working on the image, getting it just right, so I can summon it at a moment’s notice. If I get it to be second nature, it will be my last living thought.”

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The Dreyy have an odd custom in their otherwise standard worship of the Lightfather: they do not allow the living to advance past the level of a lay priest in their sanctums. Only the sorcerous dead, raised from their sleep by magic or by their own indomitable will, may serve.

By holding to this custom, the Dreyy ensure that their priests own no worldly goods and are tempted by no worldly concerns. For once their inheritances have been given and their troubles laid to rest, they should have unfettered time for the Lightfather, who they may even have encountered in passing through the liminal spaces betwixt life and death.

In the eyes of some–few Dreyy but many outsiders–this is little but an ill-considered way of giving over authority to liches. For only those who consent or who have some command of spellcraft and mastery of the self will rise, and it is all too easy for a power-hungry mortal to gain what is in essence an eternal position and license to dabble in the arcane. There are even dark rumors of those who have slain themselves, in clear violation of the Lightfather’s teachings, that they might be raised in his ‘service.’

The Dreyy are quick to point out that none of their undead clerics has ever been known to behave in that matter. A skeptic might add a single addendum to that: “…yet.”

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“I ran out of time long ago, yes,” the woman said, accentuating the words with a nervous twitch of her head to the left. “So I…borrow it. From every clock or watch or other timepiece. A minute here, and hour there, whatever won’t be missed. Ah, for the occasional face no one reads, yes. I can take up to twelve hours from a good one.”

“That’s ridiculous,” the inspector said. “That’s not how time works.”

“The bigger the clock, of course, the more time I can take,” the woman continued. “A few ticks from a really big clock, yes, they could keep me going for a week. Once, yes, once I was able to set up inside the great market clocktower of Mindraj-Um. I took a minute a day from it for six weeks, yes, until someone noticed. I spent most of the time I…borrowed…in prison, yes, but a life in prison is still a life, no?”

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“You’re coming at the problem all wrong. Pain is a hammer, an anvil, a tool that can be used to sculpt stubborn raw materials into a more useful form. And not just physical pain; oh no. That works for some, but for others mental anguish can be a far sharper instrument, and for all but the most dull the hammer of anguish and the anvil of torture will very quickly temper a soul. Unless it breaks, of course.”

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