December 2018

I am your gift, and your curse.
Sometimes a memento set aside, rarely used, honored but gathering dust.
Ofttimes interpreted as a challenge, a mission, with waste as the enemy.
Both equally valid, for I am the same to everyone.
Short or long, happy or sad and all shades inbetween.
I am all.

I am your gift, and your curse.
You count me, divvy me, scribe me on papers, light me in pixels.
Every moment spent in measuring, its own grain through the hourglass.
Am I the more potent for being measured, or for slipping away?
The answer is always the same: neither.
I am all.

I am your gift, and your curse.

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My spellcraft was such
That they were turned
To stone

They sit there, now
Unmoving and still
Do they

Or is it like death
Body a husk, spirit
For we

I do not know which
Comforts me more
Kindly dreams
Deathly dreams
Or the

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“It was just a spot of fun is all,” laughed Ashhgrom. “You saw how that slave girl was! No matter how much I kicked her, or cursed her, she just sat there and took it. Then, when she thought I was out of earshot, oh did she let fly! Such unladylike things she said to her mates, all bottled up from before, as would melt the tongue of a proper lass!”

“Ain’t no proper lasses in Gash Nosebrass’s kip, Ashhgrom Emptygirdle,” said Mugh Dullspoint, Ashhgrom’s sentry-partner. “Only slaves, wombs, and playthings, you know that. So what if she held her tongue and then lashed out with it when she was out of boot-range? That just shows she’s got smarts enough not to invite the boot when she’s on knees in the potato fields.”

“Hmph, you suck the fun out of everything,” grumbled Ashhgrom. “She weren’t bad looking, either. Half human I wager, or a little more. Came in with the batch Gash bought in town last year.”

“And if she was all that good-looking, Ashhgrom Emptygirdle, she’d not be in the potates but be shacked up in Gash’s tent making him sons! You can go on calling it what you will, but I think that empty girdle of yours is just aching to be filled with something that ain’t your mitts.”

“And I think, Mugh Dullspoint, that you says about me wha tyou think about yourself!”

As the two guards argued, bunched around the fire outside the hut that served them as both watchtower and barracks, the half-orc girl they had been talking about, Zeffir, was inside their tent. Careful to keep her eyes away from the light, she was already jingling softly with every last piece of gold, copper, and silver Ashhgrom had hoarded for himself. He would also find that the rawhide straps of his hammock were sawn two-thirds of the way through, the clasps had been bent on his armor, and a starchy mixture of potatoes and peppers had been smeared about his codpiece.

He was about to find out why Zeffir Thaighs bottled up her rage around folks that could do her mischief…and why she was known to hold no words or blows otherwise.

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Gash Nosebrass sat on a folding stool with his fingers tented in front of him. “I’m told you helped my dear Stormy to escape,” he said in a low voice, almost a purr. “One of my favorites, soft and pretty like a human girl but tough like an orc, and no one’s seen her in days and days and days. My man Ashhgrom saw you two together before she want missing. Tell me what you know.”

Lightning spat on the floor. “My mother sold us all to you for shaved gold pieces,” she said. “Why would I have any loyalty to a family like that?”

“Why were you seen with her then?” said Gash, his voice rising. “I trust Ashhgrom enough to have his pick of those I will not have–as you well know, ugly one!–and any that call him liar will answer to my axe and my bubbling stewpot, and not necessarily in that order.”

Lightning drew herself up to her full height–which, she wagered, would beet or exceed Gash’s if he stood. “I put pillbugs in her hair,” she said. “I like to hear her scream, and so that’s what I was doing when your man Ashhgrom Emptygirdle saw us. If she ran away after those…most enjoyable screams, surely that is her loss, being deprived of Nosebrass’s bed.”

Like a flash, the orc warchieftain was on his feet, and Lightning found his hand clenched about her jaw, holding her to the floor. “Is that the way of it, then?” he hissed. “You were tormenting my favorite, perhaps enough to send her from me?”

In a cracked voice, but a firm one, Lightning answered: “I left her in agony and weeping, yes. But word is that you’ve tired of her anyhow, in favor of Sally the Hourglass, and that she was for your pot anyway.”

Gash released her with a low chuckle. “You don’t break easy, ugly one. I’m impressed. If you weren’t so ugly and barren I might take more notice of you. But yes, your sister was for Gruumsh, as is only right for a shaman of our people. If you see that pretty face again, you’ll come and tell me, won’t you?”

Lightning worked her way to her feet. “Oh yes, Warchieftain Nosebrass,” she said. “If I see that pretty face ever again, you’ll be the first to know.”

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Stormy pressed a vial of acid into Lightning’s hand. It was the sort of ampule that the scouts took with them, to throw in the faces of pursuing guards or to strip the bark from trees as wayposts. It left terrible agony and scars in its wake.

“What is that?” said Lightning, all gruff and all business. “Stole it from the scouts, did you?”

“It’s for me, sis,” said Stormy. “Thundra pinched it for me, but I can’t find her now. I need you to use it on me.”

Lightning, shocked, looked her sister in the eye. Stormy, the favorite daughter, who favored her father so much she could pass for human in the right light. Always the most beautiful and feminine of the girls, always the most popular…and of course the first of the sisters to catch warchieftain Gash Nosebrass’s eye and be taken into his tent. “What?”

“He’s tired of me, sis. I’ve heard it. Sally the Hourglass is in, and I’m out. And you know how jealous Gash is. I’ll be throat-slit and bleeding out on his meat-rack for the pot before she’s even bedded him.”

“More of that fakery he dresses up as being a shaman,” Lightning muttered. “As if he cared one notch for Gruumsh or anyone besides himself!”

“I need you to do it, sis. I don’t want you to do it, but I need you to do it. You’ve seen what he does to the others when he finds them. Their bones, picked clean and twisted together with wires outside his tent. The songs he sings as he butchers his girls, and his hounds howling for the gristle…that will be me, if you let it, sis.”

“Do it yourself then,” Lightning said. “I’ll kill anyone who tries to touch you like that. Don’t think for a moment that all of those pillbugs I’ve put in your hair over the years mean otherwise. I have a hidden blade, a little one but keen, and more than one of those bastards have been stabbed through their smaller head before I carve up their big one.”

“This isn’t one of Gash’s boys alone in their tent, sis. You do that and they’ll kill you. We’ve got to stay alive for each other.”

Lightning paced in a circle, angrily striking out against whatever got in her way. She kicked viciously at a large mossy flagstone, cursing at it and watching the pillbugs beneath its overturned surface scatter. An idea lit her eyes, and she bent down, scraping at the loose moist soil with callused hands and broken nails.

Stormy visibly recoiled from them as Lightning approached. “You…you know I hate those still, right?” she said. “You’ve known ever since we were little girls, and you were tangling them up in my hair to make up for all the boys who wanted to play with me.”

“That’s right,” Lightning said gently. She took the vial of acid from Stormy’s hand. “And with them all wrapped up in your hair, you’ll be too distracted to feel this burning those pretty features away until it’s too late. Just like old times.”

“Just…just like old times,” Stormy said.

“I’ll aim away from the eyes. Just promise me you’ll have some beautiful daughters one day, to make up for our bad looks.”

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Dear fool,

Word has reached me that you are meddling in things that you do not understand. You know exactly of what I speak, so I’ll not insult us both by writing down particulars. This is your first and only warning. Walk away. People change their minds all the time, drift into other pursuits, lose interest, or simply lower the stone they have aimed true at the hornet’s nest.

See that you are one of them.

Some have thought that they can buy the Mother of Whispers, intimidate her, even defeat her. They are all dead, and they all died not screaming deaths but wheezing ones. Gurgling as the blood filled their lungs, ushered in by the hidden blade. Gasping as the poison did its work despite the food tasters. Stillborn screams on their lips as the garrote closed, merciless, or the gilded pillow delivered its luxuriant, smothered, death.

The Mother of Whispers knows all, hears all. You will not surprise me. You will not defeat me. You will never know my name, or my station. All you will know is oblivion, unless you turn back now. The hand that wrote this on my behalf is already dead, rotting in an alleyway or bobbing in a canal.

Heed this warning, or join them. It matters not to me.

Yours in death,
The Mother of Whispers

PS – You may wonder why you have been warned at all. Know that someone bought this warning for you with their life and all their possessions. You would do well to honor their sacrifice.


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Gash Nosebrass has earned for himself a respectability that many orcs would envy, such as it is. In addition to the usual raiding and banditry of orc bands, Gash also runs protection rackets among the hillside communities, collecting “taxes” from the orc, half-orc, and human settlers, who can expect harsh reprisals if they refuse. He is also in the slaving business, buying orcs and half-orcs from their parents or spouses for a few gold each. The males are added to his band, and some eventually join it as full members after buying their freedom. But Gash regards the females as his own chattel property, to be used as laborers, “borrowed” by his troops, and more–all with no hope of rescue or release unless they are sold off.

Perhaps the most grim and feared aspect of Gash is his proclivity for cannibalism. He deliberately spreads rumors of devouring the weak and those that irk him, which help cow those who might resist. They give him a further veneer of orcish respectability as a shaman of Gruumsh, as shamans have a long cultural history of devouring orcish enemies to gain their power. The reality is far more horrifying: Gash cares nothing for Gruumsh and only goes through the motions of shamanism when it pleases (or benefits) him to do so. Rather, he uses cannibalism as a means of control, killing and eating only those female consorts that he has tired of, or that have wronged him, so that no other man might possess them. His ex-consorts have known to resort to scarring themselves to avoid recognition, and many current concubines have had hands or arms hacked off and roasted as a warning.

Often, orcs do not have much concept of fatherhood, but Gash’s band is different. He declares himself to be the father of every child born to his band, and takes great pride in visiting the newborns. He will often personally cull the weak and the lame children and the rest grow up revering him as their father whether it is true or not. Strangely, this is one area in which he exercises restraint: the babies, even the culled ones, are never eaten.

Despite the massive facial scar and brass nose ring that give him his name, Gash is not above negotiation and will readily come to terms with a stronger force. This is how the Scourge of the Hills has operated for so long unchallanged, in fact. By pledging nominal loyalty to whoever is strong enough to challenge him, Gash remains free to do as he will. Weaker enemies can be defeated and plundered, while stronger ones give him a chance to change sides. Songs are still sung in Orcish of how Gash rode his band out to battle on behalf of the Duke of Reth against the marauders of Kobh…only to turn around and fight against the Duke with the Marquis of Pexla. Gash is as close to a bulwark of stability as the hills have ever had, and this makes him useful despite his brutal depredations.

However, none who now know him as Gash Nosebrass know the darkest secret in the old orc’s past.

He grew up many miles away, in a band of nomads, who were attacked by marauders and then destroyed by hunger, with the few survivors being sold into slavery. While he looks to those slavers as an inspiration, a model, he nevertheless returned many years after buying his freedom to murder every last one of them, including all who had been slaves at the time of his bondage.

No one must know of the fact that he has an elvish great-grandfather and is therefore 1/8 elvish. This is what drives him to be the most brutal and successful orc warchief/shaman, the nagging feeling that only he has that he is not a “true” orc. The idea that his success is due to his “tainted” blood, and that an orc with no elf blood could not build a petty empire as he has, torments Gash to no end. He is convinced that if his secret is ever revealed, it will be the end of him and of his band.

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How did Nevra, the Witch Queen, come to power all those many years ago? Needless to say, there are none now living who remember it. But I have heard this rumor, and with the Witch Queen permitting it to circulate, I believe it to be at least partly true. They say that long ago, before the dead husks of the cast-out gods began to plummet as meteors from the heavens, our realm was ruled by petty nobles as many are. The emperor–whose realm then could scarcely have been called an empire, despite his hubris–was obsessed with continuing his line. To that end, he arranged for his barren empress to be cast aside, and sought out a younger second wife.

Nevra had just arrived at that point, as fresh and young and tender as morning dew, and she attracted the emperor’s attention instantly. We know not where she came from, only that she was of tender years and very fair. The emperor, smitten, married her soon after as his empress. Her one condition to the match was that he furnish a school of magic, to be supported by the city and added to the palace. Mindful of the usefulness of mages and the wishes of his bride, the emperor is said to have agreed on one condition: he did not want his fragile bloom damaged in magical study. So she was forbidden to partake of the knowledge therein, and expected to confine herself to the role of a walking womb for the hoped-for son.

Naturally, you can imagine, the emperor did not get his wish.

True to her word, Nevra did not attend any classes or indulge in any studies at the magic school. But she did associate with the students, and before long she had many friends among them. When the emperor found himself confronted by a circle of mages intent on his overthrow, he found that there was little difference between a queen who was a witch, and a queen who commanded them. It was only after his head was on a pike that Nevra turned to the study of magic, and within six months her powers had exceeded that of even her brightest students.

The emperor never did get his son, for the Witch Queen has never borne a child. There is also a rumor that the Witch Queen was, in fact, the old empress who had long studied sorcery in secret and who had renewed her aged body to gain revenge on her deceitful spouse. I would not bring that theory up with the Witch Queen if I were you, my friend, but it does lend the story a pleasing circularity. Even if it is, as I suspect, a lie.

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So you would abandon caution and ask of Nevra, the Witch Queen of our fair realm? I admire your boldness, traveler, even if it flirts with danger. The Witch Queen is powerful and her rule has brought us much prosperity, but she brooks no dissent and threats to the community are dealt with harshly.

The first thing most ask about is her immortality. It is no secret that Nevra, the Witch Queen, has not aged a day since she first came to power centuries ago. You’ve no doubt heard the rumblings and rumors on the streets: “Why should a human live such a long life? We are not elves or dwarves. Isn’t human life precious because it is fleeting?” In my opinion, these malcontents are missing the point, likely because they covet the Witch Queen’s position for themselves.

Her words on the matter are few but powerful. “I am working to tame death for the benefit of all, and in so doing I must be the one on whom these magicks are first used. I would ask such a burden of no one, and trust none but myself to carry them out.” You see then, there, that the Witch Queen’s thoughts are ever with her people. One day, when we are ready, she will perfect the secret of taming death and we will all benefit.

I for one feel that this is only right and just. Imagine the effect immortality could have on the common rabble! By taking the burden of taming death onto herself, the Witch Queen protects us all. This is why, even though she is now ageless, her birthday celebrations are the greatest festival in her realm. It is both a reminder, and a promise.

You may have heard some, primarily outsiders, refer to our Witch Queen as the Quitch. Do not, my friend, let her hear you utter this word, for she detests it. The last outsider to utter it in her presence was given, as a “gift,” a music box. It was a marvelous contraption of mahogany, brass, and bone, and the offender was enraptured by the gift until, some time later, they wound it for the first and only time. They live in an asylum now, and the blood on their hands means they will never see release.

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O traveler of many questions, how you seem to delight in the half-truths I spin for you! Who am I to turn you aside, when my repeated warnings will not? You ask now of Harper, who might be called the dearest and most powerful of the Witch Queen’s inner circle.

It is a fact well-known that for every male Nevra takes under her tutelage, she takes two females. None know why, save perhaps for the fact that purely martial pursuits do not interest the Witch Queen, and it is those pursuits in which men often excel. But Harper is different, and the name given to him suggests why. “Harper” is a name in no tongue other than out own, and it simply means one who plays upon strings. But the strings that Harper plays upon are the threads of fate, and his music is a mixture of sorcery, prophecy, and bitter steel.

Those who have seen him fight know why Harper earned for himself the appellation “The Annihilator.” Lightly armored, he nevertheless cuts opponents to ribbons with his sword and spells, moving with supernatural speed and accuracy. It is as if he can predict their every move and react accordingly, and I believe this to be his gift. Prophecy is, of course, not an unknown gift. But those that can see though the mists see so darkly, and they perceive only the end result. Harper, I think, sees the threads of fate that bind all causality together.

Does that confuse you? Let me give you an example, then. Suppose an oracle knew that they would die from a falling clock, having seen this in a dark and dim vision. So they would take the precaution of having no clocks in their house, quite naturally. But Harper would see the threads binding together a clock and the oracle’s fate, and he would know to loosen a brick in the clock tower nearby, bringing it down upon the oracle who, clockless, had thought their fate cheated.

I would venture that this ability paralyzed Harper as a young man, before the Witch Queen was able to tame it. If the use of such a gift to parry and riposte a sword-swing seems to you a waste, perhaps it is because Harper has limited himself to the strings of the immediate future, lest he go mad from unbridled prophecy. Or perhaps there are things yet that the Witch Queen does not wish him to see…?

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