January 2019


“Do you remember, before the ordeal?” Raguel said. He tapped gently at Lectra’s armor. “Before…this?”

The Grand Scholar turned away. “Yes,” she said. The word sounded hollow, turned aside from within the armor like a glancing blow.

“You used to be so much sweeter, so much more affectionate,” the tiefling said. “The Dark Room changed all that.”

“It changes everything,” said Lectra. She didn’t need to add that was the point of the whole ordeal, letting it linger, unsaid and powerful.

“Now, seeing you again after so long…you seem to be a slave to your studies, to the arcane. Tell me, is there one hour, one moment of the day that you’re not thinking of your poisons and subtle curses?”

Lectra’s head lowered, and the armor rattled as her shoulders slumped a moment. “No,” she said, a single syllable with the outline of a sigh.

“Experimenting with poisons and curses on everyone and everything. Including me, of course. Your big experiment. To change the nature of a being and twist it to your will. Was it worth it? Was it worth making something–someone–so low that they had to look up to you like unto a goddess?”

The Grand Scholar turned, meeting Raguel’s line of sight with the eyeholes in her helmet. Then she lifted the visor, revealing the face the tiefling well remembered from the old days – melancholy, brow furrowed and eyes keenly intelligent, with a kind of quiet beauty. She was paler, thinner, almost ghostly. No hint of a smile, but not sorrowful either.

“I liked you enough to try and hide the worst things,” she said. “The Lectra you remember is only half what she ever was.”

“I sense a strange, restless, depression in you,” Raguel said. “I sometimes wondered if you resented the immortality, the armor, Nevra gifted you with. Now I think I know.”

Lectra closed the visor of her ornate helmet with a dull clang. “Think what you like,” she said, her tone once more harsh, metallic. “I have work to do.”

“As do I,” Raguel said. “A noble aasimar laid low to live as a tiefling. We are both living a mockery of what we once had, looking up to something at once alluring and unattainable. Is that not true?”

At this, the Grand Scholar stiffened a moment. Then, she slumped back and walked away. “It was nice to see you,” she said over her shoulder. “Don’t be a stranger.”

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“Helixers”

The religious text responsible for the Helixers and Helixism is the Elikomicon, written by an unknown author approximately 1000 years ago. The Elikomicon claims that humankind should look to the humble snail as a model: slow, deliberate, unhurried, and yet always prepared to passively resist outside pressure.

Helixers, especially priests, are known for their slow, and deliberate movements, honed through hours of exercises, as well as their use of extremely strong (if plain) armor. Lay Helixers may use simple boiled leather armor, but higher echelons regularly wear chainmail or even full plate. Other than spiral or helical motifs, as well as the occasional engraved or gilded snail, this armor is completely unadorned.

Settlements built by Helixers also follow a spiral plan, with the highest and most fortified part of the settlement being at the center of the spiral. They also tend to be strongly fortified. Despite this, Helixers are strictly nonviolent, and refuse to engage in hostile action. If provoked, they will form a tetsudo formation with heavily armored, shieldbearing priests on the outside and vulnerable children and elders at the center.

Helixers are seen by many in the Barrier as seditious, as they gladly sell their armor in exchange for resources regardless of the purchaser. They are also known to employ mercenaries to guard their settlements, and in fact recruit many of them over time. But the presence of armored cultists and their armed guards still alarms many, and Helixers settlements are frequent targets of attacks fro, various quarters.

Strangely, no copies of the Elikomicon are currently known to exist. Though the book was in wide circulation at one time, it was written in a complex code that was never fully broken. It is believed that all current Helixers high priests commit the book to memory from recitations by elders.

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“The Being”

The leader of this cult has convinced their followers that they are the only being in the world, and that all other creatures, and indeed the world itself, is part of their dream. As such, “The Being” is kept in comfort and waited on, lest they awaken and snuff the world from being. While the claim is that this is not a lucid dream per se, “The Being” promises that the dream rewards those who are loyal to it. True followers are fanatically loyal, as they believe that rough handling of “The Being” could result in the snuffing out of the entire world.

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Lines in the grocery store, carts laden
Men gesticulating before green screens
School is canceled the night before
Clear skies hold a menacing promise
A whisper of ice, a vapor of snow
Terror incarnate for those who can’t
Who won’t be prepared for the freeze
In the commotion of schools and storms
The temperature falls 40° in 12 hours
We are all so worried about ice that
No one notices the oceans are boiling

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It’s a simple leather chair, deep brown and luxuriant, padded for both comfort and style. There’s no magical aura about it, no seemingly hidden evil about it, other than one thing.

The chair only appears in places that will result in chaos.

It might manifest on a distant and hostile plane of fire and brimstone, its mere ordinariness causing confusion, hostility, and even bloodshed. It may appear before a weary band who cannot agree who should sit, or beneath a tyrant to tantalize any who might unseat them.

Men have killed over it. Swords have been unsheathed, bows drawn, orders shouted, fellowships ended.

It is the Chair of Ultimate Entropy, and it will see the planes unmade without popping a stitch.

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He was the sort of man who
Would shoot you in the gut
And then expect plaudits for
Driving you to the hospital

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Armed and Breadly? Oh, traveler, you certainly do focus on the oddest parts of our beloved Mercura, don’t you? Armed and Breadly is an institution in these walls, responsible for arming the citizenry and feeding the poor at the same time. You may have even heard that it is officially endorsed by the Witch Queen! That is, of course, a lie. It would be better to say is it acknowledged by the Witch Queen, or perhaps tolerated.

The owners are Puto Skulljelly and Donny Bonesnap; half-orcs who met on the field of battle but once their swords crossed they realized that they couldn’t go through with that combat, or any combat, ever again. They snuck away from Clan Skulljelly and Clan Bonesnap to be with one another, you see, leaving their fellows leaderless. The clans were decimated after that, and both men still fear retribution for abandoning them–not that they’d trade one moment of their domestic bliss for it, of course!

In Mercura, Puto and Donny found a place that they could live, one that would accept them, and Donny–ever the dreamer–decided that he would be a baker. Since he was a mere orcling whelp he’d loved confections and delicious baked goods, you see, as sweet rolls and savory pies are among the few pleasures that life in the clans allows. Donny was determined to make a new life for himself, and his husband, as a baker.

I wonder, traveler, if you can sense the twist in his tale? Donny was enthusiastic, but he was a terrible baker.

Nautrally, a bakery with a head baker that cannot bake is a source of problems, but Puto loved Donny enough to make it work. Of course, Puto was no baker either, and he lacked even Puto’s enthusiasm and willingness to experiment. But he kept the store afloat for years through unsavory side jobs. He worked as a mercenary, a bouncer, a potion seller, a pimp. Anything to keep the rock-hard bread flowing out of the shop. Donny was only able to sell his noxious goods to the very poorest of the poor, and he gave away his day-old stock as a charity besides, so Puto was allowed to do what he did. In fact, a few even saw him as a bit of a Robin Hood.

Eventually, oh traveler, things took a turn for the better. After one particularly bad batch, and a creditor that was a bit too eager to collect, Puto and Donny realized that the breads made excellent and inexpensive melee weapons. So Armed and Breadly now sells bread clubs, bread swords, and of course the famous Breadward plate armor, all for a fraction of the cost of steel. And it can be thrown to the birds or eaten after use! They still give the leftovers to the poor, of course, though some say that Puto still trades food for information in his underworld dealings and that the place is still a front for money laundering.

The other thing that improved the lovers’ fortune was Mbira. One of the many half-orc foundlings that dot the streets of the city, likely cast off by her mother as proof of infidelity, Donny found her eating from the refuse heap and took her in. Mbira brought many things to Armed and Breadly; she was as tough as both her adopted fathers, but could also play the kalimba beautifully, as she had made her own and played it for coin in the streets once upon a time. Most impressively of all, she has actual skill as a baker, meaning that the goods she makes–sweet rolls and pastries, mostly–are actually edible and delectable.

Donny, they say, taught her everything he knows; the Witch Queen is to be thanked that she was not a good student.

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AM 452: “Clearance, Air Mississippi 452 airways to Cascadia.”

Air Traffic Control: “Air Mississippi 452, you are cleared to the Cascadia airport via the Lester 2 departure, flight plan route, depart runway 6 left, squawk 0-5-4-4”

AM 452: “Roger that, tower, Air Mississippi 452 cleared to Cascadia, Lester 2, flight plan route, 6 left, 0-5-4-4. Air Mississippi 452 ready for pushback.”

ATC: “Air Mississippi 452, push at your discretion, call ready for taxi.”

AM 452: “Uh, tower? This is Air Mississippi 452, and we’re seeing an unidentified object in our taxi clearance.”

ATC: “Air Mississippi 452 roger that, can you clarify?”

AM 452: “Roger that, tower, we see a…I guess I would call it a snack truck? There is a picture of a taco chip bag on the side, tower, if that helps.”

ATC: “Roger that, Air Mississippi 452, hold at gate while we have a look. Airport police are responding now.”

AM 452: “Hold at gate, roger.”

ATC: “Air Mississippi 452, we have an update for you on that obstruction. It is a snack vending truck that does not have proper clearance, and it appears to be loading snacks onto Air Mississippi 848 to New Jackson.”

AM 452: “Roger that tower…loading snacks? Can you clarify?”

ATC: “Air Mississippi 452, airport police say the snack truck is refusing to move until they have loaded an order of cookies onto AM 848 to New Jackson.”

AM 452: “Say again, tower? Cookies?”

ATC: “Roger that, Air Mississippi 452, cookies. Repeat: cookies. Charlie Oscar Oscar Kilo India Echo Sierra.”

AM 452: “Uh, may I ask why, tower?”

ATC: “Air Mississippi 452, tower has statement from the skipper of AM 848 saying that he is, quote, sick of Biscoff, and that, quote, if he doesn’t get another kind of cookie stat, he will touch down in Tonga instead of New Jackson.”

AM 452: “R-Roger that, tower. Ah…is there any chance AM 452 could get in on some of that cookie action? I’m sick of Biscoff too.”

ATC: “Roger that, AM 452, tower and airport police have already put in orders for chocolate and macadamia nut cookies.”

AM 452: “I’m feeling about a two-hour delay here, tower.”

ATC: “That’s affirmative, AM 452, definitely a weather system inbound. Lots of hail, might chip something.

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“The process was…painful…I admit, and there were many failures. But such is the light of discovery, is it not? One cannot perfect a true immortality like this without some sacrifice.”

“I don’t understand,” said Mellin, dully.

“In all those souls I experimented upon that survived, I sowed a small portion of myself. My memories and my genetic code. I knew that eventually all the pieces would recombine in the form of a being with my exact genetic structure and encoded memories, experiences.”

“Why the long wait, then?” Mellin said.

The child laughed, an almost comical sound. “Ha! Imagine what those dolts would have done if they’d known that a child with the memories and genes of Aisha the Executioner had been born within their lifetime? No, I had to wait, enough time that the memories had faded and those that had known me in the flesh were dead.”

“And what of me, then, and my men?” Ellen gestured to what was left of his troop. “We were promised a reward.”

“And you shall have it! I am not selfish, these sacrifices have not been in vain. When the time is right, I will release my gift to the wider world.”

“You’ll forgive me,” said Mellin, drily, “if the notion of this sort of rebirth does not excite my men.”

“My dear Captain,” Aisha said. “Now that I am made whole there is no need for such subterfuge. My work will now allow me to pass on my genes and memories unchanged.”

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“Hmph. Ask, then, and be out with it. I can’t stand formality for formality’s sake.” The hermit gulped greedily at one of his amphorae, coming away smelling strongly of alcohol and wet clay. “You don’t live my life if you like people’s nonsense.”

“I’ve been told that you know the secret, the truth, to what will hold back the Host,” said Trixie, as gravely as she could muster.

“What’s the Host?” said Bannister. Seeing Trixie’s shocked face, he laughed again. “Such surprise! How am I supposed to know what’s going on down there if no one comes to visit me–by my own request, I might add?”

“This was a mistake,” Trixie said, sadly. “I knew it was a long shot. But Cooperston is dying, and you’ll take a long shot if it’s your last chance and your last bullet.”

“Now, that’s more like it,” the hermit said. “Perhaps a bit cliche, but not a bad turn of phrase. Listen up, woman. This Host: they are a large force, well-armed, and strongly led?”

“Yes, yes they are,” said Trixie, excited. “They’re led by-”

“Tut-tut-tut,” said Bannister. “No details. Not necessary. This is an old problem, you see, one that was felt as keenly by our ancestors in squalor as it was before the collapse. How to protect the small from the large. Now: you can’t join with this Host? They are not amenable to negotiation?”

“They are murderers and slavers,” spat Trixie. “We’ve heard their terms and we’d rather die.”

“Well, then, you may get your wish,” laughed the hermit. “And this Cooperston, you’ve no hope of holding them at bay?”

“For a time, perhaps, but only for a time,” said Trixie.

Bannister hoisted his homemade liquor, following it with a meaty belch. “Well then,” he said. “You need another army. A power to match their own. Know of any?”

“Would I be here if I did?” Trixie said.

“Ha! Fair enough, fair enough. Now let me tell you something, woman. Before I decided to set myself on this path of solitude, I was quite the hoarder. Information, naturally, the only thing truly worth hoarding after the collapse. And I’m familiar with a force that just might be amenable to you. The Legion.”

“That old fairy tale?” Trixie snorted.

“Why yes,” said Bannister, both offended and grinning impishly. “You’ve heard of it too, the fully armed combat units kept in suspended animation beneath the Yucca Flats Complex, waiting for the computer order to reawaken them?”

“Well…”

“I thought not! To the unlearned, the Legion is just a once and future king, but once you’ve read the science behind it, it’s not so mythical at all. Soldiers enhanced mentally, physically, psychichally. Stored away for future need. And, I might add, very amenable to new members and fierce in its defense of its own. And I can recite chapter and verse from the relevent technical documents to back it up.”

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