May 2019

Claude tamped some ersatz tobacco into his pipe, wincing at the sharp taste as he lit it. “I bet you thought that was fun, huh. Sabotaging their supplies, sugar in the gas tank, things like that.”

Francois squared his jaw. “It’s only right. It’s justice.”

“Uh-huh.” Claude took a puff, and his face soured at the taste. Bound by habit, though he exhaled a ring of smoke. “And what good is your justice when they catch you, hmm? They won’t hesitate to kill you.”

“I’m not afraid to die,” Francois said.

“Aren’t you? You’re a little boy playing at war with a wooden gun. Two wars ago, I saw what could happen when boys stood up and pretended to be men. In the face of determined men, trained men, men with a plan…the only question is if they will kill only you or torture you for knowledge of your associates.”

Francois scoffed. “You want me to lie down. Like everyone else.”

“Did I say that?” Claude raised an eyebrow. “You don’t get to be pushing ninety by being rash, at least not without plenty of luck. Here is what I am saying. They have a plan. You have none. Make plans, and make them better than those dogs who think they are running our country.”

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Dear Appeals Committee,

I am writing to you today to request that I be readmitted into Southern Michigan University. Given my academic performmance over the last semester, as well as the serious nature of the charges against me, I was disappointed but not surprised to receive my dismissal letter in the mail.

I freely admit that I had a very difficult time last semester, and my grades suffered as a result, though the newspaper and national media accounts were often biased and grossly inadequate in their coverage. While I know you don’t want to hear me make excuses for my poor academic performance, I would like to try and explain the circumstances.

First, I knew that registering for 18 credit hours in the spring would require a lot of me, and that hijacking a tanker truck—even one that I thought at the time was filled with milk and not gasoline—would be difficult to fit into a healthy study schedule. I was also planning on relying on my study group to help me get through, until it turned out that Ramirez had lied about knowing how to hotwire a car and we had to leave him at the Canadian border crossing.

While I thought I could handle the 18-hour workload, and I still think I could have, my godfather became very ill in February. I owe everything I am to my godfather, who has been a mentor and a confidante to me, asking only for the occasional favor in return. While he was at home, injured in an Gambrelli assassination attempt and unable to work, I had to drive over every weekend and some weeknights to help out with business and to care for the Family.

Needless to say, the hour-long drive each way cut into my study time, as did the duties I had to do as a man of honor. Even when I was at school, I was very distracted with the situation and was unable to focus on my schoolwork. I understand now that I should have communicated with my professors, taken a leave of absence, or even postponed the Corsican job altogether. I thought I could handle all of these burdens, and I tried my best, but I was wrong.

I love SMU, and it would mean so much to me to graduate with a degree from this school, which would make me the first person in the Family to complete a criminal justice degree and become an inside man on the force. If I am reinstated, I will focus much better on my schoolwork, take fewer hours, and practice my timetables much more rigorously. Fortunately, my godfather is recovering and has returned to work; one the reprisals again Gambrelli have ceased, I will be free to work on school and my own small-time hustles. Also, I have met with my advisor, and am attaching a letter of support which she wrote of her own free will.

Please understand that the low GPA that led to my dismissal does not indicate that I am a bad student. Once I have had a chance to make my professors offers that they cannot refuse, I am certain that I will get a 4.0 this coming semester. I hope you will follow the lead of the District Superior Court in giving me a second chance. Thank you for considering this appeal.

Emilio Andolini

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Baia del Placer Cantina
Cananea, Sonora, Mexico
November 15, 1913

The first man, wearing pilot’s leathers and little else but a union suit, nodded from his slouched pose at the table. “Phil.”

“Dean.” The second, dressed like a farmhand with a day’s sweat and a day’s stubble, drew back a splintered chair and dropped into it.

“I suppose you know that General Hill ordered me to kill you if we see you sputtering over Naco again,” Dean said. He raised a cloudy glass in a mock toast. “Those bombs you dropped didn’t kill anybody, but they scared the hell out of Hill and embarrassed him too. He’s not a man who likes to be surprised, scared, or embarrassed.”

Phil smiled. “And here I thought that was the whole point of the exercise.” The waiter shouted out his order, straight Chihuahua tequila, and he waved them over. “I offered to fly for Hill and Obregon too, you know, but they were paying by check and Huerta came through with cash. I’ve got orders to kill you too; you know Hill’s got at least one bird.”

“You mean, you lent them yours, and it came with a free pilot.” Dean sipped at his liquor, swirling it thoughtfully before swallowing. “You know, Phil, that’s an interesting proposition. How exactly does one kill someone in an airplane from another?”

Phil pulled a revolver from his waistband and thumped it onto the table. “That’s how, I’m guessing.”

“Well,” said Dean. “You could save yourself a lot of trouble right now.”

“Bah.” Phil swept up his tequila and took a drag, winching as it went down. “After all we’ve been through? From Panama through to here? Sooner or later people are going to figure out how to murder each other in those things, but I’d rather it wasn’t somebody I sort of liked that went down first.”

“Likewise,” said Dean. He pulled a hand out from under the table, revealing a cocked Webley. Lowering the hammer, he set it on the table next to Phil’s. “I reckon two smart fellows like us ought to be able to think our way out of this predicament, don’t you?”

“Take the money, don’t get fired, and don’t die?” Phil said. “In the cockpit or up against a wall?”

“Exactly. I think I have just the idea to make it happen, too, if you’ll order us another round of drinks and help me work out some of the practical points.”

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Name: Gnat
Age: 20?
Occupation: The Brains

The Margrave’s agents are all people from alternate versions of Deerton that hope for a better, perfect, version of the town once all competing and imperfect Deertons have been erased from every dimension. Nathaniel, or Nat, or Gnat, is a constant hub of buzzing nervousness, always stuttering and falling over his own words in an attempt to please the Margrave and her various agents. Because of this, no one really likes him or wishes to associate with him, and Syd in particular can be vicious in their mockery of Gnat, occasionally taking his form to parody and insult him.

However, Gnat’s nervous exterior hides a strong and disciplined mind, one that is eminently equal to the tasks of finding ley lines that can be unraveled to erase parts of Deerton from existence. He is also well-versed in many other fields, from electronics to history to philosophy. Gnat’s desire was knowledge and the mental acuity to use it, so he is extremely self-conscious about his work and will fly into a flustered rage if he feels like someone is making him look unintelligent.

Trivia: He has also taken it upon himself to document the various erased Deertons, and keeps a trunk laden with souvenirs from deleted towns. These documents tend to reflect his personal interests, and include a variety of movies and music unique to various alternate worlds that he enjoys listening to. It is mostly anime, with subs being GREATLY preferred to dubs. Incompatible cross-universe media standards are also his eternal bane.

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Name: Charlie
Age: 30?
Occupation: The Muscle

The Margrave’s agents are all people from alternate versions of Deerton that hope for a better, perfect, version of the town once all competing and imperfect Deertons have been erased from every dimension. Charlotte, or “Charlie” as she’s known to everyone but the Margrave, desperately wants to be a true hero in every sense of the word. Powerful. Driven. Skilled with all weapons. Lethal with hands and fists. But she is constantly struggling against her inherent good nature, her inherent goofiness, and her inherent appreciation of bad jokes, worse food, and pratfalls. She’s passionate, perhaps to a fault, and tends to act quickly and rashly when left to her own devices.

Charlie was able to remake herself with the Margrave’s help, and she now sports an imposing physique that hides an even greater strength, one that borders on violating the laws of physics. Because of this, she is utterly steadfast in her loyalty, more so than any of the Margrave’s other agents.

Trivia: Charlie is a huge fan of schlocky action movies, especially ones from the 1980s. Her incredible strength and toughness allow her to literally reenact some of those scenes, and on those rare occasions that the Margrave’s work has caused an explosion, Charlie has quickly turned away from it–desperate to walk away, coolly, from the blast.

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After seeing the man from across the street push an empty Walmart shopping cart into the Sonic parking lot, only to abandon it there, for a week straight, Josiah decided to call out to them the next time they appeared.

“Hey! What are you doing there?”

The man walked stooped, the white parts of his owl cut dyed a bright, chipper teal. “Of course, of course. It’s not always obvious to everyone, and I’m happy to explain.”

“Please do.”

“Every shopping cart that Walmart makes contains an atom of shopcartium,” the man said. “Now, being so close to Walmart naturally cancels that effect out. But by bringing them over here, I’m letting the shopcartium react with the cosmic rays properly.”

“And what will that do?” Josiah said.

“Oh, it will bring about the end of the world,” the man said. “It’s time, don’t you think?”

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Unmei no Fuguhiki was carried by Takenaka Chihiro, the most famous wandering chef of the Sengoku Jidai period. Highly sought-after as a maker of sashimi by daimyo, their retainers, and even the Imperial Court, he had pledged as a youth to never settle in an area permanently until he found his brother. Once poor farmer’s children in the Takeda realm, Takenaka Chihiro had been apprenticed to a chef after his parents’ death, while his brother Takenaka Akira had been apprenticed to a fisherman. After making a name for himself in Osaka, Takenaka Chihiro had made his way across wartorn Japan, searching for Akira while earning his way through cooking.

Takenaka’s rotund physique belied his strength and speed, but nevertheless he was continually beset by bandits while traveling and by assassins when he refused his services or refused to serve as a tool of assassination himself. On one occasion, after refusing to deliberately serve improperly prepared, deadly fugu to Matsudaira Kiyoyasu, Takenaka was attacked by no less than five assassins. To protect himself, he carried Unmei no Fuguhiki. It had been made for him by Sengo Muramasa as a gift following a particularly exquisite meal, and despite its appearance as an ordinary fugu knife, it was forged to the same quality and with the same techniques as a samurai blade of the finest quality.

So although Takenaka preferred good humor and abhorred violence, when he was pushed he could wield Unmei no Fuguhiki with the skill of any swordsman, and it could easily parry any blows rained upon it. The same knife that created exquisite sashimi for the greatest nobles of the age was also plunged into the hearts of their darkest assassins when necessary.

When Takenaka died aged 75, Unmei no Fuguhiki was buried next to him at his request. While history does not record whether he ever found his brother Akira, relatives tend his grave to this day. Takenaka never took a wife, and his living relatives believe he was with a nephew at the time of his death.

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“And now,” laughed Takenaka Chihiro, “I must ask your staff and cooks to leave me to prepare this part of the meal alone. I will call them when I am finished.”

“Why is that, Takenaka-san?” said one of the senior cooks to Matsudaira. “We can assist you ably. You may be one of the most respected cooks in the countryside, but even the best swordsman needs retainers.”

“You mistake my intent, and for that I am sorry. I meant no offense, so if it was given please blame fat, silly Takenaka and the fine words that turn to hollow ash in his mouth. No, friend, I ask you to leave because I am to prepare the fugu, and if the slightest mistake is made, it will be deadly. I work alone so that, if a mistake is made, it is mine and mine alone.”

“Surely such a thing could never happen, Takenaka-san,” said the senior cook.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Takenake with a rueful smile. “Especially if their hands and head are deadened by sake. I once cooked for a daimyo and allowed his chef to assist me. I had too much to drink and cut the fugu liver improperly. Three people were sickened and nearly died. The next day, the daimyo came to me personally. He apologized for the incompetence of his chef, and told me the man had been put to death. For my mistake. Friend, I cannot and will not allow that to happen again.”

Seeing the wisdom in this, the other chefs allowed Takenaka to prepare the final dish himself. He was cutting the fugu with the utmost concentration when a voice broke in: “We have a proposal for you, O Takenaka Chihiro.”

Takenaka did not look up from the fish; he was carving thin, translucent sections off of its flesh and layering them into intricate flowers. “Speak if you must,” he said, relying on his peripheral vision to pinpoint the man who had crept up to him in the abandoned kitchen. “Then leave me to my work. I enjoy a good joke, but now is not the time for levity.”

“No joke, Takenaka-san,” the interloper said. “My master bids you welcome and bears a message: it would be most wise if you were to allow an accident to befall your client, Matsudaira Kiyoyasu. If you allow your concentration to slip, you will be well-rewarded by my liege.”

“My reputation would be forfeit.”

“Not to my liege. He would take you on as a chef, full time, and pay double, triple, what these provincial fools can. You would also have his gratitude, and his resources, both of which would be useful in locating your brother.”

Takenaka laid another paper-thin slice of fugu upon the plate. There were four more interlopers now, each dressed in black, each motionless and speechless aside from the one who had already spoken.

“Begone,” said Takenaka. “I refuse to debase myself and my art to that level.”

The sound of drawn swords followed. “That is…unfortunate.”

“My sashimi knife, Unmei no Fuguhiki, can cut more than fish,” said Takenaka with a smile. “It can also parry a swordstroke. Do you trust your life to being quicker than it, a blade that has sliced every flesh from minnow to man?”

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The elves of Tiramoor had as the second in line to their kingship one Naluri, who despite reaching her majority had never grown beyond the stature of a child. Their erstwhile enemies, the dwarves of Marrowdun, meanwhile, had a princess who would have been first among her peers had tradition allowed for any but males to succeed to the Diamond Throne. Inacha, their princess, was of exceeding height for their kind, nearly two dwarven cubits tall. Indeed, were it not for her characteristically tough skin and close physical resemblance to her father, one might have mistaken her for a human.

It was a human, of the kingdom of Al-Urdin, who first had the idea of an exchange. After a particularly brutal skirmish between a group of Tiramoor rangers and Marrowdun prospectors, the Bey of Yiddah intervened, petitioning his uncle the Sultan to arrange an exchange of hostages for mutual peace and to increase understanding. Having hunted with Naluri and Inacha, the Bey suggested them as the hostages.

And so it was that the tallest of all the dwarves and the shortest of all the elves found themselves at the Al-Jazīrah, an island at the confluence of three great rivers traditionally used for negotiations. The notion was that, with the humans of Al-Urdin as mediators, the princesses would seal the peace between their squabbling peoples.

As fate would have it, they would never be exchanged.

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“It’s not merely enough to cry out to the dead,” said Seth. He tapped a long, bony finger to his temple. “Think about it. There’s naught but mush betwixt their ears; it’s the spirits that you’re truly calling out to. Maybe it’s the spirit that animated them in life; maybe it’s a malevolent thing of hatred looking for a cheery shamble and murder.”

Cherie looked at the tottering forms, leathery skin on some, liquefied putrefaction on others. “Speak not to them, but to what animates them…”

With a gasp, she saw what Seth was talking about as her focus improved and the veil cleared. She could see the spectral lights of spirits moving within the stumbling shells. Some looked like ordinary folks, while some were raging cacophonies of spirit energy, lightquakes hanging onto physical forms.

“How do you speak to something like that?” Cherie whispered.

“We’re called ghoulcriers for a reason,” replied Seth, sinking a bit to whisper in Cherie’s ear. “It’s not a civilized conversation, it’s a primal howl of command. They do what you ask because they’re terrified of what will happen if they don’t–even beyond death.”

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