September 2019


Daqin, vast in its wilderness and often hostile in its temperament, has always been regarded as backward by much of the world, and its regular wars with Ceres and the Crimson Empire have only served to underscore this, with its vast tundra and taiga serving to bog invading armies down. But Daqin’s history has also been one of expansion, and there is no greater casualty of this than the halflings who once lived there.

Believed by some to be an admixture of the dwarves from the Shattered Isles and the humans from the south before the Sea Peoples destroyed the dwarven kingdoms, halflings occupied some of the best and most productive agricultural land in what is now Daqin, but they were also staunch pacifists and pastoralists. None of their settlements was larger than a few families, and isolated farms which only gathered for a few annual festivals were the rule rather than the exception. Pacifism was also an imperative in the halflings’ interpretation of their religion–a syncretic mix of local shamanism, dwarven dualism, and the Sepulcher of the Creator. This was non-negotiable; it was preferable to die resisting passively than to raise a hand in self-defense against a thinking being.

The modern nation of Daqin coveted the halfling lands, and easily established its supremacy over them once it had emerged from the civil wars that were its birth pangs. But merely taxing the halflings and making use of their farms was not enough; the rulers of Daqin constantly faced demands from their own people to evict and/or exterminate the halflings, a demand made all the more pressing by the Sepulcher which regarded their syncretism as heresy. So the halflings’ lands and rights were systematically restricted until they were little more than chattel laborers on massive estates owned by Daqin nobles. But even this was insufficient, as they were smaller and weaker than humans, and eventually the Daqini simply rounded up the survivors and deported them to the farthest reaches of their empire.

Halflings, despite their relative isolation from one another in terms of family groups, were intensely social beings who could not thrive, let alone thrive, without a fixed social unit like a family. The tumult of their relocation proved to be their undoing, as most of the population had wasted away or even taken their own lives within a decade of the move. The last reliable census by the Daqini had less than 300 halflings, and as that was just before a period of 30 years’ warfare, they are widely regarded as extinct.

It is possible some halflings persist, especially if they moved out into the taiga in family units, but without a broad social context for intermarriage and other social rituals, it is highly unlikely that they will survive as a species. Since halflings, alone among known sapient species, can interbreed with both dwarves and humans, there are many of remote halfling ancestry alive today. Sadly, the culture that sustained them is lost and likely irretrievable.

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Petit-Maxais (harbor of refuge) is about halfway between Whalefish Bay and Grosse Island, and the only harbor of any kind in this stretch of about 90 miles of dangerous coast, along which numerous wrecks have occurred; it is therefore useful as a harbor of refuge. Local commerce has declined with the exhaustion of the timber; the population stands at approximately 400 souls.

Wreck of the Prudence — The wreck of a wooden steamer, the Prudence, lies 12 miles west of Whalefish Point, and about 21 miles east by north from Crisp Point Coast Guard station, about 590 yards from shore and outside of the first reef, in a depth of about 18 feet with 14 feet directly inside on the reef. It has gone to pieces below the water line. While dangerous for yachts or small boats, the wreck is too far inshore from the usual course of vessels to obstruct navigation. The souls of the 24 people who went down with the steamer remain onboard, and are known to foul anchor chains that drift nearby. Attempts to lure mariners to a watery grave have been reported, but no deaths resulting therefrom are known.

Piers — The entrance to the harbor, about 167 yards wide, is protected on either side by parallel crib piers, which are riprapped with large rock on both sides and at the outer ends. The east pier is 515 yards long, including 100 feet of pile dike, but exclusive of the wing at the inner end, and extends 481 yards beyond the shore line. The west pier is 637 yards long, including 100 feet of pile dike, and extends 317 yards from the shore and 115 yards farther into the lake
than the east pier. Both piers have been fortified with buried crucifixes as protection from the nearby Prudence as well as many other wrecks further offshore. The west pier is regularly sprinkled with holy water as part of its maintenance, but the shorter pier relies on an electric spirit repeater which may go offline when the electric current is cut.

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“We were united in our purpose. To find some way, any way, for our species to continue to thrive on a rock that is increasingly hostile to us. The others, one by one, gave up and tried to leave. As if eking out a life elsewhere is any sort of alternative. But I keep going. I must. For to fail is to confront the howling void of the grave we have dug for ourselves. To fail is extinction. And I will not fail.”

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“The Beast of Truth and Beauty.” It wasn’t so much a statement as it was a sigh of longing, escaping as mist between the parted lips of the specter.

“A thing with a love for Keats, then,” I said.

“Hardly. The Beast is what Keats only glimpsed, dully, through the haze of mortal perception. When he wrote that beauty was truth and truth was beauty, he failed to capture the essential, intertwined, bestial nature of those things.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “It is beautiful and dangerous?”

“You speak of beauty and truth and dangerous beasts as if implying a distinction where one does not exist,” said the spirit. “They are one and the same, trunks from the same roots.”

“I don’t understand,” I muttered. “Can’t you speak plainly?

“What is truth but savagery? The truth is a harsh light that illuminates what you would leave dark. What is beauty but danger? Those that lack it are jealous and those that possess it are covetous. The Beast is those qualities of the wood made flesh.”

I looked at the spirit, its insubstantial form comely as it lingered in the darkness. “How will I know it when I find it?”

“That is why so many have failed. That is why so many have died.”

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The interview tape continued:

“You ask why I am for Unity then? Hmph. Let me tell you a little illustrative story, then. In my hometown, there was once a very rich family that had just one son. He died in a car accident after driving drunk, spoilt little shit that he was, and his parents were as bereaved as the parents of spoilt little shits are wont to be. Fair enough. What did they do with their bereavement? They started their own charitable foundation to combat drunk driving.”

On the tape, the interviewer shifted in their chair. “Sounds admirable.”

“It’s foolish. Ludicrous. There are a dozen foundations and charities devoted to stopping drunk driving, all of them needing and deserving the support of those very rich people. Unity would dictate that they combine their efforts. But no. We are all individuals here, doing our own thing, even if it means diluting our efforts to the point where nothing is done. Even if it means people will die. Because we’d rather do it alone.”

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The wild, loose steppes between the great empire of Ceres and the old Crimson Empire was once the territory of the trolls, beings of exceptional size, strength, and intelligence. Typically 7-9 feet tall, trolls were distinguished by their grey skin, large eyes, and lanky build. One key difference, and one only, kept them from establishing an empire or kingdom to rival that of the other sapients: their nocturnal nature.

Possessed of excellent nighttime vision and skin that was extremely sensitive to sunlight, trolls were generally unable to function during the daytime hours and would instead retreat to caves or underground dwellings. The light was enough to cause intense sunburn with long exposure, and the bloom from even a roaring bonfire was enough to blind a troll that had not had time to adjust. These traits were extremely desirable in the hot, arid steppes of west Ceres, but they came at a cost. Alone out of all the sapient races of the world, trolls never mastered fire, and they found themselves unable to make use of the wild steppe horses for riding or the great steppe aurouchs for meat and milk.

Instead, trolls hunted in organized bands, eating meat raw and also subsisting on what they could gather or steal. Since the other sapients tended to sleep during the night, troll culture regarded them as lazy and unintelligent, and therefore fit to be stolen from accordingly. Many a trade caravan, set upon by raiders at midnight, found itself relieved of most or all of its goods. The wiser caravans eventually worked out a system of trade, leaving valuables–typically forged metals or cooked meats–at designated places in exchange for safe passage.

In all other respects, trolls were formidable. They easily mastered languages and were powerful fighters and thinkers, with an oral tradition spanning thousands of years. One troll skald, or battle-poet, participated in each band, driving their fellows forward with ancient songs and rousing stories. The penalty for misremembering a single word of the old troll epics was death at sunrise. Those few trolls that were able to withstand the sun, usually due to generous clothing combined with near-blindness, were prized as scouts, diplomats, and traders.

But with their inability to make metal implements, their reputation as raiders and thieves, and the encroachment of Ceres from the east, the days of the steppe trolls were ultimately numbered. Cerean troops waged a series of extermination campaigns against the major troll groups, driving them further into the wilderness and breaking them up. In a cruel, if effective, move, the Cerean troops targeted the skalds specifically in battle, often taking them as hostages or prisoners. While this did lead to several rather complete skald-histories of the trolls being taken down by Cerean chroniclers, it also meant the distruption and destruction of their way of life.

By the beginning of the modern era, when Ceres began turning inward in a series of devastating civil wars, trolls were functionally extinct. It is possible some yet survive at the furthest edges of the great grasslands, near where the steppe turns to taiga, but if any yet live they are long since cut off from the stories and traditions of their forebears. And unlike the other sapients, their lack of mastery over fire means that the harsh winters of the taiga are an impenetrable wall of starvation and death.

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“A Madhi-Okoye converter, by the looks of it,” said Wicklow, poking the machine with the toe of his boot.

“Oh, right, I’ve heard of those,” Ortiz said. “They reverse the chirality of organic molecules, right?”

“More or less, when they’re working right,” Wicklow said. “But it’s basic stuff, amino acids at best. You need a lot more equipment to process the raw sludge into something you can eat, though I’ve seem plenty of alties desperate to suck on raw tubes of the stuff.”

“You think this was a lab?” Ortiz said. “Making illegal reverse-chirality food?”

“No, there’d be more equipment to synthesize some basic proteins. They’re keeping them separate and moving the ingredients between locations.”

“Smart,” said Ortiz. “Less chance of a fire.”

“Let them burn themselves out for all I care,” sniffed Wicklow. “As long as they don’t take any natives with them.”

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Sirik had left a note: “I am ashamed to say that I have left you now, Mr. Ames. This is the last depot on the river that is still controlled by the national government, and I have heard about what fate awaits those of us flying the national flag against the rebels. I have a wife and a child, and this is the last opportunity for me to slip away and perhaps see them once more, though I fear that in doing my duty thus far I have already made them a widow and an orphan. I hope you find the woman you are looking for, and she runs joyously into your arms. This is the story I will tell myself, even though I know in my heart of hearts it cannot be true.”

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CARL: This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, coming at you live from the booth for this latest episode of NCAA gridiron madness!

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, and I’m going to be honest: I can’t differentiate between those ants on the field and those I’ve seen a hundred times before. I think I may be on the verge of entering a fugue state! Also, bad call by the refs there I think. That’s ten yards the offense won’t get back.

CARL: It’s a good thing no one more than half-listens to what we say up here, Tom! And since this is a non-conference game, where the lesser team is basically being paid good money to act as a punching bag, we’re only being carried on NBS radio, which has a about the same nationwide audience as C-SPAN. Oh, look at that drive! That’s a turnover, possession goes to the away team!

TOM: That’s right, Carl, these ringers from outside the conference are making an uncommonly good show of things here today. If they win the game they’re essentially paid to lose, do you think they have not done their job and shouldn’t get paid? Discuss.

CARL: They’ve earned their money with an upset, all right, even if their exploited and basically enslaved student athletes never see one red cent of it. No, a loss here–as seems to be the case, with the box score 29-8 against the home team–merely serves to add one more log of thousand-dollar bills to the incandescent blaze that is NCAA sports. In among all the other money being burnt to make sure the people at the top stay in Learjets and thousand-dollar suits, it’s all but unnoticed.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, and let’s not forget that a loss in a non-conference game is blood in the water to other teams in the conference. They’ll be circling like sharks now, determined to beat a wounded and unresisting opponent to burnish their own programs before being defeated by the five-time national champions.

CARL: It’s almost like the system is set up so that the rich programs get richer and the poorer ones get poorer, with nothing but the hope of a bolt from the blue upset against a conference opponent, or enough fattened-cow sacrifices from out-of-conference opponents to make themselves seem viable.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. The best way to build a dynasty in the NCAA is to already have a dynasty. And it’s worth adding, I think, that the $175 million dollars per year price tag of the current dynasty makes it a tough sell considering that figure exceeds the GDP of at least three small countries.

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The tiny sprite hovered on gossamer wings above Timmy’s bed. It was impossible to miss the tooth motif; her vestments were crowned by knitted marching molars, with incisor inlays and a wisdom tooth atop the rod she daintily clutched.

“Wow,” Timmy said. “The Tooth Fairy! But wait, I lost my tooth on the playground, there’s nothing under my pillow!”

“I heard your wish.” With a knowing smile, the fairy waved her wand. Timmy immediately felt incredible pain followed by a stark pop in his lower jaw.

“OWWW!”

Running over the affected area with his tongue, Timmy felt that his baby tooth had returned, as solidly planted as ever in its old socket.

“I’m the Reverse Tooth Fairy,” the pixie said, floating off on the wind. “Enjoy your new chomper.”

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