Of all the amh, birds that were neither predator nor prey to the sparrows, the iparral, or cardinals, were the most likely to treat with sparrows and not to fight with them. So long as there was ample food, the cardinals and their brides would suffer the sparrows to be near them and to converse.

So Lwyr sought their counsel, specifically that of Rreko, a cardinal who had lived in the area for many years and had raised three broods a year, like clockwork, with his bride.

“Tell me, please, if you have a moment, what I should do about the nest-intruders, the cowbirds,” Lwyr said. “They have laid their egg in my beloved’s nest, and she is beside herself with worry.”

Rreko cracked an oily seed open with his great orange beak and chewed on the contents, meditatively. “They have bedeviled us more and more,” he said. “But we accept it as a fact of life.”

“What happens with the chicks you raise?” Lwyr pressed. “What happens as they grow?”

“We do our best with them, and they care for us in their fashion, but they always speak in a foreign tongue from the nest, it seems, and when our fledglings scatter they never return, seeking instead their own kind. I suppose all sons and daughters are the same, in that way.”

“What if they could be made to stay, for us that flock?”

“Well, they do flock sometimes, usually in the spring, but they are such rude, garrulous creatures that they would not fit in with a flock so…delicate…as yours.”

“What if they could?”

“I would say that is a fool’s dream,” Rrenko said, cracking another nut. “It is as if asking what if the sun were edible.”

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Like their close cousins, the apoc, the symph are tall and proud, equally at home as farmers or warriors. But unlike the individualistic apoc, who move about singly or in small bands when they are not living as the guests of others, the symph are a mutualistic species–the Sisterhood, as they called themselves.

Building great hive-cities, the symph were ruled by a queen that was mother to nearly the entire population, though some would have co-regent daughters to smooth the transitions between generations. Males were rare, and though they were stronger than females and made excellent warriors, they consumed vital resources while offering little in return and wer therefore only hatched for breeding purposes, sent to other hives to cement alliances and keep inbreeding at bay. The other symph were all sisters–hence “the Sisterhood”–and their close relationship gave them all a degree of mutual empathy bordering on telepathy.

The apoc and others have occasionally accused the symph of being an uncreative hive mind, a mass of interchangeable and faceless clones. This is, however, not true; many symph are passionate and artistic, but their culture does place a great deal of importance on maintaining the unified front of the Sisterhood. Disagreements happen and outliers exist, and it is a culture that values and allows for personal freedom. But the Sisterhood requires that those differences be strictly internal and secret, guarded from all but a few close friends and allies. A remnant of when the wood was a crueler place, perhaps, or before large numbers of apoc began living among the symph as laborers, warriors, and lovers.

Individual symph can and do leave the safety of the hive and the sisterhood, but without the rare males they cannot live anything but a solitary existence. Those who do eke out such a living are not unheard of, though, and the most successful often eventually barter with other symph for males and begin new Sisterhoods of their own.

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Developer: Musjido Team 2
Publisher: Musjido
Platform: Musjido Multi Media System
Release Date:
NA: November 15, 1991
JP: January 21, 1992
EU: May 21, 1992

For this late-system release, the keys to the Subterranoid franchise were handed over to Musjido Team 2, primarily hardware designers, and the result was lambasted at the time as being a tired attempt to wring new life from a worn-out franchise. With Ultra Subterranoid a little more than a year away, many people chose to wait for the newer product, leaving Subterranoid IV: Areolus’s Awakening as one of the rarer games for the MMS.

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“Far from being amh, they are worse than llew, because they kill our young and force us to raise their own. Larger, heavier, they take more food and more care than our own young do. They may not eat us, as llew would, but they devour all the same.” Yn said.

“But surely,” asked Echyd, “surely we can tell the difference. Their eggs would be larger too, yes?”

Yn puffed up, the old sparrow shuddering from wingtips to tail. “Sometimes they are. But the cowbirds will keep a keen watch on their brood, and if you eject their egg, they will descend upon the nest and destroy it–killing all your true young and perhaps even yourself as well. It is the implicit threat they hold over all of us, and they have been growing in numbers every season.”

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Axtyn II, often called “The Last Great King of Pexate,” an appellation which has stuck despite Thurlford III’s many accomplishments, had a total of nine children–a fact he was very proud of, as it put him in the same league as his ancestor Eyon I.

Of the nine, three died young, leaving three sons and three daughters. Thurlford II, the youngest son of Axtyn’s second wife, became king on his father’s death at the age of three. His two elder brothers both died of misfortune, one of plague and another on campaign in the deserts of Naix. This left Axtyn’s daughters, the Three Sisters, all of whom married powerfully and well and became known for their adroit manipulations. Axtyn’s middle and favorite daughter married Uxbridge VI of Brae, the most powerful baron in the House of Owls, and her only son–also named Uxbridge–became baron in time as well.

Lord Uxbridge was known as a handsome, genial man who made personal friends easily and was most in his element when he was speaking to someone one-on-one. He was also brave and honorable to a fault, never failing to accompany his troops into battle and rarely, if ever, breaking his word once given. When Axtyn’s line failed, Uxbridge became a key aide to the new king, Axtyn’s younger brother Thurlford III, and Thurlford relied heavily on Uxbridge to keep the increasingly rowdy House of Owls in line.

However, it did not take a sage to see that Uxbridge’s eyes were on the throne. Thurlford was childless and increasingly distracted from the business of ruling by his need for a direct heir, and Uxbridge was already shaking hands with barons on the king’s behalf. Despite the fact that, historically, the kingship was not inheritable through the female line, Uxbridge nevertheless was in a position to advance his claim strongly. By the time his game of chess was complete, Uxbridge had married his only sibling to King Thurlford, had the support of a majority of the Owls, and had already guaranteed himself the position of regent for his nephew Eyon.

The Layyian Plague turned out to be the catalyst for Lord Uxbridge VII to become King Uxbridge I. Both the king and his wife succumbed–or, at least, that was the official story–and after a regency of only nine days, so too did young Eyon–again, according to the official story. Rumors that Eyon had survived and that Thurlford had been murdered persisted, but the House of Owls unanimously backed Uxbridge for the throne.

And, true to his word, he honored the promises that he had made: more autonomy for the barons, less royal interference in the day-to-day running of the country, and so on. To do otherwise would have cost him his support, but the following decade–Uxbridge’s Anarchy–would show that he had sacrificed perhaps too much in his pursuit of the throne.

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Thurlford III, King of Pexate, became king after his nephew Thurlford II died young. As regent for the boy, he was well-positioned to take the throne, but Thurlford was also the last male-line descendant of Axtyn II. A tough, practical statesman and general, Thurlford was a capable ruler but his reign wound up becoming consumed by the question of succession.

Thurlford’s first wife, Mirh of Layyia, was the daughter of King Fraen IV and many hoped that their union would hep bring-about the long hoped-for union between the “warring brothers” of Pexate and Layyia. Mirh’s early death in childbirth dashed those hopes, and her child was sickly as well. He would have been Thurlford IV, had he lived, but the child suffered from hydrocephalus and died at the age of eight, though his surviving letters show that he was an intelligent lad and full of promise.

Lady Lyx was married to Thurlford when he became king, and was therefore Queen of Layyia. They had met on the occasion of one of Thurlford’s campaigns against the orcs in the deserts of Naix, and she was a member of the disinherited by still powerful House Diuaj. However, their union was a childless one, and rumors soon began to spread that her mother had actually been an elf, leaving Queen Lyx herself as a mule and infertile. Scholars remain divided about this, but there is no denying that she failed to produce an heir or even to become pregnant.

Thurlford appealed to the Sepulcher, asking that the marriage be dissolved, but the canon law of the time required both parties to agree to a divorce, and Lady Lyx refused to grant one. Thurlford resolved to sire an heir regardless, and began courting a variety of ladies both in Pexate’s capital of Simnel and in the baronies as well–it is said that the Annex at Castle Aiov was built to be his love-nest with the baron’s daughter.

However, the barons’ power had been growing, and they saw the opportunity to flex their muscles. The House of Owls resoundingly rejected King Thurlford’s petition to have an heir of illegitimate birth succeed him, and the House of Sparrows agreed. The sudden death of Queen Lyx broke the logjam, though the barons’ whispers that she had been poisoned by her husband gained wide currency.

Seeking to shore up his support, Thurlford’s third wife was Lady Zann of Brae. She was not a well-known beauty like Lyx, nor was she an adroit politician like Mirh, but she was the sister of Baron Uxbridge VII of Brae, a cousin of the king and one of the most powerful members of the House of Owls. Uxbridge had long been Thurlford’s “fixer,” dealing with problems arising around Pexate with his brand of personal diplomacy–he was renowned for his warm, friendly manner, personal honor, and fine speaking voice. Queen Zann therefore came with a powerful ally attached.

It seemed that Thurlford finally had what he wanted; Zann was pregnant within a year and the king’s first legitimate offspring, Prince Eyon, was born soon after. But within a year, both Zann and Thurlford would be dead, and Pexate would be spiraling into chaos.

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“What is this?” said Marcos, looking at the form. He was still sitting behind that giant and likely bulletproof desk, without a clear shot from the silenced PB pistol in my briefcase. The wire around its trigger was already starting to cut into my skin in the lush Veracruz heat.

“International Solutions, LLG?” Marcos continued. “No, no, this invoice is no good. It has to be countersigned.” He slapped the paper down on the desk. “Do you take me for a fool? I want to see the Interior Minister’s signature on this before I pay a cent.”

“My apologies,” I said as evenly and coolly as I could manage. “With your leave, I will take the document back and return it with the proper signature.”

“Don’t apologize,” Marcos said. “Just get it done. And send someone else next time, or we might just decide to make you pay for wasting our time.”

I started circling the desk, but before I had made it more than a handful of steps, Marcos lunged forward and drove a dagger into the wood–and judging by the many similar holes, not for the first time.

“Stay back,” he said. “I don’t like strangers getting too close.”

“Of course.” I gestured at the paper. “Then, would you mind…?”

With a grunt, Marcos lifted himself partly out of his seat and reached across the desk to scooch it my way. For a moment, and only a moment, he was unprotected by the desk.

It was now or never.

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