I see them there, the Japanese beetles
Gorging on my roses, leaving them barren
A lifestyle of consumption, holes pockmarked
Eat all that can be eaten, brown in their wake
No thought for beauty, none for the future
A wasteland for their children, short-sighted
How could anything be so short-sighted
I wonder as I look at their destruction
And wonder, letting them have what they want
Eat to starvation and collapse and extinction
Would be worth the green that would sacrifice

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Pexate
Once a great power and the breadbasket of the Old Empire, now fallen to infighting by its barons and a succession of weak kings. Mountains to its east and oceans to the north and south protect it somewhat from invasion, as do the years of infighting—the barons have experienced troops, by and large. Some baronies have been de facto annexed by Layyia or Cervan, but their nobles still technically swear fealty to Pexate’s king.

Layyia
Another great power, Layyia warred with Pexate for a generation before both turned their gaze inward due to crises. The Layyia Plague devastated the west of the country and hit its nobility especially hard, resulting in a disputed succession and an uneasy truce. In year past, Layyia regarded itself as the foremost champion of the Sepulcher of the Creator, and many grand Sepulchers remain unfinished in the wake of the plague.

Naix
The disorganized city-states across the southern sea. At times they have been dominated by the Old Empire or even earlier states; they tend to be mercantile concerns serving all parties as traders and mercenaries. The primary city, Gizan, has been besieged 17 times in the last 200 years, but has impressive fortifications and economic resources to fall back upon. The majority of the Naix hinterland is an incredibly harsh desert.

The Crimson Empire
A shadow of the Old Empire that once was, the Crimson Empire is now no larger than Pexate or Layyia. While it clings to a few outposts over the sea, its glory had faded and it is in what most believe to be a terminal decline. Nonetheless, the Crimson Emperor is still nominally the first among equals at the Electorate, the body that nominates candidates to lead the Sepulcher. The various petty kings and other nobles of the Empire are independent in all but name, and the line of Emperors, the Fifth House, is a page shadow of those that came before.

Vacij
If the Crimson Empire seems destined to disintegrate, Vacij is what it has to look forward to becoming. Once the most intractable foe of the Empire, it is now a series of small kingdoms. While all of Vacij pledges fealty to the High King, in practice their authority is limited to an arbiter of disputes. The most recent High King of Vacij, Saksa VII, spent the majority of his reign working with the Vacij Academy to produce a dictionary of Old Vacijaen.

Cervan
The small kingdom of Cervan lies west of Pexate and has served as both a steadfast ally and a doughty opponent of the larger kingdom for centuries. Despite being unified several times over the past 500 years, the kingdoms nevertheless have always split due to irreconcilable differences and the difficulty of occupying Cervan’s dry and mountainous terrain. It maintains a strong central authority and exports its mining products with a large fleet, but remains suspicious of outsiders and refuses entry to the majority of travelers.

The Hamurataal
This Orcish-majority state is relatively new, and has expanded at the expense of the Crimson Empire and the city-states of Naix. It is unique in that its ruler, the Alu-Hamur, is elected by a council of notables and that it is officially atheist. The Hamurataal is ruled by the precepts of the Hamurabash, a uniquely Orcish philosophy that stresses tolerance, unity, and strict societal order. Many believe that the Hamurataal is an expansionist threat to the other nations, though it has shown little appetite for footholds on the mainland thus far, preferring diplomacy and veiled threats.

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Les Dents Noires (filmed 1970, released 1971)
Director: Auguste Des Jardins
Producer: Jens Dardis
Writer: Auguste Des Jardins & Jens Dardis
Cast:
Emile – Sid Jendras
Marie – Jess-Sindt Gaudreau
Music: Georges Delerue
Editing: Auguste Des Jardins
Distributor: Union Générale Cinématographique
Running time: 13:32

Synopsis:
The short is one, long unbroken shot, initially starting at the street, looking across the yard toward the small house, finished in a maroon paint that is fading to pink. The narration begins as we see Emile and Marie arriving to look at the house, but their arrival also clarifies something: they are not the focus of the short, and the camera is slowly moving inwards, toward the house–specifically toward a half-window into the basement.

Emile and Marie continue talking, and their conversation is banal. Taxes, moving expenses, Emile’s new job. We eventually learn, through guided imagery from Marie, that she has recently suffered a miscarriage. Around this time, we begin to notice, as the camera draws closer to that basement window, that there is a figure in it. Due to the lighting, at first we can see nothing more than that.

But soon, it becomes clear that it is a small form, childlike. We also begin to resolve that it is grinning widely, and its teeth are framed perfectly by Des Jardins’ lighting. They, and the lips around them, are dead, midnight black. It doesn’t seem possible, especially in 1970, for this to be so without visible makeup, but there is no time to consider this, as the audience: Emile and Marie are entering the house.

They continue their conversation, sometimes becoming heated, as the camera settles on the midnight lips and teeth, framing them in the center of the frame as they pulse and tremble with each breath. This is not the darkness of any human skin, but something altogether alien and sinister. The couple repeatedly beings moving toward the basement, and at this sign the breathing intensifies, the rictus grin grows wider, only to return to its previous state when they move away.

In this way, the tension has been built up to an almost unbearable level by the time the basement door actually opens. We see a flash of light across the being’s face, enough to convince us that every part of it is as dark and dead-looking as the mouth upon which we have been fixated for so long. As Emile begins walking into the basement, arguing loudly with Marie, the thing’s breathing crescendos and it moves out of our view. Nothing takes its place but the back wall of the basement, lit by late-afternoon sunshine.

We hear footsteps slapping on concrete, a surprised noise from Emile, followed by a savage, feral sound and a bloodcurdling scream. The sounds of struggle follow, and the noise continues for a moment before dying away in a death rattle.

More footsteps and we see the teeth and grin return. This time, they are freshly bloodied, dappled with crimson. We hear nothing, and for a moment all is as it was before, but for the addition of blood. Then we hear footsteps approaching, tentative footsteps, and realize that we have no idea what happened to Marie. The creature, whatever it is, turns slightly to face someone or something, and speaks its single line in a surprisingly normal child’s voice:

Maman.

A voice answers. “Mon bébé.” It is impossible to tell if Marie is speaking, or if it is another creature entirely.

We then see a pair of hands, adult-sized but midnight as the child, reaching over to caress it. Some blood is gently wiped from its lips as the screen fades to darkness itself.

Notes:
Despite being completed and filmed during breaks for Les Trois Juliets, Les Dents Noires was not released until the following year, as a double feature with a French dub of Willard. Short subjects were, of course, a totally dead genre by the early 70s aside from experimental or student films, and Des Jardins’ production was considered risky at the time.

The short was a cult hit, and many moviegoers reportedly left the theaters before the main program to see it again. But it also fell afoul of some religious viewers and critics, and several theaters refused to screen it during its 1971 release and 1973 re-release. Prints also tended to be snipped from Willard, making them rather rare today.

Notably, there is no credited actor for the “dark child” and no credited makeup artist. Des Jardins later claimed that union rules and labor laws forced him to pay under the table. He also repeatedly refused to clarify the film’s narrative in the years before his death: “I do not care what I have said, I only care what you have heard.”

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Ambassador Iphigenia looked at the assemblage; Administrator Horton, bruised on one eye where the troops had knocked him about with a rifle butt, and High Xiphos Ovyavu, with his mating tentacle hanging broken and useless at his side.

“I’m not telling Ovyavu anything it doesn’t already know, but when he offered me up as a mediator and communicator between your two peoples, that was a ruse. I was a spy, pure and simple, feeding it information.”

“I knew it,” Horton said between clenched, bloody teeth. “They can engineer you to look as human as they like, but you’re still a bloody alien being. We never told you anything useful, Ovyavu, I hope you know that. Misinformation was all you got, and this betrayal is your reward.”

Iphigenia smiled. It looked a human smile, playing across a face that was that of a beautiful woman in everything but its distinctly teal hue, but the muscle groups and support structure behind it were completely different. “That’s why they gave me the gift of reading thoughts, Mr. Horton,” she said.

Horton scoffed. “Nonsense.”

“And yes, I know your wife always privately thought you and I might be involved,” Iphigenia said. “You can tell her that nothing was further from the truth. Thanks to Ovyavu, I find both your kinds equally repulsive.”

Horton gasped. Ovyavu, for its part, expelled a frothy mass of bubbles from its orifice–the ob’Thu equivalent of laughter. “Is it really a weakness to succeed too well?” it said. “If we had not also nurtured a rather human penchant for betrayal in this thing, the attack would have been completely successful.”

“Perhaps,” Iphigenia said. “But then, I always saved the best pieces of information for myself.”

“The data download made such a thing impossible!” Ovyavu burbled. “We knew all.”

“In making me neither fish nor fowl, neither ob’Thu nor human, you guaranteed the existence of thoughts so alien that half of them were incomprehensible,” Iphigenia laughed.

She nodded at both of them. “Think about your many sins, my friends, in your cells as you await execution. In the meantime, I have two colonies to rescue from the brink of self-destruction at your meddlesome hands, and a new empire to forge with myself at the head.” She tapped one temple, delicately. “Perhaps I’ll start by making a mate.”

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“But…but I saved your life,” Mercer said. “That traitor was going to ambush you and murder you before the fool got murdered himself as a patsy of the Lightfaith.”

“And yet, for all that, the people you killed here were men,” the Aul said sorrowfully. “They were born into this world and cared for, since none of us can live to be men without tender care those first years. There were people, at one time if not now, who loved them and wished them the best. And you took that from them.”

“I took from them what they were going to take from you.” Mercer was confused; he’d expected gratitude or stoicism, but not the tears now streaming down the Aul’s face.

“I would gladly have let them have it.”

“I don’t understand!” the courier cried. “People have paid and risked their life for you, and you’d betray them, and all the Aulites, just so some miserable backstabber could get his blood money?”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” Pyfer said, sadly. “The Aulites believe that all is an eternal cycle. Another Aul will be born, even if there is another name to it, even if it takes a thousand years and all we have done is ground into dust. But for those without enlightenment, death and rebirth is an extinction of the self. So much is lost. This is why we have and ever shall be pacifists.”

Mercer was shaking now, angry and sorrowful. “Maybe you need people like me,” he said. “People who can get things done.”

“I think you had better go,” Pyfer replied. “I cannot trod the path you have laid out for yourself, as grateful as I am for your assistance.”

“I’ll…I’ll find some more Aulites,” Mercer said. “I’ll let them know you’re here. They shouldn’t be too far, not if they were expecting to take you to Naix.”

“Do what you will,” the Aul said. He sat down heavily, raising a cloud of dust. “I will be here, meditating, until a solution presents itself or I am killed. Either way, whatever happens, happens.”

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“I’ve got him. He’s nearby.” Mercer said. That feeling, that instinct was still driving him mad.

“W-well, then, bring him in!” the Aulite stammered. “No reward for ‘nearby,’ mate.”

This didn’t seem like the sort of place the Aulites would have a safe house. There were too many rooftops, too many points of entry. Even pacifists would better know how to hide themselves, like they had in the heart of the city itself. It seemed like…

Mercer stifled a gasp. He caught a shadow under the Aulite robes: a hilt. A quick look about with fresh eyes showed a half-dozen places where crossbowmen could hide above, and the hay cart could easily be rolled across the narrow alley to pen people in.

It seemed like…a kill zone.

“Tell me,” Mercer said in a conversational tone. “What’ll happen to the Aul once he’s safe here?”

“N-none of your business, I’d say,” replied the Aulite. “He’ll be…safe from any further harm and in the company of his fellows.” The Aulite paused, wondering at the stony look on Mercer’s face. “You’ll get paid no matter what,” he added hastily. “You don’t need to go any further with him. So long as you haul him over the finish line alive, gold is gold.” He produced and jangled a purse as if to prove his point, spilling the coins on the filthy ground.

“Money doesn’t stink…” Mercer mumbled. The gears in his head were turning rapidly. But why? Why all this just for an ambush, when the Aul could easily have been killed at his domicile?

The Aulite fingered the hilt of his weapon unconsciously, rubbing it as another might rub a scab. Mercer saw it at once: the man had never held a sword or dagger in his life.

“How much?” he asked.

“It’s right there on the ground, mate,” the Aulite said pointing at the coins. “Count it if you want.”

“How much did they pay you to betray the Aul?” Mercer said. “Do the others know?”

“W-what?”

“I hope you’ve got a plan to get out of here with your gold and your life,” Mercer continued. “Otherwise, you look a lot like a loose end to me. And the sort of people who deal in betrayals? They hate loose ends.”

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“Wait, so you don’t believe that you’re the Aul?” Mercer said.

“Frankly, no,” said Pyfer. “Why does that surprise you?”

The skiff was silent for a moment, with just the quiet lapping of water about the sodden planks.

“Well, you let them feed you, for one,” said Mercer. “You let them bow before you, I definitely saw that.”

“Let me ask you something,” said Pyfer. “Have you ever known anyone with absolute power, over anyone else?”

“Plenty of folks,” Mercer said. “Cullis, my old master, comes to mind. His power was absolute in his own tailor shop.”

Pyfer nodded. “And what did your master Cullis do with that absolute power, if only in his shop?”

“He terrorized his apprentices. Beat us. Forced us to get by on crumbs while we emptied his chamber pots.”

“And what would a man do if he believed himself master not only of a tailor shop, but of the entire world? With a bevy of worshipers to do as he pleased?”

Mercer shuddered at the thought. “He’d be a tyrant. A petty, evil, malicious, tyrant.”

“One must be the Aul, so that the others may have something to look to,” said Pyfer. “But even then, the Aul is no more than a conduit. The food was given as a token of appreciation by those who had hardly anything to give. How could I refuse, knowing what they had sacrificed?”

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