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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The dream of the kaskas was truly fading away, now, and the world about Zikad was becoming more and more real. It was less like waking up than it was being inundated by cold running water–painful yet exhilarating.

With a resounding crk!, Zikad pulled himself free of his larval exoskeleton. Its thick, protective chitin had served him well for 37 years of growth underground, dreaming in tandem with his legion of brothers, sisters, and ancestors. But for the world above, for the Veld, he needed a different form. A softer body that could take whatever armor he set to it, eyes that could dart and focus, and wings that would bear him to the topmost boughs to sing his love to whomever would listen.

As he pulled himself free, tottering on his new legs and feeling his adult wings pumping as they expanded, Zikad looked about for the others. The junior brood should have been thronging around him, thousands strong, all newly awoken and newly molted.

But there was no one.

Zikad, confused, began to sing. Perhaps he had been laid too far from the others, an outlier. It had happened before, as his ancestors in the collective dreaming of kaskas had mentioned. But there came no answer to his song, nor did the Vale seem to give any indication that it had heard.

After 37 years of growth and dreaming, Zikad was awake, an adult, and–it seemed–utterly alone.

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The laulu, from the old word for “singers,” are perhaps the most misunderstood creatures of the Vale. This is because they are absent from the life of the wood and its societies for long periods of time–37 and 41 years to be precise.

Growing slowly deep underground and drawing their nutrients blindly and instinctively from the impressive roots of the largest trees, the laulu would seem to be a very simple people, especially given that very few of them live longer than 10 years after they finally emerge. But this is not so, for in their long adolescence underground, the laulu partake in a magnificent dreaming world that unites all of their kind past present and future.

They call this the kaskas, a word that defies translation but which might best be rendered as “ur-dreaming” or “all-dreaming.” Laulu describe the dreamspace as being quiet, reverent, and dignified, with the young coming of age under the tutelage of their long-deceased forebears with no distinction between the living and the dead. When a young laulu dies underground, as some do, its spirit remains in the kaskas, undisturbed. The rest gradually awaken, burrow to the surface, and assume their adult forms by shedding their childhood skin.

Laulu crusades, they are called, as the laulu emerge with their ancestors’ righteousness and a strong desire to perform noble deeds en masse. The other creatures of the Vale have long been able to count on their assistance in times of great need, for the laulu emerge ready for battle, requiring only a few days to make armor and weapons. The 37-year laulu, the junior brood, tends to be found at shallower depths and is therefore smaller. The 41-year laulu, the senior brood, burrow deeper and grow larger in both size and numbers. In times of the greatest distress, one brood has been able to awaken the other early, leading the laulu to crusade forth as a unified horde.

No foe can withstand them, from the wily apoc to the numerous but divided cucuj. Even the warriors of the symph, with their massive numbers and regimented ways, are unable to stand in the way of a laulu crusade. In fact, the laulu are often credited with preventing symph domination of the Vale altogether.

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Prince Iainen had united the apoc and the symph, as he felt was his birthright. The apoc were to be the warriors, the tip of the spear, with which to bring order and prosperity to the Vale and all the woods beyond. The symph were to bolster their numbers and to work as the logistical tail of this army: as porters, farmers, teamsters. But the next generation of apoc needed living hosts, and Iainen was loathe to sacrifice any of his people for the purpose. He was also dismissive of the use of non-sapient hosts like the onii, feeling it would breed weaker warriors.

Iainen was also afraid of the coming of the 37-year laulu, which was not far off. When they emerged, moulted, and saw what he had wrought in the Vale, he was sure that the junior brood would oppose him by force of arms. And when, just a few years later, the 41-year senior brood arose, they would finish the job–the two cycles were not always synchronized, but at this time, they very nearly were.

The solution that presented itself was as brutal as it was simple. Iainen gathered eggs from the apoc that followed him and inserted them into the young laulu as they slept underground. The empathic powers of the apoc were enough to locate the shallowly buried junior brood, and long bamboo tubes were sufficient to deposit the young. By wiping out the junior brood, and using the troops thus raised to defeat their brothers, who were buried so deep as to be undetectable, Iainen had felled two onii with one stone.

But the plan had to be perfect. If even a single laulu from the junior brood survived, they could attempt to awaken the senior brood early, and that would provide a force sufficient to challenge the new order of the apoc. Iainen himself accompanied his people, seeing to the dirty deed personally.

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Prince Iainen was unusual from the first.

His mother Metsaa was the most celebrated tracker in generations and personal huntress to Queen Siipi, the great leader of perhaps the largest symph hive in the Vale. Time and again, Metsaa performed her duties well and was rewarded with the permission to deposit her young in elderly symph males, long past their breeding prime and of no use to the Sisterhood. However, during the long years of her service to the Queen, Metsaa fell in love with Siipi, and found that the queen loved her in return.

Now, despite the close kinship between the symph and the apoc, it was not possible for them to interbreed. Even if it had been, there was no way for the queen and the huntress to concieve, though they yearned for a child as a proof of their love. In the end, Siipi decided to allow Metsaa to lay an egg within her, to be its flesh-mother, with the hope that the child would inherit some of her memories and personalities. This is uncommon but not unheard-of, after all, and Siipi had already taken care with her own succession.

Metsaa protested but eventually broke down. With the strongest and most empathic apoc she could find as the father, Metsaa’s child grew within the queen, killing her softly before emerging as a child. As the lovers had hoped, the boy was an immensely talented empath and had many of his flesh-mother’s traits.

As he grew, Prince Iainen became convinced that the apoc were held back by their individuality, much as the symph were held back by their Sisterhood and long cumbersome life-cycle. He sought to reconcile the two peoples and unite them as one, with the apoc adopting the collective lifestyle of the symph and the symph abandoning their sisterhood in favor of breeding more males and therefore more children.

Alarmed, Metsaa banished her son, and his “flesh-sister” the new queen of the symph hive quietly ordered his death. But within a few years, he had returned with many followers and worked his will upon those that had wronged him, building a militant empire that stood to dominate the Vale for generations to come.

There was only one problem.

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The apoc are a curious people, widely regarded as the best hunters and trackers in the Vale but also completely dependent on the other creatures therein for their young. Like their close cousins the symph, the apoc are capable of flight and have a lingering empathic connection to one another–not enough for any but the most skilled to communicate wordlessly, but enough to sense feelings and to guide behavior. They have always been solitary, though, unlike the social symph, and their numbers include many males in contrast to the Sisterhood.

However, unlike the symph Sisters, whose young grow safely within the confines of their great hives, apoc young must gestate within a living host, and they are inevitably fatal upon their emergence.

In ages past, the apoc traded their skills as hunters, gatherers, trackers, and woodsmen for hosts. It was seen as a great honor for the older denizens of the wood to birth an apoc child, for the natural secretions of the egg and larva deadened the senses over time and led to a death that was painless and gave rise to new life. It was often common for young apoc to be named for their hosts, and to regard and be regarded by the decedent’s family as their own. The natural empathy that apoc had seemed to impart to their young certain characteristics of the individuals in which they grew, and the more gifted apoc sometimes could claim memories from their “flesh-mother” or “flesh-father.”

While poorer apoc could and did raise young in unintelligent creatures like wild onis, it was regarded as a black mark and those children were generally disdained. Some apoc did trade in unwilling flesh-parents, but those cases were regarded with horror and any practitioners regarded as enemies of the apoc people and stamped out.

That is, until the appearance of Prince Iainen.

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The Gene Project, a multinational cooperative dedicated to sequencing the genome of every animal, living or dead, that has ever existed, has announced the results of its first genetic analysis of Himalayan yeti fur. After arefully comparing and cross-referencing the DNA with other genomes in their collection, The Gene Project released a press statement claiming that the fearsome yeti is actually a high-altitude giant sloth, closely related both to the extinct giant ground sloths and the extant two-toed, three-toed, and recently discovered seven-toed sloths of South America.

“I’ve heard people in the news media saying that this discovery means that yetis are giant sloths,” says Dr. Nate Lamonda, chief sequencer for The Gene Project. “Frankly, though, it makes more biological sense to say that sloths are tiny yetis. The yeti is taxonomically senior in every way. It’s the same thing you see with dinosaurs: it makes no sense to call a tyrannosaurus and a bird different things. A bird is a small dinosaur just as a sloth is a small yeti.”

This discovery has sent shock waves through the pop culture fandom for the yeti and its American cousin, the bigfoot. “My yeti is a fast, dangerous, voracious predator with cunning intelligence and the soul of a poet,” says Lada Montane, one of the lead administrators of the cryptid fan website cryptids.co.nt. “This is just the sort of thing we saw when those eggheads decided dinosaurs had feathers or that Pluto wasn’t a planet. They are pedants acting out power trips, and these poor, unfortunate creatures are to blame.” Another member of cryptids.co.nt, posting anonymously on the site’s message board, is more succinct: “They can take my Gigantopithecus when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands,” they say, referring to the fragmentary giant orangutang that is often considered a likely suspect for the true species behind yeti sightings.

Dr. Lamonda dismisses such concerns. “Of course people are going to be disappointed,” he says, “but fantasy often simply cannot hold up to the cold, hard light of fact. We didn’t set out to ruin anyone’s day, and yetis are still as majestic, elusive, and possibly mythical as they’ve always been.” He compares the current furor to the times people proved that geese do not grow from goose barnacles, and the outdated idea that mice are born from dirt. “The idea that a hominid of that size could survive in such a harsh climate is ludicrous–only the slow, deliberate lifestyle of the sloth makes sense.”

Despite Dr. Lamonda’s self-assurance and the unambiguity of The Gene Project’s results, many remain unconvinced. “You’ll see, this is just more foolishness that they’ll go back on in five years,” another anonymous commenter on cryptids.co.nt says. “Why, I remember when my old high school textbook said that giant pandas were really big old raccoons. Haven’t heard that one in a while, have you?”

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As the mystery frigate pulled alongside Harris’s barque, it ran up a fresh set of colors: all black, with a grinning skull above two crossed needles and a spool of blood-red thread.

“Fiber pirates!” Harris cried. “Full sail! Get us out of here!”

It was too late, though. The pirates fired a shot across the bow, and from the quarterdeck Harris could see the enemy guns being run out before his men even had a chance to man theirs. The pirate deck also bristled with armed corsairs, nearly all women, and an unruly mix of humans, dwarves, orcs, and even elves with the occasional halfling.

“Ahoy there!” A strong voice called from across the shrinking gulf between the two ships. “This is Short Joan Silky aboard the good ship Armscye, and I bid you welcome!”

Taking up his glass Harris looked across the waters to the pirate quarterdeck. A dwarf woman, bedecked in finery and bearing a double brace of pistols, and a cutlass besides, stood on a box addressing him with a speaking-cone, likely one lightly enchanted for extra projection. From what he could see, Harris guessed that Short Joan was, true to her name, clad in expensive silks and a custom-tailored garment that was part peacoat, part petticoat, and all style.

“You will surrender to us all of your fabric and thread, all your garments and jackets, all your boots and leather!” Short Joan continued. “In exchange, we will leave you with your undergarments and your lives, taking only the materials we need for our trade and a few vittles for sustenance! Refuse, and we will run up the red flag and the black thread: all will be cut short and we will take what is our anyway.”

“Run up the white flag,” Harris muttered.

His mate balked. “But sir…!”

“Do it!” the captain snapped. “While there’s still time.”

His colors hauled down, Harris watched as the fiber pirates swarmed aboard, taking every piece of cloth, thread, and clothing that wasn’t sail canvas or underwear. In his skivvies himself, he was sat down opposite Short Joan in his own great cabin. The dwarf pirate kindly provided him with bread and water, but he winced at the sound of the fine bolts of runecloth being plundered from his hold.

“Tell me,” he said at length. “What do you do with all of your prizes?”

Short Joan laughed. “My crew is full of seamstresses, haberdahsers, and milliners. We make fine outfits and sell them at our ports of call, for fancy ladies and game fops, all while keeping the best finery for ourselves and our grand and secret balls on Topstitch Island, our home and port of call. Perhaps we will see you and your crew in some distant port, Captain Harris, and we’ll sell you our wares with no ill will.”

“I would report you as pirates and corsairs rather than see us sold our own clothes back,” Harris replied.

“Oh, captain…who would be able to look their lovely spouse or sweetheart in the eye after turning us and our products away forever? No, lovers of fine tailoring are always powerful, and they know not to trifle with us or risk us boycotting their ports.” Short Joan’s voice darkened a register. “And you’d best not cross us in any event, captain, lest we decide to make up a shortage in supple leathers from your very hide.”

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Santorini’s sallow eyes flicked up from the menu. “How’s business, Katy? Still taking classes at night?” Santorini had taken his customary booth, near the back, and with a thick, sturdy wall behind him.

“Let’s just say that when I’m done with classes, you won’t be seeing me here anymore,” Katy said with a smile. “What can I get started for you, Mr. Santorini?”

“I can think of a few things,” he laughed. “What’s the special?”

“Boss…” one of the two younger men, the one that had been practicing his stony face since coming in, spoke up. Katy had seen him relaxing for a moment, even cracking a secret smile, when he thought no one was looking. “I don’t know if…”

“What?” Santorini said, turning to look at his companion. “You don’t know if what?”

The poor kid’s facade was crumbling, his cheek twitching desperately as he tried to keep his expression even. “If you don’t get one of your usuals, it might me…I dunno…dangerous!”

Katy had alwys been struck by how Santorini commanded the room even when he was just sitting there; now, the full force of that was turned on his poor little bodyguard. “What, you think someone’s gonna try to poison me with the greasy spoon special? What’s the matter with you? If anything, they’d do my usual!”

“Look, boss, I’m just trying-” the facade was gone, and the young man looked about to cry.

Santorini had already turned away. “Bah,” he said. “I know what you were trying to do. Heart’s in the right place, brain’s not.” Then, looking back up at Katy: “I’ll take the special, whatever it is.”

“All right; one special.” Katy didn’t write it down; five years of waitressery had given her a mind like a steel trap when it came to orders. Phone numbers, dates, birthdays…that might fall through. But she’d never forget a meal, even if it were being served her in a retirement home. “What about you?” she said to the younger man, the bodyguard.

“He’s having what I’m having,” said Santorini with a grin. “If it’s poisoned, I’m taking him with me.”

“Right, two specials,” Katy said. “He can work for you in the hereafter, hmm?”

“Ha!” Santorini chortled. “Good idea. Like the pharaohs of old Egypt. You hear that, Spinelli? Normani? When I croak, I’m having you buried with me to continue to protect and serve in the afterlife. Can you think of a better reward for your loyal service?”

The two young gunsels looked nervously at one another as Katy took the remaining orders and drinks. Then Santorini and his guest began discussing something animatedly in Italian, and Katy slipped into the kitchen to give the orders to Hal, the cook.

“You’re due a break,” Hal said. “This’ll take a hot minute to put together anyway. Go have a cigarette or something, Janice will take out the drinks.”

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The circle was drawn fresh, laid out in blood taken from a virgin ram that was the seventh son of a seventh son. The book, laid out before Anovi on an ornate wrought-iron stand, was properly made–inked in ichor drawn from the sac of an abyssal squid, bound in the flesh of a cold-blooded murderer by a morally questionable bookbinder, the eldritch runes within carefully calligraphied by a seventh-level monk of art history.

All that remained was the incantation, spake forth in the Darktongue, to bring forth the unholy knowledge that Anovi sought and finally give him the vile insights into evil that he craved.

H’bin odommoc t’necov menomead ecce!” Anovi cried, reading the vile sigils in a voice that grew more distorted, more profane, with each twisted syllable.

The effect was immediate. Anovi’s elaborate summoning circle flared to luminescent life, as the blood of an unfortunately-lineaged goat became the conduit to the iron city of Dís in the chaos and evil of the infinite Abyss. There was a roar, a smell of brimstone mixed with lemongrass, and a pillar of fire burst from the circle, rising upward to scorch the stone arches of the desecrated abandoned chapel where Anovi had made his unholy workshop. Within the flames, a dark shaped writhed, stark in its inky inhumanity.

“Yes, yes!” he cried. “Demon! I command you to heed my words and obey my commands!”

Abruptly, the fire sputtered out like a candle being huffed out by an errant breeze. As Anovi coughed and swatted away the wispy smoke, he saw that the circle was occupied by…

…a young woman with short blond hair and an aristocratic raiment and bearing. If not for the distinct reddish hue of her flawless skin and the batlike wings trailing behind her, Anovi could have mistaken her for a royal courtesan.

“A-as the one who brought you here, I command you!” Anovi continued, “share with my the eldritch secrets of the Abyss, that I might become the most most brilliant the world has ever seen!”

“Hmm.” The succubus looked Anovi over with a cocked eyebrow, and bit her lip coyly with a meaty fang, drawing forth a single droplet of blood. “I’d say you’re rather poor clay to be fashioned into the most brilliant lover the world, but it’s your summoning circle. We’ll start with Demogorgon’s Double-Kangaroo Scissors and then teach you the Backdoor Mailman–an musty standby in Dís, you see, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”

“W-what?” Anovi stammered. “I didn’t mean-”

“Of course you did,” the succubus said with a wicked smile. “You wouldn’t have summoned me otherwise. Now, if you’re still alive and in one piece after the Backdoor Mailman, we’ll try the Frothy Walrus of Doom, and of course the the Cheerleader And The Angry Nighwatchman. I’d advise removing anything flammable before that one…”

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