Judd Hogarth
The latest in a long line of hog farmers, Judd began his own farm with only two things: a plot of land and Squiggles the Wonder Pig. He has been devastated by Squiggles’ disappearance, and maintains that his prize sow has ascended to be matriarch of a celestial piggery owned and operated by the Watcher. Uncommonly neat and personable for a hoggist, Judd is a master salesman so long as he doesn’t have to deal with children, which he considers to be the true pigs of the world.

Dagny Hogarth
Judd’s bride, Dagny is new to the hogging trade, having come from a family of poulters instead. Despite initial hardships, she has remained steadfast and loyal to Judd, if less so to Squiggles the Wonder Pig. In fact, some attribute Squiggles’ mysterious disappearance (or ascension) to her jealousy. Her occasional bouts of pig-related melodrama aside, Dagny nevertheless wants to have kids despite Judd’s opposition, even if she does sometimes forget to feed the family she already has.

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Buckbark continued eating his sandwich, unaware–or not caring–how uncomfortable it seemed to make Mujiff.

“The problem is, we usually place a Series 10 with a target for one of two purposes. Intelligence-gathering, or assassination.”

“I don’t need a lecture on your unit’s questionable wetwork,” Mujiff said. “I need a reason for Unit 10-11 going around attached to a real family, one on whom there is no intelligence and no kill order in the databases!”

Another long, leisurely bite followed. “Well, it’s simple. 10-11 has implanted on them,” Buckbark said, mayonnaise dripping from the corners of his mouth. “It was probably subjected to a shock–electrical, physical, magnetic–which rebooted it and allowed it to imprint on whoever found it.”

“I see,” Mujiff said. “And placing these Series 10s…how is that done?”

“It’s the old story about a changeling,” said Buckbark. “We take the target’s biological child, do a quick and dirty brain-dump, and replace them with a Series 10. The child gets a wet-wipe and goes into the foster pipeline, and the Series 10 arranges for itself to be destroyed along with its targets. If it’s an assassination; intelligence-gathering is just a matter of reversing the brain-dump and wet-wipe, of course.”

Mujiff leaned over Buckbark’s desk. “Are you telling me,” he said, “that there’s a Series 10 out there, with a family that may or may not have been targeted, and that it has imprinted on them?”

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Lord Clement Blackbourne
The 7th Lord Blackbourne, Clement inherited his father’s bravery and his mother’s intense hatred of the natural world. This leads to an obsessive effort to find and defeat threats to the manor within the manor, such as the celebrated Routing of the Cockroach Raiders and the Capture of the Cupboard Beast. When called to war, though, Clement is usually able to put his neuroses behind him and develop a camaraderie with his men…and, occasionally, their wives.

Lady Carina Blackbourne
Born Carina von Himmelstrup, the 7th Lady Blackbourne is renowned for three things: her incredible musicianship, her love of animals, and her intense emotional bond with her fine clothing. Excellent threads and stitchwork have been known to reduce her to tears, and she is literally never without her expensive couture wardrobe–even in the bath. Her love of animals resulted in the Humane Release of the Cupboard Beast, and she frequently donates clothing that has lost its luster to the less fabulous.

Leo Blackbourne
The eldest son and 8th Lord Blackbourne presumptive (“the heir”), Leo can usually be found at the stables, where he obsessed over the family’s prize steed, Murgatroyd. He has intense ambitions to win the coveted Golden Horseshoe at the annual dressage contest, but has been unable to claim the prize due to an over-reliance on glitz and a childishly petulant attitude. His father insists that he is training for war, even though the family warhorse, Armageddoner XII, remains unridden in the stables.

Angela Blackbourne
The family hostess, Angela has taken over hosting the many balls, soirees, and other social events demanded of the Lords Blackbourne. She is fantastic with people, fastidious with details, and would in all honesty be a much better heir than her older brother Leo. Her intense preoccupation with reading up on recipes and decorum takes up much of her time, as does building up a formidable hope chest and practicing mirror-kisses, though in actuality she finds any sort of flirting distasteful.

Marcus Blackbourne
The second and youngest son (“the spare”), Marcus has not yet accomplished anything of note, thus easily equaling his older brother’s achievements. Very shy, he tends to help Angela clean up for and after parties and has been known to form intense bonds with his mother’s animal-of-the-moment. This led, notably, to the brief Return of the Cupboard Beast as a Pet and the sordid chapter that will forever go down in history as the Revenge of the Cupboard Beast.

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“Hey man,” the bartender said. “Welcome to the Squinky Flippet. What’ll you have?”

“That’s a funny name, isn’t it?” I said. “Where’s it come from?”

“Oh, the Squinky Flippet is a bar where everything has a name generated by a neural net, including the place itself,” the bartender said. “Can I get you a nice Luzdl Snick? Or maybe some Velvet Fill on tap?”

“Uh, what’s in them?”

“The Snick is dust and gold with powdered sugar, served with a fruit slice–lemon, in this case–and garnished with a large flintlock. The Fill is ice-squeezed ice over ice on the rocks.”

“Uh…huh,” I said. “Are the drinks themselves generated by neural nets too?”

“Of course not.” The bartender looked up, quizzically, from a drink he was making by stirring gin, brandy, cream, sugar, Tabasco sauce, and Egyptian noodles. “Now if you’re not going to order anything, I have to finish making this Ral Chonk and get started on mixing a Dinosauste.”

Inspired by this.

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Nigel Biddlecomb, senior partner at the London law firm of Slater, Bullock, and Biddlecomb, is lead counsel on the case. “My client is totally innocent of the charges being brought against him,” Biddlecomb says in a statement. “The fact is, these are clearly prejudicial accusations, and we believe the record will show that.”

When asked about the accusations, which include Biddelcomb’s client being caught on camera using the blood of a ram to summon a demon, he adds “This is a witch hunt, pure and simple.”

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“THE TREE THAT OWNS ITSELF FEARS US,” the yellow aspen said, projecting the words into the minds of the adventuring party. “THAT IS WHY IT HAS SENT YOU HERE TO FELL US.”

“No need to flip your wisk there!” said O’Reilly. “I don’t even know if that tree is anything but a normal tree, its gold and McScroggins’s insistences aside.”

“Is that why you brought in the gnolls?” said Runthorn. “To protect yourself?”

“NO. THEY ARE AN IRRITATION IN THEIR CONSTANT WORSHIP. GOOD RIDDANCE.”

“What could one beautiful, natural tree have to fear from any other beautiful, natural tree?” said Willow.

“ASPEN ARE DIFFERENT. WHERE ONE TREE GROWS FROM ONE ROOT, WE GROW A FOREST. IN TIME YET TO COME WE WILL SPREAD OVER THE OTHER TREE’S ROOTS AND DESTROY THEM. IT KNOWS THIS.”

“Or! Or, maybe, it’s just a tree that tourists like,” Ellie said. “And they don’t want a new tree taking all the tourist money.”

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O’Reilly wiped blood from his eyes. “Well now,” he said. “That was somewhat more gnoll cultists than I expected to slaughter in order to get to the Golden Aspen.”

Ellie jiggled her ivory handled knives, Smashbash and The Bard, and the corpse of a gnoll shaman, still wreathed in dissipating arcane energy, slid to the forest floor. “Just one gnoll cultist is too many. Unless they’re worshiping me like in Middlesept.”

“That was less of a worshiping than a fattening of a sacrificial cow,” said Runthorn. Quickly realizing his mistake, he muttered a shield spell just in time for Smashbash and The Bard to come flying at him. “In a strictly metaphorical sense, of course.”

“Right,” said Ellie gruffly. She snapped and the enscorclled stabbyblades jumped back into her twin small-of-the-back sheathes. “Next time you call me a fat cow, you’d better expect one in your sleep.”

“Duly and magnanimously noted,” said Runthorn, sweating. “Willow, come over here, will you? I need you to speak for the trees, for these trees have no tongues.”

“Unlike those carnivorous trees from Murdermarsh last year,” said O’Reilly. “I have never been so happy to put vampire lumberjacks out of business forever.”

Willow was going to each of the many, many gnoll corpses and saying an absolution over them and knitting together their various extremely fatal wounds to make them more aesthetically pleasing. “Oh,” she said airily. “You don’t need me, this tree can talk on its own.”

“How can a tree make a noise without a mouth?” O’Reilly cried.

“Trees have bark,” shrugged Ellie.

“I SPEAK IN THE MINDS OF THE WALKERS ON BEHALF OF THE ROOTS BELOW.” The deepness, suddenness, and violence of the splintery voice in their heads sent every member of the party save Willow into a fetal position.

“Told you,” she said.

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“We were promised work,” said Runthorn Dribblesoup in his usual tone of irritation, which sounded more like petulance coming from a halfling. “You led us to a tree.”

“Oy!” barked McScruggins, turning on Runthorn. “Keep a civil tongue in your mouth, short stuff! There’s work here, and no mistake. This here’s the tree what owns itself, yeah? And it has a job for ya.”

Willowbirch Billowthorn, the group’s elven healer and mystic, looked over the–admittedly rather large and impressive–tree. “I don’t sense any unusual life force from this,” she said.

“Cor blimey, can you not hear a bleedin’ word I’m saying?” cried McScruggins. “Look. Two hundred years ago, the lord of this land died with no heirs, right? But he remembers on his deathbed, he does, how he used to enjoy long evenings under this here tree with his mates and ladyfriend. So he leaves the tree, and everything its roots touch, to itself. And cor but the thing doesn’t have roots that go for miles! So the tree what owns itself is technically our feudal lord, it is.”

“Does it want someone to put it out of its misery?” said Sir Kneecapper O’Reilly, the doughty gnome fighter and enforcer of the group. “I can axe it a thing or two in that case,” he added, hefting an impressive war axe (for its size).

“Oy, that’s not to be ribbed about, eh?” snapped McScruggins. “Suffice it to say I owe me fealty to the tree what owns itself. And it’s got gold aplenty for those what do its bidding. As interpreted through those what’s close to the living bark, that is.”

“And what ‘bidding’ is that?” said Eleutheria Gromash, who was both half-orc and half-rogue and master of neither. “We’ll do it as long as Lord Tree pays us in advance.”

“Hmph,” said McScruggins. “Right then. The tree wants you to chop down another, rival, tree out in the woodlands. The only golden-colored aspen tree for miles around. It wants you to come back with the crown and root cap of the tree as proof of the deed. And it won’t pay you in advance, but it’ll give you a taste. Mind, it expects results if you take of its gold, though.”

McScruggins tossed a small bag of gold into the hands of each party member. “Best you don’t come back without the golden tree bits, yeah?” he added. “Folks’ve been known to hang from the tree what owns itself when they run afoul of it.”

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Pleasantwater Universal Center
his mixed-use building was designed for free by local architect Eva Chando, who believed that it was the exact center of the universe and that its unique selenium frame would help attract positive energy to bring about a new golden age. So far, a local intramural volleyball league district championship is all the fruit her efforts have borne.

Low Point Coffee
Run by self-described herbalist and “java wizard” Cecil Barrington, Low Point is a favorite local watering hole for the bean beatnik and mud mafioso in all of us.

The Four Sneezins
The realization of a long-held dream of founder and longtime resident Ms. Potts, The Four Sneezins is a restaurant dedicated to the haute couture of that most humble of spices, pepper. Adventurous eaters come from out of town to sample the spicy wares and buy a souvenir hanky.

Gree’s E-Z Spoon
Founded by Cecil “Cee” Gree and run by his son Sergei “Ser” Gree, the E-Z Spoon offers local favorites at local favorite prices. Be sure to try their famous llama burgers, ethically sourced and ranched.

St. James Sanitorium
Named after the lesser-known St. James of Cuzco, this sanitarium continues his good work with the poor and the ill. It still holds to his motto “be soft as alpaca unto the unfortunate.”

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Sanctuary began as a simple crossroads, an abandoned farm that became known as a stop on the Underground Railroad. That all changed with the coming of the Civil War, which led to a major Union force encamping there for much of the conflict. A tent city grew up around the camp as former slaves and refugees crowded into the area, and by war’s end the first permanent buildings had been erected.

Though the immediate postwar years were a boomtown, such that it had a stone courthouse and the county seat by 1870, Sanctuary suffered tremendously after the end of Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era, as it was known for being friendly and accepting for all races, colors, and creeds. From a post World War I low of less than 500 people, Sanctuary nevertheless saw its fortunes rebound during the New Deal and the immediate postwar era, with a massive influx of new settlers and residents looking for opportunities denied them elsewhere.

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