“I won’t do it,” Gibbons cried. “You can’t make me.”

“Make you do what?” laughed Spinelli.

“Make me your guinea pig in all these magical insect demonstrations!” Gibbons replied, her voice shrilly passionate. “I’ve been mauled by a toothless ghast, mind-controlled into eating an Iowa’s worth of corn…orders or no orders, I’m not doing it!”

“Relax,” said Spinelli. “The Fighting Unicorns aren’t about coercion. Would it make you feel better if I was the next demonstration subject and you got to release the insect on me?”

Gibbons nodded eagerly, a fiendish gleam in her eyes, and Spinelli obligingly handed over a small case and a cue card before standing in the middle of the proving ground.

“This is a species of Auchenorrhyncha, best known for…producing loud noises in summer,” read Gibbons from the card. She opened the container and a repulsive insect resembling a giant housefly with oversized (and bright green) wings buzzed out. It made a beeline for Spinelli, who held out his arm for it to land on.

“Go on,” Spinelli said.

“The creature’s natural song…has evolved into a strong magical defense mechanism that uses sound to cause nausea at a distance,” Gibbons continued. “The sound becomes more potent at greater range, with a zone of safety extending about one meter…to…all…sides.” She looked up. “Oh no.”

As if on cue, the insect on Spinelli’s arm buzzed loudly. Spinelli himself felt nothing, but Gibbons, standing some distance away, was immediately and violently nauseous, and turned to hurl a mixture of various kinds of corn all over the waiting cadets.”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Spinelli said with a grin, “is why we call this particular specimen a Sick Ada.”

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“Now this critter,” Spinelli said, “is a much, much nastier than a Mana Cricket. It’s perhaps the most dangerous magical insect from the order Orthoptera.”

“Are…are you sure about this?” said Gibbons. “I still have bruises from that defanged ghast after the Mana Crickets…”

“You’ll be fine, soldier,” said Spinelli dismissively. “Say hello to our newest guest.”

He pulled a lid of magic-proof glass off of a nearby tray, revealing a grasshopper that was electric purple with terribly long antennae, at least twice as long as its body. The creature took flight and landed atop Gibbons’ head to her intense displeasure.

“Get it off, get it off, get it off!” she shrieked.

“Wait for it, kids,” said Spinelli. “If you’re going to encounter these in the field, you have to know what they’re capable of.”

Moments later, Gibbons ceased her thrashing and her eyes glazed over, pupils dilated. “Corn,” she said in a monotone. “I must find corn. Barley. Oats. Alfalfa. But mostly corn. Cooorrrnnn.” She began walking unsteadily toward the windows, through which the mess hall was visible with its heaping helpings of corn both creamed and cobbed. She walked directly into the glass, bumping against it and leaving a forehead print. Undeterred, she bumped against it again, and again, still moaning about corn with a purple grasshopper on her coif.

“Wow,” said a recruit. “What did it do to her?”

“That’s the External Locust of Control,” said Spinelli proudly. “It takes over your brain and makes you its puppet to seek food, mostly corn.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Nonsense,” replied Spinelli. “If you think that’s bad, you should see the Internal Locust of Control.”

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In time, the armies of the Remaker arose in the far east. He had learned of the Silent Fortress during a half-finished apprenticeship as a Laconic Guard decades ago, before leaving for the Eastern Wilds (or being exiled thereto, depending on which version of the tale one hears). In the waning days of the Great Dynasty, the Remaker gathered to himself a remarkable number of followers and moved upon the Fortress with intent to take it.

The Remaker’s motives may seem insanity incarnate on the face of things: at the heart of the Silent Fortress lies the Eternal Child, the one who dreams the world into being, and to wake them is to cause the unraveling of the world. That is the very reason for the Silent Fortress and the Laconic Guard who stand vigil over it. Why would anyone, especially a powerful warlord, seek to make war upon it?

An answer can be found in the chaos and destruction of the Great Dynasty, when royal power was fading and the countryside was rent by bandits and brushfire wars. The economy was in shambles, a powerless and insane king held the throne, and the countryside’s many men-at-arms were more preoccupied with putting their choice for Regent on the throne than alleviating the suffering of the masses. It was, as the poet Crusander put it, “a time when the better angels of mankind slumbr’d deeply.”

Against that backdrop, the Remaker offered a powerful millenarian message: by awaking the Eternal Child, the would would be unraveled–but it deserved to be unraveled. A world such as theirs did not deserve survival, and the Eternal Child would soon return to slumber, dreaming a new and more equitable world anew in which all would be happy and healthy and there would be no death and no war.

Several people confronted the Remaker in private audiences, aghast at the audacity of his plan. What if the world was not remade? What if the Eternal Child remained awake forever? What if the new world was worse than the existing, or wholly alien, or did not contain any of the people who had brought about its end?

To these questions, the Remaker’s answer was always the same: “I cannot think of a more unjust world than the one in which we live, so we owe it to ourselves to fight and die for even the ghost of a chance at a better one.”

It was a powerful message, and by the fifth harvest since his rise, the Remaker’s vanguard troops could see the Silent Fortress from their forward positions.

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The man was elderly, dressed in a suit. Steely grey eyes that danced with intelligence were deeply sunken into a powerful brow, with a rough shock of grey hair above and a neatly trimmed beard below.

“Augustus Zeitengel, I presume,” said Graham. “You look exactly as I thought you would.”

“That is no accident, Thomas Ellford Graham.” Zeitengel’s voice was deep and resonant, the voice of a man who had swayed multitudes and was well aware of the fact. “What you see is solely for your benefit, that you might understand what it being said. Zeitengel’s ideas have always been more important than what is behind them.”

“So are you Augustus Zeitengel, or not?” Graham paused. “Does he even exist?”

Zeitengel–or whatever it was–smirked but said nothing.

“I just want to know the truth,” Graham said. “About you, about the Temporal Anarchists who have been riddling the City’s timeline with holes, about everything.”

The old man laughed a dry laugh, the merry rustling of tree leaves and burial shrouds. “Truth? It was never about truth. It was about certainty.”

“Certainty?”

“Yes, certainty. The City today is a whirl of moral greys and conditional statements. Nothing is certain except uncertainty, and that is not what humans crave. They yearn for certain knowledge that they can be confident in, a heuristic through which all they meet and experience may be put.”

“Like the Sepulcher?” Graham said. He hadn’t been to a service in so long, even when he and it had existed at the same time…

“At one time your fellow denizens of the City would have found the certainty they craved through that miserable edifice, yes,” Zeitengel sneered. “But as their faith was eroded, they were left grasping for certainty that their worldview would no longer allow them to derive from the Sepulcher and its tired, hoary religion.”

“So that’s where your Temporal Anarchists came in,” sighed Graham. “Offering the certainty that nobody else would. Telling them the lie they wanted to hear.”

“Why, Mr. Graham, what makes you think it was a lie?” Zeitengel laughed his embalmed, deathful laugh again. “If the City had wanted a comforting lie there were myriads to be found. But why do you think none of the lies ever caught on, from the Supreme Temple of the Second City to the Obliteration of the Self to the Death-Worshipers? No. The Temporal Anarchists offer only the truth.”

“But not the truth that your…supplicants…or whatever are after,” cried Graham. “They won’t be reunited with their loved ones, or gain eternal life.”

“Who is to say that they are not? When our great work is done, when the vorhang, the blind, succeed in replacing the order of this universe with chaos, the distinction between living and dead, loved ones and strangers, or other and self will be meaningless.” Zeitengel spread his arms wide in an all-encompassing gesture.

“That can’t work. It would destroy everything.”

“Doesn’t the fish think that life in the air can’t work? Doesn’t the man with no microscope think that nothing smaller than what he can see can exist? Simply because you cannot conceive it, you declare it to be impossible. In fact, it is inevitable.”

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“What has led you to the Xia Valley and the Game of the Dreaming? What do you hope to see when the blossoms take your mind?” asked Datai Chu, the duly appointed and empowered 217th Overseer of the Games. “As late entrants, you will be subject to my ruling on whether or not you are worthy of the games and the Flowers of Xia.”

Ru Shim, a former soldier in the Qingdu Emperor’s great army, replied “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might prove myself worthy of the renown I once possessed. I hope to see a field of worthy enemies that I might lay low in fair combat.”

Qiang Zhou, a mercenary and fortune-seeker, said “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might earn the purse for winning it. I hope to see a challenge not possible in the waking world, that I might overcome that which no man has ever faced.”

Jiang Tang, a farmer facing the loss of his land if he could not pay a debt, was direct: “I also seek the Game of the Dreaming for the purse, as it is the only thing that might save the land that my family’s hands have tilled for generations. I hope to see a circumstance in which a hardworking farmer can see his toil rewarded.”

Xuan Li, a wanderer facing the end of his long and proud line due to his inability to sire an heir, answered last: “I seek not the Game of the Dreaming, but rather the flowers themselves. Win or lose, I hope only to see a vision of what might come to pass if my line were not wiped from the earth.”

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Near the edge of the canvas that is our world, the Creator’s brushstrokes grow thin, and there are places where the sketched lines that underlie all we see and feel might be seen and felt.

The hushed whispers of poets and madmen tell of one such place, beyond the unfathomable waters with no bottom and the sky-piercing mountains of infinite slope where travelers grow old and die climbing their whole lives away. It has many names in meany tongues: vicārōṁ kā samudra, shikō no umi, okean vdokhnoveniya, ámmo tou idanikoú.

To many, though, it is simply the Sea of Ideas.

The concept is at once simple and profound: what if creativity were a desert, each grain an idea? Endless dunes and windswept grit embody both the beauty and the horror of unspeakable creativity and creation for those daring or foolish enough to seek it out. For to come into contact with a single grain of sand from that impossible expanse is to experience the truest, purest form of an idea that is, was, or someday might be.

That is the reason that many a starstuck loner or struggling creator has sought out the Sea and its sands; to those for whom inspiration and ideas seem like arid wells, it is as a siren song that shakes the heavens. But when has the sand and dust of our world even gone singly? Those who trod those wastes unprepared are overwhelmed from the start, bombarded with ideas that shriek out for release. Many are so alien that they simply cannot be comprehended; the mind crumbles under such an assault. Others are more banal but shatter consciousness with sheer force of numbers.

Only the wisest, the luckiest, the most resourceful and open-minded, avoid the fate of babbling incoherence shared by so many who have sought the Sea and stumbled back from its berms broken and blasted. Wrapped tight against the wind and the scouring force of the Creator’s gifts at their most profuse and elemental, the wisest select only a handful of grains to bear hence; few are their numbers.

Fewer still are those–be they the wisest of the wise or the most foolish of the fools–who realize the deeper secret of that place. For as grains of sand are but the rocks of our world broken apart and worn by the keen edges of eternity, so too are the idea-grains shards from something bigger.

At the furthest and most ragged edge of the Creator’s artwork, the deepest fastness of the Sea, they lie: great stony pillars of creation, from which the sands of ideas, inspiration, and creativity are hewn. To behold them is to feel the inconceivable claw at the ribs like a death rattle. To approach them is to be beset on all sides by the most crystalline of thoughts, thoughts so profound and simple that falsehood and self wither away as tinder in a blaze.

To touch them is to touch the original inspiration that led to the creation of our world, of all worlds. To touch them is to touch the Creator’s brush and palette.

To touch them is to Know, and in all of the wonder and horror that represents, to Cease.

From an idea by breylee.

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He remembered, all right. Dr. Carlsson had left a garageful of books to the library, but his illness meant that the only living things that’d set foot in there for five years were rats and roaches. Half the books had to be thrown out—including some more than 200 years old—because they’d been chewed to pieces for rat nests or smeared with droppings and mold. Even so, the donation had been a treasure trove, with books dating back as far as 1697 in excellent readable condition.

“He took it out with a community user card. The card was real enough—we issued it—but the address is bogus. This street only goes up to 750 and the address is a 902.”

“Those kids at circulation dropping the ball again?”

“Don’t be so hard on them. This guy obviously went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the thing; you can’t be prepared for that sort of thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

“So where does that leave us? ‘On Symbologie’ has walked off with this Mr. Richat.”

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And yea did he wander across the rubble-chok’d plain for he knew not how long, lit only by the fire of dying galaxies as they pinwheel’d above.

No more than a stone’s circumference higher or lower was any part of the land. For this was the dust to which the universe had been ground, and he was among its motes.

Wanderings were aught but the backdrop for his mind. For as he wander’d, yea was his mind fill’d with recrimination and sorrows forever multipli’d. All he had done, all he planned to do, was held up to the flame of introspection.

But amid a landscape without features, without companions, his musings could bear no fruit.

But yea did an object eventually present itself, a silhouette against the backdrop of a cosmos grown indifferent. And he found there a great pillar, crook’d and erod’d, stretching several cubits above his head.

A simple touch told him all he could ever hope to know: he had found the Sinstone, the petrifi’d remains of aught that mortalkind had ever transgressed. He sat on it base, on a ledge chipped from sin itself, and thought.

As he though, as he grappl’d with the raw and horrifying truth of every sin ever committed, the featureless and rubble-bechok’d plain began to stir once more from the depths of oblivion.

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Jainkoa had never explained to Deabrua why he preferred to meet on the Salar de Uyuni salt pan after a rain. Deabrua had a few inklings; Bolivia was a country of strong faith and clean air, and the salt flats were like a giant mirror of the heavens after a rain.

Perhaps that beauty was all the explanation that was necessary; Deabrua himself was not particularly anxious to find out.

They met near a graveyard of ancient and rusting trains, reflected in a few millimeters of clear and reflective water. While either Deabrua or Jainkoa could have appeared as anything they chose, or nothing at all, they met by mutual consent as winged humanoids in roughspun cloth.

“What is the occasion this time, my friend?” Deabrua asked. He had arrived to find Jainkoa staring blankly over the reflective expanse.

“Something has been troubling me of late,” said Jainkoa. “I thought I might parley with you about it for a moment or two.”

Jainkoa hardly ever asked for advice; that was the cause of their long-ago rift, after all. And if they were able to agree to disagree for an informal chat every now and again, the old wounds still remained fresh and strong.

“What is troubling you, then?” Deabrua resisted the temptation to add a little snark, if only so that Jainkoa’s next words would be honest.

“How can the same world contain such beauty as this and such despair?”

Deabrua was taken aback for a moment, but considered for a moment. Jainkoa had the power to influence much if he chose to do so, so the question was almost nonsensical. Still, there was a sincere gleam in his old sparring partner’s eye.

“Without despair there can be no true happiness, I suppose,” Deabrua answered. “Without something to compare it to , or contrast it with, the concepts would be meaningless. To you, to me, to all the things on this rock capable of feeling.”

“You think so?” Jainkoa said with a strange note in his voice. “Even with all our disagreements?”

“I think so, even with all our disagreements,” said Deabrua. “After all, what is rebellion without something to rebel against, hatred without something to hate, or selfishness without altruism to reject?”

“A wise answer, my old friend,” said Jainkoa. “I think this may be the rare thing you can I can agree on.”

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You who have dreamed of the holy land, come forth and face the dreamer’s ascent. But bear with you this warning: to seek the axle of our world is to court not only death but damnation. For the great Unmaker has long held designs over the power that it cannot use, and the great Architect has withdrawn in sorrow from what was once its proudest creation.

Seek out the place whence gentle showers once came, now dried into a desolation marked only by the tears of a land that has forgotten itself. At its heart lies a blighted spring where dark waters pool, wept from dead eyes the cosmos over. Breathe not the miasma of the desolace, or its dust shall devour your days. Do not drink deep of the dark pool, no matter your thirst, lest the darkness drink in turn from you.

Beneath the waters lies a dark catchment, which seals in the air of the old world. Do not let the echoes of the former paradise beguile you, for those days are irrevocably past and their merest suggestion may suffocate you with ephemeral ecstasy. Dark labyrinths twist beneath the thick rind of the earth there, sketches abandoned by the Architect when it recused itself in sorrow from the act of creation. You must pierce this dark stillness, a sword into dusk.

Many have called the penultimate chamber the everneed way, stretching as it does for league upon league with neither comfort nor succor. Through some abandoned design of the Architect or some machination of the Unmaker, the terrors unleashed upon the world at paradise’s end gather thickly there: hunger, thirst, cold, fatigue, and every other sort of desperate want. No supplies will slake the everneed, and to succumb to the welcome mists of slumber within is to have your soul torn from your body.

At the furthest reach of the everneed lays the morass of Nature’s Tomb, the repose of all that which the Architect has allowed to perish or the Unmaker has managed to destroy. Its bounty of flora and fauna are deceptive, for theirs is a mockery of life and to consume that which has died is to join it in the Tomb. The centralmost reach of the Tomb holds the Judas Cradle, repository of all the Architect has struggled to suppress and the Unmaker has struggled to encourage in humankind.

Somewhere in that puzzle of weakness and deceit lies the final door, behind which lies the holy land and eternal succor, and the power to shift the cosmos about its axis once and only once. None have made it so far, but there are whispers that the Unmaker itself stalks the Judas Cradle, gnashing its teeth over its inability to comprehend, and thereby undo, the Architect’s final and most devious riddle.

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