The Orcs practiced a syncretic religion that was related to the worship of the Creator, as in the Sepulcher of the Creator, but also Muolih the Spreading Darkness, as in the Goblin and Dwarven faiths. Furthermore, many minor spirits were recognized, from ancestors to those posessing trees and streams, though the primary surviving codices note that they all emphasized the paramountcy of the gods of good and evil.

In Orcish, Muolih was called Tirat, the Rebel, while the Creator was called Nyir, which literally means “that which has created.” Their faith was, as a result, sometimes called Nyirtirat, literally “creator-rebel” but more accurately “the rebel and the rebelled against.” It’s important to note, though, that despite commonalities each Orc community and band had its own extremely local interpretation of faith and disagreements up to and including violence were all too common.

Naturally, this changed with the introduction of the Hamurabash by Hamur, which replaced the former religion with a set of ethical and atheistic strictures and emphasizing the memory of departed kin. The bashamalurs who succeeded Hamur were generally successful in eradicating all traces of the former Orcish religion with only a few isolated (and well-fortified) communities harboring so-called taiwa or apostates.

Even as Hamur’s successors agressively spread his message of atheism, equality, ancestral memory, and the militarization of society, there remain significant Orcish ruins in the high desert of the Lrira, predating the Hamurabash, and in many cases even the Sepulcher, deeply carved and embossed with the memory of the old faith.

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Thomas should have known that there’d be more to the tale than he’d read. The great and mysterious Armadillo of Chachatusco wasn’t going to give up its secrets that easily. Greater men than he had wondered what the Incas had meant in its giant bulk, its nine tons of solid and worked stone in the form of a coiled armadillo. In finding the Quipu of Manyana Capac, the great lost chain of talking-knots held fast by a long-obscure relict population of Incas, Thomas had been sure he had the key to the mystery. Go up to the stony thing, say the proper words in Quechua, and voila.

When the big damn thing thundered down off its plinth and began rolling at him, Thomas came to see his error. Rolling through the built-up streets of Chachatusco, with Thomas only steps ahead of it wailing and flailing, the armadillo threatened to claim its first victim since the Viceroy of New Spain had tried to destroy the thing with a cannonate in 1697. It was some small comfort to be merely crushed instead of decapitated by a cannonball ricochet, though.

Chachatusco was at the edge of a great plateau that sloped down gently into the Atacama Desert; there was nothing to stop the thing once it was on a roll. Thomas was just a few steps ahead of the rolling armadillo of doom and beginning to run out of steam when a laughing Chachatuscano cried out to him.

¡Debe ejecutar de lado, idiota!” he cried. “Run sideways, stupid!”

Thomas felt very dumb as he took a rolling tumble into a side street. The armadillo felt very large as it took a tolling rumble down the street regardless.

Thomas followed it at a safe distance, commandeering a scooter after throwing a wad of bills at its former owner. In about half an hour, the giant stone armadillo was rolling across the sands of the Atacama Desert toward the sea. Thomas quietly worried that it would reach the brackish waters, submerge, and its secrets would be forever lost to anyone without dive equipment and the winch to rule all winches.

Luckily for him and his lack of dive gear and winchery, the rolling stone armadillo came to rest in a great mass of sand near some mostly buried Inca ruins. Wherever it had come to lie, it was home.

Thomas, approaching it gingerly for fear of a renewed squishing, jumped back as the armadillo shell began to crack open and unfurl with a series of gunshot-like noises. Approaching it, the intrepid explorer was shocked to see that it did not, in fact, contain stony ‘dillo bits on its inside.

Instead, there was a massive pearl, big as a tin of jam, with a cloudy yellow liquid sweating from it in vast quantities. Thomas, who had been without a drink for some time and was further dehydrated from the extreme sport of ‘dillo-fleeing, knelt down and lapped up the liquid.

It was chicha de jora, the famous alcoholic corn beer that the Incas and their descendents had guzzled for centuries. “The legends are true!” Thomas crowed. “The Incan Pearl of Eternal Beer!”

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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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I could only remember snatches.

Getting on the airplane in Tel Aviv…that was clear enough. Where had I been going? Grandma had been there. Perhaps I’d been to visit her and was on my way back to the States…

After that…I remember shouting, and darkness. Sharp sounds, maybe rifle or handgun shots. I’ve only ever seen either in movies. There are snatches of oaths in three languages–Hebrew, Arabic, English–and maybe others as well. I think they were saying things that Grandma would have given me a swat for.

An engine. I remember the comforting hum of an automobile engine long after the higher yawl of jet turbines had faded away. Maybe there were helicopter blades in there somewhere, or that could have just been what little I could remember of my medivac from the wilderness after my appendix burst…the only other time there were patches of black in my memory.

Precious little to go on, especially when confronted by a wall of unbroken dunes with nothing but sand, sky, and wind.

It might seem an odd thing that Maryann Steinman was the last heir to the long-dead city of Iram of the Pillars, but as is so often the case what seems odd at first appears less so on further examination.

Iram of the Pillars had been the key oasis that made travel across the vast Rub’ al Khali desert possible. But as more trade came and went, the water table had fallen and the spring collapsed in 190 AD, leaving the vast and unforgiving desert with no water to sustain travel. The royal family and all those who could do so fled north to Parthian Ctesiphon, for they had long been vassals of the king there. Shortly thereafter, Emperor Severus of Rome had sacked the city. The king of Iram and all his sons died in the defense of the city, with his daughter carried off to Rome in chains.

Purchased by a wealthy family, she was eventually emancipated and married into a powerful family of freedmen and Christian converts. They ran afoul of the later emperor Diocletian, who ordered the family wiped out in 305 AD. Only a single child survived the massacre, hidden by family friends and eventually smuggled to Gaul, where he raised a small family in an isolated village. In time, the village came to be part of France, but during the Great War it was totally razed; those that survived suffered terribly from dysentery and typhus. In the end, the entire town perished–save one man, Marcel Durand, who had left for Paris and later emigrated to New York City.

Before perishing in a typhoid outbreak, Durand managed to conceive a child, to the scandal of many, with one Gloria Feldman in the Bronx. Marrying George Steinman provided some stability for the child, who grew to father one child of his own before a heart attack felled him: Maryann.

A long path, yes, and one beset by the tragedies great and small which determine the fate of all peoples. But it led, inexorably, to Maryann.

She always signed the name Bir Tawil when one was required, since the term had meaningful, if esoteric, relationship to her perception of reality.

When the Brits had been busily carving up Africa like a choice turkey, they’d drawn a border between Egypt and Sudan–ruler-straight, as such externally imposed lines tended to be. A few years later, they’d gone back and, with uncharacteristic attention to native concerns, adjusted it to give Egypt a little plot of land south of the line and Sudan a little plot north of it since local tribal shepherds used the land to graze. Egypt and Sudan had fallen to fighting over the larger part, called Hala’ib, but the border was such that whoever claimed Hala’ib had to deny ownership of the smaller part at the same time. Called Bir Tawil, the patch of land was unclaimed by either one in favor of something they valued more.

So when Bir signed something with her name of choice, she was symbolically casting in her lot with that wretched 800 square miles of desert that nobody wanted. There had even been a time she’d harbored a dream of moving there–an act of solidarity with something as abandoned as she.