Wick bore the candle aloft. “You know what this is, don’t you?”

At the flick of a slimy finger, the frogs retreated. “Of course we do,” burbled their king. “That accursed spark is what allowed you to roast us for eating, powered the machines that drained our swamps.” He drew out his following words with thick malice: “It has brought nothing but death to my people, even here at our last outpost.”

“What if I told you,” said Wick, trying to be sly, “that this is the last flame in the world, and that the secret of its creation has been lost?”

The frog king lolled out its tongue in a moment of thought. “I would say that my people should attack you now, at all hazards, to ensure that it is drowned in the cleansing waters of the last refuge.”

“Consider this an opportunity,” Wick said. “The last fire is traveling to the summit that it might be rekindled in the souls of all my people. If you would allow me to pass, my people would be in your debt.”

“You do not have a good record of being beholden to those to whom you owe much,” sneered the frog king. “Ask the aurochs that, if you can find one.”

“The fire might be the only thing that can hold back the decay and rebuild our world,” Wick replied. “Surely you, in your wisdom, feel the end closing about all life even here in the last refuge.”

“You would have me put my trust in that which caused the decay in the first place? Perhaps it is simply time for us to fade quietly away with one last noble act.”

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The disfiguration produced by the Ague was extreme, compared by those who had seen it to severe burns with the addition of inky black pustules. No one ever established a definitive cause, nor a method of transmission, nor why the disease seemed to prefer women to men in a ratio of 3:1 or more.

Most mysterious of all was the Ague’s sudden disappearance, leaving in its wake hundreds if not thousands of disfigured people, mostly young women.

Moved by their suffering, and under more than a little pressure from the local lords, the Sepulcher of the Creator created the Cloister of the Veil for them. Sufferers of the Ague were given a castle, abandoned during the Late Period, which they were able to renovate into a convent of sorts. Given land to till and animals to care for, the many women and few men were all sworn to the Sepulcher’s rules for convents, celibacy foremost among them.

They were also provided with clear linen uniforms that draped in such a way as to shield their ravaged bodies from view. The few males were ordained priests of the Sepulcher and tended to wear metal or wooden masks as a sign of their rank.

But even as the Cloister of the Veil was hailed as a success, it was full of people from all walks of life. The Ague had claimed plenty who desired nothing like a monastic life, and rumors soon began of broken vows and promiscuous behavior among the sufferers there.

And that is why an Inspector of the Sepulcher was dispatched: the rumor and fear that one of the sisters had become pregnant, and the possibility of what an Ague-borne child might bring unto the world.

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“So here’s the thing. Elves won’t go to school with orcs. They say that, in their holy book, orcs stole the Light of the Twin Boughs and fed it to Ariachne the Star-Devourer. So naturally, that means that their kids can’t learn about geometry together.”

“And the orcs?”

“There are enough velfor tots around to show that they’re one and the same once you get past appearances, but a lot of the orcs are a little hostile on account of the fact that the elves saw fit to condemn them to an eternity of servitude after the defeat of their dark master Malktozt the Enemy. So the orc parents are likely to agree to shared bussing but their damn kids get in trouble with the elves. And of course neither of them likes the velfor.”

“I see what you mean about this being complicated.”

“And ours is an easy lot! District 12 is 15% dwarves and 5% hoblings. Now any student of history knows that they have a common origin, but thanks to the Dwarf-Hobling conflict in the Middle West, they get hysterical at any idea of shared schooling. And naturally, the dwarves believe that orcs are unclean thanks to the Dimming of the Two Bushes (subtly different from stealing the Light of the Twin Boughs you understand), while the hobbling are a bit peeved at elves thanks to the Harrowing of Hoblingshire, during the war, when 50% of their people were killed by elves for no good reason I’ve ever been able to uncover.”

“So you can’t bus orcs and elves, orcs and dwarves, hoblings and elves, or hobbling and dwarves. That’s beyond complicated.”

“Oh you can try. Many have. What you wind up with is the elves pulling their kids out to go to expensive private elf academies, the elves move away and stop paying taxes, and then you’re got a school that is 90% orcs again.”

“Makes me glad I’m an goblin and reproduce through budding.”

“You and me both, buddy. You and me both.”

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“Do you think this could be the work of the Decapitator?”

“Decapitatrix,” said Smith Johnson, Ravenwing Sunkiller to his friends. “At least, I’m sure that’s what they’d want you to call them, if they were here.”

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The Cranturwiss is only seen in winter after the last leaves fall. It is larger than a man, with shaggy white fur and black eyes and teeth. It seeks forest berries. Only the very freshest and rarest berries will satisfy the wrath of the Cranturwiss, but if you can locate them, it will accept the gift.

If you bring it a gift, it will give you a riddle.

If you answer the riddle, it will give you a wish.

Unlike Djinni and Stiltzkins, these wishes are exactly what they seem to be and do not pervert the wisher’s words nor demand a further price. Legend has it that the first Count of W├╝rttemburg relied on a Cranturwiss-wish to establish the first castle at Stuttgart.

But beware. If you answer incorrectly, you must leave a sacrifice. The Cranturwiss prefers chickens but small children will do. None know what it does with them, but some woodsmen whisper they are raised as Cranturwissen themselves to succeed their elder.

If you have neither chicken nor child, the Cranturwiss takes what you have; if you have nothing to offer it, the Cranturwiss will take your eyes as payment. They are like enough to berries to satisfy it.

Other than to encounter it by chance, the only known way to locate Cranturwissen is with a wild Kroger, themselves very difficult to capture. Krogers fear the Cranturwiss and will not go near its cave, and you may know you are near by the recoiling of the lesser beast.

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I held onto the stone lever, feeling the deepwoods moss gently caress my palm.

“There’s a lever in the woods/the old folks say/and when you pull it/things fly away.” I whispered the old schoolyard rhyme through lips thick with the sweat of a summer that had reached even the normally cool forests outside town.

Horatio had stayed where I’d put him, mewling quietly. That wouldn’t do; I’d chosen him because he was the most rambunctious of Clover’s litter. After a few moments I tossed his favorite toy out with my spare hand. A little ball that jingled and was full of catnip, it landed squarely in the middle of the great stone trapdoor that the lever activated.

The soft little kitten immediately bounded over to it, and at the first jingle I pulled the lever.

As it had the first time I’d tried it, the sound of impossibly ancient subterranean gears ground out a doleful bass melody beneath my feet. A second later, the trapdoor opened. Horatio yowled as he plunged into the inky blackness. A moment later, he reappeared, speeding up and out at a rocket’s pace, launched in the air as if from a catapult.

That sequence of events should have ended with Horatio as an adorable damp spot on the old glacier cliffs. Instead, he glided gently back down next to me on a pair of small wings that matched the motley pattern of his fur. Seemingly instinctively, ths kit folded his new appendaged up and took to licking himself delicately.

“That’s it, then,” I said. “It’s time.” I stepped onto the trapdoor, once again closed by now. I looped a piece of sturdy rope over the lever, and took a deep breath.

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“You are not satisfied by General Lodii’s answer,” said Zaldi.

“She’s hiding something. Even Roir could see that,” said Myn, spitting an apple seed onto the ground. “I’m not going back home with my tail between my legs just because they threatened to kill me. I owe Eyon more than that.”

“Are you sure this is about the Legion and Lord Eyon?” said Zaldi. “You have asked about this Liat Raligaia at every turn.”

“Yes, who is Liat Raligaia?” said Tinain. “That’s a name from Pexate, isn’t it?”

“He stole something from me,” said Myn. “Something very precious. I intend to inquire about it in person, and I would have done it already if the Legion hadn’t taken him.”

“Lodii said he was a mercenary, working for financial gain, which that big orc didn’t like,” Zaldi added. “You don’t believe that either?”

“Let’s just say that if General Lodii told me the sky was blue, I’d still want to look up to see for myself.” Myn said.

“Tell me about this Goblin Legion,” Tinain said. “We have heard so many rumors here, for years, I scarcely know what’s true and what’s lies.”

“Lord Eyon came to control Pexate after the Battle of Huxton’s Bend,” said Zaldi. “I was there, and so was Myn, and Lodii. Half of Lord Eyon’s army was goblins when he defeated and captured King Uxbridge and the barons who were tugging on his puppet strings.”

“Yeah, so Eyon wanted things to be better for the gobs than they had been,” said Myn. “He’s tried a lot of stuff, like saying that the gobs can have names based on their town, and saying that they’re actually citizens of Pexate, which the barons were kind of wishy-washy on. The Legion was another one of his ideas.”

“Arming and training gobs to give them opportunities to better themselves, after they’d helped him win that battle?” Tinain said.

“And names,” said Zaldi. “Don’t forget the names. To most gobs, names are everything. And each of the 10,000 in the Goblin Legion has a name. When they fall, another gob may step in and claim their name by right.”

“It was a big risk,” said Myn. “everybody expected Eyon to name himself king, to add a token gob or two to his retinue, and then abandon them to their fate. The gobs expected that. But he insisted that their lot had to improve, and he fought hard against all sorts of people to create the Goblin Legion.”

“I do think he missed an opportunity to call it the Goblegion,” Zaldi laughed.

“Agreed,” said Tinain, joining her merriment.

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