Coba Hohka was an older man, maybe fifty or so, with long white hair pulled into a ponytail. Eyeglasses were perched on his thick nose, and he was shorter than Myn, about the height of any full-blooded goblin. But his skin was a similar olive drab hue, and his stocky build left no doubt that one of his parents had been a dwarf.

“Those boys have been making trouble on this road since the siege began,” Coba said, leading Myn through his shop. Aisles and shelves overflowed with books and scrolls, spilling onto the floor and leaving only the narrowest of passages. The whole place smelled like moldy paper and ancient, crackling glue. “It’s what happens in cases like this, if you ever care to research it. Thee confined turn on their own, just as they did in the Siege of Crannequin when the dwarves were restricted to the Undercity.”

“You don’t say.” Myn took the proffered seat–stool, really–once Coba had swept a few manuscripts off of it. He took up a perch at a high writer’s desk.

“So, who are you that has come to my door with the blood of my neighborhood’s petty annoyances on her hands?” said Coba. “A mule like myself, clearly.”

“Very observant,” said Myn. “Those eyeglasses must really help.”

“Bah, I knew you were a mule before I even laid eyes on you. They way you announced yourself, with all that false bravado? That could have been me, thirty years ago. ‘Coba the Mule, scribe for hire, the bookiest man in Gaiza, son of Maala the Bronze and Twyxim Lockwork.’ Sound familiar?”

“False?” Myn said. “I believe every word.”

Coba laughed. “Bah,” he said again. “You don’t believe a word of it, you’ve just convinced yourself that you do. We mules are like that. Unless you favor one of your parents enough to pass for them, or something else, we’ve got to loudly declare how worthwhile we are to ourselves if we’re to believe it.”

“I’m guessing you were about as welcome in the Dwarf Quarter as I am in the Goblin Quarter,” said Myn.

“Ha! That’s putting it mildly. I’m about as welcome in the Goblin Quarter as you are. Luckily for me, the written word does not discriminate. Now, what was it you wanted?”

“Information,” Myn said. “Lots of it.”

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“Ah, doesn’t that sea breeze just do wonders for you? Opens your nostrils, opens your mind, opens your heart!”

Zaldi Xianuende stood astride the deck of the Curmudgeonly Toad, a ramshackle but seaworthy skiff out of Toan, and bellowed out platitudes in a powerful voice. After the better part of a week with her, the Toad’s crew was less than enthusiastic as she walked the decks clapping them on the back and waxing poetic about the sea.

“Tetpa, isn’t this invigorating work?” she cried at the seaman busy emptying the bilge.

“Hmph.” Tetpa wasn’t about to disagree with Zaldi since she was both taller and broader than he. But he wasn’t about to disagree either.

Zaldi pirouetted around the mainmast. “Katapti, isn’t the air up there just so gloriously invigorating?”

The lithe she-elf in the ropes, who tired easily but was as dextrous as a ball of spiders, felt safer to be honest given the twenty feet and howling wind betwixt them: “Blow it out your rear, you pointy-eared giant of a pest!”

“Yes, I agree!” Zaldi said in singsong, catching only the barest snatches of Katapi’s grousing. “It is the best!”

The ship’s master, a dwarf called Poxos, was at the wheel, staring intently at the horizon. “How do you do it, captain?” Zaldi said, taking the steps up to the small bridge in three bounds and all but blocking his field of vision. “How do you deal with the ecstasy of the open waters?”

“I manage,” grunted Poxos.

“It can be difficult, I’m sure. But you do it well, I can hardly tell that you’re joyful under that mask of indifference!”

Finally, Zaldi found her charge, Myn. The young lady was around half Zaldi’s age and a somewhat more than half her height, but she shared a similar mixed parentage. She was at the gunwhales, the sea breeze in her face and the boat at her back.

‘Mom said you could be a handful,” Zaldi said. “But she has a tendency to look on the dark side. You haven’t been any trouble at all!” She gave Myn a hearty clap on the back.

“HUUUUURK!” Myn, who had been looking rather green even for someone whose mother was a goblin, lost her breakfast over the side at the blow.

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“Lord Eyon said that there was another way, that we gobs did not have to be as we have always been,” said Lodii. “And he was right. But there was something that Lord Eyon left unsaid, something very important.”

“Yeah, he’s like that sometimes,” said Myn.

“Indeed. And what he left unsaid was this: the gobs must become what he wants us to be. The gobs must become like him. In that way, he’s no different than the thousand other conqerors that have tried to remake us in their own image.”

“All I’ve seen are you betraying everyone that’s ever put an ounce of trust in you,” replied Myn. “What’s that say about you?”

“We believe in gobs for gobs. The old ways are failing us, and have failed us for many years. Everyone has an idea of what’s best for us. The humans want us to be humans, the orcs want us to be orcs. But we have to find out own way.”

“Yeah? And where does that way leave a mule like me?” said Myn.

“It’s simple,” replied Lodii. “Like all mules, you must choose. So far you have chosen to favor your human half, to be the exploiter rather than the exploited. But all that will be over soon, and those who have thrown in their lot against the oppressed gobs will find that the tables have turned. That’s the choice, Myn. Join us as a gob in pursuit of a bright future for all our people, or accept as a human your just reward for the lowly state of our kin.”

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The sanctum echoes with the sound of a million million children singing a wordless song. Many have tried to describe it, or to reproduce the melody.

All have failed.

They do say that it is by turns sad and joyous, happy and despondent. It is a song of soaring glee brought low by terrible sadness, and adversity conquered through the strength of joy. It is the song of all the innocents lost, and all the innocents saved, when they were at their most vulnerable and fragile.

Why the sanctum would contain such a sound is a great mystery, as the being said to be buried there is remembered as no friend to children, no friend to life.

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This is mostly hearsay from travelers who have lost their way in Naix or pilgrims who have returned alive from treks in the blasted wastes where the Creator died. But I feel like the essential parts must be true, as they line up well.

We call it the Dead Hand because it consists of five bodies of water radiating out from a central plateau. They might well be called lakes or seas because while they are quite large, if quite thin, they are salty. So salty, in fact, that nothing can survive in them and a few mouthfuls are fatal. Many a pilgrim, I imagine, has made it through the Naix wastes dying of thirst only to perish after a few bitter mouthfuls.

Around the fingers is a broken landscape rent through with canyons and gullies; all heading downhill, as the fingers lay at the lowert point of the basin. Thunderstorms in the highlands, the result of clouds from the sea breaking on their peaks, routinely send gouts of water through the canyons to carve them wider and deeper. Any unwary in them are drowned by the brief torrents.

There are wilder tales of the inner plateau, of nature behaving strangely and of impossible occurances, but anyone who has made it that far would be mad with thirst.

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Myn hated her goblin tutor, Hacta Scribbleshank, but didn’t realize the feeling was mutual until Hacta tried to kill her.

It had been another lesson in history and etiquette. Another lesson calling for Myn to squeeze herself into uncomfortable court garments. Another lesson with her tottering about in shoes made to sound pretty on polished floors rather than fit comfortably. And all the while, Hacta had been calling out facts and figures to memorize.

“Why do the boots of court dress reach the knee?” Hacta barked.

“To make people with big feet want to kill themselves?” Myn growled.

“It was imposed by the Layyians when they ruled Pexate for 50 years!” Hacta cried back.

“Then why do we keep doing it?”

Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a cannon on the walls of Toan Castle. Two more followed, a triple blast.

“What does that mean?” said Myn, struggling to remember the lesson about cannon shots. “I know this one, I swear. It’s either the birth of an heir to the throne or welcoming a prince from a petty duchy.”

Hacta reached into her bustle and drew a slim, finely-wrought misericorde dagger. “It means the lesson is over,” she said. “I will now teach you the most important etiquette of all: how to die with dignity.”

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“They’re always going to be stronger than you,” said Myn. “Always. That’s why you’ve got to be quicker and cleverer. If you’re not as quick as me or as clever as me, they’ll pin you in close where their stupidity can’t hurt them and they’ll murder you to death.”

“So what does that mean?”

“You attack them only when you can surprise them. Otherwise, you run and you climb. If you cross swords with them, you’ve already lost.” Myn took out one of her daggers and twirled it. “You can’t run with a sword very well, even less with armor. But one of these will kill a man just as dead.”

“But that doesn’t really seem fair.”

Myn spat. “Fair? Fair is something those big idiots invented to make you fight on their terms. I say they’re not playing fair by being bigger and stronger than me, so I’m doing what I can to make things fairer through judicious stabbing.”

“You can’t always stab.”

“Of course not,” sniffed Myn. “That’s why the Creator made stuff like this.” She drew her Gob Legion hand cannon. “It’ll blow a hole in their armor from 20 yards away.”

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The Twelvers, or the Twelve Sisters are the cosmopolitan cities of the Dodecopolis, a group of trading cities that dot the coasts and rivers of Naix. The cities are ancient, strategic, and fiercely independent. While they were once under the nominal suzerainty of the Crimson Empire, they exist in a loose confederation after its destruction.

Each of the cities has a name, the origins of which lie with the ancient language of the long-extinct Voyagers who founded them, and a poetic descriptor give to them by the Crimson Emperors who brought them into the Empire, albeit temporarily. They are:

Auida, the First Sister
Huhan, the Impregnable
Bauarn, the Jewel of the River
A’Jinaue, the Learned Sister
N’Raunj, the Martial Sister
H’Naunn, the Spiritual Sister
Gaiza, the Hermit Sister
Ruijaau, the Divine Mystery
Inrauinj, the Sorrow of the Sands
Aud, the Treasure of Naix
Poeb, the Quicksilver
Eaju, the Last Sister

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In the palm of Nä Ti, the Dead Hand
Lies Rait Tirat, the Tomb of the Rebel
He who rebelled against It
Nyir Rvi, murderer of the Creator
Xon Vty, father of the Goblins
The father awaits his children
To give to them purpose anew
And to anoint them with right
And free them of their sins

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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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