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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The lands of Haymet, crossroads between the oasis-hopping trade routes between the vast interior deserts of Rutas and the fertile valleys nearer the its coast, have been fought over for millennia. It was a motley collection of city-states and petty principalities when Islamic invaders swept through the area led by the great emir, and later self-appointed Caliph, Karim Al-Usman. The Usmanid Emirate embraced Sufism to an extent unrivaled elsewhere, and was therefore viewed as schismatic or bid’ah by other emirs and rival Caliphs, each of whom had good reason to covet Usmanid lands.

Haymet was also among the earliest conquests by Hamur, the great unifier of the orcish peoples and promulgator of the Hamurabash code under which most contemporary orcs live. Orcish memory halls are still rife with references to ancestors who fought at the great battles of Alyd, Garyssh, and Al-Khopesh, at which the Usmanid armies were annihilated and the last Emir, Tariq Al-Usman III, was captured and executed.

Hamur therefore inherited lands with a centralized administration and an institutionalized religion. Hamur himself was an atheist and his Hamurabash allowed private worship but harshly punished proselytizing. This was a problem for Haymet in particular, as the new orcish rulers found themselves suddenly in charge of an overwhelmingly human, and overwhelmingly Islamic, population. Hamur took an indulgent route, with relaxed standards on what he considered proselytizing; only areas that resisted the imposition of orcish rule had their imams massacred and their mosques converted for use as orcish memory halls.

After the death of Hamur, betrayed and murdered by his lieutenant Ramuh in his moment of victory at the Battle of the Kyssel Pass, Haymet was ruled by one of the cadet lines of his house headed by his son Aluhamur. In the years that followed, however, the fragmented Islamic rump states on the coast of Rutas were reunited and energized by the Fahimid emirs. The Fahimids launched a series of lengthy assaults on Haymet and gradually brought more and more of it under their control. This resulted in considerable strife on both sides: the orcs who had settled in the areas, as well as humans who had begun adhering to the Hamurabash, discarded Hamur’s tolerant stance and began aggressively seeking to suppress Islam in their territories. For their part, the Fahimids refused to consider adherents of the Hamurabash as Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book.

As a result, anyone following the Hamurabash in the reconquered lands was viewed not as a dhimmi who was eligible for protection so long as they paid the jizya tax. Instead, such humans were regarded as apostates and orcs as musrikun, idolaters, who were required to convert or face execution. These two stances–the orcish authorities’ increased persecution of Muslims as “proselytizers” and the Fahimids’ insistence on the Hamurabash as apostasy and idolatry–led to an unprecedented slaughter and wave of violence throughout Haymet.

Though the Fahimids managed to conquer 85% of Haymet at one time or another, and counterattacking orcs in turn retook up to half of their former lands in return, the conflict eventually became known to both sides as “the open wound,” inflicting ruinous violence and occupation costs on both the Aluhamurids and the Fahimids. In time, both states collapsed; the increasing desertification of the interior of Rutas ruined the orcish state, which had no solid access to the coast, while the Fahimids fragmented in a series of dynastic struggles and were eventually all but occupied by foreign powers.

But the “open wound” of Haymet remains–a patchwork of orcs and humans, Hamurabash and Hadith, both hardened by centuries of warfare and massacres on both sides. Rivers of ink have been spilled over who was in the wrong, who was the aggressor, and who ultimately owns the rich and fertile lands of Haymet. One thing remains certain, though: it remains both a focal point and a sore spot in relations between the largest factions of orcs and humans on the continent of Rutas.

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“There’s not much to tell. ‘Jai’ means ‘victory’ in Hindi and ‘Chandrakant’ means ‘moonstone.’ My family had been jewelers for a long time, and we’ve always been famous for grinding moonstones.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard me give my full name as Myassa bint Leya bint Raaheel al-Thurayya,” said Myassa, “usually when I want to piss somebody off.”

“Well, ‘bint’ means ‘daughter of.’ In most names you’d say ‘son of X, daughter of Y,’ or ‘son of X, grandson of Y’ but I decided to mix it up. So I have my mother Leya and grandmother Raaheel, which you will almost never see in a real name.”

“And ‘al-Thurayya’ means ‘of the Pleiades,’ which is fitting given where I came from.”

“What about Myasssa?”

“Well, it’s not the given name they slapped on me when I was born, if that’s what you’re asking. That name meant ‘chaste,’ which doesn’t really fit in with Dad’s obsession for grandchildren, but whatever.”

“So why’d you choose it?”

“Well, believe it or not, my family was actually descended from the rules of a tribe. Not close enough to actually get many perks, but we were well-off enough that we qualified for the honorific ‘sheikh’ for the lads and ‘shaykhah’ for the ladies.”

“You’ve lost me,”

“Well, as a shaykhah, it only makes sense for me to be known as Shaykhah Myassa,” Myassa laughed.

Jai, perplexed, turned the syllables over in his mouth. “Shake-a my-ass-a,” he said at length, comprehension breaking like dawn across his face before he collapsed in helpless laughter.

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Myassa al-Thurayya chambered a fresh round in her rifle and looked through the scope for another target. None presented itself; the Vyaeh assault squad had apparently been held off for now. Myassa adjusted her aim, cursing as her hijab got in the way and temporarily blocked her sight picture until she batted it free.

“Why do you wear that thing?” Jai Chandrakant said, covering her flank with his freshly reloaded assault rifle. “If the sailor-talk wasn’t enough to show that you’re not exactly daddy’s proper little meek religious girl, there’s everything else you’ve ever said or done alongside it.”

“The last person who asked me that is still waiting for the wires to come off of their jaw,” said Myassa, without budging from her rifle. “You don’t ask. You’re told, when and if I choose to tell you.”

“Fair enough,” Jai said.

There was a pause, and at length Myassa made a resigned grunt. “I am a secular Muslim,” she said. “I wear the hijab so that people know my heritage and I have a tangible link to thousands of years of religion and culture that shaped me into who I am today.”

“A secular Muslim?” said Jai. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“And yet nobody is surprised when someone calls themself a secular Jew or a secular Christian, even though they do the same thing for the same reason,” said Myassa. “You can be a secular anything. It’s a frame of mind; I didn’t fill out a bloody application form.”

“Well, sure, but why something like a hijab?” Jai said. “Why not just wear a crescent on a chain around your neck like I’ve seen people do with a Star of David or a cross?”

“The crescent is an Ottoman symbol, not an Islamic one,” said Myassa. “I have no desire to associate myself with that hoary old despotism, thank you very much.”

“Well, then what about that Arabic creed thing? The sha…shaha…hada…”

“The Shahada,” Myassa said. “And no. It’s a statement of faith, and I have none. Believe me, Jai, I’ve thought this through.”

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“Commander!”

Soderquist sighed and reached for the headset on his ansible. “Is that you, Karlsson?” he said.

“Yes, it’s me. Something…something’s happened on Xyvatba!”

Xyvatba. Pronouncing the name was enough to generate a headache measurable on the Richter scale, and the thought of dealing with its indigenous Xusargt inhabitants was enough for another. Of all the species in the universe whose biochemistry was similar enough to humans’ to make communication possible, they had to be the most irritating.

“Let me guess,” said Soderquist. “You lost another translator unit to religious fanatics who think that communicating with artificial spores violates some deeply-held tenet of their religion.” The Xursargt, who had evolved from a long series of vaguely fungoid creatures in symbiosis with ambulatory herbivores, communicated entirely with modified spores that were released into the ambient environment.

“Sir, I think-” Karlsson sounded more panicked than normal, but he tended to call for support from Soderquist at the sector level every time the Xusargt secreted spore-impregnated psuedo-mucus on him (even though he had been assured that it was sterile and a form of endearment).

“Or did they start preaching at you again? Trying to secrete the sacred spores of Ebzhyna in your direction and not taking no for an answer?” Soderquist snorted derisively. Ridiculous superstitions like that had been proscribed on Earth for centuries now, a fact the commender thanked his lucky stars for (just as a figure of speech, since actually appealing to any stars, lucky or not, would be illegal).

But that fact made species like the Xursargt all the more anxious to proselytize. Their spores largely fell on deaf mechanical receptors, though an anthropology team–which Karlsson served as a liaison and security chief–had cataloged the Xusargt belief system in nauseating detail. Soderquist had reviewed their reports in the course of his duties, about Ebzhyna the Merciful and Loving, the Great Spore who Reigns on High with Barigt the Sporefather, he of the Redeeming Spores who would one day return to assume His true believers heavenward as clouds of pure and holy spores.

If he never had to read about it again, it would be too soon.

“Commander-!”

“Spit it out then, Karlsson,” said Soderquist.

“They’re gone, sir,” Karlsson said. “All gone! Our Xursargt escort turned to spores and vanished, and now dark bloodspores are raining from the heavens! There are earthquakes, and the men have been reporting a glowing Xursargt approaching our position! What should we do?”

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The issue of dates and times has long been one that concerned humans, first as we settled around our globe and later as we settled elsewhere.

Use of the Hijri calendar among observant Islamic colonists was particularly troublesome. As a lunisolar calendar, dependent on observations taken in Saudi Arabia, it had been difficult enough to communicate important dates like the Hajj when confined to a single world. Astronomical or algorithm-based methods of calculating dates had long been dismissed by leading theologians as illicit bid’ah.

But how to communicate this information across interstellar distances to the colony of New Mecca, 73 light-years from Earth? Divergent views have led to a wide variety of practices and even a few conflicts between groups of settlers whose imams issued differing jurisprudence on the matter. The issue of which direction to face during salat prayer is also thorny; whence lieth Mecca from New Mecca?

The issue of salat prayer was similar to that faced by Jewish colonists elsewhere in habitable space. When the Sabbath lasts from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night, what is one to do on a ribbon world like Epsilon Gestae IV where there is eternal twilight, or one like Omicron Theta II where a day is longer than the year?

Difficulties such as those have seen a variety of creative solutions. The Helium-3 mining kibbutzes of NGC-3110, for instance, calculate their observances using a 24-hour cycle overlaid on the planet’s 97-hour night-day cycle with the colony ship’s landfall as their epoch. The Sunni solar harvesters of Feynman’s Star use a complicated algorithm to determine their calendar which is readjusted periodically after the arrival of more precise information from Earth.

But the Eastern Orthodox pilgrims who colonized Tsarzvezdan? The Traditionalist Catholics on Quartum Romae? The Baptist colonists, the Colonbaptists, who run the Christ the Redeemer Medical Center lightspeed emergency medical frigate?

They merely look to the stars for the one which shines brightest.

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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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