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fantasy

The Power Of The Stone

by David K. Henrickson

I was there when the first aliens landed in Central Park, when the lost tomb of Alexander the Great was discovered, when fabled Atlantis rose again from the waves.

That is the power of the stone. Those four words: “I was there when”, carved into its surface, can take you anywhere or to any time, real or imagined.

I have no knowledge of where the stone came from or anything concerning its origin. In all my searches into its provenance — and my resources these days are considerable — I have found no mention of it anywhere, in any time, in any culture.

I know it is not contemporary. The first time I held the stone, those four words were not in English but in a script unknown to me, then or now. When I looked again, the stone had changed and appeared as it still does today, many years later.

Nor do I know how the stone does what it does. There is no way I could risk an investigation into its nature. I cannot see that it matters. The stone is either magic or a technology of the highest order — far beyond anything humans are currently capable of.

Will ever be capable of. We’re talking about pure creation here. Of fashioning an entire universe in accordance with a single sentence uttered in its presence. Yes, I was there when Oswald failed to assassinate President Kennedy. Yes, I was there when Hannibal overran Rome during the second and final Punic War. Yes, I was there when Superman first appeared in the skies over Metropolis.

Whether the stone fashions these realities whole cloth, or pulls them from an infinite grab bag where such worlds lay waiting, I have no way of knowing. Nor am I always sure how the stone will interpret my words. It seems to possess a puckish sense of humor at times when fulfilling my wishes.

It also ignores requests that are too specific. A simple sentence with a minimum number of qualifiers works best. Something that can be uttered in a single breath. That is enough if one is sufficiently clever. Yes, I was there when Edmond Dantès discovered the lost treasure of Monte Cristo. (Ha! I needed a wheelbarrow for that one.)

I was also there when they developed the cure for cancer. You see, I am not quite the heartless misanthrope people make me out to be.

You might well think all this to be the ramblings of a delusional eccentric. My scars would indicate otherwise—as does the absence of the little finger on my left hand. Using the stone is not without its dangers.

I am old now, even though I do not look it, and have been a recluse for many years. (Yes, I was there when Ponce de León discovered the Fountain of Youth.) Whenever I need an escape, I pick up the stone, speak my desire, and journey into the realm of What Might Have Been.

Our travels together are nearing an end, however. Over the years, I have become attuned to the stone and its moods. I know, even though I do not know how, that it is ready to move on. To find a new owner, whoever and wherever that might be.

Accordingly, I have put my affairs in order. As for the stone, I will send it away when I reach my final destination. Where it will end up, I have no way of knowing, just as I do not know how it came to be where I once found it. Let fate decide—or rather, the stone itself.

As for the many eclectic treasures in my collection, I have bequeathed these to various museums without explanation or annotation. (All but my journal. That, I am taking with me.) Let people make of them what they will—a last, enigmatic note to a singular life.

There remains only my final journey, one from which I do not intend to return. It is one I have thought long and hard on over the years. Where should I go? The far future? The distant past? Or to some place that should have been but never was, like Wonderland or the world of Scheherazade and her One Thousand and One Arabian Nights?

Perhaps I should go to Barsoom. Or to some vast, galactic empire at the height of its power and glory. What about the First Age of Middle Earth? (Wouldn’t that be something?) Wherever I end up, it should be a place where a person can still have an adventure or two.

Where would you go if you could pick only a single destination, one from which you would never return?

Let me see. I was there when…

~

Bio:

Dave Henrickson has a background in engineering, oceanography, and computer science but always wanted to be an artist. Maybe a dancer. He currently lives in Virginia and spends his free time writing, reading, and killing monsters with his wife Abbie. He has also written a number of novels — which he may even publish one of these days.

Philosophy Note:

Where would you go if you could go anywhere? To places that never were or never could be? Where would you go if you could never come back from such a place? The realm of the imagination provides limitless possibilities.

The Arbiter

by Conrad Gardner

EXHIBIT 101 – THE ARBITER

BEFORE TOUCHING, READ BELOW:

Forged in 1882, The Arbiter is the earliest Pistante in history. It was created by Abel Garcia (1860-1922), an Anjiladonian native who trained as a mage in this museum’s home at the age of ten. Upon leaving the Mantelios Institute, he moved to the developing settlement of Los Lojones in Mastaces, Babonia, working as a smith. Born to farmer parents, Garcia was used to labour, but not always well-behaved, stealing trinkets from his grandparents. Adopted by an aunt after his father’s death, he was enrolled in our institute, being taught humility and learning to help the less fortunate.

During the Third Invasion (1882 – 1885), Garcia attempted to defend the town, but his offensive spells needed a device to help channel their power. His hand-cast spells lacked accuracy, so he forged The Arbiter, inventing a new kind of weapon that would protect the entirety of Kantinia.

Modelling The Arbiter on a Ricosto Revolver, Garcia implemented the chant Spiritum Deus Guardia for several hours while under the forge’s heat. (This chant has been used on two other exhibits in this institution’s collection, Exhibits 84: The Disciplo and 96: Ramirez’s Lawgiver). His diary (housed in the Mantelios Library) notes that when removed from the forge, ‘The gun was too light, like a leaf.’ The weight of his chants squashed the barrel, increasing it four millimetres in length, proving beneficial to the weapon’s range capabilities. With the first Pistante in hand, Garcia learned to focus his beam casts on the weapon (which he termed ‘injecting’) and fire the energy bestowed, becoming the first gunmage. He waged war on the Chacibarae and Chupahomani that terrorised Los Lojones. Porofi was one of his most frequent casts against such beasts, powerful when injected into The Arbiter.

In 1883, Garcia returned to Anjilados, a focal point of the Third Invasion. Ignoring the torment of the surrounding towns, The Arbiter weighed his belt down until he agreed to return.

The gunmage rode through the country, shooting Fiestorre with stakati energy as he passed. With an army of New Babonites and Anjiladonians behind him, he helped reclaim his land. When not fighting, he shot his injured allies with consuviae projectiles, healing those that had rudimentary cuts and bruises. Though The Arbiter never refused him, he said his Pistante grew heavier during moments of anger, which led him to learn the meditative arts. He shared the knowledge of how to craft a Pistante with few people, though many imitations by criminals yielded failed results.

Due to the draining effects of injecting his magic into the Pistante, Garcia retired in 1905. An international discussion started about who would continue his legacy and become the next gunmage. Despite numerous attempts by the Anjiladonian and Babonian governments to claim the weapon, no politicians or military leaders could lift it with ease. Competitions were held without Garcia’s consent, attempting to find the best fighters and shootists, but no winners were selected by him.

Deciding to search for his new mentee himself before he grew too drained, Garcia came upon Rosa Macabe (1899-1966), a young thief in Mastaces City after she attempted to steal his wallet. Taking his belt, and The Arbiter with her by accident, Garcia saw the weapon did not drag her to the ground and sensed her benevolent spirit. Adopting Macabe, he tutored her in achieving inner balance and using her talents to help others.

Garcia’s choice was controversial. He permitted others to try using the weapon, but it was lifted by few, fired even less. The Saraphitos made vocal threats against Macabe’s life for not being a noble-born magician. Garcia taught her his method of weapon-smithing and had her study The Arbiter’s individual parts before he let her practice firing it. The weapon is notorious for being difficult to use unless the wielder understands its making. On his deathbed, Garcia said that Macabe was a better gunmage than him as she had mastered her hate.

During the Poronean Invasion on Kantinia, Macabe used The Arbiter to defend the continent. Preventing the needless slaughtering of thousands, she proposed a duel between herself and a Poronean champion, Cladstock the Brute. Injecting The Arbiter with combosti, she demolished his armour with a flurry of shots (Exhibit 198: Cladstock’s Helmet can be seen in the Invader Display, where the effects of combosti energy on veitor steel are visible). Following her predecessor’s practice, she never wore armour, making her grasp around The Arbiter’s ivory grip firmer, and her movements quicker.

In 1957, a Sariphoto invaded Macabe’s home and tried to execute her with The Arbiter. The Pistante detected the attacker’s dark soul, refusing to fire and scorching his palm. Taught by Garcia not to rely on The Arbiter for all spells, she killed the Sariphoto with a hand-cast combosti.

Drained by The Arbiter as Garcia had been, she searched for its next bearer, Guillermo Conti (1968- ). Losing his parents in the Poronean Invasion, he was taught at this institute until Madame Macabe selected him as her successor at the age of fifteen. Despite his aggression, he tempered this along with steel at Garcia’s forge as Macabe mentored him.

Serving in the Diavolos War (1986-1987), Conti helped close the Tiaria Tear, and was the leading gunmage of the Anjiladonian army. By the war’s end, he had greatly contributed to establishing an era of peace.

Conti attempted to use healing casts on it, but consuviae, was the only workable spell, due to its projectile nature. Unable to help others with The Arbiter beyond basic medical aid, he returned here to become a teacher. Introducing two new classes, Gunmaging and Gunsmithing, Conti crafted his own Pistante and gifted The Arbiter to this institute, saying that it had no use in a time of peace, as it needed conflict to be used well.

Here it lies, waiting for a day The Mantelios Institute prays will never come. If you wish to hold The Arbiter and see if you are worthy, please take hold of the grip.

WARNING: The Mantelios Institute and Museum does not claim responsibility for any injuries sustained when attempting to fire or remove The Arbiter from its Lashiana-enchanted glass. Hands are crumpled or burned at the visitor’s risk.

~

Bio:

Conrad Gardner’s fiction has been published by Superlative, Martian, AEL Press, and Full Moon Chronicles. He writes to calm his mind and keep his hands busy.

Philosophy Note:

Weapons, like beasts, may lay dormant for millennia. But they are always ready to be used again.

Geriatric Dragon Care Associates Needed!

by Bethany Tomerlin Prince

Freedom Valley Care Center for Really, Really Wise Dragons is Always Hiring!

Freedom Valley Care Center for Really, Really Wise Dragons is the premier care center for geriatric dragons on the Western Continent. Unlike other multi-species care homes, we only serve Dragons, Drakes, Drakainas, and Wyverns, allowing us to provide custom care tailored to our client’s unique ultimatums! If you were a cave-bound Dragon, Freedom Valley Care Center would be your children’s top choice!

We are looking to replenish our team of brave, compassionate associates!

***Required Disclosure***

If it was up to us, we would consider every applicant.

However, due to various town and kingdom regulations, we are unable to hire any individual:

  • With an evil alignment
  • With a theft conviction
  • Who is currently a member of an adventurer’s guild

***Equal Opportunity Statement***

We are an Equal Opportunity Employer and do not discriminate against applicants due to class, race, species, gender, native language, continent, or realm of origin. The only factors we consider are an applicant’s willingness and ability to complete the requested role.

Mage Interns Needed

Our patent-pending mobility barges provide a low-impact way to move patients recovering from wing surgery around our facility. If you are a wind mage looking for an opportunity to earn casting hours toward your wizard’s license, then we would love for you to join our team!

***Responsibilities***

  • Enable patients to attend follow-up appointments and physical therapy
  • Continually cast for extensive periods of time

***Qualifications***

  • Ability to cast spells with a substantial amount of thrust
  • Ability to cast with a high degree of directional accuracy

Going forward all applicants will have their magical ability verified via an on-site practical exam as part of the interview process. Candidates planning to lift the barges, rather than magically manipulate them, need not apply. 

***Pay***

This is one of the few conjurer credit eligible internships that also pays a competitive salary.

Full-Time Care Assistants Needed

Our care assistants are at the heart of what we do, providing physical and emotional support to their assigned patients.

***Responsibilities***

  • Emulsify large quantities of meat
  • Change extra, extra, extra, large incontinence pads
  • Clip claws
  • Change bandages
  • Administer barrels of healing potions
  • Listen to chronicles of bygone centuries
  • Monitor hibernating patients

***Qualifications***

  • Experience putting sweaters on large, non-humanoid creatures
  • Thick-skinned (figuratively)
    • We need our employees to exhibit understanding if threats are made to set one’s person or village ablaze
    • Literal thick skin would be a plus but is not required
  • Priority will be given to candidates that are fireproof and/ or invulnerable to large quantities of offensive magic

***Pay***

Kitschy knick-knacks gold, and precious gems, paid out in increasing amounts for every year you’re a part of the Freedom Valley Care family. In addition, we provide a comprehensive benefits package that includes prepaid healing, discounted potions, enrollment in the company tontine, and fully subsidized accidental dismemberment and death insurance. 

Tracker Contractor Needed

Oftentimes, our more confused clients forcefully wander outside of our property. We need an experienced tracker to find our misplaced patrons, as well as to convince them to return. This position is that of an independent contractor that provides services on an as-needed basis.

***Responsibilities***

  • Quickly locate clients out in the wild
  • Return them to our care before they can harm themselves or others

***Qualifications***

  • Nearly instantaneous response time
  • Proven track record of successfully locating living creatures
  • Ability to cover enormous distances quickly
  • Multiple means of nonviolent persuasion
  • Training in de-escalation techniques would be a plus

***Pay***

One artifact-grade magical item per client returned minus any property damage expenses.

Freedom Valley Care Center For Really, Really Wise Dragons Eagerly Anticipates You Joining Our Team!

~

Bio:

Bethany Tomerlin Prince is a voracious lover of stories, a compulsive buyer of books, a recovering fan fiction addict, and a wannabe writer. She is so glad to have found Sci Phi because she loves idea-based science fiction and sometimes thinks characters are overrated. This is her first paid sale.

Philosophy Note:

When I was helping my mom recover from her knee replacement, I started thinking about a Dungeons and Dragons-type fantasy world that followed a similar civilization trajectory as our own. I.e. the tribal and kingdom violence gradually gave way to urbanized civilization. I realized in this world that a lot of Dragons that would have historically been killed off by adventurers or by younger rivals would now instead be living longer and longer with all of the challenges that old age brings, including dementia. Then I started having a fun time imagining the individuals a nursing home for geriatric dragons would hire.

The Eye

by Kostas Charitos

Paul, my little nephew, has a magic wand. He is pointing to the sky, trying to create a rainfall, but it doesn’t work.

I don’t know why he brought the wand with him. Every time we go to the countryside he brings an old toy, but usually it’s a starship from the set that I gifted him when he was four.

“Let’s play hide-and-seek.”  I say.

It’s his favorite game.  

He agrees.

I close my eyes; I’m pretending to be a child again, and I start counting: “Five, ten, fifteen…”

I hear Paul’s footsteps as he is running. “I discovered a new hiding place. Not even the Eye could find me there.”  he says and I shudder.

I think about the day when the Eye closed for the first time.

It was 20:35 am, Greenwich Mean Time.

Some people were sleeping under warm blankets, some held cups of steaming coffee and some watched the sky acquiring a small black patch.

I was alone in a small office of the Physics department, in front of an old computer, struggling with the presentation of the upcoming conference.

The next day, I read on the internet about the dark nebula, but I didn’t care a lot. Astronomy has never been my favorite field. I was interested in quantum physics, and despite my parents’ objections, I preferred to spend a whole day digging into Bohr’s papers, rather than going out for a coffee with my friends. Maybe that’s why I do not know much about coffee and I don’t have many friends.

The Eye closed again after several months; the last day of the conference.

My speech was successful, and we gathered on the atrium of the hotel to admire the clear sky.

Everyone was stunned as soon as they turned off the lighting and left us in the dark with the candle flames flickering.

I counted at least twenty open mouths. But only one said the phrase that must have been heard millions of times that night: “How do they do this effect with the black pieces?”

As we all soon learned, the gaps, which had filled the night sky like large drops of ink, were no effect. The stars were disappearing without anyone being able to give a logical explanation.

The ones who bothered the most were the cosmologists.

Suddenly, all their theories collapsed like a tower of playing cards. They gathered at conferences, filled the television windows, wrote articles in various magazines, but it was too late. Nobody took them seriously.

Instead, quantum physicists, like me, were standing tall.

We were familiar with the importance of the observer in our experiments, having seen particles appear as soon as we observed them, and others disappear forever when we stopped the detection.

Very soon, the term that would spread like a tsunami in popular culture was born. Some called it god, others supernatural creature or an extra-dimensional observer, but we called it “The Eye”.

And the next time it closed, humanity shuddered. A cold night with a clear sky, we lost the Moon.

#

I stand now on the edge of the hill, with my little nephew on my side who is trying to gather the clouds with his wand.

I look at a willow that is balancing as if it is about to fall into the void.

The whistling of the wind, the distant horizon and the blue sky make me feel as if I am the last person in the world.

I close my eyes thinking about the questions that trouble so many philosophers:

Is the world still there? Is the sea, the wind and the willow still around me? Is there an objective universe or is everything a creation of our consciousness? If the last man dies, will reality be lost with him?

And finally: Can we hide from the eye? It’s a lot to think about. But I’m afraid we are running out of time.

Somewhere out there, beyond our world, lives the only being who can answer our questions.

Our Observer.

The Eye.

I’m sure it’s futile to try to capture its form or its sensory organs. So, I prefer to imagine it as a small child, in a nearby dimension, which sees us as a wonderful toy. Unfortunately, it seems to be losing its interest in us. Maybe it discovered a neighboring universe and is less concerned with our world. His gaze falls more and more elsewhere, the Eye closes more frequently, whatever that means, and, with it, parts of our world disappear.

I have no idea what attracts it.

Why our galaxy survives while others disappeared? What does the Earth have that the Moon didn’t?

Maybe that’s why there are so many movements that aim solely to get its attention.

Their main slogan seems to be: Do not let it get bored.

It’s unbelievable what people can do once they realize they are in danger.

Giant graffiti in fields with the phrase “WE ARE HERE”, religious ceremonies with small silver oval-shaped ornaments, thousands of naked people wandering in the streets, probably having misunderstood the word Eye.

However, if the Eye is attracted to intelligence, I believe that we do everything we can to take its attention away from our planet.

#

Paul is, now, chasing a gray-blue lizard. It’s the first time I see such a creature.

“Be careful. Don’t run.” I say to him.

To my great surprise, he stands still. He points with his wand to the sky.

“I didn’t do that.” he says.

I look up and smile.

Fortunately, I’m not a cosmologist.

I’m trying to think of a scientific explanation but I quit.

Maybe the Eye, just as a little kid, missed the small blue planet with the lonely quantum physicist who plays hide-and-seek with her nephew and brought them into its brave new world.

It seems fair but I just wonder how life will be with two moons and a system of shining rings in the sky.

~

Bio:

Kostas Charitos was born in Arta and lives in Athens with his family. He has a PhD in Chemistry and he teaches in secondary education. His science fiction short stories have been included in international magazines and anthologies like Future Science Fiction Digest, a2525, Nova Hellas, The Viral Curtain and InterNova. Two of his novels, Project Fractal (Τρίτων Publications, 2009) and Lost Colors: Red (Κέδρος Publications, 2020), have been published in Greek. He is a member of the Athens Science Fiction Club and he co-ordinates its writing workshops.

Philosophy note:

The short story “The Eye” is inspired by the well-known philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This question raises issues about the meaning of observation and perception. For example, we can wonder whether something exists without being perceived by a consciousness. This is connected with the anthropic principle which suggests that the observer may have an impact on the reality that is observed. In physics, the disturbance of a system by the act of observation is called the “observer effect”. You can learn more about these philosophical issues in:
John Campbell (2014). Berkeley’s Puzzle: What Does Experience Teach Us?. Oxford University Press.
Jostein Gaarder(2007), Sophie’s World, Farrar Straus & Giroux.
And if you want to learn about the quantum physics of observation you can read:
Chad Orzel (2010), How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, Simon Spotlight Entertainment.

End Of Year Missive: Sundered Keep, A.F. 5962

by Matthew Ross

To the Men and Women of the Onyx Legion,

When the daylight hours dwindle and the nights grow ever longer, it can only mean two things: the Winter Solstice draws near…heralding the arrival of the Onyx Legion’s annual end-of-year missive from our beloved warlord! The High General bids you all her greetings and commands me to convey her warmest wishes to you this Solstice season. It has been nigh on six millennia since the infernal hordes last dared to cross the Adamantine Pass and terrorize the realms of men – six millennia of uninterrupted peace and prosperity that the Seven Lands owe to the steadfast watchfulness of the Onyx Legion. And though many believe that the great Fergus the Red (hallowed be his name) wiped their loathsome race from the face of the earth so many years ago, we cannot rely on faith alone to shield us should they ever return once more. The ongoing existence of the Seven Lands depends upon the unceasing vigilance of the men and women of the Onyx Legion. Whether your enlistment into the Legion came voluntarily or otherwise, that is something that should make us all square our shoulders in pride.

Though it is nearly time to bid farewell to A.F. 5,962 and toll the welcome bells for A.F. 5,963, at the High General’s behest, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on all that we have accomplished this past year. A.F. 5,962 will surely be entered into the logbooks as a banner year for the Sundered Keep. In addition to keeping the infernal horde (should they still exist) from sweeping down through the Adamantine Pass to menace our loved ones once again, we also fought – and won – a good twenty-six skirmishes with local tribesmen treacherously seeking to steal back the land rightfully commandeered by the Legion during the reign of Niall the Peacemaker (hallowed be his name). That’s nearly ten more victories than last year – way to show those filthy goatkissers what’s what! In addition, though the Keep continues to lose more hands to self-slaughter than the High General would prefer, our overall casualty numbers actually dipped a bit from A.F. 5,961, with accidental maimings suffered in the line of duty hitting a new ten-year low. Let’s all be sure to show our gratitude to Morale Centurion Mordha by giving him an extra-big round of applause at next week’s series of mandatory safety lectures!

Having now conveyed her Solstice greetings, the High General has directed me to issue a brief series of announcements and reminders for all Legion personnel, which I shall append below.

-Following the results of last week’s surprise barracks inspection, all personnel are to be reminded that Legionnaires are forbidden from keeping animals in their living quarters. Anyone caught harboring mice, rats, squirrels, hedgehogs, woodchucks, voles, moles, lizards, toads, newts, or birds of any kind – whether as pets or unauthorized livestock – will be assigned to Punishment Detail and the offending creature (or creatures) destroyed forthwith. In addition, Morale Centurion Mordha has directed me to add that the Legion’s rations have been carefully portioned to provide a Legionnaire with all the nutritional sustenance that they require and assures me that there is no valid physiological reason why a Legionnaire need supplement them further.

-All personnel are also to be reminded that while they are free to visit the Legion’s Taproom during their off-duty hours, the consumption of intoxicating spirits while on duty is a serious offense that will result in an extended assignment to Punishment Detail. Legionnaires are also advised to remember that both the possession and consumption of unauthorized intoxicants is strictly prohibited.

Morale Centurion Mordha wishes to add that these prohibitions are there to safeguard your health and wellbeing, as unauthorized intoxicants have been placed off limits for good reason. Legion studies have shown that the fermented berry spirits commonly known as ‘swipe’ have been known to cause blindness in up to one third of Medical Corps test subjects drawn from Punishment Details.

-Morale Centurion Mordha would also like to remind all personnel that the hallucinogenic mushrooms which grow in the caves west of the Sundered Keep are still officially classified as an ‘intoxicating spirit’ and remain off limits to all Keep personnel. All Legionnaires are to be advised that a new guard rotation has been posted to the entrance of these caves since the previous guards were found to have been trading in said mushrooms and permanently reassigned to Punishment Detail.

-Lastly, all personnel are to be reminded that enlistment in the Legion, both voluntary and compulsory, lasts for the duration of a Legionnaire’s natural lifetime. While Legionnaires who sustain disabling injuries honorably in the course of their duties will be reassigned appropriately, any Legionnaires who suffer disabling injuries that are later deemed to have been self-inflicted will NOT be discharged, but instead assigned to a suitable Punishment Detail. THIS INCLUDES ANY LEGIONNAIRES FOUND TO HAVE SUFFERED DEBILITATING INJURIES RESULTING FROM THE CONSUMPTION OF UNAUTHORIZED SPIRITS! Legionnaires would do well to remember that blindness would be no serious impediment should they be assigned Punishment Detail to the Brothel, Medical Testing corps, or Sewer Maintenance division, and to conduct themselves accordingly both on and off duty.

Turning now to cheerier subjects, the High General and Morale Centurion Mordha have some very exciting news and announcements to share, which they have directed me to disseminate as follows:

The High General wishes to announce that due to the ongoing financial crisis, his radiant majesty Duncan the Festive (hallowed be his name) has tabled the hoped-for increase to the Legion’s monthly wages for at least another year. The High General is proud to add that it was only thanks to her personal petition that she was able to convince his radiant majesty not to decrease the Legion’s monthly wages, and that we should all celebrate that generous concession as the great victory that it is.

The High General is very excited to announce an exhilarating new initiative aimed at improving the Winter Solstice experience for everyone here at the Sundered Keep. As we all know, Solstice season is a time of celebration, but also a time when many Legionnaires may find themselves missing their friends and family back home. Thus, Solstice season does tend to be one of the busiest times of year for the Keep’s Brothel.

In order to keep wait times to a minimum and show a little consideration for our brother and sister Legionnaires on temporary or long-term assignment to the Brothel (it is Solstice season for them too, after all!) the High General is pleased to unveil her new A-B-C campaign. Morale Centurion Mordha is already organizing an invigorating series of mandatory informational lectures for us to enjoy in the coming weeks, but in brief, this electrifying initiative is as simple as A-B-C:

A: Appointment – plan out your Brothel visits in advance by making an appointment with our Brothel’s new Scheduling Department! Just stop by the front desk and ask to speak with Morale Optio Bradaigh for more details.

B: Be Open to Alternative Scheduling – Brothel lines tend to be the longest in the evenings and during the 48 hours that follow each Pay Day. So, the High General will soon be announcing an exciting new Incentives Program to encourage Legionnaires to space out their Brothel visits and/or visit the Brothel during off-peak hours. Come by to pick up your complimentary Incentives Program punch-card from Morale Optio Bradaigh any time after First Moon and start working towards your first upgrade!

C: Consider Alternate Forms of Gratification – the Legion is well aware of the existing gender gap between male and female personnel stationed at the Sundered Keep, as well as the various ways in which that gap contributes to the necessary function that our Brothel plays. In an effort to address that disparity, new Legion directives are now encouraging all troops to be open-minded towards other forms of physical gratification that they may not have sampled previously. Men, if you’ve never experienced it before, have you ever considered consensual buggery? If your answer is ‘No,’ what’s stopping you from trying it out now? How do you know you wouldn’t enjoy it – or perhaps, even prefer it to whatever forms of gratification you currently favor? Why not grab a like-minded bunkmate and give it a go – you might both soon find yourselves saving a fortune in monthly Brothel fees!

And as for you female Legionnaires out there, don’t think we’ve forgotten about you either. If you’ve always preferred the company of your own fairer sex, why not try a roll in the hay with one of your brother Legionnaires – after all, you have nothing to lose, and a whole new world of gratification to potentially gain! And for those female Legionnaires who already take pleasure in rutting freely with their male comrades, have you ever considered seeking to turn your part-time hobby into a full-time profession? The High General has been authorized to offer some very attractive benefits packages to female Legionnaires willing to volunteer for Brothel duty. Not happy with your current duty station? A more rewarding one may only be a short conversation with Morale Optio Bradaigh away!

While the High General is confident that our Keep’s new A-B-C campaign will ensure that all personnel are able to satisfy their physical desires in an orderly and enjoyable fashion, Morale Centurion Mordha bids me remind all Legionnaires that freelance harlotry within the barracks remains strictly prohibited. While Legionnaires are free to pursue consensual physical relationships with personnel of an equal or equivalent rank, it is forbidden for Legionnaires to accept any form of compensation for the physical acts of gratification they may choose to engage in. Legionnaires of any gender who are found guilty of exchanging their favors for coin or barter will be immediately reassigned to Punishment Detail in the Brothel.

Lastly, the High General is pleased to announce that due to the recent civil unrest in the capital, enlistments into the Onyx Legion have just reached their highest point since the food riots of A.F. 5,959. With the courts returning to session shortly after the new year, we can expect to start receiving our first shipments of new recruits by the beginning of Second Moon. The High General encourages you to greet our new brothers and sisters in the same spirit with which we were all initiated into the Legion and to begin accustoming them to our ways as soon as they arrive. Remember, the Legion is only as strong as its weakest link – and the High General is sure you will all go to whatever lengths are required to properly motivate our new fellows and swiftly bring them up to Legion standards of discipline and deportment.

In closing, the High General wishes to commend you all on another year of honorable service to the Onyx Legion. There may not be a feather-bed, a silken handkerchief, or a brandied sweetmeat to be found outside the officer’s quarters, yet the Sundered Keep remains stocked to the brim with far greater rewards – like the satisfaction taken in an honest day’s toil, or the fellowship born of dangers braved with steadfast comrades. And above all else, there is the greatest reward of all – the pride one takes in knowing that a Legionnaire’s life is a worthy one, for the hardships it entails and the sacrifices it demands play a vital role in the protection of the Seven Lands. We are the thin black line which safeguards our countrymen from the hellish terrors of the infernal hordes, should they have the temerity to ever show their grotesque faces above ground once more – and the High General knows that there’s not a man-jack among us who would trade a day in the Legion for all the feather-beds in the world.

All Glory To The Onyx Legion!

–Scribed by Ossian, Scrivener 2nd Class, as directed by High General Kenna

~

Bio:

Matthew Ross is a writer, editor, and English professor living in Los Angeles, CA. His fiction has previously appeared in Teleport Magazine and The Chamber and will be forthcoming in Literally Stories. Find him online @matthewrossphd.

Philosophy Note:

As an English professor teaching at a struggling community college, I’ve come to dread the yearly end-of-year emails that seek to put a positive spin on the latest round of hardships that my colleagues and I can expect to face in the upcoming year. This story was inspired by the brief “What If” response I had last December that went, “I wonder what those end-of-year messages would look like in one of those dreadfully barbaric military organizations you always see in fantasy books…” This story is the result. Readers interested in exploring other literary excursions into the realm of workplace dystopias may enjoy Severance by Ling Ma, or Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

A Unified Explanation For Elven Urbanization And Associated Morphological Changes

by Gabriella Buba

Dr. Sharn Ghorzna and Dr. Traugh Duluk’s research team of the Golgoth Institute

Abstract        

It is widely accepted that Domestication Syndrome in mammals, a series of morphological changes including: depigmentation, shorter jaws, smaller teeth, reduction in ear size, and increased docility occurs when wild species are selected for tamer offspring. The explanation for this wide range of morphological changes is tied to reduced adrenaline production, wherein the diminished fight-or-flight response results in increased docility and adaptability to communal habitation. This decrease in adrenaline production has been linked to undersized adrenal glands, a fairly common mutation that arises due to spontaneous embryonic mutations resulting in reduced size and numbers of neural crest cells. Neural crest cells are a band of embryonic cells that play a large part in the development of pigment, cartilage formation, jaw length, tooth size and quantity, as well as the size of the adrenal gland (Wilkins, 2014).

After extensive studies of Urban, Village, Small Band, and Solitary Elves, our research team concludes that the Urbanization of the Elf and the morphological changes seen therein can be explained by a similar evolutionary mechanism. In this paper we will explore the connection between increased ability for social cooperation in a species naturally given to a Solitary lifestyle and reduced adrenaline production caused by a smaller neural crest.

The Solitary Elf vs the Urban Elf

It has been argued by our esteemed colleagues at Alberich University Subterra that the Solitary and Urban Elves are completely different species that have not shared a common ancestor any more recently than we at Golgoth have shared one with pigs (Klien, 1530). We argue that our respected, though vertically-challenged colleagues’ findings are not supported by the breadth of observational data, due to their reluctance to spend time above ground. Anyone having devoted a modicum of time to studying Elven culture and communities can see the clear evolution of the Elven species from Solitary to communal living habits. Indeed, in a mere ten generations our researchers have observed how a single family line of Solitary Elves can become urban-dwelling Elves, taking on the morphological appearance of Urban Elves that have been living in their cooperative social environment for fifty generations or more.

Our team has been tracking the migration of Solitary Elves into urban communities for over 200 years and is prepared to conclusively denounce previous theories of separate-ancestor origin. We will demonstrate the trait-by-trait morphological shift marking the need for increased social cooperation in Elven societies enabling them to engage in trade and treaties with the kingdoms of other sentient species on more equitable footing.

Decreased Adrenaline Production: The Initiating Step to Fostering Social Cooperation

Measurements of adrenal gland size and activity were conducted humanely on already-deceased specimens, by biopsy and scans in our catch-and-release program, or by paid volunteer sampling among our partner Elven communities. Our measurements show across Elven subspecies there is a correlated change in adrenal gland size and observational flight distance of Elven individuals when encountering unknown Elves in their territory. Observational flight distance, or the distance an unfamiliar Elf could approach before the subject fled or reacted aggressively, was measured by presenting the subject with an unfamiliar Elven individual from our partner program.

Figure 1: Graphic of adrenal gland size measurements correlated with flight distance as recorded by our team across different elven communities.

Solitary Elves spend the majority of their adult lives alone, only socializing during the large mate-finding gatherings that occur on every lunar eclipse. Through extensive sampling, our team found they have adrenal glands that are 3x larger than their Urban relatives at a median of 26.7± 0.9% g. On average, they react to the presence of an unknown sentient in their territory as soon as the individual is within 840m. It is notable that Solitary Elves were found to have a flight distance that was 31.4x greater than their Urban relatives. Our team did not show a clear correlation indicating why one individual might react with a dominance display vs. a flight response, though forthcoming research suggests the lunar eclipse dulls the fight or flight response. This may allow Solitary Elves to safely come together at these important times of their lives to mate and produce offspring, which are raised for 3 years by the female of the species completely alone and without the aid of the male.

Paired or Small-band Elves live in cooperative mate pairs, or bands of five to seven, usually family groups. In our observations, it is most often a pair of sisters who will conscript their mates to travel together accompanied by one unmated juvenile, usually related. These bands do not much differ in lifestyle from Solitary Elves except that their cooperation allows them to hold and defend larger territories and hunt larger prey. Paired and Small Band Elves have adrenal glands that have a mean combined weight of 17.9± 0.7% g, twice as large as their urban relatives. While they are known to react with aggression toward Elves who do not share the band’s particular blended family scent, they will allow such intruders to approach within 506m, making their flight distance only 19x greater than that of their urban relatives.

Village Elves live in cooperative communities of 20 to 50 individuals and in small, settled societies. Their adrenal glands at a mean weight of 12.7± 0.8% g, are only 1.5x larger than their Urban relatives. Although Village Elves still show significant distrust towards Elven individuals not from their village, their flight distance at 217m is only 8x larger than the Urban Elf. Given time to acclimate they have been known to conduct limited trade with outsiders of Elven, Orcish, and Dwarven persuasion.

Urban Elves maintain large settled colonies of up to several thousand individuals, and experience easy interspecies cooperation. They are seen to operate in work crews under Elven supervisors and accomplish engineering feats such the great tree city of Baden-Wurtt and the terraced farms of the Caprian Coast. They quickly acclimate to the arrival of new Elven individuals, absorbing them into the colony in a matter of days. Their adrenal glands are quite small, at an average combined mass of 8.6± 0.5% g. They have an average flight distance of 26.7m however several individuals were observed to express no discomfort or affront until unfamiliar Elves were within 3 meters. As such the Urban Elf comingles easily even in large groups of strange Elves. Dominance fights are rarely seen among working-class Urban Elves, reserving territorial displays for leadership positions or settling disputes with rival colonies. This increased affinity for social cooperation has greatly improved Elvish ability to operate in civilized society interacting on near equitable levels with Orcish and Dwarven communities. Despite much exaggerated accounts of Elves hunting fellow sentients during lean winters, the last verified account of such an incident is over 100 years old. Truly it is amazing to see how a naturally solitary and predatory species has been able to adapt themselves to a communal lifestyle when they do not naturally prefer it as do the Orcish Clans and Dwarven Houses.

Depigmentation: How Hair Tone and Pattern Changes Affect Elvish Hunting Strategies

Our colleagues at Alberich Subterra often use outdated phenotypical hair pigment differences between Solitary and Urban Elves to justify categorizing them as separate species (Schmitt, 1567). To that, we say it’s clear they haven’t spent appropriate time investigating the genetic reasons for coloring variations between Elven communities. Furthermore, dwarves, a naturally subterranean species, have reduced visual acuity at distance and a tendency towards colorblindness, which necessarily reduces the quality of their observational data, particularly in non-subterranean environs. My respected colleague Dr. Duluk’s paper on the development of dwarven songs and cave soundings explores this topic in depth (Duluk, 1790).

Extensive and exemplary research has been done by our fellow Golgoth Institute Researcher, Dr. Utumband, to show how the prevailing dark blue coloring of hair helps Solitary and Small Band Elves thrive in their densely forested environments, which are dominated by blue tip spruce and purple plum. Furthermore, their utilization of grease paints of ash and animal fats to camouflage their shape can further exaggerate the features of the colloquially called Forest Elf (Utumband, 1801). This use of paints in addition to their dark foliage-mimicking hair helps them to blend into the undergrowth, thereby allowing them to successfully stalk and take down prey many times larger than themselves, even when hunting alone.

As Elves begin to operate in village communities where communal hunting strategies and even early attempts at farming remove the need for stalking and hunting strategies, depigmentation and spotting becomes common. This mutation is caused by the shrinking neural crest cells, and generally, appears as stripes of blond around the face.

Finally, there is the Urban Elf, operating in a large colony, rarely hunting alone, with the bulk of their diet being grain-based supplemented with livestock and rarely wild game. Such individuals often show total loss of hair pigmentation. Our research has shown the prevalence of depigmentation is directly correlated to the reduced size of the neural crest.

Jaw and Teeth:  Reduction of Dentition and Resulting Dietary Alterations

The reduced neural crest also leads to significant reductions in jaw and tooth development across various Elf communities.

Figure 2: Elven Jaw and Dentition Pattern Diagrams (Campbell, 1982)

Although tooth number and pattern remains the same across Elf communities, the length of the jaw in Solitary Elves and the pronouncement of front incisors and canines cannot be denied. This arrangement of teeth and jaw allows them to hunt and consume prey, largely raw, using their teeth as their primary weapon and utensil.

Paired and Small Band Elves are often seen using crafted weapons such as spears, and employ community hunting strategies. This is an important adaptation given their shrinking jaws and canines, which are on average 1 cm reduced in size from their fully Solitary relatives. Some Small Band Elves have even been observed cooking their food.

Village Elves, while primarily carnivores, eat largely cooked diets, and hunt using bows and spears in advanced group strategies.

Urban Elves have been observed domesticating deer and elk to supplement their diet of grains and vegetables. This can be clearly seen in their dentition which is far more adapted to eating cooked meats and grains. Note also the reduced canines and shortened jaw more favorable to their omnivorous diet.

Reduced Cartilage Production: The Cause of the Altered Ear Form

The final and perhaps most readily visible difference between Elven subspecies to the outside observer are the changes in ear form. The reduced neural crest causes significantly reduced cartilage production. Without the high cartilage production, the traditional long-peaked Elven ear seen in Solitary Elves is not possible. In paired and Small Band Elves this is often observed in the folding or drooping of ear tips. Village Elves retain the readily recognized pointed ear but have even more reduced point length, by as much as 3 cm. Meanwhile the Urban Elf often has fully rounded ears (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Ear Forms in (a) Urban, (b) Village (c) Paired or Small Band, and (d) Solitary Elves

Conclusion

Based on our extensive genetic analysis and anthropological field studies, we, the researchers representing the Golgoth Institute of Orcish Sciences stand fully behind our hypothesis that the reduced size of the neural crest and its effects on adrenal production have resulted in the self-domestication of Elves as they have adapted from a solitary predator species into beings more given to social cooperation.

Works Cited:

Bernard G. Campbell (Editor). Humankind Emerging. 3rd ed., Little, Brown, 1982.

Klien, Orlan, et al. The Convergent Development of Living Wood Safe Glues of Elven Culture Across Unrelated Elven Species. Material Science (Subterra), vol 02, no 6, 1530.

Schmitt, Garlan. “Humans and Elves a Separate Species: As Shown by a Study of Their Divergent Architectural Development” Urbani Izziv, vol 14, no.20, 1567

Utumband, Duran., et al. “The Utility of the Native Hair Coloring of the Solitary Elf in Their Natural Environment” Anthropology (Golgoth), vol. 17, 1801

Wilkins, Adam S., et al. “The ‘Domestication Syndrome’ in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics.” Genetics, vol. 197, no. 3, 2014, pp. 795–808. Crossref, doi:10.1534/genetics.114.165423.

~

Bio:

Gabriella Buba is a chemical engineer who likes to keep explosive pyrophoric materials safely contained in pressure vessels or between the covers of her stories.

Philosophy Note:

A speculative take on comparative anthropology and genetics in the vein of Body Ritual Among the Nacirema by Horace Miller seeking to humorously subvert the traditional hierarchy of fantasy worlds.

Fresh Kill

by James C. Clar

“In those days, the world of mirrors and the world of men were not … separate and unconnected … one could pass back and forth …”

 Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

I own an antique shop on Nuuanu Avenue in the heart of Honolulu’s Chinatown. The area has seen numerous ups and downs. The latest “up” was a gentrification and transformation into a trendy, artsy neighborhood with boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Then came COVID which, frankly, hit the area hard. Numerous places went out of business, crime increased and the homeless populated the streets and alleys in record numbers. Even now, with the virus seemingly on the wane, things have not returned to pre-pandemic ‘normal’.

Through it all, I’ve managed to do well thanks to Internet sales and wealthy, mostly Asian customers who are more than willing to pay handsomely for that certain piece that completes their collection, or which adds a certain undefinable aesthetic or, in some cases, wabi, to their homes or offices. Things are even better now that customers – both local and those visiting from elsewhere – are shopping in person.  I pride myself on the quality and authenticity of my merchandise. Nothing in the store is cheap and everything I sell has an established history or provenance.

The incident I am about to relate is remarkable, singular even, on any number of levels. It involves a recent acquisition; a very old bronze Chinese mirror acquired from a College Hill estate sale in Manoa adjacent to the University of Hawaii campus. The College Hill area is rich in local history and boasts numerous homes on the Historic Hawaii Foundation Register.

The mirror has been in the shop now for a little over a year. It belonged to a local Chinese family and, according to their records, it was with them when they came to the islands in the 1890s. At that time, they started what would become a very lucrative jewelry and jade business. The piece is spectacular. It stands just under six feet tall in a simple metal frame that has long since acquired a green patina. The front of the mirror itself is highly polished and reflective. There is an emblem of the Zodiac cast on the back. When light hits the front, the obverse design is reflected on the rear wall and the mirror becomes virtually transparent. The effect is nothing short of magical.

The manufacture of such mirrors can be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty and is mentioned in at least two texts from the later Tang, the Record of Ancient Mirrors and the Dream Pool Essays of Shen Kuo. While not nearly that old, the mirror in my possession is most probably a reproduction from the early 19th century Qing Dynasty, utilizing the traditional techniques.

Myths and legends about such mirrors abound. Ancient Chinese sages suggest that animals, whole worlds even, exist inside or, rather, on the reflective surface. One ascetic school of thought shunned mirrors entirely based on the belief that whatever images were reflected by them became somehow stored or ‘trapped’ within. I lend no credence to such fantasy but, still, I must admit that I have become loath to sell the mirror that now sits in the front hall of my shop, to the left of the front door. Truth is, I am fascinated by the object, transfixed. I spend many late afternoons sitting in a chair watching the light from the setting sun play across the surface of the bronze. More than once I’d swear that I’ve seen figures moving in its smoky, translucent depths.

Strange as it may seem, I am not alone in my obsession. About a month ago, a well-dressed man in his early 60’s came into the shop to inquire about the mirror. Based on his astute questions, I assumed him to be a collector or, at least, an aficionado. He was remarkably reticent to divulge any details about himself or his background. I was surprised that, to best of my recollection, I had never encountered him before. Honolulu is in many ways, a small-town masquerading as a big, cosmopolitan city. Everyone knows everyone and the antiquities community is even ‘smaller’ in that regard. I told the gentleman that the mirror was not for sale. He pestered me to an unseemly degree and simply would not take ‘no’ for an answer. At one point I thought I would have to have him forcibly removed from the store! He’s been back at least twice since that first visit, each time with the same result.

Things came to a head just two days ago. I heard the small bell attached to the front door tinkle signaling that someone had entered the shop. I looked up from my desk to see the older man back, staring fixedly at the mirror. We went through our, by now, usual routine. It was obvious, however, that this time he was not going to leave. I reached over and touched him on the shoulder so as to usher him out the door. With that, he pushed me. I slipped and hit my head as I fell backward onto the floor.

What happened next is, admittedly, a bit fuzzy. I was stunned by the impact. It seemed to me that as the mysterious stranger turned quickly away from me, his momentum caused him to lose his footing as well. He reached out his hand to steady himself against the mirror. I heard, or thought I heard, the sound of a drain emptying. After that, he was gone. I may be mistaken, but I simply don’t recall hearing the bell on the door indicating his departure.

Since then, I’ve been tempted to inform the police about what had happened. I’m doubtful that I will bother. Something tells me that I will no longer be troubled by that strange gentleman. You see, when I picked myself up from the floor after my fall that day, I went immediately to the mirror to inspect it for damage. It was unharmed but, this time, and even given the fact that I had just hit my head, I am quite certain of what I saw. Gazing into its sooty depths I spotted a tiger. The animal was burnt orange with fuliginous stripes tracing their way around its powerful body. The big cat seemed to be feeding, its muzzle stained red as it ripped and tore its way through its prey. Whatever it had caught, it was clearly a fresh kill.

~

Bio:

James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between the mean streets of Honolulu and the wilds of Upstate New York.

Philosophy Note:

The inspiration for this story rests on my obsessive re-reading of Borges and my lifelong fascination with mirrors. Mirrors are remarkable on any number of levels. Consider… Two mirrors facing one another reflect an infinite number of images. An ancient analogy for the multiverse perhaps? It is also worth noting that the functioning of many modern telescopes, not to mention the DSLR digital camera relies, in part, on the properties of mirrors. What if mirrors somehow retained or ‘captured’ the images they reflected? That idea, the premise of my story, is not too far from the notion of a computer hard drive… From the standpoint of psychology, mirrors are, to a certain degree, instruments of vanity. Consider a world devoid of reflective surfaces or, at least, those surfaces designed expressly to show one images of oneself. What would happen to marketing, advertising, and the beauty industry? To what degree would such a lack impact the acquisition and content of self-esteem, for example? I could continue but I’d rather have you enjoy my story.

Where The Monster Lurks

by Malik Mufti

The Vizier sat in the front row of worshippers, along with the other dignitaries, as the High Hierophant droned toward the end of his sermon on fidelity: fidelity to the Twin Goddesses who poured their beneficence down to all in equal measure, to their representative the Emperor, to the officials high and low who enforce his laws, to the collective good of his subjects.

Eyes half closed, the Vizier had tuned out most of the service, stroking groomed whiskers as his mind flitted from one vexation to another. First, that cur Suf-An four seats to the right with his endless scheming at the imperial court. Then, the ongoing decline in revenues despite his latest tax levies, and the mediocre performance of the expeditionary force he had sent to crush the fanatics in the outlands. Finally, above all, his private passion, the manuscript that had stymied him for so long – his exposition on the conundrum of the One and the Many propounded by the ancient philosopher Hak-El. Now, however, alerted belatedly by a familiar and hitherto reliable instinct, the Vizier’s attention dove back down into the temple. 

The High Hierophant, who was no fool, had been treading a fine line between acknowledging the congregation’s concerns – about official corruption for example – and affirming the Emperor’s Goddesses-given mandate to rule. But there was no mistaking the increasingly desultory, even resentful, tone of the responses to his benedictions from the rabble crowded row upon row to the Vizier’s rear. Was it the crushing taxes? The arbitrary conscription? He turned to the aide behind him.

No, they were complaining about the government’s failure to do something about a supposed monster that had been terrorizing the capital in recent days. It was said to emerge from the great river Idigna which divided the city in two, seizing solitary pedestrians who were never heard from again. The Vizier recognized the panic that slithered and surged like a sinister current through the assembled mass. This was not good.

#

Deaf to the urban clamor around him, blind to the captivating reflections of the two holy moons in the Idigna’s waters, the Vizier contemplated the urgency of his situation as he walked across the Bridge of Triumphs, the most magnificent of the river’s many crossings, and made his way up to the affluent part of town where he lived. It was his habit to dispense with carriage and attendants when needing to plot his major moves.

Just days after the disquieting temple service, he had been summoned to an imperial audience. Entering the Grand Hall, he had noted at once the uncharacteristic absence of music and raucous laughter, and how the young Emperor’s boon companions – Suf-An of course at their head – mimicked his grim visage. The Vizier had come prepared to account for the recent financial and military setbacks, but instead the Emperor demanded to know why nothing had been done to allay the populace’s panic about the river monster. He had ten days to deal with it.

The Vizier had been unable to resist glancing at Suf-An. There it was: the hint of a smile, the embryo of a sneer. But also something else, softer and more elusive, as if Suf-An saw a secret he himself could not. He had forced himself to focus on the trap that now lay before him. His failure to capture the nonexistent monster would provide the pretext for his ouster. He would be accused of negligence and corruption, put to torture until he revealed the various hiding places of the fortune he had accumulated, and then cast out as a scapegoat for the envy and rage of the mob.

But now, scaling the Idigna’s eastern embankment under the crepuscular moonslight, the repellent sights, sounds, and smells of the capital’s teeming western half receding behind him, the Vizier was no longer concerned. That very morning he had received the latest dispatch from the governor of Kharba, the southern port where the Idigna flowed into the great sea. Kharba had been the pinnacle of the technological efflorescence overseen by the previous emperor – a fully submersible city built right on the shoreline in defiance of the land-swallowing tides generated by the twin moons. Most of the dispatch was routine – riots suppressed, imposts levied – but, in an attempt to inject a diverting note, the governor also recounted how after a particularly massive ebb tide, the remains of a large sea creature had been found on the beach. It appeared to be a giant specimen of the sort of squid fishermen occasionally capture in their nets, but putrefaction and bloating had rendered it unrecognizable. The Vizier wrote back at once, ordering the carcass to be shipped up the Idigna in strict secrecy.

On, then, to the reason he had chosen to walk alone. He had made a breakthrough in understanding how Hak-El resolved the dilemma of participation, which lay at the core of his theory of being: how the world’s diverse multiplicity could nevertheless be generated by one eternally unchanging, entirely separate truth. It was right there, more or less, in his second and fifth hypotheses. Positing a relationship between the One and the Many, which allowed participation to take place without compromising the integrity of the former hinged on the realization that Hak-El’s definition of the One was equivocal. This insight would be his claim to true greatness as a philosopher. This would show his mentor, who back at the academy had tried to steer him toward more mundane problems better suited, she apparently thought, to his limited abilities.

The Vizier reached his mansion and hurried up the stairs past the laughter emanating from the family quarters. He would wash up and change into finer garments before heading for his private study on the top floor, eager to begin outlining the final revisions to his manuscript.

#

It was some days past the Emperor’s deadline when the Vizier headed for the temple downtown, once again forgoing his carriage despite the now full-dark. He had dealt with his various distractions. The Kharba squid’s disfigured cadaver had been paraded through streets to popular acclaim, pacifying the rabble, solidifying his position at court, and redirecting the Emperor’s expropriatory attention to his rival. Once the imperial torturers were done with him, Suf-An would be released, stripped of his fortune and – lest he be tempted to join the growing rebel ranks – of his eyes as well.

As he crossed the Bridge of Triumphs onto the pathway which hugged the western bank of the river for a while before veering into city center, therefore, the Vizier concentrated on his real problem: his resolution of the Hak-El dilemma had proven illusory. There was no getting around it – the missing term of the decisive syllogism in the fifth hypothesis was untenable. How had he overlooked that? Could it really be that Hak-El’s entire treatise on the One and the Many was an obscure and elaborate joke? What did it mean?

Just then, however, the ripples and splashes behind him that had for some seconds registered only on his subconscious reached a volume that brought him crashing down to earth. He spun around, eyes wide open. There was nothing there. It must have been a fish leaping for some prey. Smiling at his own folly, the Vizier resumed his descent into the seething heart of the city.

~

Bio:

Malik Mufti is a professor of political science at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His writings focus on Near Eastern politics and political philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This story is inspired by an anecdote the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun recounts in his Kitab al-Ibar about an ostensible river monster that terrorized the people of Baghdad one year. It provides the framework for an exploration of the ancient philosophical question of unity and multiplicity, and of the vital importance of participation between the one and the many.

Nice Guys Finish

by Gary K. Shepherd

I was just trying to be nice. When I rubbed the lamp I found down by the river, a genie appeared and said he’d grant three wishes. Right away I dismissed anything about money or power. I wanted a wish that would help all of humanity. But I knew I had to be careful. Every story I had ever read about genie’s wishes warned that they had a way of turning on you.

So I sat down on the bank and thought about it. Finally I said, “How about world peace?”

“Done,” said the Genie. Everything became very quiet.

“What did you do?”

“I made a peaceful world for you. All I had to do was eliminate all the other people.”

“Cancel that wish!” I cried.

“Done,” said the Genie. “One wish left.”

I had wasted two wishes! I had better make my third one count. I sat and thought and thought about it all afternoon, and I got sweaty and sunburnt. Frustrated, I complained, “I wish the sun wasn’t so hot.”

“Done,” said the Genie.

Fearfully, I looked at the sun, but it hadn’t changed.

“You have to wait eight and half minutes,” explained the Genie. Then he disappeared.

~

Bio:

Gary K. Shepherd’s work has previously appeared in such publications as Neo-Opsis Science Fiction, Buzzymag.com, Ciirsova Heroic Fantasy, Another Realm, Schrodinger’s Mouse, and Mystery Time. In addition, my short story, “Night of the Vampire” won first place in the SF division of the Writer’s Digest annual genre fiction contest. (Despite its title, it was a hard science fiction story).

Breaking Dawn

by Brett Abrahamsen

It was the year A.D. 2020, and history had gone more or less exactly the same. Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, Pound, Proust, Flaubert and a handful of others – and this was the point of difference – had all died in infancy. In this alternate history, then, Hamlet simply did not exist, as Shakespeare and the
handful of others listed above had all died before the age of 2.

Meyer’s great Twilight series then was considered in popular estimation to be the most significant work of literature since the Bible. Meyer Academies taught classes of Meyerology. “Meyer-ian” themes were the law of the land. The world clearly had a dearth of great literature – and no one even knew it.

It might be objected, and should be noted here, that if Proust hadn’t written Swann’s Way that perhaps someone else would have someday written it, or something similar to it, but this was not the case. Whenever anyone tried to write something meaningful, for example “To be or not to be?”, the paper
would inevitably shrivel up and its creator would fall as if knocked over by a strong gust of wind. The god of this alternate history, clearly, was no fan of great literature.

One day while reading Twilight, for example, a reader prayed to Meyer that he might write something greater, and this reader met the same unfortunate end. Following the incident, Meyerologists debated whether anything could hypothetically be written that was greater than Meyer, and the answer was uniformly this: “No”.

There remained the odd discussion about how to write something superior. Some people even dreamed greater scenes in their heads – but these were doomed from ever seeing paper. “I see great lines in my head – of war and love and death”, said a reader. “They cannot be greater than Meyer”, replied his friend, “or Meyer would have written them already”. It should be noted that this peculiar attitude toward literature extended to cinema as well. The Twilight movies were considered the best in the world.

“Great literature is an enigma – the coldly calculated riddles of masterful sentence structure surely are not conductive with the wild flow of creativity”, one would say to the other. “Masterful sentence structure and wild flow of creativity are both realized in Meyer, and they shall always be synonymous with Meyer”, the other would retort.

The two continued to converse – speaking aloud the plots of untold great novels never written, filling their heads with dreams of love and death and war. They covered more ground in an hour than had any novelist since Meyer, but since nothing remained written one said to the other, “Alas – we are no better from where we started”. The two ceased talking and, as if in stupors, began to turn certain ideas around in their heads. One melted his mind trying to find his answer during Twilight reads, which culminated
with his fatal prayer to Meyer. The other, however, left his company and retreated into another room. He began to speak softly, as if to no one. He was speaking to someone he believed was really out there: his Reader.

He said: “And surely, what you have just read – that brief work which you have just read and are now finishing, some of which you have heard spoken aloud by me, Dear Reader – does this not count as great literature?”

~

Bio:

Brett Abrahamsen resides in Saratoga Springs, NY, and has written a number of speculative science fiction stories. His favorite themes include the nature of reality, evolution, and alternate histories. He prefers the flash fiction medium, at under 2000 words.