I’d been in bad spots before, so this was nothing new. You could argue that I’d put myself in this situation, but to that I say I have plenty of experience there as well. No, this one I put the blame on me and me alone. Well, the city-dwellers might put some blame on Standard Mana, and normally I’d disagree with them, bunch of anarchists that don’t believe you should have to work for a coin. In this case they may have a bit of a point. The company did build this encampment in the frigid north, too far from civilization for us to escape without their leave, but they give us more food and medicine than we rightfully deserve. I mean, what do we do all day? Drill mana out of the ground? Hardly a job worth much more than bare necessities. It’d be nice if they supplied us with blankets, though… or fresh vegetables, fruit… but no. Luxuries should be paid for with money you earn, not begged off those who had the tenacity to earn their way themselves. Bunch of city-dwelling anarchists putting socialist fantasies in my head just when I get a little hungry and cold. Long live Standard Mana, that’s what I say. My choices are my own, and I’m thankful they’d offer someone like me a job in the first place.
~The final page of the journal of a Standard Mana contractor at the Primeria Bay Company Town, written the day before the plant’s demise.
“A bit of him will remain within us always.”
I didn’t expect to be greeted with such dead stares at the remark. The man was a corpse, after all. Don’t be offended on his behalf. For context, the ash lining the cabinets, the walls, the desk, the very ash that I’d held in my hand and blown into the air, the ash we breathed and coughed before finding the shadow, well… that ash was the corpse.
“That’s cold, Inspector.”
“It is cold, but that’s got nothing to do with him.”
We were at the Standard Mana Company Town located on the northernmost curve of Primeria Bay, that body of water which prevents idle Saloondrians from walking into the clutches of our neutral neighbor, the island nation of Primeria. Though, to correct myself, at this time of year it may well be possible to cross the water in certain areas because of the ice.
The corpse, as I’ve called it, was little more than a shadow painted on the wall behind the desk. The foreman had been blasted with such an extreme spell that his skin, flesh, all but blackened bones had been vaporized and now caked the walls in eerie gray. I lifted one of the charred fingers and it came off in my hand, not so much snapped as melted off of the hand and wrist it had formerly belonged. I squeezed it and the finger shed like charcoal, which it well might have been closer to than bone.
“This Connor’s doing?” one of the deputies asked.
“No,” I asserted. “Not unless he got a very serious upgrade.”
Connor was the one we’d been tracking. A renegade, fueled by revenge. We hadn’t known why this Standard Mana outpost was his next destination, but history had told us it couldn’t be anything good. One of these days we would bring him to justice. But now, witnessing this… perhaps his intentions here were not so far aligned with ours after all. Connor Copperhead was an angry, vengeful spirit, but so far as I have been able to tell, not evil. This prey he tracks may well be of greater interest to us.
“And quite the upgrade it would be,” a gruff voice echoed from the hallway behind us.
Amidst the Chaos by Licheng Mai
On the day the temple rises from the earth, let the Key guide you into the catacombs.
The light was climbing over the hills of Trickdraw Junction, trickling down into the town as a middle-aged wizard stood in the street outside his potion shop and sipped his morning tea. Felix loved to start the day with tea, starting the day with tea meant he was not starting it with famine, murder, earthquakes, or demons. Such was the life of Felix R. Brewell the Prophetic, who would rather have been anything but Prophetic, but did as the universe commanded of him.
The townsfolk were beginning to stir. The shops around him were opening up, one by one. Earlier risers getting a head start on their daily errands. Felix was content to watch them, and to sip his tea. He turned to the east, enjoying the dark mountain landscape before the sunlight would inevitably scorch the cool earth to render it hot and miserable. Something glinted, flashing brightly far away. Felix instinctively raised a hand to his eye. When he lowered it, the mountain had transformed. Two glowing eyes had taken the place of the flash, glowing like embers.
Before Felix could register what had happened, his store exploded behind him. Physically, catastrophically, the west side of his entire building ceased to exist in a magnificent puff of purple smoke engulfing the alleyway.
“For the sake of the Plague,” he exclaimed, spinning to witness the destruction, his tea spilling out of his tiny mug onto the dusty road beneath his feet.
Thieves Guild by Licheng Mai
The dusk of an empire is a fawn on the edge of a wood, listening, silently watching, hoping, but not committing. The hunters have left, the meadow is clear. The trampled branches, the desecrated groves and the loved ones that you will never see again, the signs of these struggles are all that remain. You want to emerge, to go back to what it once was. To recreate what those you’ve lost would have wanted. And yet… The air is thick and the fog is unceasing. Perhaps the hunters have not left these woods, or worse, perhaps they have, and yet still you are hunted. Other evils, confined to the deeper brushes and the higher branches, will return to fill the predatory void. The forest can never go back, but you fear that thing which you cannot utter. Perhaps it was better that way, when you were hunted by the men with the guns pointed at you. The evils you understood.
And this here’s one of them! Beautifully mounted in a necromantic staff. Look at the craftsmanship. Once owned by a powerful necromancer before he himself was consumed by the curse of the staff. Legend says one of his apprentices reanimated him after he died, using this very staff, but the bones no longer understood themselves to be bones, in a manner no zombified corpse had ever acted before, not even able to hold themselves together long enough to classify as an animated skeleton. Now personally? I just think the apprentice was a quack. Got along great while the master was alive, maybe, but a worthless sorcerer upon his passing. I mean, even I can cast a decent reanimation spell. Sure, I’m using modern mana techniques, but it’s hardly difficult. I digress. Apologies.
The Mysterious Beast of the Plagued Lands by Michael Kuroda
We had been the ones who stalked. The ones feared by the bandits of the wastes. When our green sails peaked over the horizon, they knew to scatter. Because the fleet of Admiral Vanessa Dredge was not plundered. Was not pillaged. Was not stalked. Admiral Dredge was the one who stalked. No one dared to enter our airspace. Any campfires were long burnt out before our arrival. Those that were not, well…
We have a reputation for violence. This, I do not believe is entirely fair. The Admiral, she has a way of doing things, sure, but violence is never necessary. Violence is a path chosen by those foolish enough to disobey. In these cases, rarer than they were at first, mind you, yes, it becomes bloody, for the short time that it lasts. Admiral Dredge’s justice is swift, and she takes no pleasure in your eradication.
Saloondrian Short Stories, by Blake Propach
The Final Decree by Michael Kuroda
The common salmon continues to swim long after it is dead. The body, so absorbed with its simple task of traveling up the river, works toward this task fruitlessly, and the brain simply cannot keep up. The oldest salmon, the big ones that make it up the rapids past the bears and the raccoons to reach the tranquil ponds high up in the mountains, beyond the reach of civilization… it is said that these salmon continue to swim even there, their decaying faces pressed up against the cold stone of the mountain, swimming, swimming, pressing their snouts into the rock as their tails swish back and forth. Back and forth. Until their long dead bodies finally run out of energy and sink to the bottom where they are consumed by their own offspring, who will one day make the journey downriver to the sea, before climbing back up again to meet the same fate as their parents.
A flag flies proudly above the walls of Hatbrim, a massive flag whose blue and orange and pink can be seen a dozen miles off, flapping violently but crisply in the ocean breeze. The common river salmon on a background of ocean blue. An appropriate mascot for the corpse of an empire, whose own actions led to its catastrophic decline, as it continues to swim, a dead and rotting brain carried along by the unthinking body to no destination at all. The old Saloondrian Empire, once controlling swathes of land from the tip of the hat to the barrel of the gun, as far as an eagle could see across all the forests and the wastes of Saloondria, reduced to a barnacle clinging to a rock on a monster-infested lake of its own creation.
Hatbrim Council Meeting by Licheng Mai
So begins the partial transcription of the two thousand, four hundred, seventy-seventh congress of the Principality of Saloondria held in the council chambers of Hatbrim. Transcribed by Sir Michael of Kurodia.
Unnamed Curse by Licheng Mai
I write this now in the case I do not return. The spell was far more powerful than I expected. The warnings are not enough, could never be enough to prevent the foolhardy from traveling here. If you are reading this now, know that it may already be too late, that you must retrace your steps immediately, exit this library, and never return. I have cast a strong spell of my own to ward off the greater effects of this cursed air in the surrounding area, but I assume it will not last until you find this book. I implore you. Turn back while there is a chance you still can.
Boon in the Plague Lands by Michael Kuroda
They fell out of the sky to an empty desert. No spectators watched their desires go up in flames. No crowds witnessed their wealth and pride vaporize upon the ground. Whatever dispute had led to their entanglement up in the air meant nothing to them now.
Before us stood two massive airships, one with its bow smashed straight through the hull of the other. Notably, they were smashed and half buried in the cracked earth of the Plague Lands, not floating far above as they were designed to be. Their sails were deflated, devoid of the magic that propels them. The mana-infused planks that composed the ships were missing their signature blue glow, the spells inactive now that the engines were destroyed. Millions of coin worth of vessels reduced to scraps and waste, forgotten by their owners safe in distant lands.
Trickdraw Junction by Michael Kuroda
Barrelmouth City Resident
"I never meant to be one of the cityfolk, and to hear them speak about me, which I know they do, behind my back, day and night, nothing good, mind you. Always bad. They hate me here. I’m still a big deal, a huge thorn in their sides, certainly. I supply my wisdom, and at a good price, far too good for these people. But no, I’m not one of them. Never meant to be. I’m from Trickdraw Junction, or the surrounding parts. Born and raised in the desert sands. Takes a real stock to live through such a thing. Not for the faint of heart. I should be charging for this. Good wisdom, this.
Trickdraw Junction’s overrun, now, of course. Long as I’ve been alive, long as my Daddy’s Daddy been alive, Trickdraw Junction’s been a heap and a half of nothing. It was once a grand outpost, many years before the invasion, before the savages overran it. An outpost worthy of an empire, with a tower that touched the sky. From the top of that tower, you could see all the way to Barrelmouth. And back then, you’d better believe anyone that could see that tower in the distance knew full well they were being watched, and looked after, so long as they were good.
The savages never could have built such a tower, which is evidence to the fact that the gods themselves had a hand in its creation. Because before civilization, savages were all there were. And to our great misfortune, all that are left. Sure, they inhabit the Junction now, but it’s not their home, no more than this city is mine. We all belong elsewhere than where we are, unless of course we’re where we’re meant to be. It’s a right shame, the occupation, and if I had my way, we’d smoke them out.