Everywhere at this time of Earth’s dying exceptional circumstances are to be noted.
It was night in white-walled Kaiin, and festival time. Orange lanterns floated in the air, moving as the breeze took them. From the balconies dangled flower chains and cages of blue fireflies. The streets surged with the wine-flushed populace, costumed in a multitude of bizarre modes. Here was a Melantine bargeman, here a warrior of Valdaran’s Green Legion, here another of ancient times wearing one of the old helmets. In a little cleared space a garlanded courtesan of the Kauchique littoral danced the Dance of the Fourteen Silken Movements to the music of flutes. In the shadow of a balcony a girl barbarian of East Almery embraced a man blackened and in leather harness as a Deodand of the forest. They were gay, these people of waning Earth, feverishly merry, for infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go black.
All great deeds are accomplished; every atrocity has been committed. All knowledge has been learned: the useful bits kept, the dross discarded. Magic is a dangerous and frightening tool employed by some few men who have teased secrets out of the ancient books. Cities lie in ruined splendor with empty mansions so plentiful that even beggars can claim one… assuming some dread ghoul or half-man has not made its lair therein. Hamlets and townships exist in isolated security, each with its own mores and perspectives, as likely to be hostile to interlopers as welcoming. The trackless forests are haunted by monsters and ghosts; one cannot kick over a stone without uncovering an ancient ruin.
But not everyone is languid and serene! Rogues and swindlers seek to better their lots in life at the expense of their fellow men. Sorcerers hunt each other to steal magical knowledge. Grave-robbers skulk in the shadows of ancient burial mounds, hoping for profit. Bandits carve out a place for themselves in the wilds, living by their wits and their swords. Eccentric scholars and religious adherents contest with street performers and defrocked nobility for the patronage of the rich and powerful.
Two steps forward, thrust—thus! And souls go thrilling up like bubbles in a beaker of mead.
Even in these latter days many legends are told and retold; rumors surface, circulate, gain popularity, and sink into obscurity the way fashionable hats pass in and out of vogue. Some have bases in historical fact; others are the lucid fabrications of heartless charlatans looking to make a profit.
Among the tall tales currently promulgated along the river Scaum in Almery and Ascolais is the story of the Dice of Destiny. Some say they are the work of an arch-magician who sought to win an epic wager among his peers, then lost them in a card game because of an improperly phrased instruction to a whimsical sandestin. Yet another version tells the fable of a capricious god of the ancient Earth who, taking a dislike to certain wily reprobates, cursed all their gaming pieces: only one set is extant, passing from one owner to another by a variety of unusual and suspicious circumstances, until the curse is broken when it falls into the hands of its true master. Others propound another theory—they were carved and assembled from the finger bones of the world’s luckiest gambler who fell victim to a hysterical mob of his former marks after fleecing the better part of an entire nation in the north.
Lodermulch presently flung down the dice and seizing Cugel’s elbow shook it, to dislodge several additional dice from the cuff of his jacket. “Well then!” bawled Lodermulch, “what have we here? I thought to detect knavery, and here is justification! Return my money on the instant!”
“How can you say so?” demanded Cugel. “Where have you demonstrated chicanery? I carry dice—what of that? Am I required to throw my property into the Scamander, before engaging in a game? You demean my reputation!”
“I care nothing for this,” retorted Lodermulch. “I merely wish the return of my money.”
“Impossible,” said Cugel. “For all your bluster you have proved no malfeasance.”
“Proof?” roared Lodermulch. “Need there be further? Notice these dice, all askew, some with identical markings on three sides, others rolling only with great effort, so heavy are they at one edge.”
“Curios only,” explained Cugel.