I did my best to edit the pieces that needed editing. If I missed something that needs to be fixed, let me know by a private message. Please read all nine pieces before casting your vote. You may vote for up to three pieces. Voting will remain open for 24 days (yes this well extend well into June). Not our biggest haul but nine is very respectable. Especially since we had two similar contests running concurrently with this one. Theme was "Cold Blooded Honor or Man Versus Self". Spoiler: Story One: Awakening Awakening Here facts become intertwined with legends about mysterious Saurian cities lost in the jungle. The tangle of plants and trees of the rainforest shut out both the party’s access to light and their sense of direction. The constant risk of being bitten by spiders, serpents and poisonous frogs was made worse by their own hunger. After the mules were butchered, we had resorted to chewing the leather from our saddles. Only our hunger for riches kept us going. Chronicler closed the book. This whole endeavor seemed ludicrous. The hunt for fabled gold or adventure he could fathom, but not this. This expedition halfway across the known world seemed like another pissing contest between two of the most powerful institutions in the Empire. Looking over this alien world stretching out beneath him made the distance between his scribe’s alcove a continent away feel almost tangible. The dark serpentine meanderings of the river’s flow had relentlessly slowed the progress of their shallow barges to a crawl. He wondered about the inhabitants of this place. *** Zolin blinked his left eye, his only movement for minutes. He peered towards the strangers’ camp. His colors blending in perfectly with the king ferns. Instinctively his right eye independently shifted, a little above and left of the gentle slope the strangers had dragged their arcane device up. The long grass moved against the breeze followed by a rustle and smelled the pungent smell that could only be a human. The single specimen with red hair and pale skin stood staring in the distance. Tracking them for almost sixteen moons, he now recognized most of their individual features. He waited patiently for the return of his runner. Their orders were clear: stalk and observe. Every day they closed in on the sacred day of the High Sun his messengers had taken longer to return. Zolin curled his short tail, as he did whenever he felt something was up. These humans may stand out as a Pteradon among a flock of macaws, but that didn’t mean they would be easy prey. A grazing Thyroscutus looked pacific enough until you came near its young. Then it would crush you and the tree you tried hiding behind. A branch snapped in the distance, the sounds became closer and louder until he heard a low bellow. Noooo, it couldn’t be, those hulking Saurians! Zolin’s careful efforts to obscure the humans' trail and get them lost would be all for naught. A flash of anger accompanied the realization that they had passed him by with their decision to take action rather than wait. He readied his blowpipe to join the fight. He selected one of the clay curare pellets from a soft leather pouch to apply to his darts. Skinks and Saurians burst from the undergrowth surprising the humans. One sentry released an arrow, bewildered as it glanced off the thick and rough rhino hide like underbelly of a charging Saurian warrior. His cry was cut short as his head exploded in a rain of tissue and blood when the bronze club smashed into his face. Soon the mayhem was complete. Another scream cut short, the human spun about just as the tranquilizing dart flashed by. Eyes wide he staggered back before running off. ‘Yahua’s cloaca!’ Zolin burst forth and reloaded his blowpipe while climbing up the steep crevasse. He heard the clash of weapons, shouts and roars, the snapping of taut strings going slack as they released their deadly payload piercing darkness, scales or soft skin alike. Eager to correct his near miss, he sprinted after the human footprints. His blowpipe was knocked away as the branch hit his head. Stumbling, their eyes met, for a flash he saw himself in his agitated bright colors, just like his reflection in the water of the grand cenote. He noticed the pale skin on his arms as he threw the branch away and turned. His head spun and his thoughts swam. He caught his fall with an arm, and recomposed himself, continuing the pursuit. The foliage thinned out to the stumps and scrubs of grazing fields, a few saplings waiting amongst them for their inevitable fate as the herders eventually returned with their grazing alpacas. One of them must’ve tripped the human. Zolin paused studying the wide eyed look across his target’s face; bead of sweat rolling down, reddish hair plastered against his forehead, arms in front, pale hands turning red, cramped fingers as his lips moved without making sound. The air in front of those hands seemed to scintillate, to condense in on itself, to crackle teeming with energy like a summer thunderstorm in a single locus. Moments later an orb of fiery redness shot towards him. He knew he dove too slowly. Maybe the Star gods would grant him a new life. Maybe Zolin, Skink recon captain of the last day of Sino as morning star in the sign of Pawathun, was worthy to return riding the huge birds across the sky high above the canopy. He would like that. He wasn’t fast enough, but the orb merely singed the feathers adorning his anklet rather than reducing him to ashes. It had exploded in front of him, raining down embers around the barren ground. Duty, training and thoughts of rebirth overcame his inborn fear for fire as he plunged through. *** Chronicler was exhausted. He hadn’t manipulated the veil to get more energy than needed for a small conjured flame to read by in a very long time. Through the encounter; he could briefly see through the lizard’s eyes. Everything was more vibrant, feeling how he’d hit him, a jolt of pain as the soft scales cushioned the blow. He had studied enough linguistics to catch a glimpse of its thoughts. No mere predator, there was a calm purpose about it beyond simple slaughter. Panting, he looked in horror as his pursuer emerged from the smoke. *** He reeled as a dizzying sensation came over him. His head was pounding, his vision blurry, it felt like layers of awareness were being stripped away one by one. He saw himself again, distorted, like a reflection in a big brass concave gong. He saw himself clumsily reach for the clay pellets imbued with the paralyzing toxin, grabbing one that was too large. Primal instinct was all he had left, straining to control over whatever it could. He forced this body upright and threw it head first against the biggest stub he could reach with a single leap. A hot blinding flash took away all consciousness and something withdrew as he bit down on the dart. *** He woke to drums, not a sticky membrane and gooey fluid, so he was still Zolin. He removed the herbal poultice and took note of the burns on his side, then he hurried out of the room and gathered his thoughts, if they were still his own. If he would’ve stuck the dart in his skin he would now be nurturing the forest, but ingesting it wasn’t as effective. He recalled willing his lungs to move up and down, his heart to beat, and his eyes to stay open until they found him and carried him back to Itzaca. Nothing remained of the human camp but corpses of Skinks, Saurian warriors and humans. Instead of clearing their own fallen from the site, Saurians were impaling wounded and obviously deceased alike. This was not their way. He limped forward forcing himself to move on. Outside the stone barracks there was an excited vibe in the air. The annual ritual of the summer solstice meant a day of celebration for all ranks; no labor or training. On the day of most light they would celebrate the sun, just as during winter solstice honored the retinue of stars. Only on those celestial days could the assembly decide if the Cuatl was to be woken from his meditative trance. The Skink priests were in charge of most of daily life, considered the guardians of the sun, as Cuatl were the wardens of the stars. An ever growing part of their highly hierarchical society was now led by the Skink priest caste, often with conflicting interpretations and plans as a result. He looked at the position of the sun, the procession hadn’t begun. He could still warn them. He arrived at the temple while many priests already stood in little groups adorned in full ceremonial attire, as scribes and messengers scurried around. Someone shouted his name, not addressing him as captain. That could only be a Saurian. He turned around to confront him as he noticed the veteran was in the company of an escort of guards flanking high priest Xiuhcoatl himself. Zolin showed his neck as a sign of respect. ‘Venerable Scion of the Sun, you should know when the prisoners are put to the test in the arena.’ Before he could explain the possible significance, the Saurian cut him short. ‘There will be no fight, I will deal with them myself’ the Saurian stated. ‘Hopefully it won’t cost us any more of our own’ Zolin sniped. He staggered failing to avoid the veteran’s blow. *** Xiuhcoatl halted the veteran. The ruckus had drawn the crowd’s attention now. Glares from onlookers were one thing, but the last thing he needed was to draw the attention of other priests. He tried reassuring him they could meet in private. It was hard enough to contain this situation with strangers in the mountains dragging some arcane device along near the day of the High Sun without the babble of flying fire and some evocation of second sight. Now his peers on the assembly wondered what was going on and gave this fool a forum. He fidgeted, nervously as Captain Zolin finished his report in the Court of the Sun. He glanced at the empty stone dais and its majestic carved empty throne. He would have to convince the other high priests of the insignificance of these events, lest they would vote in favor of the waking ritual. Their Lord Cuatl had been in a slumber for almost seven solar years, but it could last up to an aeon. Xiuhcoatl wouldn’t mind. The high priests of neighboring Oaxtepetl had ordained to wake their venerable Lord last solar year. The story of his awakening and how he then sacrificed all of them in his honor was well known. Xiuhcoatl shuddered as he stood up to address the assembly. However great the honor and the prospect of a rebirth may be, he was perfectly content with his existence now. *** He managed to dismiss the whole notion of arcane happenings as a delusion caused by the aftereffects of the poison the captain had clumsily infected himself with. He would’ve preferred to make short work of it by sacrificing all captives immediately but on this holy day they had to go to the arena. Xiuhcoatl had successfully argued his view but there was dissent. Hopefully the humans did nothing that could be interpreted as an omen. It was near high noon when the long trail of Skink and Saurus reached the plateau where sacred words were spoken and blessings bestowed. Soon the sleek copper rod pointing at the sky would have no shade left. When it was Xiuhcoatl’s turn to speak, he chose the ancient language which few still understood. He found it gave his speech great oratory quality. He needed to impress his fellow priests, not the crowd. His influence must not suffer from the fallout of this. Zolin had refused to stay behind, helped in the journey by his squad. He thought that for a guardian of the sun Xiuhcoatl rather unwillingly left the shade of the baldachin atop his palanquin to speak to the gathered citizens but kept his mouth shut. Only four prisoners remained from the six they had captured, one of them the red haired man who had done that thing to his mind. They were dragged up and tied to a hastily erected wooden platform while the sun beat down on them. The high priest had switched back from ancient to common tongue so all could understand how he invited the Sun God to accept the sacrifice of these invaders, whom had brought alien technology to desecrate these mountains. He signaled the guards to remove the leather canvas from a large golden mirror set up on the crest which reflected the burning rays of sunlight into a crystal near the base of the prisoner platform. The long dry grass in its focal point started to smoke while the drums droned on. *** Chronicler knew he needed perfect timing. Their jungle guide was gagged and restrained, the academic semi-conscious, and the inquisitor was beaten so thoroughly he'd appear dead if his eyes weren't screaming "heretics!" It almost seemed cruel irony that they were the only captives, the representatives of the folly of the expedition. He willed his eyes open against his bulging bruise and bright sunlight. If his calculations were off by mere grains of sand in the hourglass, it would be too late. If set ablaze, no magic could save them. His recently discovered susceptibility for the strands of energy radiating from the veil surprised him. Perhaps it was the imminent mortal danger before, or maybe this place was just naturally imbued with magic. His teachers had made it very clear a long time ago that he lacked the delicate sense to start mastering this sort of magic. Historia would be better suited. He ceased his recollections as the reptilians looked at the sky as one. It was happening. ‘Here goes nothing.’ Chronicler cleared his throat as best as he could and hoped the words would be right; ‘chi' ibal kin!’ ‘‘Chi' ibal kin’ he rasped again, repeating the words over and over. It meant ‘to eat the sun’. Soon the hill top was completely dark as high above the Daedalus’s celestial trajectory took it in front of the sun. The drums had stopped, some Skinks fell down, tilting their heads, others stayed upright also exposing their neck in obedience. The high priest standing before the platform displayed a skin tone as pale as the two unmoving white Caiman besides him. The brief moment seemed like blissful eternity. He felt a cold blade cut through his restraints shortly after the sun peered from behind its shadowy twin. He thought he understood what they chanted; ‘awaken’. Spoiler: Story Two: Blood for the Blood God Blood for the Blood God The massive axe opened a large hole through the ranks of the Skinks, then Grinnorarcen closed in and delivered another swing, taking down more opponents. Of all Sigmar’s armies, Seraphon were one of the most unsatisfying enemy… every kill produces just a flash of painful light, and the corpse disappears. No skulls for the Skull Throne, no blood for the Blood God, no screams for fear or mercy, just ranks upon ranks of puppets, sent into battle by their lazy Frog-Master, hidden behind some rock. A worthless foe, that spoils the fun of battling and killing. The red Daemon roared with fury and the champion of the next regiment took the challenge. It didn’t last the blink of an eye. How was it possible that there was not a single worthy opponent? He was full with frustration… “STOP SUMMONING FRAIL GHOSTS! I WANT TO FIGHT!!!” In this conditions, Grinnorarcen was not able to be fully embraced by the blind fury of the sheer battle, so he took a moment to see how the fight was going. His army was advancing as expected, crushing all resistance, except… On the right wing, something had halted the run of the Bloodcrushers. Grinnorarcen focused on the distant fight and he saw a large unit of Knights on small dinosaurs, armed with blazing spears, that just cut in two the front line, halting the Juggernauts’ momentum and turning them into prey for the falchions of the following two-legged crocodiles. They were led by a Saurus, mounted on a Carnosaur, bearing the insignia of some constellation… so the Frog must have sent some memory of a past hero, to act as leader of this army. With some luck, that general could be one of the rare, ancient Sauri still alive. Grinnorarcen growled with satisfaction. Ghost or living flesh, at least there would have been one good fight. The Daemon turned to the mechanical work of cutting down chaffs upon chaffs… the task was so unexciting that he decided to keep an eye on the enemy on his right. But the charge had raised a large cloud of dust, that even his enhanced sight could not pierce. And when the dust cleared, it wasn’t there. How was that possible? The right wing was the only place where the combat was going bad for the follower of Khorne. The Saurus commander should have been there, to support the fight and enjoy the massacre. Grinnorarcen was still looking for his foe, when a cry of alarm called his attention… something was happening on the left wing. Grinnorarcen recognized the banner, and the gore splattered Carnosaur. Fast as the wind, their general must have moved behind the frontline, followed by the cold ones, and now they were turning the combat on the other side of the battlefield. As land sharks, the Knights were slipping between the blocks of the Bloodletters, taking the toll with their lances, too fast to be chased by the demonic infantries… and the standards of the Saurus Guards, were now approaching the disrupted ranks. Grinnorarcen grinned. “you are a smart guy, aren’t you? You stopped our wings, so only our center will advance, and your army will close upon us as a pincer. The problem is: are you sure this morsel isn’t too hard to swallow?”. The bulky Daemon now was confident that his enemy would have come for him, so he continued his personal one-way fight; the massive muscles were covered by sweat, mixed with sand… the blood of the enemies normally would have washed away his body, triggering the Fury, but against Seraphon it was not possible; Grinnorarcen could not rage, and so he studied the approaching Saurus Hero that was now afoot. In combat, Grinnoraren was pure fury, and every one of his blows carried an excessive amount of sheer power. Grinnorarcen’s style was not the killing, but the onslaught. The Saurus was elegance incarnate. He was armed with a sort of war-mace, surmounted by a skull… an enemy attacks, the Saurus feints, the mace comes down. An enemy attacks, the Saurus parries, the mace comes down. And so on. Each time with a different manoveur, each time with the minimal effort to cut down the opponent. No one was able to stop him, it was like watching a deadly dance, a disciplined warhound between sheep. To see his enemy approaching, covered by blood and swirling a weapon made by a grinning skull, was definitely a strange sight for Grinnorarcen. “it should be the opposite. This is wrong, and I will stop it right now.” With a crack of the whip and a mighty roar, Grinnorarcen announced the challenge, and the lesser Daemons created a circle, to watch the fight of the two Champions. Both were slowly advancing, with the Saurus being cautious, knowing the large Daemon would have gained the first strike, thanks to its superior reach. And Grinnorarcen knew what he was going to do. Against that kind of opponent, a tactic that never failed him, was to sweep the field with the whip, forcing the opponent to be entangled by the lash, or jump to avoid it… meeting the battleaxe midair, with no chance to dodge. And so he did when the Saurus rushed forward. As planned, the fool jumped to avoid the whip… but he deliberately left the tail down. The coiled tail slowed down the jump, and the axe swung just above the curled up target, missing it by few inches. Grinnorarcen was caught off guard, and the mace came down. Time almost froze… as in slow motion, an amazed Grinnorarcen contemplated the skull upon the mace, aiming for his head. The syllables of the spell that would have diverted the blow were rolling upon the Daemon’s tongue. The skull of the mace was nearer, its eyes fixed upon him. The urge to cast the defensive spell was almost overwhelming. Time flew again. The mace crushed into Grinnorarcen’s head, felling the Daemon to the ground. Grinnorarcen’s brain was bleeding. The Daemon looked at the opponent, standing in front of him. “In more than a thousand years of battle against Sigmarites, you were the first… you truly please Khorne. Wipe my army, take skulls for the Throne, blood for the Blood God. May this day be a magnificent offering.” The mace landed the final blow. The Oldblood looked at the dead Daemon with contempt. “Old Ones be praised”. Spoiler: Story Three: The Knife The Knife Ll’st knelt in the quiet of the forest and studied the serrated ritual knife he had earned so very long ago. Back then his heart had throbbed with pride that he had served his Slann masters and the great Old Ones faithfully enough to be given reward by the high priest of the temple city of Tlahuizcalli. Now the knife mocked him and what he had become. He sighed and gently placed the knife onto the forest floor where it glared up at him. He was tempted to rub his clawed hand over his crest, an unconscious habit he had picked up too long ago, but he stopped himself out of fear. It had been just over a week since the warp spawned forces of Tzeentch had broken through reality and had tried to take the mummified remains of Lord Micoani, who sacrificed himself at the coming of Chaos. Ll’st as chosen guardian of the temple had stood at the entrance to the temple itself when the daemons had breached Lord Xolopitli’s defence lines. The twin blades of Mournfury were blurs of starmetal as they took heads and limbs from screeching avians and gibbering beasts. Ll’st had spun the twin bladed polearm in a wide arc, decapitating a score of Horrors when there came a beating of great wings and a shadow descended over him. He had looked up into the eyes of a being that had seen his potential deaths countless times. He felt fear in that moment, a near alien feeling to Ll’st, but he gripped Mournfury tighter and stood his ground. The daemon cackled in a hundred shrill voices and swung a staff of glowing power at Ll’st who threw himself to the side as it cut through the temple stone like fire through a forest. Across the city Lord Xolopitli had closed the gap and his defenders were forcing the daemons back. It was little too late as the daemon facing Ll’st struck again and again, the Saurus barely escaping the seemingly random blows. With sudden realisation, Ll’st read the hidden pattern in the daemon’s attacks but was too late to avoid its final strike. Desperately he brought up Mournfury to intercept it. Mournfury screamed as it met the daemon’s staff and then with a sickening crack was broken asunder. Ll’st was cast back to the ground, smoke and spent magic spouting from the ruined ends of his once proud weapon. And yet he still rose to his feet, the halves of his weapon in his hands. He leapt at the gloating daemon even as it brought its staff to bear once more. As if moved by the Old Ones’ hands themselves, the daemon’s blow never connected and Ll’st swept under its guard, burying the remains of Mournfury in its heart. The daemon shimmered and what could have been a smile crept upon its beaked face. Daemonic essence oozed down the remains of Mournfury and bubbled and burnt Ll’st’s flesh. He howled in agony even as the daemon dissipated in the wind. The corrupting touch of Chaos was quick and Ll’st felt his body contort and change even as his brothers ran to his aid. He felt that strange feeling of fear again as they then recoiled from him and raised their weapons to attack. It was Ll’st’s duty to let them destroy him now that he had become what they were created to fight against, and yet the touch of Chaos had altered his mind as well as his body. He abandoned his post and ran. His now too long arm smashed back those who got too close and more than once his blows became killing strikes. He ran into the jungle, far from his pursuers. Now within the jungle he contemplated his fate. The changes wrought upon him had sharpened his mind, enough that he realised that without a guardian, the temple city’s artefacts were vulnerable, their hidden paths and secrets not understood by his brothers. It was his duty to defend the temple. And yet he was no longer one of his brothers, he was tainted and that taint would lead to only one end. The temple city had to be kept pure, but he was unsure if he wanted to or if he should end his life then and there. He could do so much, even in his altered appearance. He was still loyal to the Old Ones even if he was honour bound to destroy what he had become. Would it have been more loyal to live and fight Chaos or to destroy himself lest the corruption spread? The ritual knife continued to glare up at him. He had to make a decision, a decision which could either way result in the ruination of the Old One’s Plans. He picked up the knife. Spoiler: Story Four: Castoff Castoff This was to be my fate then. Sentry duty on a lonely isle, far from the Lustrian shores, never visited except by travelling birds and exiled Saurii. The worst fate possible, an eternity without battle or service to the plan. I was taken from among my brothers, and sent to this chunk of rock, after a battle. I had led my brethren well, disregarding the orders of the Slann in order to avert disaster for my spawning and the whole left flank, but that had shown what I possessed all too clearly. I was a dangerous rarity, a Saurus capable of independent thought, and for that I would be damned to this water-ringed prison forever. Behind me, the boat pushed off, heading back to the jungle. I stood on the shore for a long time, staring out across the water, the salt of the water in my nostrils, the sun slowly dropping lower, glinting off the sea at different angles, before it finally set and I lay down to rest. I awoke to the feeling of the tide tugging me away from the beach, into the depths of the sea. I did not fight it. I was born under the auspices of Tzunki, and so my gills would let me breathe. I sunk beneath the waves, membranes down over my eyes, allowing me to see, even though all I could see was shades of dark. As I sunk, my gills began to burn, like mango juice in an open wound. Faintly at first, but soon growing to become pools of agony running down my neck and beneath my jaw. I kicked my legs, the webbing between the talons churning the water, and shot towards the surface. Everything stung, the edges of my eyes, my nostrils, wounds I wasn’t even aware I had gotten, and above all, my gills. Something slipped lose from the cord of my loincloth, but I did not look at what it was, focused only on surfacing, on breathing again. I broke the dark surface of the water and gasped for air. I crawled up onto the stony beach, higher and higher, grasping in the dark like a spawnling, until at last I reached dry rock, which had never known the touch of the sea. I lay there, and waited. Morning came, bringing with it dull light, filtered through clouds, and the sound of voices, carried by the wind from the other side of the isle. I cursed, silently. Of course, battle would come when they had taken my spear, and my shield, and my armour, leaving me with nothing but my body and a stone knife. I reached for it, and discovered that was what I had lost to the roaring surf in the night. I might still overcome the intruders, but I was weakened by my near-drowning and unarmed. Still, if I did not attack now, they would most likely find me here, and then I would be worse off for waiting. I rose, and stepped between the towering slabs of rock, heading towards the voices. They were raised as if in song, not expecting any form of attack. I could not blame them, the isle was supposedly uninhabited, and it looked it. My foot crunched as I set it down, a crunch of bone rather than stone. I looked beneath me to see the skeleton of a Saurus, a former exile. One who had taken the easier path. Lodged in his ribs was his own stone dagger, the hard obsidian withstanding the wear of the years. I pulled it out, and tucked it in my loincloth. The noises grew louder as I walked, raising from a half-heard whisper, to garbled sound, to drunken, tuneless roars. I slunk to the edge of a slab of salt-coated rock and looked round. A warmblood raiding party sat, drinking around a fire blazing atop a flat stretch of rock. Their axes and shields lay on the ground around them. Behind them, at anchor on a stony beach similar to the one I had been left on, was their ship, a wooden construct with a stylised lizard-head for the prow and shields decorating its length. I grinned. A way off the island! But I would only have one chance to seize it, and the raiders would not take kindly to my efforts should I fail. I started forward, claws crunching on the pebbles, my hiding place abandoned. The rocks sprayed up from beneath my talons as I ran. Behind me, the song quietened, as several of the warmbloods saw me, and started towards their tools of war. I reached the boat just as the fireside song changed to a battle cry, and I leapt for the deck. I fell short, my claws digging deep rents in the shields, while behind me the raiders charged forward, screaming. I hauled myself up, muscles protesting and wood splintering as I crashed forward onto the deck. My snout hit the deck full force, and as I got to my feet, I found one of my teeth was now loose from my maw. Ignoring it as best I could, I ran over to the anchor chain. It was solid iron, and I could hear the warmblood’s roars as they reached the surf, the water now whipped to a frenzy by the wind. I drew my knife and stabbed it in between the deck and the iron windlass that held the anchor chain to the deck. Then I stomped on it, with as much force as I could muster. The knife broke, its obsidian blade shattering into a dozen pieces, but the iron gave, sticking up from the deck, and I worked my claws in and hauled. The windlass came loose from the deck, and I grabbed the anchor chain and threw it overboard. From the surf, there came a thud, and a scream of pain. The raiders tried to scramble up onto the ship, but it was already moving, the wind catching its single sail and propelling it away from the shore. Still, four warmbloods managed to struggle up onto the deck. Before they could prepare themselves, I was on them. The first one, I shoved back in the water before he was even properly over the line of shields. The second one had time to raise his shield as I charged him, but I wasn’t aiming to hit him. I grabbed his axe, and before he could tighten his grip, wrenched it away. Then I hit his shield with my free hand, knocking him down onto the deck. That left me facing two men, two men who had had time to ready themselves for a fight. I stepped forwards and swung the axe. The one on the right blocked it with his shield, the axe biting so deep into the wood that it could not be pulled out, while the one on the left lunged forward and sliced open my leg with his sword. Behind me, the weaponless marauder rose unsteadily to his feet, and started towards me, while the two in front of me swung at me again and again, keeping me busy dodging their attacks. I could hear his footfalls behind me, ringing through the deck, and then the pull of metal on leather. As he struck, I dropped back and allowed him to lunge right over my shoulder and into one of his fellows. The sole fighter left standing roared a curse and struck at me. I grabbed his blade as it began its descent and tore it from his hand. I brought my other hand around and grabbed the hilt, turning the motion into a swing as soon as I gripped the sword. He raised his shield in defence, and I swung my sword back out and around, cutting apart his leg instead. His shield dropped as he screamed, and I took advantage of the lack of guard to drive the sword through his eye. The other two raiders had barely stood up when I was at them again, knocking one back down with a shoulder charge, before spinning around to slice at the other. The blow caught him across the forehead, the flow of blood blinding him in one eye in seconds. He came at me anyway, axe swinging, and I simply stepped aside and drove the point of my blade in the back of his knee. He screamed and toppled, and I stepped in, decapitating him with a single blow. I turned to finish off the fourth raider, and saw no one on deck. Below, I heard a splash. He had taken the easy way out, a watery grave rather than a fight he could not win. With all the raiders either marooned or dead, the ship was mine, and with this raid stopped, my debt to Lustria was payed. After all, they had dumped here to rot, so to prevent a raid on their temples was more than they truly deserved, and paid my debt to the Slann in full. Now, my life, and my destiny, was my own. Spoiler: Story Five: Freedom Part Two: The Name Freedom Part 2: The Name One of the other quarry slaves, the kroxigor thought it might have been a human, came towards him holding up his chain. He was chanting a single word over and over, “Libre! Libre!” The kroxigor recoiled and held his stone-breaking hammer forwards to ward off the unwanted attention. “What does it say?” he asked his new master. The grey skaven, Slave, had begun scrabbling over the sleeping saurus guard with thumbless paws. He laughed. “The Estalian-man-thing squeak-says your new name - Libre. It means ‘free.’ It fit-suits you.” Then he picked up a loose stone and threw it at the wretched human, driving him back to the huddle of other chained warmbloods at the back of the old beast pen. Slave returned to his search for useful items, then rolled the guard onto his back and unlooped his ankle chain from around its neck. Libre – the kroxigor paused at the novelty of having a name – judged by the lolling of its black and swollen tongue that the saurus had entered the long sleep, rather than just having a nap. Slave abandoned his search with a snarl, having found nothing of use or value on the lizardman’s body. He picked up the heavy obsidian-toothed club from where it had fallen, swung it experimentally and discarded it with another snarl. His captors had cut off his thumbs to stop him weaving magic, but in so doing they had made it impossible for him to effectively wield any weapon, with the exception of the chain garrotte they had so conveniently left attached to his ankle. He took up the slack and attracted Libre’s attention by tugging at the manacle which attached the other end to the kroxigor’s ankle. “Dawn-light comes soon. We must sneak-flee.” The skaven shooed Libre ahead of him towards the beast pen arch, but he was not happy with the loud scraping and clinking of their chain on the stone flags. “Stop-wait,” he commanded. “Bend. Lower!” Libre stooped to comply, and the skaven clambered up onto the crook of the kroxigor’s elbow. Then he gathered the chain into loops to hold it off the ground. “Go. Out. This way. Up.” Each command was accompanied by a curt gesture or an elbow jab in the kroxigor’s chest, and Libre meekly complied. Soon he found that he had carried Slave to the edge of the eighth terrace of the dawn façade of the Great Temple of the Old Ones. Slave climbed down and looked over the edge, verifying that they were immediately above the beast pens. He ran his paws over the massive corner block, probing for invisible weaknesses. “I quarried this stone,” declared Libre. “I squared it with Hammer and set it here when skink Arqitecah was overseer. He has been in the long sleep now for many cycles.” Slave pressed his ear against the block and tapped with a claw. “Skink-Arqitecah was fool-meat. He chose weak stone. There is a flaw-crack.” He indicated a point near the base of the block with one paw, and held up the other in the universal gesture that means wait. “Strike-smite here with Hammer. Then scurry-run quickly around the other side.” He held the wait-hand even higher. “And don’t let your brain-meat forget to take me with you.” Libre was puzzled. “Why break this stone?” Slave pointed down at the beast pens below. “The temple side will tumble-fall. Other lizard-things’ meat will think Slave and Libre are tomb-buried under rock with the man-things and elf-things. Then Slave and Libre will sneak leave this island-rock easily because enemies do not chase-pursue the dead.” Libre’s scaly brow creased even more heavily. “Enemies? Are the saurus-kin enemies?” “You are Libre. Free. Everyone is your enemy now. Except for good-good master-Slave. Slave will tell you where and who to strike-smite with Hammer. Slave will keep you free.” Slave tugged the ankle chain as if he was chastising a dog. “Now do as I squeak-say.” Libre could not fault Slave’s logic, although it was with some unease that he split the corner stone which supported some three hundred cycles of work on the unfinished Great Temple. As predicted, the upper layers of the dawn façade sagged, giving scant time for Libre, whose meat had remembered to scoop up slave to step around to the Pole Star facing of the temple. The sagging blocks began to slide and fracture, and with a grinding roar a huge scab tore free from the mightiest edifice of the Dragon Isles and tumbled onto the beast pens and northern granary. Alarm drums throbbed, and surprised bellows emanated from the watch towers and saurus barracks. It would be some hours before the choking dust of powdered stone cleared enough for the city’s custodians to survey the extent of the damage or begin to speculate as to its cause. By that time, Libre and Slave had stolen from the city to continue their new life of liberty. Spoiler: Story Six: Into the Starlight Into the Starlight New Lustria, the last refuge from the forces of Chaos. The lush foliage, dense and thriving, home to all manner of beasts. The raging rivers, fresh water flowing in a steady stream, filled with plump, delicious fish. Almost an exact replica of the home we had left. Almost. Everything here is perfect. Too perfect. The season change right on schedule, the temperature always stays the same, even while raining. The old plan had failed, and in our new plan we left nothing to chance. The live specimens we brought with us have bred, and generations of beasts have flourished perfectly here. The remaining living saurus train us on their combat knowledge, so that we may perfectly replicate them. The last of the skinks and kroxigor have been placed in stasis pods. Unlike the saurus, their lives are finite. So, they stay in stasis. Living as we used to, an eternal dream like state, awaiting the time of need when they are to be awakened and called to glory. The temple cities run as they used to, the festivals and rituals come and go with the seasons, right on schedule. This is exactly what we wanted. This was the purpose of the old plan. Everything in order. This is all I wished for before the planet was destroyed. It feels empty. We fled our planet, fled Lustria, we just left her to die, we left ourselves to uncertainty. The great plan of the Old Ones had failed. I felt betrayed by the Old Ones. We persisted. We could not let the fear creep in and cloud our minds. As we floated through the nothing, we contemplated, and we waited, and it felt empty. We needed to come up with a new plan, and in the vast expanse of space, we trained our abilities. We devised our plans of action should we run into trouble on our endless journey through the void. We learned to recreate our memories, and manifest them into a physical form. We perfected the technique, and while it was draining, we could call forth entire armies to fill our temples. With high spirits, we found the tears of hope, and were brought to our new land. We terraformed New Lustria, our temples placed exactly as they were in Lustria. Any temple city that did not make it out of the jungle were rebuilt to their exact specifications. When all was right with our new plane, we waited. We waited for treasure hunters, we waited for daemons, we waited for our spawning pools to bubble. We waited. Some of us went into a deep trance, starlight memories running the city, gaining personalities and performing the day to day operations as they would in the old days. Others would use our creations to have mock battles, training for the day when Chaos would find its way to our door. A lifetime of war and a lost planet takes its toll though. When trouble would not come find us, we chose to go looking for it. We worked with the gods of mortals to wipe Chaos from their planes. We could pick our targets, our allies, and the planes we wanted to help. Some of us would venture to the planes of Chaos itself, in search of our greatest stalker, who is rumored to still be alive, camouflaged and hunting. I chose to go to the realm of the hideous rat creatures. A foul non-realm, stuck in an ethereal plane between the planes. Overrun with the vermin, and access points to the mortal realms. I needed to ensure that there were no ratholes into High Azyr. New Lustria. In spite of its perfection I do love New Lustria. I would map out the realm gates I found. Finding out where they led to, and while I could not destroy them, I could block access to them. Occasionally I would find a lone rat, or a small group of them, and unleash my starlight creations on them. Sotek cultists were my favourite, revenge for the loss of Lustria. There was something so satisfying about the way a Sotek cultist would deal with these abominations. If it was a small group I would leave one alive, maimed, but alive. I wanted the tales of lizardmen in their cities to spread. I wanted the fear to spread like wildfire. It worked perfectly. Too perfectly. The horrid creatures found a way to track my magic. I was tracking a massive energy source, thinking it may be a gate into New Lustria. That’s when they came. Thinking they had me cornered all by myself. Hissing and gnashing teeth, screeching and squealing. Until they heard the roar of a carnosaur behind them. Half of them scattered. A beam of light tore right through one of their great horned daemons. Other beasts started dropping to the ground as poisoned darts pierced their flesh. Then it happened. A whisper of smoke and a flash of steel, and I was sent hurtling from my palanquin onto the fouled ground below. As I landed in a pile of their pestilent filth I brought to life saurus guards to protect my body. The cloaked rat that had knocked me down was now impaled on the end of a halberd. I let my starlight memories take care of the rest as I took myself to safety. Once the remaining vermin were exterminated I hurried to a realm gate to get myself to Ghyran. The realm of life, I was careful not to touch anything, I had my creations carefully wash me and my chair, and save the wash water in a large clay tub, so that I might dispose of it back with the rats. Washed and clean, but still tainted. Could I go back to New Lustria? Would my brothers banish me to prevent any chance of spoiling the perfect realm? Fear crept into my mind, thoughts of never being able to return home swirled around my head. I contacted my brothers to inform them of my plight. I would not wish to bring the taint to them. Several of them came to me, they granted wards of protection and healing. They escorted me back to my home. How could they know, how could any of us have known? As I sit in my temple I can hear it. This sickly scratching sound in the walls, growing more intense with each passing moment. Impossible. I have brought something back with me. And it is breeding. Fouling my temple, fouling my jungle, fouling my home. I had to find this threat and destroy it, before my brothers found out. Before the menace destroyed our paradise. The beasts in the jungle grew restless. The temperature was swelling. Perfect. The jungle will cook them out. I started creating guard to ensure that when the parasites came out of their holes, that they would be destroyed immediately. The scratching and clawing behind the stone became louder, more desperate, more irritating. I created great beasts and Sotek cultists. I called forth the fury of the prophet of Sotek and the oracles on their twin tailed mounts. Once these abominations showed themselves they would be nothing but a stain on the floor. The first wave of them burst forth from the walls. Hundreds of them. I was exhausted. I had summoned my entire arsenal and then some. I felt drained, stretched too thin, as though I had summoned my army thrice over. The starlight saurus roared and the skinks chirped in anger. The foul little monsters were coming out faster than I could summon my own memories back to the battlefield. I was overwhelmed. I could not call my living brothers for help, but a relic priest, Lord Korpus, lay mummified with the stasis pods and spawning pools. I rushed to the corpse. Sensing my urgency, the pile of bones creaked and rose up. My eyes met the hollow sockets and the long dead slann called forth fire and lightning. I felt even more depleted, and the rats just kept scurrying forth. I opened the stasis pods. It was a risk bringing our living specimens into the fight, but I was desperate. I prayed to the Old Ones, their prodigal son had returned. I prayed as I had before we lost Lustria, I couldn’t lose New Lustria too. This time they answered. The long barren spawning pools began to bubble. Wave after wave of Saurus and skink emerged, liquid dripping off of their scales as they marched into battle. Spirits of the old heroes swirled around Lord Korpus. I was barely conscious I was so exhausted. My hope faded as the vermin population seemed to double. I had no choice but to contact my brothers for help, before these beasts tainted the jungle. I send out my plea, and then I see it. A whisper of smoke and a flash of steel. Lord Qui’Tus arrived as I landed hard on the stone floor. He looked at me, and then surveyed the Chaos of my temple, then back at me. I could see the disappointment in his eyes. I was tainted, I needed to be banished from my temple, from my jungle, from my home. Doomed to wander the mortal planes, a ghost of my former self. My brother looked back at the melee and with the blink of an eye it all exploded into starlight. It was beautiful, as each saurus, skink, and rat exploded into a beam of glorious light. The newly spawned, and the last remaining from the stasis pods exploded into starlight. Lord Korpus nodded to me as he turned super nova, a spectacular light show. The temple now empty but for me and my brother, he brought my palanquin down to me and used his powerful mind to lift me to my chair. I was mentally and physically drained, and was looking forward to a deep sleep. Lord Qui’Tus looked me over, his eyes slowly blinked and he turned around to leave. A tear formed in my eye for the first time since we lost Lustria. I called out to him, but he made no answer. Rats don’t turn into starlight when they die, do they? I asked as the sobs began to well up. I wasn’t in New Lustria. I am in quarantine, in my tomb. Lord Qui’Tus has simply come to say goodbye before doing the honorable thing. Letting me die in the place of my choosing. In a third Lustria, constructed for me, an imperfect little piece of the jungle, where the weather was unpredictable. It begins to rain, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sounds and smells, as I wait. I wait in perfect nothing for Lord Qui’Tus to blink, I wait for my starlight. Spoiler: Story Seven: Duty Duty The warmblood did not resist as they dragged him into the inner sanctum. He would have been a fool to try, and had he been a fool, he would never have come this far. He had a broken arm and a bloody bruise on the forehead from the ambush that had seen his little expedition butchered. His scrawny wrists and ankles were clasped in almost comically oversized bronze shackles that were meant for recalcitrant stegadon calves. Despite his predicament, he seemed quite calmed and collected. Or perhaps he was merely resigned to his fate. Gruq-Chatl was poor at reading humans; during his twenty score cycles upon the face of the world, he had seldom seen them show anything but fear. The Eternity Warden straightened to his full height, almost eight feet tall, and planted his yellow gaze into the human. He was not a spiteful sort, but he hoped to see him cringe, hear him beg before his death. Only this would restore his pride, which had been wounded by how close the warmbloods had come to evading his vigilance. But the prisoner would not give him satisfaction. He merely took in his surroundings – the darkened sanctum, the long-slumbering Slann Lord Oyintayotl on his obsidian throne, the dozens of temple guards and skink scribes – before meeting Gruq-Chatl’s stern glare. “I would like to be free of these shackles,” he said at last, his voice soft as a breeze. “They weigh heavily on my old bones.” Never before had Gruq-Chatl heard a warmblood speak Saurian. The man’s pronunciation was mediocre, but his grammar flawless. A scholar, no doubt. A reader of those cured skins that humans and elves used in lieu of stone tablets. His politeness seemed almost insolent, as if he were a guest making a request of a host rather than a prisoner pleading for mercy. “Tell me if there are any more of you out there,” said Gruq-Chatl. “Tell me where they are.” The man shook his head. “Only us. We were nine; you killed eight.” He could be lying, thought the Eternity Warden. But if he is, my scouts will find his accomplices soon enough. He spoke to the temple guard flanking the man: “You may unshackle him.” Before the guard even moved to obey, the prisoner effortlessly squeezed his hands and feet out and let the shackles clang heavily to the stone floor. He met Gruq-Chatl’s cold gaze again, then shrugged, wincing from the pain of his broken arm. “It just seemed wise to ask beforehand,” he said, his tone almost defensive. Gruq-Chatl snorted. “Who are you?” “Magister Ernst Lüdecke,” said the man with a quick bow. “Of the Celestial College of Altdorf.” “Why are you here? For our gold?” “No,” said Lüdecke. He sounded a tad insulted by the assumption. “I came for the stele of Oyintayotl in our time of need. A storm is coming. The Everchosen is mustering his forces. My order believes the stele has knowledge that the Empire could use to prevail.” A thief of knowledge, thought the Eternity Warden. Those are rare. “We do not share the Great Plan of the Old Ones with any upstart warmbloods who invade our lands,” he said slowly. “We wage the same war,” Lüdecke insisted. “The tide of Chaos must be stemmed. And it is not your lord who will stem it.” He tilted his bald head towards the sleeping Lord Oyintayotl. “Not in this age, at least.” Fury flashed in Gruq-Chatl’s eyes. The nerve of this warmblood. To accuse a Slann of inaction! “And what would you know about this?” he snarled. Lüdecke remained infuriatingly calm. “I know this because I am a diviner, as your lord is. Nowhere near as powerful, of course. But I see many possible futures… and sometimes they all agree. Lord Oyintayotl will not awaken until the end of this world is upon us.” Gruq-Chatl bared his teeth in an approximation of a grin. Several nearby skinks recoiled. “Did you see the future where your men lay dead and you were brought to me in shackles?” “Yes,” said Lüdecke evenly. “I have also seen the one where my hirelings murdered me, and then each other, for a larger share of the plunder. That is why I set up camp where I knew your forces would find us.” Humans. No sense of duty. No perspective. Gold, gold, gold. Me, me, me. Why had the Old Ones seen fit to create such selfish, duplicitous creatures? It was not Gruq-Chatl’s place to question their design, but two hundred cycles without the guidance of his Slann had made him more independent-minded than most saurus warriors. Sometimes he had opinions of his own. Sometimes he even doubted. “I will let you return to your Empire alive,” said Gruq-Chatl magnanimously. “That is the extent of my generosity today. Go now, before I regret it.” “I must insist you lend me the stele,” said Lüdecke. For the first time, he sounded pleading. “We only need to study it. In two years, three at the most, the College will return it… provided we win the war. I will see to it myself.” An irritable voice rose from the seat on Lord Oyintayotl’s right hand: “You waste your breath, warmblood!” It was Ixtipli, the emaciated skink priest in charge of the temple-city’s spiritual matters until the Slann’s awakening. “This knowledge is not for the likes of you. You lack the wit to use it, and the vision to use it well.” “Do you have use for it?” Lüdecke countered, grasping at his last chance. “Or has the stele been gathering dust ever since your lord went to sleep?” Everyone in the sanctum went still. Shock was plain across the priest’s face. It was something of an open secret in the temple-city, despite Ixtipli’s reluctance to discuss it, that the stele had thus far refused to yield its knowledge to anyone but Lord Oyintayotl. For two centuries a succession of priests had tried and failed to make sense of the stele’s ever-changing markings. It was a sore point for Ixtipli, for he liked to think he could run this place just fine without the Slann. Lüdecke pressed his advantage. “You cannot read it, can you? Perhaps the Celestial College can. If we figure it out, we will tell you how when we return it to you.” Ixtipli turned to the Eternity Warden. “Kill the human,” he commanded, his voice as cold as his blood. “He was dead the moment he set foot in Lustria.” Gruq-Chatl gave a pause. He had told Lüdecke he would be spared. To a saurus’s simple, decisive psyche, changing one’s mind was almost akin to breaking one’s word. Besides, the human did have a point. The stele was useless if there was no one to read it. Perhaps it was time to let someone else have a try. Someone more ambitious, someone less averse to risk than Ixtipli. Ever since Lord Oyintayotl had gone to sleep, Gruq-Chatl and his warriors had been waging a defensive war, never straying far from the temple. Without the knowledge carved on the stele, they were blind to the Great Plan. Unable to serve the Old Ones as they were meant to. What if the humans could change that? What if the humans had something to teach them? Ixtipli rapped his claws on his armrest impatiently. “Silence,” snapped Gruq-Chatl. “I am thinking.” Ixtipli glared. “Your purpose is not to think, saurus. Your purpose is to protect this temple and everything in it. That is the one and only thing for which you spawned.” “My purpose,” said the Eternity Warden, “is to do Lord Oyintayotl’s bidding. I serve him, not you.” He paused, and came to a decision. “I believe he would want the stele in the hands of people who can use it.” An uproar erupted among the skinks. The priest stared at him, mouth agape. “You would give away your lord’s possessions while he slumbers, Gruq-Chatl? You would abandon your sacred duty to your temple?” Ixtipli’s opposition only strengthened Gruq-Chatl’s resolve. “I would put my duty to the Old Ones before my duty to the temple.” He turned to a pair of temple guards among the burliest of the lot. “You two. Fetch the stele.” To his immense satisfaction, they moved without question. They knew whose judgment they trusted most. “For eight thousand cycles has our treasure remained inviolate!” Ixtipli protested. “You are the ninth to bear the title of Eternity Warden in this temple! Will you be the first to let the unworthy steal from the Old Ones? Do you wish to be remembered as the one who failed?” “If the Four prevail because I dared not act,” Gruq-Chatl replied, “no one will remember me as anything. And should doing my duty to the Old Ones bring me dishonor, so be it.” He addressed the human, who had been observing the exchange with detached interest. “You will have an escort on your way back, Magister Ernst Lüdecke. I will lead it myself.” “Gruq-Chatl,” called Ixtipli. “If you leave this temple with the stele, you will not be allowed back without it.” The Eternity Warden considered the ultimatum. It meant he could not return before two, three years. If the stele was lost, or if the College chose to keep it, he would never see this place again. “I shall learn to live with that,” he said at last. Spoiler: Story Eight: Torn Torn Lykax squinted through the sheets of rain that shredded the foliage around her. She was totally lost. “Damn mountains,” she muttered to herself as she began to trudge upwards again - the only direction she was confident about in this terrain. Her feet sucked and squealed in the mud, threatening to slide her back the way she’d come. She gasped as a miserable great chasm suddenly opened up on her left, a single step away from where she was slogging. The rain emptied into endlessly, a gigantic waterfall with no terminus. She considered stopping. Being lost here might be more perilous that she had thought. She was exhausted. She edged around a boulder, vainly hoping for some semblance of shelter. Instead there was a shadow, pulling itself up through the rain. Eyeing it, she reached out a tentative claw. The thing snapped at her hand, but she flinched away just in time. Then it gulped and began to chew something mysterious. Recovering, Lykax reached again and felt the creature’s long furry neck. Of course. Now she could make out the vacant eyes, smirking mouth and placid, sodden indifference. It spat directly onto her nose. Standing back, Lykax watched the llama turn and walk into the rain. There was nothing for it. Wiping her nose ruefully, she followed. Progress was slow. The llama twisted its way up the ravines without any sign of urgency. Occasionally it stopped to graze a soaking bush or simply contemplate the endless cud that needed chewing. There was of course, no possibility of encouraging greater haste. But at last Lykax noticed something that hinted at a destination. A small light that danced through the rain. There was a cave. Ducking under a rocky outcrop, the sudden ceasing of the rain’s assault on her shoulders was like a rebirth. A real fire burned in the depths. Its crackle fought against the rain’s loud hiss for control of the cavernous echoes. She advanced a step. “Who are you?” said a gnarled old voice, petulantly. There was someone by the fire. Lykax advanced another step. She peered at the old scales and faded glyphs. “You’re Myol, aren’t you?” she said, hesitantly. “I’ve been trying to find you.” “That so?” chuckled the voice. “Well I won’t hide it. That’s me. You better sit down. You play Npoko?” “I do,” said Lykax. She paced to the fire and sat opposite the weathered old saurus, who didn’t look up. Shadows shivered and shook across her face in the firelight as she peered down at the playing pieces in front of her. “New game. You go first,” she said. Lykax gulped, as her wet scales began to steam gently in the warmth. “I can’t believing I’m playing Npoko with Myol the Herder,” she said, tentatively making a move. “You know me then?” her opponent replied, as the game continued. “Every herder knows Myol.” “Do they, now?” Myol’s wizened eyes flickered and laughed in the shadows. “Then you have me at a disadvantage.” “Forgive me, my name is Lykax. I come seeking wisdom.” “Ha! Long way to come for disappointment, dearie.” The Npoko pieces clicked softly as the fire crackled. Finally Lykax took a breath. “I know I am intruding; I apologise. The truth is I need your help.” “Eh?” “I want to follow in your footsteps. I want to be a herder. I have trained hard to become one. I think I am ready.” “But it just ain’t your destiny, that it?” cackled the older lizard, laughing again. “You spawnlings. Always thinking you know what’s best for you.” “I know what I want! I know where my heart leads me!” cried Lykax, angrily moving a piece. “I need this, I need to be a herder. I just know it. But they want me to join the army, go to war.” “Oh look at that, I’ve won. Guess you don’t know everything,” said Myol, feigning surprise at the Npoko pieces. She glanced at Lykax and turned away, chewing a piece of recently-roasted meat. Lykax’s expression darkened. Myol stared into the black depths of the cave, where the light didn’t reach. “Your problem ain’t them what tells you what to be. Your problem is you. Yourself. You’re torn, like a llama wants to spit and chew at the same time.” “I’m not torn! I want to be a herder.” “Then tell me what happened. What’d you do that made ‘em think you’re a fighter? Gotta be something. If anyone knows it’s me - they don’t make these calls without reason.” Lykax looked grimly into the fire, trying to stop herself from snarling. Eventually Myol exhaled. “Look - you like herding so much, you can come with me tomorrow when the rain clears. Maybe you’ll learn something they don’t teach you down in the jungle.” *** She slept fitfully, and when she woke, it felt like something was missing. She looked blearily around the cave. The distant bleating of a llama startled her. Everything was so quiet. The fire had gone out and the rain had stopped. Outside, a grey sky stretched over a mountainscape of jagged peaks and dizzying valleys. The world felt clammy, moist and cold. “Just in time!” Myol called. She came huffing over a nearby ridge with a small handful of llamas who trotted off to mingle with the rest of the herd. She stopped, leaning on a large wooden staff, and looked at the younger saurus. “We’re offski,” she grinned. “Headin’ for pastures new. Hope you like hiking, kiddo.” They set off down a path Lykax hadn’t even noticed the night before. With a soft whistle from Myol, the llamas looked up from whatever they were doing and turned to follow. They walked most of the day up and down the range. Finally they found another cave Myol knew, and lit another fire. A sudden bleating from the herd called the two lizards back out. The llamas were dancing in agitated circles away from some nearby rocks. The only thing that looks more dumb than a llama is a panicking llama. “Maa,” they said, wide-eyed and fidgety. A streak of red among the rocks revealed the presence of a wild salamander. Soon it was joined by two others, the three huge crocodilian shapes advancing with their vivid crimson spines vibrating threateningly. Myol looked at Lykax, and cocked her head. The younger lizard was stiff, wide-eyed. Her mouth opened and shut, but her body was paralysed. With a sigh, Myol whistled a few crisp notes, and immediately the fretful llamas calmed. They trotted towards her, forming up behind in a wall of mammalian flesh to oppose the oncoming reptiles. The salamanders stopped. Myol took a step forward. The llamas advanced behind her. The middle salamander roared and arced its neck to the heavens, blistering the wet air with a sudden spout of coiling yellow flame, and illuminating the underside of the uniform grey clouds that hung not far above. Then it turned with its companions and waddled off behind the rocks. Later, when night fell, Myol and Lykax played Npoko in the cave. Myol won again. “You know why herders play Npoko?” she asked. “It teaches all the skills you need for dealing with llamas,” said Lykax, sullenly, not taking her eyes off the pieces. “Thoughtfulness. Patience. And when to risk it all to protect your pieces.” Myol squinted suspiciously, and broke into a grin. “Ha! You really have done your homework.” “Didn’t help, though, did it?” muttered Lykax. “When I needed to act, I was too afraid.” “Hrmph,” opined Myol, regarding her opponent’s sombre expression. “Didn’t look like fear to me, dearie. Looked like something else. Restraint, maybe. Which is a kind of fear, I suppose.” They set off again the next morning. “Sure you want to carry on?” asked Myol, innocently. “Still set on a herdin’ life?” Lykax glared at her. Mid-morning, they came on a spawning pool. “Is this where…” asked Lykax. “Nope. Not here. There’re forgotten pools all over these mountains. This one hasn’t spawned a thing in my life, far as I know,” replied Myol. “I try and look after ‘em best I can though - just in case.” Lykax helped her adjust and tidy the stones she had arranged around the muddy patch. She cleaned some moss where it had started growing over an old carven glyph, feeling the rugged chiselled pattern lovingly under her scaly hands. In the afternoon, mist set in. They had come out in a wide valley, and the vegetation was thick around them. Lykax realised she had been missing the constant buzz of insects and birds - a whole vibrant ecology invisible through the clouds setting over it. They kept walking. Myol seemed not to notice or care about reduced visibility. An arrow whistled out of the mist and struck a tree directly where a llama’s head had been moments before. It had bent its neck to bite at a juicy bit of fern. Lykax and Myol froze and looked at each other. Myol clicked her fingers a few times and the llamas began to gather together in the trees. Nothing else happened. Lykax approached the stuck arrow and tugged it from the tree. “Warmbloods,” she growled. With no other options they continued through the trees, as quietly as they could with a herd of large domestic animals. Soon they started to hear cries and the tortured scream of metal on metal. Fighting - nearby. Leaving the llamas at a distance, the lizardmen crept through the forest and peered at the shapes battling in the fog. Even in the poor visibility, it was clear the small contingent of lizards were losing, hopelessly outnumbered by ranks of tall soldiers in pointed hats and white and blue uniforms, cold steel flashing in their ranks. Lykax was trembling. “Oi! Over here, pointy-ears!” came a cry. Lykax realised it was Myol, waving her arms madly at the elves. She turned and winked wickedly at the younger saurus. “Come on!” she hissed. With a whistle, the llamas came trotting up among the trees. Shouts among the elves made it clear they had been noticed, and a section of their warband detached itself from the battle to approach them. Lykax saw they would mistake the llamas for a new company of warriors. “What are you doing!” she whispered desperately to Myol. “The herd! It’s in danger!” “Then it’s time to fight, kid!” cried Myol, a strange glint in her old eyes. “There’s got to be at least thirty of them! Professionally trained. The llamas won’t help us here. And we don’t even have weapons!” “So what’re you going to do about it, eh?! They’re almost on us!” Lykax turned in horror from the smiling old lizard up to the glinting weapons of elves, and back again. Her whole body was vibrating. She clutched her head, screaming in sudden pain. “No! No!” she roared, the cries becoming less and less decipherable. Myol took a tactful step back among the trees, the llamas following her. But Lykax didn’t notice, crouched and growling. She looked up into the closest elf, but a few paces away, raising its awful curving glaive to strike. Her lips broke into a hideous snarl, and she roared like a carnosaur. Forty-seven seconds later, it was all over. At least a dozen tattered corpses lay seeping into the forest floor, and the rest of the soldiers had fled in terror of the beast that moved and fought like a ball of pure fury, too fast and frenzied for even elven discipline to cope. Myol tentatively approached the thing that huffed and growled among the carnage. It looked at her, eyes filled with something Myol thought was sadness. Its breath fogged and swirled into the surrounding mist. Then its knees gave way and it hit the ground. *** “Rise and shine, dearie,” came a voice from one of the blurry shapes Lykax saw as she opened her eyes. “You still think you’re a herder?” Lykax continued to blink in confusion. “These nice lizards wanted to say thank you for saving them,” continued Myol, gesturing at the other figures around her. “After you lured away and destroyed part of the enemy force, the tide of battle shifted. We managed to hold the outpost, get word to the higher-ups.” Lykax groaned. “What have you done?!” she whined. “Me?! I just watched.” “You knew about me.” “Well you weren’t exactly subtle. All that flailing about in your sleep. The flare-ups. Plus there’s those purple scales on the back of your legs. Classic mark of Caxautn - very rare. They call your kind Ferals. Just a fancy word for undecided, if you ask me. Like I said: torn.” The younger saurus winced as she felt the pain from her body’s exertions. She closed her eyes. “I killed my spawn kin,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to. I never wanted to fight again.” “But you did,” said Myol, more gently than before. “When the time came, you did.” “And you risked the entire herd on it.” “You’ve done your studyin’, kid, but there’s still a lot to learn. We protect the herd because it feeds the armies. The armies protect Lustria. Lustria protects the Great Plan. Them dumb llamas ain’t worth fighting for if it means you leave your fellow lizards to die.” Lykax took a big breath and raised herself up off the little pallet where she’d been placed. They were in a low stone building in the bend of a river, its slow waters trickling down from the mountains behind. “I’m not healed, if that’s what you want me to say,” she muttered. “Shouldn’t think so, not a spawning of Caxautn. Healin’s another word for what we call life.” “You think I should go back to the army.” “It’s an idea. But we need herders too. If you can’t fight you’ll be no good at herdin’, and if you can’t study you’ll be no good at fightin’. Important thing ain’t what you do. It’s doin’ it with everything you are. If you’re still torn, you’ll be no use to anyone at all.” Outside the mist was clearing, and an actual ray of sun glinted on the river water. Myol smiled for the first time with kindness, not mockery. “No need to make up your mind right away, dearie. You’ve got a very long time to work it all out.” Spoiler: Story Nine: Heartbeats Heartbeats Steel stung in his side he heard the beating of his heart blood rushing the rats were swarming. BA-dunk Cool water surrounded him. Darkness covered his sight. Ba-dunk Fire consumed the barrios the sky were ablaze Ba-dunk His mind was dark his body numb Ba-dunk Swarms of Vermin separated him from his brothers. Ba-dunk He was slowly floating. Ba-dunk Smoke covered the sky filled his lungs and forced tears in his eyes. Ba-dunk Beams of light made its way through the water. Ba-dunk More cuts from rusted blades and he fell to his knees. With his last strength, he looked up and faced a hulking beast of a rat. The beast smashed his cleaver down. As usual, critiques are allowed and encouraged. If possible, try to fit your commentary into a small number of related posts rather than release several threads when feasible.