The theme for our 22nd seasonal short story contest provided by me, Scalenex, "Rituals and Religious Practices" This is the first and hopefully last contest where mass lockdowns served as a muse of inspiration, so thank you silver lining of the CCP Corona Virus. Please read all fourteen stories before voting. You may vote for up to four pieces. The order of the stories was determined completely randomly. The order has no bearing on which pieces were submitted in what order. If someone wants me to fix a typo or formatting error that slipped through the cracks. Please let me know by private message AND please post the entire story with all changes made. It's lot easier for me to copy and paste a new story rather than for me to dig through the text to find the three or four errant sentences. Spoiler: Story One: "Bowl of Blood" The Bowl of Blood Shrill cries of the voxsaurs announced the commencement of the games to delight of the roaring crowd. The High Skink Priest looked down from his palanquin as the stadium came alive with the loud cries of assembled skinks, and the roars of the saurus and kroxigors. First the warmup matches. Warmblood captives from the ongoing war, forced to play in the bloody arena, were led out into the pitch. The emaciated peasants and broken nobles alike played four successive games, each with respect to the impending end of the forthcoming Baktun, the next turn of the great cycle. At the conclusion of each game, the announcer skink and lord of the games, bedecked in the jaguar-costume of Huanchi, declared to the roars of the crowd the victory of the saurian team. The losing team, battered and bruised, were made to kneel at the feet of the victorious Lizardmen players, while the Lord of the Games pointed with his skull-topped staff to the podium where the High Priest sat, awaiting his command. As was tradition, the High Priest raised his arm, thumb pointed horizontal to the ground theatrically as he listened to the spectators. Only when the voices were raised to a fever pitch did he dramatically drop his thumb to point to the ground, signaling the executioners on the pitch. The warmblood losers were sacrificed on the bowl of the pitch, their blood running red in the channels on either side as the audience chanted in thunderous applause the holy words of the Cult, Sotek Nacom, Sotek Maka! Sotek is good, Sotek is Great! Now the field was sanctified, and the true game could begin. From both ends of the pitch the teams of the two rival temples strode forth. From the High Priests right came his home team, the Tzunki Terradons, fast and deadly warriors dressed in the green colors of the Water God. Green pendants fluttered through the stadium as his loyal supporters chanted the name of their patron god, flapping their terradon-wing pendants at their sides in a show of support for their team. The Terradons were unrivalled champions, the High Priest knew, with an untarnished record in this stadium and far abroad, having played in stadiums as far afield as Tlaxtlan and even Itza with great success. Today they would bring much honor and respect to his temple. From the High Priests left came the Sotek Stegadons, burly warriors dressed in red and wearing the skull-helms of their namesake, marched onto the pitch. The supporters of the Cult, painting the stadium red in their assembled colors, forever chanting in unison the bloodthirty words of the cult. Sotek Nacom, Sotek Maka! Sotek is good, Sotek is Great! The High Priest didn’t fail to notice the large turnout of the Cult of Sotek today, at his quick estimate more than two-thirds of the assembled audience wore the red colors instead of his own green. “No matter,” removing the irritant from his mind, “the fickle ones will soon regret their choice when the scions of Tzunki claim victory once again.” Both the Sotek Stegadons and the Tzunki Terradons lined up in the center of the bowl. Nimble skink in front of nimble skink, saurus linemen before saurus, barrel-chested kroxigor facing off against kroxigor, prepared to fight for the glory of their temple. Just before the Lord of the Games dropped his staff to begin the game, an attendant came rushing out onto the pitch. After a flurry of confusion, the Lord of the Games flourished his jaguar-skin robes and held aloft his staff with a surprise announcement from the Cult of Sotek. “There has been a last minute substitution! A star player from Chaqua has been drafted in by the Stegadons, and shall compete for the glory of Sotek on this field today!” The High Priest, as shocked as anyone else, sees from across the pitch the arrival of the leader of the Cult of Sotek, previously abscent from the games. Along with him was the largest skink the High Priest had ever seen. The skink was quite nearly the size of a saurus, maybe even larger than the smallest specimens of the species. His head crest was tall and red, giving him a monstrous appearance, and was bedecked in some of the finest golden player-armor that the Cult possessed. The High Priest and the followers of Tzunki looked on with some trepidation as the cries of the assembled cult rent the air. Immediately the game commenced. The High Priest and his followers looked on in shock as the Terradons were soundly beaten back. This new player was everywhere, easily head and shoulders above the other skinks, and far better and stronger than any of the players in his skill and ability, to include the mighty saurus. Time and time again he ran circles around his opponents, exploiting every opportunity, dodging every obstacle sent against him. It was no longer a competition, it was a massacre. The game ended in a resounding 63-0, victory for the Stegadons, with the champion Terradons completely shut out from even being close to scoring. Never had the High Priest witnessed such a game of Pok Tok, not in all his years in the service of his god. Nothing could contain the jubilation of the Cult, nor assuage the collective shock of the supporters of Tzunki, stunned in their seats as the cries of Sotek Nacom, Sotek Maka screeched throughout the stadium. All eyes suddenly turned to the star player down on the pitch. He had planted himself at the doors of the pitch, barring the defeated Terradon team from leaving in shame. The skink raised his arm, hushing the celebratory chanting. “High Priest!” he called out, his words echoing through the bowl as he addressed the assembled masses, “it does not do well to refuse the Gods their due!” He continued, now leveling his arm at the defeated players in front of him. “The Old Ones demand their sacrifice! Sotek Nacom, Sotek Maka!” Confusion rippled through the stadium as the meaning of the skinks pronouncement was digested. Chanting continued once again, shouts of dismay from the loosing team and spectators, cries of foul play from the assembled priests. The High Priest was himself stunned. Long had the tradition endured, of sacrificing the loosing team in a game of Pok Tok, and letting the blood flow for the glory of the gods. Many warmbloods, skaven, and other vile creatures had been sacrificed in this way, forced to endure a savage beating at the hands of the victorious Lizardmen teams. But these games were but fodder for the masses, training games for the saurian players, nothing more. No Skink, Saurus, nor Kroxigor had ever been sacrificed upon the pitch, not since the Old Days long past. Amid the discord the massive skink cried out once again for the High Priests’ blessing. Upon being instructed, the High Priests’ attendant moved forward to the edge of the podium to address the pitch. “Great Skink, master of Pok Tok, you have played well this day bringing much glory to your god.” The skink upon the field bowed low in deference to the High Priest as the attendant continued. “What is your name, that we of the Temple City know who it is that blesses the games with your unrivaled skill?” Cries of assent were called out from the crowd, even the Cult seemed to be unaware of the identity of their new star-player. The High Priest meanwhile was gauging the reaction of his rival, the Cult Leader, across the field, who sat with his own attendants with an air of smugness and satisfaction never before witnessed. With a defiant cry, the skink bellowed out his reply “I am Tenehuanin, the Prophet of Sotek, and I have travelled far in the Serpent God to do his bidding. The Second Coming of Sotek is upon us my children, and will commence with the arrival of the new Baktun. All his followers will be ready, and we shall purge the taint of warmbloods from our lands!” “Imposter” said the High Priest under his breath, as the stunned followers of the temple of Tzunki sat with mouths agape listening to the chants of Sotek Nacom, Sotek Maka echoing through the stadium. Panicked conversations began amongst the High Priest’s retainers as they debated amongst themselves the truth of the skink’s statements. “The Prophet of Sotek died many baktuns ago during the cull of the Skaven.” “No skink could have lived that long.” “Trick of the Cult. They seek to win over the populace of the city.” “It is a ploy to seize power of the temple city” The High Priest issued more instructions to his attendant, again addressing the skink upon the pitch. “Mighty Skink, those are high claims. The ancient Prophet of Sotek has not been seen in for many cycles. It is believed he perished driving the rats from the temples of Quetza and deep in the tunnels beneath the earth, a martyr to the end. What sign do you have to show the truth of your claims?” The skink below barred his teeth, confidently smiling at the High Priest. Turning to the followers of the Cult, he raised his arms and cried out. “The High Priest asks for a sign! As it is written, those who do not believe will be made to know truth. Behold portents of doom to those who fail to heed my words!! Far above the crowd, he pointed at the sun, now cresting high above the field. Once again to the collective shock of the assembled audience, the crowd was witnessed to the second miracle of the day. Slowly the side of the sun began to disappear, slowly at first, then faster as in an erratic display of unpredictability, the Chaos Moon covered the sun in a total eclipse. Terror and fear filled the cries of the skinks as the green moon was made visible. Panicked roars of the kroxigors as they bolted from the stadium, sending skinks flying through the air as bedlam struck. The High Priests and his followers scrambled for cover, the priests of the Moon in shock as such an eclipse was not predicted for this day. But then the voice of the self-proclaimed Prophet split through the commotion. “Fear not my spawn-brethren, behold now the power of the Serpent God!!” With his words, the green moon began to recede. Soon the darkness dissipated and the light returned, and the followers of Sotek again began up their chant of thanks, and even the followers of Tzunki took up the chant. Horrified, the High Priest and his attendants watched as the Tzunki Terradons, former champions of Pok Tok and masters of their craft, were grabbed by the arms and led to the center of the bowl and made to kneel at the feet of the victorious team. As the Lord of the Games, still bedecked in his jaguar-robes of Huanchi, entered the pitch, he lofted his skull-staff and pointed at the podium, awaiting the command of the High Priest while the Prophet led the thunderous chant of the ecstatic crowd. SOTEK NACOM, SOTEK MAKA! SOTEK NACOM, SOTEK MAKA! Numb with shock and overcome by the events he had witnessed, the High Priest raised his hand, and pointed his thumb to the ground, muttering to himself a disbelieving “Sotek is Good, Sotek is Great” as he watched his champions executed, their blood cast out onto the floor of the pitch. Spoiler: Story Two: "Abomination" Abomination Styn checked the last of his measurements, adjusted a few knobs, took a big breath, and pressed the circular stone button firmly into its groove. The spawning pool started to bubble. Styn's eyes shone with anticipation. He stood alone in a huge laboratory in the outskirts of Itza, surrounded by a madness of paraphernalia and instrumentation. Astrolabes danced in their bronze orbits along the ceiling, while strange mechanisms clicked and whirred among piles of plaques and parchments arranged in a fashion generously described as "working chaos". The small stone pool was in the centre - the eye of the storm. Styn had filled it that morning with water from the well - just a couple of inches deep. Yet now the clear water had clouded and was frothing and roiling like its own miniature firmament. Something was taking shape - a dark mass in the centre of the pool. Slowly, the form became clearer. Limbs stretched and a crest unfurled. A blue-scaled lizardman tottered upright and gave a little cry. As the trembling water began to still, the creature seemed to struggle with its eyelids and finally managed to open them, wetly, squinting in the light. Styn stumbled forwards to greet it, barely able to breathe. "You're alive," whispered the biomancer. He put out a hand to the new skink's snout, and was instinctively nuzzled by his creation. Just then, the skink's head whipped around at a passing streak of colour. A golden butterfly was floating through the room, dancing jerkily between clockwork mechanisms and alchemical apparatus. The skink's eyes lit up, and it leapt after the vibrant insect. Stacks of plaquework crashed to the floor, along with delicately shaped glass containers whose contents hissed and smoked when they touched the ground. Styn threw back his head and laughed at the sight of the lizard chasing the butterfly. His mirth was cut short by a knock at the door. Styn's expression quickly filled with alarm, and he bounded after the new-spawned skink, catching it by the tail. "Quick, we have to get you hidden!" whispered the scientist. He dragged the skink into the midst of a large, broken frame covered in canvass. "Stay here, do you understand me? Not a sound!" Styn put a single claw in front of his mouth and stared into the creature's wide eyes. There was another knock at the door, louder this time. Styn hurried over and unlatched the locking mechanism. Another skink immediately swept into the room, the feathered vestments of high office fluttering about him. "Priest Mob-" began Styn with a quick bow. "What in heavens are you tinkering with in here?" interrupted the priest, glaring around at the wild array. "Ugh. How do you even work like this?" "I find it productive, your reverence." "Why haven't you submitted any reports, as agreed?" "I, uh, I must have lost track of time..." muttered Styn. "Listen, Biomancer. The reports are not optional. The temple funds your madness, and we expect results. Have you made any progress on the weapons you-" He stopped at the unmistakable sound of a reptilian cry from across the room. "What was that?" barked the priest, glaring in the sound's direction. "M-must be-" stammered Styn, but he broke off as the canvass construct in the far corner began to shift. "Is something alive in here?" demanded the priest. In horror, Styn saw a small golden flutter pass by his new ward's hiding place. On cue, out jumped the young Styn Junior, eyes full of excitement, joy and utter innocence. "Priest Mobotl, I can explain," Styn tried to begin. But Mobotl had already rounded on him. "Is that a... a spawning?" he shrieked, his face a vision of zealous outrage. "Please, your worshipfulness, you must understand. Think of all the good we could do if we controlled the spawning pools! The temple won't admit it, but Lustria is failing! Our population will continue to dwindle and disappear if we do nothing! We need new spawnings!" He waited, bracing for a terrible tirade of fury. Instead, Priest Mobotl hissed a single word between clenched teeth, so quietly that Styn barely heard: "Abomination." The blood drained from Styn's face. "N-no, it's not-" "Only the Old Ones can make new life. You have defied their will. You and the monster will die." "No. No," repeated Styn, quivering now. "No. You can't have him. I won't let you!" He looked around, and lunged for a nearby prototype he'd made after dissecting a troglodon. He turned towards Mobotl and before he'd even realised it, he squeezed the trigger. A jet of venom coated the holy skink's face and body. The effect was so much faster than Styn had ever anticipated. Mobotl barely had time for a single scream before his head and chest began to dissolve and cave away, the rest of his body falling among the nearby apparatus with a crash. Styn dropped his weapon in horror and forced himself to look away from the corpse. He rushed over to Styn Junior, who was trying to nip at its reflection in a particularly shiny plaque. "Common pal, we have to go!" he hissed. "I'll just grab some things. Oh, I thought we'd have more time! There's nothing for it, we'll have to go straight into the jungle. These blasted fanatics! Can't they see their religion will doom the lizardmen? Ach, nevermind. If we can make it to Xlanhuapec, I know priests there who are more tolerant. We can keep you safe." While he babbled, he filled a sack with his most important notes and plaques. There wasn't any food or drink, but that was a secondary concern. He ushered the new skink to the door. As he unbolted it again, his creation turned to him and cocked its head. "Safe?" it said. The door swung open. A regiment of temple guardians stood outside, in formation. Twenty pairs of eyes turned to Styn, Styn Junior, and the body of the dead priest. In the silence, a butterfly floated past the ranks of soldiers. The abomination squealed in delight. Spoiler: Story Three: Awīak Awīak The great priest Zazec of Itza had a mission. He was charged by the Slann Yu'te to discover the meaning of one of the sacred plaques of Itza. The plaque depicted a ferocious furry beast chasing down fleeing skaven, and with the skaven advancing on Itza at a rapid pace they needed extra defenses Zazec traversed the dense jungles, using a spell of clairvoyance to guide him to where he could find the answers he sought. He sensed he was drawing nearer to his quarry every day. He knew their were great risks with him being alone. The beast in the plaques looked incredibly fierce and if he made but a single mistake, he could perish under it's razor sharp claws. The jungles around Zazec seemed to grow darker every passing moment, night was to be feared in Lustria. Though he was very close to finding the beast, Zazec knew he must rest. During the night, Zazec awoke with a jump. He heard strange sounds coming from the nearby bushes. He called the winds of magic to him, muttering incantations under his breath to try and avoid being heard. With a flash of his eyes, he realized that the beast was almost on top of him. A cold sweat broke out as he grabbed his staff preparing for a potential fight. He saw ghastly shadows of a large looming beast on the trees. The shadows prowled around him menacingly, as the bushes rustled. Zazec braced himself for the end as he saw the dark shadow prepare to pounce. Suddenly Zazec saw the figure leap, this was the end. Zazec blinked for a moment, he was not dead? He turned around to look what had hit his back, and as he saw it he cried out "Oh Sotek why!". Behind him sat a small tortoiseshell kitten, hopping after a small mouse, which quickly got away. Zazec cast his spell once more to be sure this is the beast the plaques described, and sure enough it was. Zazec knew he could not defy the will of the Great Plan, so he reluctantly picked up the small kitten who bit his hand. Zazec almost flung the kitten in shock, but managed to keep hold of it. The kitten made a hissing sound at him but Zazec has no choice but to set it in a small satchel at his side. Zazec was running behind, the jungles slowed him down greatly, and the siege would be any day now. He pushed his way past low hanging branches and thick brush, the kitten sitting in a small satchel at his side. Pretty soon the small creature started meowling whilst staring at him intently. Zazec was confused at what the small creature wanted, until he realized that the beast probably required sustenance. With a sigh he quickly drew out a fairly large piece of meat he had and dropped it into the satchel with the kitten. The kitten sniffed the meat cautiously for some time, but in the end decided to eat the meat. The next day, as he slept he awoke to find the satchel empty. Zazec started to panic, without this creature Itza would fall. He frantically searched around calling out "Here kitten kitten! Here kitten kitten!", When suddenly he heard a faint meow. He looked up just to spot the kitten sitting on a branch eight feet in the air. With a sigh, Zazec set to work climbing the tree. He almost fell a few times, this tree was very smooth and he had no clue how the kitten climbed it. After finally reaching the branch where the kitten perched, he started to crawl across to fetch the creature, when suddenly the kitten simply leaped to the ground with ease. With a grunt of annoyance Zazec slowly clambered down and retrieved the kitten, putting it back into the small satchel at his side. Later that day, the kitten leaped out of the satchel and darted away. Zazec chased the kitten and backed it up to a large rock, when suddenly the kitten slipped under the rock through a small crack. Zazec took a moment to try and comprehend how the kitten could fit through the crack, the math didn't add up at all. Based on the size of the creature, it should need an opening about three times as tall. Nonetheless, Zazec set to work luring the kitten out using another piece of meat. When he finally had lured the kitten close enough, he grabbed it and put it in his pouch. The kitten writhed and but at him angrily but Zazec had no time to waste. ---------- Itza was finally within sight, but alas he was too late, the battle had begun! He raced forward through a concealed second entrance into the city. Saurus and skinks were everywhere, all rushing towards the main gate to take up defensive positions. Zazec raced past these screaming "MAKE WAY! I MUST GET TO THE GATE!". The urgency in his voice seemed to have a great effect and they made way for Zazec to race through. Rushing out the main gate, Zazec saw a massive battle: terradons swooping from the skies to impale skaven on their beaks, carnosaurs charging across the field to take down massive rat ogres, it was chaotic. Nonetheless, Zazec could not ignore the Great Plan and reluctantly pushed his way through a mass of Saurus. He was now out in the open, a squadron of stormvermin racing towards him, he muttered to himself "For the will of the Slann is absolute.". Before he drew the small creature out of the satchel and held it high above his head. The stormvermin raced towards him, and were about to decapitate him, when a sudden fear hit their eyes. The vermin quickly fell over themselves as they tried to sprint away. And with this act the began to cry out in their horrible, verminous language. Almost at once the skaven all began to grow nervous, looking over at the beast Zazec was holding. Suddenly to finalize the skaven retreat, the creature let out a loud meow towards the skaven, who quickly turned around and ran. The battle was won. In the great Ziggurats of the Slann, a hero was honored. The small creature was presented with a small necklace, made of celestite and enchanted with the power of the Slann to protect it's wearer, and to prevent it from dying of sickness or age. In addition a small palanquin floated out with a padded seat for the creature to sit on and sleep. The great Lord Yu'te declared "On this day we honor a fearsome warrior, and from this day forth this creature and all of his kind are to be honored by our kind as noble beasts. In addition, Zazec, I appoint you to be this creature's guardian, to look after it's needs and make sure it is well." With a bow Zazec humbly accepted this burden. As he made his way up to retrieve the beast he noticed how soft it was and proclaimed "From this day forth, you will be known as Awīak!". The assembled Lizardmen went wild chanting the name of their savior. As the hero of Itza, Awīak was permitted to lead the ritual sacrifices of the captured Skaven. At the mere sight of Awīak the skaven begged for death and gave into the sacrifice without a fight, their hearts being ripped out and burnt on the altars of Sotek. And as honorary hero, Awīak was presented with the finest choices of food Itza had to offer, which he gorged himself on. Zazec smiled, who would have known that such a small creature could do such a great deed. ---------- To this day few know much information on the legendary Awīak. Due to the necklace granted to him by Yu'te, Awīak would not die of age. Some say that Awīak even survived the destruction of the Old World and now lives with Zazec aboard the greatest of temple ships, where he is known as one of the last remaining heroes of the Old World. Spoiler: Story Four "Lost and Found" Lost and Found The skeletal knights raced after the fleeing wanderers, cutting down any who were unfortunate enough to be caught within striking distance. However the routing aelves were nearing a dense jungle, where the mounted bone reapers would rapidly lose sight of their quarry in the overgrown jungles between Ghyran and Ghur. As storm clouds rolled over, the leading knight raised its hand, signaling a halt. “Why have they stopped?” Asked one of the aelves, turning her head to face the stationary bone constructs. “Now is not the time to ask questions, keep moving!” Another soldier shouted. Indeed the survivors had nearly reached the forest, with a few of their number even diving into the cover of the vegetation. Those still not in the dense forest rushed forward with a last burst of speed, slipping into the dense jungle. “I think we lost them.” The oldest of the group panted as he spoke. “But why are the forces of the Dead all the way in Ghyran and Ghur?” “Utterly no idea. At the very least, they seem to be as lost as we are.” responded another aelf. He seemed in a worse shape than his companions, as he bore a massive gash across his chest. “We might have an explanation, could it be that they want to raise some of the dead behemoths around these parts?” Was the response of another soldier who had lost his helmet in the chase. “QUIET, ALL OF YOU! Where is Ahmyran? Where did she go?” captain Wyrwal shouted, grabbing the attention of his subordinates. As if in response a nearby thicket quivered and out emerged an aelf, carrying an armful of sticks. “Thought we could use these, especially as it is going to be a cold night.” She continued to walk forward, only for her foot to catch an object concealed on the dense undergrowth, tripping and dropping the fire wood. She tried to catch herself before hitting the ground, only to crash onto hard stone. “Someone get a light going!” The captain ordered almost immediately in response. One of the younger soldiers quickly brought forth a lit torch and the group leaned in to see what their companion had tripped on. Even in the flickering light, the form was clear for all to behold; carved into the stone on the ground was an image of a saurian head. Hastily one of the aelves cleared away more of the debris on the stone, revealing more carvings. Each glyph depicted more saurian creatures in various scenes, so vast and grandiose that their meanings were utterly indecipherable to the soldiers. Then a twig snapped, right behind the aelves. “Draw wea-“ the captain's orders never left his throat, for he found a spear pressed against his throat, causing a bead of blood to roll down his neck. Slowly raising his eyes, Wyrwal locked eyes with the creature staring at him. In his youth his mother told him stories of terrifying reptiles that inhabited the jungles.The creature he now looked at matched the description, a massive reptile that stood on its hind legs, standing taller than even the largest warriors captain Wyrwal had seen before. After a minute of staring, he realized what the creature was, a saurus. Then in a blur of speed that belied its size, the creature struck the aelf with the flat side of its club. When Captain Wyrwal finally awoke, he and all his remaining companions were bound by thick rope made from tendons of some presumably colossal beast. Looking around he found several other groups like his, all bound like the aelves were. To their right were twenty creatures that could only be Skaven, too terrified to even chitter. On their left were a group of bound Khorne blood-bound, angrily thrashing against their restraints to no avail. “Where are we?” The captain whispered to Ahmryan. “We’re in some kind of temple, that’s all I know,” she whispered back. Then all the bound groups fell silent as a deafening series of noises could be heard, constantly growing closer. It was a returning group of saurus, many mounted on foot and just as many on the back of colossal reptiles. Many of the creatures bearing lances had the impaled remains of undead warriors upon them, many of them still helplessly thrashing and flailing, and a few of the largest saurus riders could only have had what were once wight kings impaled on their lances with only meager resistance being put up, as they feebly swung their limbs in protest, and paraded in a show of utter contempt for their undead foe. Among their number a few smaller reptiles of thinner stature bedecked in feathers and jewels marched behind the saurus knights, being attended to by other small reptiles which hurriedly replaced broken jewels or snapped feathers with new replacements. Yet all of this procession paled in comparison to what brought up the rear. A saurus, at least three times the size of its brethren with pale white scales was slowly following the marching parade. In one arm it held a massive mace, and in the other a jade shield that flickered with starlight. On each flank was a massive saurian beast. The larger of the two had blood red scales and towered over anything else in the procession. As it marched further in it sniffed and bellowed revealing row upon row of sword like teeth. Atop it sat another saurus that was every bit as big as the albino warlord on foot. Like its mount it was also roaring in triumph, and in a gauntlet covered arm it lifted the limp body of a vampire, with only the faintest hints of life still being visible in its battered form. Another saurian beast could also be seen, although this one was smaller and of a bright yellow color. Like the larger beast to its side, it also bore a saurian rider bellowing in triumph. The procession approached the pyramid holding the captives, and the soldiers parted to allow their commanders to ascend its steps. As they did so, some saurus wearing skulls and bedecked in gold armor removed the binding on the prisoners’ legs and prodded them to go up the steps. Many of the Khorne blood-bound attempted to escape, only to be slain by the vigilant temple guardians,who lopped their heads off with a single clean strike of their halberds. This sent their heads tumbling down the pyramid, bouncing off of each step and spraying blood across the stones. Atop the pyramid the skinks they had seen earlier were chirping and clicking.Through the mix of sounds a single set of words could be deciphered: Sotek and Old Ones. The Skaven were led forward, and slammed onto stone slabs by attending temple guard. One by one, the attending priests stabbed into their chests with cruel knives made of some black glass, causing blood to spurt out in showers of gore. As the priests removed their knives they plunged their hands into the chests of the vermin, and tore their still beating hearts out. Group by group, one by one, the captives suffered this gruesome fate. At last only the aelves and the now conscious vampire were left standing. The temple guardians shoved the vampire forward toward the gauntlet wearing saurus, which seized the vampire and slammed it upon another sacrificial stone slab. It lifted its spear and stabbed it into and through the vampire, impaling it and driving the spear-head into the stone beneath. As the desiccating vampire bled out what black fluids it had before turning to dust, the Oldblood wrenched the blade from the stone and roared a savage offering to whatever gods it believed in. As it did so a twin tailed comet resembling the forked tongue of a serpent arced across the sky, illuminating the dark landscape. In that moment most of the seraphon turned to gaze at it, showing a reverence for this object. Taking advantage of the moment, several of the aelves, including Wyrwal and Ahmyran, bolted. Their saurian guards did not take notice of their departure, and the few skinks that noticed them seemingly did not care. It would take several weeks of running through the undergrowth, dodging patrolling saurus and skinks, to finally escape the choking jungles and feel some degree of safety. After what felt like ages, they at last reached their home city. Passing through the gates, the aelves saw some elderly scholars discussing the meaning of several large engravings of giant reptiles on big blocks of stone. Off in the distance, the aelves caught sight of some skinks wandering through the market. The lizards paid no attention to the aelves, seemingly occupied with their own tasks... Spoiler: Story Five: "Return of the King" The Return of the King The Slann council were in session. Each telepathically linked to every other, they discussed the events occurring in the Realms below in their orbiting Temple-Ship. "The Conqueror has escaped," murmured Lord Azquotl, the eldest Slann present, in his mind, "And sooner than expected. This poses a serious threat to our plans." "Although we cannot see the Conqueror as he is no longer corporeal, we can prevent him from returning to the physical world," spoke Lord Ouboratl. "We have but one course of action," Lord Azquotl resolved, “Have our Saurus cohorts more meticulously supervise the Fourth Race populations here, and kill any who are performing a ritual. We cannot let the Conqueror return." The assembled Slann all nodded slowly in agreement. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- “Boy, do you hear me?” Khadir woke suddenly as he heard a loud voice rumble this question. He peered around the darkened room of his little house in the burgeoning town of Lybalma, but he could see nobody sufficiently awake to have spoken to him just now, only his wizard Master,Abazzar, snoring loudly in his own bed across the room. Thinking it was all a dream, he settled back down to sleep. “You are trying my patience!” The voice rang out again, jolting him awake once more. This time Khadir spoke a question of his own, suitably quietly to avoid waking his master. “Who are you?” “You dare to ask the True King his name?” The voice growled loudly, before reluctantly quietening down and commenting, “At least, though, it seems you have a voice after all.” It sounded as if it was coming from... inside his head. Was he surethat this wasn’t all just a dream? Well, regardless, he had to play along, because the voice would continue to shout at him all night if he didn’t. “I am... most sorry, True King, sire,” he replied courteously, “But I didnot expect to become host to your fine company at this time of night.” “You have an eloquent tongue on you,” the King of Kings commented, “An especially desirable trait for a Grand Vizier.” “Grand Vizier? I can never hope to reach such a position,” Khadir confessed humbly. “You will not if you continue to study under that wheedling old fool,” The True King commented with reference to Abazzar, “But if you assist me I will reward you with everything you could ever want. I am in need of someone to assist me in an especially complex ritual. I chose you for the task because I sense boundless potential in you. I am giving you a chance to escape the monotonous destiny currentlyin front of you, and to build a better one for everyone here. The choice is yours.” Khadir had never really enjoyed learning under the cranky old Abazzar’s tutelage, and if there was ever a chance that he could berid of him, this was it. “Yes, I will help you, my liege,” he eventually thought. “Good. Now, there are many magical ingredients I need you tocollect. Do not fret if you have never used them before, I will guide you with my ancient wisdom...” The True King then proceeded to rattle off so many names of chemicals and substances that Khadir just couldn’t stay awake, and the young apprentice fell asleep with the booming voice of the True King echoing and fading, as if into the distance. The next morning, Khadir was rudely awoken by Abazzar hollering into his ear at the top of his irritating voice, his usual wake-up call. He couldn’t hear the True King anymore - maybe he had dreamed it all in the night. “What are you doing still lying about here like a drunken camel?” The wizard screeched, “I got started in my work three hours ago! Come on, come on!” Hurriedly the apprentice flopped out of bed and got dressed into his robes, with his master chivying him on all the time. “Finally,” Abazzar breathed, “Now, before you begin your studies today, you will need to pick up the following ingredients from the market...” The wizard proceeded to list a quantity of substances that Khadir was prompted to write down, before shoving him out of the door and slamming it shut before he could realise that he even had a job to do. Sighing, the apprentice then turned to the left and trudged along the sandy street that led to the town square. Already there were quantities of people who had arrived to buy and sell goods at the market. Stalls with awnings that were as colourful as the clothes of the folk who manned them were dotted all around the plaza and the great golden statue of Sigmar that stood proud at its centre. Khadir had no idea about who Sigmar was, only that he was revered by the majority of the town. Around the statue there stood several Saurus, strange lizard-folk from another Realm, as motionless as the statue itself. Khadir noticed one particularly bulky Saurus turn its cold-blooded gaze onto him, its vertically-slotted pupils looking as if they were able to search his very soul for the secrets he kept from the world. Presently he arrived at the stall owned by Bashir, the resident apothecary. The portly gentleman sat contentedly in a chair that barely supported his weight, enjoying the heat of a particularly pleasant patch of sunlight that teased its way beneath the awning. “Ah, Khadir!” he welcomed in his booming voice, “come for some more of my fine produce, eh?” “Hello Bashir, that was my intention,” the young apprentice replied curtly as he rifled in the pockets of his robe for the list of potion and spell ingredients that Abazzar required. After a minute or so he found it unfolded it and examined it. “First I would like some dried Maw-Krusha Claw,” he read out, before a deafening roar suddenly burst its way into his mind. “What are you doing?” The True King growled at the top of his voice. Great, it hadn’t been a dream. “I was just...getting the ingredients you required for the ritual, my king,” he replied in his mind hurriedly. “Do not think you can sway me with little white lies, boy!” The True King reprimanded, “If you had been paying attention to my requirements last night, I think you will find the first ingredient was Carrion Sinew!” “Perhaps, my liege, it would be prudent to purchase the ingredients my master requested in addition to those you wanted,” Khadir thought hurriedly, “It would help to prevent the arousal of suspicion.” “Very well,” the True King relented after a moment of contemplation, “But make sure you purchase every single substance I personally required, as we agreed. I do not take kindly to dissention.” “Are you all right, young man?” This next question brought Khadir back to the physical world. He looked up and saw Bashir with a concerned look upon his face, holding the pot that would serve to hold Khadir’s purchases. “Yes...yes, I’m fine, thank you,” he replied, before asking, “The next thing I would like is some Carrion Sinews.” It took most of the morning for Khadir to procure not just Abazzar’s requirements, but also those of the True King. To make it easier to hide the latter from Abazzar, Khadir had Bashir place the True King’s requirements into a separate pot, saying that those ingredients needed to be stored in an especially dry place to disguise their actual purpose. On his way home, Khadir once again walked past the Saurus lurking around the statue of Sigmar. “I’d advise you be especially wary of these creatures,” The True Kingspoke into his mind, “They will kill for reasons that are both beyond and below the understanding of you and even I.” When Khadir got back to the house, he quickly gave the impatient Abazzar the jar containing the ingredients he needed, but was careful to hide the other pot beneath his bed, while his master was fussing over his newest acquisitions. “Wait until after dark before performing the ritual,” The True King commanded, “I will guide you.” So Khadir did just that, continuing his studies under Abazzar throughout the rest of the day, and waiting until his master was sound asleep the following night before making his move. When he did so, he quietly lifted the pot full of ingredients out from beneath his bed, and left the house as stealthily as he could. The marketplacewas empty. Relief welling up inside him, Khadir quietly made his way over to the plinth upon which the statue had been installed, picked out each of the ingredients from the jar and laid them out in front of him on the stone steps, before reciting the words that the True King had told him to speak. “Great King of a world now lost, and humiliated by a traitor’s hand, by Ptra’s eternal judgement, I grant you a second chance!” At these words, he used all his power to summon magical flames to consume each of the commodities laid upon the dais. Each flamethen was drawn by some force into the statue. As this occurred, pillars of blinding light surrounded him and many Saurus immediately materialised, brutal-looking clubs in hand, but even as they closed on the young apprentice, the statue’s metal features began to meld and change. The representation of Sigmar’s mighty storm-hammer elongated and transform into a blade at the business-end. Primitive-looking robes warped into a far grander tunicand wrappings, and Sigmar’s bushy beard melted away, a thin, pointed beard replacing it at the end of his chin. The face of the statue became sharper and more gaunt. Lastly, the golden construct began to move, raising one great leg off its podium and stepping onto the ground, before doing the same with the other. Initially it moved in erratic jerks, as though it struggled to get its joints working again after standing still for so long, but soon it moved more smoothly as it bellowed a terrible roar and swung its blade into the ranks of Saurus, bisecting several in an instant and causing them all to fade into stardust. The others all surrounded the great statue, but it lay about them unperturbed, crushing some with its giant feet and smiting more with its blade, which burned with a searing white light. Amidst the commotion, terrified townspeople emerged from their houses to see what all the noise was about, and fled when they sawthe colossal statue moving. The only person who did not run was Abazzar, who stood before the statue defiantly. “Melt at my words, O great calamity, for metal breaks its bonds at every syllable of my speech!” The wizard yelled, but the statue did nothing of the sort, and with a frightened squeal Abazzar was crushed beneath one gilt foot. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lord Azquotl was becoming ever more concerned. “The Conqueror has awoken. Our cohorts are powerless against him,” he murmured telepathically. “Return our cohorts to the Temple Ship, there is only one thing left to do,” he instructed the lesser Slann in his audience, and as they did so, he reached out into the cosmos, and used all his strength to dowhat the Great Plan dictated him to. “Not even the Conqueror will be able to resist the unbridled might of the heavens,” the Fifth Generation Slann intoned confidently. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The True King was perplexed when the puny reptilians he was crushing now disappeared into thin air before he could kill them, an act of cowardice against all the rules of warfare he had learned when ruling his kingdom in the World-That-Was. Now, however, he had more pressing matters to worry about. Cries of fear from the townspeople prompted him to turn to the direction in which they were pointing. A meteorite was descending from the sky, straight towards Lybalma. If it hit, innocents from miles around would perish. The great statue turned and hefted his blade, awaiting the comet’s arrival and chanting prayers in a voice nobody but himself could hear. “By Ptra, by Neru, by Tahoth, by Khsar, by Djaf and by Usirian, give me the strength to protect my new kingdom!” As the comet passed through Ghur’s atmosphere and surged downtoward the True King, the statue stood firm. With a roar the statue swung his weapon back in both hands, channelled all his energy into it and... ...deflected the great comet back up into the skies, with a deafening boom that forced Khadir and all the other townspeople to cover theirears and crouch low to the ground, and an impact that hit the True King so hard that it knocked the statue to the ground. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lord Azquotl was astounded - never had he seen such strength in all his millennia of existence. Yet his astonishment turned into, for the first time in his life, a hint of fear as the comet, on its new course, approached the Temple Ship hovering in orbit, and obliterated it in a massive explosion. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- After the cloud of dust faded and the townspeople all got to their feet again, the statue could be seen rising from the ground, and slowly advancing his way over to them in heavy footfalls. “I know you may feel fear when you look upon my godly form, but as long as you prove your loyalty to me, none of you shall be harmed. I will show you that I am a far superior ruler to the Star-Lizards.” He now turned to Khadir. “This young man risked his life to return me to the corporeal world, and in return I give him everything I promised.” The statue held out his hand over Khadir’s head, and intoned ancient prayers in a tongue the apprentice did not recognise. When he had finished, Khadir was now dressed in an outfit so fine even Abazzar would have been green with envy, and in his mind he felt knowledge and wisdom he never could have dreamed of now taking up residence. “Thank you, my king,” he said gratefully. The statue then turned back to the crowds, and made them a promise. "I assure you, good people, that I will bring you unmatched prosperity and strength, for I AM SETTRA, KING OF KINGS, AND I NOW RULE THIS REALM!" Spoiler: Story Six "Fire of the Old Ones" Fire of the Old Ones Droning filled the jungle as the blistering summer sun edged ever closer to the horizon. The dawn chorus’ mind numbing opposite, the cicadas and buzzing insects of the tropics clicked and trilled, their wings humming in the thick air. As the humid nights creep ever closer, the small reptiles and feral creatures that come awake in the yellow-ish half-light prey on the thick shelled beetles and wriggling insects. Krztun hated bugs. Birds called out eerily over jungle canopy in search of their roost. Soon night would be upon them. The small party picked its way further and further from the coast, returning home to the temple city. Krztun could still feel blood and bits of gore beneath his claws and let out a ‘humph’ as he lead the group onwards. A beetle swayed and hovered in front of him and the Saurus recoiled, baring his teeth at the brightly coloured creature. Grumbling, Krztun continued forwards. They had returned from the beach after dispatching a small group of warmbloods. Perhaps ship wrecked, having hit a reef off the hostile coastline of the Southern Continent. Fear of the unknown no doubt less than fear of the sharks and other creatures of a less than savoury nature that patrol the waters of the New World. From the assortment of tokens they had acquired Krztun had selected a stick-thing which he frequently waved in front of him to clear any spider webs that had been slung across the path. Despite his distaste for the spiders themselves, half of him preferred to encounter and dispatch of them on his own rather than watch the Chameleon Skinks that would often skitter through the undergrowth and snatch up the different bugs and things for a meal. He thought it best not to think about should he want to retain his own last meal. The Saurus swung his stick in an arc and snapped through a spider web, the little arachnid waving its forelegs angrily as it was knocked aside. This stick-like object had piqued Krztun’s interest with its slim wooden and metal frame, curved into an ‘L’ shape and hollowed out at one end. It had several details etched into the side and seemed to be some form of mechanical instrument. The Saurus could not understand what it might be used for, as it didn’t seem sturdy enough to be a weapon but regardless, it looked like some effort has been taken to construct it. The Kroxigor plodding along with the group would every so often stumble over a dip or hidden tree branch, his eyes not as well attuned to the half-light as the Saurus and certainly the Skinks that picked their way along with ease. Every misstep from the hulking creature caused his burden to clank and crash against his broad back. Though much had been all but destroyed in the ship-wreck, the party had salvaged a few of the warmblood possessions. Though foreign tokens could usually bear no use to the Lizardmen, they were not completely against repurposing items that were largely unknown to them. Some of the more precious items may be taken to the Temple Vaults to keep as a sort of trophy, in some cases a burnt offering to the gods. The Kroxigor, his foot caught on a root, swayed to regain balance, knocked a Skink over the head with his bag. Receiving a harsh hiss, the large creature blinked apologetically and continued to lumber on. The clinking of the Kroxigor’s bag blended in with the droning insects as Krztun, stick in hand, led the party back towards the Temple city. _ Night had fallen by the time the group reached the city. The members gradually disbanded as they strode through the buildings of stones and gold, each returning to homes or places of worship, joining the masses of Lizardmen whose rumbling chants echoed through the city. The Kroxigor and the Saurus reached the foot of the Temple alone and the pair continued down into the vaults. Reaching a lobby of sorts, the Kroxigor dumped the bag on the ground and grumbled something incoherent before slowly ascended the staircase again back to the outside world. A handful of Skinks in scarlet robes crept out from the shadows and began to sift through the items from the warmbloods. One glanced sceptically at Krztun who realised he was still holding the stick. He stepped forward and dropped the stick onto the pile, then resumed his post with averted eyes. The Skinks chittered and hissed as they sorted through the heap with great efficiency. Various coins and pure utensils were tossed aside, perhaps useful to melt down and reform, but largely useless to the Lizardmen. Some sort of mechanical item was sniffed suspiciously, its circular face fogging up in the humid Lustrian air. The sea water had halted any ticking that may have once been softly emitted from the item. Several blades were placed aside to be taken to the armoury, but the rest was left to be burnt as a sacrifice. With perhaps a tinge of regret, Krztun saw the long stick-like item left behind, awaiting the pyre. The skinks collected the various items and dissolved once more into the shadows to distribute them appropriately. _ Smoke had begun spiralling into the sky before the sun had breached the horizon. Lizardmen of all shapes, sizes and rank had gathered to watch the ceremony. The fire upon the pyramid, placed on a platform overlooking the temple city, only grew as the day crawled onwards and the crowd followed suit. A chant began in the sea of scales until the Temple City was alive the rumbling song of Lizardmen, the screeches and growls of Lustria and the unitary praise of the Old Ones. The sun rising behind him cast the Skink Priest, in all his robes, feathers and painted ritual finery as a fearsome silhouette, ascending the stairs towards the pyre. The items deemed by the Temple Skinks as useless were brought forward to the Priest and the chanting evolved into a hurricane of animalistic savagery and unrivalled ferocity. The painted Skink raised his hands to hush the chanting and addressed the city as one. _ Krztun watched the Priest as he called upon the Old Ones and committed these tokens of uncleanliness and barbarism to the fire. The Skink threw the various pieces onto the pyre and Krztun eyed the piece with the mechanisms and carvings, the strange curved bar, as it was tossed into the flaming mass. There seemed to be a fraction of hesitation in the world and Krztun’s nostrils flared as his breath hitched. There was a deafening crack and a shriek of surprise from where the Skink Priest had been thrown to the ground. The flames of the fire sprang up and roared, yellow and green burning from the centre of the explosion. The fire subsided and the hoard of Lizards bowed their heads in reverence, the chant starting up again. The Priest stood up and held out his arms before the flames. Eyes wide, he turned his head skywards as the Lizardmen stamped and beat their weapons, shields and spears were shaken and screeches and roars filled the air. Krztun blinked in surprise and awe. How wrong it was of him to let any selfish inclination into his head. His loyalty had been acknowledged with the favour of the Old Ones. His Brothers around him, and his golden city reflecting the light of the morning sun, the sacrifice had been made and rewarded. The will of the Old Ones had brought that artefact into his hand and it had been their will for it to be taken back. A sign of their acknowledgement, of their recognition. They had been pleased. Spoiler: Story Seven: "Prayers for Vengeance" Prayers for Vengeance Tekakor (Tek-ah-core) thought about going to the shrine of Xapati weeks earlier but he decided to wait for Vengeance Day. The Skink chief walked along the mulch path towards the shrine. The insects were getting noisy in the dusk gloom, but the Skink tuned it out. He thought only of his hatred. The Skink half-expected to see a small queue, but he was the only one from at the kahoun’s shrine this evening. The Old Ones may be beings of duty not beings of vengeance, but Takakur knew that sometimes vengeance and duty overlapped. That’s what the Old One Xapati represents. Takakur had never visited the shrine before. The shrine was modest, a small gazebo over a stone altar surrounded by a small statuette of Xapati in all four cardinal directions. Beyond the four statuettes were sixteen wooden poles carved with glyphs forming a loose circle around the altar. The skink lit of stick of incense and waved it around the shrine. Then he bit into the soft part of his left hand. After daubing his own blood in a rough circle around the altar, he knelt. “Great Xapati, I beseech you. Grant me holy vengeance against the foes of the Great Plan…” Iliphar (ill-a-far) finally made it to Drakira’s temple. The disgraced corsair commander had trouble obtaining enough leave to make the pilgrimage to the Drakira temple in Karand Kar, but his commander granted him a leave for vengeance sake. Apart from the ceremonial guard at the entrance, the temple was completely empty. Iliphar thought it was odd that he was the only elf in Karand Kar not seeking vengeance that evening. Too many Druichi worshipped Khaine alone. Khaine may be Naggaroth’s greatest patron, but the Druichi should claim the heritage of all the elven god. Khaine was a supported general destruction of one’s enemies, but Illiphar sought a personal touch. The walls of the hallway to the main altar were lined with ceremonial weapons along with murals depicting famous scenes of wrongs done to the Druichi people and acts of retribution against them. A stylistic statue of a stern elven woman stood over a bronze brazier. Drakira had drained the blood of a sacrificial human earlier and carried it in a large ceramic jar. He unsealed the jar then took a knife and cut his palm to mix his blood with that of the dead slave before pouring the mixture into the brazier. “Lady Drakira, Queen of Vengeance. Accept my offering. Grant me vengeance against those who wronged a loyal servant of the true gods.” Tekakor “The Slann, in their wisdom, have determined that a permanent settlement resettlement of the City of Echoes is not feasible. It is ill fated for any the group to stay there too long, but the Slann decreed that the ruins of Xahutec must be defended at all times. I don’t know if the ruins have that warmbloods want, but that doesn’t stop them from looking. Different contingents from throughout Lustria have been guarding the city in three-month shifts. Our kahoun just finished one such shift. “We didn’t have any Chameleons and we had very few Terradons, so we’ve had to do our scouting work. I was a sub-commander in charge of long range patrols.” Iliphar “My Black Ark opted to stage a raid on some ruins near Lustria’s northeast coast. The odds of finding any treasure were fairly low, but it has been some time since the armies of Naggaroth have engaged in a true war, but we cannot allow our blades to go too long without tasting blood. Illiyarus, Our Black Ark Commander thought this was a worthy test of our skills. Also, I’m pretty sure supreme sorceress, Seldanna, thought there was something of value here she could find. Illiyarus seeks to get in Seldanna’s “good graces’ so to speak. “It was more trouble than it was worth to take harpies on a long sea journey. Most of our horses had to haul supplies, so had to do our scouting work on foot. I was the captain in charge of our point group.” Tekakor “My army group had thirty-seven Sotek Caste Skinks armed with javelins. We had two cohorts of with a combined total of seventy-eight worker caste Skinks and eight Kroxigor. We had thirteen beast caste brethren with two Razordons and a Salamander. “We spotted the Fallen before they could see us, but we only had a split second advantage. A single spawning of skirmishers threw a volley of javelins before all the elves were alert and and firing their strange bows upon us. Most of their bolts missed but they such a high volume of fire some of these shots struck true and downed a warrior. “The dark elves bowmen had superior range. Some of the soldiers wearing the stolen scaly cloaks from who knows what kind of creature and these cloaks seemed to be very javelin resistant. I knew a shooting contest was a bad idea, so I ordered the cohorts to charge immediately. “The Fallen of the Second Race held firm. The cohorts were doing a respectable job but the elves were dealing out worse than they got. I wanted to help them, but I was holding back with the Sotek caste because I knew the elves had to have some kind of flanking force. “Their flanking force was warmblooded cavalry and unarmored dual wielding elves screaming like howler monkeys. Unarmored elven infantry are very vulnerable to our javelins but I had to cover the horses. I split the fire between the two threats and caused many infantry to die, but unfortunately I underestimated the cavalry. They obliterated half of a spawning of Sotek Skinks and only lost two of their own in the process. “I was vaguely aware of an elf in shinier false scales directing the other elves, but he was too far away for me to do anything about it. I could get him later. “I wondered what the beast caste skinks were doing but I didn’t have time to rein them in. While the cavalry was regrouping after running the west flank down, I led the rest of the Sotek skinks to counter charge them. At this point I lost track of the rest of the battle temporarily. The cavalry had to die.” Iliphar “The advanced group I was commanding had ten dark riders, thirty corsairs, thirty crossbowmen and twenty-seven witch elves. I didn’t want the witch elves at all, they don’t follow orders well, but Seldanna insisted the witch elves be in every army group and Illyarus unsurprisingly agreed. “We spotted the lizards before they could see us, but we only had a split second advantage. We got a rushed volley of bolts off before the javelins began to rain down on us. Their infantry quickly came in to support their skirmishers. Most of the javelins rebounded harmlessly against our armor, but every point that struck skin caused death to the lizard’s poison. “I knew the Dark Riders would be butchered by the skirmishers if we tried to keep our distance, so I ordered our lines to converge as quickly as possible. “All of us had been brief on the enemy’s capabilities. When the little skinks and the crocodile ogres fought in combined units, we knew the crocodile ogres were the real threat, but they are unaccountably fond of the little warriors. If you kill enough little ones, the big ones will lose heart and flee. “I saw the lizards had some of the medium sized beasts with ranged attacks but they were holding back for some reason. “The witch elves did not join the main offensive as ordered and tried for their own flank attack. They got a bunch of poisoned javelins perforating their pretty bodies. Hah! The flank attack I ordered did better. The dark riders lost one of their members to a javelins but managed to slash or trample over a dozen skirmishers.” “I saw the skirmishers had a leader rallying them to resist the cavalry but I was too far away to do anything about it. He would die later. “At that point the Fog of War enveloped me. There was a crocodile ogre trying to kill me personally so I couldn’t pay attention to the battle at large. I wanted to set a good example for the men and I didn’t get squashed to jelly, so I took it upon myself to slay the beast.” Tekakor “When I finished off the enemy cavalry and regrouped the remaining Sotek caste, I surveyed the battle. It looked like the warbeasts got overly excited and several beast handlers were slain by their own charges. Nothing I can do about that. “The enemy archers had put so many arrows in into the Salamander it looked like a Razordon. The Salamander had at least managed to char some elves to death before it fell. One Razordon was exchanging shots with the elven archers while the other one engaged the remnants of the berserker infantry. “Despite having more numbers initially the elves against the cohort were doing relatively well. There were twice as many dead skinks as elves littering the ground. The elf commander fought like a Scar Veteran. The threat to the Razordons was more immediate. “I yelled ’Quit throwing spines and charge them!’ I yelled to the unengaged Razordon than I led the Sotek Skinks against the flank of the elves fighting the other Razordon.” Iliphar “I was the first to bring down a crocodile ogre. I hobbled it by slicing its shins and ankles and then slit its throat. I could stem the actions of the others. The big lizards were slow and clumsy but my men were tiring and every time a crocodile ogre struck true, an elf was turned into entrails. The sounds of dying horses told me the dark riders were finished. Nothing I could do about that. “We were winning against the mixed cohorts but we were winning slowly, but it looked liked the Witch Elves were being overwhelmed on our opposite flank. I didn’t like them, but I could afford to let any troops in my command die needlessly. “The crossbowmen seem to have neutralized the lizard’s support beasts, so I ordered the crossbowmen to try to back up the witch elves but the spikey reptile charged them. Tying them down.” Tekakor “Great Xapati, I am not afraid to admit II sorely underestimated the fury of the berserkers. The Razordon was slain quickly and they were cutting down Sotek Skinks with ease despite our numbers. The berserkers seemed to have no fear. It was all I could do to stay alive." Iliphar “I admit, Dark Lady, it was unwise to seek melee battle with that a force that large. Most of the smaller lizards were dead or routed but the lizard ogres persisted. They killed many corsairs, our armor useless against them. They were determined to hold their ground. It was all I could do to stay alive." Tekakor “Most of my Sotek brethren were dead. I would have died too were it not for the Terradons. They had arrived ahead of the rest of the army. Their dive took out many beserkers and finally broke their spirit routing the survivors of the unit. “The Kroxigor had finally turned the tide against their foes but that was small comfort. Perhaps they would manage to kill the enemy commander. The archers had destroyed the second Razordon and were turning towards me. Twelve of them against me and five others. “To my shame, I don’t remember the name of the Skink who knocked me down and took the arrow meant for me. Whatever his name, I wanted to avenge him, but I could not, I was alone. The Terradon riders destroyed the archers before they could kill me. “At this point the rest of the army had arrived. I was too exhausted to do much. My senses were weakened by fatigue. I barely realized that the Fallen elves had their reinforcements too. I joined a new unit of javelin Skinks and fought as best as I could the rest of the battle." Iliphar “Sixty elves had stood their ground against a hundred lizards, but it was not enough. I slain two more crocodile ogres that were already slightly wounded. It was not enough. There were three crocodile ogres still standing and me, no one else. We were surrounded by scores of dead lizards and elves lying in the mud. The dim beasts’ eyes homed in on me. I could sense their rage. The crossbowmen had defeated their opponents, though they failed to kill the lizard commander. I was too focused on the immediate danger before me to rectify this. My remaining men were too few, too far away to help me. I fled. I slain enough lizards that I feel no shame in fleeing. I heard the horns blowing announcing the imminent arrival of Cold One knights. I heard he roar of our Hydras. The rest of the Black Ark’s forces were near. I fled towards them then joined a new unit of corsairs. I saw the Cold One Cavalry kill the Kroxigor ogres that tried to killed me, but I saw the lizard commander escape and meld into his own reinforcements." Tekakor We won the battle, but at a cost. The Fallen Elves were driven back to the sea, but the losses were heavy. I was the sole survivor from our advanced unit. I believe the elven commander of their advanced unit also escape. His face haunts my dreams. He killed my brethren and must pay." Iliphar "We won the battle, but at a cost. We inflicted more damage than we received. We had trophies of slain, a small number of ceremonial captives, and we had plundered a great many gold trinkets some of the enemy soldiers were wearing. I was the sole survivor of my army group. The humiliation must not stand. My instincts tell me the skirmisher leader escaped." Tekakor "Great Xapati, most focused and driven of the Old Ones, grant me the boon I seek. Let me find my hated enemy, so that I may slay him in your name." Iliphar "Lady Drakira, Queen of Vengeance, grant me the opportunity to avenge my humiliation. Let me find my hated enemy, so that I may slay him in your name." Spoiler: Story Eight: "Tipping the Scales" Tipping the Scales Savage delight filled his heart as he watched the last of them run. It had been inevitable, of course; such a cowardly race would never stand and fight when the odds were against them, each unwilling to risk their own flea-bitten skin and fleeing the moment danger presented itself. Of course no matter how fast they were it never seemed to matter. Here and there one would make a break for the treeline only to be met with a sudden hail of darts as unseen hunters guarded the pathways, or a Ripperdactyl snatching them - screaming - to a bloody end. Hungry Cold Ones rampaged through the grass with prey clutched in their jaws, chunks being savagely ripped free by their packmates. It had been a good day indeed. Blood ran freely, coating the lush greenery in vibrant crimson. Life would flourish here, nourished by this bounty. They had taken few casualties, the sudden ambush easily scattering the skittish defenders. A triple-pronged attack that had smashed through their ranks and crushed their leaders before they’d had time to prepare. It had been a long time coming, but well worth the wait. Hatred burned within as he recalled the destruction the foul rat-spawn had caused, the permanent loss of the Spawning Pools and desecration of the Temple-Cities. They would defile no more. As he walked across the corpse-strewn battlefield the scavenging serpents flocked to him, forming a writhing tide at his feet. He took a moment to stoop and plucked a particularly fine looking viper from the swarm, regarding it thoughtfully. The snake’s tongue flickered out, tasting his scent. Satisfied, he released it back onto the ground where it melted into the slithering horde. A wing of Terradons swooped above, the largest diving to land in front of him. “O Great One, it is over,” Skyleader Itak’Qui informed him. “We have hunted for miles but none have escaped us.” He considered this for a moment. It was not unlikely that some of their enemy had concealed themselves even from the expert eyes of the Terradon riders, but even if a few had escaped the jungle would take them soon enough. “Keep watch. We will march for the Altar soon, ensure that nothing is following us,” Tehenhauin commanded. Itak’Qui nodded respectfully, urging his mount upwards to join his riders. All around him his warriors flitted, Skinks examining the fallen and Kroxigors scooping them up. Those that had not yet succumbed were tended to, even their foes. Their fates would be far less merciful than bleeding out on the battlefield. They would have little respite, for the journey to the Altar was not without danger. Even a victory such as this could not be savoured for long. But there was still time yet. There was a hive of activity ahead as clusters of Skink Priests fussed over a truly colossal form. It was time for him to pay his respects. As he approached the Priests halted, each bowing before him. Some were clutching bandages and ointments for the few wounds the beast bore but most held trinkets of gold and jade to bestow upon their protector. The Prophet of Sotek craned his head to look up at their ally. Eyes that had been ancient when the Ruinous Ones had yet to exist stared back at him, the weight of aeons behind them. “We are grateful for your arrival, Most Auspicious One. You slew many plague-beasts indeed, their dead lie beyond counting. Truly this is a day blessed by Sotek,” the Prophet spoke. The gnarled bulk of the Kroxigor shifted, gleaming ornaments swaying. Jaws that could have swallowed him whole with room to spare opened. “Many died. Many live. It is not over.” Nakai rumbled. “We will march to the Altar to give Sotek his due sacrifices soon enough. Will you join us?” Tehenhauin asked. Nakai stood still for a moment, considering the offer, before shaking his massive head. “Nakai will go. More enemies. More battles. Elsewhere.” It was not unexpected but a loss nonetheless. The battle prowess of the Wanderer was nearly unrivaled. “If it is so, Revered Ancient, then may you slay many more yet,” the Prophet replied. “Nakai returns. Little Skink. Do not die.” His words said, the huge Kroxigor hefted the Sacred Blade of Quetzl in one hand, gore dripping from its spikes, and strode away. The jungle formed sprang up around him, concealing his form in an instant. - The sound of flesh tearing and bones splintering was one he was fairly accustomed to, but the pure viciousness with which the Rat Ogre Bonebreaker was being torn apart was beyond comparison. The shining scales gleamed as crimson as the blood pooling atop Sotek’s altar. Grymloq halted for a moment, contemplating the Skink, before deciding he was neither threat nor food and returning to his meal. Beside his mount stood the Last Defender of Xhotl, his gaze impassive. Though Lord Mazdamundi had not given the Scar-Leader leave to join the Red Host, Kroq-Gar had nonetheless sought him out, bringing the raw and unfettered savagery of his mount and a host of battle-hardened Saurus Warriors. Having the greatest commander the world had ever seen in his ranks had truly been a tipping point in the war against the hated ratmen. “Prophet. No warmbloods have challenged us,” Kroq-Gar greeted him brusquely. “Almost a pity, yet more sacrifices would have been welcomed. One of their leaders is yours to slaughter, if you so desire,” Tehenhauin replied. “The Warlord or the Grey Seer?” Kroq-Gar’s teeth gleamed. On any other race it might have been a smile. “Warlord,” Kroq-Gar requested. “As you wish. We will have it ready atop the steps shortly. I can lend you my dagger if you have need of it,” the Prophet said, proffering his curved Dagger of Sotek. Kroq-Gar nodded once, reaching his gleaming golden hand out to accept the blade. The metal fingers deftly held the weapon as the Scar-Leader inspected it for a moment, before hissing in satisfaction. “Come, Grymloq,” Kroq-Gar commanded. The mighty Carnosaur lifted his head from his brutalised prey instantly, following his master with unusual obedience. As one the assembled legions of Saurus too marched after their commander. The lone Skink’s tongue flicked out, tasting the blood on the air. It was nearly time. - The roars and chants of the assembled Skinks, Saurus and Kroxigors was nearly deafening. Most cried out for the various Old Ones, though the call for Sotek was by far the loudest. Each was clustered around the broken temple, the jungle flattened so that all could look upon the top. A lone Skaven was tied to the monument that once served as a shrine to a long-forgotten god. The ratman was drenched in blood, though little of it was its own. Before it had struggled weakly at its bonds, but now it was still. Perhaps it realised the futility of its actions or maybe it no longer had the energy to continue. Above it loomed the ancient Saurus leader. Kroq-Gar had slain hundreds of Warlords, both on the battlefield and on the altar. This was just yet one more tally for him. As the chanting grew more and more raucous and fervent, he lifted the dagger, swiftly bringing it across the throat of the defeated Skaven. The ceremonial blade sliced through flesh and bone cleanly, spurts of fresh blood beginning to coat the altar anew. Kroq-Gar derisively threw the severed head to rest amongst the pile at the base of the shrine. The assembled throng resounded ever more fiercely at the sight of the Warlord slain, but once more grew quiet as Tehenhauin ascended the steps with his own captive in tow. The sight of the newest victim stirred low growls and jeers as they beheld the horned head. It was rare for one of the ratmen’s sorcerers to be caught alive, for they were prone to escaping with their heretical magics. Indeed, it was difficult to hold them captive even once bound. Several Skink Priests and Chiefs, usually Tehenhauin’s own closest Apostles, were needed to guard them and ensure that they could not utilise hidden Warpstone chunks or other means to suddenly vanish. “Apostles, behold! Here lies the very foulest of the plague-bearers! See the twisted horns, a sign of favour from their vile god! But that favour has proven worthless, for it is we who have prevailed!” Muffled screeching sounded out from behind the bound muzzle of the Grey Seer as it twisted, scraping its horns against the stone of the altar as it attempted to free itself from being tied down. The Skink Chiefs poked at it with daggers and javelins until it froze. “It does not belong in Lustria! It does not belong anywhere! The Great Plan has no place for its kind, save for in the belly of the Great Serpent! Mighty Sotek will grow strong on its blood, and soon will rise up to devour all who defile our land!” Tehenhauin reached out a hand to retrieve his dagger from the Last Defender. The Skaven, spread wide by its bonds, gazed up at him with fear and hatred in its red eyes. The bloodstained blade gently trailed over its ribcage. Stripped of its robes, it was easy to see how scrawny it truly was. The march to the Altar had withered away what little fat and muscle it had to begin with. “Great Sotek, drink deep of this offering. Arise and deliver us from this plague!” The blade sank easily into the atrophied flesh, carving aside sinew and bone alike. His clawed hand reached into the wound he had made and grasped his prize. With a swift pull he wrenched it free, holding the still-beating heart aloft for all to see. There was a sudden hiss as the jungle came alive with serpents. A rainbow of scaled beasts darted out of the undergrowth, encircling the altar and lapping up the flowing blood. Tehenhauin looked upon his God’s sacred children and flicked out his tongue in pleasure. The ascension was nearly at hand but there were still more sacrifices yet to make. The ratmen would pay dearly for their trespasses, and then... perhaps the other warmbloods as well. Sotek's hunger was great indeed, but his Prophet would ensure that there was no shortage of sacrifices. Spoiler: Story Nine: "Praying for Reasons, Praying for a Purpose" Praying for Reasons, Praying for a Purpose Mara groggily woke up and got out of bed. She felt unsteady while standing, but never took note of it. Instead, her thoughts focused on wrapping her head around much of the theories and rumors and speculations that consumed her hometown like a wildfire. There were sightings all around town about lizard creatures popping up amidst shadows or the recesses of the dark, only to disappear mere seconds later. They were known, perhaps affectionately or degradingly, as the “ghosts.” It stuck a long while until it occurred to everyone these lizard creatures were actually the enigmatic, mysterious Seraphon. Of course, the correction itself exacerbated the incessantly fearful theory crafting regardless. No one knew what these Seraphon wanted, and everyone seemed a mad man trying to figure out their motives—especially with all that “ghosts” rubbish. Yet during such maddening times, who else was to blame but man’s unquenchable thirst for reason? Mara began walking to the kitchen. She thought about drinking something until suddenly a deluge of milk flew straight towards her! She was doused entirely by the stuff of cow, and the one responsible for the mess was a young boy who stood before her, gripping an emptied mug. “G-Ghost? Are you g-ghost?” The boy questioned. Mara stood there as her eyes widened and her stare tightening. She quickly rushed towards the empty mug, grabbing it promptly. “Do not! Do not throw stuff at people!” “Sorry sis’,” The little brother apologized, embarrassed all the while. “I saw ghosts last night. I really really mean it!” Mara let out a heavy sigh. It seemed to her madness leaped to person to person like a viral plague. Yet Sol was only a child, and children don’t know madness; they are it. “There is no such thing,” Mara sternly said before lowering herself to her younger brother’s height. “You know deep down it is simply false.” Sol looked at his sister as if she didn’t know what she was talking about. Mara continued. “Now you wouldn’t want mom and dad to come home and see dishes flying everywhere, would you?” Sol looked at his sister as if she was talking to a dog. He wanted to let her know by screaming in anger and rage like a great beast, but couldn’t find his words amidst the pressure. So he just shook his head in agreement. “Good. I will head out to work then. Remember to close the windows tight and lock the door, yeah?” Mara changed her clothes and showered again. She hefted a rifle—her father’s rifle for self-defense—and slung it onto her back. Women usually aren’t trusted with rifles, but that didn’t matter for herself or anyone else; her aim was just too good. She headed out as the trees swerved ever so slightly, and the sun shined ever so lavishly. It all looked perfectly normal—like an average day—but something inexplicably tingled her still. It was as though the winds themselves weren’t wind at all, but waves of otherworldly sensations. Something was strange in the air. And as the thought began to exit Mara’s mind, she suddenly heard a loud bang, and then an echoing roar. The commotion was quite close, making her unsling the rifle and begin loading it. Continuing towards the noises which grew in intensity, she saw two figures fighting against each other savagely. One of them was red, and the other was blue. Beyond those simplistic descriptions, both of them were stoutly built, and both had the desire to kill the other. A closer look, however, revealed one of them was a daemon of khorne. The thought alone made her clench her teeth and bring up the rifle, zeroing in the red daemon. She made the necessary adjustments and pulled the trigger. The bullet sliced through the air and punched straight into the daemon’s backside. The two beasts stopped and looked at each other, unsure of what had just happened. The khorne daemon looked down in an effort to find the wound it presumed appeared upon it, but collapsed shortly after. Its corpse turned into ashes before disappearing into the winds. And Mara still kept the rifle steady, ready to fire another shot if need be, for there remained the other beast. It noticed her, and she didn’t know what will happen next. She imagined it would predictably try to kill her, or perhaps she unwittingly walked straight into an ambush, ready to be caught off guard any moment. “Human…” It said. “Wait…you… you can talk!?” Mara exclaimed, shocked wholeheartedly. The lizard grasped a chain that hung around its neck. “It is a translator… to decode your strange language.” Mara and the lizard stood there; the former too perplexed with fear and amazement to move a single muscle, and the latter seemingly gazing on like a statue. Eventually, Mara regained her wits. “Who are you—no—what are you? Why are you here?” She questioned furiously, still clenching hard onto the rifle. “I am Seraphon… we cleanse this land of Chaos.” The lizard said. Mara lowered her rifle, but her eyes still focused on what was in front of her. If it wasn’t for the context, she would’ve thought someone was playing a poorly thought-out prank. Pah. A walking lizard? Really? What next? Walking crocodiles? Even then, she didn’t know if she could trust this… lizard-thing. If what it said was to be true, then it is an ally fit for hospitality as any other ally against Chaos. And before she knew it, fear soon turned into fascination. “But why? What do you want?” The lizard lifted its head as if what it heard was the first thing of the day that bothered to move it. “Such a strange question… Human.” Mara flinched in surprise; somewhat offended by the reply. “What do you mean it’s strange? You don’t have a reason don’t you!?” “There is no reason… we do it because we have to.” Mara obviously disregarded this as a lie. Her head had begun to wrap itself around many theories and rumors and speculations for the lizard’s motives. There must be a reason! There always is a reason! “It’s a lot like living,” The lizard continued, sensing the human’s mindset. “Anyone can provide a reason for living… but the purpose given to you is only known to you and only you… understanding it makes life a simple affair.” Mara stood there annoyed, and yet, quite intrigued. What was this purpose this lizard spoke of? If reasoning was so superficial, how different was purpose then? How can you find it? She was confused at first, and her mind a tad muggy, but through various methods of deduction techniques, she sensibly arrived at the lizard’s motivations. “So… you cleanse our lands of chaos… for profit?” The lizard stood there so irreparably dumbfounded, it dropped its blade. “Whatever… you humans will get it soon enough. I now must leave.” “Your name, do you have a name?” Mara asked excitedly. “Kro-tototl.” “Kro… wow, what a tongue twister!” “What is a tongue twister?” “It’s… ah forget about it.” And so Mara stood there expecting the lizard to disappear in front of her as a ghost would. Except, a humongous great blue beam suddenly appeared out of the sky! It crashed upon the lizard in such an immense show of force! And the lizard was gone. She didn’t know if it was her, but today seemed so awfully full of surprises. *** Mara returned home after work, and sought out Sol in order to talk to him. “I met one of them ‘ghosts’ everyone was going crazy over, Sol.” “Realllly? I did to! Last night like I said! It was big and scary and blue and very big! And it looked like a walking lizard!” Wait, really? There was no way— “See this? It gave me this and said to use it in times of danger,” Sol said before he brought out what looked like a rather expensive gem. In fact it looked almost identical to many of the other gems the lizard that Mara met wore. And then the realization hit her. Hard. Spoiler: Story Ten: "The Ritual" THE RITUAL Year 1536, Temple City of Hexoatl Ca'raag stood in the topmost chamber of the pyramid before the great Tezca’coatl, Mage Priest of the Temple of Chotec. Glowing stones lit the chamber, giving an even, bright light through the space and causing the numerous gold artefacts surrounding the palanquin on which the lord sat to sparkle like miniature suns themselves. Ca'raag was unintimidated, this wealth meant nothing to him as a warrior-born. Even after having trekked upwards through the numerous levels of the structure, passing monuments to the Lizardmen's glory and priceless treasures. Standing almost in the center of the floor’s inlaid golden symbol of Chotec, the Sun God, he stood at ease waiting for his lord's command. He just wished he knew why he was there. The Slann regarded him, large eyes blinking slowly. A skink priest stood to his right with scroll and quill to record any utterance. He felt a pressure on his mind and reality... shifted. Bounding up the stairs, he weaved to one side to avoid the crashing blow and heaved his double-handed sword horizontally through the daemon's body. The runes on the obsidian sword glowed brightly, showing the intricately devised runes for a split second against the black stone and the daemon exploded into a mist of glowing particles. Without pause he hurled himself up the remaining stairs. The daemons had almost reached the Eternity Chamber! A bright, burning rage filled him as he rounded the next corner. He would let no harm come to his lord. Ahead, blood-red daemons turned from a stone door set into the end of the corridor, their blades weeping blood that vanished into sparkling motes as it reached the floor. Roaring his defiance he crashed into the beasts, smoting left and right. They were no match for his skill with the blade. One’s head was split in two, its body dissolving. Another daemon’s arm ripped from its body with his off-hand even as his sword impaled the last. As the ectoplasmic remains dripped from his sword, he looked up to find his worst fears confirmed. The Chamber’s door stood open and a red-light flickered from beyond. Screaming Chotec's name, feeling the god's fire fill him as it did all true believers, he burst into the room. A nightmare. The Slann's skink attendants had been torn asunder, rib cages opened and hearts torn out. Their blood covered the walls and sacred gold sunbursts adorning the chamber. The Slann himself was encased in a coruscating, protective shield, but was being pressed to the floor by the assault of a huge, winged figure of red and black. Its whip and axe, runes smouldering in red upon its surface, struck mighty blows against the shield and even as he watched the mage's shield shrank to within inches of its face. He took a breath. Even his rage-filled mind could see this would be his end. Committing his soul to He Who Brings Fire, he charged forwards even as the beast's dog-headed, snarling visage turned towards him. Their weapons clashed, sparks flying through the chamber and blows were exchanged quick as lightning. One of the monster's strikes opened a large wound on his leg, even as he scored a heavy blow to it's midriff in return. Red ichor dripped from the wound, but its counter-attack smashed him from his feet, his blade flying from his grasp. Forcing himself up, he almost fell as he put weight on his wounded leg. Bellowing his defiance, he staggered forwards to rake the beast with claw and tooth until it’s axe head buried itself in his chest. Overwhelmed by pain, he dropped to the floor as the beast loomed over him, seemingly unaffected by the gaping hole in its side. As the huge, vermillion claws grasped him, he struggled to snap and bite, to inflict some kind of pain before he expired. The beast grasped his torso and dug its claws into the gaping chest wound, wracking his body with pain. The beast bunched its muscles as it prepared to splay his ribcage open. A light built to a rapid crescendo behind the monstrosity, building in intensity until the world was consumed in white. A scream seemed to echo from far away, but of frustration rather than pain. It took several minutes for his sight to return, but along with sight came feeling. Agony clouded his thoughts. The beast, though banished, had torn open his ribcage and his lifeblood fled him. In his last moments he looked up and found himself face to face with the Slann. Looking into his eyes, an understanding passed between them. Knowing his lord was safe, he left. To find his place in the eternal sun. Like he had been told, his spirit joined a stream of light like a spiritual beam of sunlight. Eventually, a ball of bright light hung before him. And he embraced it. Ca'raag shook his head. What had that been? As like waking from a dream, all details slipped away from him like a Skink disappearing into a stream. Some kind of battle? The last of the details went, leaving him only with a sense of loss. The Skink Priest spoke. "You are to be honoured, Ca'raag. You will carry these sacred implements into battle and bring ruin to those who oppose the Great Plan." Befuddled, Ca'raag took the proffered obsidian blade and golden-studded armour. "Please inform the Great One that I am honoured and will gladly enact the will of the Old Ones, but... Why me?" Wordlessly, the Skink Priest came forwards and, reaching up, took him by the elbow guiding him to back to entrance, Ca'raag looked back at the Slann but he had turned back to regard the large, bejewelled orb in the back wall and paid him no more mind. Year -903, Temple City of Hexoatl: Hamath reverently lit the pyre of his beloved general, Ca'raag. The Old Blood's body lay on top of the pyre at the very pinnacle of the main Ziggurat of the complex. How fitting, he thought to himself as the flames grew and finally hid the body from view, to be consumed by flames like you were consumed by the fire of life inside you. Hamath turned to the assembled Old Bloods and fellow Scar-Veterans who had fought with Ca'raag. For some of them it had been centuries of brotherhood and camaraderie. Pushing down his own emotions, he steeled himself for the final step of the ceremony. "HE WHO LIVES WITH FLAMES INSIDE", he intoned, roaring voice echoing across the plaza, "LIVES FOREVER IN THE SUN!" As one, all present bowed their heads. Their grief hidden from each other's eyes. Below them, in the uppermost chamber of the Ziggurat, Tezca’coatl watched the proceedings through the eyes of his Skink Priest. A single tear coursed down his face as his features slowly transitioned from grief through to determination. Turning, he regarded the large orb depicting the God Chotec's eternal sun. Raising his arms, he let the winds of magic flow through into the sphere. Runes sparked to life across its surface, with a silver shimmering light seeming to blossom from its bottom up to a point two-thirds to the top. It was almost full, enough that it was appropriate to start the ritual. Nodding to himself, Tezca’coatl increased the flow of magic into the orb. Gradually brightening, the orb became an incandescent circle as it tapped into the ley lines that the city was built over. The light built in intensity and then seemed to fire downwards in a bolt of energy. So it begins again... he thought. Year -920, Temple City of Hexoatl: Xara’la stood at attention. Wondering what in his short career had earned him the honor of a reception with the Mage Priest. He wasn't intimidated by the surroundings as nothing glamorous could intimidate a warrior born. He just didn't know why he was there. As he looked up into the eyes of the Mage Priest, reality... shifted. Bounding up the stairs, he weaved to one side to avoid the crashing blow and heaved his double-handed obsidian sword horizontally through the daemon's body... o0o The doors closed with a dull thump behind him. Scratching his head, he looked down at the golden studded armour and large, black obsidian blade. Somehow after his bizarre daydream, the interview had ended abruptly with the Skink Priest proclaiming that he would bring honor to Children of the Old Ones and presented him the items. No matter what he said, the Skink Priest had refused to answer why and the Mage Priest had already moved on to other things. He had been ushered from the room and now stood alone. Wondering at his luck, he set off at a rapid pace. His spawn-brother Cwa’tha would never believe he had just been gifted this magnificent armour and weapon. Year -457, Temple City of Hexoatl Heads bowed in sorrow, the Saurus phalanx entered the outer limits of the Temple City. Although victors in the recent conquest, with the loss of their leader it felt like defeat. A Skink Priest met them on the outskirts. "Did you bring the armour and sword?" Ula’thur, now the ranking officer of the unit, wordlessly nodded and handed the items to the Skink. He gave no thought to using the items himself, it would only serve to prolong the grief as he would be forever reminded of his Old Blood and friend. The very pinnacle of a follower of Chotec, the remainder of the strike force owed their lives to him. The battle had been all but won, until the last of the cursed rat-men had enacted a foul ritual and brought a Vermin Lord into the world. The battle lines had been ripped to pieces by the Daemon’s surprise assault. It looked like there was no stopping the thing, until Xara’la had roared his defiance and charged the creature. Even as it struck fatal wounds upon him, the Old Blood had first lanced his sword through the beasts heart and then with tooth and claw ripped its head from its shoulders. The battle had been won, but at great cost. Steeling himself, Ula’thur turned back to his comrades and gestured towards the distant central pyramid. There could be nothing but the highest burial honor for their general. Immolation atop the temple of Chotec. o0o The Skink Priest entered the chamber and paced across the golden sunburst set in the floor. He didn't even look at the Mage Priest, who sat staring at the golden, sunlike orb. Hefting the sword, he placed it in the statue's hand and lifted the armour over it's head. Standing back, he adjusted the armour until it sat perfectly. Then he turned and sat to wait. Eventually, his master stirred. "Zilith." "I have returned master, the sword and armour are secured." "Good. The orb is full now so the ritual can be enacted. Go and make exact note of those that emerge from the spawning pools today. I want you to watch them closely over the next few years and watch for one-" "Who shows fire, passion and promise. Yes Great One, I remember." With that Zilith left the chamber, leaving the Lord to his contemplations. He knew that he would sleep again, as the ritual to bring the Saurus back through the ley lines was very taxing. Lord Tezca’coatl watched the doors close behind the Skink Priest. Standing, he turned towards the statue. He had had it commissioned centuries ago after his most trusted protector and friend had given his life for him. The likeness was uncanny, but that was the benefit of being able to give the Skink artisan the exact mental picture of how the warrior had looked. The statue, especially with the sword and armour, was eerily life-like. It's entire countenance speaking of passion and fire. "Soon, old friend," the Slann whispered, "soon we will meet again." Turning back to the sacred sun artifact, he braced himself and channeled his full might through the orb. The ritual culminating with a blast of light vanishing downwards. o0o The lesser Skink Priests followed Zilith into the underground spawning chamber of the temple. As they entered the space, the pools, normally perfectly tranquil and dark, were already churning and glowing as eldritch powers stirred the depths of the liquids. One by one, Saurus climbed steadily from the waters to be met and blessed by the attending priests. The priests carried out their blessings in a workmanlike fashion, rapidly blessing all 300 warriors that clambered from the pools. Their curious questions about their high priest’s ability to predict the spawnings had long since been extinguished after repeatedly being ignored. Now they simply appreciated the efficiency by which they could perform their duties. Blessed, the 300 warriors were led from the chamber into their barracks beyond, their part in this phase of the Great Plan now begun. Spoiler: Story Eleven: "Blooded Water" Blooded Water Agony ripped through the world liked fire through oiled cord. All around there was a pain and blood in view, with scaled shapes churning and lashing while they lanced upwards. The taste of blood, of life, drove the beasts within the swirling depths to even greater fervor. Claws, fangs and tails struck at the blood fogged water and propelled the violence upwards to the light. Breaking through a barrier of water, foam, and lilly-pads, the first Saurus to emerge roared in pained fury. It managed to grab the lip of the pool, thrashing and heaving as it pulled itself out. Water poured out of his snout, the air around him suddenly vibrant with scents of an unfamiliar kind. Behind it, dozens of other sauri surfaced, some missing chunks of scales or bleeding from their brothers blows. Lilies were ripped to shreds as the torrent of muscled and scaled bodies surged through them to the edge of the pool. Standing tall above the surface, was another saurus, surrounded by smaller lizards, who clutched barbed spears. The massive beast carried no weapon or shield, but from the scars across it's belly, face and arms, it was a mighty warrior. The first saurus to emerge was barely out of the pool when it hurled itself at the warrior, dwarfed by the immense creature. It barely recognized the taste on the air that was a kindred scent, or that power radiated off of this being like the musk of a carnosaur. Still serrated teeth flashed in the low light of the spawning pools illumination as he made straight for the neck of the other saurus. The skinks behind the white behemoth shrank back, wary of being caught in any fight between two of the savage warriors they called brethren. A balled fist came in reply, knocking the senses back into the blood mad newborn. It smashed into the side of the smaller warrior's snout, and sent him tumbling across the pool's edge. The others that had surface and stood free of the waters roared and hissed, savagery and rage all that could be seen in their eyes. They flinched when the Sunblood roared in return, drowning out the younger voices about him. With it came a sour, belligerent musk that demanded obedience "Silence! Stand ready and be counted!" came a sharp command, accented by a slap of his tail to the stone floor. The odor hung in the air, the sauri slowly obeying the massive white lizard that filled the air with his commanding aura. The saurus that had been struck stood as well, pushing and jostling it's way back to the front of the spawning. Blood dripped from his snout, yet even in the frenzy that was threatened by this abated in the presence of the great warrior. It was then that the skink attendants dropped their spears and moved forward, several carrying parchment and charcoal, while others moved to attend braziers of colored flame in the corners by the pool. More still appeared carrying manacles and muzzles. The sight of them invoked an agitated round of hissing and growls, culled only by the gravelly rumble from their massive white saurus who stood over them. The skinks worked quickly, the teeth and claws of the sauri large in their minds. Few smelled of fear, a sweet and yet rancid stink that agitated some of the standing brood further. Thick tails swatted at them as they worked, or teeth snapped angrily before their snouts as wrists were clamped in chains. Those who tried to do more than bare their many fanged maws were muzzled. Behind those who restrained the larger sauri, several priest moved among the warriors. Inspecting the newly spawned, casting their thoughts to the stars on the Great Plan, naming each as the Old Ones willed it. It was one of the few remaining Rites that could be easily performed among the sauri now. The oldest priest, slightly bent and with half of a tail missing, stood at the head of the group. Chanting softly in words few understood, the skink invoked the names of those long forgotten. Tepoc. Chotec. Itzl. Potec. Huanchi. Tlazcotl. And many others besides, each name being accompanied by a flash of light from the braziers, filling the chamber with the associated 'blessed presence' of the god. It droned and filled the chamber, as more of the spawning slowly emerged from the pool. They were met by their brothers, and joined the ranks. It was not until the pool lay silent that the chanting stopped. The old skink hopped onto a nearby ledge, cut from the stone of the chamber for such a purpose, surveying the ranks of restrained sauri. "You, are the 7988th spawning of this cycle. You, are blessed by the dark realm of the moon. Your blades shall be black and your fury silent. Few you are, compared to the warhosts of your brothers. But you shall be swift, strike with fury unknown, and bring order to this blemished realm." he said, the small skinks crest fluttering ever so slightly. It changed color, to a bright red as he spoke "Our great lord lays wounded, unable to attend you, but know that Quezatle'Gar shall lead you in service to the Old Ones." he air was becoming veiled by smoke, wafting up from the braziers. The skink attendants there had put away the blessed herbs and were gently fanning the flames. Gesturing to the Sunblood, he continued. At the feet of the spawning, skinks continued to scurry, fastening decorations and runes to the hides of each warrior. Weapons were brought in, shields fastened to arms, yet the sauri were enraptured by the small skink, and by the perfumed air that intoxicated their minds "Around us are enemies unnumbered, the Anathema has grown virulent and abhorrent in our absence. Our duty is undone, and we must return to it a thousandfold!" the skink priest now stood as tall as he could make himself, charms and glyph-carved bones jingling as he did. He continued in the tirade, eyes rolling back into his skull, his pupils dilated, nearly encompassing his entire orb "Their time has come, our duty is nigh, their blood will cleanse the ground of corruption!" he shrieked, the throaty roars of the congregation joining his fervent words. It was deafening, yet the skink's words reigned over all. "FOR SOTEK! FOR THE OLD ONES! KILL THE UNCLEAN! SAVAGE THEIR HEARTS!" he called, the words echoing like thunder. THe Sunblood joined the chorus of savage howls, watching his newest charges with a knowing glee. Soon there would be blood spilt, and hot meat to devour, the scent of tainted lands cleansed with fire. Chains and cord snapped like cracks of thunder, the warriors breaking their bonds. They noticed not, only taking up arms to hold them high. It was time to hunt. Surging out of the spawning chamber, they followed Quezatle'Gar up the winding path that led to the jungles of Mekitopsar. To the corruption that tainted the realm around it. A small grin spread across the priest's face as he sat back, the exertion and fervor leaving him for the moment. The scents ebbed, releasing their hold on the skink, though a small headache could be felt to remind the priest his duty came at a small price. Attendants began to clean the surroundings of the pool, removing bloody scraps, broken chain links, and any other detritus that could hamper the next spawning. So too were more coals tossed upon the braziers and the attendants considered the chamber presentable. It was moments after they had finished that the pool began to bubble and roil once again. Spoiler: Story Twelve: "The Bloodswamp Wars (part 1)" The Bloodswamp Wars (pt. 1) A grey clouded sky hangs high above the free city of Tutanum in Ghur as soldiers and citizens alike walk the cities crowded streets. Mud puddles everywhere from both the days of rain prior mixed with waste splash as wheels and hooves make their way to market and elsewhere, a large bell can be heard in the distance. Down one of the busier streets a man dressed in military uniform showing him to be a Lieutenant Colonel, his name Sumerfeld the Orruk Slayer, the title given to him after winning a massive victory over a Waagh! despite the odds and no reinforcements. Sumerfeld briskly walks towards the Expedition Offices near the docks, in his hand a letter. The office being the center of exploration for the city was set up with the help of Sumerfeld and his brother to find more trade goods throughout Ghur. Many civilians wave at him and usually he would wave back with a smile, today however his face matched the gathering storm clouds above. His strong legs carried him quickly, his only purpose was to get to his destination without hesitation. The letter had been addressed to him from his brother, a Mercenary of fortune who he had not heard from for months, which was worrisome. Hired by the free city to go deep into Ghur to set up a second forward camp south of the current expedition forward base that was previously erected years prior. He was instructed to penetrate the newly found Bloodwood Swamps and create both an inner swamp port and an outer port with towers to the giant lake that it connected to as a second line of defense. No known inhabitants were known to inhabit the swamp and therefore the planners felt they would not disturb anything but the swamp fauna and flora. Finger inside the folded page of the letter the man storms into the High Expedition Officers quarters and slams the letter down. Turning around with cup in his hand the man known as Titus gives first the man in front of him a stern look and then looks down at the letter. Taking a sip of the liquid in the cup he then sets it down and takes the letter, "What is this Sumerfeld? News of the expedition?" A worried look enters Titus's eyes. "From my brother directly, a small boy carried it out of that cursed swamp to me. You need to read it; I cannot explain as well as the words within the letter can. All I know is that we entered the domain of a Seraphon warlord we did not know of" sadness seemed to take over the hardened soldiers face and over all demeanor. Soon Titus took the letter out of the stained envelope, he noticed the stains were both blood and dirt and began to read: "Dearest Brother, I write hurriedly for I do not know how much time I in fact have, I am in a cage made of massive bones with both Orruk and Skaven skulls tied to them in the middle of a great metropolis. We are not the only ones here as Skaven, Orruks and even agents of Chaos are in similar cages. The men and women with me, which is most of the expedition are cold, hungry and scared; we do not know which fate will be ours. They take us in groups of 10 or 20 to either a pyramid or a giant arena, still some are just taken and eaten in front of us by their warriors. In the direction of the arena I can hear the screaming of men and women and the roaring of beasts, I can only imagine our friends and explorers are soon ripped apart. I do wonder what they face in that arena constructed of bone and stone, is it like the tournaments that are held in Tutanum, but with no hope of winning or coming out alive? My mind races. It is however the top of the temple that scares me the most for we are in perfect view and can see all that happens. A top the temple what can only be a Priest for it is adorned with a feather headdress and the Warlord stand, smaller servants bring forth those next, four at a time with each motion of the priest. The priest gestures for four captives to be brought forward, the fourth is held in place in front of the warlord while the first three are placed in front of the first captive. Below thousands of reptilian bodies hiss up at the captives echoing against the surrounding temples and smaller buildings, I can only imagine the sound penetrates the into the surrounding swamp. The priest does a chant to the sky before placing a blood streak of a previous victim on their foreheads and then walks away. A second chant is used and at the end, two of the captives fall into pits below by removable slabs. The first drops into a pit of what must be snakes, we can hear the ferocious hissing, screams are heard but drown out soon after. The second falls into the other pit and from the sky buzzards and small flying reptilians that I’ve never seen before with razor sharp teeth swarm down into the pit and begin ripping apart the captive, more screams. I can hear crying from the two who remain alive as they are forced to watch this barbarous act. The third is placed on a different colored slab under what looks to be a mighty magnifying glass. As I look on in horror, I can only assume there is a room underneath as smoke begins to rise from between the cracks. As the smoke begins to rise thicker and thicker the magnifying glass moves into position as the sun is focused on the poor soul. Soon heat from both below and above start to cook the man, his bare feet not able to escape the heat begin to sizzle and blister, his hair beginning to singe and smoke. Within minutes of what must be indescribable pain the man lights on fire, the screaming is finally drowned out as his lips are melted together and he falls over the ledge as the metal around his legs and arms turn to liquid under the heat. The final sacrifice, a woman, the giant warlord simply beheads her with a single swing of his weapon before kicking her lifeless body down the stairs. Soon the next four are motioned forward, and as I write this, they gather more of us for one of these most dreadful of fates. A boy is with us, we plan to fight with our bare hands so he may escape, I am giving him this letter and I hope it reaches you. I will not see you again, but the name of Acattopa should bring fear to your heart, I have found that to be the name of the warlord, this seems to be his domain. If you wish to claim this area, you will need a grand expedition for their city is grand in size and powerful it seems in military might. I fear my time has come, I hope this finds you, more of those smaller creatures approach. May Sigmar bless and guide your blade against this foe, I know it was not said much during our life, but I love you brother. Sigmar Preserve you, Thomas” Titus looks up, his face a combination of rage, sorrow and terror. Hands trembling, he puts the letter back into its original folded state but does not say a word. Minutes pass when finally a weak voice penetrates the silence, “I will need to keep this letter for the time being, do not worry, you will get it back: I would not keep the last words of your brother from you. I however need to show this to the High Commander, this cannot go unanswered, 2 thousand we sent with some of them being our best soldiers and builders. Not only were human lives lost, but so were aelven ones as well. Your brother will be avenged, those swamp dwellers will rue the day they attacked citizens and soldiers of Tutanum.” With a wrathful and agreeing expression Sumerfeld nods, simply responding to let him know what he could do, until then he would prepare his own special force of men. The two walk out of the building together, both with determination and vengeance in their eyes. They would take war deep inside Ghur, they would take war to Acattopa and to their barbarous rituals. After days of deliberating and the counsel verifying fact versus rumor Sumerfeld was called into the war chamber. There all the top officials of both the military and city were sitting, waiting and in the middle of the large redwood table was the letter from his brother. Pausing just inside the doorway Sumerfeld salutes those infront of him and then takes a seat at an empty chair next to Titus. Among those at the table were An Aelven general and her second command, her name Astra Leafblade. Sumerfeld and Astra had fought battles together before, it was her warriors and archers that kept the Orruks at bay while Sumerfeld’s calvary could get into position that awarded him his title. “Pleased you could join us Sumerfeld” the soft but confident voice came with a smile, Sumerfeld knew immediately that it was Astra. Smiling back =he returns the pleasantries and then looks to the rest of the table, his face turning somber. Titus clears his throat and begins to speak, all turning a gaze at him as his voice echoes against the walls and ceiling, “After much deliberation and fact checking, scouts have indeed revealed of a massive metropolis in the Bloodwood Swamps region, they also gathered that our original expedition base of Quidalus is still intact. However, that is where the good news ends, they have also spotted a large army of Seraphon marching towards the base… their numbers reaching a minimum of fifty-thousand strong.” Gasps erupt from almost all except Sumerfeld and Astra, both stay silent and calm, little emotion can be read from the Aelf or Human. Arguments ensue, Titus tries to silence everyone but to no avail, many arguing who should be the one to lead an army against the reptilian army others arguing to pull all inhabitants out before the massacre begins. “We cannot afford to send an army that large! What about the defenses of Tutanum!?” One human cries out, who is in charge of city defense. “Your men will have to have longer watches! We cannot afford to lose that expedition base! It is vital to trade in the region and to our own wealth!” another hollers back at him Arguments such as these continue to drown each other out, until finally Sumerfeld unleashes his great mace and swings it against the table, cracking it slightly… silence falls upon the room. “If I may have the floor…” Anger pouring out from his face, “The treasury advisor is correct, for both trade and outward defense we cannot afford to lose the forward base. It is the reason we were able to defeat the Waagh! years ago as they were able to get word to the city and hold them off until High General Astra and I arrived with reinforcements”, Power radiated from his words as he continued, “ It is also key to our trade route which brings in not only supplies for the city, but also wealth that sustains the army we hold among other important infrastructure. I suggest sending myself and the High General forward with one hundred thousand of our regular and elite troops, that will leave the City with fifty-thousand regulars to defend the city along with the militia of irregular soldiers.” Titus smiles, he knows that Sumerfeld thirsts for vengeance, he also knows that the two military commanders are their best bet and beating back the advancing army and gaining control of the region. As the other commanders and city leaders calm down from their festering arguments, many begin to nod their heads Titus stands back up, “Then it is decided, Sumerfeld and Astra will lead an army forward towards Quidalus and intercept these barbaric reptiles. I suggest we allow any and all troops they request to be granted, all of us are in peril.” All around the table nod in agreement and begin to talk amongst themselves. Days later the mixed-race army from Tatanum begins marching in lock step out of the large stone walls towards Quidalus, highly disciplined eternal guard leading the march followed by freeguild greatswords, swordsmen and other freeguild regiments; even the almost mythical Sisters of the Watch had been called forth. On their flanks demigryph and wild riders fanned out beside the long column ensuring none could attack without meeting ferocity first. High above in the sky loud screeches can be heard as a mass of great eagles and riders fly over the walls with Sumerfeld, Astra and two battlemages on Griffons. Looking down below the human general can do nothing but smile, “What a magnificent sight…”. As the mighty gates of Tatanum close behind the grand army one thing is for certain: They would find victory or death, no mercy would be given. Spoiler: Story Thirteen: "Ask and It Will Be Given" ASK AND IT WILL BE GIVEN The Gathering The cave was dark, with stale air filled by scent of dust and echoes of drippings into unseen pools. A place unattended even in the Under-Empire. Three figures were standing there. A skaven in a stained grey robe, his face devastated by buboes and clawed hands with bandages encrusted by pus… the stench of decay was slowly filling the cave. Another skaven was standing in front of him, his robe emblazoned with the symbol of a glowing green rat. On his side there was… something. A pale body with a naked torso, with dead skin half-covered by patches of mangy fur. A scar all around the neck marked the separation with the head… a blue, reptilian one. “As promised, here the creation of Clan Moulder; an exquisite mastercraft tool, yes-yes”. The Grey Seer looked skeptically at it. “Can it still understand the tongue of the scaly-things? Can it write their runes?” “It can, yes-yes. It was a scribe, its brain is almost intact! Very difficult find, great cutting-surgery, yes! And it will be your scaly-slave. If you pay the price…” The Grey Seer drew a cloth bag from under his robe. A green, pulsing light was visible inside it. The other skaven grabbed the bag, but the Seer didn’t let it go. “This is good warpstone, yes. The scaly writing must be good too. I still don’t know if the scaly-slave will be worth this big price…” The other skaven caressed his pendant, carved with the symbol of the Packmasters, and gave a cruel smile in return. The cave behind him was dark, and dangerously silent. The Grey Seer left the bag. “Good deal, yes-yes”. First Liturgy The Grey Seer was hidden within the dense foliage, observing the sleeping village. It was the perfect target for the first part of his magnificent plan… a bunch of laborers far from the cities; the war was a distant thing, here there were no walls and just few big scaly-things, while there were many of the small ones, strong and resistant but weak minded. The hooded acolytes were silently sneaking between the cabins. The Grey Seer saw one of them near a garden, which was sprinkling the vegetables with the result of a long and expensive alchemy work. Despite the distance, a slight breeze took some wet particle up to the Seer. His whiskers followed morbidly the scent, tasting the rotting flavor. “Yes-yes…” Second Liturgy The village was dead. Rotting corpses were lying in desiccated pools of vomit, blood and puked innards. Sauri and skinks scattered across the streets, caught by death while they were wandering delirious with fever, in search of an help it wouldn’t come. Swarms of flies were ruling the place and the heavy stench, empowered by the heat and humidity, it was almost unpleasant even for the Grey Seer. Still, he was standing there, always hidden, unable to go away. And finally here it was. A lone, bulky skink emerged from a barrack, moving unsteadily … watching the dead, slowly realizing the size of the massacre. The Gray Seer was trembling in excitement, unable to restrain himself. “Yes-yes! The survivor! It’s the chosen one! Yes-yes! Worthless scaly-thing, touched-blessed by the Horned Rat! Oh yes! Fall on your knees, you fool-thing. Remember the dream-visions my poison put in your feeble mind! Find shelter in them! Search answers! Find vengeance!” An acolyte who was standing nearby the Seer looked at his master. “I still don’t understand why we didn’t kill them all…” The Seer spun around, grinning his teeth. There was a moment of silence, then another acolyte draw a blade and slit the throat of the first one. With a grunt of approval, the Seer looked again at the village; the survivor skink now was walking toward the jungle. “The puppet is going. We must sneak-follow it…” Third Liturgy The place was an ancient ruin, with collapsed walls and granite blocks covered by moss and topsoil, severed columns wrapped by creepers. The massive skink was moving between them, in astonished silence, often stopping his path to sign himself and mutter something. “Scaly-slave, I need to know. What is it doing?” “It’s praying, master” “Stupid puppet-thing…I want it to find the relic-trap. Quick-soon.” Finally the skink went on, toward the only stone building that was not yet totally collapsed… toward the dark, inviting entrance. Going inside. “Perfect. It should find-take the false tablet. And now we’ll see if the writing skills of the scaly-slave are up to my expectations…” Hours passed and when the night arrived, the flickering light of a torch went on inside the building. The torch burned all night long. When dawn did arrived, the skink emerged from the building. He was now standing tall, holding a stone tablet against his chest with both arms. With hardened eyes, he screamed something to the sky, then he marched on his way back toward the village. “Scaly-slave, What did it said?” “It sweared that it will show the way prophesied by the sacred plaque. It sweared vengeance, master”. “Good-excellent! It’s time for all the scaly-things to discover a new faith…” The Gray Seer cruelly smiled. “…and abandon their current one”. Fourth Liturgy After a week of travel, the skink finally reached a small town. He did already met small groups of skinks, and some of them followed him. The Grey Seer knew that the danger of being discovered was growing too high, but finally the objective was at hand. The Seer called his most trusted and able spy. “We will go now. You stay here. No one see-hear you. you will sneak-observe. No killing. Spy the little scaly-things… all of them that live here. Each morning they gather to pray their sun-god. The plan-trap will trigger slowly, yes-yes. They won’t know. There will be less and less little scaly-things to the morning prayers. When there’s only half of them, call me.” The Gray Seer looked at the skinks entering the town. The scent of excitement filled the air around him. “…and then we will come for them…” Fifth Liturgy The town was burning. Patrols of plague monks were wandering the streets, searching for survivors; in the eastern blocks, the sounds of the battle were closing around the last resistance. The Grey Seer was walking through corpses of saurus warriors, with scales twisted by the underneath flesh swelling; necrotic tissues were depicting an ode to the Horned Rat. A group of stormvermin moved toward the Grey Seer, escorting the scaly-slave. “What did you see-read, slave-thing?” “We entered the houses of the small scaly-things, master. In many of them there is the symbol of the puppet-god” “YES! yes-yes!” The Grey Seer was so excited that he noticed the approaching Warlord only when he was almost towering him. “The battle is almost over, my Seer.” “Ah, yes-yes. A great victory yes. But… has it been an easy-simple victory?” “Like crushing a slave in the training pit, my Seer. As you told-predicted, their magic was poor-weak. Never seen a thing like this”. “Ah, my Warlord… Magic comes from gods. If no one pray the gods, their power becomes feeble-weak. I’ve turned a fool scaly-thing into my unaware puppet, and now it’s making the other scaly-things forgot their gods. The made-up scriptures I gave to it… a new false faith in nothing. That is my masterful plan, yes-yes” “…is the scaly-puppet the one that we let escape with a bunch of followers?” “yes-yes. And now it’s heading for the BIG city…” Concluding rite The Grey Seer was standing on the top of a hill, contemplating the desolation from his privileged standpoint. He was grasping a Skryre hand-telescope to look at the landscape. The walls of the fortified city were poorly defended and the skaven troops were moving with stunning audacy at the border of the jungle, no more caring if the defenders could catch a glimpse of their amassed forces. Within the city, columns of dense smoke were raising into the sky, carrying the stench of the burned corpses; in the distance, it could be heard the painful bellow of a dying carnosaur… a pleasant sound, waiting for the soon-to-come Seer’s Screaming Bell. Only a final proof of the declining power of the scaly-things magic was needed. And finally, after a month of waiting, the Seer saw it. Out of the pyramid-temple, a host of armored reptiles was carrying a palanquin; upon it, an immobile flappy fat corpse, the once bright blue now was a stained grey. The Mage-Slann of the city was dead. “Perfect-excellent, yes-yes! tomorrow the city will be mine, and soon… soon the lead of Clan Pestilens too. And then, I will have my seat in the Council of Thirteen, yes-yes.” Out of curiosity, the Seer looked for his scaly-puppet. It was in a square, waving the fake tablet in front of a thick crowd of scaly-fools, all of them shouting an unintelligible choir. The Seer smiled “this time there will be no escape for you, fool scaly-puppet, your utility has been…” “They are praising him.” The Seer turned toward the voice, surprised and annoyed. “I did not asked for translation, you stupid slave-thing…” The scaly-slave was standing tall, looking at him with eyes sparkling with a cruel light... its hand was grasping a wooden stake, crudely sharpened. “They are hailing your puppet, and they are saying: Praised be Tehenhauin, Prophet of Sotek. Blood will flow”. Then the scaly-slave moved with blinding speed, thrusting the stake through the leather armor and the ribs of the Seer, piercing his lung. The Seer dropped to the ground, coughing blood; his killer raised the stake for a final blow. “…and you will be the first sacrifice to Him”. High in the sky, a twin tailed comet was shining bright. Spoiler: Story Fourteen: "Tzeentchian Rituals" Tzeentchian Rituals It was Tla'tzep's job to explore the Realm of Ghur. Well, those parts of the Realm of Ghur that weren't near the cypress swamps around the Seraphon settlement known as Solotal's Blessings. The skinks had been on Ghur for a long time, sent to colonize the lands around the lake almost as soon as the daemons had been driven away. Ever since, the Seraphon had been using magic and astromancy to expand the forests and cypress swamps surrounding the lake, expanding the territory the skinks controlled. It had been made easier after the first saurus had spawned from the pools under the settlement. But they still needed to know what was happening in the Realm, so skinks and chameleon skinks were being sent in all directions to explore and report back to the priests and starpriests in the settlement. Tla'tzep was one of those scouts. He was a chameleon skink, small of stature and skilled at the arts of stealth. When resting, his scales were a sort of neutral brown tone with streaks of green and blue. At the moment though, they were a sort of brownish-red with streaks of brighter red running through them. His eyes were fixed on his surroundings as he crept through the rocky terrain. Tla'tzep was far to the North and West of Solotal's Blessings, and happy to be that far away at the moment. For almost a week, he'd been following the trail of some unusual beast-kin. At first, he'd only run across one or two, but the deeper in the region he went, the more numerous they were. To make matters worse, he couldn't check in with Starseer Sep'xolpik to report what he'd seen. Every scout from the settlement carried a small device of the Old Ones – a tiny, mirror-like device that created a connection between his location and the Starseer's scrying orb. Normally, Tla'tzep carried his device wrapped in three layers of silk to made it harder for mages to scry his location. The one time he'd tried to unwrap it in the hopes of sending an image of the bird-things to the Starseer, every bird-thing in the area had suddenly perked up their heads and began casting around, searching for him! That one instant had convinced the chameleon skink not to risk unwrapping the device again. Searching through his gear, he'd actually added another two layers of silk to the wrappings about it before stowing it back in a special pouch. After that near-miss, he was being more cautious than ever, his motions slow, careful, and as concealed as he could be. So for several days he'd been forcing himself to be sneakier than he'd ever been while trying to keep tabs on the bird-things. Today though, he saw something he wished he hadn't. The bird-things had a captive. Somehow, somewhere, they had captured a human. One of their mages, from the looks of the bright red robes it was wearing. It had odd curves under its robes, making the chameleon skink wonder if this was one of those female-things he'd heard mentioned once. At the moment, they were just herding it along using the occasional claw-swipe or a strike from the flat of a sword blade. They'd bound its hands before it, running a rope from there to the tight grip of a particularly large bird-thing. Slipping from cover to cover, Tla'tzep tried to keep them in sight and himself out of sight as he moved. More and more of the bird-things had been gathering all day long, wandering through a canyon that deepened as they traveled to whatever destination they had in mind. As night began to fall, the canyon widened into a large, central location. A sense of foreboding came over the chameleon skink as he entered the central area. Something told him he did not want to be there, and Tla'tzep had learned over the years to listen to those instincts. He kept to the outer walls of the canyon, making sure to stay off of the canyon floor. The higher he climbed, the better his view of his surroundings, and the more his instincts screamed at him to leave. He found himself a nice vantage point high above the bird-things and lay down next to a protruding rock, his scales changing color slightly to blend into his surroundings. Quelling his fear, he scanned the surrounding cliffs and noted the number of openings. Eight of them, not-quite evenly spaced around the central hub. As he looked over the bird-things, he began to notice things he hadn't seen from the ground. At the rough center of the open area, there was a raised dais of sorts, apparently carved from the local stone. Atop that sat an octagonal block of stone that was not local. It was a deep blue color that seemed to reflect the setting sun as the last rays of light angled down one of the canyons to strike what was obviously an altar. A wash of red and orange tones played over the azure stone, which began to glow as the light faded away. Darkness began to fill the outer areas of the chasm, but the center was now lit by a blue glow that somehow felt wrong to the lizard. Bird-things around the chasm took notice of the glow and began to rank up around the altar in concentric rings. As more of the canyon floor became visible, Tla'tzep noticed a pattern of red lines in the rock surrounding the altar. They couldn't possibly be natural, and yet somehow seemed to be part of the stone. Tracing those lines with his gaze, he quickly realized that the lines formed a familiar symbol: the eight-pointed star of the so-called Chaos Gods, with the altar at its center. As the bird-things began whatever they were doing, the lizard wracked his brain, trying to remember anything he might have been told of such creatures. They were tall, almost the height of a saurus but less hunched over. Taloned feet, blue-black feathers or hair, bright orange and yellow bird's beaks. It wasn't until the banners were unfurled that he realized what they were. Eight bird-things emerged from the crowd – or rather, flock – carrying tall banner poles with a familiar symbol mounted at the top and embroidered or painted on the banners. The flame-shrouded Eye of Tzeentch. Cringing as understanding sunk in, Tla'tzep slid a little further back from the edge. He didn't want the tzaangor to know he was there, and they were known for flying around on daemonic steeds of a sort. Just because he hadn't seen any of those steeds didn't mean they weren't there. Right on cue, a slightly darker shadow passed over his hiding place. A particularly twisted looking example of their kind was riding the distinctive mount of the followers of Tzeentch. Flat and almost round, ringed with sharp blade-like appendages, the disc of Tzeentch was a nasty creation that made the chameleon skink nervous. If the disc or the rider saw him, it would be all over. He might be able to outrun the tzaangor, but he couldn't outrun a disc-daemon. As the rider dropped to the chasm floor, it hopped stiffly from the steed to the dais. Beckoning with one clawed hand, it began to call out in a sharp, crow-like voice that was more squawks and chirps than any real-sounding language. The skink couldn't make out much of what it was saying, but one word, one name, stood out. Tzeentch. Glancing around, Tla'tzep genuinely hoped the bird-things weren't in the process of summoning one of the Changer's daemons. They were much harder to hide from, for one thing. Apparently it was some kind of priest or mage. It continued to speak, pulling out a scroll with one clawed hand before drawing a ritual knife with the other. Across from it, three figures approached the altar. Two were bird-things like the priest, but the third was the red-robed human. Tla'tzep didn't know what the bird-things had in mind, but he was sure the human was not going to like it. Part of him wanted to aid the red-robed figure, but there were dozens, if not hundreds of those bird-things surrounding the human. Nothing Tla'tzep could do was going to make enough of a difference against those odds. So he continued to watch. Beckoning with one clawed hand, the priest directed the tzaangor to bring the red-robed figure closer. It tried to resist, but the tzaangor were stronger than the human, and it was soon forced up against, and then bent over that blue stone altar. Tla'tzep expected the bird-priest to plunge his blade into the human, but instead something unusual happened. Screaming obscenities in a high-pitched voice, the human tried to struggle against its captives, tried to escape. Brandishing the scroll, the priest began to chant in that oddly bird-like voice as the blue glow in the altar grew brighter. Soon the human's screams changed tone. Eyes wide, Tla'tzep was horrified to watch feathers burst from the human's skin as its form grew, twisted, and changed! Red robes began to rise off the ground as it grew taller, the shoe-clad feet that were now exposed quickly bursting through their coverings as they were twisted into raptor-like talons! Cloth grew tighter about its chest, the cloth straining to contain its shifted form even as its strange, blunt mouth pushed outwards and hardened into a vulture-like beak! By the time the ritual was done, a newly-changed tzaangor stood where the human had been. It still struggled against the changes and its captors, but its voice was now bird-like, full of harsh squawking tones. Horrified by what he had seen, Tla'tzep could watch no more. Creeping back from the edge, he began his slow way out of the canyons and away from what he had seen. He had to get away from the canyons and to a safe place where he could contact the Starseer. No Seraphon that he was aware of had ever seen a baby tzaangor before, but they had always assumed that the young were kept hidden somewhere. This twisted ritual of change was not completely unexpected, but was not welcome news! The Starseer had to know... Per usual, critiques, comparisons and friendly banter is encouraged. I'm not going to be too strict on this, but if you are aiming to do a comprehensive critique, I'd prefer you make a few large posts rather than a swarm of little ones. Mainly for the benefit of people who are reading this thread a year from now. You can vote for up to four pieces. Take your time, we have a lot of pieces to read through.