The theme for our 18th seasonal short story contest provided by @Killer Angel was "Magic and the Mundane" Please read all nine stories before voting. You may vote for up to three pieces. Spoiler: Story One: The Polar Warp Gate The Polar Warp Gate Before Chaos arrived upon the Old World, the Lizardmen ruled supreme. Taught by the Old Ones, the Slann governed the great nation and led them to supremacy. This was made possible by the polar Warp Gates that allowed the Old Ones to cross from their realm to the Old World. The ability to speak to the Old Ones lead the original spawnings of Slann to possess great power and many of their rank are among the most powerful wizards to ever live. To this day no wizard has ever matched the power of the Great Lord Kroak, the oldest and wisest of the Slann, taught by Tepok himself. During this time of greatness, a skink named Zlat-choa served as one of the few non-Slann wizards, a starpriest. The Slann often communed to receive the wisdom of the Old Ones, but during one such meeting Tepok met with Zlat-choa instead. Tepok was revered by the Lizardmen as being linked to the winds of magic, which is why his wisdom granted Kroak so much power. Zlat-choa was taken aback in fear as no skink dared to look upon an Old One. Tepok spoke and said “Do not be afraid, I have observed your diligence and have deemed you worthy to undertake a dire task. An otherworldly force seeks to destroy the Polar Warp Gates, and it must not be allowed to happen. The Slann are oblivious and blinded by their arrogance and believe the Warp Gate could not be breached, however the winds of magic are already being shaped and distorted to destroy the gate and allow the outside force passage into this world. To aid you in this task I shall give you the ability to see the winds of magic in the physical world, and to see how they interact. You cannot go to the Slann for help, this must be your task alone until you find a solution. It is up to you to try and stop this menace from destroying the peace we have established.” Zlat-choa was taken aback, surely the Old Ones couldn’t rely on him for such a grave task. Nonetheless Zlat-choa obeyed, for the will of the Old Ones is absolute. Thus, Zlat-choa set out to do his best to stop this threat. As he approached the Polar Warp Gate he saw magic emanating from it in all directions. Phosphorescent light poured out and danced through the air. He could see the very power of the Old Ones at work, however there was a darker magic, seeded throughout the Warp Gate, a chromatic light shimmered around it in an erratic distorted manner. This surely was the outside force Tepok had warned him of. After seeing this he went back to his chambers to ponder the meaning of this strange magic. As he sat he was overcome with visions of birdlike beings chanting strange words with magic streaming from their wings. Zlat-choa heard “Al-rehzahk Na-vaross Von-rehkah Tul-rehkei”. This phrase was repeated multiple times before the vision ended. Zlat-choa sat in terror, questions filling his head. What were these strange things, where did they come from, and what did those words mean? The next day normal life went on for the Lizardmen, but Zlat-choa wildly searched for an answer. Memories flitted through his head of the strange bird creatures. Zlat-choa wondered why he could not go to the Slann for help, but he knew Tepok must have had a reason. He watched in horror as the strange magic grew more powerful each day. The visions became more frequent and he heard strange words like Tzeentch and of powerful creatures know as Lords of Change. He guessed the two must be linked. He sat many long nights by the Warp Gate watching the airy winds of magic dance around and swirl into shapes of such perfection they could not be named. He often was entranced by the beauty and sometimes was able to forget his troubles and forget about the sinister plot that had been set in motion. Unfortunately, reality would slowly sift back into focus and he would again search for the answers he so desperately needed. Zlat-choa begged for Tepok to give him some sort of hint but he got no reply. Days turned into weeks of searching and the Slann noticed his erratic behavior. But eventually Zlat-choa found the answer he sought. It had been right under his nose the entire time, though it was no simple task. The process would involve temporarily closing the Warp Gate. However, to do this he would need the Slann's help. Without an audience he went before the Slann. Saurus ran up ready to kill him but seeing his look of desperation Lord Kroak told them to hold. Zlat-choa explained the situation and the visions. The Slann listened with great interest. After he finished briefing them the council met to discuss his claims. After a few days the Slann agreed to his solution as with study, they determined that there was indeed strange magic underway. The council started casting the spell to stall the Warp Gate when suddenly the air seemed to change. A rift opened nearby and out came one of the hellish bird creatures Zlat-choa had seen. It started chanting in its strange language and sent a burst of prismatic energy towards the council. Zlat-choa knew his time had come and he hurled himself in front of the blast and used every ounce of magic he had to focus it into himself as opposed to the Slann. Searing pain struck Zlat-choa as he gasped for breath. As his vision started to fade he saw Lord Kroak himself standing over him and calling down comets to smite the infernal creature. Then a calm voice whispered to him and said “Relax, I will take you to be with me now Zlat-choa. You did all you could, but the extent of the magic was too far beyond you or the Slann. Though the forces of Chaos pour into the world, we have left instructions on how to destroy them, if they are interpreted correctly. For your brave work we shall bring you with us when the Warp Gate closes and we shall train you to be our Scion and use you destroy Chaos when the time comes.” With these words Zlat-choa relaxed and with a smile drifted into death only to be awakened in the realm of the Old Ones. Spoiler: Story Two: "Kroxigor's Magic" Kroxigor's Magic In the dark, narrow alley ways of Tlaxtlan, hid a tensed Mallus. His bulky arms adorned with scales, wrapped around his even bulkier torso, shivering incessantly. His relatively small mind rushed with crazed fears that blighted the foreseeable future. The future itself seemingly hidden alike the many shadows that obscured his vision around him in a darkening void. Suddenly, a skink priest fashioned with variously colored feathers appeared off from the side of his panicked vision and mind. The skink and its staff shivered themselves into an aggressive tremble. “Mal! What are you doing? You’re supposed to be working!” Mallus looked up before his bulging muscles shivered even more, “Zakaku! Black things everywhere! Little black leg things make Mal scared!” Zakaku’s impatient, furious shivering stopped as his eyes slightly widened in realization. “Spiders, huh? They have been appearing a lot more as of late.” Mallus’ massively thick head nodded quickly, “Spiders want something! Mal dont know what they want from Mal!” “Enough with that!” Zakaku angrily barked. “You can smash them into a mere smoosh without even trying. They aren’t a threat to you - no - not even a threat to anyone!” Mallus’ shivering stopped whilst his eyes quietly leered apprehensively. Visions of those thin, springy legs tormented his mind. Zakaku sighed and left his magical staff to stand upon the stone wall behind him. He knew what he had to do. It had helped Mallus’ inexplicable bouts of intense fear for these critters, and help restore his confidence for the past twenty years. Zakaku immediately leaped forth upon Mallus, embracing his bulky form. Zakaku’s comparably needle-thin arms hugged as much as he could, soothing Mallus’ frightened mind. And soothing it was. Mallus’ fears boiled up and evaporated as if it was nothing but hot air. Everything in his mind finally seemed clear and alight. “Now don’t disappoint me,” Zakaku said whilst withdrawing from his embrace. “You’ve been called upon to take up arms and fight. Your strength will become invaluable.” Zakaku stepped back and grasped his magical staff before turning ‘round. “See you later, brother.” Mallus stared at Zakaku’s walking form as it disappeared from around the corner and into the light. His mind raced anew not with fear, but with excitement! He wondered if it’ll be the rats that will be fought. Maybe even the humans or elves. He loved fighting the rats the most. They get crushed so easily! *** Three hours passed. The sun’s burning dominance throughout the vast skies above was beginning to recede. Zakaku stepped into a small temple that stood in the extreme outskirts of Tlaxtlan. Inside, he found six skinks all adorned with colorful feathers alike himself. They all held higher ranks too. “Was I summoned?” “Yes, we’re here to inform you an additional dozen sauri have been assigned to your search party.” “Wait, why?” Zakaku questioned; bemused as to why he needed this amount of troops. One of them spoke up, “Well, It turns out Yuqal’xili isn’t missing anymore. His corpse was found roughly twenty miles east from here near a cave system.” “He’s dead, huh…” Zakaku uttered as the thought started permeating throughout his mind. “We initially thought it was the scummy rats responsible. That was until our scouts searched the surrounding area…” Another one of them took to the info dump. “Spiders. Big ones. They’re around one-half the size of a skink. They were also responsible for making off with the Staff of the Lost Sun Yuqal’xili had on him, somehow.” Zakaku’s guts sunk like stone on water. His eyes widened in disbelief. “Spi-Spiders!?” “Quite surprising, indeed. Almost harmless, though. Can easily be cut down by just about anyone.” “You know your orders then,” One of them said. “Take your search party and find the Staff of the Lost Sun.” “Understood…” Zakaku stepped out; his eyes glued onto the dirt before him. He pondered on whether he should tell Mallus about these unexpected turn of events. It utterly bemused him how anyone could fear anything that which does no harm. Zakaku sighed heavily before preparing to assemble his small host. These spiders will be crushed nonetheless. *** Another three hours had passed. The sun’s receding rays stretched across the horizon as nightfall made its presence felt. The search party consisted of a score of six Kroxigors, a small legion of sauri, and a band of skinks all on the march due east. The higher up skinks gave Zakaku a magically enchanted lodestone worn around his neck. It can detect waves of power that occasionally pulsate from the Staff of the Lost Sun. According to the lodestone, they were right - the highly revered staff wasn’t taken a long distance away from Yuqal’xili. They marched resolutely with no difficulties stopping them until they reached a rather large opening cleared of trees and other flora. Cave openings dotted themselves all around, and a skink priest’s bloodied, beheaded body laid near one of them. Luckily, the magically enchanted lodestone told Zakaku which one they needed to head towards. They were off marching again in no time. Mallus’ nostrils flared and his muscles shivered once again when he saw white stringy webs stretch across the corners of the tunnel they were in. He pondered with a curious claw on whether rats use webs. They continued on into twists and bends until the tunnel gradually broadened into three separate paths. Once again, the lodestone directed them surely and succinctly into the one that branched off to the left. They marched onwards until they eventually found themselves in an expansive chamber. The space they were in could’ve housed a large portion of Tlaxtlan by itself as the scaly warriors’ clawed feet made resounding echoes throughout. There were even more openings which presumably lead onto more tunnels on the opposite side. Nonetheless, the lodestone was practically beating upon Zakaku’s chest with reflective power. The Staff of the lost Sun was near. Before Zakaku could order his host yet again, arrows suddenly flew above them all. None were hit. He immediately turned to see who was responsible. Flooding in from the chamber’s opposite side, were spiders all enlarged to be half a skink, as was expected. What they didn’t expect, however, were the ones responsible for firing off the arrows. Little green humanoids rode upon the spiders. Sporemen! Greenskins! Their bows arced upwards, preparing yet another barrage of death. Zakaku’s staff beamed with light before himself and the rest of the host’s scales glowed with a sheen. The arrows bounced off harmlessly. “Mal!” Zakaku barked as he turned towards the kroxigors. His body begun to tremble with impatience until he noted the amount of kroxigors which stared at him, dumbfounded. What were supposed to be six, only stood five. Zakaku turned ‘round, fiercely clenching his teeth together as some of the goblin spider-riders charged at them all, while others arced their bows high. *** Mallus’ giant Warhammer swerved from side to side as he walked alone in a corridor. He divulged from the host’s path, for he felt something terribly amiss. His guts convoluted along with the invasive smell of ratmen purging all else thought. Even the white, stringy webs were growing in intensity with each stomping step. A clear sign of rats! He turned a corner and stared into the abyss that was before him. A few little green humanoids stared back at him. One of them held what seemed to be a staff that was adorned with beautifully woven golden metals. Its head burned with a ferocious orange hue. The realization hit Mallus’ mind instantly. Goblins! Sporemen! He growled angrily as he leaped onto one of them, gripping it with his jaws and ripping it apart. Their spears hopelessly glanced off his scaly hide before he swung his massive Warhammer. The rest of them were bisected effortlessly. What Mallus assumed to be The Staff of the Lost Sun, laid in a pool of blood, bone and meat. He curiously held it in his massive claws before continuing onwards wherever this tunnel may lead him. *** Ten minutes of darkness passed before the tunnel eventually widened. Mallus stomped into a massive chamber enraged with the commotion of battle. Arrows flew; blood was spilt. What made his heart race and his mind tormented, however, were his opponents. Tiny little creatures scurried upon springing legs. Goblins he killed earlier, rode on them. As if his innards were being pushed from within with rage and fear, he tried looking away from them, but couldn’t look away from the blue, scaly lizards falling with cuts and slashes. His blood seethed as his head arched upwards. He roared angrily as he hefted the Staff of the Lost Sun and his Warhammer, clenching them both with the combined strength of ten sauri. The gold adorned staff responded in kin with its orange hue burning exponentially. Soon, a violent flash scorched throughout the chamber’s surroundings, sending Mallus flying until he smashed into the chamber’s walls. His consciousness was escaping him alike the blood pouring from his head… *** Mallus’ eyes instantly slid open when water doused him. He was lying down. Trees… trees everywhere. “Mal!? Mal! You did it! You saved us all!” Mallus could see Zakaku’s bloodied form and hear him slightly. “Ughh… Mal don’t feel good…” “And you located the Staff of the Lost Sun! Brother, you never disappoint!” Mallus’ eyes quickly slid closed and his body’s muscles tensed up. Zakaku noticed this. “What’s wrong? The spiders are all dead! There’s nothing nevermore to fear now.” “Worm behind you…” Spoiler: Story Three: A Friend for Hard Times A FRIEND FOR HARD TIMES PROLOGUE – ONE YEAR AGO The skink and the kroxigor were heading toward North. The last lizardmen settlement had been left behind weeks ago. They were following a dusty road, traced with difficulty into the hungry jungle by some clumsy warmblood… It was a sign they were on the right path. The trail was blocked by a carriage with a broken wheel, having failed the test of the travel through the lustrian border and that now was laying as a dying bastiladon; four humans were trying to pull it up without any success. The humans noticed the two lizardmen and quickly retreated, holding their staffs as improvised weapons. The skink spoke with the kroxigor, and the huge beast left the mace before moving to the wagon and pulling it up, waiting. The skink advanced slowly toward the humans keeping its claws open; one of the men cautiously advanced. A strange negotiation had begun. ____________________________________ PRESENT DAY The skink’s dream: the skaven. For weeks the skaven had launched countless assaults, wasting thousands of worthless furry lives in order to harass the lizardmen, attempting to tire them and to soften them up for the real attack. And indeed Hisstik was tired. Days upon days, casting upon casting… the First Attendant of the High Priest had never ceased to give magical support to the troops with dozens of spells. Easily more than a hundred, in the last two weeks. Before the last battle. In the nightmare there was a sea of rats, emerging endlessly from the huge holes, swarming the defenses and trampling the dead saurus warriors. Hisstik was trying to keep them at bay with icy torments and striking comets, his pulsing headache growing more dolorous with each casting. Then Hisstik saw it… the skaven warlord, inciting the horde. An opportunity. The chance for a decisive spell, fighting past the blinding pain inside his head. “ISS KASS SSARATI SHA…” Then something snapped inside Hisskit’s brain and the skink fell to the ground, with blood dripping from his ears and his nose. Hisstik awoke, almost crying. As always, the headache had followed him from the dream. I cannot run away from this…. I cannot. The dawn’s light was already filtering through the closed window. Hisstik opened the door, shivering from the early morning cold. The warmblood’s village was quickly waking up to life and the passing humans saluted him with respect, bowing their heads. From the barracks of unmarried laborers a towering mass of scaly muscles hurried toward Hisstik; Kuklan the kroxigor seemed happy, as always. “Good morning, revered Priest” Sigh… “How many times will I have to tell you? I am no more a priest, my friend” “You speak warmblood. You Great Priest.” “I speak the warmblood’s tongue because the Old Ones blessed me with a superior intellect, not because of magic. My days as priest are gone. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here” Kuklan remained in silence for some seconds, blinking his eyes. “You Priest. Kuklan your guardian. Now I go.” He hurried toward the humans that were going to the river banks. A channel must be dug and the Kroxigor’s strength would have been a great help. Do you imagine to be a Temple Guard, my friend? That’s why you went into exile with me? Poor deluded fool… but I’m glad you’re here. The humans were glad he was here too. It took some time but now the giant lizard and the skink were viewed as part of the community. Hisstik’s contribution was of course, less physical; he headed to the botanical garden. The power of the herbs was mundane, but could stop the spreading of a virulent jungle fever. When you hold the power of life, the source of said power is always perceived as divine… especially if you deal with advanced monkeys. Now, let us find something for my headache. Hisstik was almost finished picking the herbs when someone grabbed him, almost making him fall… and suddenly something cold and warm stamped on his cheek. “Fluffy has healed! FLUFFY HAS HEALED!!” Hisstik turned toward his aggressor, one of those human children. Long and yellow head fur, two braids. She’s Gretha. And Fluffy is the puppy with the hurt leg. Her display of teeth doesn’t mean she’s threatening me, but that she is happy. “Lizzie, you’re the greatest wizard EVER!!! I love you!” “It was the power of the right medicine, not magic…” “you are a wizard! And you are my best friend!” The child ran away, leaving Hisstik watching at her back with rhubarb in his claw. Foolish warmblood. I shouldn’t be loved for doing something I wasn’t spawned for… but thanks nonetheless. He caressed his cheek, where it was kissed. It was a weird sensation. Hisstik went back to his house; the herbs had to be treated… but while the various ointments were prepared, the kiss was always there, in a corner of the skink’s mind. Hisstik realized that evening was near only when he heard the settlers coming back from the work… they were singing one of their happy songs and Kuklan was singing too, more or less. He was just shouting made-up verses, trying to mimic the warmbloods voices and to follow the rhythm. I am glad you’re happy, my friend… but night is coming. And my daemons too. The skink’s dream: the doom. He was laying on the bed, with the High Priest standing by his side. “I’m sorry Hisstik. There’s not an easy way to say it. I’ve used the crystal skull and I’ve merged my mind with yours. The effort was too great, your astral mind has been damaged. If you cast another spell…” the Great Priest stopped, almost afraid to finish the sentence. “…I will die”. “You could serve our City in different ways. The skaven have been vanquished and it’s time to build again: there’s always a use for supervisors of the Spawning Pools or for archivists. I would be willing to help you in finding a new vocation, the Ritual of New Becoming would be soft.” “It won’t be soft. If I have to find a new place for me in the Great Plan, I need to search for it. I choose the Path of Exile”. The High Priest face turned hard as stone. “If this is your choice so be it. Leave the city”. The dream went on, with Hisstik walking along streets full of sauri and skinks, which were shouting at him, making a constantly growing noise. The screaming was incomprehensible, as if it wasn’t the language of the lizards. Then a thunder suddenly entered the dream, waking Hisstik. The screaming was still there coming from the outside. Another thunder and another one… warmbloods’ weapons. Hisstik ran out stopping under the porch. The first incoming rays of the sun were eclipsed by the burning fires, as the houses near the palisade were ablaze. There were irregular shots coming from the fortified barrack but no soldier was visible, except for a couple of dead sentries. People were running away, scattering themselves at random across the village, just trying to escape the pursuers. Hisstik could hear the growling of cold ones. No please no, we didn’t do anything… Then a couple of them emerged from behind a house. Metallic armors and weapons, pointy helms and a black banner with a red serpent on it. A lance impaled a villager armed with an axe and then a weighted net caught the human female near him. The realization that the enemy wasn’t the lizardmen was a relief for the skink, followed by fright. Dark Elves. A raiding party. Hisstik was paralyzed. He watched while his little world was collapsing upon itself, cut down by the merciless slavers. Some children were killed, some others were abducted; the same for women and men, without any apparent logic if not for the momentary mood of the attackers. A familiar roar came from the barracks… Kuklan was entering the fray, but the kroxigor was too far and probably was too late to save Hisstik, as one of the elves was coming directly toward him. No, he’s not looking at me… he’s hunting a child. A child with yellow, braided hair. “LIZZIE! HELP!!!” Time almost froze… Hisstik watched the girl running to him as fast as she could, but too slow for the elven warrior behind her. Nonono… With a wicked smile the elf raised the sword. No please no The blade began its descent… “KIA MASS SSARATHU!” A blast of wind erupted from the stretched claws of the skink, striking the dark elf and projecting him back several yards. He landed against the wall of the water well with a satisfying crack, the head bended to an unnatural angle. The panicked girl was now desperately hugging Hisstik, but he barely noticed it. He was watching his claws, then the dead elf, then his claws again. His mind was crackling with energy. He gently loosened the hug of the child. “Stay behind me, Gretha. I will die, but they won’t touch you”. One of the Cold Ones riders saw his dead companion, then noticed Hisstik. He lowered the lance and charged. I’ve got a lance too, you bastard. “ISS KASS SSARATI SHA NARR!” A translucent bolt, the size of the arrows fired by stegadons, designed a deadly ark, exploding the dinosaur’s head and impaling the rider. I did it. I’m not dead. In the open square there was now a group of four armed elves and among them, a half-naked female who was watching at Hisstik with surprise and hate. She began chanting and gesturing… more than seeing it, Hisstik perceived the concentration of dark energy around the sorceress, until it reached its peak, finally venting into the spell. Death was heading toward the skink. “ITZAZTI!” The energy dissipated around the protective gestures made by Hisstik, leaving only some stains upon the wooden wall behind him. I’ve never felt so powerful… Hisstik looked at the sorcereress in the eye and he saw fear. …and now it is my turn. “RUKISHA SSARATI SHA! KISHURU MASS SSARATHU!” Now the thunder was real. The sorceress tried to cast something, weaving her hands into a defensive stance… the magical pressure snapped the layer of defense, one by one. Then a lightning bolt struck her from the darkened sky, enveloping the screaming sorceress with white energy. The lightning bounced from the charred corpse into the nearby bodyguards, slaying them all. Hisstik stayed immobile, contemplating the dead enemies and shielding Gretha with his body. He could hear the roaring of the kroxigor and the shouts of the soldiers finally emerging from the barracks. Pinched within two counterattacks and without leadership, the dark elves fled, leaving further bodies on the ground and abandoning the captured humans. Hisstik stayed near the porch, sitting upon the stair step, still unable to understand why he was still alive. Gretha went away with her mother, which passed 10 minutes crying and swearing eternal gratitude to her savior. The mother kissed Hisstik too… it was definitely nice to have cheeks kissed. The settlers were still quenching the fires when a deeply satisfied Kuklan, with a mace covered in blood, reached his friend. “You good?” “Yes my friend. And you know what? I’ve killed them with my spells. No more headaches, only the power of real magic.” The kroxigor nodded solemnly. “Told you. You Revered Priest”. “Yes you did. But my friend, these things are not your knowledge and it wasn’t supposed to be that way… the will of the Old Ones works in mysterious ways”. Kuklan smiled, showing the teeth as one of those human child. “No mystery. Once Kuklan moves very heavy stones. Arms hurt. Kuklan rests two days. Arms hurt no more.” Kuklan smiled again, then trotted away without waiting for Hisstik to reply. The skink watched the kroxigor walk away. You know what, my friend? Maybe the Old Ones like simple things, once in a while. Hisstik finally got up. Better to see if the botanical garden is alright. Our wounded will need some healing. Spoiler: Story Four: "Got Your Gear?" Got Your Gear? ----------------------------- Lazy waves slapped against the hull of The Emperor's Bounty lightly rocking the heavy galleon as it floated across the open seas. The boats rocking lulling many of it's occupants to an early afternoon's sleep, save for the occupants of one cabin. "Jorgen vould you kindly stop pacing? You are beginning to make me seasick." "I'm worried Klaus. I pace when I'm worried." "Vaht have you to worry about? Ve vill be paid handsomely regardless if we find zhese fabled gold cities or not and you will go back to your father richer zhan he." "Did you forget where we intend to search? LUSTRIA!" A silent moment hung in the air as Klaus sat up in his hammock to look at his companion. "The place where men go to die in thier droves for a fabled fortune that I have yet to see a coin of in any merchants wares!" "You forget who you travel with dear boy, I am Klaus Vouschbram, Hero of Zhe Vestern Drakwald!" Leaping down from his hammock and straightening his short beard in the same flourish. "And if I am not mistaken you are a part of Klaus' Klaws are you not? Do you truly fear an overgrown forest more than hordes of undead and chaos beasties?" Jorgen wavered for a moment, bobbing his head trying to come up with a reason to rebut the impassioned accusation. He had joined these mercenaries to get away from his tyrant of a father and find fame in serving the great Imperial armies, or whichever army had the larger purse. Never had he imagined sailing to the New World on a reckless treasure hunt at the whim of some Tilean merchant. A flash of brown snapped him from his thoughts as a scabbard flew at his face. "Now make sure your equipment is in fighting condition boy, if our dear, salt encrusted captain is to be trusted ve make landfall tomorrow noon," And with that final order the mercenary captain returned to his hammock to nap. The next morning came and fell to noon quickly as all the men busied themselves with final preparations to make land that day. Three men stood at the wheel of the ship, Klaus inspecting his zweihander, the captain of the vessel, a stout man with skin of tanned leather and missing several fingers, and the young man draped in silken finery and checking a ledger. "So signor Borno we shall see land before lunch yes? The sea is too cruel to ride for such a time." "Aye. I reckin Mory up there'll be calli-" "LAAANNDD HO!" "Like a bludy clock he is" "Excellente! Now comandante Vouscbram your men know the plan yes? We make land and set up camp before dusk as far into the jungle as we can-" "And zen we follow your maps inland for 2 veeks and gather all treasure we can vhile ensuring your personal safety, ja my soldiers know what to do." "Bene." "Beeile dich men! And don't forget your gear!" 6 days later "MARKUS! VHERE ARE YOU?!" Klaus' deep voice boomed through the jungle trees, "JORGEN! Have you seen Markus?" "No, he went to collect firewood over an hour ago." "Hmmp... Did he take his gear?" "I'll check........ No!" "Scheisse! Get zhe hunters, I'm going to look for him" Branches and leaves sprang back to slap Klaus as the lead hunter cut through the undergrowth to lead the way through the jungle. Reptiles hissed and bit at his steel boots but they all retreated eventually. Trekking not 20 minutes from camp the lead hunter stopped. "Captain I found his tracks. Looks like he was being chased by something, big, three toes and pretty heavy." The scout spoke through the undergrowth as Klaus pushed his muscular bulk through. "Vunderbar. How long ago?" Klaus shook his head slightly, adjusting his own sword. "Within the last few minutes." "Stay low and quiet, ve're following," The hunters nodded, checking their own weapons as one produced a crossbow. Following the tracks brought them through lots of trampled undergrowth and through the canopy they saw the side of a small mountain with the tracks leading straight towards it. Climbing through the last parts of the undergrowth the group peered out to a very peculiar sight: Markus trying to fight off a massive, bipedal lizard creature from a small hole in the cliff side, the rest of the cave seemingly blocked by a large boulder. "Zhat idiot, I always told you men to never go into strange caves, just because ve are on a different continent zhat rule doesn't change." Klaus remarked upon seeing the sorry sight of a battle, Markus' stick-sword flashing out to smack the lizard on the snout before it roared back and lashed back with a crude spear. Getting closer they saw the true size of the lizard assailing their comrade, standing taller than a warhorse and packed with enough muscle to tear any of them open with a flex of it's arms, it struck a truly imposing figure. The blue scales covering it's back as thicker than steel plate armour giving way to large bony spikes, several covered in what seemed to be gold armour. "Move around and surround zhe beast, on my word bring it down." Gesturing in a semicircle around their foe the mercenary captain stooped low, putting his sword down trying to be inconspicuous while his men got in position. It took a minute but everyone was nearly in position. It was a great time for everything to go wrong. All of a sudden the wind picked up, blowing on the back of Klaus' neck, a welcome reprieve from the sweltering heat of the jungle. He closed his eyes for a few seconds to enjoy the feeling before he heard another roar from the lizard, opening his eyes he saw it looking him dead in the eyes, it's tongue flicking back into its mouth. "KILL IT NOW!" He bellowed, reaching back for his zweihander he came face to face with another, smaller, bluer, scalier face. One face hissed and one screamed. On command the hunters hastily took aim, bows and crossbows leveled at the beast. Firing in a simultaneous volley, all their missiles made their mark with accuracy trained in years of battle. Unfortunately only one of them stuck in the target, barely wedged under a scale before falling out, ineffectual. With a hissing snarl the saurian brute changed targets, turning toward the archer closest to it. Klaus lunged forward at the lizard in front of him, barely taller than his chest, but far nimbler and quicker than he was. Dodging swiftly the lizard struck back with a blow to the stomach with the club it carried, a dull thud resounded where the club struck the steel plate of Klaus' armour. Winded but still active, Klaus capitalized on his opportunity, grabbing the arm holding the club his other arm darted to his waist where his dagger hung. A quick stab to the throat and Klaus was back onto his feet, recovered sword in hand. The heavy footfalls of the lizard rang like the bells of Morr to the hunters as it charged them, fangs bared and spear outreaching like an arm welcoming them to His garden. Thankfully its strikes were slow, and each blow could be deflected or dodged with some skill, skill it seemed one of the hunters did not have, the short sword he raised in defense batted aside and the spear carving a deep groove across his chest and belly. Unlike the lizardman before them none of the men could scratch the tough hide, every swing struck home but none had the strength or angle to pierce the iron skin of their foe. Another hunter fell to a bone crushing punch from a forearm as thick as a tree when they heard the deep voice they hoped for. "Komm zurück!" Klaus' deep roar came from the bushes as he charged forward bringing his massive sword to bear, his men quickly retreating from the beast. As he swung his blade the subtle runes along its length burned to life in dull white light, humming their harmony, the cutting edge of the sword flicking sparks of energy as it neared its intended target. In the time it took for the blade to close in the saurus was able to mount its own defense, the shaft of the spear interposed between the two combatants, a futile gesture in the end however. The long Zweihander shore through the wood of the spear and continued through to the tough skin of its wielder, the light of the runes flaring as it bit into flesh, magical energies honing the blade to cut through scale, flesh, and bone. With two more strikes Klaus slew the mighty beast, it's carcass falling at his feet. "ZHIS IS VHY YOU BRING YOUR EQUIPMENT MARKUS!" The captain scolded his soldier, with stern voice and laboured breath. "So you can defend yourself when scheisse goes sideways!" "I'm sorry captain. I will remember next time," the shamed mercenary responded sheepishly, "But I did find something interesting while I was out here! Back in the cave!" "And zhat's another zhing, you know zhe rules about mystery caves! Did you want to end up like poor Steigler?" "I know, but please just have a look! I think it will make our employer very happy!" Markus made his way back to the cave, shimmying through the narrow entrance as the search party reluctantly followed through. "Pass me a flint," Markus held his branch out, lighting the end as a makeshift torch. For a moment Klaus blinked at the smoke, but then something in the back of the cave took his gaze, an all too familiar sparkle reflected back in his eager eye. "Ja, I zhink he vill." Spoiler: Story Five: The Coward's Weapon The Coward's Weapon There was a sound like the primordial thunder of creation, and the stone was rent with a mighty crack. Tropical sunlight shimmered on a catacomb long left in darkness. The grim interior of the corridor swiftly swallowed the light and turned it gloomy. The six towering kroxigor hefted the imposing tools they had used to shift the thick stone slab at the entrance to the ruined temple, and retreated to the base of the pyramid, rejoining a squadron of skink jungle veterans. Colonel Ximón S. Ochoa stepped forward and peered into the chamber they had just unsealed. He was a short skink, but he stood proud and confident, one claw absentmindedly rubbing at the terrible scar marks running across his face and under his eyepatch. A red-crested lieutenant, Valentina, stepped up alongside him, staring into the gloom. "It's as I feared, then," said Valentina. "You were right, damn you," growled Colonel Ochoa. "I don't know why, but the Clan was here. In Limza, of all places." "It was the last known destination of our contact, Iktan. I'm guessing one of these poor bastards is him." They both considered the gruesome scene within the dark stone corridor. Two skinks - long dead - had been mauled horrifically and their bodies left hanging from the walls. Their blood had been used to draw crude upside-down triangles on several available surfaces, with lines extending to represent ears and whiskers. "The stench is the worst part," commented Valentina. "I don't know if I can get any closer." "It's bad, aye," grimaced the Colonel. "But it's not the worst. The worst part is the magic." "How can you-?" "I can tell. Have the troops search the scene. And bring me the prisoner." Valentina signalled the commands to the waiting skinks with her claws. She turned to follow the Colonel back down the pyramid steps. "I take it this means you won't be using Corporal Llorenco's abilities." Colonel Ochoa scowled. "It's bad enough there's a mage on my squad. The last thing I need is him interfering with operations. Where did that terradon come from?" he added, nodding at a large, winged creature, warming its bright red scales in the sun. "I've seen it before," said Valentina. "It was Iktan's mount. Takol, I think." "Hmph. Well now Takol is regimental property. Get a saddle on it." --- The sun beat down on the time-worn masonry and overgrown flagstones of Limza, a small, empty ruin near Axolotl. Ochoa leaned into the shade of a squat palm tree as two soldiers dragged something towards him on its knees. It was another lizardman, beaten and chained. Through her ragged grey cloak could be spied scales blackened with azpata root, a dye almost impossible to remove. The prisoner appeared exhausted and broken, but when the Colonel looked into her eyes, he saw the gleam of mad amusement. "Are you ready to tell us what we want to know?" asked Ochoa, his one eye returning wearily to the pyramid. Nearby, Lieutenant Valentina watched the Colonel. "Are you ready to hear it?" The prisoner chuckled, wheezing from broken ribs. The Colonel sighed, and rubbed at the extensive scars across his face. "This is your last chance. If you continue to resort to games, you will not live to see the sunset." "That sounds serious," grinned the skink on her knees. "I better tell you what I know. I know that the Horned Rat sees all. I know that the Lost Clan will inherit Lustria. And I know that if you ever find us, you'll wish you had never begun your mission of doom." Ochoa's steel gaze met the prisoner's dancing eyes. "My mission is to find and destroy your laughable cult. Do you know how many missions I have failed to accomplish?" The Colonel leaned down and drew breath, only to swivel around towards the pyramid at the sudden sound of shouting. A skink came flying, backwards, out of the temple entrance they had so recently excavated. A moment later there was a chitinous shriek, so loud that a flock of birds erupted from the jungle canopy a good distance away. The whole edifice seemed to shake as a stupendous murine ogre forced its pale, glistening bulk into the sun, where it drew itself to its full height and screeched again, spittle flying across the temple steps. The prisoner laughed with delight. "Battle stations!" roared Ochoa. Within moments, the giant vermin was surrounded by a ring of lizards - at a wary distance. Its albino flesh was pierced by dozens of slender javelins. Howling in pain, it leapt the entire staircase in a single bound, setting upon a number of skinks who were too slow to evacuate the area. "Heavies!" commanded Ochoa, and the six kroxigors rumbled forward, beating at the adversary with huge clubs. Despite the large lizards' impressive size, the rat ogre towered higher still, and managed to bite out the throat of one of the krox with its vicious incisors. The others redoubled their efforts and the vermin fell to its knees, its body torn and bleeding. Springing off a nearby rock, the Colonel leapt onto the monster's neck from behind, using a large, curving knife to slit its throat. He jumped back again and watched in disgust as its screeching grew quieter and it thrashed towards a bloody demise. Valentina inspected the corpse. "It looks like there are scales here, trying to break free of the skin. And, here - spiky formations along the spine. Colonel, I think they have been cross breeding lizards with these abominations." Blood from the dead ogre made Ochoa's scarred face look thunderously gory. He turned darkly from the scene of the battle towards the skink prisoner, who was still bound and kneeling beneath the palm tree. Seeing the Colonel's expression, the prisoner's grin faded. --- "I don't like it," said Valentina. "It's too easy. Why would they make a base in such a poorly defended location? Just twenty miles west there are mountains and all kinds of caves. Here there is nothing but thin jungle." "Perhaps they thought it was the last place we would look. And they were right," mused Ochoa, scratching his scars again. Together, they peered through the foliage at the location finally beaten from the prisoner. A simple camp - a few dozen tents patrolled by skinks in grey robes; a trio of cages containing something bigger. And in the centre, a huge effigy of a rat skull, great twisting horns emerging above eyeless sockets. If the prisoner could be believed, this was the headquarters of the Lost Clan. "I still think it's too easy," muttered Valentina, glancing at the platoon soldiers expertly hiding themselves in the trees all around, waiting for the Colonel's orders. "Are you sure you don't want to use the skills of Corporal Llorenco?" The Colonel sighed. "Magic is the weapon of-" "Of cowards, I know," interrupted the Lieutenant. "You've said so many times. But this enemy knows your methods, the prisoner said as much. They'll be ready for you, I know you know it. We need something new. Think of the good soldiers we've lost already to the Clan. Their lives are in your hands. Are they worth your stubborn bravery?" Ochoa snarled. He opened his moth to reply, and then closed it. He looked back at the enemy camp. His hand scratched at the scars around his eyepatch. --- It was dawn. The skaven-worshipping lizardmen of the Lost Clan looked up in shock as javelins and blowpipe darts fell thick among them, and Ochoa's elite regiment burst through the trees. The cultists' grey cloaks and azpata-stained scales were shredded as they fell back, their shelters torn down. The shooting was concentrated on those near the ogre pens, but with his last moments, one of the cultist breeders managed to unchain the three reptile-rodent monstrosities kept there. The large brutes reared up, but their blood-chilling screams were cut short as the five kroxigors were already upon them, using the chains to re-bind and slay the beasts with well-aimed blows. Colonel Ximón S. Ochoa burst into the largest tent, dagger in hand, the body of its guard falling dead at his feet. In the half-light of the small pavilion, he faced a fellow skink - not large, nor obviously intimidating, but wearing a crude wooden mask, carved in the shape of a horned rat. The triangular shape was repeated in bloody scar on its chest. "Captain Horacio Zapata, you are under arrest for heresy of the highest order," barked Ochoa. "You are defeated." The wooden mask made no movement in the flickering candlelight. "That is not my name, and you are incorrect. This is the moment of my triumph," it rasped, its voice pure insanity, simultaneously inserting what looked like a grey blowpipe into a nearby contraption, and twisting. There was a small click. Bright green warpfire burst from the ground. Large patches of jungle soil gave way to reveal hidden tunnels from which marched a battalion of heavily armoured lizards wearing rodent-shaped gas-masks and brandishing warp-powered flamethrowers. Several of Ochoa's regiment were incinerated on the spot, and the tent where he stood burst into flames, shrivelling away. "Surrender," said the cult leader, stepping forwards. Sickly green light shimmered across the wooden mask. Ochoa glared at the scene all around. The other combatants watched him, waiting. With a snort of disgust, he threw his knife at the cultist's feet. The masked lizard picked it up. "Colonel Ochoa. My prisoner," he chittered, seemingly to himself. "The Horned Rat will be pleased with this offering, oh yes." The Colonel and the remaining members of his regiment were shepherded together in the centre of the clearing, forced into a group around the terrible rat-skull totem. The flamethrowers took positions all around them. Ochoa eyed them carefully, no trace of fear visible among the scars on his face. "Vermin warp magic," he commented. "The coward's weapon." The Clan leader wasn't listening. He was leading the others in dark, yet passionate chanting in a deeply disturbing language. The chanting became stronger and more frenzied ,and the warp weaponry began to whir as it powered up. "Of course," continued Ochoa, as the noise reached fever-pitch. "It gives me a new appreciation for our nice, sensible Lustrian magic. NOW!" The masked leader looked up as a crimson blur sped from the sky. The red terradon skimmed the ground, whizzing past Ochoa, who was neatly caught by Valentina from the saddle. The other members of their regiment faded into the morning mist, the illusion magic wearing off. Green flame erupted all around them as they soared up over the trees, just out of reach. And as the fire died away, the cultist realised that the rising sun was significantly higher and brighter than normal. And it was getting rapidly closer. "Comet!" screamed one of the flamers. Riding into the dawn, Ochoa and Valentina heard the detonation behind them. They continued in silence for a good while as the thunderous sound died away. Finally, the Colonel cleared his throat. "Remind me to give Corporal Llorenco a promotion, would you?" Spoiler: Story Six: Peals of Thunder Peals of Thunder “Brohnibad…,” the straw-haired girl whined. “You know we aren’t supposed to be out in the wilds.” She looked around anxiously and rubbed her forearms to ward off the setting sun’s chill. The boy paused in his efforts to climb up a ragged gray outcrop of stone to deliver a glare. “I told you,” he sighed exasperatedly, “everyone’s busy at the harvest festival. No one will notice we aren’t there,” he resumed climbing. “Besides, we might find something interesting.” Nihenya glanced up the jagged mound and then back the way they’d come through the woods. “It’s getting dark,” she continued undeterred, “and I’m cold.” Brohnibad grunted in annoyance for what seemed the fifth time in the last half hour. He examined the short distance to the top of the mottled outcrop, no more than a dozen meters. “Look,” he conceded and kept going, “I’m almost to the top and it took half a day to get here. It’ll be a lot quicker on the way down and then we can leave, okay?” If she replied, he drowned it out by focusing on the obstacles ahead. The rocks were cracked and rough, providing great handholds but also scraping his skin whenever he misjudged his position. A static charge pricked his finger just as he reached out towards the summit, and for a heartbeat Brohnibad was certain he would fall to his death. His limbs flailed until he found purchase on the rocky incline, at the cost of a ragged gash on his palm. Powered by a surge of adrenaline, the boy hauled his body over the edge. Brohnibad peered at his surroundings, and was surprised. The hill had always been rumored to be a centuries-abandoned Kleshian outpost, but what he saw was nothing familiar. There were no buildings, just an impossibly flat floor dominated by a single stone archway. The ground reminded him of the glass that merchants sometimes imported from Ugrusta, but instead was formed out of a sheet of swirling evergreen and blue. The boy cautiously advanced towards the archway, and began to make out intricate carvings of geometric designs. He felt drawn to the carvings, as if they were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen. Brohnibad was so entranced that he failed to notice the wind begin to blow and crimson storm clouds form above his head. He was close to the stone archway now, close enough to see a carving of a toothy maw. It was the strangest sensation, but in the back of his mind, he could almost swear it was calling to him, begging him to touch the archway. He had to touch it. Brohnibad reached out a hand, and pressed his now-bloody palm to the stone. For a split second, the boy was confused. Then he heard the gravelly rumble of the clouds above and felt the winds now buffeting his coarse clothes. The grinning carving was now crimson, the blood sputtering like oil in a frying pan. Brohnibad became bathed in a ruddy glow as the archway filled with energy, and then he ran for his life. The light became more intense as he swung his legs over the edge of the rocky summit. The handholds looked foreign to him from this perspective, but fear hurried him along. Just as his head was about to dip below the edge, the boiling clouds above let loose an angry bolt of lightning that struck the archway. The glowing energy exploded outward, hurling Brohnibad from the rocky slope. He woke to the sound of Nihenya screaming, shaking his shoulders. “WHAT DID YOU DO?” she demanded hysterically. Brohnibad wasn’t sure. The last thing he remembered was climbing to the top of the rubble-formed hill, and now he was at its grassy base. The boy sat up and groaned. Something was broken. It was a miracle the fall hadn’t killed him outright. Nihenya was still yelling at the top of her lungs, when a guttural roar washed over them from atop the hill. The children froze, muscles contracting into immovable lumps of iron. The second bloodcurdling shriek released them, and they fled into the woods. Ochre trees and their gauzy filaments threatened to entangle them, their interconnecting threads lashing any exposed skin. Brohnibad and Nihenya didn’t care. Something was chasing them. A furious hunger locked for eons voiced its desire in a shrill cry. The children had only been running for what felt like a heartbeat before the thing entered the woods, snapping trees the width of two men like blades of grass. Brohnibad dared not look behind them. The children leapt over fallen logs and ducked under hanging branches, faster than any footrace in the village. The sound of pounding blood filled his ears, but the pealing thunder of the thing or perhaps the storm itself vibrated into his very bones. Crackling lightning struck a tree a few feet to their rear, blowing it apart in shards of orange wood. Nihenya began to scream at the top of her lungs as the manic howl seemed to double. More trees crashed to the ground, their filaments snapping like whips. Then for a moment, the sound of the thing lagged behind, seeming to choose to destroy more of the woods instead of pursue the pair any longer. Brohnibad and Nihenya burst out of the trees and into a clearing of violet bunchgrass. The bellowing roars approached once more. Nihenya took the lead running through the palpitating bunchgrass, and Brohnibad could feel his injury begin to slow him down as a spasm of pain wracked his body. Their pursuer was almost to the edge of the clearing as Nihenya sprinted through the last of the bunchgrass and came upon a deep but narrow gorge. The two had brought a board just long enough to cross the gap from the village, and it flexed dangerously as she shot across. Brohnibad watched in abject terror as the moment her weight reached the middle, it snapped. Only Nihenya’s momentum managed to carry her to the other side. Brohnibad leapt to the edge to catch the falling board, but it was too late. The two pieces tumbled down into inky blackness. A final crash heralded the thing’s approach into the clearing. The boy turned around to see a dark mass hurtling towards him. Waning sunlight provided but a glimpse, but he could make out a long snout with rows of jagged teeth and a scaly torso covered in flashing gold jewelry. Brohnibad closed his eyes to wait for the end, the image of the thing’s undulating muscles and slashed hide burned into his mind. Brohnibad felt it reach down and violently grasp his body, raising him to its gaping maw. When the vicious daggers failed to bite down, he opened his eyes in bewilderment. Instead, the thing was lifting him up to its shoulder like a sack of grain. Its rough body shifted, one free arm leading forward and the other tightly clutching him. Like one of the coiling vipers Brohnibad sometimes saw in rubbish heaps, its body snapped forward, hurling him to the opposite side of the gorge like a javelin. He flew like a dart, arms outstretched and waiting to dash into the ground like a ripe melon. The thing had apparently kept this in mind, and selected the only other soft substance available to act as his cushion. Brohnibad careened into the back of Nihenya, and the two tumbled into the violet bunchgrass with a yelp, knocking the wind out of both children. They lay stunned for what seemed like a lifetime. Blades of grass clung to his face, mixing with a fine layer of silvery dirt. A thundering roar shook the boy, and he sprung to his feet. The thing was nowhere to be found. Receding shrieks emanated from a ragged breach in the clearing wall, now shrouded in twilight. The journey back to the village was agonizing. Brohnibad could barely walk and had difficulty breathing. Nihenya had a purple bruise along the left side of her body where her head had struck a rock. The bunchgrass steppe stretched out endlessly, and in the darkness they couldn’t tell where they were heading. Freezing rain and howling wind battered the pair. Brohnibad now had to lean on Nihenya for support, and each step elicited a phlegmy cough. He felt so tired. The weight of his flesh felt like warm chains around his bones. For some reason Nihenya refused to let him rest. If they could just stop for a moment, he knew they’d be okay, but she kept dragging him along. Snaking tendrils of lightning flashed along the steppe, each crack of light searing the thing’s craggy visage into his mind. One particular bolt of lightning seemed to leave behind a glowing azure orb of light, and Brohnibad knew he was dying. It came closer and closer, Old Nash come to claim his soul. The angular features of a man peered from out of the orb’s light, and Brohnibad lost consciousness. Nash’s land was awfully similar to the tavern in his village, Brohnibad thought. The walls were covered in the same rusted farm equipment, and the tables and chairs had the same ugly scratches. The patrons were even the same. He saw the faces of Tigruk, Magister Falz, and even Fat Shelly. Brohnibad frowned. Something wasn’t right. Everybody knew that you only went to Nash’s land if you believed in him, and Fat Shelly always denounced him as a ridiculous pile of superstition. Brohnibad tried to sit up, and the group of adults rushed forward, shouting at him to lie still. “What’s going on?” he asked confusedly. “Am I dead?” Fat Shelly burst into tears. “Indeed,” a raspy voice intoned, “you almost visited the court of Nagazhan himself.” The angular brow and aquiline nose of the being from the orb appeared, scrutinizing him from above. Brohnibad screamed. The adults resumed their anxious shouting, holding him down. A sparking flash of white light from the figure silenced them all. “Raise him up, gently,” it spoke. Fat Shelly cradled his torso into a sitting position, and Brohnibad discovered that he had been lying on top of the tavern bar. He gazed at the worried faces of each person, finally landing on that of the figure. A pale face stared back at him from under an emerald-hued, conical helmet. Below, sapphire colored robes flowed among shining plates of armor. “Who is this man?” Brohnibad asked. “This is Lefeifi,” Magister Falz replied. “He is a peak-eared magio who happened to be passing through our village yesterday during the festival.” Magister Falz’s brow narrowed sternly. “You’re lucky he was here when he was,” the man scolded. “Without the blessing of a magio your injuries would have killed you for sure.” Lefeifi held up a silencing hand. “Enough.” The magio fixed an unbreakable stare on Brohnibad. “Tell me of the storm.” “We have storms from time to ti—,” Magister Falz interjected, receiving the same deathly stare from Lefeifi. “Do you question my skill?” the magio asked in a tone that implied the consequences of such an action. The man clenched his mouth shut and shook in the negative. Lefeifi turned back to the boy. “Your companion was of little aid. Tell me of the storm.” So Brohnibad did. He admitted to sneaking away from the festival, an act that would surely earn him lashes from his father. The boy told of the journey through the wood, and with some pride how he climbed the stony hill. Then he faltered. He tried to remember what came next, but felt as if a fist clenched his mind shut. Lefeifi scowled and extended a hand forward, touching the boy’s forehead. “Hgunné,” he spoke. Brohnibad felt a cold tendril of energy spread across his forehead, like a clammy worm crawling across his skin. Then a burst of heat stabbed through his mind, and he could recall everything. They boy’s voice began to shake as he retold seeing the mottled floor, and a dark look of foreboding swept across the magio’s features when he detailed the alluring archway. Brohnibad spoke of the strange carving, and how his bloody touch had brought it to terrible life. The tale broke down into sobs as the boy talked about being pursued by a dreadful thing, capable of rending the whole wood asunder. When the child explained its fearsome appearance, covered in gold and crimson slashes, and the thing’s bizarre behavior, Lefeifi’s eyes flashed. “Did this creature have the maw of a snake?” he interrogated. Brohnibad nodded. “And these slashes, would you describe them as wounds?” The boy agreed again, not sure where the conversation was headed. The peak-eared magio whirled around and retrieved his sword from a nearby table. “Where are you going?” Magister Falz demanded. “Call up what men you have and arm them,” Lefeifi commanded urgently. “The Serphim that the child met was not what came through the gateway. One of the Unbound was allowed to enter through his blood.” The magio pulled the man close by his collar. “Guard that child with your life!” he hissed. “A Serphim would only come at a time such as this if there was a great and terrible purpose for him.” Spoiler: Story Seven: "Two Strengths" Two Strengths “You should not have followed.” In the light cast by a floating orb the thick scaled shoulders of the Saurus shrugged, causing the shadows to quiver in sympathy. He had followed the Skink Priest at a distance through jungle and into the ruins of a temple, it was then that his master had seen fit to notice him. “Gu follow little master. Gu protect little master.” As the Saurus spoke the light from the spell orb glinted off of his fangs, reminding Aeheti just how terrible his servant, his friend’s bite was. The Skink Priest said nothing for a long moment until he gave a weary sigh. “I should have expected that. Like I should have expected the sleep sap not to have worked on you.” Gu dipped his head in agreement. “Gu sleep later. Protect little master now.” Aeheti’s head fin quivered in slight amusement. “Then you know where we are and why we are here?” Gu’s shoulders shrugged again. “No, I suppose you would not. Nor even care. It is alright. There is a poison within these ruins. A poison I do not understand. Whether caused by the fanged corpse of the coast or the burrowing disease rats. Within this dead ruin is a poison. A poison I will remove. This I must do. Apart from our masters of our city, I am the greatest of the benders of winds.” Gu dipped his head again. “Little master is little but strong.” Aeheti dipped his head too in agreement. “Then keep following, but this is no place for those who cannot bend winds.” The Saurus didn’t reply and continued to follow the Skink. The two passed from the dark corridor into a chamber. The light orb played about the chamber walls, highlighting ancient Lustrian carvings, the skeletal remains of its guardians, and in the centre there laid a gold chased plaque on a stand. Aeheti peered at it before shaking his head. Gu looked down at the Saurus bones, and noted aloud that they had been chewed on. Aeheti did not reply and instead closed his eyes. A slight wind from nowhere ruffled the feathers sewn into his cloak and he opened his eyes. “This way,” he muttered and continued onwards through another passageway taken by shadows. Thrice more the two came upon more chambers of the dead, Aeheti pausing at each before leading Gu further on. Even the light of the glowing orb seemed to diminish to the darkness as they delved deeper and deeper beneath the ruined temple. Gu stopped and itched at his scales. “Itchy...” he grumbled. “I feel it too,” Aeheti replied, his tail lashing with anticipation, “we are close.” The passageway led them to another chamber and both Lustrians hissed as they felt the terrible wrongness of the sphere ensconced in the centre of the room. It seemed to have been made from a strange black and glossy stone interlaid with gold that wove around the sphere like veins. Aeheti slowly entered the chamber, his foot skittering aside a Saurid bone that seemed unnaturally distorted and warped. Above him the light orb flickered and nearly died. The dark sphere seemed to regard the Skink Priest and his lumbering follower until with a gentle sigh the shadows cast by the light orb began to convulse. Gu saw the shadows move and roared a warning as tendrils of darkness shot out like daggers towards Aeheti. The Skink Priest shouted a word of command and blades of light intercepted the shadows, but still some lanced through. Aeheti let out a short gasp as he was flung aside and the Saurus took the piercing shadows. He grunted, blood falling upon the dust. Aeheti watched as his friend struggled to rise and hastily spat an incantation. A bright corona of light filled the chamber and the shadows screamed in an unearthly voice as they were burnt away. Gu rose as the tendrils spearing him evaporated into the bright light. Within the light the sphere rose from its position and turned and spun. The gold veins flowed across its surface and formed the image of a horned vermin who screeched its rage before melting away into a grinning skull that clacked in mirth before melding into an all seeing eye that gave an avian shriek. More and more faces and sounds cascaded from the sphere until a meaty claw seized it. Aeheti concentrated his power into Gu, filling him with searing protective light. The sphere turned and tried to burn the Saurus who ignored it and slowly and deliberately crumpled the sphere. The ruined sphere finally fell, a last cackle of something ancient echoing through the chamber. And then it was gone. Aeheti laid a shaking claw on Gu’s shoulder as he slumped to his knees. “Gu can sleep now,” the Saurus muttered and fell unconscious. Within moments a gentle snore emerged from his fangs. The Skink Priest slowly sat down beside his friend. And within the dark ruins Aeheti watched over him and smiled. Spoiler: Story Eight: Tzlatoc and the Gate Warden Tzlatoc and the Gate Warden The Gate Warden Kothe’teq scanned the sky beyond the waterfall gate. Life giving water rumbled out of the hole in the cliff near the City’s highest gate. For hours he had scanned the skies. He blinked and beheld a red and green apparition dart into his view. It soared upward, catching a thermal, pivoted and then back-winged to a graceful landing before the Gate. As usual, for this particular Terradon, nothing in the way of a rider was to be seen. “Chothan! where have you hidden your rider?”, Kothe’teq bellowed. “Show yourself, Tzlatoc.” “I’m here”, the chameleon said wearily, as he ceased impersonating a patch of sky and a scrap green wing splotched with red. “What goods have you today?”, Kothe’teq asked. “Iridescent winged Darkmites; 100 straight, fresh-green reeds; a bag of red-banded Ixti grubs, and some Green speckled Boring Beetles.”, was the reply. “At least there’s no wine, then.”, Kothe’teq intoned. (And they say Saurus have no sense of humor, thought Tzlatoc.) (For months this had been his lot, one meaningless mission after another. Bags of green unripe harklberries, or sometimes red ones, then rolls of bark, scroll rollers, every sort of oddball commodity or mundane supplies. “Word was left that you should fly directly to the Grey Temple upon your return. Perhaps this is a good sign.”, Kothe’teq said. Reflections by the Reflecting Pool After gliding over the city and arriving, by air, at the Grey Temple he was relieved of his cargos of mites, reeds, grubs, and beetles by one Under-Priest for each commodity. Chothan was allowed a perch halfway up the East face. Then a full Priest conducted him around to the rear face where the large reflecting pool stared at the sky. “Behold your handiwork, Hunter.”, the Priest grumbled. There along the edge of the pool Seven Skink priests sat enscribing at an alarming rate. Scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch, feather quills flew across bark-paper at an alarming rate. They faced a lone figure, wrapped in a hooded robe. As fast as he could speak, they tried to copy it all down. As Tzlatoc watched, an acolyte furnished new stacks of bark-sheet to each scribe. Meanwhile the hooded figure droned and mumbled on. Continuously. In the language known to no one. A snippet drifted across the mirror-like water surface... “Duumgaarkk, queedge, twil goq, twane. Hort tho nim, dwimbinfarl, quigs...”, Coberne rattled on hoarsely. “For all the while you have been doomed to fetch the ordinary, he has been doomed to chatter unceasingly, and we have been doomed to write it all down.”, the Priest growled. “With some luck it ends today.” Magic This, Magic That Unseen by either Tzlatoc or the Priest a palanquin floated toward them from the opposite and deeply shaded side of the pool. They heard the voice of 3000 years inside their heads before it registered in their ear slits. <> ALL MAGIC HAS ITS TIME AND PLACE <> The Priest was ordered to inspect the scrivening more closely, but Tzlatoc was ordered further along down the edge of the pool away from the scribes. Four new priests awaited. These did not speak, but each of them bestowed an enchanted object upon him. There was a Sigil, a large keyed Amulet, a set of five long Arrows, and a long, long, beaded Scarf. At each pause to accept them, instructions in their use thundered quietly inside Tzlatoc’s head. For the Slann was following along, hovering inches over the water, but leaving not a ripple. The Next Morning Kothe’teq the Gate Warden looked at a resplendent Tzlatoc standing next to Chothan in the waterfall Gate. He noted the new gear. He noted the six Terradon rider wingmen perched on the walls either side of the city’s highest gate. “So, not going after grubs nor wine today then?” the Warden asked. Tzlatoc replied, “No, nothing so mundane as those. Not today. And, don’t ask what; the geas will not let me say.” Spoiler: Story Nine: The Mythology of Ghur The Mythology of Ghur “… and the Celestial God, Ometotl the Bright, and Gukumatz, the Feathered Serpent, discovered the Realm of Ghur floating in the aether. “Upon the realm they found the Great Devourer-Beast Cipatcli, the Living Avalanche; and trapped inside its amber flesh, Hwatzili-Patzli the Green. “The Celestial God and the Serpent did battle with Cipatcli, and unleashed the Warring God from his bonds. “Together they fashioned the still-living body of the Living Avalanche, for the Beast was of the Empyrian and could not be banished. “The Beast’s back became a great land: its spikes becoming high mountains, its scales rolling steppes, its joints deep valleys. “It still breathed, still hungered, only the debt of blood could keep the One who Hungers in slumber.” Ghyrria Stela 3, Verses 2-6 (Ghyrria 3:2-6) Professor Jourdain of the Collegiate Arcanum looked up from his parchement to the torch-lit classroom and his assembled students, gesturing to a few stone fragments strewn across his podium. “At first glance most of this comes across as gibberish. This is written in Old Ghyrrian, in one of the lost tongues that few in this day-and-age can speak, and even fewer read.” “As my translation clearly demonstrates, this fragment details the pagan creation story of the Realm, in its earliest state long before the establishment of the Four Kingdoms. In fact, I would argue that this evidence could be traced to the Age of Myth, long before the Angovals, the Traxons, or any other human tribes established civilization within the Realm.” Travelling across the stage now, the professor pointed too many of the granite busts along the edge of the classroom. He first pointed to the sculpture of the bearded man wearing a crown of stars. “ First we have the god known as Ometotl, the Celestial God. He seems to be the primary pagan deity, lord of the heavens. Clearly this is none other than Sigmar himself, who rules from on high.” Moving next to a giant dragon-headed bust. “Second we have a great ‘serpent,’ Gukumatz. Described as a being of great power that can travel the cosmos, lots of imagery pertaining to stars. This must be Dracothion.” Next he pointed to the bust of a two-headed Orruk. “Then we have Hwatzli-Patzli the Green. My translation leads me to believe this was also a two-headed god, and a War God. This must have been the lord of the Orruks, Gorkamorka himself. Who was trapped...” The professor then pointed to an ancient painting along the back of the room, covered with an chaotic mass of heads, teeth, horns, and claws. “…within the Amber Mass, the ‘Living Avalanche” as the stela so suggests. This is undoutbly Drakatoa, a being all of you are also familiar with. Here then is the legend itself in its earliest form, and even suggest why the Voors and the other original inhabitants of Ghyrria have been shown to conduct ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice.” His nose wrinkled in disgust at the thought. “…fortunately this barbaric practice has been stamped out, save for the shamanistic holdouts in the far hills, and the orruks of course.” Back at the podium, he closed his hands in conclusion. “Therefore my students, I propose that this evidence shows us where much of the beliefs we hold true came from. When our human ancestors conquered these realms, they adapted the beliefs of the locals into their own pantheon. They adopted the creation stories and the myths of the locals, and added these stories and adapted them into our own pantheon. “Clearly much of this is a just ancient myth, a fantastic and superstitious way to explain where the land of Ghyrria came from, to explain the great mountains, the deep valleys, even the jagged rocks as the ‘teeth’ or ‘scales’ of this ancient beast. Fortunately, nowadays we are less superstitious than our ancient forebears.” The professor finished his speech and began to answer questions from the audience. As he did so, one of the students at the back of the room stood up an exited the chamber. The student moved some way down the vaunted corridor and came to a halt. Checking first to see if there was anyone hiding behind the stone columns or the sculpture in the corner, the student took a small metal cube out of his pocket. Pressing the cube, it began to glow, and soon a disembodied and reptilian voice projected from within it. “Report chameleon, what have you found.” “It is as you foresssaw lord priest, the warmbloodss found another one of the lost plaques-sss.” The disguised students’ lizard-tongue flitting in and out as he rolled his “s’s”. The voice responded. “Were they able to translate this one.” “Yesss. The transsslator is very good. However he came to wrong conclusionsss. They describe Ss-Sotek as an aelf dragon-kin, and believe that the Cipactli is a myth.” The disembodied voice let out a croak of mirth. “Fools. Very well. Continue to monitor the situation, and arrange for both the stela and this adept but foolish translator to go ‘missing.’ The Hungry One will appreciate the sacrifice.” 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 formating 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. 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.