The theme for our 26th seasonal short story contest provided by the me, Scalenex "Fish out of Water." Please read all nine stories before voting. You may vote for up to three 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: "A Fish Out of Water" A Fish Out of Water Blowing out a huge sigh, La’qui sat down in the corner of the spawning chambers. His day had been filled with the flurry of the latest spawning. The damp, chiselled rock around him had reverberated with the roars and chittering of newly spawned Saurus and Skink. The spawning pools, now silent and placid, had churned with new life as it fought to the surface. He and his brother priests had scurried around blessing the new arrivals and leading them to their quarters. La’qui sighed again, he was exhausted. It really took a lot out of you doing this for an entire day. While the other Priests had their own ways of relaxing and blowing off steam, he chose to laze in the spawning chambers themselves. He found the gloom, flickering torches and the stillness of the pools calmed him immensely. Looking around to ensure he was alone, he decided to indulge in his other method of relaxation. He reached under his cloak and brought out a crystal bowl that he had found. In the water within was a tiny, darting dab of colour. He smiled. He had found the little fish in a nearby stream. It’s bright scarlet colours had attracted him and he had run to find a suitable receptacle. He had smeared some of the mud from the stream on the bottom, put in a couple of plants to make the little fish feel at home and then had scooped him from the stream. Settling the bowl, he gazed inside, the little fish stilling itself and staring back at him. He smiled and slowly reached into the water. The little fish rose to meet his claws and seemed to enjoy having it’s back scratched. Surely the Old Ones would approve of his pet, being a follower of the Lore of Beasts as he was. He was just not sure that anyone else would. He sprinkled some mashed vegetable and fruit into the water and watched as the little scarlet fish darted to catch the pieces. He was still uncertain as to what it ate normally, but with enough trial and error he could- “PRIEST LA’QUI?” La’Qui jumped at the sudden loud voice, his elbow impacting against the edge of the crystal and spraying it’s contents across the stone. As the voice sounded again, La’qui’s eyes widened as saw his beloved fish flapping on the stone, it’s little mouth gasping. As he heard footsteps coming down the stone stairs, he scrambled over and frantically thought of some way to save his little pet. Knowing he had seconds, his distraught mind could think only of saving it and before he knew what he was doing his hands swept the fish into the spawning pool. As the fish was swallowed by the waters, he stared in horror as the tiny ripples in the spawning pool radiated outwards and then it was as if nothing had happened. The mirror-like surface just as pristine as it had been minutes before. Hearing his name called out again, he hurriedly stuffed the crystal bowl under his cloak and stood just as the high-priest came into view from down the long stairs. “Priest La’Qui. FINALLY. You are needed for the next ritual preparations. I need you to collect all the supplies, we need...” La’Qui hardly heard anything. As he was ushered away, he took one last look back to the pool that had claimed his little friend. Goodbye, he thought to himself, hoping that his actions had not brought about the demise of the little spark of life. - Confusion. The little fish’s mind could comprehend being in a river, with it’s flowing water and food sources abounding but also danger and alarm from bigger fish and other predators. The crystal bowl had been a mystery, with somehow... hard water... that confined him but the great one had brought him food and he had felt a sense of peace. The great one had protected him. The spawning pool was something else. No familiar plants, no food sources, no apparent predators but also no great one. But no hard water confining. The fish swam deeper. With no comprehension of distance or time, the fish swam on. The pool seeming to stretch out endlessly in all directions. The warm water at least was much like it’s home and so, emboldened by this at least, it continued down. A light. Seemingly appearing from nowhere, the endless waters ended with a vast glowing wall stretching out directly below. Flickering bolts of coruscating energy spiralled upwards like solar flares, but this meant nothing to the fish. Oblivious, the fish continued closer mesmerised by the glow. Suddenly the glow was all around. And just as suddenly a presence. A being appeared before the fish, somehow both the same size and towering over it; dwarfing it in both size and feeling. At once a part of the glowing substance and not. The fish could comprehend this not. The being swelled until it’s golden body covered eternity itself and shrank down before him. It was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The fish, with a bravery borne out of ignorance, flapped his fins once and stared. (Well, there was not much else to do since he had no eyelids.) A booming voice echoed out in the space where he swam, at once both loud and whispered in his mind. “Who are you, little one?” The fish ruffled it’s fins and it’s mouth flapped up and down, only making a soft “bop” as it did so. “Well, well! Such pride! Such ferocity! Who am I? I am Itzl, the Master of Beasts. And I would know, little one, what brings you here?” Bop. Bop-bop. Bop. “Truly?” Bop bop bop, bop-bop. “Hmmmmm.....” The tiny and titanic being grasped it’s chin in one clawed hand. “I have never granted such a request before... But then, no one has ever been bold enough to attempt the reverse crossing through the pools...” The fish sat deathly still, it’s tiny black eyes fixed on the apparitions face. A small small broke out on the god’s face. “Very well, my determined little friend. So it shall be. You shall be returned and your request granted.” BOP. The being smiled again at the fish, it’s fervour and passion were unmistakable. “Your boon is granted little one, but you are beholden to me. Listen to me well and what I require of you...” - La’Qui stood with the long line of Skink Priests in formal garb. The chamber where he had been sitting quietly now bustled with swift figures darting backwards and forwards to prepare for the arrival of the next spawning. Their Mage-Lord had predicted another today and the priests were ensuring that the new arrivals would be properly blessed. La’Qui scratched his head underneath the feathered headdress and adjusted the gold bangles on his arm. They always chafed at moments like these. He cast a quick glance over to the cloak in the far corner and silently kicked himself for losing his little friend. He’d have to make another trip to the river and find another fish he could- The sudden churning of the spawning pool waters yanked him out of his reverie. He shook his head and placed his whole attention on the matter on hand. His peace would have to wait. - The little fish found itself rising through the golden glow. As it drifted upwards, it noticed other sparks rising as well from around him. The sparks began to form into tiny lizards and as each one exploded into size and shape, he felt his own scales begin to writhe. Unable to comprehend what was happening to him, the fish’s body became a maelstrom of surging sinew, muscle and bone. And still he floated upwards. - La’Qui wiped his head. The last of the newly spawned Saurus had been blessed and lead up the broad ramp to the barracks of the temple city. His sacred duty done, his tiredness returned like an aching wound and his eyes were drawn irresistibly to the cloak in the corner and the small sliver of crystal that he could see. As the other Priests gathered their belongings, sacred symbols and cleaned up, he trotted over to the bundle. He really needed to- A strangled cry from behind him caused him to spin around. A Skink Priest pointed at the furthermost spawning pool which, unlike all of the others, continued to churn. It’s waters choppy like an ocean beset by tempest made all the more real by the glass-like surface of it’s neighbour. Something else was coming through. La’Qui scurried back just as a huge figure reared up out of the water. Metallic red scales shimmered in the light of the torches as the huge beast threw it’s head back and uttered an impossibly low guttural grunt. BOP!!!!! The almost seismic sound echoed through the Cham amber and for a minute nobody moved. A fin like a Salamander ran down it’s back, rippling in time with the muscles of it’s barrel chest. It’s arms, thick as a Kroxigor’s, also had fins which similarly waved in a non-existent breeze. But what had evidently horrified the Priest who had shrieked was it’s head. Plainly fish-like, with an O shaped mouth, it’s black glinting eyes glared at them all before grunting out another BOP. Suddenly, it’s gaze latched on to La’Qui. Faster than a striking snake it lunged out of the pool scattering terrorised Priests before it. Before La’Qui could even think it was upon him. Fear rooted him to the spot and he squeezed his eyes shut while muttering incoherent prayers to the Old Ones. Silence. He jerked back as his hand came into contact with something slimy. Opening his eyes, he found the fish-beast crouched before him. It was offering up it’s back for scratching. As he looked again at the glittering scales, the crimson colour, it suddenly came to him in a flash. HIS FISH! HIS FISH HAD COME BACK! Marvelling, he scratched the back of the monstrosity as it arched against his hand like a fledgling Terradon. How had he transformed? Was there a way to do this with something else? Bizarrely, he found himself wondering if he could still feel at peace with this... Fishigor? Yes, Fishigor, that’s right. He ran a claw down the sides of it’s back. How had the scales hardened so well? How could it breathe? How did- Suddenly, he realized just how quiet the chamber had become. Looking up he saw all of attending Skink Priests were staring at him, as the Fishigor squirmed under his scratching claws like an oversized Huargerdon. His thoughts faltered under their accusative gazes. “Um... So, I can explain...” Spoiler: Story Two: "An Old Friend" An Old Friend “I have scoured every single timeline, searching for any hopeful future. I have found none. The doom of this world is at hand. All paths lead to darkness,” - Ten-Zlati, Oracle of Kroak on the Prophecy of the End Times Sprinting through the jungle, Nakai leaped over a fallen tree. He bore his impossibly heavy mace as if it were no heavier than a coatl feather. If someone had asked Nakai how he knew where to go, he would not have been able to answer. His mind was ancient, as he had already served the old ones for millenia by the time the first elves had walked the earth. He was not guided by logic, or orders, but by an inscrutable sense of duty. Some said that Quetzl himself had chosen him. As he rushed through the steaming terrain, he burst through the shrubbery. In front of him was the shattered remains of the once-proud temple city of Xahutec. At its center pulsed a throbbing hole, a tear in the very fabric that bound reality together. Out of it poured endless hordes of savage daemons, fighting fiercely with a defending lizardmen army. Looking upon the rift, Nakai felt a great sense of loathing. As he stared, momentarily distracted, a unit of bloodletters advanced on him, sensing an easy kill. Nakai let out a savage growl as he plunged his huge mace through the unholy flesh of the bloodletter champion. The daemon let out a long hiss as its soul was pulled back to the realm of Chaos. Nearby, an elite unit of temple guard plowed through the hacked lines. Nakai advanced, sweeping aside and crushing several more bloodletters with sweeps of his mace. Impervious to the blows that were raining down on his thick scaled body, he waded through the bloodletter lines until he reached their standard bearer. He smashed the daemon’s sword with a massive blow of his mace, and then split the daemon in half with a devastating blow. The banner of the bloodletters fell to the ground, and the remaining daemons retreated back to the main line. “GO BACK TO THE WARP DAEMONS. YOU’LL NEVER STAND A CHANCE AGAINST ME!” Nakai roared. The nearby daemons hissed in mocking laughter as they charged towards Nakai. He cut through them without a second thought. As he surveyed the battlefield, Nakai took stock of the situation. Countless daemons had been destroyed, but it didn’t matter how many if the rift remained open. The three mage priests at the back of the lizardmen lines behind the line raised their hands, and a huge bolt of energy shot towards the rift. The tear in the fabric of reality pulsed with an unholy light before becoming slightly smaller. More slann were needed if the rift was to be closed, but almost all were either unconscious or fighting off the never ending tide of skaven that Nakai had just finished fighting. Suddenly, Nakai felt a massive disturbance in the geomantic web. It washed over him, sapping him of the magical energies that bound his body together. Only one event could have caused such disturbance: the fall of a temple-city. As the realization hit him, Nakai began to do something that was rare for a kroxigor: think. Could this be the end? Of everything? No. Such thoughts are unbefitting of a kroxigor such as me. I will not act like some skittish skink. I have served the will of the old ones for countless millennia. I held the line at the defense of the bridge of stars. I slaughtered the chosen Rat Ogre of Clan pestilens. I will never give in to these cursed children of chaos! thought Nakai. However, as he braced for a charge from the Beast of Nurgle, his mind was still troubled. As he hacked apart the daemon limb from limb, a horn blew. Scar-Commander Kroq Gar let out a roar as he charged towards the rift. His purpose was soon made clear when a huge bloodthirster burst from it in a shower of crimson blood. It swung its gargantuan ax downward, missing Grymloq by a hair. Kroq Gar responded by blasting the daemon directly in the eyes with the full force of the Hand of the Gods. Momentarily blinded, the daemon stumbled, and in a blur, the Spear of Tlanxa protruded from the bloodthirster’s throat. Kroq Gar roared once more and prepared to charge down another daemon regiment. Suddenly, the amulet around his neck flashed three times. He let out a clicking sound and wheeled Grymloq around, as the carnosaur ran into the jungle at top speed. Without the mighty force of Kroq Gar to anchor their line, the saurus cohort began to take heavy losses. The line slowly began to fall back. Nakai soon found himself fighting besides a small force of temple guard, alone in the massive daemon horde. “Hold the line! If we fall here, the Slann are unprotected,” Nakai growled. The daemons could easily penetrate the saurus lines if Nakai and his unit backed away from their position center of the line. The temple guard surrounding Nakai fought with cold blooded savagery, but they could not hold out forever. One by one, the temple guard began to fall. Each of the noble saurus slew countless daemons, but it mattered not, as every time a daemon fell, two more would take its place. FInally, Nakai stood alone. As more and more swords came clanging down on his scaled blue hide, he could feel cuts beginning to appear. Was this finally the end? As Nakai made his last stand, a keeper of secrets had breached the saurus lines. It fell upon the slann in a rage, devouring two of the sacred slann before it was finally felled with a blast of lightning. As the remnants of the mighty host fell to the daemons, Nakai’s mind filled with a strange, unknown sensation. What was it? Ah yes, defeat. Nakai roared in defiance. No! This could not be the fall of The Wanderer! As he raised his mace once more, he felt new energy flow through his cold blooded veins. A golden halo of light surrounded him, filled with the essence of Quetzl. He let out a primordial growl that echoed through what remained of the dying world. Nakai dealt death at every turn. A tide of Greater Daemons focused all their might on him, but Nakai scattered them like dust into the wind. The remaining Lizardmen took heart, and began to rally around the last remaining mage-priest. Nakai had almost begun to believe the battle could yet be won when the very ground began to shake. Huge sickly green explosions began to light up the sky, as a massive howling noise began to sound all across the battlefield. Surely this was the work of the Skaven! Suddenly, Nakai realized it had all been a diversion. The rift, the invasion… all meant to distract the Slann from the true threat. And the plan had been executed masterfully. Those cursed ratmen had done it! They had blown up the chaos moon! The shards began to rain around Nakai. He saw several larger ones dissipate into thin air, no doubt the efforts of the slann, but there were simply too many. As one hit the ground with an enormous thud, a shockwave began to spread. Just before it reached him, Nakai saw four golden specks of light blur across the sky. Then everything went dark. ... Although he did not know it, Nakai was not dead. The Aura of Quetzl had shielded him from the worst of the blast. He had been shot up, beyond Xahutec, beyond Lustria, beyond everything. As he floated through the dark void, he fell into a coma. And so he remained for countless millennia, until finally, one day, he reached a world entirely different from the one he knew. … “Hey, Lord-Celestant. What is this thing?” “Hmmmm… not sure. You know, this almost looks like some of those star-devils that helped us fight against some Khorne daemons a while ago. They weren't so big though.” “Look at some of these scars. Whatever this thing is, it must have seen a lot of combat before it died. Do you think it was fighting the same flesh eaters our stormhost was?” “I don’t-,” Nakai let out a soft growl. Everything was so bright… What had happened? “Uhh, Lord-Celestant? I don’t think it’s dead.” Nakai slowly got up. How did I get here? I am supposed to be dead. Those daemons! NOOOOOO. “WHO ARE YOU? WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” Nakai said loudly. “I don’t think it growling that much is a good sign. We may have to fight it,” said the Lord-Celestant. Nakai was confused. It was speaking warmblood, but it was covered in armor thicker than anything warmbloods could wear. And it certainly didn’t smell like a warmblood. By what Nakai could tell, it was an undead of some sort, possibly a ghost? He searched his surroundings. Everything was blazingly bright, and yet somehow still tainted by shadow. Broken, gnawed upon bones lay on the ground all around Nakai. Had the strange spirit done this? Suddenly, a group of pale humanoids came running over a nearby hill. An unmistakable whiff of rotting flesh hit Nakai. They must be reinforcements for these strange gold spirits. He must destroy them quickly! He raised his weapon and brought it crashing down on the armor of the golden undead. “Flesh Eaters! Sound the alarm!” shouted a nearby retributor. A massive flash of lightning shot into the sky. More Stormcast immediately began to come over the hill. The Lord-Celestant was curious about this strange lizard-devil. But it had attacked him right when the crypt ghouls had appeared, so it must be one of them. Pity. He swung his sword down as fast as a thunderbolt, in a blow that would have decapitated the lizard if he had not moved his mace up just as fast. It let out a low growl. This is no ghoul! thought the Lord-Celestant. Nakai began to rain blows down on the Lord Celestant, slowly battering away his armor. The Lord Celestants’ lightning-infused blows were either blocked by his mace or bounced harmlessly off of Nakai’s impossibly thick hide. The retributors around him could not attempt to even land a single blow, as they were moving at such high speeds it would be impossible to avoid hitting the Lord-Celestant. Nakai was sure he had the thing beat when the tide of Crypt Ghouls fell upon them. The other Stormcast began hacking a tide through them with their hammers, desperate to reach the Lord Celestant Nakai was fighting. What? I thought the undead were working together! Why are they fighting each other? Nakai was so taken aback he retreated, simply crushing any ghoul who approached him. As he watched the battle, it became clear the golden spirits were going to lose. There were simply too many of the ghouls, and several zombie dragons had arrived. Nakai did nothing, except for hamstring any ghoul who got within range of his mace. He was too confused to do anything else. What was going on? Perhaps if he better understood where he was he could get out of this cursed place and make it back to Lustria. Nakai looked up at the sky. It was a blindingly bright sea of light, with nothing that even resembled a sun. Wherever he was, it certainly wasn’t anywhere he had been before, and Nakai had been almost everywhere in the world. As he looked to the old ones for guidance, Nakai let out a deep groan of despair as he realized the intuition in his head that had always guided him, even throughout the darkest times, was silent. He was forsaken by the old ones! He fell to the ground in despair. Suddenly, the blindingly bright sky turned black. This seemed like an ill omen, but then the stars began to blaze. A massive host of Lizardmen appeared in an instant, led by a slann mage priest. They fell upon the ghouls with a fury, hacking them apart and relieving the golden spirits. Thank the Old Ones! At least I know who to fight for now. Nakai began to wade through the tide of lizardmen. As he smelled them, he noticed that they weren’t real. They were ghosts just like the golden ones. What strange deception was this? Was he… dead? He sat down, his head swirling in confusion. Then he noticed there was one living creature near him. The mage-priest. He began to run towards the slann, in desperation. At last, Nakai stood in front of it. “Who- wha-,” Nakai began. Patience, patience, all will be explained in time. It has been a long time since I have last seen you, old friend. Lord Quex smiled as the stars blazed ever brighter. Spoiler: Story Three: "The Fate of Haernost" The Fate of Haernost Cometsday 3rd of Shiverblight News has reached me in Brightspear of the mysterious plight of a fishing township further to the south. Fanciful tales of fish men dragging its people to a watery grave. At first I had scoffed at the notion, local superstition being what it was and besides, chances are it was a raiding band of Idoneth Deepkin. However, life in Brightspear has grown duller for myself of late. I see myself as a scholar and a solver of puzzles, so why not travel and take a look for myself? We are in the colder months (not that it means much in the realm of Aqshy!) so travelling that distance should not be too arduous. I will speak with Laer and see what he thinks. Zenithus 5th of Shiverblight I joined a caravan heading southwards from Brightspear today. Laer did not join me, being far too busy preparing for the arrival of some Duardin brewer. We were blessed to have one of the Stormcast from the Celestial Warbringers join us. Though the lands have been largely purged of the forces of Chaos, they are still dangerous at times, so it is good to have a little extra muscle. The village is called Haernost and is located near the mouth of Passion’s Gate. I may have to pick up some more fine vellum from the region. Moonsday 11th of Shiverblight We have made good time across the Parch, fortunately the trade roads have been clear of any obstacle or foe. I am almost disappointed. I spoke with the Stormcast whose name I learnt is Arlek. He is a cheerful fellow who really does seem to live in the moment. He assured me our trip should be danger-free, something to do with it not being his day to die yet? I wanted to press further but something in the way his eyes seemed to harden persuaded me otherwise. Zenithus 12th of Shiverblight We finally arrived at Haernost. It is a strange village of cured and proofed wood and clay. The caravan stopped briefly to trade some dried crops and materials with the locals before moving onwards. I bid farewell to Arlek and made my way further into Haernost. I was able to obtain bed and board at a shabby tavern called the Efreet’s Fire. I will begin investigating about the disappearances tomorrow. Sunwane 13th Shiverblight Where do I begin? I spent most of the morning combing the coastline and speaking with the fishermen and smokers. The stench of gutted fish and the tangy scent of smoked daggereel was nauseating. I thought the village had a pungent aroma as it was, but compared to the shoreline it is practically pleasant! The men and women there gave me a number of names of persons who had gone missing. Many cases it seemed the missing person had been alone, but more of the recent cases had been groups and one case of a household that had been broken into and its occupants stolen away. A couple of fishermen described seeing a scaled fish-like creature that walked like a man. It’s strange though, for the most part the people here still carry on as if they were not besieged by some kind of monsters of the deep. Horizonday 15th Shiverblight Another villager was taken last night. His house, though I would call it more of a hut, was found broken into. Of the man there was no sign except for a trail of webbed claw prints in the dirt. The people had no interest in following them and continued on with their daily lives. All my imploring fell on deaf ears, so I followed the trail myself. The trail ended before the churning sea. Voidsday 16th Shiverblight I have seen them. I was angry at the indifference of the village people and decided to comb further around the coast when the tide had retreated. After about an hour I discovered a hidden cave in the cliff face. I foolishly ventured inside, pistol drawn. Through the beam of my lantern I followed carved glyphs and pictures etched into the walls. I saw the image of a great toad-like creature banishing smaller lizard-like creatures to the deepest seas. There were other carvings showing the banished creatures falling into the maw of some great shark-like being whose fins writhed with tentacles. The lizard creatures then re-emerged altered into something between fish and lizard. A final image showed the great shark-like being perhaps dead or slumbering, it’s new children multiplying and preparing. I finally entered a larger cavernous space and beheld a group of scaled fish-like men seemingly at rest. Bones of fish and other creatures were scattered about. Strangely none seemed to be human. It was at that moment I noticed that some of the creatures wore the clothes of the people of Haernost. To my horror I realised that several of these clothed creatures seemed blurred between human, lizard, and fish. I ran. The village must be told. Zenithus 19th Shiverblight I am hunted. A taint has infected the people of Haernost. When I spoke of the cave to the village elders a strange light seemed to gleam in their eyes. That night I was attacked. Not by fish creature but by man. They were chanting the name of some creature. Stromfels. I managed to escape and fled the village, but I was followed. At first when the fish monsters arose the people had reacted with fear and yet as time wore on and the infection spread they became passive, embracive, twisted. Even now I can hear the chants on the wind in both the voices of man and the wet rasp of fish. I can only pray to Sigmar that I can keep ahead of them. I must make it to Lumnos and tell them. I see now Spoiler: Story Four: The Raiders The Raiders Sand everywhere. It was a far cry from the jungles Pytta – Pyt'taph'un technically – had grown up with. Unending sun, no trees, no shade, and sand as far as they eyes could see. It lay in mounds, was blown around by the wind which left ripples in the sand lying on the ground, and got into everything. His pouches, his scales, his mouth, and not just his. Standing over him, growling softly, Kekh shook his head and scratched absently at his neck. Clicking in sympathy, Pytta pulled a stiff, plant-fiber brush from one of his saddle-bags, and used it to clean the sand from under the scales of the slender cold one's neck. Shuddering at the feel of sand blowing against his crest, the red membrane shaking under the assault, he wondered once again why they had come to this place. After all, Enxilada, deep in the jungles of the Southlands, had been the perfect place for them. Damp, shaded, the ruins of the lizardman city had been the perfect place for skink and cold one to grow and learn from each other. But their leader had a mission, and though they were all apprehensive, the elder skink had not led them wrong so far. They had left the jungles and come to the desert and a village of these, these creatures. Pytta had never seen the like before! Taller than a skink (but not quite as tall as a cold one), these creatures with their swathes of strange, woven fibers were completely alien to the lizardkin. Tichi-Huichi, their leader, seemed to have some idea of what these creatures were about, but none of them understood a word of what these strange, scale-less creatures were saying. And they did not need to, it turned out. They rode up to the village of these strange creatures, Tichi-Huichi at their head, and stopped at the edge of their village. They could not communicate, but somehow the creatures were guided to bring out pouches and bags of gold and spread them out upon the sand. From within one of the bags came a sun-talisman in the style of the skinks' ancestors. Without a word in common, a pact was made, and the lizardmen found themselves riding out alongside the strange creatures the scale-less creatures rode. Those things were almost as strange as the riders, tall and round, with abnormally skinny legs and fur instead of scales. They were fast though, easily capable of keeping pace with the cold ones! Pytta shook his head in wonder as he finished up his task, returning the stiff brush to his saddle-bags. Gripping the saddle with his claws, he pulled himself nimbly back up to his perch. A simple downward swipe brought the haft of his long spear to claw from where he'd left it, stabbed point-down into the sand. All around him, his fellow red-crested skinks were doing the same. Pausing just long enough to scratch behind one of Kekh's crest-horns, he slipped his arm into the straps of his round, hammered bronze shield, before casting his attention towards the middle of the gathered skink riders. Tichi-Huichi, his scales blood red, his crest blacker than the obsidian of their spearheads, raised his own spear and gestured for them to form up. They did so with alacrity and were soon riding in formation behind their leader. Riding. That was another thing. Riding in sand, even with creatures as sure-footed as their cold ones, was no treat. Ground in the jungle, even the mud, was fairly stable. But sand? It shifted, it slid, and Sotek forbid you were on the top of a sand-hill when the shifting started! They'd almost lost three riders that way, when a sand-hill suddenly collapsed and slid sideways without warning! Hours were lost digging their brethren out from under the treacherous sand. How these strange, scale-less creatures, with their round-footed, skinny-legged mounts and their strange plant-fiber coverings kept their footing so surely was a mystery. And yet, while Pytta wished deep down that they were back home in Enxilada, a part of him that he hated reveled in this. In seeing what else lay beyond the jungle, beyond even this sand-filled wasteland. He hated it, and yet he loved it. It was thrilling, in its own way. Pyt'taph'un was still pondering this strange concept when the first of the skeletons, clad in corroded, sand-pitted bronze armor and bearing truly strange head-gear atop its bleached bones, suddenly rose out of the ground and tried to split him and Kekh in two with a strange, sword-like weapon. Responding to his knee-touch and click-like commands, Kekh spun on one taloned foot, his thick, spike-laden tail smashing into the skeleton's side. Pytta had to grip one of Kekh's spine-spikes as the cold one slid sideways on the sand, but the end result was still the same. With a slintering, snapping sound, a large chunk of the skeleton's rib cage shattered under the blow, sending chunks of bone flying. All around Pytta, skinks and cold ones were tearing into their attackers, scattering their component parts across the desert floor. Here and there though, a skeleton's attack got through. Several cold ones were down, having lost their footing in the treacherous sand, and at least one skink voice was raised in cries of pain. Off to his right, Pytta saw Tichi-Huichi leading a counter-attack into the largest cluster of animate bones, deftly using his spear to stab into eye-sockets and flinging the skulls away with a quick flick of his wrist. Glancing around him, the skink saw confusion. Raising up in his seat, he called out to those around him, trying to get their attention. Several of the others heard and began to move in closer to Pytta's position. Nodding, he clicked his tongue against his teeth, the snapping, popping sounds audible to the others, even over the din of battle. Rallying his small group, they turned as his orders and struck out at the nearest group of skeletons. Spears stabbed outwards, glancing off of bone and corroded, sand-blasted armor, the strikes numbing their hands. Their cold ones were more effective. Powerful jaws struck out, crushing bones and armor alike. Clawed talons hooked into rib-cages, ripping them apart with each strike. While the others began to flail wildly, Pytta thought about his attack and frowned. Stabbing the skeletons was a waste of time, there was no flesh to hit. Watching the cold ones, the skink saw how their claws were bashing and hooking more than stabbing. Acting quickly, Pytta reversed his spear and struck out with the blunt butt-end at the nearest skeleton. A solid impact reverberated down the haft into his hand, but resulted in noticeable damage to his opponent as well! A series of clicks passed this information on to his fellow skinks, and within moments they had decimated their opponents. One by one, the skinks passed information between themselves. Soon the lizardmen found themselves in a calm spot within a sea of death, as their opponents ignored them to focus on the scale-less ones. Following calls from Tichi-Huichi, the skinks formed up around their leader, a handful breaking off to check on their wounded. One of the cold ones had an injured leg that was quickly cleaned and bandaged, and several skinks had injuries ranging from shallow cuts to – in one extreme case – a broken shield arm. Around them, the fight was beginning to settle down as the scale-less ones drove off or destroyed the remaining attackers. As the skinks watched impassively, the scale-less ones began to argue with one another. None of the lizardkin really knew what was happening, but there seemed to be at least two differing opinions. Frowning, Pytta tried to gauge what they were thinking, but their strange, smooshed-in muzzles were just as hard to read as their language was incomprehensible. Casting his gaze over to their leader, Pytta noted that Tichi-Huichi seemed not to care about what the scale-less ones were discussing. Thinking to himself, the skink decided that it might be a good idea to devote some of his time to learning the speech of these strange creatures. After all, not knowing what they were talking about might come back to bite them all in the tail. The sand was bad enough. They didn't need their allies turning on them suddenly. Spoiler: Story Five: "Out of the Air" Out of the air It was a scene that Lustria had witnessed so many times before. The dozen elven scouts in grim armour, making camp for the night in the midst of the endless jungle, huddled round the small flames they hope will not gleam in the many eyes they cannot see in the gathering darkness. The sound of nocturnal life is all around in the thrumming undergrowth and in the trees above, impossible to tell what or where the source of the slithering, buzzing, croaking, cawing and screeching could be. But it's not the trees or the jungle fauna they should fear. It's the water. The lizardmen glide through the lazy river without rippling its surface or rustling the reeds. All along the bank, amphibian eyes rise in pairs, blinking two sets of lids as delicate pipes appear at their scaled lips. With nothing but a quick breath and a whisper through the air, the elves fall, never to report what they have learned of the enemy position. From above, Skink Chief Tanxi thought it looked like an opening flower: the elves fell lifeless and riddled with darts around their little campfire. He remembered the days when he would have led the river cohort, striking from within the water itself, the very element of skinkdom. But now, his was a different element. One of the warmbloods had escaped, taken off through the trees. Tanxi leapt from his branch and opened his arms. Around his body spread the cloak of feathers, clasped at the neck with a green gemstone that shone faintly in the dark. Like the river-hunters, he made no sound as he glided between trunks and branches, his eyes perfectly following his target even in the twilight gloom. All at once, he gathered the cloak and plunged, perfectly judging his descent to strike the pointy-eared invader from behind, landing on top of it as the elf fell forwards, and pulling at its long hair to raise up the unprotected throat, which Tanxi quickly sliced open with a blade of bronze. The jungle was still once more. Tanxi made a few bird-like chirps to inform his comrades that business was concluded. Then he spread his arms once more, the emerald brooch flaring as the cloak's magic activated and he was again airborne, bursting up out of the trees and into the Lustrian night. They said the cloak's feathers were taken from the mysterious coatl itself, but the skink chief suspected their origins were much less impressive, given that they occasionally fell out; he had replaced some with macaw feathers. The true magic was in the gem itself. The mood was as dark as the night when he alighted back at the temple city of Natlacatl. The scouts may have been eliminated, but there was still a large Druchii army in Lustria and advancing. The city was preparing its defences, but some of the signs were troubling. Lord Hauntaz, the only slann who still dwelled in the temples, had shut himself away in contemplations, with an ominous muttering that the priests interpreted as: "victory will require great sacrifice". Tanxi watched his kin as they worked through the long night. Below the great walls on which he stood stretched the Pools of Tranquility. An outsider would think it an apt name: the long rectangles of water stretched serenely, blemishless under the stars. Yet as he watched, the overseers arrived with a whole cart load of animal corpses, which they hurled unceremoniously into the pools. Immediately, it was like a nightmarish vision of chaos: the calm water erupted into a frenzy as the huge shoals of piranhas which dwelt there stripped flesh from bone in just a few terrifying seconds. He forced himself to look up, his eyes moving from the water to the sky, where terradons danced in exultant circles around the aviary behind the temple district. The Pools reminded him why he prefered the sky. His wings, the cloak - it was his greatest treasure. He could barely imagine returning to the earth and water. The Dark Elf legions were upon them the next day, in greater numbers than they ever expected. The fighting at the city walls was ferocious; by the time the sun had reached its zenith, Tanxi was exhausted. He'd been running interference with the terradon squads all morning, darting behind enemy lines faster than the elven crossbows could track him - but it had made little difference. Eventually, the reptilian defenders resorted to their last defensive strategy, falling back into the city and forming new ranks before the Great Temple itself. It was a feint, of course - they gave the appearance of disarray to lure the enemy forwards, hoping they would surge straight into the waiting Pools of Tranquility. From the sky, Tanxi stared in horror as the strategy crumbled hopelessly. Instead of walking into the piranha's jaws, the elves halted, and a trio of evil-looking witches stepped forwards, chanting, their arms aloft. All at once a great vortex sprang up, winds whipping the water, evaporating it with magical energies and casting the droplets across the city. As the terrible maelstrom died away, the defenders of Natlacatl were left to watch, stupefied, as the Dark invaders strode imperiously over the mud of empty pools, where thousands of gasping, razor-mouthed fish flopped impotently. As the fighting resumed below, high in the sky, Tanxi felt dizzy. The city would fall, there was no way to stop it, even if the temple guard fought to the last lizard, as they surely would. He started at the sound of a tremendous croak from beside him. Hovering there in the air above the temple was Lord Hauntaz on his great gold-encrusted palanquin. Tanxi had never seen the city's ruler so close before. The ponderous face, the bloated flesh - it was overwhelming. The giant toad turned towards him and held out a flabby hand, terminating in three mucusy fingers. It looked into his eyes. Tanxi looked back. The slann croaked a second time. All at once, the skink chief knew what he had to do. It was time to make the sacrifice. A soul for the city. He flew across to the palanquin and perched on its edge. Then, with a great sigh, he unfastened the cloak of feathers. The rainbow colours fluttered in the wind, and Tanxi gasped with a sudden awareness of his own gravity: the weight of his own body which he'd grown so used to dismissing. He gripped the stone ornamentation at the back of the giant floating rock, acutely aware of how high they were, and how easy it would be to lose one's balance. Forcing himself to calm his breathing, he detached the large and dazzling green stone from the cloak and passed it wordlessly across to Lord Hauntaz. The bulbous slann stared at the gem with his protruding eyes, and croaked again. The stone simply dissolved, a million tiny green particles floating off the mage-priest's hand and showering downwards like fairy dust over the battle below, shimmering all the way. From the palanquin's edge, Tanxi had a front-row seat to the faintly absurd miracle which followed. All around Natlacatl, the dying, waterless fish stopped flopping and began to rise, imbued with the gemstone's magic. From high above, Tanxi could hear the first screams as the piranhas reached the back of the elven lines. They set upon the invaders more ferociously than any khornite daemon, their lithe bodies flitting among the airborne carnage as effortlessly as they once had in the water. Somehow it seemed the sacred fishes' taste for blood only extended to the warm variety; the lizardmen fighters continued on, unscathed. After the battle, Natlacatl looked like an abattoir, and it took weeks to get the blood off all the walls. Tanxi wandered the gory scene, lonely and sullen. They'd offered him a place in the terradon corps, but he'd refused. He knew it would never be the same, relying on another creature for flight. His limbs felt as leaden as his thoughts - until he heard his name called, and he was summoned to the temple, and the attendants showed him the mage-priest's reward. There it hovered, eerie and silent: his own little palanquin. Tanxi grinned. The sky was calling. Spoiler: Story Six: "Incomplete" INCOMPLETE 184.108.40.206.8.8. 13 Lamat. 6 Mak (year 2497 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Khotl The water is dark, murky and warm. A weak light above me shows the way and calls me toward it… I swim and my arms touch other bodies that are moving around me. We all are swimming, in a universe filled by strange echoes, up until the watery ceiling breaks and we enter a different world. I breath the air for the first time, filling my lungs, while my nictitating eyelids retract, letting me see better the place we’re in (this is called a cave. How do I know its name?). Beings like me come out of water, their bodies covered with soft scales (I must go out. the sun will harden them.) Other beings are scattered around the pool, but they are much smaller, and clearly weaker than we are (they are skinks. We are Sauri. We are Warriors). Our smell fills the cave… we inhale it, deeply. We let it flow into our blood. It tastes of moss, copper and dead leaves. The skinks smell different and also the big, armed saurus that is waiting outside the cave and is calling for us, is different. But this smell is ours. We are brothers. Finally we exit the cave… the sun is warm and our blood starts pumping through our veins, giving strength to our arms. We are made to rule the world. We try our vocal cords, chattering random screeches, while we look at each other. We have deep blue hard scales, while the belly and the upper bone plate of the skull are sky-blue. I still play with my throat, happy to be alive… then I notice that, while many of my brothers are trying to speak, the ones near me are silent. They are looking at me. And then the big saurus, who is not our brother, comes toward me. I fall silent too, while he stares at my skull and then into my eyes. “Your head colors are wrong”. 220.127.116.11.0.0. 6 Ajaw. 3 Pop (year 2512 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Itzl I breath heavily… I’m tired and bruised, but I’m satisfied. The charge was successful and we battered into submission the red squad, taking their banner. I help one of my brothers to stand up, struggling for the pain in my chest… probably a cracked rib. The healing pool will be a welcome prize. Our commander went ahead, grinning and nodding. “Qo-Krag, you got weird colors but your strength is true. You could be a fine platoon leader”. My brothers cheered me, but I couldn’t stay silent. In a real fight we would have lost too many lives. “Commander, I was wandering… what if the defenders had missile weapons? or magic? we made a frontal assault, wouldn’t have been better to send a squad into a flanking attack? Even only as distraction…” My brothers fell silent, while the commander looked suspiciously at me. “We fight as we are ordered to. What’s wrong with you?” The commander went away… there was no more cheering, only the backs of my brothers, limping away and murmuring between themselves, giving me fleeting, suspicious glances. And I knew I would have to be alone in the healing pool. 18.104.22.168.5.15. 10 Men. 13 Sek (year 2517 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Quetzl We march to war. Our Stegadons bellow their challenge, while green fuming projectiles cross the sky toward our lines. We can hear the heavy moves in the bushes ahead, we know that our target is a group of mutated war beasts, and our duty is to hold at all costs. We move our formation, to face the incoming threat… we are a phalanx, and I’ve been put in the front rank, on the extreme right. My shield is strapped on my left arm, and there’s no one to protect my right side. This is the most dangerous place of the whole formation, you are almost doomed to die… it takes a strong warrior to hold it, and I am among the best fighters, but it’s not why I have been put here. A Saurus behind me reminds me the real reason, as if there was the need. “Try to survive, you freak. We don’t want to step in your place”. We smell the same, but we are no more brothers. 22.214.171.124.11.2. 5 Ik’. 10 Yax (year 2519 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Chotec “Qo-Krag, you are a never-ending source of problems.” The saurus is massive, an imposing presence made even more threatening by the scar that crosses his face, cutting through the socket when there was once an eye. “That wasn’t my intention, Lord Commander, I knew it was stupid to ask about the Great Pl..” “Shut up! or I will conclude that you are beyond repair. Now listen: You are a fine fighter, but you are poisoning your pool. Your colors are… unsettling, your behavior unnerving. Your brothers don’t want to stand by your side, your commander doesn’t want you in the squad and I cannot afford a weakened regiment by forcing your presence into it.” “But luckily for you, we don’t discard any useable tool.” The door opened and a skink entered the room, wearing a vest adorned with the symbols of a high rank member of the scribes and artisans. “So, you are the saurus with an inquisitive mind…” 126.96.36.199.1.1. 8 Imix. 9 K’umk’u (year 2520 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Tlazcotl Tik-Kat sighed, taking the scroll I was working on since the early morning. “You have a gift for reading… but you have warrior’s claws. Will you ever learn to handle with care these papers? you don’t need to squeeze the life out of them.” “I’m sorry. it’s hard for me…” He gave me back the scroll. “Don’t worry, you are doing fine.” His posture is friendly, but his eyes are cold. I watch him wander away, toward the other skinks that are doing the paperwork about the inventory of supplies. Their murmurs are practically inaudible, but my ears are made to discern small noises into the chaos of battle. “How long we have to put up with that clumsy inept?” “At least doorstops don't try to be smart. and they don't stink” I hum to myself one of our old training songs, to stop me from hearing. I feel cold. 188.8.131.52.5.19. 2 Kawak. 2 Sek (year 2520 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Xholanka “What the marlecht are you doing?!? why are you building the defensive wall with wood?” I was given my first official assignment. It was an easy one, of course, I just had to watch over one of the kroxigors squad to build a new wall section. The skink overseer graciously gave me the instructions, which were currently laying in my room. He wasn’t pleased at all. “I thought that a wood palisade would have been better than a stone wall” The overseer coughed, almost choking himself. “you… thought?!?” “Yes, in the siege of Hexacoatl the enemy guarded the gates, so our forces were unable to effectively counterattack. With a wooden palisade, if there’s the need, you can take down a section of the wall and take the enemy by surprise”. “nononononono… listen, you don’t make up things. We do things by the ancient codes. This is the way. If you are not able to follow the instructions, I don’t need you. You are relieved”. I went away, while the Overseer was shouting at the kroxigors to break down their daily work. Then my mind went blank, and all I could see was a strange symbol, burning and glowing, while random letters were floating around it. It lasted two or three seconds, then my sight turned back normal. I was down on my knees but no one had noticed it. 184.108.40.206.10.12. 13 Eb’. 10 Ch’en (year 2521 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Uxmac The room is dark, faintly illuminated by some hidden lamp. We are in a inner section of the temple, so I won’t have a chance of escaping if the High Priest Kulthumak decides that I am a danger. But probably I am reading too much in this, as He doesn’t wear a ceremonial vest, and this is not a trial. He’s walking slowly around me and even if I’m sitting, I’m towering over him. “Tell me again about your… visions.” “They are getting worse; become more intense and more frequent, now I have at least one a week when I’m awake, and I dream of them almost every night” “Describe what do you see.” “It’s hard to tell; there are symbols, they resemble some of the glyphs of the Old Ones, but they are still different. They rotate, changes, vanish and reform into other figures. And all around them, letters, words… but they have no meaning, I cannot even read them. And when I think I can, they move and shift. They scares me.” “Now, tell me exactly why you are scared. Tell me the truth.” “I’ve looked in the book of spawnings and no saurus has been born ever with a iridescent color. I am the first. I don’t know what’s going on in my mind, but if I should give it a name, it would be Chaos. What if I’m marked to…” A clawed hand settles on my shoulder. I turn my head toward the High Priest, and he is smiling at me. “The Children of the Old Ones don’t fall to the Dark Powers, Qo-Krag. Don’t worry about it. However, we don’t want to further unsettle the scribes. You must be involved in a… different occupation.” 220.127.116.11.11.4.8 K’an. 17 Ch’en (year 2522 of the Imperial Calendar) – day sacred to Tepok I’m on stable duty. Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the weeks. It appeared that I was the perfect candidate for such a position: the skink handlers teached me quickly all the correct behaviors to adopt when dealing with our warbeasts, and I’m strong enough to not be eaten, or pierced to death by one of our “tamed” dinosaurs. As a further bonus, I’m well far away from the sight of warriors, or scribes, or… well, everyone. I usually see just handlers and occasionally the riders of the beasts, when they come to take their mounts for war, patrol duties or, as today, some public event. The knights came in the early morning to take all their cold ones, dressed for parade. Someone very important is visiting the city, but of course we don’t know who. One of the handlers tried to sound like a conspirator, revealing that he heard a Sky Leader talk about Tetto’eko. Yeah, 3 months ago it was Lord Kroak himself. Whoever it was, the city’s guest had already arrived, as the echoes of the giant warhorns welcomed it a hour ago. It matters little when you have to tend the beasts. My visions have changed for the better, I suppose. Now I don’t suffer from mind blanks, I can just see them floating in front of my eyes, overlapping with my normal vision. I actually can count the times I don’t see them. I am lost in thoughts, when I finally realize that the skink that was working with me is not working anymore, and instead has dropped on his knees, bowing to something behind me. I turn and I see why. A crowd is approaching us, led by Him. A skink, floating mid-air upon a Slann palanquin, adorned with the majestic feathers of a Quetzalcoatl. I barely notice that at His flank, is walking the High Priest Kulthumak. Many sauri and skinks are following behind, but no one dares to bypass the glistening wall formed by the Temple Guards that bears the symbols of the Chief Astronomer. Tetto’eko stops right in front of me. “Kulthumak talked to me about you, Qo-Krag.” “I...” Tetto’eko raises a clawed hand “Don’t talk. Relax, and lend me your mind.” My vision blurs. the real world becomes an opaque canvas. “Show me your visions.” the symbols appear, turning and spinning, silhouetted on the background. “Focus on them. I will help you” The symbols slow. The letters arrange themselves into some weird words, moving toward my perimeter vision. “Choose one. Don’t let it go.” I struggle. My first choice slips away. “Again. Pick a short one.” I see another. I look at it… I drag it back, until it’s again in the middle of my visual arc. All the other symbols and words scatter away, leaving only my pick, a single word with glowing letters, superimposed on a weird symbol. the white background turns diaphanous, letting me see the real world. I see Tetto’eko, Kulthumak, the guards behind. “Now read it” I look at the temple guards… “HUA-QU!” The air temperature turns cold, and a freezed snow starts appearing mid-air… until Tetto’eko counterspell shuts it down. A weird, almost unnatural silence descends upon us. Tetto’eko smiles and raises his beautiful, iridescent crest. “It’s time to begin your real training, my Brother”. Spoiler: Story Seven: "Claw in Mouth" Claw in Mouth Flowery perfumes tickled his senses, while similarly colognes vied to for attention. All around the great saurian warrior, warmbloods danced and twirled. His ornamental armor was burnished to a blinding bright shine. Fetishes hanging from his crest showing his rank or victories won, tinkled and sang as they clinked together when he moved. Deep scarlet scales covered his flanks and back, transitioning into a sky blue belly and softer flesh. Yet cutting such a decorated figure, he felt out of place compared to the frilled dresses, smooth coats, intricate clothing and decorative armories worn by those gathered. Next to the Sauras stood a skink starpriest, similarly outfitted as he would on the battlefield, though notably more at ease. He stood off to the side of a large hall, chairs and tables set along it's length with food and drink aplenty. Warmbloods of all shapes and sizes danced, mingled, laughed, and some even sang with the music that drifted through the air. "Itzin, why must I be present again? This is frivolous." the Saurian rumbled in the First Tongue. Those who had been oblivious to his presence, mistaking him for a piece of art for all his stillness, jumped at the sound. His tone was one of irritation, though it could be assumed uncomfortable could be used to describe it. The small skink starpriest glanced up at his charge, swirling a small crystalline glass in his clawed hand "Because, fair Gar'tlok, as representatives of the Father Serpent, we must make appearances to ease the warmbloods. They do not trust us still, even after these years of cooperation." came the reply, as the skink put a small, oddly-shaped stone in his drink. The stone whistled slightly as the skink sipped the drink through it and into his waiting gullet "Relax a little. It is hard for Sauras, I know, but if you do not it may make any negotiations that follow harder for Lord Kelkuanis'talt." the skink added after his drink was done. He tapped the glass gently with a claw, before setting off to find someone to fill it again. He waved his tail at the Sauras as he went, almost dismissively. Gar'tlok snorted at this, but figured if their master would be troubled by his ability to not 'relax', it was worth attempting to mingle. Looking down at the tiny glass he had been given earlier, he sniffed it before attempting to drink without a similar stone to Itzen. Some spilled as he opened his mouth and tossed the drink into it, but the taste made it to the saurus' tongue. Sweet, with a tang unlike others he had tasted in many years, complimenting the scent that was also fragrant. It was adequate. Looking to the tables, he found slabs of meat and whole roasted animals present among pastries, fruit, cooked as well as raw vegetables. This was something he understood and knew well, though cooked meat was an oddity he still found amusing to try. Careful to not knock any of the smaller guests over, he strode toward a platter that held a most succulent and appetizing fowl. It's own smell cut through the perfumes and other fragrant scents, calling to him as the Slann had when he was birthed from the pools. Yet before he could lay a claw on the skin of said fowl, he was intercepted "What ho good fellow!" a baritone voice called to him. Looking down and to his left, Gar'tlok met the gaze of what he assumed was a 'tall' human, missing an eye and with a large, well-kept face-hair. It was black as soot, greyed in the middle, and covered both his lips and chin "Are you the eh, what was it called, Scar-Veteran in command of the local Se-" "Old-blood" the Sauras corrected, his mouth feeling odd as it seemed to warp around the 'common' tongue of the warmbloods "And yes. I am Old-Blood Gar'tlok. You are..." he responded, his attention on the man now, the fowl not forgotten, but not captivating his attention. The man wore finery much like many of the other 'nobles' and merchants. Yet he had a large azurite breastplate on, gilded with what appeared to be a silvery metal that smelled of the realm Chamon. At his side was a short-sword, decorated with rubies that faintly glowed. His leathers, belt and scabbard, boots even, smelled of Ghur. Likely taken from some great beast he'd felled. Feathers from great griffons were pinned to his lapel, and many gleaming medals were pinned similarly "...General Asove Abboture of the Free Guild regiments of Ghallentium" "Aye!" the man said, a wide smile breaking out from beneath his hairy face, as if he was surprised Gar'tlok knew of him "It is a pleasure to finally stand face to face with you Gar'tlok, without an enemy on the horizon or blades drawn!" he reached his hand out, presenting it to the Sauras. A moment passed, before the great lizard remembered one of his 'Mannerisms of Warmbloods' lessons he'd been forced to sit through. His own great clawed hand engulfed the human's and shook gently. "Agreed. You fight well" was his simple reply, the smell of the fowl caressing his attention once more. He let go of the smaller man's hand, who surreptitiously rubbed it as if return feeling to his fingers. "I was hoping to introduce you to a few more of my associates, the Watch Master is most notably eager to meet you. He's quite fond of the drop in crime around the districts you and your lot have taken to living near!" there was a near jovial tone to his words, though they were ignored presently. The platter holding the glistening fowl was taken up just as a small warmblood, a halfling perhaps, reached for one of the drumsticks. The look he gave the saurus changed quickly when he realized what he might lose had they the bravery to contend with Gar'tlok over a bird "Ah, hungry fellow! I'm sure they wont mind you having a bite to eat as we talk!" Abboture said while noting the small staring contest shared by the saurus and halfling. He chuckled before motioning for Gar'tlok to follow, leading the Saurian deeper into the hall past many more warmbloods in their revelry. As they walked, notice was given to the rainbow warrior, festooned with feathers and bones that strode after Abboture. Many who watched looked to Gar'tlok with trepidation, fear, and a few with open disdain. The warrior ignored these looks for the most part, but as they walked through the brightly lit hall, it was apparent to him that he and Itzin may be the only two of their kind present. Aelves, Duardin, humans of all shapes and sizes, halflings, even the rare Ogor or two milled about with one another. Even more notably were the various representative nobles of these races. Lumineth blade-masters and mages, Kharadron Admirals and their attendants, the eyeless Idoneth thralls guarding their noble charges, bright orange and bronzed Duardin from Aqshy, and many more. Yet in all of it, he followed after the warmblood general as the warrior ate. A growing unease crept into the warrior's throat, before slithering downward. There was a profound sense of something wiggling it's way deeper. A feeling of being out of place, being different. He had never had the feeling before, and found it both alien and frustrating. Perhaps the fowl had been undercooked and had some sort of Ghurish parasite in it, giving him an achy belly, Gar'tlok though at first. But once presented with the clump of retainers and faces that the General wished to introduce him to, that thought slipped away. Stood before him were politicians, nobles, merchant-kings, and wizards. Seven only, but each was as flashy and unnerving as a salamander mother swaddling her clutch. Even towering over them, the old blood felt a difference in intent from him to those gathered. They didn't appear as warriors, but the scent of power, of magics meant for courting, of bladed words and more, lingered around them. When the warmblood general stepped forward, there was a small lump settling into the saurus' stomach. "Sirs, and m'lady" Abboture began, seeming to interrupt the conversation at present with a broad smile "May I introduce you to the Old Blood Gar'tlok, military commander of the Sons of Sotek in our fine city!" Awkwardly he reached back and attempted to pull the Sauras forward into the semi-circle that had been opened up for them to enter the small gathering among the crowds. His hand only found purchase on a golden plate strapped to Gar'tlok's thigh, and even then the towering saurus barely moved from where he stood. The others gawked and smiled up to him as he became the focus of attention, the brilliantly painted face of the one woman twisting in an almost comical gasp. She fanned herself with a small paddle, watching the saurus with what Gar'tlok assumed was interest. The General spoke again "He was eager to meet you, almost as much as you were him!" "Oh? He's quite the specimen. Are you a Saurus?" one asked, a wizened man with baubles dangling from sleeves as a large crooked hat sat on his head. It was gilded in gold, much like his deep purple robes. His eyes glowed ever so with shadowy power, masked by a pair of thick spectacles perched on the end of his nose. "You're quite large, and even... handsome for a lizard" another said, this one also a male, though aelven with pale blonde hair and a narrow face. His eyes were as ice, and the foppish coat he wore was many-colored in ways that could be assumed were magical. Yet a wicked medallion around his neck signaled he was some sort of corsair. "Gera, leave your curiosities for when you can speak to him alone. Don't be uncouth at such a public gathering" a third chuckled, a duradin that could only be described as fat as a barrel. He was clothed finely despite this, his beard curled and bright gleaming orange. Rings and jewels adorned his fingers and vest. Looking with a squinted eye, he asked "You have many a pretty bauble there lizard man, did you craft them?" And so it continued for much of the night, the Old-blood's words slow to come, and rarely being heard among the bickering, cajoling, or teasing that filled the circle. Drink flowed, and each time he managed to put down or finish a tankard, glass or flute, another was shoved into Gar'tlok's clawed hand. Twice he attempted to retreat, only to be pulled back in by Abboture or another with a question about his thoughts on this or that. Twice he failed to find a way to escape with a semblance of dignity that he was taught to maintain during his 'Mannerisms of Warmbloods' lessons. Which he was finding might need updating and were woefully inadequate to prepare him for these people. It was almost a torture of the mind, if not for Itzin arriving to fetch him to return to the temple. Hurriedly, did the Sauras bow away and take up a long stride to escape, the Skink lingering for a few moments to flatter those present. Gar'tlok barely noticed the priest catching up to him, an amused glint in his eyes when regarding the old blood. A glare was shot in return, though no words were exchanged as they left the gathering. At least until they reached the giant double door archway that led out into the streets of Ghallentium. "You know, that female with the painted face couldn't keep her eyes off you." Itzen said, a croaking chuckle following "Maybe I should bring you along more often" The words filled the saurus with a feeling he'd felt earlier. That heavy weight of something settling in his stomach, though now it roiled angrily at the thought. It made him shiver and as they left, he stopped by an alleyway a short distance away from the towering keep that the hall led into. Unbidden, he bent and vomited, Itzin patting him on the back and croaking a laugh. The saurus ignored it, wiping his muzzle and feeling slightly relieved. The feeling was gone for now, though the saurus desperately wanted to feel something familiar. "That bad huh? Let's get you back to the temple" the skink said, tittering happily from time to time as he helped his charge. Spoiler: Story Eight: "Muddied Legend" Muddied Legend “You want Yuqal'Cho-ax and Kai’ax?” “O, yes! I hear they lingered in this town of New Haven and I intend to offer my services in return for their companionship. I imagine we’d make a fine team out there.” There were two rangos in the darkness. There was only one source of light - the molten form of a gun barrel. One of the rangos, a saurus, was working on it as he bellowed out a deep sigh. “So you want fame and glory.” “What? I never said that!” “Then what do you want?” “I want to be a protector of the weak. A good lizard. Like a purveyor of justice in a wild, wild land.” “Ahh. So you want fame and glory.” The other rango, a skink named Qozo, was licked mad. “Just give me directions, damn it. From one rango to another, eh?” “I guess they headed north.” “To where?” “To where you ask? Beats me. Could be anywhere when they rode in weeks past,” the larger rango said with a shrug. Only a few seconds passed before the skink ran out the door in a cloud of dust. “Yeash. What has his tail caught in a stampede?” Near the outskirts of town, Qozo was overtaken with ecstasy. Weeks were spent riding upon the endless sands, battling bandits and evading coyote-headed apisi beastmen. But finally, the trail towards the names that traveled so often among his tribe seemingly neared its end. Scenes of boisterous cheers and flying hats filled his mind. It was a fantasy. Another world. But it felt so real! As if his very claws could manipulate the very air before him and create a celebration of an act only he alone could achieve. “Watch it you lil’ liz’un!” Qozo was broken out of his trance, and saw two humans. One of them held a revolver, while the other had a knife. They were holding a frightened dwarf. “What are you two fine gentlemen doing with that there fine dwarf on this fine afternoon?” The skink questioned with a smirk as he reached into his pockets. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” The revolver pressed against the beardy’s head, “Reaching into your pockets as if you’re a god of the draw. Pah!” “Don’t need no god to take out trash.” “Valaya’s bread! Your shooting form is wrong and incorrect! I say you miss even with-” Two gunshots rang out. The skink’s pants were punctured by two smoking holes. The men didn’t move until they scanned their chests and legs for gunshot wounds before casting confused looks at each other. Both of the men’s pants fell with only a breeze. They dropped their weapons, running away screaming towards the skies for mercy. “Silly, silly humans! Your pants are completely unnecessary!” The dwarf slapped his knee and laughed hysterically. “Splendid pocket advantage! You had ‘em running tail between leg with nary a sliver of my wares!” “Indeed. Now imagine if all that happened in the town’s center. Everyone would’ve been swooned over!” “And for savin' my noggin, I say you deserve a 15% discount and one year extended warranty on all in-store purchases,” The dwarf said, revealing a wide array of handguns under his coat. “Thanks, but I seek names instead. Yuqal'Cho-ax and Kai’ax.” “Ooo, those two. I’ve given one of them heaps load of ammo. I guess they headed north.” “Anything more specific?” The arms dealer raised a finger, pointing far off into the distance to his side. He told Qozo an elven huntress lived there, capable of tracking anything alive to the ends of the world. The rango knew those mountains were infamous around these parts, for it was often given the name ‘Ace high morgue,’ because many rich, important people never returned from visiting there. Qozo went on, wondering if this was all a stupid trap to walk into. If his life was worth more than the jagged rock of mountains. A few minutes later, a raven landed on his shoulder. It spoke to him in a surprisingly clear voice. “Have you seen two humans running around screaming like hooligans?” “What’s a random bird got to do with that?” “Funny you should ask when you’ve never been around here. You banal reptile.” “I’m sorry, but I never seen a bird land on someone’s shoulder out of nowhere and question the everyday happenings of these wild lands as if it’s a person messing with you.” “Then you shouldn’t be surprised by the unexpected.” The bird leapt forward from Qozo’s shoulder. It exploded into a ball of crackling energies until only a large smoke remained. Out of this smoke came out an elf. “Whaa…? How?” “Everyone who dabbles in magic knows that trick. Child’s play. Well, at least in olden times.” The bemused rango gazed on at the sight before him, until he put two and two together and realized this elf was what he was looking for all along. “Ahha! You’re that elven huntress that dwarf was talking about. You have something I want.” “And you have something I want.” “Hm?” “Those running and screaming hooligans. They’re a part of a local gang, well known around here for kidnapping people for ransom. I want to rescue someone. Someone important that has money to throw around for his saviors, by the way.” “So hostage rescue. Reminds me of those damsel and distress stories so popular in the lands of Bretonnia. Should we fancy ourselves as knights?” “So much pride in you to think that!” The elf chuckled, holding her stomach. “I wonder if your will to live ends once your pride does.” “Just a casual expression of heroism is all.” “Whatever. We ride in three hours. I’m bringing the stunty.” The elf told the arms dealer her wishes and plans and he agreed in exchange for all of the gang’s weaponry once they’re defeated. After preparations were made, the three rode out - white horse, grey mountain goat, and culchan in tow. Underneath the searing sun, they rode between canyons, past trickling ravines, and up sand dunes until it was dusk. They set up camp three-fourths the way to their objective and cooked the dwarf’s suggestion - beef sirloin with potatoes and gravy. Qozo looked upon his dish with complete disgust. The meat was stringy and stretchy. The potatoes were bland; the gravy too salty. All in all, the dish was completely unbalanced, with neither of its qualities supporting the other. Absolute rubbish. Meanwhile, the dwarf and elf were deep in conversation. Their stomachs full, their mood melancholic. “Why did you come to this wild land elgi?” “That’s an awfully unprovoked question.” “I know, I know. But you and me lived together, survivin’ off the town’s outskirts for years. Makes me think all we been living were sorry lives.” “So what? We go on survivin’ all the same. That’s good enough in these parts.” “It’d be bad choice if living out here is worse than home.” “Funny, considering I never had a choice. I was brought on over by people I never really knew, but still loved.” “What people?” The elf lifted her head, exhaled, and closed her eyes as memories washed on. “I was nothing ‘ore than an acorn when I came into this world. Nothing ‘ore than the winds that made me fall from my tree. Then I was dropped and picked up. Dropped and picked up again. Dropped and picked up another time. Eventually, I was grasped with such a warmth, I wanted to forget my troubles, until that was taken away. Then I ended up here.” “The life of an orphan, eh?” The dwarf remarked, getting teary eyed. Eventually, he burst into tears and hugged the elf’s leg. “Alright, alright. It’s been 400 years since then. Countless human generations. You cotton-skinned oaf.” “But it’s the experience of so, so many…” The sight of the two bemused Qozo, and yet he wanted to be a part of it. Something about the perseverance of a person to go on despite the world’s persistent attempts at erasing them made his dreams slightly change. Made him reflect, if only for a little. The three slept before waking up just before sun rise. They rode out once more, stopping near the fringes of their objective. They dismounted and discussed tactics. It was eventually decided it would be best for the dwarf to pick them off from a distance with his long range rifle and suppress them. Meanwhile, the elf would flank them from their sides and kill more with bow and arrow. In amidst all this chaos, Qozo would rush into the tunnels where the bandits were keeping their hostage, clearing them out with his derringers in close quarters combat. With a raised hand signal, the plan was put into action. It was well-executed. The combination of attacking with the element of surprise and combined-arms worked well. Qozo already smoked a few in the tunnels. He checked every room until he found a man sitting on the floor with his mouth and hands tightened with rope. “If it's not my damsel in distress. Here, let me help you out.” The skink slowly and carefully cut the rope piece by piece until the man was freed. “Gahhhh! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!” “No problem.” A few seconds later, the elf and dwarf barged in, weapons drawn. They holstered once they saw the lizard and the freed human. “We meet again!” The man exclaimed, pointing towards the elf, “I’m thoroughly pleased! Though not as much to be rotting here like a dried up leaf. I have to say, I don’t really understand the appeal of these wild, wild lands wherein infrastructure is rarer than gold. Looking over the statistics of this region, there appears to be a correlation between those living in poverty and a higher propensity to commit-” “Please. Stop. Yapping,” everyone in the room said all at once. “Oh, right. Sorry. By the way, I have the records you requested.” “You do?” “Indeed. The records of a certain Bernhard Hahn and Felda Hahn?” The elf’s face instantly lit up at the sound of those names. She hugged him with all her strength. “Because of people like you, I still have a lil’ hope left in this world. Thanks.” *** The sun was high up in the sky. Near the outskirts of New Haven, Qozo watered and fed his culchan. He was already given the locations to where he’ll find what he had sought after for so long. But something held him back. The blacksmith saurus was with him. “I heard what you did for that dwarf,” The larger rango said. “Was he important to you? Is that why you work a dwarf’s trade?” “He was the only thing there was, besides the harsh winds and endless sands. A long time ago.” “I see. In all fairness, I was hoping you’d be the type taking .50 bullets to the chest, or wrestling apisi beastmen to the ground like it was nothing.” “Alas, I’m not a lizard of fame and glory.” Qozo smirked. He wanted to go, but couldn’t. It wasn't until he realized he simply didn’t want to anymore. “I haven’t told anyone this yet, but I guess I will spill the beans on you now. In my first weeks of living on this world, I lived in the shadow of greater beings… my understanding of life was completely made by their image. When they left, this understanding of mine never did. So I was stuck trying to make sense of it all. So I was a fool trying to find this sense in others. I finally learned this sense can only come from within one place. Yourself.” Spoiler: Story Nine: "Halls and Mountains" Halls and Mountains Luthamo looked upon the Great gates in front of him. He hadn’t been here before, he had heard of this place, the tunnels and chambers. It was said that this place holds the most beautiful interior. Great halls with ceilings so high, you couldn’t clearly notice them, the pillars that support it are said to be as high and firm as trees of ages past. The city was always full of life and activity. Nevertheless he dreaded to go through the gates. The guards at the gates noticed his hesitation and looked at each other with a grin on their face. “Look Celethor, we have got a newcomer over there!” Luthamo caught their gazes and grinning smiles. He dismounted his horse and started walking to the gates. His pride and mission did take the upper hand over his phobia of tunnels and caverns. With his head high and shoulders firm he walked past the guards and acted like he didn’t notice the eyes piercing in his back. - o - o - o - Down in one of the rooms adjacent to the great hall, King Thranduil had just started a meeting with his advisers. At the start of the day the weekly ‘Audience to the Throne’ was held, this part of ruling never had been appealing to him. For a couple of years into his reign he deliberately had it renamed from ‘Audience with the King’ to ‘Audience to the Throne’. This way he didn’t need to be there and his most trusted adviser, Idhremben, was hosting the audiences as a substitute since. Even so this morning, Idhremben had listened to all the complaints and mishap that the people of his realm wanted to out towards the King. Between the usual neighbor’s disagreements and abuse of power by members of the Royal Guard there stood out a couple of cases in which no direct culprit could be pointed out. Normally this wouldn’t concern him that much, because living in the forest meant dealing with wildlife and their comings and goings. But these cases were odd to him. In such a way that he had to consult with the King and his board of advisers about what to do with them. “Welcome and thanks to all for coming on such short notice.” King Thranduil looked down on his advisers from his elevated throne. The seating was made out of woven willow stems and the top and sides were decorated with the giant antlers of a moose. “we meet today because of some concerns outed by Idhremben after the audiences of this morning. Idhremben, explain.” Idremben stood up and took a bow towards the King. “Thank you, Majesty.” Now he directed his glance and voice to the advisers. - o - o - o - After, so proudly, entering the tunnels to Thranduil’s Halls, Luthamo came almost to a halt. His instincts told him to turn around and leave, but duty and pride prevented him from doing so. Lady Galadriel had made clear to him what the importance of his task was and he would not let her down. Dragging forward one foot after the other he continued in the dim-lighted tunnel. His sharp sighted eyes adjusted quickly to the new surroundings, his ears found it rather difficult to comprehend the way everything around him sounded. Out there in the woods he could spot his surroundings and everything moving in it with his eyes closed, but down here he was disorientated by all sounds bouncing off the walls and echoing from different directions. Slowly picking up his pace he managed to pass through the first couple of tunnels without making too much of a fool of himself. Suddenly he stopped. What lied in front of him was the much talked about Great hall of Thranduil. He felt like coming up for air after a dive through murky water. The hall was even more spacious than he was led to believe and the shear height of it overwhelmed him. The lighting, though subtle, was of a natural intensity that made him feel at ease. For a second he thought and felt like he was in a very dense forest like some parts of Mirkwood still were. From aside of the tunnel’s entrance to the hall a Guard saw him and stepped forward and addressed him: “Good afternoon. According to your clothing you are not from around here. And seeing your reaction you haven’t been here before.” he said more welcoming than judging. “You are correct, my name is Luthamo and I come with a tiding from Lady Galadriel from the woods of Lothlorien.” “My name is Estendear, head of the Kings Guards.” he said hastily as an excuse, “I will bring you before the advisers. They are gathered as we speak.” - o - o - o - “Why would we act on rumors that happen far from our gates?” it was Lhingnith, minister of treasury, who spoke, “setting up an excursion to investigate this is like throwing gold and silver in the river, we will not gain anything with it! On top of things: these Elves, laying their concerns on us, did choose to live outside the borders of the city themselves” Idhremben stood up: “The problem is that if these rumors are true we will not stand a chance if we are not prepared. I highly recommend we…” A loud bang on the door interrupted the adviser’s plea. Thranduil nodded to the guards at the door to see who dared to disturb the meeting. A few seconds later Estendear and Luthamo walked into the room with the guard closing the door behind them. Thranduil stood up from his seat: “Estendear!? there has to be a very good reason to disturb this meeting and even more so for bringing someone in here that has no permission!” Estendear kneeled down and looked quickly at Luthamo, convincing him non-verbally to follow his lead. “Your excellency, forgive me for interrupting your meeting, but this couldn’t wait.” He gestured at Luthamo and continued: “This is Luthamo, messenger from the Realm of Lothlorien. He brings a message from Galadriel. I thought, your excellency, that this message can only be an important one and worth interrupting anything.” “So, you were thinking…” Thranduil took a pause before continuing: “well, let's hear what he has to say and after that decide what to do with you!” he sat back down again and leaned back nonchalantly to impose on Luthamo, “go on than messenger. Speak up!” Luthamo stepped forward insecurely, rasping his throat before speaking: “I am here on behalf of Lady Galadriel with a message from her.” Thranduil rolled his eyes. “Lady Galadriel has seen images in her mirror, images of fire and horror. Images of nails and claws crawling through the Woodland Realms.” Luthamo took a deep breath and changed to a softer tone: “she has seen the dragon responsible.” “No dragons have been seen since the Mighty Smaug was slain at Laketown years ago!” this time it was Sogriel that stood up: “the watchers in the Mirkwood haven’t reported any dragons moving in the forests for miles around!” Idhremben defended Luthamo before he was able to react, “This is exactly what I was saying with the rumors of late: the scratch marks on trees, the burned animals and the shed off scales found in the forest, closer and closer to the city.” “That is settled then!” Thranduil intervened, “Estendear is leading a small investigating group to go into the forest and report back to me. This meeting is dismissed!” With that said he stood up and walked out of the room, directly followed by the guards present at the doors. - o - o - o - Deep in the Mirkwood forest a small group of Elves moved in the shadows. They had set out from Thranduil’s halls on their horses following the Elf path. After a couple of miles, at the crossing of the Enchanted River, they had left the horses on the road and continued on food, moving along without a road to lead them. Estendear led them fierce towards the Mountains of Mirkwood, determined to give the King a detailed briefing once they would return. At the edges of the Mountain ridge was where the rumors first started to appear. As they moved further from the road the forest became gradually denser and the air thicker, which slowed down the pace of movement. These parts of the Woodland realms had been the home to lots of spiders, weaving webs between the trees like a blanket covering the forest. Now there was no web nor spider to be seen. Trees bore marks of claws and branches were snapped. Indications that recently there definitely were lifeforms moving in these parts of the woods. Aware of the correct observations of the Lady Galadriel and the absence of spiders, the company pressed further, more carefully. All of a sudden the trees parted and they stood on the edge of an area that once was full of trees. The air smelled of sulphur and the earth was scorched. The area stretched all the way to the root of the mountains, but at no point it was wider than a couple of feet. Estendear waited, inspected the surroundings and looked for tracks. “It looks like there was more than one creature. Some on four legs and some on two. They moved to the mountains.” They started moving in the same direction, scanning the tree lines with every step they took. Nothing stirred in the vegetation nor alarmed them of any creatures present. They got closer and closer to the mountains. As their shapes became clearer Estendear noticed something was off about the mountains and one mountain in particular. At the base of that mountain he just spotted a couple of creatures entering what looked like a cave. Small blue creatures walking on their behind legs and a larger orange one on all fours with a sail on its back. Not long after the creatures disappeared the ground started to shake heavily. Estendear and his group weren’t able to stand on their feet. Down on hands and knees they watched as one of the mountains started to grow, rising up higher and higher into the sky until suddenly it broke loose from the earth and ascended in the heavens.