Little is known of the early days of the continent of Aztaltica. There are many vying creation myths telling of the land’s four gods, Qotal, Azul, Sotek, and Tezca, which are not repeated here. However, most myths end in the good god Qotal’s withdrawal from the world and the rising influence of Sotek. Given Legion research in Tazumal’s libraries by Captains Gelben and Winkwillow, as well as Lieutenant Kane, there is much detail on the early history of Itzapan. This early history is included as it sets the stage for the rise of the Zlatan Empire, which General Cordell has identified as our primary enemy. Likewise, the Itzapan, if they are to be our allies, hold to these legends of their past greatness, and out knowledge of them will help ingratiate ourselves among them. The reports below are naturally incomplete, based on the Endurance’s small, preliminary mission, but should suffice as background for the main expedition.
Rough Chronology of Key Dates
202 BC Videssians conquer Aztaltica, previously under Sotek’s sway
0 Cataclysm (“The Reshaping”) strikes Aztaltica, Videssians wiped out
~100 Itzapan’s golden age of civilization lasts a thousand years
~1100 The Great Catastrophe--civil strife leads to decline of Itzapan
~1200 Migrating Zlatan take over central Zlatan valley, declare empire
~1400 Zlatan empire at height, rules most of Aztaltica
The Distant Past
Aztaltica’s distant past is shrouded in mystery according to the Itzapan archives. There are vague tales of the Sotek’s minions holding sway before written history, but these are little more than legend. There is more historical agreement--though still quite vague and written centuries later--on the coming of an ancient, pale race from across the sea, a race of conquerors who came and laid the peoples of Aztaltica low, made them their slaves. They were described as a pale people, tall, with unnaturally white hair and eyes of striking red (presumably the Videssians who invaded in 202 B.C.) armed with mighty blades and magicks, though they were destroyed by the great reshaping of the world fifteen centuries ago (presumably the Cataclysm which also struck Arik). In the centuries after the great reshaping, the Itzapan rose to be the dominant people of the land, a dominance which would remain unchallanged for a thousand years.
Itzapan: The Golden Age
In the age before Qotal’s fall, there were many centuries of healthy life for the people of Aztaltica. Crops thrived, cities grew, and nations evolved. Most of the great cities of Aztaltica, including Tazumal, Tulom-Itzi, Huatepec, and Atlan date from this period. As of yet, there was no Zlatan, though the great valley held many smaller towns and its lakes were great centers of commerce.
But by far the greatest heights were reached by the peoples of Itzapan and Far Itzapan. Their twin capitals of Tulom-Itzi and Tazumal shone as beacons across the world. The humans lived in peace, and gradually their blessings returned to the world.
In Tulom-Itzi, the humans built the great observatory, and studied the heavens. Physicians studied herbs and medicines, and sages studied the ways of gods and men. They created paper and symbols to write thereupon, so that their knowledge could he passed around the Aztaltica.
Though they built vast centers to honor their gods and to increase their learning, the peoples of the Itzapan lands still farmed the jungle, clearing away the growth by fire, and then growing mayz until the fields gasped out their last fertile breaths. Thus, though their city centers still remain, their houses were light and small, and were soon swallowed by the jungle when new farms, and new houses were begun.
Despite this they lived a prosperous life. They did not know war. Disease was a rare scourge, and the faithful clerics and wise physicians of the Itzapan learned to cure most of the afflictions that did arise. Rain fell when it was needed, and the humans used great wells—the cetays—as cisterns, to preserve their moisture against the rare and short-lived periods of drought.
Paths and Roads
The Itzapan built a great network of roads—straight highways of limestone, raised above the level of the mud even during the rainy season. Travel between the cities of the Itzapan was frequent and relatively unmolested. More and more people arrived from small villages to the great cities. In time, a great highway extended all the way from Tazumal to Tulom-Itzi, and this became the great capstone of Itzapan trade—a symbol of the might of man, hands linked in friendship across the width and breadth of the land.
The great trading canoes of the Itzapan even embarked upon expeditions, fraught with danger, into the Northern Ocean. Many of these voyages met with disaster but others served to populate the islands off of the continent’s shore.
At the same tine as the Itzapan culture rose, another population was beginning to develop. These peoples, stemming from Huatepec, Huacli, and other lands in the center of the continent, followed a different path from the Itzapan. They perfected the arts of war and founded a society based on serving Sotek.
It was during this period that Aztaltican military tactics underwent their most dramatic development. The various warring tribes, each representing a city, developed armies of several thousand men. Gradually, elements of these forces began to specialize—some men wielding bows and arrows while others carried slings. Some—the biggest and bravest—skilled in the wielding of the maca, learning how to use their stone-edged clubs with devastating effect.
Where the Itzapan worked together; sharing the knowledge that arose within each disparate city, the folk of central Aztaltica fought each other; using new and deadly tactics to gain an advantage over their neighbors.
The first of the great picture writing arose from the Itzapans, for scribes formalized the symbols that had always been used as a Aztaltican expression of beauty, and ultimately a man from Tulom-Itzi could send a message to his brother in Tazumal simply by placing his thoughts upon a sheet of rolled cactus fiber, and having a messenger transport that fiber from one place to the next.
Songs, poems, and stories were created many of them passed along orally from prior to the age of writing, and these were codified and stored in the great libraries of the two cities. Intermarriage became common, and more and more the various tribes of Itzapan merged into one happy, prosperous people.
The artwork of central Aztaltica flourished too, as feathers and mosaic became a means of competition. Each people struggled to create brighter, more terrifying images for their armies, so that a violent conflict on a field of battle came to present a great, swirling mass of color.
Yet the folk of the central highlands developed no writing, and all of their statues were erected to Sotek, or to Tezca, were portrayed as increasingly bloodthirsty.
In Itzapan the culture reached its greatest heights. The astronomers watched the stars, the featherworkers created their pluma, and many children were born, and lived to prosperous adulthood. Qotal was the god of the land. His name was raised reverently, and many colorful honors were placed about the cities—flowers, dyed mantles, great floating banners of plumage.
The Great Catastrophe
Amid this splendor which lasted for a thousand years, Aliah princess of Tazumal grew to beautiful womanhood some five hundred years ago--around the year 1000 by Arik reckoning. The product of many generations of careful breeding, she represented the highest ideals of the Itzapan female. Word of her beauty, her benign tenderness, and her radiant smile spread across the jungles, reaching even the farthest hamlets. As she matured, her destiny—marriage to her half brother Xetl—was common knowledge. The people of Tazumal looked forward with high anticipation to her wedding day.
In distant Tulom-Itzi, too, word carried of the beautiful princess. This word reached the ears of Tacal, a vigorous young prince of that city. Deep in his heart Tacal hungered for such a maiden, and in his mind he painted a picture of Aliah—his beautiful, his beloved Aliah! Tacal brooded in his fabulous city of fountains and gardens. He stared darkly at his young companions, he spurned the attentions of the women at his father’s court.
Over the years, Tacal’s single-mindedness crystallized: he knew that he must have Aliah, or he would never live in peace. Spurring him to haste, word came to Tulom-Itzi at the height of the rains: the princess’s impending marriage to Xetl now would proceed, to be consummated in the spring. Tacal enlisted the aid of his brothers, and his close friends. The conspirators would travel to Tazumal with the long procession of wedding guests journeying from Tulom-Itzi. They identified themselves, secretly, by each braiding an eagle feather into his hair.
Their plan advanced inevitably as they made the overland march. It remained undiscovered by the elder Itzas, and too by their hosts, the masters of Tazumal. The young men attended feasts and dances, they worshipped all the gods of Itzapan—but Qotal, of course, most of all—and they touched their eaglefeathers in private acknowledgement of their intent.
But the princess Aliah remained in seclusion for the week of celebration, and the conspirators of Tulom-Itza could not discover her. The abduction, they decided, must wait until the wedding. That event occurred on the auspicious day selected by the astronomers for such a solemn ceremony. The wandering stars of both Tazumal and Tulom-Itzi were prominent in the morning sky. When the bride appeared at the crest of the vast, stonewalled courtyard, a gasp rippled through the crowd. Never before, the people realized in awe, had Aliah’s beauty been fully revealed.
She wore a gown of pure white feathers, with sandals of glistening seashells. A cape, cascading parrot feathers of blue, green, and red, floated easily in the air behind hen Her thick black hair flowed past her shoulders, emblazoned with a dozen bright flowers and a circlet of pure gold.
At this moment, Tacal and his companions struck. They sprang to the platform where Aliah and her attendants stood before the crowd. Slaying the warriors there, Tacal’s accomplices fought their way through the palace. He followed, holding tightly to the screaming Aliah’s wrist. The desperate band fought its way free, toward the green fields beyond the sprawling city. But all the warriors of Tazumal pursued them, and surrounded them. When they saw who it was who had betrayed them, the men of Tazumal set upon the rest of the guests from Tulom-Itzi—those who had had no knowledge of the plot. Seeing his plan thwarted, his people murdered, Tacal succumbed to a terrible rage. His men fought and died, one after the other, until only he remained, still holding the terrified Aliah. He saw on the palace wall his parents and other nobles of Tulom-Itzi pushed to their deaths, in retribution for the attack.
In his blindness, he struck Aliah with his maca, cutting off her head. In the next instant, a hundred Itzapan arrows ended his life as well. With these deaths died the Golden Age of the Itzapan. For reasons that are not quite understood, the peoples left their grand cities in the years following the tragedy, returning to their small villages in the forest, or dying away altogether. People still lived in Tazumal, and in Tulom-Itzi, but not in the numbers they once had. Whether it was disease, or a continuation of the strife—or simply an overwhelming shame—that drove these prosperous people from their cities cannot be told for certain. Scrolls moldered in abandoned libraries. Elegant structures of stonework felt the insistent prying of expanding roots, prying vines.
Many of the cities of the Itzapan, abandoned entirely by their inhabitants, vanished into the jungle. Pyramids crumbled and plants took hold, scratching and scrambling up the sides to form the shapeless mounds that can be found in many places throughout the jungled lands.
And as the Itzapan culture waned, its beauty and serenity fading like mist into the encloaking jungle, another peoples—less intelligent and thoughtful than the Itzapan, perhaps, but diverse and active and violent—began to flourish.
In the central lands of Aztaltica, the great lakes below the smoking mountain had become a center of warlike nations. Each was represented by a great city, in or near the valley—Cordotl, Tezal, Azatl, Tizoc, and many more. They fought each other for the pure joy of combat, and for the greater glory of their lord. The key to their lives was just that—they fought each other. And while they fought, from the north came the newcomers—a ragged, dusty tribe from the desert lands. It had little ancestry to recommend it, tracing roots most obviously to a group of the Dog People, nomads from the far north.
Yet this ragged, motley collection of men and women was destined to become the grand master of Aztaltica.
The Rise of Zlatan
They came from the west—perhaps where the Dog Peoples of today dwell—the ragged people without a home, wandering through the bleak dry lands for no one knew how long. They came to the lakes with their clear water, their fish and their valleys filled with mayz. They came to the cities in the valley which would later be named after them, Zlatan. The people from the west were intruders, but they were strong and fierce. They were also shrewd enough to ally with Tezal, most powerful of the valley cities. They served Tezal for many years as faithful warriors, and won for the Revered Counsellor of Tezal many victories.
These folk from the west called themselves the Zlatan. They had a strange tale of their origin, a story that was greeted first with amusement, then with suspicion, and eventually with awe by the peoples of the valley.
The Tale of Origin
The Zlatan, from their very roots, worshipped Sotek, above all others. They praised the god of night and war with a passion that made all others pale in their faith for the vengeful deity. This worship dated back to the tribe’s origins, in some nameless northern barren. Whether their surroundings were swamp or desert or bleak coastline is unknown; but there was little food, and much disease. It is a place they could have few desires to remember.
The Zlatan, though ruled by a series of war chiefs in these early days, placed great store in the tribal shamans, all of whom were devoted clerics of Sotek. One of these, named Tecco, was once illuminated with a vision that came to him like a bright light shining through a moonless night. That night was four hundred years ago.
The following day, Tecco ventured into the desert, wandering for a full year before he came upon a cave in the heights of a parched mountain range. Entering the cavern, which showed a regularity of construction indicating unnatural origins, the cleric found a great pillar of stone. Before Tecco’s astounded eyes, the pillar melted and shifted, until the tribal shaman found himself staring at the bestial, imposing image of the warrior-god, Sotek!
The statue stood taller than a man, though it had a human-like torso. In its right hand it clutched a stout maca, the stone-chip blade as sharp as obsidian. In its left it held a shield emblazoned with the face of a snarling jaguar. But though its form resembled humanity, the leering face proved the beast’s immortal origins.
A wide mouth, studded with long, inward-curving fangs, opened in a drooling grin, and Tecco thought he would be devoured; the legends tell us that the devout cleric knew only joy at this moment. A long, shaggy mane fell from the god’s head to encircle his shoulders, and the beastlike muzzle gave it a horrid aspect. Sotek’s eyes flashed like lightning, and Tecco felt the rumbling of thunder shake the cavern.
But the monstrous image did not devour the cleric. Instead, it spoke:
Faithful children of the god, go!
This place must be left in the halls of your past,
For a future ordained by Sotek awaits.
Take your children by the hand, priest!
Lead them south toward the valley of your future,
Where mighty destiny awaits.
Now my children claim the world, all!
From their island in they sun they send their armies,
to gain the final glory for their god.
After the god spoke his command, the living statue returned to stone, to a cold pillar of rock that only vaguely resembled the god in all its vital detail. Yet Tecco lifted the stone, though it was bigger than himself, and carried it with him as he returned to his village.
The priest retained the chant in exact, rhythmic precision, and it became the pre-history of his people. Faced by such a compelling destiny, the tribe immediately abandoned its barren home site. Carrying seed grain, protected by a small but vigorous contingent of warriors, the Zlatan moved toward the south.
For fifty years they wandered. The exact time is unknown, but it is accepted that Tecco’s great grandson, Cattl, was the shaman of the tribe as they finally discovered the land of their destiny, the Valley of Zlatan. The whole of their efforts following Tecco’s revelation have been directed toward the fulfilling of this prophecy. Throughout all the subsequent travels of the tribe, the shamans carried the stone with them, and worshipped it as the tangible evidence of their god.
The Great Valley
Two hundred and fifty years ago, when the Zlatan arrived in this place, which so clearly matched the prophecy, they knew that here they would make their homes. But here, too, were many other peoples, all of them more powerful, more prosperous, and more settled than the ragged newcomers.
No matter; the Zlatan had something that set them apart, and this was their overriding knowledge that they were the chosen children of Sotek. Armed by this faith, they entered the valley.
For their homes they claimed a low, flood-prone island in the middle of the lakes. It was land no one else wanted, for it seemed too flat, too frequently inundated, for civilized employment. But here the Zlatan founded their village, and though it began as a rude collection of thatch and mud huts, the people quickly built a pyramid to Sotek. As the village became a town and then a city, so too did the pyramid add layers of height and breadth, until it would become a wonder of Aztaltica. But such grandeur lay far in the future.
The greatest city in the valley, at this time, was Tezal. The Zlatan wasted no time in placing themselves under the protection of, and in offering their services to, this great city that lay on the northern shore of the lake.
The two other great cities were Azatl, to the north, and Tizoc, which lay to the south of the valley. Many smaller towns, each nevertheless greater than the Zlatan at this time, crowded the lush and fertile valley floor.
A delicate balance of power existed here, for the smaller towns attached their allegiance to one or another of the great cities like the changing of the seasons. The three, Azatl, Tizoc, and Tezal, maintained a narrow equilibrium of power, for whenever one grew too powerful, the other two would unite in challenge to it.
Into this taut structure came the ragged Zlatan. The island they claimed, while barren compared to the lakeshores, stood squarely in the middle of the valley centers. And on this island they placed their stony statue of Sotek, and here they began to grow food, to eat, and to multiply in numbers that would have been impossible in the barren lands of their origin.
Power and Prestige
The Zlatan tribe introduced to the valley a new devotion to the ever-popular pastime of making war. No other warriors threw themselves so savagely into melee, no other archers showered foes with such a heavy, accurate barrage of their deadly missiles.
They fought at the commands of the Tezal rulers, and those august counsellors came to rely more and more upon their loyal vassals. The Zlatan preceded the Tezal army into the attack; they formed the rearguard on those rare occasions when retreat became a tactical necessity. They fought, and they died, but most of all they took prisoners.
The sacrifice of enemy captives was in no way an innovation introduced by the Zlatan. All the cities of the valley, and across the Aztaltica, had made it a practice when celebrating a victory, or atoning for a defeat. A warrior achieved prominence and rank not by slaying enemies, but by taking them alive on the field of battle.
Yet the Aztalticans, in their devotion to Bloody Sotek, lifted the rites of sacrifice to new pinnacles of gore. Where other tribes would take two dozen, or two score lives in the celebration of a great victory, the Zlatan fell short of their desires if they could offer less than a hundred. And as they exulted and killed in the name of Sotek, their prowess grew, and their victories mounted.
The success of the Zlatan, and its obvious origins in divine benevolence, were facts that could not be ignored by the other tribes of the valley. Thus, even before the village on the island became a political force, the example of its religious devotion gripped its neighboring communities, until they all strived to outdo each other in of their rites to the god of war.
Treachery and Diplomacy
Tezal, aided by its loyal Zlatan warriors, ultimately came near to gaining mastery of the valley lands. Collecting tribute from the other cities, it made greater and greater demands upon its neighbors. Always those cities paid—for they greatly feared the vengeful depredations of Tezal’s ferocious allies. And all the while resentment seethed, and rebellion festered. But always Sotek favored his chosen tribe, for they remained triumphant on the field.
Then, when the tension had reached a peak, the warchiefs of the Aztalticans went to the enemies of Tezal, to the leaders of Azatl and Tizoc. To these counsellors they proposed a new alliance—a banding against the newly powerful ones in the valley. The other cities, long-suffering rivals of powerful Tezal, quickly agreed to the campaign.
The Zlatan planned carefully, and laid their trap in the guise of shrewd marriages, and rapidly shifting alliances, the Zlatan consolidated and gathered their power beneath them. Their sons grew to he strong warriors, and their daughters bore many children. Through the use of floating gardens of pluma-supported loam, the Zlatan expanded their island. Stone houses replaced those of wood, and more and greater pyramids were erected, to all of the gods. But always the lofty temple of Sotek towered over the others, an imposing reminder of the deity who protected the Zlatan and gave success to their endeavors. And always the sandstone image of Sotek, the pillar found many centuries earlier by the cleric Tecco, remained enshrined in the sacred temple. After only fifty years in the valley, the cities, one-by-one, gave in to the pressing might of the Zlatan.
Birth of Empire
The warchiefs that had always ruled the Zlatan also evolved with their change in status. No longer would it be the crude, albeit effective, men of war who determined all matters of import pertaining to the well-being of the tribe. So it was that three hundred years ago, with their ascension to city status, the Zlatan declared their leaders to be the “Revered Counselors” charged with the governing of the truly civilized locales.
Of course, the Revered Counselors of Zlatan were generally those men who had proven their worth at the highest calling of the people; i.e. warfare. Nevertheless, the Zlatan marked their true beginning of civilized, cultured status from the time they started calling their war chiefs ‘‘Revered Counselors. The first of these counsellors was called Ipana—later, lpana I, as two of his descendants with the same name took the throne in following years.
Ipana set out to unite the cities of the valley, under his own firm control. During his own reign he brought Azatl and Tizoc firmly into his fold; these cities were absorbed by Zlatan and became parts of the whole. Their individual gods and counsellors were subverted, until the nobles of these cities became mere courtiers to the throne of Ipana. The gods favored by the other cities were not banished, but in each a temple to Sotek was erected or expanded so that it became the obvious focal point of devotion, dwarfing all other centers of worship.
Only Tezal, the original protector of the Aztalticans, resisted complete absorption by the growing power in the valley. The Zlatan collected tribute, and took slaves for labor or sacrifice from Tezal, but always during Ipana’s reign of thirty-five prosperous years did the ancient city retain its own identity. Ipana’s grandson Tenoch took the throne, and the title of Revered Counselor, following the death of his grandfather. He devoted his reign, of twenty years, to the continuing struggle to absorb rebellious Tezal, but he had no more success in this endeavor than did his grandfather.
Tenoch’s own son, Ipana II, ruled Zlatan for a mere twelve years, but through subterfuge and treachery he succeeded where his predecessors had failed. In the sixtieth year of Zlatan’s might, he hosted a great banquet for all the chiefs of the valley. Over the course of the month-long celebration, the representatives of Tezal were fed a special mix of drugs and poisons, perfected by the clerics of Sotek.
The celebration concluded, with no visible effects occurring to any of the celebrants; however, within the next half year, all of Tezal’s mightiest chiefs, counsellors, sages, and priests mysteriously sickened and died. Though the treachery was naturally suspected, if not confirmed, the power vacuum created in Tezal was too great to be filled locally. Softly, with barely a murmur of dissent, that once-proud city was absorbed into the neophyte empire that would become Zlatan.
Lovers of irony will no doubt appreciate the fact that, seven years later, the same toxin was used to prematurely end the life of Ipana II. A nephew, desirous of gaining power, confessed guilt in the matter, after several days of probing inquisition by the clerics of Sotek. Ipana’s young son, ten-year-old Ipana III, assumed the title of counsellor. His reign begins a new period in Zlatan’s ascendancy.
Ipana III ruled Zlatan for a full fifty-one years. During his reign, the other cities of the valley were cemented into the culture of their Zlatan masters. The nobles of Tezal, of Azatl and Tizoc, sought Aztaltican daughters to marry to their sons. The cult of Sotek flourished, and the creed of the warrior gained new prominence and mastery in the great valley. But this was mere extension of the paths laid down by Ipana III’s predecessors. His most striking impact on Zlatan culture—an impact that continued to grow through the reign of Nahuatyl, nearly two hundred years later—was in carrying his dream of empire beyond the fertile valley of Zlatan, into nations across the width and breadth of the Aztaltica. The necessity for these wars of conquest originated, again perhaps ironically, from the very hunger of the god in whose name the wars were waged.
The Feathered Wars
With the entire pacification of the valley under the mastery of his throne, Ipana III had no nearby enemies with whom to wage war. Yet Sotek still required great numbers of hearts for his bloodthirsty pleasure—and now, when the blessings of his protection were finally manifested among his people, it was certainly not time to displease the god of night and war.
At first, Ipana III decided to employ an idea that would have been extraordinarily bizarre in any other culture. Whether the idea was his alone, or originated in the minds of his devious clerics, or perhaps even hailed from some long buried culture in Aztaltica’s past, is a fact not known. What is clearly recorded is that the command of Ipana III went out to the cities of the valley, requiring them to send warriors to a great ceremony, a ceremony that would be called the “Feathered War!’
The purpose of this massive exercise was the taking of captives from each other’s forces. The armies of Tezal, Azatl, Tizoc, and the Zlatan themselves all clashed in a great field beside the lake. Nobles and courtiers and women watched, while men strove to prove their prowess on the field. For a full day the contest raged, until each of the four tribes had collected enough prisoners to please the hunger of Sotek for a long time to come.
Ipana III, himself, led the Zlatan armies, and took two prisoners. At this time he was twenty-years old, and his accomplishment won him the undying respect of his city’s warrior clan—which, until this point, had viewed him as a naive upstart. Naturally, the fighting prowess of the Zlatan allowed them to claim many more prisoners, and lose far fewer men, than any of the other cities.
For several years, the pleasure of Sotek was maintained by the sacrifice of prisoners taken during the Feathered Wars. These were years of bountiful harvest, and much rain. Yet finally, the last of the captives was given to the god, and once again the clerics cried out for hearts.
Again the valley went through the ritual of a Feathered War, this one more extravagant than the first. However, the cities of Azatl, Tizoc, and Tezal, working subtly in concert, managed to claim as many Zlatan captives as they lost of their own people. The god of war had food again, but the cost of the war this time gave Ipana III pause.
Thus it was that he decided to take his armies beyond the valley, to the cities and villages beyond. In swift campaigns, he claimed Tizoc and Zacatlan—city-states to the south of the valley—for Zlatan. Next he hurled his forces northward against the savage Huatepec in their mountain fastness, though here he was rebuffed, as the Huatepecns would rebuff all invaders for the next two centuries.
The Revered Counselor of Zlatan, frustrated by his first defeat, turned his armies east. They marched into the dry country of the Atlan peoples. The latter dwelled in relative isolation, with a culture that centered around semi-independent city-states.
The coming of the Zlatan proved disastrous for the peoples of Atlan. Ipana’s army captured Guaytl, easternmost of the city-states, in a sudden and shocking campaign, culminating with the army driving into the city center and burning the temple. Five thousand captives, it is said, were marched toward the altars of Zlatan following this one great feat of arms.
Next, Zlatan emissaries began to negotiate in private with the representatives of Atlan itself, the central city-state of the Atlan people. Following a combination of inducements, bribes, and threats, Atlan agreed to join ranks with the conquerors. With this crucial aid from within, the Zlatan armies marched across the entire Atlan nation in a ten year campaign of pillage and conquest. Three of the remaining city-states fell under Zlatan control, though none without a savage and honorable defense--all three were razed to the ground and no longer exist.
The remainder of Ipana III’s reign was spent in the consolidation of his far flung gains. The Atlan were absorbed into the culture of the Aztaltican tribe much like the cities of the valley had been, pledging annually to provide slaves and treasure to their masters in Zlatan.
Ipana III died, eventually, of extreme old age. Though he had many sons and grandsons, it was his grand-nephew Tolco that ascended to the throne at this time. Tolco had been judged by the courtier of Zlatan to be the most able of the potential inheritors, based particularly upon his stunning accomplishments on the field of battle. Not only had he led Ipana III’s armies for many of Zlatan’s most successful campaigns, but he had also taken more than one hundred prisoners personally. He would reign twenty-two years.
Consolidation and Growth
Two enemies loomed high in Tolco’s mind: the Yaxuna traders living on the coast far to the southwest; and the Huatepecs, dwelling much nearer to the north. He reasoned that the nearby Huatepec could be no more stubborn than his enemies to the west.
He was mistaken. Tolco’s first campaign against the Huatepecs ended in the greatest military defeat ever suffered by Zlatan. Marching proudly into the lands of their mountainous neighbor, the Zlatan forces advanced with banners flying, pluma waving overhead, and crisp ranks ready to do battle.
The Huatepecs allowed their ancient enemies to advance into a narrow defile, and here they set upon the Zlatan from ambush. The greater numbers of Tolco’s troops could not come to bear in the restricted terrain, and the vanguard of the army was savagely mauled. Several thousand prisoners fell into the hands of Huatepec, destined for bloody altars, while the rest of the army fled the field.
Stung by the setback, Tolco turned toward Yaxuna as the next source of military glory. For several years he sent armies into that nation, often leading them himself. However, where Tolco had once been an innovative and decisive commander in the field, his new role as Revered Counselor seemed to fill him with hesitancy and caution. He could never force himself to take the risks that, as a general, had once been second nature to him.
Thus, while his expeditions returned with enough prisoners to satiate Sotek, and enough treasure to pay for the campaigns, he was unable to subjugate the far-flung Yaxuna. Finally, after more than a decade of this indecisive campaigning, he resolved to absolve the first blot on his record as Revered Counselor. He commanded a second, even greater invasion of Huatepec.
This time Tolco marched at the head of the army. Scouts preceded the force, especially at those narrow passes so favored by the Huatepecs for ambush; but no ambush was discovered. It seemed as though his force might march all the way to Huatepec City without facing a battle.
But finally they encountered the enemy, drawn up on an open plain a few miles short of their city. The ensuing battle raged for most of the day, with the outnumbered Huatepecs fighting bravely, but slowly falling back before the superior numbers of the attackers. Indeed, it seemed as though Huatepec would, on that day, fall to Zlatan—historians may well ponder what the subsequent history of Aztaltica would have been like, had this come to pass.
However, the capricious intervention of fate, in the form of a sharp, deadly accurate arrow, reversed the tide of history, sending it flowing back to the sea from whence it had come. The arrow penetrated the pluma breastplate of the Revered Counselor, lodging next to Tolco’s heart. Immediately his forces abandoned the attack, gathering around the leader for a two-day vigil while the Huatepecs desperately prepared their city for defense.
The defenses proved superfluous in the event, for ultimately the Revered Counselor of Zlatan perished in the camp of his army. Disheartened, the Zlatan returned to their valley and their city, leaving the Huatepecs, yet again, unconquered in their mountainous retreat.
The pendulum of court selection swung back to the direct line of Ipana III following the death of his great-nephew Tolco. A great-grandson of the mighty one was crowned Tenoch II, sixth Revered Counselor of mighty Zlatan. During the twenty-one years of his reign, Tenoch II added no new lands to the empire. However, trade flourished, and the grip of Zlatan on the lands it held was firmly solidified.
It was Tenoch II who decreed that roadways be laid down that led beyond the valley itself, linking the Atlan and other holdings to the south and west. Way-houses were built along these roads, and regular patrols of Zlatan troops marched along them to keep them safe.
A third road project, destined to reach into the parts of Yaxuna which had been subjugated, was abandoned after the Yaxuna rebelled against their tribute payments. Tenoch sent a mighty army, commanded by his son Chirnal, into the reluctant tributary. Zlatan occupied the entire Cenyuatyl Plain, with Izapa as its froniter, which it controls to this day.
In a campaign of savage determination, Chimal virtually destroyed one of the small cities of the Yaxuna. With this brutal example, the rest of the nation quickly fell into line and the tribute payments resumed. Plus, Chirnal returned with enough prisoners, slaves, and treasure to pay for his expedition many times over.
In celebration, the temple of Sotek was raised to an even greater height, and consecrated by the blood of five thousand sacrifices. The same sandstone pillar discovered by the cleric Tecco was still enshrined in the temple, atop a pyramid that was now the highest in the known Aztaltica—only the temple of Tewahca, in the ruined City of the Gods, was reputedly higher. Yet, since no one had seen that place in centuries, reports of its existence gradually faded to the status of legend.
Expansion of Trade
Chimal ascended to the throne upon the death of his father, and ruled Zlatan for eighteen years of relative calm. His campaigns were limited to punitive forays against the Huatepecs—bloody affairs which served mainly to provide Zlatan and Huatepec both with captives for their altars—and to the expansion of trade. It is the latter area where Chimal made his most significant advances. Not only were all the Yaxuna cities incorporated into the trading network of Zlatan, but some of his most venturesome merchants even journeyed as far as the jungles of Itzapan. For the first time, communication between the Itzapan capital of Tazumal and the city at the heart of Aztaltica became a regular, if not frequent, occurrence.
Chimal’s place on the throne was taken by his own son Totep, but this reign lasted a mere six years. A weak and vacillating ruler, Totep seemed more interested in maintaining a palace full of willing concubines than in governing his nation. His untimely death, it is rumored, was caused by poison administered by his own military leaders. One of these, Zomoc, ascended to the throne that had belonged to his uncle.
The Last Conquest
As if in embarrassment over his predecessor’s failures, Zomoc determined that his reign, to last 15 years, was to be one of unmatched military accomplishment. Seeking likely enemies, yet apparently willing to learn the lessons of history, he passed over the Yaxuna and Huatepec. Instead, his gaze fell to the southeast, toward the barren desert lands of the primitive Axocpan tribe. The Axocopans dwelled in a series of barely fertile valleys along the coast of the Western Ocean. Long reaches of parched dry land divided the Axocopans from their even more distant neighbors in Zlatan.
Yet Zomoc set out to cross these deserts, and for twenty years he made war on the fierce tribes. Villages and towns fell to the marauding army of Zlatan; as often as not, however, the Axocpans burned their own communities rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the hated invader. Zomoc remained in Zlatan during these wars, relying on his chief general, Coyo, to wage the campaigns. Several times Coyo was gone from the valley for five or six years, while occasional messages—carried across the desert at great risk by couriers travelling on foot—reached Zlatan describing his victories or, more often, his frustrations.
Yet finally Coyo returned to the city, having accomplished the ultimate subjugation of the Axocopans: he had burned the temples in each of their surviving towns, and proved to the native people that his persistence was the equal of theirs. He brought a long file of slaves through the desert on his return. However, the Axocopans were a poor people, so he gained little in the way of gold, pluma or hishna magics, or even cacao.
In ultimate reward of Coyo’s magnificent accomplishments, Zomoc treated him to a year of feasting and celebration upon his return. The great general secured a place of honor shared by none in the annals of Aztaltican warfare. Concubines, treasures, and ranks were bestowed upon him. Yet Zomoc was a shrewd and ruthless counsellor, and he understood the import of Coyo’s return and the approbation since given him. Enlisting the aid of the patriarch of Sotek, Zomoc determined to offer to Coyo a singular honor—a fitting capstone to a great lifetime of military achievement.
Thus, at the climax of the celebration, a full year after Coyo’s return, the powerful cleric placed an enchantment over the general. The counsellor sprang to his feet, and in an apparent ecstasy of religious fervor, declared that Sotek wished to honor his general in the only fitting way—the god of war desired Coyo’s own heart on the sacrificial altar!
His mind numbed by the confusion caused by the patriarch’s spell, Coyo also sprang to his feet and shouted aloud his devotion to the god of war. The entire square of Zlatan throbbed with joy as priests carried the great warrior to the pyramids and its temple. There, the patriarch himself performed the rites of devotion.
Thus, Zomoc realized the objective of his most ambitious military campaign, and also removed his closest rival—though there has never been any indication that Coyo would have ever practiced treachery against his Revered Counselor.
Such betrayal of loyalty is not without cost, however, and Zomoc spent his remaining years in an agony of fear. At one time or another he suspected that all his closest wives, his warriors and courtiers, even the troops of his personal guard were plotting against him. His guilt wore on him like a crushing burden, and the steady stream of sacrifices resulting from his hysterical accusations only served to heighten his sense of persecution.
Five years after Coyo’s great victory, Zomoc died in his sleep. His slaves discovered him in the morning, curled into a tight ball, his face distorted by horror. It was said that he died of his dreams.
The lineage of Zlatan’s counsellor branches at this point, for the nobles of the city selected for their next ruler one who was descended only by a distant cousin from the line of Ipana; yet he was the nephew of the general Coyo.
He was Izco, and he ascended to the throne almost exactly one hundred years ago. Izco was tenth in the line of Zlatan Counselors. His reign, and that of his son Izco II, blend into a period of great cultural and artistic growth among the Zlatans. The bonds of trade with Yaxuna were formed more securely than ever, and tribute from the Huacli cities continued to pour into the valley.
Under this reign, Zlatan claimed most of its sacrificial victims through the tribute paid by its subsidiary states; each city being compelled to furnish a number of appropriate men and women each year. The exact number was determined by the city’s size, and by the terms of its occupation by Zlatan. Those cities which had resisted the Zlatan armies furnished a high quota of victims; those which had had the wisdom to negotiate terms of tribute without bloody resistance were treated more leniently.
A new layer was added to the great pyramid, raising it even higher into the sky. To sanctify the construction, as well as to celebrate the passing of the reign from Izco to his son, the relatively modest total of a thousand hearts was offered by the priests of Sotek.
The insufficiency of this offering became immediately manifest, when long slumbering Mount Aztlan, overlooking the valley, erupted. Lava sizzled down its slopes to hiss into the waters of the lake, and waves inundated the island and the lowlands around the valley floor. Fortunately, most of the stone buildings remained standing, and the crops that grew away from the lake were relatively untouched. Nevertheless, hundreds of people perished, and the survivors—harangued by the priests of Sotek, naturally—wasted no time in identifying the nature of their transgression.
Within a month, a massive Feathered War was organized and fought by the cities of the valley. Ten thousand captives, claimed by each other as a result of the ritualized battle, were immediately offered to Sotek in atonement. The temple atop the pyramid was re-consecrated, and Izco II finally ascended to the throne of his father. This exchange, incidentally, also marked the first and only time that a Revered Counselor of Zlatan relinquished his throne while still alive. Izco the Elder spent the rest of his days writing songs and poems, and learning the weaving of pluma while his son oversaw the needs of the empire.
And an empire it was becoming, though perhaps not in such a formal way. The Zlatan left their subject peoples alone, living as they pleased, with a few notable exceptions. The tribute, in treasure and slaves, had to be maintained, of course; and the worship of Sotek was made a prominent—though not necessarily the dominant—feature of the nation’s religious practices.
The Warlike Reign of Pakli
With the passing of Izco II one hundred years ago, the restive nobles of Zlatan turned again toward their warrior heritage, selecting a venerable leader named Pakli to serve as the empire’s Revered Counselor. Pakli immediately set out to make war in a grand way. He launched simultaneous campaigns against the Itzapan to the north, as yet unmolested by the empire, and the Huatepecs.
The costs of the expeditions strained the treasuries of the empire, and this was not offset by the gains. Indeed, the march on Huatepec ended in disaster, as once again the Zlatan army succumbed to ambush and panic. The misfortune was compounded by the fact that the army was too small for the task it had been given; even mighty Zlatan could not afford to divide its army for an attack against two widely separate goals. In the end, little more than half of the men who marched on Huatepec ever made it back to Zlatan.
The drive against the Itzapan progressed little better. For several months the Zlatann army was stalemated. Then, just when a sudden, violent attack punctured the outer rim of the defense at the Battle of Kuklan, and the way was open to Tazumal, word reached the army of the Zlatann defeat at Huatepec.
Revolts erupted across the empire, particularly in the nearby, long-quiet Atlan. Since the Zlatann army in the field depended upon these supposedly friendly Atlan locations for provisions, the situation quickly became dire. The army fell back from the Itzapan lands, and spent three years quelling the rebellions. Though they brought many prisoners back to Zlatan when the men finally returned home, the campaign was widely recognized for the disaster that it, in fact, was. The later years of Pakli’s reign were occupied with the putting down of revolts in occupied Yaxuna--the rest beyond the plains was never conquered--and in far-off Axocopan. Though all of these states were eventually returned to the fold, it was an unsettled and chaotic period. Pakli’s death, after a reign of fourteen years, came as something of a relief to the city’s nobles.
Those worthy gentlemen now determined, after forty years of virtual stagnation in military accomplishment, to select for their Revered Counselor one who had proven his worth on the field of battle. Though the reigns of the Izcos, and to a lesser extent Pakli, had seen great improvements in the cultural accomplishments of Zlatan, and had witnessed tremendous use of pluma in the beautifying of the grand city itself, the leaders of Zlatan could not forget their warrior roots, nor the bloodthirsty god who had guaranteed them their place in the sun.
Thus, the warrior Chalco was appointed to the throne. He was a cousin, some distance removed, of Pakli, and thus maintained the familial bond of the line. However, he was a much more forceful leader than the latter, and capable of great focus of activity.
As if to make up for the lack of military progress during the reigns of his three predecessors, Chalco immediately launched a massive campaign against ever-recalcitrant Huatepec. Bloody battles were waged, and the Zlatans came away with more captives than they had ever previously won against their most hated enemies. Finally the mighty army drove toward the Huatepec capital, and it seemed that they would at last sack that stubborn city and burn its temple.
But before the very gates of the walled city, the Huatepecs rallied around a young warrior named Takamal. This heroic figure had already taken more than a dozen captives during this, his first campaign. Now, with his example—and their wives and children at their backs—the Huatepec warriors stiffened, and fought a battle of legend. They would not break, and finally it was Chalco who was forced to turn back from his ultimate prize. Nevertheless, the number of captives gained for Zlatan numbered more than ten thousand, and this alone guaranteed that the campaign would be considered a famous victory.
Next, Chalco took his huge army, under his personal command, and marched through the Atlan country in an impressive demonstration of his nation’s might. Ordering his subjects from the conquered city-states to join him, he formed a great force with which to attack the Itzapan, this time from the southwest.
His army drove into the Itzapans, rooting them from the towns and villages. Finally, he encircled their main western city, Balul, and set out to reduce it to ashes. Despite a brave resistance, the force of superior numbers prevailed. The ring of defenders cracked, and the Zlatan surged into the city, to burn the temple and to claim the stubborn Itzapans. But the Itzapans, even in defeat, would not surrender. They continued to resist, and after diplomacy won over the Huatepec to launch an unprecedented attack on Zlatan, the Empire had to withdraw its troops, though outside their mountains, the Huatepecs were soon driven back.
With the departure of the invaders, the Itzapans moved back into Balul and rebuilt it even grander than it had been before. Chalco’s reign was also distinguished by several events of a spiritual nature. For one thing, this counsellor bid his traders to journey in search of the original home of the Aztaltican tribe, and especially the unnatural caverns where, according to ancient legend, the cleric Tecco had discovered the pillar of stone that had come to life as the spirit of Sotek.
Upon each merchant’s return to Zlatan, but especially those who had journeyed into the wild lands of the Dog People, he was carefully questioned by the Revered Counselor. Had he heard tales of the ancient barren land? Was there any sign of a massive, unnatural cavern? But always these questions provided only more questions, never the answers Chalco sought.
And as often as not, the missions were fraught with peril for the traders. The nomadic Dog People successfully evaded all attempts to subject them to Zlatan; with no cities and temples to defend, and the whole of the harsh northern desert as their home, the Dog People could observe, harass, and outdistance any army sent from the valley into the harsh and unforgiving clime. Even traders, known often to function as spies for the throne, were not welcomed.
Second, and equally fruitless, Chalco sent many expeditions into the House of Tezca to seek out the City of the Gods, legendary Tewahca. None of these was successful, and indeed many of the exploring parties never even emerged from that waterless waste. There was never a shortage of volunteers, however, for the work had the blessings of the cult of Sotek.
Chalco reigned for twenty-six prosperous years, and upon his death it could be said that the empire was in its strongest shape ever. The last ten years of his rule saw virtually no rebellion among the subject people, even requiring the occasional Feathered War to make sure that a steady supply of captives remained ready for the every-hungry god.
Peak of Empire
Chalco was succeeded by a grandson, Axalt, who—like his ancestor Ipana III, two centuries earlier—ascended to the throne as a mere youth. Nevertheless, Axalt’s keen instincts, his ready wit, and his quick grasp of his lessons convinced his teachers and the nobles of the city that in this young man they had a uniquely qualified individual.
Axalt’s reign was distinguished by frequent forays against the Huatepecs, though none succeeded as well as Chalco’s first attack against the stubborn neighboring nation. During this time, the war chief Takamal, Revered Counselor of Huatepec, demonstrated his full abilities, constantly outfoxing the larger armies sent by Zlatan. Axalt’s most able general in these forays proved to be his son, Nahuatyl. When this shrewd leader led the army, they were still not able to breach the hard Huatepec defenses; yet the troops showed greater toughness in adversity. Never once did Nahuatyl’s army leave the field in a rout.
A great palace was built for Axalt in the sacred plaza of Zlatan, and for a time this was the most splendid dwelling in the valley—though of course, it was still dwarfed by the looming massif of the Great Pyramid. Stone walls surrounded many courtyards and spacious apartments.
But perhaps Axalt’s most splendid accomplishment, and the one that affected most Zlatan in a positive way, was the building of the great aqueduct. This wide stone structure contained two troughs, so that a steady supply of water could be maintained even if one had to be closed for cleaning or repair. It drew water from the lush Cicada spring, on the slopes of Mount Aztlan, overlooking the valley.
The water collected in a great pool near the center of the city, where it was free to all residents. Though the lake water was potable, the springwater was fresh, clear, and in all ways superior The Aqueduct of Axalt became a landmark known to all who visited the valley.
Axalt died while still relatively young, though his reign lasted for twenty-two years. His passing, unsuspected at the time, marked the end of the rise of Zlatan. His son, the warrior, ascended to the throne in his place, to face the doom which would quickly and dramatically overtake his world.
Nahuatyl ascended to the throne of the most powerful empire the Aztaltica had ever known. At the time, he was an accomplished warrior, famed for his good judgement, intelligence, and mature understanding of his world. A handsome, impressive man, he had several devoted wives and a vast court of nobles and advisers. He wielded more power than any man on his continent ever had before
The Grandest Palace
With his borders thus secure, Nahuatyl’s first task was to order the construction of a great palace—one larger, even, than the grand structure built for his father. Thousands of slaves and artisans began to work, and a great part of the sacred plaza was set aside as a site for the huge building. The project took five years, and the completion of the sprawling edifice was commemorated by the sacrifice of five thousand captives.
Even before the completion of his palace, however, Nahuatyl decided that he required a more visible standard of his rank, that even the gods might know his greatness. To this end, he instituted a new practice whenever he held sessions of his court. All who would enter the presence of the Revered Counselor, it was decreed, must first dress themselves in plain garments. Marks of station, such as the golden lip- and ear-plugs favored by Zlatan nobility, or the glowing pluma capes in their brilliant colors and airy lightness, must be covered. Only Nahuatyl, alone in the throneroom, would be dressed in splendor.
Though the edict was the cause of some consternation among the nobles and war leaders, none dared disobey the great ruler. A special attendant was appointed to stand at the door to the throne room, and he was given an ample supply of plain cloaks and mantles to provide for the needs of visitors.
A Decade of Omens
It was also during the construction of the palace that omens began to disturb the citizens of Zlatan. The first of the portents appeared in the second year of Nahuatyl’s reign, ten years ago. A great light, blazing brighter than the brightest star, appeared in the sky over Zlatan, hanging motionless overhead. It appeared every day for twenty days, and then vanished, as mysteriously as it had arrived.
Panicked by this dire portent, and mindful of the fact that no great sacrifice had occurred in over a year, Nahuatyl immediately ordered an expedition against Huatepec, for the purposes of hastily gaining prisoners to place on the altar of Sotek.
But shrewd Takamal, venerable war chief of Huatepec, had lost none of his acuity in the sixty years of his rule. As so often before, he tricked the inexperienced Zlatann army into a hasty advance, and then he cut off the first section of the force with a savage counterattack. Few Huatepec prisoners were gained, while many Zlatanns were marched to the altars of their enemy. In punishment for their failure, Nahuatyl ordered the commanders of his own army to be sacrificed in lieu of the elusive captives.
After the return of this expedition, another portent rocked Zlatan: the temple of Sotek, located high atop the great pyramid in the center of the city, burst into flames, although from no apparent source of combustion. It burned away entirely, leaving the statue of the god within it a molten lump of rock. Fortunately, this was not the original pillar found by Tecco centuries earlier; that holy relic was ensconced within the pyramid itself, buried beneath many feet of solid stone.
The next omen occurred one year after the first, and also was evidenced in the sky over the city. On one summer morning, the citizens of the city awakened to see a deep red sunrise wash across the sky. Unlike the typical colors of dawn, however, the red color deepened during the day, until the sky seemed as if it had been drenched with blood. The bizarre and frightening color lasted only that one day, but the effect was profoundly disturbing to all who beheld it.
Naturally, the clerics of Sotek spent the entire day in arduous execution of any and all who could be dragged to their altars. When the next day dawned normally, the priests pointed out the obvious fact that their gory devotions had returned to sky to its normal shade.
The omens continued, one per year, in a steady cadence of doom. The next year, starting on the exact anniversary of the blood-colored sky, Mount Aztlan rumbled and spewed steam and ash into the air. The mountain belched thus for twelve days, until the sky over the great valley hung heavy with smoke, and the surrounding peaks were obscured behind the thick haze. On the thirteenth day, the mountain fell silent and a breeze sprang up from the east, carrying the soot and grime away.
The following year, another omen seemed to confirm this suspicion, for this premonition came in the form of the Revered Counselor’s own dream. In his sleep he saw an image of a great canoe, sailing shoreward from the Northern Ocean. Great billows of white smoke billowed above the canoe, and Nahuatyl fell himself compelled to kneel upon the sandy shore.
Again the clerics of Sotek pleaded for more captives, more hearts, and Nahuatyl reluctantly agreed. This time, he placed his nephew, Lord Poshtli, in command of the army, and he sent the troops against Huatepec.
Not since Chalco had any Zlatan leader known such success against the Huatepecs. Takamal led his warriors skillfully, but Poshtli refused to be drawn into a trap. He advanced slowly, guarding all flanks of his army, and then withdrew when he felt that he had captured enough prisoners to please the priests. Some Zlatan were lost, naturally, but the expedition on the whole was judged a tremendous success. Poshtli became the Revered Counselor’s most trusted adviser, and his order—the Eagle Knights—was raised to greater status than ever before, despite the traditional ascendency of the more numerous jaguar knights in the empire.
The following year, however, the citizens of the city were stunned to look upward toward the snow-capped summit of Mount Zatal. Overnight, the once-white snowfields at its lofty crest had turned bright crimson, as if they had been drenched with blood. With much wailing and fearful speculation, the priests made their sacrifices, and carefully watched the great mountain. After ten days, the snow returned to its normal color.
A year later, just months ago, Nahuatyl’s second wife gave birth to a son on the day of the expected omen. The child was born dead; more significantly, his skin was a pale white, unlike the dark ruddy color of a healthy Aztaltican infant.
Such was the latest information available from the Itzapan Archives when the Silver Legion advance party aboard the Endurance departed on 30 Hammer, 1512.
Go to Aztaltica Background Report Part II. Nations and Peoples