Chapter I. The Best Laid Plans
On Yuletide Eve, the last day of the 1511th year after the Cataclysm, General Cordell gathered select officers of the Silver Legion at the Winterhaven headquarters. Here he unveiled his plan: send an advance scouting expedition to the legendary southern land of Aztaltica. The mission would determine the feasibility of a major trade or conquest mission to follow. The zealous Chaplain-Colonel Demetrious would lead the expedition, with recently promoted Captain Gelben Fisk as his second. They would sail on Garvyn’s carrack Endurance, timing departure within a one week monthly window to match the Hellstorm’s new moon nadir. Cordell admonished his friend Demetrious not to get carried away with converting the natives to Nuada’s worship, but to focus on intelligence gathering for future alliances and trading partners. Before the expedition could set out, he would need more information on the strange land, and arranged to send two groups of officers on separate missions; one to Liveoak to seek the Videssian rutter charts through the Hellstorm in the possession of Archmage Zenjik Demonslayer, the other to investigate the loss of a Silver Legion supply caravan for the troops fighting the Cortals.
The group investigating the missing supply train consisted of the roguish Southron warrior Lieutenant Gilgareth, Specialist Latna-So, a recently hired priestess of Selune driven from her Yazakh home when the gods turned the plains into a great lake, the redoubtable Southron soldier’s soldier Sergeant-Major Garrant, and Lieutenant Tirol, a new, junior Nuadan cleric. Just as at Black Tower Bridge months earlier, goblinoid raiders had continued to seize various passes, river crossings, and such, allegedly at the Cortals’ behest. General Cordell feared such raiders had captured a wagon train of healing supplies bound for the Legion which had gone missing, presumably near Tavin’s Ferry across the mighty Greyflood River.
After a week’s ride the band reached the crossing, where the river narrowed to only 500 feet, but with a notoriously swift current. There was a heavy raft attached to a rope, big enough to carry a wagon, evidently moved via a massive winch on the raft itself. On the far shore was a large tavern with a tower. Over the sergeant-major’s objections about splitting the small party, Gilgareth and Latna-So decided to scout the area ahead alone, leaving their two heavily armored comrades behind. After ringing a great bell, a human appeared in tower on the far side. He motioned to a hulking grey cloaked figure, which resembled a troll, to get on the raft and winch it over to their side, reassuring them the creature was charmed. The legionnaires warily boarded, but when the troll reached half-way across the torrent, the man in the tower ordered it to attack. The pair tarried only briefly under the onslaught, with Gilgareth swimming for the far side and Latna-So swimming back.
The troll pursued Gil relentlessly through the forest even onto a tavern roof. At one point Gil broke into the tavern and started a fire, but the troll was on to him, and he had to jump out the window and stagger away. After a half-hour of deadly cat and mouse, the tavern had burned down, and the troll broke off pursuit, joining the unknown man and running off to the north. Meanwhile, the rest had to strip off their heavy armor and packs and tie them in bundles preparing to cross the Greyflood. Garrant swam across the icy water with a rope attached, albeit dragged a half-mile downstream. The band reunited and searched the tavern remains, but whatever had been within was consumed in the inferno. The legionnaires headed north, following the troll’s large tracks. After a brief battle in a hill cave, the band slew the bandits, but learned nothing of their purpose or the wagon train.
Returning to the tavern, the band decided to follow some fresh wagon tracks toward Tavos. They caught up with a wagon train run by a mercenary named Samuel Willis, who had been paid to sell the wagons’ contents at Tavos by unknown employers. Willis was a fop, repeatedly singing songs to Shinare, Mistress of Luck, but was deadly serious in not allowing the legionnaires to inspect the wagons’ contents. Gilgareth’s belligerent attitude nearly provoked a fight, but the others eventually calmed him down and won Samuel’s permission to look within. The crates’ markings were burned off, but appeared similar to the Nuadan supplies. Willis reluctantly agreed to discuss the matter with the authorities in Tavos, as the legionnaires had no proof. The caravan fought off a weak attack of hobgoblins along the way, as well as an invisible assassin who tried to slay Garrant, but fled away into the night. Garrant thought the culprit had been the caravan’s cook, seen in the instant before becoming invisible again, and he later stomped off to shake the little one down. However, there was nothing incriminating on the cook or in his wagon, so they let him go.
In a tavern along the way, the entire caravan ate poisoned food, vomiting with various ill effects. Later that night, Garrant suffered a second assassination attempt on his watch. Again, the warrior narrowly survived the assassin’s fearsome death strike, but paid the attacker—the halfling cook again—back in kind with his greatsword. The others awoke and joined the fray, eventually dispatching a Cortalish illusionist and two assassins. It turned out the “cook” was really another caravan member, merely disguised with an illusion to appear as the cook to throw off the scent. In Tavos, it became apparent these were the stolen wagons. They were returned to the Legion after many apologies to the mercenary Samuel Willis for suspecting him and for Gilgareth’s rudeness. Unfortunately, the band had not been able to discover the Cortals’ greater mission or locate any useful intelligence, though General Cordell was pleased they had liberated Tavin’s Ferry, slain three Cortal agents, and recovered the wagon train.
The second group of legionnaires dispatched by General Cordell included Lieutenant Kincade Winkwillow, a halfling diplomat of sorts in exile from the Shires, Lieutenant Radamanthus Kane, a Southron ranger of Arden, and Vogon, a common half-orc soldier with an uncommon prowess in pure destruction. Outside their destination of Liveoak, the band was accosted by a young Vistani gypsy, who brought them to a blind young Vistani women, with a raven atop her shoulder. This was the legendary Raven the Bird-Sighted, and for a considerable fee she told their fortunes:
“You prepare for a long journey yes? Shinare, Mistress of Fortune, smiles upon you, as she does with all the greatest of gamblers. And such a gamble you take; discovery, exploration, conquest. Yes, the fates of whole peoples, of empires--both in the new world and the old--will be decided by the actions of so very few. So it is at such moments of history when the future is pliable, when the bold seek to bend the strands of destiny to their will. And you trust your will to forge this future eh, like a blacksmith pounds raw metal into a fine blade. If it were only that simple.
Where you are bound, all is never at is seems, the cycle of the world turns, and you shall be its engine, in ways you cannot guess at. Today’s friend is tomorrow's enemy, and vice-versa. It is a difficult thing for a simple soldier to understand, one who desires clarity, black and white rather than shades of grey. Yet I somehow think you can distinguish between the hues that most are blind to. Shinare shines on your great gamble nonetheless, though you throw yourselves into fate unknown. But then the game is not hers alone, especially not where you’re bound. Look to the eagle, beware the jaguar, but most of all, fear the serpent hiding in the shadows.”
With this enigmatic fortune, the band travelled into Liveoak, enquiring in the Yawning Dragon pub about the archmage Zenjik Demonslayer, one of the six of Southold’s famed Conclave of Wizards. He was an active, forceful wizard who often wielded a vorpal blade with which he slew the demon lord Drak Venal. His walled estate above town was guarded by various magic riddles and guardians, to weed out any foolish people who sought to waste his time.
The band successfully answered the first logic puzzle posed by the magic gate, and entered a fantastic walled garden, with a large tower at its center. The legionnaires looked into an adjacent garden shed, and immediately the tools animated and floated to attack. After destroying them, the band saw three paths: one through some tilled gardens where scarecrows stood sentinel, another by some statues of dwarves, and third through the center past some beehives. (Rightly) paranoid about the first two paths, they walked down the center, but Vogon trod too close to the beehives, and a swarm attacked. He ran screaming into a pond, and was abruptly attacked by water elementals within, putting up quite a fight.
The trio decided to avoid all distractions and try to get straight into the tower; they were posed a riddle along the way “We come at night without being fetched; We disappear by day without being stolen.” Arkane swiftly answered “Stars.” The band then luckily guessed the answer to a complex question at the tower’s door, and entered the opulent abode. A disembodied voice credited the legionnaires on their persistence, and offered them an audience after they freshened up. The legionnaires felt strangely as if they were being watched everywhere—eyes in paintings and even flames in fireplaces shifting to follow their movements.
They waited in the grand study until Zenjik teleported in. He conceded he had a Videssian rutter guiding passage through the Hellstorm, and offered it to the Silver Legion for 100,000 nobles, payable in one year, 15 Hammer 1513. He claimed it was a modest sum considering the vast riches they would undoubtedly find. To aid in protecting his “investment,” Zenjik gave three rings of reciprocal communication to magically translate languages once exposed to them, to be returned in one year with his fee. Zenjik speculated the Hellstorm contained gates to the Planes of Air and Water, and would likely be infested with elementals. However, he wished them--“pawns aspiring to be kings”--luck in their endeavor, as Aztaltica’s discovery might help the Southron war effort. He abruptly vanished, and the legionnaires left. They later examined the ancient Videssian rutter maps and the following description:
“This rutter, penned in the first year of the reign of Emperor Serverus, is property of the Videssian Empire, not to be duplicated or sold to any other than the children of Donablas upon pain of death. Precise navigation instructions follow. Steer a direct course from Duntranium to the isle known as Hell’s Landing, just outside the raging wall of chaos, the Hellstorm. Apparently, this island exerts some influence on the storm, so close it is to its borders, and the storm is narrowest at this point. Passage elsewhere is possible, but far more dangerous, requiring on the order of twelve hours as opposed to eight at Hell’s Landing. Our ships have sailed a week in either direction and found no breaks in the Hellstorm or other islands. However, the small, barren island is unsuitable for aught but navigation. When the Hellstorm reaches its full extent and fury at the full moon, the island is buffeted within its environs for three days, but is visible at all other days of the moon. Travel across it under the new moon if possible, as the phenomenon is half its greatest size at this time. Travel under the full moon has never been attempted.”
Chapter II. Voyage to Aztaltica
Both parties of legionnaire officers were reunited in Dunthrane, where they made last minute visits to friends and merchants, as the Endurance was loaded. They were introduced to the colorful Captain Garvyn, who regaled them in his seaman’s brogue and introduced them to Brummet, the hulking First Mate from Thonia, and Ralfeo, the shrewd Iron Leaguer Second Mate. Garvyn was confident the voyage would go well, the worst part would be slipping through the Sea Devil infested waters off Minos. But the ship did just that after departing on 30 Hammer. The legionnaires—the chosen officers as well as 20 Silver Phalanx soldiers taken as guards—took some time to get their sea legs, but Chaplain-Colonel Demetrious soon fell ill and remained in his cabin the entire voyage. He was only spotted abovedecks once, at the midnight watch when he excitedly told Lieutenant Kincade “Think of it out there lieutenant, great masses of pagans who have never heard the name of Nuada. And the glory falls to us to spread his name among them."
Sergeant-Major Garrant drove the men in drills, while Garvyn invited Dmitry to try his hand at the ship’s catapults, trying to hit the craggy Fangs of Duncasby as the ship sailed by. It was tradition that two out of three hits meant good luck for the voyage, but the lieutenant only connected with one. To break the monotony of life at sea, Gilgareth and Kincade had a test of balance, a race along the Endurance’s railing, which the halfling handily won. The voyage continued without incident for thirty days until the band reached the edge of the roiling chaos known as the Hellstorm, rising like a great wall as far as the eye could see. However, they were in a panic; the ship must have gone slightly off course, for the isle of Hell’s Landing was nowhere to be seen. Latna-So, skilled in the arts of navigation as a priestess of the goddess of travellers, Selune, soon determined the proper course. On 28 Alturiak, the Endurance dropped anchor off Hell’s Landing, the craggy, windswept island, no more than 400 yards wide, within view of the great maelstrom. The legionnaire officers embarked on a rowboat to investigate.
They saw several prominently chiselled rocks around the island’s perimeter in runes of the great Thonian barbarians, which First Mate Brummet translated as “Olaf the Bold, mighty chieftain of the Bear Clan and greatest of all explorers of Thonia, claims this island for all eternity, on this day, 5 Deepwinter 702.” In a cave they also found badly-chiselled inscription in Videssian, telling of a certain wizard Marcus Tullius Varro, of the 1st Cohort of the 1st Imperial Legion of Ultima Thule, who was shipwrecked there in the third year of Emperor Serverus (the very year of the Cataclysm, 1513 years ago). He had been rotating back from service in the Ultima Thule colony, and was the sole survivor of the shipwreck. A subsequent weak carving a month later told how the ships had stopped passing by, and he believed a great Cataclysm had swallowed up his native Videssos (see full inscription text). The band found his remains covered in sand, as well as a magic Videssian spell-storing dagger inscribed with the Varro family motto, Persta atque Obdura (Be steadfast and endure). Captain Gelben held a test of the Nuadan code to determine whether Kincade or Arkane should get the dagger. Both did badly, but Kincade narrowly prevailed.
The Endurance sailed on and into the Hellstorm, as everyone donned oilskins. The Legion officers manned the deck on guard, while also helping with the rigging. The wind was terrible, making it difficult to walk forward, and occasionally knocking people down. Some of the crew had to be taken belowdecks unconscious. One of the masts was struck by lightning and fell, its remains shoved overboard. After an hour, the ship was attacked by a pair of crackling balls of energy firing magic missiles, and two demonic-looking black cloud-like creatures. The flying opponents circled the ship, then coordinated their attacks by striking the bow and stern at once. After defeating them, the legionnaires spotted a giant, grey dragon-like creature far above, but it mercifully paid them no heed. The ship was again struck by a dozen air elementals, which were almost upon the sailors before Arkane saw them in the roiling storm. But these too were fought off in a desperate battle on the bow in which Arkane and Winkwillow nearly perished. After eight hours in the Hellstorm--which had lived up to its name--the Endurance suddenly passed into clear, sunny skies again. Captain Garvyn mused it was perhaps the first ship to do so in centuries, possibly since the Cataclysm when the Videssian ships stopped coming to Ultima Thule. It may have been winter back in Arik, but the seas had continued to grow warmer, soon resembling summer weather. After another twelve days, a total of 42 days at sea and with only eight days food left, the Endurance made landfall in Aztaltica.
Chapter III. First Contact
On the morning of 13 Ches 1512, the Old World returned to the New. Garvyn took the Endurance up the coast until he found an excellent natural harbor into which a medium-sized river emptied. A 300’ high cliff face stood on one edge of the harbor, where two great human faces were carved into the rock. At the top of the cliff stood a decaying stone pyramid, somewhat like those of the desert nation Hule, but at a steeper angle and stepped, rather than smooth. Behind it, stood a jungle as great as any of the Serpent Isle back in Arik. Chaplain-Colonel Demetrious was still unwell, and gave Captain Gelben command of a shore party of officers to scout the area. After ascending stairs cut into the cliff face, the band was attacked by two great flying beasts, with bodies like lions, and black, leathery wings. These creatures, later described as hakuna, were soon eventually slain, and the legionnaires cautiously ascended the pyramid.
Kneeling at an altar on the flat summit, engrossed in meditation, was a dark-skinned human native, his hair black, very muscular. He wore some sort of garment of feathers and clutched a great wooden club studded with razor-sharp shards of obsidian, the ubiquitous Aztaltican “maca.” A few tense moments followed until Zenjik’s translation rings began working, but he didn’t appear hostile. He revealed himself as the eagle knight Atahuelpa, meditating because he believed his god Qotal had sent him a dream to wait here on this day.
Atahuelpa seemed so secure in his faith and trusting of the strangers. He volunteered to take them to Tazumal, capital city of his nation, Itzapan, not two hours’ walk away. The legionnaires spoke with the crew of the Endurance, who began the long process of making a new mast, while others foraged to replenish food stocks. Sergeant-Major Garrant and the Silver Phalanx troops regretfully stayed to guard the ship as Captain Gelben, Lieutenants Gilgareth, Kincade, Dmitry, Arkane, Specialist Latna-So, and Vogon set off. On the way to the city, Atahuelpa briefly explained the geography of his land, explaining that they had made landfall on the north coast of Aztaltica.
“Itzapan was once a great land, many, many centuries ago. Some of that greatness remains in Far Itzapan, a land to the distant east in the heart of the jungle, or so the elders tell us. Perhaps they do so merely to swell our pride, for we Itzapans are an embattled people, with two fearsome enemies on our borders, the small, warlike kingdom of Huatepec in its mountain fastness to the southwest, and the sweeping empire of Zlatan to the south, which has over the centuries swallowed up kingdom after kingdom, feeding a never ending supply of hearts to sate Sotek, though it is never enough. There is also the nation of Atlan to the southeast, but for decades it has been a mere client state of Zlatan with minimal independence.
For decades we have paid tribute to either Huatepec or mighty Zlatan, after losing the occasional border war. This tribute, in the hearts of our slaves as well as the jade, turquoise, silver, and gold of our mines and the best featherweaving and talonmagic of our artisans may have saved Itzapan from dissolution. But for how long and to what end I wonder.
In the old days, our people only worshipped the gentle god Qotal, but across Aztaltica, people have turned their backs on the Feathered Snake, who brought them life-giving mayz, and the people yield to the god of the Zlatan Empire, Sotek. Our people still hold Qotal chief in their hearts--moreso than elsewhere--but they are practical. They see the need for Sotek, in his aspect as a god of war, as necessary to protect us.”
The city of Tazumal was easily as large as Dunthrane, with most buildings made of adobe, and stone in the city centers; simple designs, but crafted well enough to satisfy a dwarven stonemason. Everywhere the bustle of city life halted as the dark-skinned natives in their simple dress stopped to gawk at the legionnaires, especially their steel arms and armor, for while there was plenty of gold, silver, and bronze, there was no iron or steel to be seen. There were monumental temples to this land’s four gods: the golden feathered snake Qotal, patron of knowledge and goodness; his bride the ever-pregnant Azul, patron of plants, rain, and love; the evil god of war and eater of hearts Sotek, portrayed as a fearsome lizard-like humanoid; and his bride the seductive, flaming Tezca, goddess of the sun and the animals.
Atahuelpa explained they were the only four gods known across all Aztaltica. The legionnaires found this odd, for all humans across Arik knew of the 21 gods; whether Thonian, Southron, or Cortalish, whether they used different names or not. There were clerics in Aztaltica, although apparently of limited power; only the greatest high priests could raise those recently killed back to life, though this was very rarely done. There were no wizards of any sort. There was a different type of magic called pluma, dedicated to Qotal and practiced by featherweavers, but it was generally more subtle and less powerful than wizardry. Likewise there was its opposite, evil hishna, dedicated to Sotek, the magic of tooth and claw, practiced by so-called hishna-shapers. The elite warriors of the culture were either dedicated to Qotal, as eagle knights, or Sotek as Jaguar Knights, and appeared to be paladins of a sort, able to cast some pluma or hishna spells. While the natives’ skill in arms was considerable, their equipment was poor, their armor lacking, and they had but very few enchanted weapons or items.
The legionnaires were led directly to the palace of Revered Counsellor Caxal, ruler of the Itzapan nation. In order to gain audience, they, and all the Itzapan courtiers, had to remove all they wore and don plain white tunics, which they reluctantly did. Within the audience chamber they met their nemesis, High Priest of Sotek, the scheming Maractyl. Like all of his ilk, he had a ritually scarred body and blood-caked hair in a mass of twisted spires. The chief Jaguar Knight, Villac, was also disdainful, though his deputy Tezozomac seemed more inquisitive. Their opposite numbers were the high priest of Qotal, the aged Watil, ever wearing only a simple white tunic, and the head eagle knight and general of the armies, Kultec, a seasoned general of few words. The opulence of the throne room was stunning, as was the Revered Counsellor Caxal himself, wearing a green plumed feather robe, with a great cowl which mystically rose and flared behind his neck. Maractyl of Sotek denounced the newcomers, counseling:
“I have consulted the histories. In the dim past before the great reshaping of Aztaltica fifteen centuries ago, there are stories 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, though they were destroyed by the Shaping of the World, after which our great Itzapan culture finally emerged from bondage to greatness. Surely, these are the same pale ones. Should we treat such invaders with kindness? No, I say we offer their hearts to Sotek”
However, the Revered Counsellor took the legionnaires’ word that they were not conquerors and believed Atahuelpa’s counsel that they were friendly. He granted them sanctuary in a wing of the royal palace, and to honor his guests, gave them cacahuhel, a spiced essence of the cacao plant. The drink, reserved for the elite, was like nothing the legionnaires had ever tasted before, and Caxal intimated the newcomers’ people might pay dearly for it, such was its taste and aphrodisiac effects.
Over the following days, the band explored the city, guided by Atahuelpa. On one occasion, they passed by the daily sacrifice at sundown at the pyramid of Sotek, but Atahuelpa, clearly disgusted by the barbaric practice, hurried them away. They were treated as grand dignitaries, bathing in heated pools, being cleansed with pumice stones, massaged by servants, and given a grand atrium-like wing all to themselves. A net stringed with bells was draped across top of the atrium by the security conscious Atahuelpa, and eagle knights posted at the great barred bronze doors into the wing.
At a ceremonial dinner, the legionnaires were exposed to all manner of new foods, from the staple mayz, and the mildly alcoholic, mead-like octal, to the fiery chilli, which sent Vogon crying out as if poisoned. The final course was revolting however, a leafy green salad served with flecks of congealed blood, which Atahuelpa explained as an honor offered up to nourish the Revered Counsellor and his court. Trying not to retch, the legionnaires managed to eat the vile repast in the interest of diplomacy.
Disaster struck several nights later, after it became apparent the legionnaires were winning the trust of Caxal and his counsellors with their stories and tales of their wondrous devices. It occurred in the early morning hours, when Arkane was on watch in the legionnaires’ quarters as the rest slept. It so happened he had selected the precise place to hide, in a corner amid some wooden crates, that a party of Jaguar Knights chose to infiltrate the quarters in an assassination attempt. Arkane swiftly ran to wake the others as the enemy opened a secret door behind him, and stealthily crept in. But those few seconds were critical, as the legionnaires leapt to arms and a great fight ensued. The enemy was led by none other than Villac himself, leader of the Itzapan Jaguar Knights. Though far more skilled than the legionaries, he was not comparable to the great leaders of the Old World in prowess; apparently the warrior art had not advanced so far here as in strife-ridden Arik.
A fearsome battle ensued, with a web spell filling the area at one point, and an unearthly maca materializing in thin air and attacking, both cast by a cleric of Sotek. One by one the Jaguar Knights fell, as battle raged in the atrium courtyard and combatants climbed atop the tables to gain an advantage. Gelben stood in single combat with Villac, but withstood his rain of attacks until Gilgareth and Kincade laid the warrior low from behind. All fought to the death save Villac’s deputy Tezozomac, who Atahuelpa had described a rare “reasonable” Jaguar Knight. He fled, crying
“What are you, demons, whose arms cannot be penetrated, or are you truly Qotal's messengers returned to Aztaltica. I remember the tales my father, a priest of Qotal, told me before I followed the way of the jaguar. No, it will not end here; I will find who you are, devil or man, and why you have shaken my once solid faith in Sotek!”
As the battle was ending, the eagle knight general Kultec and his retinue entered, aghast that Villac had violated Caxal’s offer of hospitality. But as the legionnaires looted the enemies, they discovered each had a red serpentine mark branded on their chests. Villac noted it was the Viperhand, a strange brotherhood of the most fanatical of Sotek, more common in Zlatan than here in Itzapan. Investigations were made, but Maractyl of Sotek denied knowledge of the assault, calling it the work of a zealous, but independent attacker.
The following day Watil, the wispy-voiced High Priest of Qotal, called for a secret meeting with the legionnaires, where he offered them an alliance. He would champion their trade suit before Caxal and throw the church’s protection behind them in the face of Maractyl of Sotek’s obvious hostility, only if they pressed Caxal to forbid human sacrifices as a condition of trade. Watil seemed politically shrewd, yet heartfelt in his belief that today’s Itzapan, like the Great Itzapan of centuries past, should not offer hearts on the chacmool, the black altar. The legionnaires consulted, worried they might be jeopardizing their scouting mission and taking sides before they fully understood the situation. However, they decided General Cordell would have wanted them to exercise initiative, and the assassination attempt had already forced them to take sides. Qotal seemed a worthy god, even if some of the Aztaltican traditions, such as the blood in the food, were barbaric, and his worshippers should make steady allies.
Caxal agreed to set up trade, accepting the preliminary wares the Endurance had brought, and giving gold, jade, and coral artwork worth some 300,000 nobles in return, a princely sum. A few days after the deal was struck, Chaplain-Colonel Demetrious arrived, having finally recovered from his illness. He seemed disdainful of the “savages,” but agreed their alliance was sound. He would continue talks now, while the legionnaires decided to take up Atahuelpa’s offer to take them to his home city of Balul some 150 miles east, at the other edge of Itzapan.
Chapter IV. The Lost City of Quezta
Their eagle knight guide Atahuelpa led the legionnaires along the main east-west road of Itzapan, of such a quality the Videssians would be proud, though there was an utter lack of beasts of burden. Though Aztalticans knew of the wheel, they had only a few handcarts. Unlike Arik, where monsters of all sorts are fairly common, here such creatures are much rarer. There also appeared to be little crime, as Atahuelpa had no worries about bandits along the way.
Balul was at Itzapan’s eastern frontier, on the edge of the trackless Jungle of Chult. It was a small city, with just two pyramids, to Qotal and Sotek, and a central stone mayor’s palace, with the rest made of adobe. Mayor Suetec was glad to see the adventurers, proud that native son Atahuelpa had “discovered” them, though he vaguely commented the eagle knight had experienced enough tragedy in his life and deserved such an honor. That evening the legionnaires were invited to a feast at the temple of Qotal, where the local high priest, the friendly, rotund Dolon, engaged them in conversation. Leaving the feast, the local high priest of Sotek, Huapec, and a retinue of Jaguar Knights and guards confronted them, hurling insults and warnings that stopping the sacrifices would bring a great curse on the land. He warned that some villages had tried such things before, but some had been struck by plague, or were even wiped out entirely by mysterious forces. As Dolon’s eagle knights began gathering, Huapec gave a last threat and left, “Your gods are far from home, and Sotek rules here, gaining every day over Qotal. Mark my words, one way or another, Sotek will be sated. There will be blood.”
After exploring Balul and becoming accustomed to the slow pace of provincial life outside the capital, Atahuelpa asked the legionnaires to visit an ancient featherweaver who lived alone in a pyramid several days march in the jungle. It was said Uxma could only be found when he wanted to, and Atahuelpa had gone to him once, as had his father before him, to gain guidance in a time when he had lost his way in life. After a few minor encounters with jungle beasts, the band arrived, as Atahuelpa remained outside.
They found the aged featherweaver amid a room atop the pyramid filled with wondrous works of art. He was working on a project which seemed almost alive with color as the legionnaires entered, but then was a simple work of art again. Uxma dissmisively said it was only a quarter done, and he would have to work hard to complete it in several months’ time. He exchanged conversation, though he deflected most questions and asked many of his own, mostly of motives and attitudes toward Qotal. He studied them all carefully, tarrying momentarily when surveying Arkane. However, Uxma momentarily flared with anger when the ranger pressed him with questions:
“You think I owe you something. You think you need to come away with something tangible? How selfish? Perhaps the greatest consequence of this visit is that I know more about you. I have a theory about you newcomers. The land you come from is savage, with everyone fighting everyone, is it not? As a result, you are more battle-hardened and ruthless. Sotek would like your land; think about that before deciding who the savage is. The people of Aztaltica have long been spared this sadness, they are not prepared for you. If the lives of the Aztalticans were a little harder earlier, perhaps it would not be so hard in the days to come. For a great war is coming, the cycle of time turns again. You are so certain of your destiny aren't you. If you only knew. Leave me. I am saddened, knowing what must come. Yet know that you have not seen the last of Uxma, disciples of the Silver Legion.”
Upon their return to the Balul, the legionaries discovered all the priests and guards in town had been called to Tazumal for a great conference to determine the fate of the newcomers. The legionnaires’ enemy at court, Maractyl of Sotek, had orchestrated the process. Back in the capital, Chaplain-Colonel Demtrious had dispatched a young scout, Lieutenant Brisbane, to bring word to them in Balul that he believed he had the matter well in hand. To complicate matters, several Balul farmers began contracting strange diseases, and people were whispering that the newcomers might be responsible after stopping the sacrifices. Latna-So was able to tend to the injured, though they would need supervision. Kane and Vogon remained to help and protect her, while the rest of the legionnaires—Gelben, Gilgareth, Kincade, Dmitry, the newly arrived Lieutenant Brisbane--went with Atahuelpa, exploring another wonder of the jungle but two days’ march from Balul.
They were bound for the lost city of Quetza, a forbidden place where new eagle and Jaguar Knights come as a rite of passage to meditate amid its past glory. It was an ancient, overgrown city, but hishna magic pulsed strongly through it, attracting all manner of rare strange beasts “like a moth to a flame.” On the way, a crocodile struck and dragged one of the legionnaires deep into the swamp. Kincade swiftly swum down and slew the beast with the magic of his enchanted Videssian dagger. The group also slew a herd of itzamti, great lizards whose meat is prized, but which have fearsome tempers. They dined well that night, but the following day Atahuelpa had to remain at the camp, respecting the taboo on entering the city. Evading some howler monkeys and the roar great apes, the band reached the edge of the old city, covered over and in decay.
They threw a rope across a stream and climbed over, though Dmitry momentarily fell into the waters and was assaulted by a swarm of fierce pirhana fish. On the other side, the band was set upon by a great shimmering panther with two tentacles emerging from its back; a displacer beast like the ones back in Arik. The beast fought for a time and then bounded out of sight. The legionnaires decided to bypass the city itself and head straight for the great stepped pyramid at its center. There were many serpentine carvings present, much like those dedicated to Sotek, but many of the reliefs had been hacked away untold centuries ago. Throughout the edifice, such vandalism was evident. As the band entered the darkness of the pyramid’s interior, their torches seemed to flicker and dim and the darkness became oppressive and palpable; they might be newcomers, but they too felt the hishna power within.
Barely ten feet inside, a great pit opened up. Gelben swiftly jumped to the side, but Gilgareth plummeted into the inky water below. Only it wasn’t just water; the mass of a great black pudding battered him mercilessly, instantly eating away his backpack and cloak of elvenkind. He’d just managed to climb out when he was battered into unconsciousness, at the same time as the wounded displacer beast attacked. As Gelben’s finely-crafted plate armor disintegrated in a single swipe, there appeared to be few options, for the pudding would melt any weapons which hit it. Yet the beast recoiled and clambered back sizzling into the pit when Dmitry launched a fireball at it, also felling the displacer beast. The adventurers designed a trap, putting the displacer beast’s corpse at the edge of the pit—pouring flasks of oil poured all around it--and triggering the pit to open. The pudding climbed out, dissolved the displacer beast, but was soon engulfed in flames and destroyed. Luckily, Gil’s weapons, dropped in the bottom of the pit as he fell unconscious, were still intact. The band breathed a sigh of relief it was only a magic cloak, backpack, and plate armor that had been lost in this potentially costly encounter.
The band very carefully proceeded past an antechamber where a statue of Sotek had been vandalized, a storeroom, and an apparent bathing chamber which opened into a large temple, again with a statue of Sotek at its end. The stone pews were toppled and the room appeared to have been looted long ago. Climbing stairs to the second level, the legionnaires beheld a series of stone bookcases containing row after row of bronze disks with strange symbols on them. As they moved to investigate, another of the displacer beasts attacked with its tentacles from behind some rubble, clearly waiting in ambush. As the soldiers moved in, the beast retreated, as three others emerged around the legionnaires’ flanks. The battle was hard-fought, as the band called upon all their spells to drive the creatures back. The last two beasts fled up the stairs, the legionnaires hot on their heels. The pair waited in a room consisting of a five foot ledge encircling a 10 foot deep pit. The pit itself was empty, but its walls had all manner of spikes and its floor was sand. One of the beasts nearly pushed Gilgareth into the pit, but he held on at the edge as it was slain. Wary but curious, Gelben went down into the pit, and a strange lizard-like humanoid warrior appeared in bone armor, wielding a large bronze battle-axe. However they soon realized it was an illusion, no doubt a training aid in a small battle “arena.” At this point, the band had tapped all its healing and most other spells and decided to walk back to Atahuelpa’s camp to spend the night before another day of exploration.
The next day, they re-entered the pyramid and pressed on, passing ancient armories of bronze weapons and alchemical laboratories—all looted. One notable room was undisturbed, as it consisted of a great pool, so the murals had not been vandalized. They depicted this very city of Quezta, just being completed by various types of reptilian humanoid creatures. There were the lithe, sly-looking little ones, with light green skin and an orange or occasionally red crest. There were much more muscular, fearsome looking ones, just bigger than a man, of glistening green or bluish hide with black bony outcroppings. There were a few very large creatures, giants among the rest, with green glistening skin, long tails, and huge double headed axes. Unique in the scene was a squat, toad-like creature, sitting atop the pyramid on a throne of gold and gems. Its skin was greenish and wrinkled with age, and its bulbous eyes belied a malevolent wisdom, as it gestured with a golden sceptre.
Musing on the discovery, the band soon stumbled into a deadly trap. When they climbed the stairs to the next level and the doors locked, while the ceiling started to descend. The party had minutes to live, as Gelben desperately started pounding on the doors with his mace, and the rest searched for secret doors. As Dmitry proudly later pointed out, it was not the three rogues, but the mage who found the secret door which led them to safety. This level resembled an ancient battleground, walls scorched and buckled with spells and armor, bones, and arms littering the corridor floor. The dust revealed none had penetrated to this part of the pyramid for countless ages. As they rounded a corner, two of the suits of armor animated and attacked, also firing magic missile from their glowing eyes. One dimension doored away as its comrade fell, and when the band opened the door, he stood there, not ten feet away. Gilgareth charged, and fell into another pit trap right before the armor, landing atop another such construct. At one point, three legionnaires had jumped down into the pit to finish off the construct, and Gil soon figured out how to disable the pit mechanism so all could climb out.
The next room held five of the armored creatures, as well as a larger one wielding a longsword bathed in magical flame. Dmitry instantly cast a fireball, scorching them all, while Kincade quickly closed the door. However, one of the armored constructs ripped it back open, and a corridor fight ensued, with some of the constructs using spears from the second rank back and two arrow slits opening as another hidden two poured crossbow fire in. The battle was hard fought, as Gelben taunted the ancient helmed horror, whose armor bore the seal of the Videssian Empire back in Arik, and another construct used a magic circlet to fire a burst of searing energy into the legionnaires. In the close quarters fighting, the constructs dimension doored behind the legionnaires to flank them. Kincade went down, Dmitry was a death’s door, but in the end, the Legion prevailed, again almost exhausted despite it still being morning. Nonetheless, they claimed the magic treasure and pressed on up the stairs to what should be the final level. They faced a great bronze door with all manner of magical writings around it. However, the writings were not in any alien tongue, but Videssian, the Old World’s language of diplomacy at which Lieutenant Kincade excelled:
"We the cabalists of the 9th Legion of Magistania, here fought and dispatched the fell minions of Sotek, sacking the great city of Quetza, ten weeks after the invasion fleet made landfall in the fifth year of Emperor Otho's Reign (which Kincade recognized as 202 B.C., the year of the initial Videssian invasion 1714 years ago). Within this sanctum sanctorum we imprisoned the greatest of the Saurians--the most elite of their wizard-priest caste--so powerful it was that we doubted our ability to dispatch it. May none who read this try to break these powerful wards and disturb the slumber of this creature, accursed of Donablas."
The band puzzled on this information, realizing the constructs they had destroyed had been meant to prevent any from releasing the creature bound within. The band feared they might have cleared the way for others to release the imprisoned creature, but were too weak at the moment to do anything but return to camp. They decided not to disturb the door, and left to discuss options with the rest of the party back in Balul.
Chapter V. The Battle for Balul
Latna-So and the others had healed the ailing farmers, suspecting the diseases had been magically caused by the priests of Sotek before they were recalled to the capital. After healing, the band decided to return to Quezta, as they had only investigated the pyramid and not looked at the lost city itself. However, after a day’s march, their camp was attacked just after they went to sleep. It was a scouting party of a dozen small reptilian humanoid creatures, obviously intelligent, with a shaman casting wizard spells—unknown among the human population of Aztaltica—and using bronze weapons. Kane, reinforcing his eagle-eyed reputation for spotting enemy ambushes, was on watch, and gave the legionnaires sufficient warning to wake and slay the scouts. However, further in the jungle the tread of an army was heard approaching; perhaps one to two hundred strong on investigation, marching toward Balul. As the party quickly packed up their camp and made a forced march through the night, a shocked Atahuelpa told what he knew of these strange creatures, which he termed “El Saurim”:
“So they are not legends after all. When I was but an initiate, an old eagle-knight, told me in the sweat lodge in whispered tones of how he faced such beasts in his youth. He was at the outlying village of Gundrac, where one of the Jaguar Knights had been convicted of a crime against an innocent worshipper of Qotal; the village headman had the entire contingent of Jaguar Knights expelled. A week later, the beasts came in the night. Methodically, without emotion—no hatred or fear--they slaughtered the inhabitants. It was not war, it was murder. This old one and a handful of eagle knights and militia made a stand at the foot of the pyramid of Qotal. But there were too many.
He claimed to have seen three types of El Saurim. I recognize these small ones which we slew as Skinks, weak compared to their larger brethren the Saurus, and to the giants of their ilk, the Kroxigor. The eagle night escaped by changing form into an eagle, but his brain was addled by the experience, and few believed him. When an Itzapan war party reached Gundrac, it was deserted. There were signs of battle, but all bodies—both human and El Saurim--were gone. The priests of Sotek claimed it was the god’s revenge for driving out the Jaguar Knights, and denounced the eagle knight survivor for deserting his post. Among those who believe in them, El Saurim are thought to live in the deep jungle. Only a couple times in the space of my lifetime have attacks been attributed to them on outlying villages, though it has never been proved.”
Kincade told Atahuelpa his theory that the priests and knights in Balul had been called away—perhaps by worshippers of Sotek—to leave the city open to attack by these “El Saurim.” Atahuelpa grimly said he would lead the handful of guardsman left in defence of the town, buying time for the rest of the population to get a head start marching away. But to a one, the legionnaires pledged they would remain as well and defend the city. They marched at quick pace despite their tiredness that night, arriving a mere two hours before dawn.
The people were swiftly roused, and Mayor Suetec took seven of the fourteen watchmen to guard them on the road. The other six watchmen, Atahuelpa, and the seven legionnaires stayed, preparing the defences. They prepared to make their stand atop the Mayor’s Palace, a sturdy stone building, taking cover behind a low wall running around its roof. On the ground level, the legionnaires put a massive blockade behind a side door, while leaving the main door open and stationing the best fighters there, hoping to negate the enemies’ numbers in the narrow breach. There was also a secret passage leading underground to a house across the street, which they decided to keep for a last resort retreat. The band set up great bonfires on each of the three approach streets, and waited for the enemy to come. Atahuelpa addressed the guardsmen in Aztaltican to ward off their mounting fear, while Captain Gelben gave an inspiring speech in Southron recalling Saint Uther’s victory against all odds against the demon lord Kahabros.
In the hour before dawn, they came silently, not with a whooping war cry as most Aztalticans fight. There was something beautiful as well as menacing in their advance--wave after wave of hardened, muscular reptilian bodies. Their bronze weapons glinted in the moonlight, as did their red, inhuman eyes. A cloud of small, darting skink skirmishers was in the lead, followed by more dense bodies of skinks, with a giant Kroxigor in their midst, then a heavily armored Saurus host barely visible in the rear. First two waves of skinks assaulted from two directions, coming under heavy arrow and spellfire, with the mighty Kroxigor battering and nearly destroying one side door before being slain. The creatures fought without frenzy or fear to the last, as a pause descended.
In the next wave, the skinks were accompanied by saurus, coming straight up the middle as well as toward the weakened side door. Overhead, a great flying creature swooped in and dropped a boulder, though it just missed the rooftop defenders pouring arrowfire below. A web from Dmitry slowed many of the beasts, while Atahuelpa used his three pluma feathertokens of Qotal to fire beams of searing light into their midst. Enemy casualties mounted as they gathered just outside the main doorway, trying to fight their way in. Dmitry distracted some for a time with an illusion of human reinforcements, as all desperately wished they had more area-effect spells to diminish the enemy horde.
Then some skinks ran into the building across the street where the secret passage was, leading the legionnaires to fear the enemy would come in through the passage. Instead, they climbed on top to get better shots with the poisoned arrows, while shamans cast magic missiles across the way. They were organized and fought as well as any military unit back in Southold, but died in their dozens throwing themselves against such a well-fortified position. Sergeants among their ranks threw javelins of lighting, while some drank healing potions. Then, the defences reached the saturation point.
The skinks abandoned their firing at the defenders on the second level and clambered up the wall en masse. At the same time, a mighty Kroxigor split the side door in half. Amid the chaos and cries from within, a third host of skinks with another Kroxigor was seen approaching from the opposite flank; soon the enemy would be on three sides. One after another the watchmen fell to the poisoned skink arrows, and now blades. Lieutenant Gilgareth made the call; pull back from the roof and make the last stand in the main room. Kincade ran as fast as his halfling legs would carry him, just making it through and closing the roof trap door as the Kroxigor bounded up, yelling “The roof is clear … of allies.” Within, the situation was grim, the little skinks were tumbling around the defenders and encircling them; at one point there were a dozen behind the legionnaires’ thin line. Then the Kroxigor broke through the ceiling door, laying into Gilgareth, but falling himself to focused fire. The enemy was now pouring in through the stairs and both doors; Kane was at death’s door, Latna-So went down, and was healed, even the redoubtable Vogon could barely stand, such were his wounds from engaging a skilled albino saurus lieutenant. Then a surprisingly powerful skink lieutenant downed the weakened Gilgareth, very nearly killing him. He did kill Kincade in his next swing, dispensing a great shock of electricity with his magic bronze scimitar.
It was a culminating moment when the battle could have gone either way, but the enemy tide was spent, their ranks thinned. The legionnaires rallied, surrounding and killing the beasts, who fought to the last. The healing was gone as the dawn peaked over the horizon, Kincade was dead, as were five of the seven guardsmen. But they counted ninety reptilian bodies on the field. It was the fiercest battle any of the legionnaires had ever fought. Atahuelpa addressed them, leaning wearily on his bloody maca,
“Brothers--for after this day, be you born of foreign demons or creatures from the heavens, you are my brothers--we have prevailed. I’m sure your sorceries, stratagems, and powerful weapons tipped the balance, for alone, the rest of us would have swiftly perished. Yes, you upset the balance of whoever sent El-Saurim here, and I certainly have my suspicions. You have made many allies today—especially at court in Tazumal--but I fear you have made new enemies as well.”
The wearied legionnaires began the march for Tazumal the next day, judging it foolhardy to pursue their previous plan of returning to the lost city of Quezta. They returned to find news of the “Battle for Balul” had passed before them, and the great debate Maractyl of Sotek called had backfired. Revered Counselor Caxal had decided to offer alliance to the newcomers. A jarring note to this military and diplomatic triumph was Chaplain-Colonel Demetrious’ behavior on their return, so dismissive of the Aztalticans; “I shall personally shear the bloody locks from their priests of Sotek, and if they refuse, it shall be their heads I shall sever. As for the devotees of this pacifist god Qotal, we can leave them be, as they are not a military threat—but they too must acknowledge the might of Nuada and raise their heathen voices in praise of him.”
The legionnaires had a private audience with Revered Counsellor Caxal, who offered the Legion the hand of friendship and sanctuary in Itzapan, as well as open and preferential trade, which they agreed to. Just then, an aide said the envoys from the Zlatan Empire had arrived and demanded an audience. Slyly smiling, Caxal said he believed his new “allies” should see the tyranny of the Zlatan Empire. The two natives, with a redder skin, typical of the Zlatan, demanded this season's tribute—one hundred slaves, ten tons of cacao beans, fifty of Itzapan’s greatest works of featherweaving, and fifty thousand quills of gold. It was a small price to pay, they added for Zlatan’s mighty armies not to turn their attention to Itzapan. With a smile, Caxal replied.
“We shall pay all but the slaves; I know they are bound for Sotek's chacmool in Zlatan, and we no longer indulge in such practices, and will not surrender our slaves to do the same. Our great pale allies from across the seas have so advised us, and we have taken their counsel, for they have mighty weapons which can cut jaguar armor asunder with ease, and magicks the likes of which have never been seen. Nonetheless, we will add another five tons of cocoa beans in their stead.”
The stunned envoys claimed their Revered Counsellor Nahuatyl and the mightiest High Priest of Sotek in all Aztaltica, Garkuna, would be angry, as sating the eater of hearts was their principal concern. The legionnaires affirmed they were allies of Itzapan, but spoke carefully to make their presence seem trade-related, rather then military. With that, the legionnaires returned to the Endurance after 47 days on the mainland. Captain Garvyn’s old carrack was still at anchor under the Twin Visages cliff beside the old pyramid. Atahuelpa made his goodbyes, knowing he would meet his brothers from the sea again. Sergeant-Major Garrant was waiting for them, reflecting the common view of the Aztalticans of a benign superiority:
“Nuada's Beard! We thought you’d never return, from this savage land. You lot have had all the fun while I’ve been stuck minding the ship. Still, wait until you see the gold these foolish Ticans have given us in exchange for the most minor trinkets, mirrors and such. Haven't you heard, the legionnaires call all the natives Ticans, they seem to like to use it in their unpronounceable words, "tica … tica." They may have foolish names, but we’ll all be rich on their gold, richer still when the Legion returns in force. We can bring civilization to these poor savages and make unheard of profits at the same time. All in a good day's soldiering I say.”
Chapter VI. Epilogue
The return voyage was surprisingly uneventful, even through the Hellstorm. On 13 Kythorn, with spring almost turning into summer after being away 131 days, they pulled up back to quay in Dunthrane they had left. Lady Ailea had scried the ship since it crossed the Hellstorm, so an honor guard was waiting for them. Immediately, the elven wizard cast a geas spell upon everyone to help keep the secret of Aztaltica from getting out before the main expedition would be ready. General Cordell apologized for the indignity, but explained it was necessary as the Cortals would pay dearly to get such information, and this would protect the secret even under torture. The wording of the geas was:
“You shall not divulge any information of your voyage to Aztaltica, or of any aspect of this land, to anyone except Legion and Endurance crew members who went on the initial voyage, or Legion officers of Captain rank or above. You will take all security precautions when even discussing this land or protecting evidence of its existence. Only direct permission from General Cordell will allow relaxation of these restrictions. If compromise of the secret is suspected, the offender will be captured and covertly returned to Winterhaven to determine course of action, slain if capture is impossible. This spell shall cease effect the day the ship crosses the Hellstorm on the main voyage. Attempting to remove the geas by any means, active or passive, is forbidden, and any such traitor to Southold will be hunted down and obliterated.”
Back in the safety of Legion headquarters at Winterhaven, General Cordell praised their actions, saying the initial haul of 300,000 nobles worth—all that would fit in the laden ship—would pay the initial costs of Zenjik’s rutter, Garvyn’s cut, and some of the Legion’s recent feverish recruiting bonuses to get it to full strength. He asked their opinion of various performances of the officers, and all believed Kincade, as diplomat, in the many fights, and by his sacrifice of death in battle, had distinguished himself. General Cordell awarded him the rank of Captain, the first such honor given to a halfling in the Silver Legion. He would give a great amount of the treasure to the handful of Legion officers who had gone on the voyage; 15,000 nobles for the Captains and 10,000 for the lieutenants and others; a princely sum.
He solicited their opinion on courses of action, as always, listening intently and asking questions. Dmitry noted the Aztalticans were far from savages, even though not as tactically developed or with as advanced arms or magic. However, it was clear conquest, rather than simple trade, was what Cordell had in mind, and there was no dissuading him as he explained his vision:
“Now my officers, charge your glasses, for I have a final toast to make. I believe we are on the threshold of the greatest event since the Cataclysm, where the Old World shall conquer the New. These Aztalticans are no match for our weapons, training, or magic. We shall cut down those who resist before us as wheat--or more properly mayz--before the scythe. How can mere barbarians who offer hearts to snake gods stop the greatest mercenary army in Arik--nay in all Grund?
I see the conquests we shall make as shaping the New World in the mold of the Old, tearing down the savagery and replacing it with enlightened civilization. They do not know the gift we shall bring to them, but we shall rule them with Tyr’s justice, and indeed, Adora’s mercy, once they have submitted to Nuada’s just war. I see us all becoming very rich—landowners all in this new world, I so hate our petty nobility in Southold, so this will be the ultimate revenge, to establish our own nobility by the greatness of our actions, not the accident of birth.
We shall send eight hundred troops against the countless thousands of their savages, and we shall prevail. I see not only riches for us and civilization for the New World, but victory in the Old, for bolstered by such riches, Southold shall surely defeat the masses of the Banite foe in the Cortalish Empire. Yes, and I see us planting the standard of New Southold, in Aztaltica, a colony run by us, in the name of the crown. I trust you share this vision my officers, (he raises a toast) to New Southold!”
Go to next section of the Log, Interlude I: Home and Away