On 10 Eleint 1512, General Cordell called all the Legion officers to a council of war at Winterhaven headquarters, and there he unveiled his plan for invading Aztaltica. Fifteen ships would make up the fleet; the Endurance as the flagship, the Redoubtable with the Legion’s horses, then the troop ships Formidable, Saint Uther, Revenge, Sovereign, Victory, King Harold, Defiance, and Athelstan, and finally the supply ships Thunderer, Saint Cuthbert, Baldran, Intrepid, Colossus, and Blacksword. Five additional Royal cogs were to accompany the fleet as far as Hell’s Landing, the island just outside the Hellstorm, to create a supply depot there for future expeditions. In addition to the legion, supplies, and trade goods, the fleet would bring equipment for a smithy and the beginnings of a shipyard at the newly-named Port Nuada.
Cordell gave the floor to Spymaster-Captain Kincade Winkwillow, who described the Legion’s deception plan, trying to preserve the secret of the lost continent and its riches as long as possible. The Legion would use various methods to suggest it was mounting an expedition to Thonia, to throw any spies off the scent. Further, the legionnaires would board the ships in the dead of night in plain clothes to avoid attention.
The General was pleased with the plan, and then moved to Captain Gelben to discuss strategies for conquest, referring to a rough map of Aztaltica. He discussed various options, including first striking the weak Zlatan client state of Atlan, or turning against the mountain warrior state of Huatepec, or simply marching straight south to Zlatan. In the end they decided to follow the Nuadan’s advice and ignore Atlan, try to win over Huatepec to the Legion’s side, failing that, ignore them and press on to Zlatan.
Cordell introduced the sly Assessor Slevak, representative of the expedition’s creditors. Paymaster Hieronymous noted the Legion had heavily indebted itself to pay for the expedition, and if it was not a success, such creditors, mainly the Crown and the Sashenstar Merchant House of Bywater, but also some unsavory lenders in Alcester, would hound the officers to the ends of Arik. At Cordell’s request, the Paymaster reluctantly agreed to use the remaining funds to swiftly purchase an enchanted Huler flying carpet for aerial reconnaissance and special missions.
The actual departure took place in the early hours of that night, attracting some attention from a guardsman who Kincade easily fobbed off. On the second day, the fleet passed the Fangs of Duncasby and again Dimitry lined up his catapult shots at the rock formations, hoping for an auspicious two of three hits. The crew placed their bets with Sergeant-Major Garrant, and more than a few were disappointed when only one struck home.
A few nights later, the ship was attacked by a war party of Sea Devils—Sahuagin—who climbed aboard and sought to take over. Captain Winkwillow and Lieutenant Arkane were on watch, and soon sounded the ship’s alarm bell; 25 of the beasts armed with tridents and nets climbed aboard, while 5 remained in the water using their heavy crossbows. They were led by a Sea Devil noble with four arms, accompanied by a shaman. In the first chaotic moments, a dozen crew were slain, but Kincade and Arkane managed to hold the quarterdeck until reinforcements arrived from below. Most of the officers quickly awoke and ran on deck, though Gelben hadn’t time to don his armor. The fray was over in minutes, with the survivors slipping back into the sea, leaving their leaders’ corpses behind. Among the loot was a Trident +2 of Fish Command ,a blue alabaster Scarab of Minor Protection, and a few potions.
On the 30th day at sea, the fleet made landfall at Hell’s Landing as the enormity of the Hellstorm brewed in the distance beyond. The ships tarried for two days to allow the non-sailors some time on terra firma while the five royal cogs unloaded their supplies to create the unmanned depot. The supply crates were mainly stored in the many caves among the craggy isle. Basil the ship’s cook also made some welcome shellfish stew from the only known animal inhabitants of the isle.
The voyage through the Hellstorm seemed worse this second time around, even though the passage had been timed to match the new moon when its intensity was lowest. The crew, in their oilskins, struggled to keep control of the ship, as the officer lookouts noted four globes of energy, like last time, circling around the ship. The globes soon attacked, launching bolts of energy, but were eventually brought down by spellfire, arrows being practically useless at range in the gale. After seven hours of passage, a band of water elementals began slowing the ship from below, but were soon discouraged by Dimitry’s spells from interfering further.
After eight hours, the fleet emerged into normal seas, but missing the Blacksword supply vessel, presumably capsized in the storm. The expedition would still have enough supplies, though the loss reduced the food supply from 50 to 40 days on normal rations; so the daily food was cut in half. They made landfall on 22 Marpenoth after 42 days sailing, just in time as morale was flagging.
The fleet soon moored at the new Nuada’s Port—previously a pristine lagoon. But now there was a motte and bailey castle of wood with the blue and gold cross of Southold flying overhead and a makeshift dock under construction by natives. Colonel-Chaplain Demetrious was there, wearing his plate armor, and directing the workers from a beautifully decorated litter. He and the 20 legionnaires left behind now wore all manner of native tattoos on their faces. General Cordell led the first boat ashore, embracing his old friend, who dubbed the primitive castle Fort Cordell.
Chapter II. Diplomacy
Demetrious explained that the past few months had seen relations strain with the Itzapan, particularly as the High Priest of Sotek, Maractyl and the Jaguar Knight Villac—raised from the dead since his attack on the legionnaires on their past visit—were plotting against them. He also explained how he had created a new unit of native infantry under Southron officers, led by Captain Guerrero, loyal converts to Nuada all. These tattooed, fearsome fighters had been well-trained, and had already acquitted themselves well in some border skirmishes on the frontier with the Zlatan Empire. Apparently, the Revered Counselor of that Empire, Nahuatyl, threatened war unless the flow of human sacrifices resumed in Itzapan, and Revered Counselor Caxal was very anxious for the Silver Legion to return in force.
General Cordell dispatched what he had started calling his “Special Missions Unit”--Captains Winkwillow and Gelben, Lieutenants Arkane, Gilgareth, Specialist Latna-So, and Vogon (recently promoted to Sergeant) to serve as emissaries and solidify the alliance with Itzapan, as the Legion would require two weeks’ preparation to march on Zlatan. That evening their friend Atahuelpa the eagle knight visited the encampment, almost turned away as some “foolish Tican” (the Legion slang popular for the natives). He greet their return enthusiastically, complaining Demetrious had worn out his welcome with his zealous ways, and that his new Nuadan Irregulars were feared fanatics.
The next day the band entered the Itzapan capital Tazumal and went straight to meet with Revered Counsellor Caxal. He expressed his dismay at their return claiming: “Zlatan readies for war, and I hear you have but 1,000 troops landed here. It is not enough. I have done much-stop the sacrifices and thrown my people into doubt and discord, what now can you do, for they as do I, need a sign we have not misplaced our trust." The gaunt Maractyl of Sotek counseled against allying with the pale ones and resuming sacrifices. But Caxal rebuffed him, so priest tried a different tact, asking “What better way to decide the matter than a blessed and sacred match on the ball court, where the gods themselves have made many of their decisions in the Heavens.” And Caxal agreed to this, full alliance if the newcomers won, and banishment if they did not.
Atahuelpa seemed disturbed, as the Ball Game was a specialized sport one could not learn overnight, but tried his best to teach the officers on the city’s main court. This structure consisted of the flat court and its two facing walls of stone. Each of these side walls had a ring placed midway between its ends, 15’ off the ground. The ends of the court were open. There were great stands where thousands could watch, as well as three towers where the city’s notables could view from. The game was played with a hard, round ball perhaps 6” in diameter made from the congealed product of the rubber tree. The object was to knock the ball across the opposing team’s goal line by hitting it with the knee, elbow, hip, shoulder, or head—not the hands nor the feet. Victory went to the side which scored three goals, though if the ball were struck through the hoops on the side of the court, the game was instantly won.
On the day of the game, the referees first cast their clerical detect magic, though their spells apparently could not detect the wizard magic which did not exist in Aztaltica. Thus Dimitry loaded the band up with strength and dexterity enhancing spells, and then watched the match from the sidelines. The Jaguar Knight Villac led the opposing team, all skilled ball players. With little hope of outmatching the trained Jaguar Knight team in game skill, the legionaries focused on knocking down their opponents, as rules against physical contact were quite lax. In fact, this game led to the change in the game rules, giving the referee discretion to punish egregious, targeted attacks on enemy team members who weren’t handling the ball, and allowing a single replacement player to be rotated in after a goal at the team’s discretion). The legionnaires focused on Villac, repeatedly striking him to unconscious. So despite their inexperience, they were able to win three goals to one. Vogon proved to be a crowd favourite, knocking opposing players aside like tenpins, and making little pretense at actually pursuing the ball.
Watil, High Priest of Qotal, gave the band a ring of feather fall, in recognition of their skill, and beamed that now their alliance was solidified. Indeed, Revered Counselor Caxal ordered 5,000 troops mobilized to accompany the Silver Legion on the march against Zlatan.
A week later, the legionnaires were awakened in the middle of the night by Gelben’s lieutenant from the Silver Phalanx, Tirol. “There’s news of a massacre. Colonel-Chaplain Demetrious’ Irregulars are going throughout the city and killing the worshippers of Sotek, while Romnor and his cavalry are riding down any outside the Jaguar Knight barracks, including women and children who’ve gotten in the way. Lady Ailea is blasting the interior with Cones of Cold.”
This would come to be called the Night of the Long Knives. The legionnaire officers were indignant, especially Latna-So, as the carnage was complete by the time they reached the scene. They complained directly to General Cordell, who seemed initially perturbed by what his consort and best friend had orchestrated.
“Hmm, I authorized Demetrious to purge the jaguars, surprise them at an off moment and demand they surrender and swear loyalty to Caxal and renounce Sotek. We agreed the rest would be imprisoned if we could take them peacefully. I doubt this was intentional--you know how war is, the best laid plans and all, I’m sure Villac and his jaguars refused to capitulate. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this. But in any case, look on the bright side, this is a concrete test of arms, which will be sung of across Aztaltica, one where the Legion wiped out one of the best--and most evil may I remind you--military units the Itzapans have. I’ll not shed a tear over the jaguars’ passing.”
Demetrious indeed said the jaguars had refused to surrender, and they had been forced to attack, resulting in several hundred dead and many more taken prisoner. However, their chief knight Villac and high priest of Sotek Maractyl escaped with a handful of men. Scroll cases in their personal rooms showed the official seal of Zlatan, suggesting they had contact with their co-religionists among the enemy, but messages within burned to nothing when tampered with.
A week later as the Legion was ready to march, Revered Counselor Caxal held a feast of alliance. He, like most of the population, was secretly pleased the foreigners had removed the Sotek worshippers who had taken so many hearts from his countrymen. The festivities were sumptuous, accompanied by music made with long wooden trumpets tied with black ribbons, conch shells incised with glyphs made vivid by red cinnabar, turtleshell rattles, pottery flutes, and drums of various sizes, with deer antler beaters.
General Cordell gave another of his speeches, announcing the Legion and its new allies would march south toward Zlatan, but first would face the warlike mountain of Huatepec to win as allies if possible, or defeat as enemies if necessary. For now, the Legion was on its own, as ships had been sent back with enough gold to pay the debts and contract to send reinforcements of more mercenaries in several months time. Assessor Slevak turned white, asking the General what they would do if the campaign went badly now that there was no way to get home. The general smiled.
“I am a soldier, and I shall not rest until I’ve conquered this land. Besides, we shall not lose, Captain Gelben has outlined an excellent strategy. Don’t worry, it’s not as if I did something foolish like burn the ships. Sending them away helps focus and motivate the men. Also, without the troops, the ships could carry full loads of gold back to Southold, surely you cannot object to that, Assessor.”
The Legion and its Itzapan allies marched south, following the road through a small rain forest, the Forest of Ghuna. Atahuelpa noted there was once a great battle here where many creatures of Sotek were slain, and their hishna magic seeped into the ground, one of the few regions in Aztaltica infested with monstrous plant abominations. The pace was slow as the men were not used to the oppressive heat and humidity, made worse when the heavens opened and the rains began. At one point, the band noted a humanoid form garbed in a black cloak standing behind a tree, but he disappeared when the band investigated.
Chapter III. Winning Allies
While a week’s march from the Galawata Pass leading into Huatepec, General Cordell assigned Captain Winkwillow to lead a diplomatic mission to the court of Revered Counselor Takamal, the aged and battle-hardened leader of the Huatepec. Winkwillow chose Garrant, Vogon, and Gilgareth as three powerful fighters to impress the mountain warriors, as well as Latna-So, and, Arkane.
Huatepec city was nestled in a bowl of mountains with only two small passes—one from the plains and one over the mountains from Itzapan—no doubt the reason the city had never fallen despite many Zlatan attempts. On a shelf six hundred feet above the city was the Royal Gorge, speckled with campfires, guards and the occasional set of bronze doors into the rock which led to the nobles’ cave palaces.
Prince Pacal spoke to the “cloudriders” who had come on the magic carpet, and explained his eagle knight faction was favorable to the newcomers and wished to ally with them against the hated Zlatan. However, his elder brother Haramal was a Jaguar Knight, and favored closer ties with the Empire. As in Tazumal, the legionnaires had to don plain white robes when they entered Revered Counselor Takamal’s presence. The wily old warrior was aggressive in his questioning, berating both his sons and their various viewpoints on the diplomatic issue. Kincade, ever the diplomat, explained himself well, but Takamal remained aggressive;
“You may have powers that I have not yet seen, but unless you can flatten the mountains that surround Huatepec, I do not fear you. I think this matter may be decided by Tezca. I think indeed the cloudriders should pay her a visit, though she may learn as much from them as they from her. But we shall not send them naked, that would be disrespectful to her fieriness, no? Hah!”
Pacal looked disappointed, as few but priests of Tezca return alive from meeting with the mistress. They mercenaries were taken to a shrine to Tezca, in the guise of a voluptuous female wreathed in flames, holding a human heart in her hands. Then, the altar slid away, and the band were ushered into the hot, sulphurous cave within, the stone door closing behind them. Inside were various melted ornaments, burned weapons, and half-devoured body parts. They entered a large cavern with a river of lava running through it. With a hiss and a scrabble of claw on stone, a serpentine creature slid from the lava stream, magma running off its steaming body in thick rivulets. With its red scales and claws, it looked like nothing so much as a wingless dragon. It leapt into battle, breathing fire and lunging with its jaws and talons. Vogon tried to leap across the lava river to get behind it but slipped, suffering incredible wounds which would have slain him were it not for Latna-So’s quick healing. However, between Garrant with his greatsword and Vogon with his greataxe, the beast was finally beaten to the ground.
The band collected several singed feather tokens as well as a Feathered cloak which cast Magical Vestment once a day. On exiting the cave and returning to the palace, Prince Pacal was waiting for them. He was glad they’d slain the beast thought to be Tezca’s incarnation, as so many had been sacrificed to it. But he had ill news; Haramal had finally convinced Revered Counselor Takamal that the Legion was a threat, and they would all be executed. However, they could escape now, as they priests did not plan to send someone into the cave to check for the legionnaires’ bodies until nightfall, when the beast usually slept. This news was not welcome at headquarters, but they Legion had little choice but to continue and hope that some agreement could be made with the mountain kingdom.
Chapter IV. Assassinations
Several days later on 24 Uktar, the Huatepec eagle knight Prince Pacal made a reappearance, asking to talk with the Legion’s officers.
“My father is old and ill, and may not last the year--while he wishes the defeat of the Zlatan, he has not the spirit in him, nor does he want to go against Haramal, who is to succeed him. For his part, Haramal has new advisors recently fled from Itzapan--none other than Maractyl of Sotek, and Jaguar Knight leader Villac. They speak poison into his ears, such that now he is bordering on advocating alliance with our ancient enemy, embracing Sotek’s worship over our traditional patron Tezca, and turning against Itzapan. I fear my people are divided into these two camps, but Haramal has won out. If you march on us, even in peace, they will fight, though Takamal will probably insist you be allowed to pass if you do not approach our borders.
It is with heavy heart that I ask you this. I see no other way for the future of my people but the removal of my brother Haramal. He must be killed, but not by us--Huatepec do not kill one another. But what if Zlatan assassins were to strike at him? You could dress as the Zlatan and paint your bodies dark. But there cannot be any survivors. Without Haramal, I can influence my father, and perhaps my people will join with yours.”
General Cordell—basically good-hearted, but no moralist or respecter of laws—took little time to make his decision. He assigned his “Special Missions Unit” to conduct the assassination, cloaked by Lady Ailea’s disguise magic to appear as Zlatan so long as they stayed within 15’ of each other. He had a final bit of advice before they departed; “There’s a saying which has guided me throughout leadership of the Legion, ‘heroism makes good song but poor soup.’ If the situation is untenable, withdraw and we’ll make a stand-up fight of it on the field of battle.”
The legionnaires relished the attempt to be doing the ambushing for a change in this strange land, and made elaborate preparations. In fact, the mission was delayed for an hour as they debated who would be ferried on the flying carpet in the first and second waves, for it would only carry four at a time. The infiltration went well, landing secretly in the shadows among the campfires on Huatepec’s Royal Gorge. Using a silence spell, the band advanced and swiftly slew the two guards outside Prince Haramel’s cave palace. They rushed inside, and Gil ran down the doorman who ran to sound the alarm. They progressed like this through two other rooms, swiftly slaying another nocturnal guard, but as they stepped into the main great hall, a servant sounded the alarm, which rang throughout the complex.
Jaguar Knights and soldiers flooded from two barracks rooms into the great hall. Battle lines soon formed as the fighting swirled around and atop the great dining tables. Kincade ran forward behind the enemy right flank at the band’s old nemesis, Maractyl, nearly slaying the priest of Sotek in a series of masterful blows, but his power was yet strung, and a fearsome finger of death spell killed the courageous halfling. Gilgareth too charged forward into the melee and managed to slay Prince Haramal, the object of their assassination attempt, but he was surrounded by Villac and another Jaguar Knight officer, only barely managing to limp back to Gelben’s healing. Gil noticed a servant running for the exit, and chased after him. On the plain of the Royal Gorge outside, guards had heard the commotion and were gathering to investigate. However, Gil had wandered too far from the others, and so his disguise enchantment was broken. He succeeded in killing the servant with a throwing axe in the back, but the others saw that he was an outlander. Gelben cast an insect plague around the palace door, delaying the Huatepec troops as the legionnaires finally gained the upper hand within.
Villac, Maractyl and the rest were slain to a man, but then the pounding began on the bronze doors; the insect plague had been dispelled.
They simply had too little time to loot, and only managed to find some of the vast magical and mundane riches within. Latna-So, however, did discover a secret escape tunnel, which the legionnaires fled down as the Huatepec troops broke into the complex. The tunnel emerged on a cliff face with a treacherous, winding trail leading down. Four hopped on the magic carpet, two others used flying magic, but Arkane was the odd man out, left to use the feather fall ring to drift down. He endured a hail of arrows from his pursuers until he drifted into the blackness, and was barely alive when he landed.
The legionnaires made it back to headquarters, battered and dejected, and told the general what had transpired. Cordell considered the raid a tactical success; Haramal was dead and the Sotek priests from Itzapan slain. But nonetheless it was a strategic failure, as Huatepec refused to ally with the foreigners who had assassinated their crown prince. Pacal wrote to the legionnaires and said a future alliance could be possible if the Legion proved itself against the Zlatan, but now the memory of the attack on Haramal was too fresh. Instead, Cordell chose to ignore and bypass the mountain kingdom, continuing the army’s march south toward the Zlatan Empire.
However, that night sorrow compounded failure. In the tavern which had been converted as temporary legion headquarters, Cordell and his consort were attacked by tall black robed figures—bringing to mind the similarly garbed individual seen spying on the Legion on the march. A single weapon apparently left behind by an injured attacker was of fine Videssian design. The assassination attempt faltered as Cordell beat the attackers off. Lady Ailea however, had been surprised working alone in her quarters and her heart had been ripped from her body. Her soul was stolen as well through a mighty dagger called a Soul Reaver. The intruders had also taken the Legion’s magic carpet as well as several unnamed magic items. The legionnaires arrived on the scene, but too late to do any good. Cordell appeared as none had ever seen him, tears in his eyes.
“I was not angry with these savages until now! They were mere playthings, but now they have stolen something of immeasurable value to me, and I will have revenge. The streets of Zlatan shall run red with the blood of the heathens. We shall topple their fell pyramids to Sotek, and put in temples of Nuada, but first, I will see executed every one of those priests of Sotek, aye, with their bloodied locks, all of them Demetrious--you were right and I was too soft. Now leave me alone, I need to grieve awhile in private, but Gelben I want you to work on the final invasion plan, Kincade, see to the final scouting--your diplomatic skills will not be needed some time. I am finally taking the Legion where it belongs, back on the campaign trail ... “
Go to next section of the Log, Interlude II: Screams