Chapter I. Chaos and Siege
On Midsummer’s Eve, 1513, the leadership of the Silver Legion mercenary company was gathered in a most unlikely, place, the heart of the Temple of Qotal in occupied Zlatan City. Three months after the fall of Gual’batal, the leadership lounged like conquering heroes, drinking the noble cacahuhel cacao-chili drink. Chaplain-Colonel Demetrious had been going from temple to temple, destroying the images of Sotek and replacing them with Nuada’s fist, conferring with the Legion’s newest captain Guerrero, an Iron Leaguer placed in command of the fanatical native Nuadan Irregulars unit. The Chaplain-Colonel’s normal confidant, the fiery cavalry commander Romnor, was out on patrol, but the rest of the captains were in attendance Daggrande, Menigan, Gelben Fisk, Kincade Winkwillow, Gilgareth Prindle as were Paymaster Hieronymous, Armorer Gruthenal, and Sergeant-Major Garrant, as well as the rest of the Legion’s lieutenants and specialists
General Cordell convened the council of war. First, was the latest profit inventory from the weasel-like Assessor Slevak, who noted the Legion already has the equivalent of three million silver nobles hidden at Nuada’s Port, gained in trade and tribute from the native Itzapan allies and from the initial shipments of loot back from Zlatan; there were another four million nobles equivalent here in the pyramid, though they would take weeks to transport.
Captain Gelben then reported on the Legion status–casualties from the Viperhand rebels were constant, but relatively low, most worrying were several irreplaceable horses lost. The Silver Raiders light cavalry remained on patrol around the city, Captain Guererro’s Nuadan Irregulars were on the mainland felling trees for more wagons and guarding the southern causeway, while bivouacked in the pyramid of Qotal were the Silver Phalanx, Romnor’s Wildcats, Daggrande’s Crossbows, Menigan’s Dunthrane Halberdiers, and Captain Gilgareth’s new Tazumal Recruits unit. Encamped outside were four thousand Itzapan allies under their eagle knight general Kultec and his deputy, longtime ally Atahuelpa. Logistically, the Legion had a month’s food stockpiled in this pyramid.
Captain Gilgareth then addressed recent developments in the surrounding countries, noting that back in Itzapan to the rear, the political situation had improved considerably. Revered Counselor Caxal and the High Priest of Qotal, Watil, were strongly bolstered by the victory. In fact, they were sending a relief force of 10,000 more Itzapan soldiers to Zlatan, to arrive in a month’s time. Outbreaks of disease continued among the Itzapan, but had been reduced considerably since Specialist Latna-So and Captain Gelben worked to convey herbal remedies to the Plague. I n the warlike mountain kingdom of Huatepec, there was much rejoicing over Zlatan’s defeat. The Legion had made ties with the anti-Zlatan prince, Pacal, and slew the pro-Zlatan prince Haramal, but their ancient leader Takamal remained bent on a course of neutrality, offering congratulations and seeking to trade for metal weapons.To the east were the Atlan people, a Zlatan client state, but they had reportedly risen up and threw out the Zlatan. The Yaxuna, a merchant people, previously had close ties with Zlatan to maintain their independence, but had also revolted. The Axocopan people to the south overthrew the Zlatan occupiers as well. In short, the Zlatan Empire had collapsed and there had been a great exodus of Zlatan officials, tradesmen, and soldiers, flowing back here to their traditional home, the fertile Valley of Zlatan. Gil feared some, perhaps many, of these now impoverished warriors, may join the resistance.
With that, Spymaster-Captain Winkwillow addressed the resistance problem in the Valley of Zlatan itself. The Zlatan leader, Revered Counsellor Nahuatyl, appeared to be genuine in his aversion to the sacrifices and power of Sotek, and had tried to clamp down on the cult of Sotek’s Viperhand. However, the worship of Sotek remained very strong in Zlatan, even after the reported death of their High Priest Garkuna. Instead, there had been reported sightings of Garkuna, and interceptions of high-level resistance messages had ceased. However, from the last letters, it was known that the military commander, General Tacuba, had ordered the Viperhand cultists to wait for now for a signal from Sotek. The enemy was known to be using sacrifices, especially of legionnaires, to power a transformation ritual, changing their troops into various humanoid monsters
Cordell laid out his strategy, noting they had held out six months already in this city, and he revealed that he received a Sending spell the previous week that another Southron flotilla was on the way, just crossed the Hellstorm and allowed magical contact. Southolder Royal troops, as well as Silver Legion replacements sent from Winterhaven, and a company Flaming Fist mercenaries. However, he was concerned that the relief force was under command of Baron Warwick of Kenilworth, son of Duke Warwick of Balar, a brutal, ruthless taskmaster disliked by his men. Cordell knew they would send a noble now that they smelled gold, but he remained Viceroy, at the cost of promising 20% of the Legion’s gold to secure that position--the King’s Fifth. The reinforcements would take a month to reach landfall, and perhaps another month to march to Zlatan. The General exhorted the men to just hold on a bit longer, and fell into one of his dreams for the future, calling this city New Dunthrane, capital of the Duchy of New Southold, and promised to give baronies to all his senior officers.
The dream was interrupted by a gasping Lieutenant Tirol, who reported a great crowd gathered in the Grand Plaza, and filling far more besides. Climbing the temple ramparts, the legionnaires saw tens of thousands of Zlatan warriors, all around the fringes of the plaza and spilling into great groups around their temples and pyramid. Most appeared to be the old, cashiered Zlatan troops instead of Viperhand insurgents. The general ordered Revered Counselor Nahuatyl to calm his people.
The downcast former leader roused himself, and pleaded “My people, you must leave and put down your arms. We must do what the outlanders say, for they are powerful messengers of the gods, and we dare not oppose them. They have put down Sotek, his power is no more.” And upon uttering those words, a dagger appeared in midair, impaling itself between the Revered Counselor’s shoulder blades. The legionnaires barely perceived the vague flicker of a tall pale figure with white hair garbed in flowing robes just behind Nahuatyl. A dark glow enveloped the Revered Counselor, who fell over the low parapet into the crowd below. There was a collective gasp as tens of thousands of Zlatan stared in surprise.
“The sign we have waited for all these months; attack now children of Sotek!”, and there stood Garkuna, High Priest of Sotek, General Tacuba, the elusive military leader of the insurgency, threw down his cloak and led the charge toward the main entrance to the Temple of Qotal. Thousands of Zlatan warriors took up his call, perhaps one in five proudly brandishing Viperhand tattoos. As if in sympathy with the ululating battle cries, a rumble shook the ground as a burst of smoke billowed upward from the nearby volcano, Mount Zatal. Meanwhile, the legionnaires glimpsed several similar flickers of the mysterious pale robed figures, some form of Improved Invisibility no doubt, an arcane magic unseen as yet by natives on this continent, lashing out toward General Cordell, Chaplain Colonel Demetrious, Captain Gelben, and Lieutenant Dmitry; the senior leaders and spellcasters. Their fists rained down in a deadly flurry of blows the legionnaires had not seen since facing the monks of the Tower of the Stars.
And so the battle ensued, the legionnaires fighting on several fronts at once—some rushing down to hold the line at the great wooden doorway to the temple, others blocking the ladders being thrown against the walls, and still others fighting back against the flickering invisible monks, clearly Videssian, no doubt descendents of the conquers of this land before the Cataclysm. The situation initially looked grim, with Terwyn Kite laid low and Dmitry at death’s door from the monk attacks, before the band were finally vanquished from the roof. The monk leader, who had initially stunned Gil, now stagged under the Southon’s sword blows. He turned and unfurled a magic carpet—the Legion’s own, no doubt stolen when they slew Lady Ailea in her sleep months befre. Before flying away he spat at the legionaries, “Know I am Maximus, and my work is done here; I leave you to your fate, cursed of Sotek!”
The roof might be secure for now, but a great human tide spread across the sacred plaza, converging on the Temple of Qotal. The Itzapan warriors allied with the Silver Legion suffered the first onslaught, quartered as they were outside the palace. The 4,000 Itzapan launch volleys of stone-tipped arrows into the approaching mass. Their leader, General Kultec, fell, surrounded by eight powerful opponents, the only ones in the plaza with a a thick black tatoo surrounding their eyes and wrapping around their heads. They shouted as one in victory--“We the eight of the Hishna Brotherhood slay the Itzapan General, next we come for the eight cowardly foreign officers who would slay our leaders.” Atahuelpa cried, “my people are being slaughtered, I must go to help them, though I doubt I shall return. Fare well my friends, for I fear we all die this day” and he leapt over the parapet, lost in the melee.
Slowly the enemy was edging into the temple at ground level, with the Hishna Brotherhood approaching. A new sound arose, the gallop of horses, and Captain Romnor’s heavy cavalry rode into the square. At first they trampled the enemy into the ground, but within seconds, their lances were thrown aside, and they were soon surrounded by the press of thousands of warriors. Cordell yelled from above, “Gelben, take the Phalanx out with shields locked and form a safe corridor for the cavalry to get into the temple compound; without the horses we’re doomed!”
And so attention shifted from the roof to the battle for the doorway, as Vogon, Gil, and Garrant took the vanguard in pushing the enemy back and getting to the cavalry. It did not look like it would succeed, so many were the enemy, until Latna-So on the parapet above launched and arrow from the fabled Yazakh Rainbow which magically confused General Tacuba. The grizzled warrior ceased firing and giving orders, but many continued the attack blindly nonetheless. Still, the confusion bought enough time for the Legion cordon of the Silver Phalanx to extend, and hold as the cavalry galloped into the now-crowded temple.
The great doors then closed, and fighting diminished to skirmishing and arrowfire. The enemy, bereft of senior leadership, were focusing on wiping out the Itzapan warriors in their midst. Some escaped, but most perished in the Grant Plaza, and already a line of captured warriors was marching toward the Great Pyramid, starting the long, one-way climb up to the altar of Sotek.
In the early morning hours General Cordell convened a second council of war. There was a long debate on whether the Legion should endeavour to break out now, or wait until the Ticans let down their guard. They decided on the latter, knowing that their small force at the very defensible Gemnia Pass chasm would likey hold, and they had merely to wait the better part of a month for the 10,000 Itzapan reinforcements to arrive at the Pass. That group might not be big enough to attack, but the additional troops would be necessary to cover any Legion retreat.
And, so, a month under siege passed, hundreds of men cramped in the temple, sleeping on the floor in a stinking, overbearingly hot quarters. Skirmishes continued daily, as easily a couple thousand Zlatan paid with their lives, but the steel-armed, tightly-disciplined mercenaries held firm against every breach. Stores of arrows were low, other than the enemy’s stone-headed flight arrows, and the ballista had long since run out of bolts. Morale too was low. But then, KinCade’s owl familiar Kiya spotted the Itzapan host approaching the Gemnia Pass, which was still held by legionnaires. Tonight would be the night, either a Night of Salvation, or a Night of Tears as the general put it.
Chapter II. The Night of Tears
The General laid out his strategic goals, and then left the officers to determine the tactics of how to accomplish them. First, the Legion must send an advance group to seize the Grand Plaza Gates by stealth, slay the guards quietly, and get those doors open for the Legion to roll through. They would invariably wake the natives once the Legion started rolling, especially the treasure wagons, but once through the gates, he planned to leave behind a rearguard to hold the gate, a mix of missile and swordsmen, led by SGT-MAJ Garrant. Of course, with many enemies ahead as well, they had already removed the bridge on the most direct route down the Avenue of Qotal, and placed three Greatbows (ballistae) there. The second objective of the vanguard was to sneak across, kill the Greatbow gunners, and render the weapons inoperable. By then Cordell assumed the alarm would be raised, as there were too many enemy troops bivouacked in the nearby buildings, especially the Mayor’s Palace which seems to be their forward headquarters. The Hishna Brotherhood, Garkuna’s answer to the Legion’s Special Missions Unit—eight very skilled Zlatans—commanded this area.
The vanguard was then to advance to the Toucan Way bridge and secure it before the enemy destroyed it. All the bridges in the city, crisscrossed as it was with canals, were equipped such that an engineer could drop them with a minute’s warning by loosening the four key supports. They had placed a massive barricade of debris at the Street of Pakli, to prevent the Legion taking the alternate, intact escape route, so the Dunthrane Halberdiers would be tasked with putting aside their weapons and moving the debris, with their Captain, Menigan, taking up the rear.
Captain Winkwillow’s intelligence suggested if the Legion could get past the Parrot Canal on Toucan Way, they were home free, only running into stragglers, no organized force, for the ten minutes or march to the fortified coastal zone guarding the southern Causeway. There the final battle would be joined; near the road’s terminus lay the South Fortress, an army barracks with a strong jaguar knight contingent. The vanguard would again move ahead of the main body, to seize the two bridges before they were dropped, using magic to suppress the fortress, as there was probably no enough time to seize it. The vanguard was to continue along the Avenue of Qotal past the fortress, burn or scuttle the nearby boats, and then hold the main causeway and ensure the drawbridges remain lowered until the main body arrived. Once the Legion cavalry on the mainland shore, the Silver Raiders, saw the burning ships, they would ride down from Gemnia Pass with the 10,000 Itzapan reinforcements backing them up, and secure the far side of the Southern Causeway, where only two to three thousand Zlatan were barracked. Then the elite vanguard, which had led the way thus far, would guard the retreat until the Legion has passed the causeway; after delaying as long as possible, for every minute meant a head start and more lives, the legionnaires were to drop the wooden drawbridge on the stone causeway. This was critical, as there would be the better part of a hundred thousand troops converging on the fleeing Legion from three sides, and they could not stand against them on open ground. The gold would be loaded onto three wagons, and the men would be offered the chance to take as much as they could carry, though even then much would be left behind.
When the General asked for volunteers, he was unsurprised the Special Missions Unit members raised their hands. They planned their spells, arranged timetables, contingencies, for hours until evening, knowing this would be the longest and fiercest battle they had ever fought. General Cordell, knowing many might not return, took heirlooms and letters from many for safe keeping, expressing the Legion’s thanks.
They set off in the early morning hours, when most of the enemy slept. The operation went well at first, with the officers sneaking forward to the wall around the great Plaza invisibly and silenced. The stairs were slick with oil and caltrops, but the attackers used magic to swiftly climb to the parapet, where the Zlatan warriors heard them. Battle was joined on the ramparts, but initially the silences on Vogon and Gil prevented the alarm from being raised, standing near the warning drums. Vogon and Garrant together turned the great wooden capstan to open the gates, and with that signal, the doors to the temple of Qotal opened and the Legion marched forward. Sentries on nearby pyramids began firing scattered bowfire, which would soon become a persistent arrow storm as more of the Zlatan were roused.
The legionnaires first consolidated their position on the ramparts and fired spells and arrows at enemies atop the nearby buildings on the Avenue of Qotal. One of the Hishna Brotherhood, Topec, fought there to the end. However, the vanguard seemed to hesitate, as the three Greatbows came to life, firing massive bolts at them. Bravely, Lieutenant Moe Fireiendoil, not a normal member of the Special Missions Unit, but a volunteer this night, darted forward invisibly; raining a series of fire spells on the enemy. Likewise, Latna So, invisible and flying, flew to the key bridge and cast darkness below to prevent its defenders destroying it. Yet General Cordell soon sounded a halt to the Legion’s march—the Greatbows had to be put out of action before the Legion moved forward—they could do great damage to the ranks of packed men, not to mention disabling the precious three treasure wagons. He railed against the delay, ordering the officers forward, and with that, the Vanguard, suitably chastened, charged.
There were at least four clerics of Sotek on the rooftops, and they traded spells with the legionnaires as they advanced; as Dmitry would darkness or web the Greatbows, so they would dispel them, and so it went. Captain Gelben goaded his fine charger to jump across the river and soon struck the Greatbow crew down with Vogon’s aid, even slaying another member of the Hishna Brotherhood commanding the battery. Latna So, also far forward, kept raining spells down to keep the bridge from being destroyed, while dozens of arrows searched the sky for her. Eventually, one struck home, and immediately, her blood glowed—a fell magic of Sotek’s. Alas, the first to see her were the six remaining Brotherhood of Sotek, lead by Deacon of Sotek Hualapec, exiting the Mayor’s Palace from the rear. Their full spell and missile fire downed the Yazakh in moments, but her delay had preserved the bridge for critical minutes, for at last the vanguard was most of the way down the Avenue of Qotal, halfway to the objective.
Cordell was in dire straits meanwhile, having had to delay the Legion in the Grand Plaza, he was taking more arrow casualties, and was grateful to see the first Greatbow out of action and the second in darkness. Despite one of the great enemy ballista intact, he gave the order to march forward. The treasure wagon did endure two hits from the Greatbows, doing tremendous damage and spilling gold across the streets, but the vehicle held up. Meanwhile, Moe infiltrated ahead and gave Latna light curing where she’d fallen, in a small fountain and shrine to Azul. She arose fighting, casting more spells at the Hishna Brotherhood, who were now dashing toward the vanguard. A Hisnha assassin laid her low again, and again, Moe healed her, however, the assassin this time paused to strike her down and then deliver a killing blow before rejoining the fight. Gil and Terwyn found themselves first hit with a Sotek’s Horrible Wilting spell, then outflanked by the powerful Hishna Brotherhood members, and both were soon at death’s door. Meanwhile, Gelben and Vogon on the other side of the canal fought on to the final Greatbow and destroyed it, but at the cost of Gelben’s noble charger Donner, who fell despite repeated healing.
The situation looked grim, as the Dunthrane Halberdiers would take several minutes to remove the great barricade blocking the way to the final bridge, which had nearly been dropped. Then Menigan leapt over the barricade and into the fray, swiftly slaying two of the Hishna Brotherhood—most certainly saving Gil and Terwyn’s lives in the nick of time. One of the brotherhood nearly escaped with the slain Latna’s mystical Rainbow, but Kincade struck him down from behind. The tide shifted, with a tottering but victorious Vogon and Gelben now advancing on the bridge from the far side, while the rest came from the near side. The Brotherhood fled; two shot down, but the two wily assassins melting into the night.
A brief lull descended on the field as the Legion poured forward, while the vanguard took a well deserved moment to recover. Cordell congratulated them, and passed out the last of the curing potions. Casualties were slightly higher than expected, but manageable, though Daggrande had fallen, and was placed in the wagons to be raised if the Legion escaped. Garrant and his stay-behind force of dwarves fought off the horde of enemies in the Plaza, while the rest of the troops swiftly mopped up the Mayors Palace and immediate area. After ten long minutes, the barricade was totally gone, and the Legion was ready to move forward to the coast.
The Vanguard advanced swiftly, the Legion following at a trot, but weighed down with gold. The sound of war drums all around indicated the South Fortress would be fortified by now. At one point, a pair of Zlatan children threw rocks at the legionnaires, screaming that the enemy was there, but were soon grabbed by their parents indoors. Approaching he coastal zone, it was apparent the defenders were ready, and had already brought down the bridge on Macaw Canal, though the second one on Toucan Canal still stood. War canoes patrolled the canals, while another Greatbow and many archers manned the high fortress ramparts.
Time was of the essence, the legionnaires charged forward, disdaining stealth, in an effort to get to the second bridge swiftly. Moe, meanwhile, leapt into the canal after downing a potion of water breathing, swimming all the way to the lake through the canal system to burn the boats before they could launch. A great melee was joined near the first, dropped bridge, as vanguard darkness arrows struck the fortress ramparts to negate their missile fire. The plan worked well, as the band gradually moved forward. Dmitry used the final charge in Lady Ailea’s old Wand of Wall of Stone, given to them in their first adventure together in the mines of Durgeddin the smith, to create a bridge where the other one had fallen.
Dmitry then advanced and webbed the fortress gate shut, preventing troops from pouring out, though in frustration they did pour out the rear gate to march thelong wat around--a formidable force the Legion would have to deal with, but at least they would be too late to drop the final bridge. Gelben and Vogon again teamed up to slay the bridge defenders, just as they neared destroying the supports that would drop the remaining bridge. Meanwhile, Zlatan warriors saw the splashing and heard Moe swimming just before he would have made it out to the lake. A jaguar knight leapt in and swam out after him. The pair wrestled in the deep, nearly drowning, but the plucky mage managed to escape his the burly warrior’s clutches, reach the boats, and cast fire spells to burn them—another key objective achieved. Seeing the battle raging, Moe then swam along the long causeway toward the far shore.
The exhausted vanguard paused while Romnor’s Wildcats rode down the road, trampling the horde coming from the rear gate of the Southern Fortress. While that battle raged, Cordell announced a change of plan; there were war drums approaching rapidly, and giant Viperhand creatures sighted—too fast to outrun. The Special Missions Unit would have to start their rear guard action early, as the Legion was far from being across to the causeway, hemmed in by enemies on all sides. Without delay, the band, and some Silver Phalanx Troops backed up by Nuadan cleric Tirol’s healing and engineer hedge wizard Poncet’s spells set up a hasty defense on a rooftop along a key junction the Legion was retreating across. The twisted Viperhand creatures looked like trolls, ogres, and even two hill giants. A well-placed slow and web delayed their pace, but the battle was again fearsome. It was closely fought, as the band’s power, items, and spells neared empty, yet they held again.
General Cordell galloped up as the last of the Legion approached the final, long causeway, and renewed war drums came from behind “The men are panicky, our rear has been harassed by the fleetest of foot the enemy have, and more troops are pouring after us. The sounds of fighting at the Grand Plaza Gate has ceased, which probably means Garrant and his men are dead, for they have not been seen. I can feel it, we’re going to make it with most of our forces and all three treasure wagons are intact! You just hold them off us as long as you possibly can; I’m not asking you to stand to the last, there should be no need as we’ll be able to raise the drawbridges, destroy the lowering mechanism, and make good our escape. However, the Legion needs you to slow them down, attract the attention of their war canoes, generally disrupt their advance to buy us time. I’ll see you back at the Gemnia Pass Fortress, and be sure there are medals all round for this valorous night’s action. The Legion takes care of its own.”
The Legion took up defensive positions behind a low courtyard wall near the causeway, to allow the last of the legionaries, Menigan and his Dunthrane Halberdiers, time to cross. Then came the loud footfalls of a giant lizard, with General Tacuba on his back, and Garkuna charging with his Viperhand creatures . “They are the ones who have frustrated our designs so many times, the cream of their officers, stop at nothing men of the Zlatan, men of the Viperhand, capture them alive if possible, that their powerful hearts will make propitiation to Sotek on the chacmool!”
The fighting was fierce, Tacuba’s arrows raining down, giants’ clubs swinging, spells raining from Garkuna, Sotek’s Horrible Wilting draining the blood from the bodies of the legionnaires. The odd war canoe was circling the fleeing legionnaire host, bowfire and the odd stabbing spear coming up at the soldiers on the edge. The Special Missions Unit was soon being outflanked, and withdrew to the edge of the causeway. But still, the situation seemed tenable; three-quarters of the Legion had crossed the drawbridge on the causeway. The first treasure wagon made it across amid a crush of people, and the second was moving forward. As the third wagon crossed the wooden drawbridge, it gave a great crack, and split in the middle. Perhaps 50 men and both wagons fell into the depths. Demetrious was clinging to the far end of the stone, and Cordell clutched his head in surprise and anguish, when one of the largest war canoes swiftly negotiated the gap, and waiting arms grabbed the Nuadan cleric and pulled him into the canoe, which headed off into the darkness. Some stragglers from several assorted units, plus the entire rearguard Dunthrane Halberdiers unit, Captain Menigan’s company, were trapped on this side of the causeway. Worst still, the press of people continued, as rank of rank of legionnaires were pushed by the crush into the black depths, plummetting like stones to a watery grave, laden down by their heavy armor and gold.
Menigan told his comrades “Must keep Ticans back while my men take off armor and swim across. I not cross until every one of my men safe, even if it mean my bones rot on this island; Legion takes care of its own. In good company to die this night, better than living and dying in old age as bartender in Thirple.” And the half-ogre charged forward and delayed the enemy advance. Gelben, thinking quickly, used a stone shape spell to create a very thin, eight-inch wide bridge across the gap. And hold they did until the legionnaires were across. But the situation was grave, Terwyn was down, Vogon paralyzed, and the rest at death’s door from no less than three Sotek’s Horrible Wilting spells and much more besides. Gelben hacked down the small bridge, and then paddled swiftly in his boat with two incapacitated comrades, while the other survivors made their way across on the far side as best they could. Garkuna screamed, “No!!! There is no way across, Sotek, deliver us now in our hour of need, we beseech you!”
Moments later, powerful arcane spells began to rain down from above—starting with a wall of stone to bridge the gap, presumably from some invisible flying being not of Zlatan. The High Priest of Sotek exclaimed, “thanks be to the Old Ones, who have come to us in our hour of need.” Gelben had tried his best to escape in a boat, but was soon boarded by the two surviving Hishna Brotherhood assassins, Tascil and Xipotec, and had to bring the boat alongside the far side of the causeway. With the bridge intact again, the Legion would be caught in the open by the swift Viperhand creatures and mauled if not destroyed. Gelben, and most of the few survivors, chose to at least make a last stand on dry ground, delaying the enemy host a few minutes more. Not all stood, Dmitry and KinCade attempted to retreat along the bridge, the former taken down by a pair of teradons, the latter very nearly slipping away in the darkness, were it not for the arcane spellfire from above which seemed to unerringly track his movements. Alone to escape was Moe, who swam back to the fallen drawbridge and recovered Latna So’s body, then paddled back to the far shore. The rest, true to Garkuna’s orders, were subdued or incapacitated by spellfire.
And so the Silver Legion Special Mission Unit was laid low on the Southern Causeway of Zlatan City, a last stand which bards will sing of for years to come, a sacrifice that would save the legion. For as consciousness faded, they saw the long, ragged line of troops well on their way on a forced march up to the pass, the Zlatan Viperhands would never catch them before they reached it now.
Chapter III. Sacrifice and Salvation
The Special Mission Unit member, as well as Garrant, who had been taken after his stand at the Grand Plaza wall, were surprised to wake up alive. All their possessions had been taken, and they were dressed in white shifts, those used by the Zlatan for sacrifices. Soon a great bulbous, froglike creature floated before them, atop an ornately carved levitating palanquin. The creature was aged, its limbs withered at its side. The ancient beast did not even move its lips, but inside their heads, the legionnaires heard its voice nonetheless. This was clearly one of the leaders of El Saurim, the Saurians of whom the Aztalticans have ancient legends.
“So at last you have fallen, outlanders. I am Lord Xhiliepa, Grey Slann of the Second Spawning and ruling of Maxal. You have caused our plans much distress, so it is fitting that our cattle will sacrifice you. You have no doubt deduced that we are the favored of Sotek, his children who since the First Spawning over 5,000 years ago held sway in this land before the fair-skinned outlanders came, know that we control the energy of the many sacrifices and the Viperhand ceremonies. We have waited long for this day, for you to clear the guardians protecting our leader of old, Lord Zhul, of the Second Spawning, the last Death Slann, imprisoned in the lost city of Quetza—we thank you for that, for it was an easy matter to release him afterwards. And we also thank you for stirring up and weakening the human tribes of this land, so quickly they breed, and getting so many to wear our brand. Now it is time to unveil our return, time to stop creating simple Viperhand creatures, and realize our true purpose, to reinvigorate the Saurian races. We have stored the energy of hundreds of sacrifices from the Itzapan, and the far more valuable legionnaires’ souls we’ve sacrificed, but your power is our greatest boon, and with it all we will be able to transform the tens of thousands of human Viperhand cultists into Saurians to replenish our dwindling ranks. And the sacrifices provide other benefits, but enough of that. I wished to tell you in person that your grand escape and gesture has failed, that we will soon be unstoppable, and will drive you from these shores and resume our rightful place as Sotek’s children ruling Aztaltica. We shall move our ancient capital back to Zlatan, which they have kindly rebuilt for us, coming back from the few jungle cities the hated Videssians did not raze. Yes, we Slann are good at co-opting and using our enemies, how else would we have insinuated the worship of Sotek among the remnants of our old foes, and convinced them to play an unwitting part in our plan by striking down the false Revered Counselor, and earlier assassinating your chief female wizard, the greatest threat to us. They know not we plan the assimilation of them as well, and will force them to serve us when we have finished with the humans. I leave you to your fate now, and thank you for your souls, which will raise the next spawning of Saurians.”
An hour later, Garkuna and a band of Jaguar Knights escorted the officers to the summit of the great pyramid, the moon was high, and it must be near dawn. He explained how the Old Ones had spoken only to him among the Zlatan, how they warned him the band was coming to Gual ‘Batal, so he disguised one of his deacons as himself; lulling the legionnaires into believing the Resistance was defeated, while all the while he marshaled his strength, and assembled the many Zlatan returning from the provinces. He complained that so many of their Southron countrymen died like screaming monkeys, not men, under the knife.
It truly looked like the end for the legionnaires, the full moon, directly overhead, bathed the city in an eerie glow, and all around, a tide of people, mostly warriors, but also common folk come to celebrate the eviction of the invaders. The volcano spewed smoke into the air ominously, but at least the Legion was gone, safe. Garkuna cast a spell, and his voice was magnified to the masses. “Here are the enemy leaders I promised, ready to sacrifice to Sotek, see them die, just as their paltry few comrades who escaped shall in the coming days when we hunt them down!” He then asked which of the foreigners would be first, and Gelben stepped forward, silently.
“Ah, the priest of the false god, his heart shall taste good to Sotek, we have had none of their ilk yet, this shall be interesting! What blessings shall we receive for offering his soul? My Viperhands of Sotek, brandish your tattoos in the night air, that you may receive the power of this offering, as it shall be potent. Guards, put him on the chacmool. Enough waiting, there will be no salvation, no last minute rescue for you, just ignominious death.”
With no further hesitation, his obsidian blade plunged home, and in a few expert cuts, the deed was done. Amazingly, Gelben’s body went rigid, but he did not cry out, and even the agnostic among the legionnaires could not help but feel there was something more than human transpiring, but then it was all over. His eyes wide, his face spattered with blood, Garkuna raised the beating heart, and placed it the mouth of the Statue of Sotek, while at the same time, with a practiced ease, the jaguars dragged the bleeding body and threw it off the chasm into the fire pit far below.
Yet as the beating heart sat in the statue’s mouth, the ground began to shake, the volcano spewed great clouds of ash far into the heavens, people begin to panic down below. “What’s this, too much power? The power of a martyr, a channel, a tainted sacrifice, a channel to allow the foreign god’s power here! But the Old Ones said we could harness the power, they … look the very mountain explodes!
It felt like the death of the world, how their ancestors must have felt as the Cataclysm rended Grund one-thousand, fifteen hundred and fourteen years ago. Mount Zatal erupted in a great plume of fire and ash, a pillar of destruction. The streets and buildings of Zlatan, once whitewashed and beautiful, were blackened, ruined, and now among the many surviving people, the transformation of thousands—not tens of thousands as the Slann promised, but thousands nonetheless, of the Viperhand cultists swiftly metamorphosing into Saurians, who quickly fell on their own people, soldiers and civilians alike. These beasts begin to rampage through the chaos. Blocks of houses toppled forward, falling into a widening canal to sink from sight in black, boiling water. A huge crevasse opened in another area, emitting a steaming column of hot gas. And everywhere, death.
Teeming crowds of surviving humans swarm away, people clamoring for safety, trapped between the brackish, marshy waters and the dying city. They saw the horrifying approach of a bestial army, the Saurians of the Viperhand. Those on top of the Great Pyramid stood as if transfixed, touched by the proximity of some divine power, which seemed not to affect those poor souls below.
But then a great bird, or was it a snake, a coatl of legend, flitted above the devastation, and its wings dipped and touched the surface of the fourth, most brackish lake, to the south, Lake Qotal. As it touched the tops of the waves, the water suddenly ceased its thrashing. It became solid, and the fleeing people begin running across it, heading for the safety of the far shores. In this great heat, as the very volcano erupted and lava speeded down its sides, Lake Qotal had frozen solid into ice.
At the shore, pressed by the horde, the humans started out onto the ice. Many slipped on the treacherous footing. Slowly, lurchingly, the refugees of Zlatan started across the lake. Unaccustomed as they were to these new bodies, the Viperhand Saurians largely held back and devoured the fallen, while those Saurus who did press ahead cracked the ice and disappeared under Lake Qotal—a mysterious sort of ice indeed. It could have been seconds or minutes, but the divine which had touched the summit of the pyramid began to wear off, as Garkuna stirred, “Sacrifice the rest now, that it may propitiate Sotek, his creatures—these strange, new creatures—were not supposed to turn on our own people, the favored of Sotek. Drag them to the chacmool now!” Twenty jaguar knights edged toward the remaining, bound legionnaires slowly. There was nowhere to run, as the great fire pit yawned behind them.
“Into the flames, now!” said an elderly voice in the legionnaires’ heads, much like when the Slann spoke, but this was a different voice, an elderly human voice, that of Uxma the old featherweaver. Dmitry, having found a faith he never had before by the momentous events of this evening, was first to leap into the great fire pit without hesitation, as did the rest, until only KinCade was left. But then he too took the ultimate leap of faith; the plummet was mercifully swift into the maw of the fire pit, and it seemed the legionnaires had at last perished.
Go to next section of the Log, Book V: The Jungle