Chapter I. Escaping the Saurian City
Yet somehow the seven legionnaires lived, landing with a dull thud on something soft and yielding, in a chilled darkness. Kincade, Gilgareth, Dmitry, Garrant, Terwyn, Vogon, and the dead Gelben soon deduced they had teleported into a larder, a chilled room amid a sea of bodies, piled on another, all with gaping holes where their hearts were. KinCade revealed he had secreted a light coin—though none wanted to ask how—from the otherwise thorough captors, who had stolen all the legionnaires’ items, and also noted he had pickpockted a dagger from a jaguar knight. Using the light, the band scrounged for what few possessions had not been confiscated from the sacrificial victims, handful of knives, darts, coins, and such—Dmitry was glad to find a legionnaire’s traveling mage spellbook, though it focused on alteration and illusion magicks the evoker was not used to casting. Gelben summoned his enchanted plate armor intact, but that was the extent of the legionnaires’ gear.
They were soon startled to find two Itzpani survivors among the dead. The first, Huitlipacoatl (soon shortened to Huitley), had been hired as a scout by the Itzapan army, but she had little military demeanor, perhaps best described as a cross between a bard and a ranger in Southron terms, wielding some of both pluma and hishna magic through her music. She told of how she had joined the march on Zlatan, and on the Night of Tears her unit was overwhelmed guarding one of the causeways. Huitley was captured for sacrifice, but in desperation, leapt into the fire pit rather than going under the knife of the priests of Sotek. She was skeptical of the “Grundlings” as she called the legionnaires, particularly Garrant’s casual assumption of Southron superiority, so common in the Legion, but agreed to join forces, at least until they could make it back to Itzapan.
The second survivor was an Itzapan warrior, Kanto, who in contrast to Huitley, held the Southrons in great esteem, clearly believing his society to have much to learn from the outlanders. Kanto had been there in the Grand Plaza during the massacre when the Zlatan forces attacked, and even saw General Kuletc fall to the Hishna Brotherhood. He too leapt into the flames after being captured, to escape sacrifice. Kanto reverantly deferred to the Legion officers, placing himself fully under their command.
As they spoke, a great serpent appeared from nowhere, with feathered wings the colors of the rainbow, “So we meet again, you heeded my advice at the Great Pyramid after all, you see the fall was not as bad as you’d imagined, a teleport set up between Zlatan City and Maxal, the greatest of the Saurian cities which remain, many miles to the southeast. Well, they had the humans sacrificing hearts for Sotek, ultimately benefiting them, his children, most of all, why not use the bodies as well? One of the limiting factors in supporting a large population of carnivores is the lack of many large Aztaltican game and the nutrients they provide. Your world has beasts domesticated for this purpose, here only dogs, guinea pigs, and fowl are used for this purpose, nothing like your larger animals, so for many, many centuries they’ve harvested people.
“But where are my manners, I am Uxma the featherweaver, in this guise,” and he transformed into the old man with the white tunic you recall from his pyramid outside the lost city of Quetza. “A nd I got here as quickly as possible, trying to help the thousands of Zlatan refugees escape their dying city first, nice touch the icy lake, don’t you think, a Quest spell of great power granted by my lord himself in the people’s time of greatest need—they’d have been massacred if they had to flee on the causeways. Still, so many have and will died, but I have done what I can.”
He then proceeded to Heal all present and then Resurrect the slain cleric; “Gelben of Nuada, you are back. Though I share not your faith, and have many criticisms of your warlike ways and people, nonetheless I have great respect for what you did. You chose to die that others might live, a life freely given. Though they don’t like to admit it, the gods depend on the actions and devotions of their followers for their power, and such a martyrdom, especially by one from a culture as yours in which it is not a common event, is a heavy boon indeed among the gods. When connected to the Sotek power ritual to harvest the souls from the dead, well, quite a reaction of mingling divine energies occurred, one which none could have predicted. You know that in the great game of Patolli which the gods play, you have just placed a powerful piece for Nuada in Aztaltica, more than the presence of dozens of your priests could have done. It has channelled the power of Nuada to this far off land, the province of our four Aztaltican demigods since the world began. Who can say what the result of this shall be?
“I wonder, should I even have told you how to escape at all, what unforeseen consequences shall befall my land as a result? And will those consequences be worse than a fully-rejuvenated Saurian race would have been? But no, I could not forsake such bravery. I have monitored you thus far given the prophecies of some great role you would play—indeed, it was I who aided the two-faced one in the fight against the undead guardians of Gemnia Pass; the choice would have been easier if you were all like him, but I see he has gone his own way, not surprising. But know this, now that you have played your role, we are quits, I will give you my counsel on escaping this place, but I have others to watch over
The coatl advised the legionnaires to recuperate and hide in the larder. And then escape before the Saurians came and feasted on their flesh. He advised fleeing the Grand Plaza, where the Slann dwelled, and noted escaping the city, largely depopulated of Saurians and long past its prime, should be simple. But he did note the jungle around the city was cursed, the arcane magicks of the Slann, so rare in Aztaltica, had leached into the very ground, and there were enchanted beasts which did not roam the rest of Aztaltica. He noted Maxal was the deep in that jungle, and if they wished to return to Zlatan Valley, they must head northwest many days. There were now three factions in the valley; the remnants of the Legion, the Saurians and Viperhand beasts, and the Zlatan refugees. With that, sensing some need elsewhere, Uxmalteleported away.
The band waited several hours, then ambushed the next group of skinks entered to pick bodies to drag out and feast upon. Even with only a few knives and darts, they swiftly overwhelmed the Saurians. They were clearly inside a great pyramid, as outside they could see a pair of powerful Saurus temple guards in their bone armor, facing outward, while other pyramids in Maxal were barely visible in the starlight. The band moved out swiftly, slew the pair of guards, but were nearly undone when a skink shaman came down the stairs behind them. Kanto charged the skink before he could sound the alarm, cutting him down with a maca, newly taken from the skinks. Huitley took a shimmering Pendant of Resistance from around the shaman’s neck.
Just as the coatl said, it was a simple matter to sneak through the city, dodging the occasional group of Saurians, but the streets were largely deserted, past the skink barrios, the spawning pools, and many abandoned buildings. At the edge of the city, the jungle had been cleared, and there was a series of watchtowers, with torches lighting the perimeter, and even a great Salamander the size of a small dragon. All eyes were turned outward however, wary against anything getting in, not escaping. Sunrise would be soon, so the pressure was on to escape quickly. Dmitry used one of his new spells to cast an illusion on the band, so they would appear as Saurians.
But General Cordell has a saying, the best plaid plans only last until first contact with the enemy. Everything in the city thus far had gone the legionnaires’ way, until now. Not 20 feet away, a door opened, and a burly Saurus sergeant ambled out, a bronze tankard in hand, and said something in his guttural tongue. The legionnaires tried to get out of the situation, but the Saurus was soon berating the band, presumably for disobeying orders. It was time to improvise, and before too many of the other Saurians could emerge from the building, the legionnaires struck.
They did rather well, as the illusion sowed discord, with some of the Saurians disbelieving the illusion, some confused, and others saying to attack the Saurians who looked odd. They would have to make a run for the safety of the jungle, as after holding their own in the melee, reinforcements started arriving, as the war drums played. It was like the Night of Tears all over again, a city awakening and mobilizing huge numbers against them.
Garrant said something about rearguards becoming a nasty habit, and he and Vogon, the fittest runners and toughest warriors, agreed they would delay the Saurians while making a fighting withdrawal, while the rest of the slower and weaker legionnaires made their escape. Even so, the escape was a close-run thing, after the Salamander spit a great gob of acid, as deadly and large as a good-sized fireball. Dmitry again made clever use of his new, less offensive oriented spellbook, casting a wall of fog to obscure the view of the salamander and many archers. The band soon made it, and looked back to see Garrant and Vogon cleaving through dozens of skinks, and doing a gradual fighting withdrawal, on a slightly different line of retreat to theirs, no doubt intentionally.
Atop one of the towers, a grizzled old skink--a rarity, but still lithe and apparently very strong--ambled to the rampart. He wore a black eyepatch, and held a bejeweled shortbow. He looked at the two legionnaires fighting in the open, then scowled, swiftly his eyes traced roughly along the route the others had taken, and then he seemed to be staring right at the legionnaires, despite the darkness and heavy cover. A smile crept across his leathery face, and he yelled in guttural Aztaltican “Know cattle, that I am known among your kind simply as the Great Hunter, and I will track you through my jungle and feast on your bones.”
Chapter II. Pursuit Through the Jungle
After two hours of flight, with the sun peaking above the horizon, the main band of legionnaires appeared to have lost their pursuers, so relaxed their relentless pace a bit. They appeared to have also lost Garrant and Vogon, though both were alive when last seen. The group had no choice but to carry on, as the war drums still echoed far in the distance, and if this Great Hunter was to be believed, he was on their trail.
What followed was an interminable drudgery, a continued forced march through all available daylight, bouts with disease, filth fever, even the Shakes for Winkwillow, or so Huiltey described their symptoms. Periodically, the band might catch a glimpse of a great winged beast far above them with a pair of skinks on its back, circling randomly, hunting. The group entered a deeper morass, fought off several crocodiles, including a giant one, peeled the leeches from their bodies, and slept their first night in a bit of raised ground KinCade had located. War drums were heard in the distance, no doubt the Saurians were pursuing, but the band slept the rest of the night to recover their strength and spells.
The legionnaires got an early start, and soon came across one of the most colorful birds they had seen in Aztaltica, its plumage bright red and orange. It looked somewhat like a parrot, with a gray-black curved beak and black eyes. Huiltley was unfamiliar with the type of bird, but played it a flute song, and soon the creature flew to her shoulder, accompanying the group on their travels.
The morass soon become waist deep, continuing in all directions, with the odd patch of ground often covered with thorns, though the band soon noticed less wildlife. The reason soon became apparent, as without warning, hundreds of small 8-inch diameter disk-shaped oozes, almost like jellyfish, swarmed in a great froth to attach to their bodies. Translucent and milky white, the bloodbloaters were nearly invisible underwater, but as they began to suck blood, they gain ever increasing flecks of red. There were several dead trees, including a large hollow one, and a patch of dry ground 90 feet away, and the band scattered different directions, for the blood-sucking attacks proved vicious, bypassing armor. Dmitry levitated with Kanto and KinCade clinging to his legs, trying to safely deposit them in the branches of a nearby tree. Gelben cast a spell and brought Nuada’s fury down upon one of the four swarms, doing some damage, more than Gil’s vain weapon attacks on the swarms did.
While the band was distracted, the Ahuizotl struck, or so Kanto later termed it. The beast resembled a large monkey in form, but its head and hind legs were similar to a dog, and it had a long prehensile tail, tipped with a muscular four clawed hand, oddly garbed in a leather headband. The creature grabbed with its long tail at Gelben, initially missing, but then bluffing, feinting, and dragging the priest underwater. The priest was saved by the bloodbloaters, who swarmed nearby, leading the Ahuizotal to flee. The creature then leapt up at the tree where Kanto and KinCade sat, unsuccessfully trying to drag them into the swamp. Between Dmitry and Gelben’s spellfire, the fearsome bloodbloaters were driven off, and the Ahuiztoal also saw the odds were against him, so slithered off into the swamp. The battle had been brief, but surprisingly deadly, as the red-hued water attested.
The band continued to slog through the swamp, deciding to force march into the night when they saw the continuation of the firmer ground of the jungle in the distance. They encamped after their second long day by an huge ancient stone human head covered with moss. The night passed with several false alarms. Dmitry was stung by a small scorpion in the night, with little ill effect, they heard the distinctive cough of a jaguar which wandered past, and just before dawn, a creature was heard climbing in the trees. It looked like a cross between a bear cub in the face, an otter in the body, and a monkey with its long, prehensile tail. Huitley identified it as a Kinkajou, a night walker which eats fruit in the canopy. In the morning, the legionnaires’ limbs ached from a second day’s hard march. They wished the last few months of garrison duty in Zlatan had included a bit more physical training, as they were not used to the continuous, intensive exercise.
Despite the late night marching and disturbed sleep, the legionnaires got on early start for their third day on the run, catching a glimpse of another Saurian terradon in the distance. Kanto was attacked by an anaconda, dropping from a branch, but soon slew it. The band later heard the cries of animals, startled by something ahead in the jungle, and they took cover and readied their weapons. It was something large coming from west southwest on a very broad frontage, a loud scrabbling. Soon an army of ants emerged, large ants, perhaps 4 inches long with bloated white bodies and bright orange eyes. They spread out in a broad carpet, greedily eating vegetation as they advanced, and leaving a trail, an open path behind them. The band wisely fled, moving around the great body of ants, and doubled back, using the barren clearing the ants had eaten as a road of sorts, much quicker than walking through the normal jungle undergrowth.
After three hours, the ant trail ended in a series of holes in the ground, near a pool of water. KinCade noted this was a well-trafficked areas with many types of prints. He spotted three game paths, and took the one leading northwest, generally on their line of march. Other than spotting some wild boar, which they skirted, the rest of the day passed uneventfully.
On the fourth day, the legionnaires were expertly ambushed by several reptilian beasts known as fleshrakers--thin-looking wicked spines bristled from their backs, a sinuous tail, and muscled forelimbs, glistening with poison that dulled the ability to move. Although they stood upright, the mottled green killers also ran on all-fours, 7 feet tall, 300 pounds of killing machine. The creatures began combat with a leaping jump, trying to pin their targets to the ground. However, when the advantage of surprise had run out, the surviving creatures melted into the jungle.
The legionnaires continued along the game path until evening, until the lowland trail rose to a hill, amid a jumble of boulders. Sensing danger, the band paused, and Kanto volunteered to scout ahead, hiding amid the foliage. What he did not know was that despite his expert concealment, he had long since been scented by the main body of fleshrakers. In a blinding motion, four of the beasts pounced from both sides of the trail, pinning him and seconds later dragging the Itzapan warrior into a small cave opening. The band charged up the hill, and into the narrow cave, a mere two to three feet wide, though six feet tall. The twisting nature meant very little visibility, and all weapons larger than a dagger were clumsy to wield, large macas simply useless. The band carefully arranged a single file battle array, with Gil in the lead, as they would not be able to switch places in the close quarters. He came out into a small cave, and a fleshraker leapt on him from the darkness above. As he and Gelben came into the chamber to attack, a further fleshraker attacked, retreating when its ally was slain.
The band could hear more creatures within, and so pressed on, anxious to rescue Kanto. There was a tight section, less than three feet high, which entailed getting down on floor and crawling for five feet. As Gil was halfway through, he noticed a snake, of brown and tan alternating coloration, 5 feet long, which Huitley recognized as the fer de lance, one of the most deadly of Aztaltican snakes. The terror was primordial, to be practically immobile while this deadly snake struck, the kind of things people have nightmares about all their lives, and even a seasoned mercenary can break when exposed to it. Yet Gil maintained his nerve, narrowly dodged the bite, and crushed the snake.
At this point, they came to a fork in the tunnel, the stench of rotting meat and sounds of moving to the right, and scrabbling sounds of another sort to the left. The band pressed on right, but from the left five large spiders scrabbled along the floor and ceiling, entangling Dmitry in a web. Huiltly soon freed him and they slew several of the spiders, but Dmitry was repeatedly webbed. At this point, the band heard the sounds of high-pitched reptilian screams, and after, Kanto screaming. They were close now, and the main body pressed on, leaving three behind to deal with the spiders.
Entering a final cave, they saw the last five fleshrakers and a large leader eating the dead Kanto. There was also the bodies of one adult fleshraker and five young recently slain, which no doubt had driven the rest into the frenzy just moments before. Though the legionnaires could not rescue Kanto, they swiftly joined battle. The fighting was fierce, but with nowhere to retreat and no more ambushes to spring, the beasts eventually succumbed. Meanwhile, Dmitry had now been webbed and released four times, and the smaller spiders were dead. He saw a larger spider in a final chamber, too large to ever leave it, and he slew it with spells at his leisure. Here he found a Necklace of Stabilization of Aztaltican beads, a magic item which could protect its wearer from bleeding to death.
Searching, KinCade discovered a narrow, winding cave that led out and to the surface, at the crest of the hill. The band also found amid the bones several gems, a bronze shield and scimitar, 4 armor in a bottle potions, several healing potions, a false life potion, and a strange item called a Portable Foxhole, which created a ready-made fighting position wherever it was laid down. This was a veritable treasure trove considering the band had lost their magic items, and they were greedily parsed out. As it was dusk, the legionnaires decided to spend the night in the cave. They were interrupted twice, first by a small reptilian beast which tried to make off with Dimity’s spellbook, and later by a patrol of seven skinks which had apparently been tracking them. The skinks nearly escaped, but KinCade chased and was able to bring down the fleeing shaman. On their body the found a powerful +2 Maca of Brutal Surge, which drained some energy from the wielder, but channeled even more destructive energy to the victim.
Given the patrol the night before, the Saurian force of the Great Hunter must be close, so the band got an early start on their fifth day on the run. Nonetheless, it passed uneventfully, as did the sixth day, aside from a run-in with a monitor lizard and dodging some quicksand. The band did notice a hawk had been circling them for a couple minutes, not of a variety they’d seen in these parts.
That evening the legionnaires crested another hill, and gazed down into a valley with a wide mire, some 300 feet wide, in which very little growed. Worse still, the sound of a small army at march was coming from behind. As they contemplated what to do, a white glowing orb, perhaps a foot in diameter, drifted into sight. It seemed to signal to the band, trying to get them to follow it. The legionnaires were initially reluctant, but when it glowed bright when they refused--a beacon to the Saurian army which might crest the hill behind them at any minute--Captain Gelben reluctantly relented.
The globe led them some 300 feet away, to a primitive sort of log bridge across the mire. From the rotting pilings jutting up there once was a real bridge here, long destroyed, but someone had salvaged five rounded timbers and tied them together with vines. To either side of the “bridge” was a path; to think, this must have been parallel to the legionnaires lines of march for miles, and suddenly it became clear how the Saurians must have caught up with them. There was no time to waste, so the legionnaires set out one at a time across the logs, with Dmitry levitating and being dragged along by a rope around Gelben’s waist. At first they went slowly and cautiously, but as the lead legionnaire KinCade was halfway across, the Saurian army’s skink scouts came over the hill, and with that, the globe of light, which was indeed a will o wisp, attacked.
The will o wisp was incredibly difficult to hit, though Gelben landed one lucky shot. Meanwhile, enemy skinks fanned out and began shooting arrows at the legionnaires. One, at his sergeant’s orders, reluctantly drank a potion and sped down the hill. He leapt on the logs after the last of the legionnaires, but they slew him. As he died, the skink exploded in a small fireball, something the band had not seen before. The legionnaires picked up the pace now, throwing caution to the winds, and Kincade found to his surprise that one of the logs was loose in the quicksand, and spun as he leapt upon it, throwing him into the mire. Dmitry cast more obscuring magic as the Saurian forces continued to arrive. And there was the Great Hunter, the grizzled skink smiled and tipped his head in salute before raining magic arrows on the band. A large Salamander coughed a glob of acid onto the rearguard, incurring horrific wounds, but also slaying the couple skink pursuers and inadvertantly beginning to dissolve the logs. The will ‘o wisp attacks also knocked Huitley off the logs, but she managed to grab on to the levitating Dmitry. Kincade managed to climb back onto the logs, and the mercenaries eventually made it across. A final spell from Dmitry destroyed the treacherous will ‘o wisp. The Hunter looked amused, while his officers ran to and fro in a frenzy, as there was no longer an easy method of pursuit with the logs eaten by the acid. He again tilted his head in the legionnaires’ direction, “I’m glad you’re putting up a worthy fight, but next time my quarry you will not get away.”
Chapter III. The Little People
The seventh day of the hunt dawned with a heavy rain and wearily the band pressed onward. They spotted a jaguar, and disturbed a nest of fer de lances, both avoided. That afternoon, the legionnaires arrived at a waterfall. Kincade looked down into the clear pool and slaked his thirst, surprised to face of a feathered, black-skinned warrior, wearing only a loincloth, with white paint in stripes covering his face. More significantly, he carried a long wooden blowpipe, a dart, undoubtedly poisoned. Most significantly, the man was only three feet tall, and there were a perhaps a score more emerging from hiding places. They seemed fascinated by KinCade, a halfling of their own stature, but were nonetheless serious, gesturing the legionnaires to lay down their weapons. The leader, Kashta said to his comrades“Speak not with Big People. They kill us, many always times! All Big People bad, just like El Saurim.” At KinCade’s urging, who did not wish to harm these, apparently distant cousins of his race, the band laid down their weapons and were led through hills and hidden defiles and paths to their village.
Their captors were silent, but as they marched, Huitlipacoatl remembered hearing of them, the Little People. “They said that when the four gods, Qotal, Azul, Sotek, and Tezca created humankind, according to the wishes of Qotal, he made man tall and strapping, fitted for war and for hunting. Soon, they knew, he would become master of his world. But jealous Sotek created the Saurians in his image and gave them great power so they dominated, and this made his wife Tezca happy as well, for image is of a reptile as well. But Azul was not happy, so she stole the mold Qotal used to make man. She found his husband’s tastes too warlike and saw that man was too big. She desired a toy, a little person that could become part of the forest world without becoming its master. So Azul began to work on her own mold. She copied everything that he could from the other shapes, but made these humans smaller, that they might more easily serve as toys. And when the Little People had been made, Azul set them free in the deepest jungles, where they might forever escape the notice of their larger brethren, as well as the Saurians. She bade them to hunt and fish and populate the forest, but not to become its masters.”
The legionnaires were led to an audience with the potbellied Chief Talub; he ignored the rest, but focused on KinCade. Despite his entreaties, Talub said he had made up his mind, the “Lord of Jaguars” told him they must go to the pit. Kashta objected, saying they were like no other men, and KinCade could almost be one of them but for the color of his skin. He claimed they always killed Big People, letting the Cat God devour them in the pit. He recited some of an ancient litany, which also said the killing must end sometime, that there would come one who will turn night into day and overcome the enemy of the Little People. However, Chief Talub insisted KinCade was really a “shrunk” member of the Big People.
And so the legionnaires were escorted to a wooden cage on the edge of a large pit. KinCade prepared, and his comrades cast spells upon him and gave him their limited magic items. With ceremonial flourish, the battle began an hour later, as torches were lit around the pit’s edge and the Spymaster-Captain was lowered. At the bottom was a rare black jaguar, its yellow eyes burn through the darkness like glowing spots of hellfire, while its jaws gaped open just enough to reveal long, wickedly curved fangs. It spoke in KinCade’s head, “I am the Lord of the Jaguars, and you are mine.”
KinCade, trying to fulfill the prophecy he had heard, started with a Qotal’s Sunbeam feathertoken, unleashing a searing light which luckily blinded the jaguar. However, the halfling succumbed to a mental command that he sleep. KinCade awoke with a start as the claws raked him, but he did not succumb to the charm effect again, and the blindness tilted the battle in his favor, for the jaguar could not easily find his opponent. Soon, the great cat lay dead, and a gasp of awe came from above. The area around the pit was crowded with warriors, all of them armed with the deadly darts. Yet one by one, they lay down their weapons and fell on their faces, pressing themselves to the ground in obeisance. Talub looked down and addressed KinCade, “Lord of the Little People! I begs your apology, you seemed one of them by skin, but I see it is your height more important. We didn't know who you were. You here to save us, you new king of Little People, destined to lead us from evil jungle, to lead us to war, but then to peace--as foretold in the prophecy. Kashta, tell them all we know, you right, you right.”
And so the legionnaires had won new allies. They told them in their broken Itzapan that the jungle was home to El Saurim, and that many were coming this way. He said the village would uproot itself and follow KinCade in the morning, but first they must all be made honorary members of the Little People. First they were given bone needles, given to all warriors when they came of age, giving the power of truestrike three times when activated. He also let them partake of the Pipe of Visions, using a rare blend of pipeweed and herbs. He explained it could see the past, present, and sometimes, shadows of what may. There would be three visions, and the band must decide what to focus on.
The legionnaires debated long and hard over what three visions to see, and were soon led into a small, windowless hut. Chief Talub lit the Pipe of Visions, which was two feet long of carved ivory, with a slender curved stem and a jade mouthpiece. And so the first vision came, of the Legion:
It is the road back from Gemnia Pass, in Zlatan. General Cordell is astride his horse, with Hieronymous by his side and a handful of Silver Raiders escorts. They come to a swift halt when they gallop over a hill, and see a vast army, a fair-skinned Southron army, which is not their own. There are seasoned royal troops here, Housecarls, as well as Balar Ducal troops, a company of the Flaming Fist Mercenary Company, led by a hulking captain, and perhaps a third of the troops are Legion replacements from Winterhaven—though oddly, only the troops are familiar, no officers you left behind, not even the drillmaster, Sergeant Penrith, who was supposed to accompany this class of trainees. They number perhaps 2,000 troops, perhaps more, three times the Legion at its strongest in Aztaltica, an incredibly powerful force, especially as a third of them is cavalry—the reports of their effectiveness against the natives has clearly caused more horses to be sent. At their head is a noble, whose heraldic device on his shield proclaims him as Baron Warwick Kenilworth of Balar—Cordell once described him as bloodthirsty, not liked by his men, yet well-connected, the son of the Duke of Balar.
He is well known for the dragon tattoo on his face, reputed to have powerful enchantments. Gil remembers him from the final days of the Civil War when Southron forces lay siege to the rebel stronghold on Balar, though quite young at the time, his troops established a reputation for terror, burning villages and such, though he used the lash frequently to keep discipline among his men.
A Nuadan high priest, one of the Inquisition branch, stands to one side, a powerful wizard to the other. Gelben recognizes the priest, Thalargos, one of the worst sort of Inquisitors, perhaps one of the few who were rightly locked away after the fall of the Anorien Inquisition for their excesses, but pardoned to aid in the war effort against the Cortals. Demetrious may have been a tad overzealous at times, but he had honor and would not stoop to base tools such as torture, but this one, Thalargos, had been investigated for Tempurian Heresy, and had been found before his arrest with such scriptures, which he claimed he had captured.
Cordell and Baron Warwick speak, though you are frustrated as you cannot hear what they say; Cordell looks weary, dirtied, and bloody, no doubt from days fighting, but instantly is alert and wary. Warwick is smiling, and then he is shouting, pointing at Cordell, gesturing, clearly putting on a show for the men as well as addressing the general. Guards encircle the few legionnaires, their weapons out. Nonetheless, the Silver Raiders draw their weapons warily. Cordell looks behind him, as if hoping to see the Legion, but it must be far behind, so he calmly says some words, the Silver Raiders drop their weapons, downcast, and he hands over his sword to the Baron. Warwick smiles, and gestures for them to be shacked in manacles and taken away. He then turns to Thalargos, and makes some sweeping gestures, then notices a small Zlatan village nearby. The priest nods and smiles, and a company of the black-bannered Balar troops march toward the native village weapons drawn. And then the scene faded back into smoke, and the second vision came into being—the location of the Special Mission Unit’s magical items.
There are several Viperhand cultists, their tattoos plainly visible, take the precious items after searching, deep within the great pyramid of Sotek. They take them down several sets of grand stairs, and then to a large, locked door. This they open, and say some words as they pass, and then head further down. At the bottom, they take a right down the corridor and then come to another barred door, which they again open. Within lay the weapons. A time later General Tacuba and High Priest Garkuna enter; Garkuna casts a spell and looks at them in study. General Tacuba himself takes Gil’s Feathercloak, Gelben’s large magical shield, and KinCade’s Ring of Protection, High Priest Garkuna takes Garrant’s Ring of Protection, Dmitry’s Cloak of Resistance and Vogon’s Amulet of Protection. Several of the obvious usable swords and things they understand, like feathertokens, they take away, though not exotic things like the Orcish two-handed axe, heavy metal armor, or spellbooks, as a quartermaster gives directions to various runners, and they bear some of the single weapons and such away. But at least half the items, especially the ones whose purpose is not immediately discernable to the Zlatan, lay there, as the priest locks the door. Several minutes after he does, there is a great quaking of the ground, dust comes from the pyramid stones, some cracks emerge, then the torch sconces fall, and the scene goes dark.
The third vision coalesces, for the legionnaires ask about the current activities of their former Legion comrade, Lieutenant Radamanthus Kane. They see the ranger striding across a bit of jungle, a closer look reveals different flora, more like the jungles in Itzapan and Zlatan. He looks up, aware of a hawk gliding down toward him. The bird lands on his outstretched arm, and some message passes between them. Arkane looks determined, grabs a small pack, and runs to a clearing where a giant eagle awaits. He takes off, and soon he is flying far above the jungle, and the jungle gradually dissolves into foothills, and eventually desert as time passes swiftly in the vision, and still he flies. With that, the vision ends.
The legionnaires retired to discuss the visions, while all around the Little People were packing their belongings and preparing to move. The next morning the entire village was ready to march, perhaps 300 Little People, most of them armed, though only about 100 were warriors. It was much easier going through the jungle, as the Little People knew the best trails, however, progress was slower than expected as their young and old cannot maintain the pace; prolonged forced march is simply not an option for a group so large.
They manage to keep ahead of the Saurians for a week’s march as the jungle begins to turn to hilly scrub. Kashta, the chief warrior, warns “King” Winkwillow that the Saurians were close behind. The Great Hunter, led them, including many skinks, saurus, krox, at least one salamander, and something else, something larger crashing through the jungle. He noted they would never outrun then, and had five or perhaps ten minutes to choose ground to fight on. He and his best troops would hold the center with the legionnaires, while skirmish lines would guard the flanks. They chose a position on a rise, above a shallow, wadeable river which would at least slow the enemy advance. The legionnaires lit several fires in the line of advance, in order to use Dmitry’s Pyrotechnics spell to good effect.
The Saurians sent their weak foot soliders in first, a cloud of skink skirmishers advancing on a broad front. KinCade ran to and fro, giving orders to the Little People, who fought well despite the odds. The first wave of Saurians were easily slain by arrow fire from the Little People and spells from the legionnaires, delayed by entangles to slow them, obscuring spells, and the pyrotechnics which blinded many. But the enemy was well-equipped, and knew of the legionnaires’ arcane magic abilities, for two of the skink shamans were well-prepared with Dispel Magic wands, used repeatedly to wear down the magical wards and defenses. Nonetheless, the battle was going well as the slower Saurus warriors advanced. The defender’s right flank began to be pushed back, while the center and left remained firm. Soon a Salamander, the size of small dragon, came over the rise, and started periodically breathing great globs of acid, which cut through the Little People defenders. Likewise, a pair of Kroxigor advanced, as did the Great Hunter, three skink shamans, and a Teradon with two skink archers. The last and most fearsome of the enemy was a great Triceratops, a huge reptilian beast with great horns, and a howdah on its back with a ballista and crew of several skink archers.
The battle still went the defenders’ way, shooting down the Terradon and slaying a caster, but now the Saurians had made it into melee, and more poured behind. On the right, the Little People broke, and the enemy poured toward the hill in the rear. Dmitry’s web slowed them, but soon a Saurus captain with an enchanted maca downed Huiltley, nearly slaying her. Meanwhile, the Great Hunter rained enchanted missiles, including several minor fireball arrows, into the fray. Worst of all, the great Triceratops charged and trampled Gelben and Gil underfoot repeatedly, ignoring their armor and knocking them to the ground. An epic fight ensued to take down the beast, as Dmitry took out the ballista, while KinCade circled behind to stab it, and Gelben and Gil attacked from the front.
The situation looked grim as the Saurian Captain who had downed Huitley and was leading a handful of troops round the rear turned on Dmitry. At that point, none other than Arkane emerged from the jungle, a jaguar by his side, and downed a wounded Kroxigor heading for the band. Their ex-Legion comrade, not seen in months, was able to shore up the defenders.
“I thought I heard a battle, always march to the sound of the clashing swords.” And with that, Garrant, somehow in plate mail and steel shield with a longsword, and Vogon, somehow with studded leather armor and a metal two-handed (though not headed) battle axe came into view. They instantly fell on the enemy rear, heading for the Salamander “artillery” which had done so much damage to the defenders. The Salamander reared and attacked the new threat, while the red crest skink minders put up a fight, but they were no match for two of the Legion’s finest fighters.
The giant salamander simply refused to die despite repeated strikes, but at least its deadly acid breath was diverted while it remained in melee, so Garrant directed the swift Vogon to charge the other great ranged threat to the legionnaires, the Great Hunter. The skink leader was now standing alone, and Vogon could reach him much quicker than the heavily-armored Garrant.
And then in an instant the tide truly changed, for Gelben brought down the mighty Triceratops with a final blow, perhaps the strongest individual opponent the legionnaires had ever faced, and at the other side of the field, Garrant finished off the great Salamander. Yet Vogon was in trouble; unlike the Salamander, the Great Hunter proved an excellent melee fighter after all. He downed the barbarian in several blows, but before he could administer the killing blow, Gil and Arkane charged him from behind, while Garrant was approaching from the other direction.
The aged skink could not withstand this combined onslaught, and so whistled, and grabbed onto the dangling legs of a terradon which swooped over, heading for the jungle. The legionnaires fired a few arrows and spells, severely wounding the terradon, possibly even enough to force it to land hundreds of yards away in the jungle. Nonetheless, the legionnaires were in no condition to track such a master of the hunt through his own jungle, especially not as remaining pockets of Saurian troops across the line were falling back in an orderly fashion into the jungle.
Chapter IV. Reunions and Decisions
Victory had been won, but at great cost, as the bodies of Little People warriors attested. They seemed jubilant nonetheless for having driven off El Saurim. The legionnaires could only express their thanks the enemy did not deign send out a Slann Mage-Priest, but they must have believed a group with no weapons or armor could not have been that difficult a threat. They were wrong.
It has been a harrowing week hunted in the jungle, and soon after using what healing remained and bandaging wounds and looting the enemy, all sat down with their newly reunited comrades Garrant and Vogon, ex-legionnaire Arkane, as well as Chief Talub and his redoubtable warrior captain, Kashta.
Garrant was amused, “so you’ve accumulated a small halfling army. We had some adventures of our own; we could not find you on the first day, and decided to lead them away from your line of march for a bit. The Saurians couldn’t keep up with us you see—all those years of leading legionnaire runs paid off, so we led them on a merry chase, fought some crocodiles, odd flying monkeys, giant ants, that sort of thing. We stumbled, quite by accident, on a concealed Videssian post—I think for monitoring the Saurians, as that’s the way it was oriented, on a hill several miles away overlooking Maxal. We saw someone going in with food, otherwise would have walked right by. Odd they’re monitoring the Saurians, cause it looked like they were working together on the Night of Tears, assassinating the Tican Revered Counselor like that.
Vogon interjected, “Too slow, Vogon am finish story, we break in, fight pale men, two guards put up fight, in real Southron arms and armor, make Sergeant-Major happy to wear metal plates again, me find Two-Handed Battle axe and good armor, make me kind of happy, but want Orcish axe back more. Would have carried more metal weapons back, but had to force march, and even we gets tired when carry lots. Also found healing potions, drink most. Saw big odd eyescope for looking at city, broke, then kept marching West. Heard battle, so went to quicksand, but you gone by then, so we cross new log bridge, shadow Saurian army, strike when hear battle. Very fun.
And then it was Arkane’s turn to explain how he had arrived and lent his aid at their moment of need. “After the Night of Tears, the Legion retreated to Gemnia Pass, and there held against haphazard attacks by the Viperhand creatures—the original cultist mutations to trolls and ogres, and such. However, the larger body of enemy forces, the Saurian Army created on the Night of Tears, marched after the Zlatan City refugees. The city itself is in ruins and has been largely deserted except a garrison of Viperhand beasts. I heard that Cordell was replaced in a coup of sorts by a large force of new arrivals, and that the new leader, Baron Warwick, is a brutal one, delivering collective punishment on the Zlatan, razing villages and condoning wanton murder.
Cordell and nearly all his officers, except Romnor, are locked in the makeshift castle at Nuada’s Port, where you made landfall all the way back in Itzapan. Only the influence of a new Nuadan Templar, Lord Caernarvon, prevents them from being executed. This Caernarvon is apparently a bigwig in Gelben’s Templars of St Uther, and by seniority should be the senior priest in Aztaltica (there are many here now to “spread the faith” as they say), but Warwick has put his own man, as if you could find someone more a fanatic than Demetrious, some Inquisitor, in charge. He keeps Caernarvon restricted in Itzapan with a ceremonial title as Marshal of Iztapan, while the new one is Marshal of Zlatan, where all the fighting, and slaughter, is. The Legion has been kept out of the way on purpose, permanent garrison duty at Gemnia Pass, which could be held by a tenth as many-can’t be trusted by the new regime though. There have been a couple mutinies I hear, against Warwick’s new officers, and several executions. There were a whole load of Legion replacements from Southold, but they threw Drillmaster Sergeant Penrith in the dungeon and scattered them among the other new units to keep them separate, which is probably what they’ll eventually do the Legion, and would already have done were it not for the other Nuadan high priest’s influence.
And now to how and why I came to your aid …I saw the vast column of refugees coming along way, through the desert, for this is the edge of the jungle here, on the other side of these hills, it gradually decreases to scrub and then becomes the House of Tezca as the Aztalticans call it. I was being flown at the time—long story—and skirted the refugees, from the city of Zlatan, but there were many, many thousands, more than could be counted. They were pursued by a large mob of Saurians, in almost continuous skirmishes, leaving a trail of thousands of human dead along the way. There was the oddest thing, a series of oases at fairly regular intervals along the Zlatan refugees’ line of march, not natural at all, as if the result of some great magic, to keep the refugees alive through the House of Tezca. The refugees were heading in this general direction for a time, but have turned south, so would be easy to evade, or rendezvous with given about a week’s travel. Though I’m not sure how many will be alive by then.
And so began a long and involved debate on the future of the Silver Legion’s Special Missions Unit. Should they aid the Zlatan refugees marching through the desert, pursued by the great Saurian army? But none of the legionnaires could agree to this, not when their own magic items were locked away in Zlatan city, and not while the Legion was in jeopardy. The newcomer Huiltley, supported by KinCade and Dmitry, asked the question many thought, but were reluctant to ask, should they even try to rescue the Legion, specifically the imprisoned General Cordell. It would appear that by Southron law—at at least the word of the Southron noble Baron Warwick—he had been replaced, and to defy that would be treason.
Garrant was shocked at the thought of leaving the Legion to its fate, saying that while he was no officer, he could not believe such a thing had even been suggested. “Your General needs you, your men need you. You heard of the mutinies, the executions. I say we get there, spring control of the Legion, and retake Itzapan by force—we’ve done it once before—and rescue the General. Simple and direct. Besides, if this new Warwick guy is as bad as they say, I doubt the Itzapan would fight us on his behalf—pity Atahuelpa wasn’t here, he’d help, and many of the Southrons wouldn’t want to spill Southron blood either. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to save those poor Tican refugees if we could, but we don’t stand a chance there; too much is happening at once, too much chaos, we need to make our choice well. I’ve said my piece, Captain Gelben, as the senior officer present, I’ll naturally defer to your decision.
Gelben was also adamant about supporting the Legion; with the new Inquisitor Thalargos, in charge of the Nuadans here, there was the danger both of heresy and of massacre of the natives. Besides, his old Templar mentor Caernarvon, now in Itzapan, would surely be able to help them—if they could topple this Baron as well as his Inquisitor, the rightful order could be restored. Besides, had not General Cordell been assigned all legal rights as Regent in New Southold? Surely these newcomers had illegally usurped command, so far from rebels, the band would be upholding the law by putting the rightful authorities back in charge. Vogon could care less about the politics, but when he heard his mentor Sergeant Penrith might have been imprisoned along with the Legion reinforcements from Winterhaven, his mind was made up. Gil was initially noncommittal, but soon he as well as the three who had expressed doubts, Dmitry, Huitley, and Kincade agreed that saving the Legion was worthwhile, better than splitting the band, which seemed inevitable otherwise. In the end it was probably more down to personal loyalty than politics, saving the legionnaires who they’d fought with so many years, and who deserved better than this, better to be imprisoned or scattered by some opportunistic Southron noble.
Quiet until now, Chief Talub said, “Hear many things I don’t understand, but know this, we march where you tell us to King Winkwillow of the Little People, for you will lead us through war and back to peace.” Arkane too said he would accompany his old comrades until they were to safety, at least to the Valley of Zlatan, but he would have no part in saving the Legion, an institution he had lost faith in.
After much talk, the band decided they would march as quickly as possible across the desert, the House of Tezca, then one group would split off to sneak into Zlatan city and recover their magic items from the vault in the Pyramid of Sotek, while the second group would continue the long journey to the mountain kingdom of Huatepec, to try for a second time to gain allies, this time to march against Itzapan if necessary to rescue General Cordell. The two groups would then rendezvous outside the Legion camp at Gemnia Pass, overwhelm the new officers if need be, rouse the Legion to rescue their imprisoned General. From then, they would decide how to proceed, whether it be a surprise, conventional strike against the capital with the Huatepec and Legion forces, or a more indirect coup attempt by a smaller band, or a mixture of both. In any case, it would no doubt requiring the Special Missions Unit to infiltrate Iztapan first to gather information and lay the groundwork for their plans. There were many choices to be made; but the band agreed to first focus on crossing the desert, followed by the three goals of regaining their items, winning the Huatepec allies, and then regaining control of the Legion.
And so we close Book VI of the Aztaltica saga, as the Silver Legion Special Mission Units members face a series of choices: the upheaval caused by the Night of Tears was worse than they had first guessed. It was as if the entire world order of Aztaltica was turned upside down, the redoubtable General Cordell imprisoned, and a much worse replacement put in his stead, an entire race of former enemies at threat by the new Saurian menace, and of course, the officers were still without most of their magic items. And so the legionnaires set out to cross the House of Tezca, on their way to rescue their Legion comrades and start down the road of insurrection against the new Southron authorities.
Go to next section of the Log, Interlude V: Out of the Woods