The theme for our 21st seasonal short story contest provided by @WhenTheSkinksMarch "New Beginnings or Rebirths" Please read all ten stories before voting. You may vote for up to three pieces. Spoiler: Story One: New Beginning New Beginning - XI, 331, 3, 52 - Travel day 15 Sunlight showering down upon a blanked of waves. The bow of the "Aislinn's pride" plowed through the water with ease. Though the journey had been calmly, the sight of sea days on end made a part of the crew feel travel-weary. Opposing to the sea fast shipman on whose care they placed themselves to travel this far from home. Given the chance they'd rather travel the whole thousands of miles by land, but, to their despair, there is no way to travel out of Ulthuan without crossing the Great Ocean. Well protecting the homeland from raids by foot, it acts as a friend and foe for those who, like them, are not born for a life at sea. "Land Ahoy!" shouted by the spotter at the front of the ship. Archibalt Grerona and his men managed to hoist themselves up from the wooden deck. With trembling legs the stumbled to the railing to take a glimpse in the distance. It looked like Asuryan himself drew at the horizon, creating land as they sailed closer. At first a lonely spot of black appeared, slowly growing wider and wider, changing color from black to green. As the ship approached the shore the shape of vast amounts of trees became clear. Amidst this, seemingly endless, coast of vegetation one beacon of hope and light rose high. The Citadel of Dusk. Even in the fading light a bright sight of hope. A sigh of relief rose from the deck as the sound of seagulls was swelling to support the urge of soon having solid ground to stand on. Not much later the ship boarded the harbor. "Welcome to the bottom of the world," announced the captain cheerfully "mind the gap, please take all of your belongings with you and you can keep the borrowed buckets!" This resulted in a wave of laughter amongst the ship men. To preserve some form of dignity Archibalt led his men across the pier to the closest inn: 'Come on' "We'll rest solidly tonight" assured Archibalt his men. "No more rocking in my sleep" confirmed Tyrual relieved. "Room for five please!" The Innkeeper handed a key and gestured to the stairs "Second floor, third door on your right. Would sir and his men like dinner served?" "Thanks, but no thanks. We will be resting until the morning" No food would be received well at that moment. They hoisted their luggage upstairs "Tomorrow we'll eat, create plans and gather inventory" Archibalt looks upon his crew as they settle for the night. Tomorrow will begin the real challenge, this is what the brothers Tyrual and Sinaht Aewarin are looking out for from the start. These fine swordsmen long for some action, especially after those long days at sea. Accompanied by a scout, Ayluin Balnan, and most important by Jandar Glynnala, the mage assigned to this task. With the daylight now completely gone the sounds of the lands outside the citadel became clearer. - XI, 331, 3, 53 - Travel day 16 In the morning they left the inn, well rested and fed. They manned the gates to scout the next chapter of the adventure. A path that few dared to walk before, even fewer ever returned. The Lustrian jungle. Seeing the doubt on the faces of his men, Archibalt turned to them and said: "The briefing was clear and our intention pure." No change of expression was detectable on their faces. "Hoeth will guide and protect us" he added. After those words the company walked away from the wall, down to the harbors and the boulevard. Archibalt knew that after leaving the safety of the Citadel their fates will lie all but in their own hands. As the day past they gathered information, inventory and took rest. Doing so, bit by bit, their mood and courage came back. At noon they went back to the inn. Archibalt set his men around the table: "Rest and eat, guys, for at nightfall we will continue our journey." Mists covered the path leading from the gate. In the fading light a display of shadows grew longer. In every direction there wasn't more than 50 feet of sight. Five shadows cross the plain to the jungles edge in secrecy, hardly noticeable. The vegetation closing after them. - XI, 331, 3, 54 - Travel day 17 Struggling through the jungle, Archibalt is making his way, followed by Tyrual, Jandar and Sinaht. Alyuin appears in front of them: "All's clear ahead sir!" A days march is behind them now, most of it they have been traveling by night. Cloaked in a basic invisibility spell they managed to travel with ease. So far they didn't come across any sign of sophisticated life. Either there is nothing in these parts of the jungle or they're not tent to show themselves. Archibalt turns to Jandar: "What do you think, Jandar, how much further?" "I'd say just a couple of miles. It feels stronger as we move deeper in to the jungle" "You heard him guys," Archibalt rallied his men, "move on!" He turns around to find that Ayluin is moved on already. Quickly the rest of the company turns up the pace to catch up with him. After a couple of hours Archibalt raises his hand to sign the company to a halt. "Something isn't right" he whispers to Sinaht, "Ayluin skipped his last report interval." "Do you think something has happened" "It is nothing for him to be lazy or disobedient." "I will take a closer look." "Be on your guard!" Sinaht moves ahead drawing the iconic great sword of the swordsmen of Hoeth. Behind him Tyrual does the same. Looking around to be sure no one can ambush them from the back. "Jandar, what about our cloaking?" Visibly annoyed he reacts: "What about it?" "Is it still active?" "Of course it is!" "Did you notice anything about it the last couple of hours?" "Nothing..." Rustle in the vegetation made an abrupt end to the conversation. "Sinaht?" asks Tyrual hopefully, "any clues?" Nothing Then there is more rustle all around. Something is moving just out of sight. Archibalt, Tyrual and Jandar turn back-to-back-to-back. Tyrual with his sword at the ready, Jandar with his hands stretched to cast a spell and Archibalt with his ax and dagger. Waiting for some form or shape to break the line of vegetation. Again Nothing. Then as if struck by lightning Tyraul falls to the ground. Even before Archibalt can register what is happening he feels a sharp pain in the side of his neck. Just before he loses consciousness he sees a feathered dart hitting Jandar. - XI, 331, 3, ? - Travel day ? Deep, deep in the jungle, amidst pyramids and spawning pools, Archibalt and his men wake up from a long terrible slumber. Tied to stone statues surrounded by hordes of blue and red, teeth and scale. Five statues standing in a circle at the bottom of a great trapped pyramid. Skinks and Sauri swarming around the company of strangers. All hissing and growling but keeping their distance. At the stairs a skink appears and the crowd grows wilder, raising limbs and roaring load. The skink raises his hand. As like out of one mouth the lizards shout a name: “ Xiliquncani!” after that a silence came across the wide square. At the top of the Stairs an other shadow take form, greater then the skink, a chair floating at the very end of the stairs. On it was a Slann, awakened from his meditative state. “Who dares to trespass the Jungles of Lustria?” these words were not spoken, for the lips of the Slann did not move, but all five heard it. “My name is Archibalt,” Archibalt replied, “we travel by the order of Phoenix King Finubar in the name of Hoeth.” “What do puny pointy-ears want from our lands? Gold?” “We purely are looking for wisdom, o great amphibian! We search the world for knowledge and unknown secrets. Your lands run with Old magic.” “Old magic! Who are you calling old!?” “I did not want to offend you,” reacted Archibalt quickly, whilst adding doubtfully “…. Sir?” “We know you are the only one who could show us the plans of the Old Ones” stepped Jandar in. “You could not comprehend the knowledge about it all,” this time the Slann added out lout, “you pointy-ears think you’re so great and all knowing!” “Show us and we will know” bagged Jandar. “Why do you seek the will of the Old Ones after abandoning your creators for so long?” “We sense a cataclysmic disaster coming,” admitted Jandar, “and we don't know what to do or expect. Do we need to fight it or is this the inevitable end of times?” For the first time Xiliquncani waited a minute to respond, like He needed time to think and way the options. “You sense but are not able to see, we see but do not feel the need of Action” He continued, “let me show you what is about to come” He lifted his finger and the tight ropes of the five of them dropped immediately. He raised his hand and the Elves lifted of the ground floating upwards the stairs. When nearly at the top Xiliquncani turns his chair around and the Elves floated behind him in to the chamber at the top of the pyramid. Once inside the doors where closed and sealed. In the darkness of the room the Elves could here the Slann getting into his meditation. After a few minutes his chair lighted up, the glyphs all around on his chair became fluorescent blue. It started weak but turned unto vibrant blue. A second change was happening, the glyphs turned from blue to red to green, and back to blue. This sequence repeated itself over and over. Then the glyphs grew bigger and bigger, still changing colors, until the room was filled and all darkness was puahes away. At that moment the flickering colors stopped and there was a cosmos of colors remaining. At the roof of the room a bright light appeared, moving across the room. In it's wake two blazing tales of fire. Then everything went dark again. The next moment sounds of battle emerge, swelling and then fading away. At last the cosmic colors are back again and this time several lights are floating in this space. Not as bright as before but calmer, more comforting lights. They look like orbs floating each on it's own, like rather big drops of heaven. Each drop containing life, in it's own climate and culture. At the centre there is a person bright in appearance, firm in his golden throne. Next moment the darkness is back, surrounding all present. After a few seconds the doors open again and the Slann and Elves leave the chamber Archibalisis the first to break the silence: “ what is the meaning of all this?” Jandar turns to Xiliquncani: “is there any hope? Any way out of what will happen?” “No there is not,” he replies, “what you have seen will come to pass” “Then all hope is Lost!” “For the living is no hope, for there is only misery and destruction. But there will also be a time of a new beginning. Hope that not all is lost.” Spoiler: Story Two: "The Red Thing in the Desert" The Red Thing in the Desert Tla'tzep grumbled softly to himself as he surveyed the land ahead of him. His eyes blinked and swiveled in their bulging sockets as the chameleon-skink took in his surroundings. Like all of his kind, his unusual eyes let him look in two directions at once. Other beings would find it confusing, but he was used to the unusual effect. Behind him lay a thick, dense forest canopy, filled with wildlife and tasty insects. Before him lay a broad, shallow river. The slow-moving river teemed with life, clouds of flies hovering over the water, providing a tasty snack for the odd frog. On the other side of the river, beyond the water, lay a thin green sward and miles upon miles of sandy desert. Given a choice, Tla'tzep would have preferred to remain in the forest. Alas, he had been given orders to explore and map the Realm of Ghur, and he took his duties seriously. The Starseers and Priests had decided it was time to take a more active role in the Realms, and they wanted an idea of what had changed while they had remained secluded. Steeling himself, he walked slowly down to the river's edge, making sure to keep his camouflage abilities active. Examining the water allowed him to relax a little. There were no signs of the nasty predators he'd found in other parts of the Realm. Using a stick as a depth-finder, he picked his way across the river to the other side. Climbing up the sandy bank, he gazed out across the dunes, blinking furiously at how the light reflected and glittered off of the sand. Carefully, he prodded the sand with his stick, wary for anything that might trap him. But before he could take a step out into the dunes, something flew past his face! He blinked twice more, then cast his gaze at where the thing landed. He glanced around to make sure nothing else was nearby, then walked over to the item. About the size of his fist, it was small, bright red, and shiny. He prodded it a few times with his stick, and picked it up, frowning. He'd never seen the like! It squished just a little as he picked it up. It vaguely reminded him of the hardened tree gum artisans back home would use when setting power crystals in a Solar Engine. As he shifted his hand, the small red object made a soft jingling sound. Curious, he shook it gently. The jingling sound grew louder. He was going to investigate further, but a noise from behind him made him drop the red thing in shock and take pains to blend into his surroundings. A moment later a trio of large rat-like dogs bounded into view over a sand dune! Eyes wide in fright, he hunkered down next to a rock and did his best to hide. As they came closer, they kept repeating the same half-bark noise over and over. “Bhall! Bhall!” Twice his size and covered in dirty, matted fur, they drew close to his hiding spot but stopped when they spotted the red thing. One of them howled in delight as another picked up the red thing in its jaws. Once the rat-thing had picked it up, all three of them bounded away, over the dunes they'd come from, still repeating that odd barking sound. “Bhall! Bhall!” Tla'tzep emerged from his hiding space but kept his camouflage active. A tiny part of him wanted to find out more, but his innate caution told him to continue with his task. The desert was large, but he suspected that he would find the rat-things again as he explored. Keeping that knowledge firmly at the forefront of his mind, he returned to his explorations. Spoiler: Story Three: "Alone in the Dark" Alone in the Dark The world around him was cold. A chill that had never penetrated his scales, much less crept under his hide, now permeated his bones. The cold was not the only feeling that touched the great beast. Eyes slowly opening, the creature stood up from a jagged bed of rocks. A wetness surrounded him, and dribbled off of his wide shoulders. Blurry images of other scaled forms could be seen in a poorly lit chamber, scattered about the water filled pools. A massive clawed hand reached up from his side and cradled his pounding skull. Another unfamiliar sensation, the rush of blood to the great creature's brain brought confusion. Yet with it came a dim clarity, as his senses sharpened with the sudden pain in his skull. A sweet and repulsive smell filled his nose, the pool at his feet sloshing against his ankles as he took a step back from one of the forms. It too was cold, like he had been, but it was unmoving. Bloody. It looked like one of his spawn-kin. The dots connected themselves slowly, as his memory returned. They were his spawn-kin. His clawed hand moved away from his skull, the wetness there deep crimson against his dark blue-green scales. A bracelet of gold hung from his wrist, glyphs hammered into it. His name, given to him by one of the small ones. The beast rumbled low, reaching out and prodding one of the little bodies. Not one moved of it's own accord as he searched them. His reverberating growl turned to a weak whine. Even the greatest of his spawn-kin, the one with a red crest, lay atop a small rocky platform at the edge of the pool. This one's heart had been pulled from the chest. Another low growl followed as he turned from his slain kin, looking for an exit from this nightmarish place. One was not but a few dozen strides away, on the stony platform that Red Crest was laying on. With a snap of his jaws and a few experimental slaps of his tail in the water, the great beast headed for the tunnel entrance. It too was dark, cold and wet. Streaks of red could be seen along the tunnel floor, leading from the pools behind him and into the darkness before him. Another smell filled the tunnel, one that made saliva pool in his mouth and his muscles tense for a hunt. Rats. Their musk was thick in the air. ----------------------------------------------------------- "Why do we wait-camp here? Scale-things are dead-dead...." muttered a ratman as he stood guard at the edge of a ragged camp. A toothpick of a spear was clutched in one paw lazily, the other holding a shield made of rusted iron and rotten wood. To his left, was another ratman, almost identical were it not for the bandage around his head where an eye would be. "Clawlord Skagllesnirt spoke-squeaked. Think-thinks there are more in the tunnels. Scale-things are tricksy, he say-squeak all the time." the other replied, seeming bored, though his one good eye did eye the other skaven contemptuously. The first scoffed and kicked a rock against the tunnel wall that they stood at. Behind them, the camp was a mess of green sickly light and noise. Situated at a crossroads of three separate tunnels, the camp was supposedly more defensible this way. "Skagllesnirt say-squeak this, say-squeak that...." it mocked the other's reedy voice. This continued for a few moments more before the two were brawling with knives. It was then that a massive pale grey and blue shape came barreling from the darkness. Eyes bright yellow and gleaming with rage. No roar came as its massive jaws closed around the first skaven's head. The second was frozen in fear, seeing half of his compatriot disappear in a bloody mess. Opening his mouth to call for help in a shrill plea, the vermin only got half a word out before the shape twisted violently. A meaty tail smacking him to the side, cutting off his words. Colliding with the tunnel wall, the wind was knocked from the small ratman's lungs. It slumped, dazed, before a giant clawed foot kicked his head against the stone. Blood, brains, and skull-fragments splattered up the wall, touching the ceiling nearly twenty feet up. Despite the violence, no rat in the camp seemed to notice. The great scaled shape grabbed both bodies and dragged them back down the tunnel. It hustled along quickly and as silently as he could. All the while, the great crocodilian reveled at the warmth of meat in his belly. The blood may have tasted of corruption and the meat stringy, but it was meat nonetheless. It was a few minutes of travel back down the tunnel before the warmth seemed to seep away and the great one stuffed the other half of the first skaven into his gullet. Stopping at a branching tunnel, he squeezed into it. It was a much tighter fit, but it served as a hole to hide in while he ate and recollected his dim thoughts. There in the darkened corner of the small tunnel, he looked once more at his bracelet, trying to fathom the writing. He remembered being called something, but what it was escaped him. The memories before awakening were fuzzy, blurred. There had been a reason to come into these tunnels. A reason that he could not fathom. Yet he remembered it had to do with the stars. The thought brought with it a longing, to see the stars, to reach them. Looking to the ceiling of the cave, his crocodilian snout touched the stone there. The headless corpse in his clawed hand was set down, and he too sat. There were many others, he realized. The scent of the camp had been repugnant, but it was not the only source of intriguing smells. Others different from the ratman stench could be detected coming from many more small branching tunnels. One thought pressed against the thick skull of the beast. He was alone. Far from home, and without a memory to guide him. Absently pulling the corpse to his mouth, he tore off an arm and swallowed it whole. The warmth relaxed him enough to make him comfortable against the rough rock. The pain was receding in his skull now, and the cold was retreating from his bones. Perhaps once he had done more hunting, things would be more clear. Spoiler: Story Four: "The Strange, Strange Skink" The Strange, Strange Skink Hung over Xlanhuapec’s many temples and surrounding jungle lands was the darkness of night. The various stars aligned in orderly fashion, but each star still flashed with such individualistic light, the skies were afire in color. The night’s reign went on longer than usual, for it was Huanchi’s holiest day - the Winter Solstice. The Prevalence of the coldness and windy gusts made it known to all lizards. Most stoically observed the affair and prayed, some celebrated it lively, while few looked within themselves to decipher the meaning behind a lizard’s natural fear: The cold, ominous night. A pair of skinks chirped and laughed and argued on as they walked. They knew what they were going to do tonight. “Don’t think any saurus will come, though,” Ta-Elli said while chuckling. “Too busy pondering how to do anything other than fighting!” “Oh dear, o’ dear!” Khake shouted with a worried look. “What did I say about making fun of sauri?” “What? They won’t say anything.” “They won’t SAY anything, but they will definitely DO something!” “They will STARE,” Ta-Elli emphasized with a smirk. “At nothing in particular, of course.” “Ah!” Khake sighed heavily. “Let’s all just agree to disagree then.” The skinks continued their walk while they talked, laughed, and argued with each other until a figure suddenly appeared in front of them. It had the build of a skink, yet its skin was dark green like that of a swamp, and its eyes bulged profusely. “Oh dear, o’ dear!” Khake shouted. “It’s a rat!” The figure silently stood there; its eyes staring in an aloof manner. “You! YOU!” Ta-Elli pointed towards his friend, jaws and teeth enraged. “My apologies!” Khake said as he felt his crest fall and the embarrassment consuming him. “Please forgive my friend here… chameleon skink? I’ve never met a chameleon skink before. What’s ya name?” “Vicu…” the chameleon skink said, trying to forget what just happened. “It’s pretty deserted here tonight. Is there something to do? Or do I need to gaze towards the stars?” “We’re actually heading towards a gathering now,” Ta-Elli said. “So long it’s about training and killing, I would like to come.” Vicu replied, his face reserved in emotionlessness. “Oh, sure - the gathering is exactly about that!” the two skinks shrieked in unison, excited to have such a mysterious, unique skink coming along with them. All three walked on some more as they passed various temples and their sauri bodyguards; the streets remaining more or less empty. It seemed most observed Huanchi’s holiest day in silence. A few gusts of air passed until chirpings and hissings of a skink’s erupted yet again. “So…” Ta-Elli uttered. “What do you do, Vicu? I bet it’s something incredibly interesting!” “I kill rats.” Ta-Elli blinked in bemusement and disbelief. He tried speaking, only for Khake to interrupt. “And then what?” Khake questioned. “And then I sleep.” “I say,” Khake looked at Vicu as some sort of intriguing artifact. “That perfectly encapsulates a saurus’ daily routine.” Vicu, surprisingly enough, smiled contently. “I admire saurus. Thank you.” Ta-Elli was about to utter a snickering joke, but then Khake punched him square in the back. “Ah yes, I ALSO admire saurus. Capable, competent lizards they are.” The three skinks eventually reached a courtyard secluded to the far reaches of the city. Boisterous screeches and cheers could be heard beyond the entrance. The three could tell something big and quite eventful was happening. A great sacrifice of anathema such as the wretched skaven? A congregation of skinks graduating to priesthood? Whatever it was, it beckoned the three skinks forth. What was seen made Khake and Ta-Elli burst into joy. Vicu, however, felt a blood vessel pop; his face swayed into sheer disgust and horror. Hundreds of skinks whose origins seemed to be from various corners of Xlanhuapec played and laughed and chatted, completely oblivious to their surroundings. Some went into pools of water, turned around, and wrestled with their tails. Some read riddles with each other, while others drank quite excessively. A skink even drew line art of a stegadon upon his friend’s back and portrayed an additional one clambering on top, performing what seemed to be the stegadon's natural copulation act of mounting— “Okay. I’ve seen enough.” Vicu said before quickly turning ‘round and starting his departure towards whence he came from. “What’s the deal?” Ta-Elli caught up with Vicu. Khake came along as well. “I have business to attend to,” Vicu said as growling emanated from him. “You two also lied.” “Well, technically it is FOR training. The skink chiefs organized the gathering in accordance to the slanns’ wishes,” Khake said. “Yeah, why not come along with us?” Ta-Elli persisted. Vicu stood there, frozen in place as was his glare. It pierced into the two skinks’ souls, and it felt as if they were stabbed by pure malice. “I am not like you two.” And just as Vicu appeared in front of them earlier, the chameleon skink disappeared into nothingness. Any visible trace of him gone with the winds. Ta-Elli could tell something was going on inside Vicu’s mind. Whatever it was, he wished the mysterious chameleon skink luck. *** Vicu’s head twisted in pain. It had felt that way ever since he went with those two skinks, and intensified when reaching that gathering meant for ‘training.’ His life was one full of killing and fighting and training. Rats feared him whenever he hid amongst the darkness, and feared his revealed form still. So great was his pride, his entire being recoiled at the thought of being made fun of. Even more so by skinks who’ve never experienced what it was like to kill. What it was like to live deep in the jungles. And yet, from such pain, he still felt warmth and it soothed him. In truth, he only followed those ridiculous skinks for the warmth that was as rare as gold. For all his life, he only knew the frigid, bitter existence that was loneliness. The pain had pounded him as such, he wondered how he could go on. How he could ignore this pain thumping from within forever. As a scout, and in such a position he held, the feeling came naturally. His mind felt like two incomprehensible forces were pulling his head apart. An aching experience rivaling his persistence to stay awake. Trudging on, Vicu soon thought of an associate of his. A wise associate rarely seen, but could nonetheless provide help in this torment he found himself so submerged in. *** A distinctively shaped temple closer to Xlanhuapec’s center towered above Vicu. A pair of temple guards flanked the entrance, crossing their mighty halberds. Such ruggedly built warriors stood frozen in place like statues, but would burst into incredible violence should danger present itself to whatever they protect. As Vicu walked forth, the temple guards stepped away, allowing the chameleon skink his entry. It seemed the guardians knew the visitor fully well despite never meeting once before. Vicu went onwards in the winding hallway that was the path taken, until he reached a room livened and enlightened with braziers. An aroma wafted between his nostrils; a smell he could only imagine oozed from the Old Ones’ paradise itself. Moments later, he came upon what he was looking for - an aged skink priest whose crinkles streaked across its scales like waves of an ocean. “Dakari. It is a pleasure to meet you.” Dakari, the aged skink, smiled widely and contently like flames of the braziers. “Vicu? Is… is that you?” Dakari croaked, still smiling. “My boy! My son! This is a… long time coming!” “Yeah,” Vicu replied, albeit feeling a tad cringed. “Figured I’d stop by Xlanhuapec for the Winter Solstice.” “Wonderful. It is wonderful to chat with chameleon skinks such as yourself. It… it always seems an hour with them passes by in mere minutes.” Flattered, Vicu smiled. He knew Dakari as an insightful old soul, living out his years deciphering the word of the Old Ones and the actions of the slann. With such experience, it was natural for the old skink to be seen by many as a mentor of sorts. Behind Dakari, Vicu saw a large engraved rectangle topped off by the blooms of variously colored flowers and other flora. “Is that a garden?” “Oh yes. Gardening soothes the mind; even amongst the buzz of bees… and the never-ending chirpings of birds,” Dakari said, walking over to the flowers. “It is simply breath taking. I adore the orderly structure of them all.” To Vicu, the garden seemed a massive, unpredictable collection of bright colors. Dakari continued. “Though… it pains my heart to see other lizards who don’t think the same. Kroxigors and saurus always eat the flowers… never admiring the beauty of them first, AND my hard work!” Vicu flinched; his cheeks reddening in embarrassment. Did Dakari read his mind? The chameleon skink got himself together and spoke up. “I’ve come to talk to you. It’s a grave matter.” Dakari’s expression darkened at the chameleon’s choice of words. “Oh. What is it?” “Yes, it is a grave feeling,” Vicu said as his tone lowered. “I’ve been highly decorated. Highly renowned, and yet, I still feel very much empty. It is as though my entire being feels hollow.” “Ah. Loneliness. Chameleon skinks always experience this, if not for their immensely rare spawnings.” Vicu’s crest rose; his joyful smile widening. “So you know the solution to this? How to overcome and prevail over this feeling!?” “Nope. Not at all,” Dakari said as he stroked one of the flowers. Vicu’s smile and his newly found joy immediately ceased. Silence followed. Dakari noticed this. “I simply cannot because… I am not you. It is such a personal issue, and I do not know what it is like to be a chameleon… skink. What it is like to be you.” “Ahh,” Vicu heavily sighed. The pounding of his pain grew louder and stronger. “It is all up to you,” Dakari said, softening his tone. “Only… you can decide what’s best for yourself. I wish you luck.” “What a headache. Thanks.” Vicu exchanged some more pleasantries before leaving the temple. He walked on, but his mind never thought once. He had felt there was nothing else to do, but to gaze towards the starry night above. He saw various stars aligned in orderly fashion, flashing with such individualistic light, the skies were afire in color. Each star espoused such beauty, he gazed on. He was transfixed on the sight created by the Old Ones themselves; its allure of order and the purity of it all. He thought it silly to ponder if the stars were all created equal, but that was all he could do. To ponder if skinks weren’t created equal. To wonder if that should be the way forward. Vicu thoroughly believed he was the best and brightest of skinks. Yet he questioned the use of such pride when there was no one left to uphold it… *** The chameleon skink came back to whence he came from - the courtyard. The number of skinks who celebrated the occasion thinned out, but there were still many left. Moments later, he found Ta-Elli and Khake; all watered and muddied up. “Thought you didn’t want to come!” Ta-Elli shouted, excited for the chameleon skink to show itself once more. “Thought you held much contempt for us!” Khake shouted, embarrassed for his outburst earlier. Vicu smirked and suppressed a giggle. “Yeah. Pretty much. I’d like to celebrate still, though.” The chameleon skink got down to the level of his fellow skinks and tail wrestled. He lost decisively in all his attempts, was made fun of, and was subject to many of the jokes. Even then, despite the growing embarrassment, he felt warmed and fulfilled, for it was the first time in years he had genuinely laughed. Spoiler: Story Five: "Second Chance" Second Chance Darkness. There was only darkness. Kaunobrz blinked in the inky blackness, not floating, not sinking, simply being. The darkness was pressing in on his senses and he could not decide whether his eyes were open or closed- or even whether he was breathing. It had not occurred to him that he had started breathing in the first place, that his eyes were seeing. In the darkness he saw and he was. Darkness. But not only the darkness. A shimmering and flickering light, burning closer and brighter, his eyes narrowing against the near blinding glow, his lungs began to constrict. Breathing, which had been new and easy moments ago drove Kaunobrz to flail and thrash as his chest burned with a need he didn’t know he had. The light drew closer and before him he saw arms, hands, claws - his own claws - pulling him towards the light, the light he somehow knew he had to reach. Suddenly around him, bodies writhed and clawed, he alongside them. All of those empty shapes and hollow bodies chasing the life they had only just been given, the life which was fast disappearing. His head broke the surface and Kaunobrz gasped for the air he’d never needed before. He pulled himself spluttering to the edge of the spawning pool, scraping along carved stones, stories from millenia ago and for millenia to come. This was his life now, just as it had always been. A small colourful beetle meandered its way up the lichen covered tree trunk, its iridescent shell catching the dawn light. Kaunobrz glanced sidelong at the beetle as it stretched its wings and buzzed off into the jungle canopy. The saurus turned his gaze to the clearing below him, watching, waiting. A few heart beats later the undergrowth rustled as a vicious reptilian creature stepped into the pale sunlight. Kaunobrz tightened his grip on the obsinite-tipped spear that had been resting lazily at his side. His first movement since he had scaled the tree in the darkest hours of the morning. His eyes tracked the cold one as she picked her way carefully through the mottled light, scenting the air every few steps and, appearing satisfied wither her investigation the lethal predator circled a spot at the edge of the clearing near the splayed roots of an ancient tree before lying down, her tail tucked around her. Mteay. That was what the saurus had named her. The beetle returned to the tree where Kaunobrz sat with a low hum. Mteay’s nostrils flared, but her eyes remained closed and a few moments later the cold one was asleep. Kaunobrz watched for another hour before he silently alighted from his hiding place and returned to the city. He knew who he was. As soon as his scales had met sunlight, the moment his eyes drank in the lush jungle and the towering stone structure around him, hidden within the greenery, he had known. Looking around him at his brothers, he saw the same scales, the same claws, the same power and deadly purpose. He knew who he was, but he did not know how. He had not been born, as such, he had been sent. Sent by those that have seen, are ever watching and gaze into the world that is yet to come. He knew who he was. Kaunobrz resumed his dawn vigil the next day. His cold, unfeeling eyes scanning the tree line, watching the undergrowth. The bird song of the early morning had somewhat diminished with the rising of the scorching Lustrian sun. The saurus watched with little interest as a pair of colourful birds flitted through the canopy around his rigid form, spiralling downwards into the clearing. They completed another loop of the sun bathed space before chasing each other upwards into the foliage. Kaunobrz sniffed the air, a claw twitching against his firm grip on the spear. Trust was not a concept he was acquainted with, aside from that of his brothers, but Kaunobrz blinked in respect- recognition, as one predator to another- as the muscular reptile stepped into the clearing. She circled her usual space and lowered herself onto the warm earth. The saurus waited until the sun was reaching towards its peak, the fragmented pools catching the scales of the beast, the guardian of the clearing. Mteay’s breathing was calm and she did not stir as the animals of the jungle went about their daily rituals and practices. Kaunobrz blinked once; twice, then crept from his vantage point. He followed his brothers towards the main city, the gold ring pushed through his flesh shining, some blood dripping down his jaw from where his skin had been pierced. His skin now scarred forever. The first of many scars, no doubt. A killer. That’s what he was. What he had always been. With divine purpose. That’s who he was. Whatever weapons were pushed into his hands, whatever creatures were placed before his swinging arm, his lethal blade, he would take in his crushing stride. He reclaimed his place in the tree several days later, waiting with an uncanny stillness and patience. The sun reached its peak and began to descend before Kaunobrz left the clearing. Mteay had not returned. The following day, the clearing remained empty. The next, wind shook the trees and rain drenched the jungle, marking the coming of the wet season. Through the rain, the saurus glimpsed no movement, save for the jungle creatures that scurried for shelter in the building crescendo of lightning and thunder. The clearing was filled with debris and chaos the day after. Kauobrz picked his way along the jungle floor, his footsteps silent- perhaps quite unlike his saurus brethren. Across the far side of the hollow, the ancient tree had torn its roots from the ground, it’s massive trunk bisecting the muddy clearing. Kaunobrz stepped towards the devastated earth and gazed at the tangled mess of roots and dirt. He tightened his grip on the spear as his knuckles strained. A gleam of white caught the saurus’ eye and he glanced at the torn earth, where leaves and twigs had fallen in the storm. He blinked at the ground, scattered with debris before stooping down into the muck, claws scraping and clearing the earth. His movements were jagged and hurried as he pulled out shards of white. Dirt fell through his hands as he pulled out the shards of eggshell, crushed into oblivion. The slivers of white like bones in some sort of ancient burial ground. Kaunobrz blinked at the mess of earth and leaves and shell and twigs. The birdsong had been soft this morning, as if the very world was grieving for its own loss. Kaunobrz didn’t know grief. He knew what he was. What he’d always been, always will be. His massive claws caught on something as he slowed his incessant excavation of the site, and with immortal calm and predatory grace, the saurus pulled out the egg. Cracks had crisscrossed the egg and Kaunobrz straightened as he marveled at the delicateness, the intricacies of the shell. Had he been too late? He knew what he was. He knew who he was. But he did not know what he had been, because he had always been. There was no beginning or end to his purpose, nor his existence. No, he had not been born, as such, he simply was. But could he be more? Could he have more? The shell twitched and the spider web-like cracks flexed at some outward pressure. Could he have the chance to start again? To try again? The egg shell flaked and trembled, and Kaunobrz gazed at the tiny, fragile creature in his claws. And the creature gazed back. A new birth, a new creation? Kaun’zri, he would call her. His chance to start again. Spoiler: Story Six: "The Message Repeats" THE MESSAGE REPEATS Indianus Van Joneth, heir apparent to the grand house of Joneth, the strongest house in all of Stirland, was wet. No, he decided, wet didn't begin to describe it. It’s like something wet, had found a new, lower existential plane of wetness. As if – A large branch, covered in moisture laden leaves slapped him from his feet. Spluttering, he scrambled out of the mud-filled loam and regained his feet, his manservant blabbering his apologies. Strange calls of birds and animals drifted out of the trees before him. Ignoring Leonart’s yammering, he looked up and again wondered why in Sigmar's name he had taken up this challenge. Tree trunks stretched out around him, moss covered trunks and branches bursting with fat leaves dripping with jungle condensation. He had been told that Lustria was hotter than the Empire, but how could it be hotter and wetter? He wiped a mixture of sweat and water from his brow. Small animals and large insects moved furtively all around him, up and down the trunks. Above, he could see patches of sky through the dense jungle which was somehow enough to illuminate his surroundings and hunting party. Sighing, he motioned for Leonart to continue on. This time, he thought, I won’t drift off. Not like Wolfgang, who had bumped into some kind of hive causing foot long insects with stingers the size of his fist to attack him. Indianus shivered, Wolfgang's body had been bloated to twice his size. Or Felix, who had been snatched in the night by some hulking baboon like lizard. He still heard Felix's screams when he tried to sleep at night. As their party had gotten smaller, they had become more paranoid which did have the benefit of lessening casualties. Indianus continued pushing through a seemingly endless sea of drooping green leaves, methodically taking hold of branches held back for him by Leonart. It felt like they were making good progress but you could never tell in this jungle... It had all started three months ago in a tavern in Nuln. After a bout of drinking, a rival challenged Indianus to prove his manhood. There ensued a barrage of boasts culminating in Indi stating he would travel to far Lustria and bring back priceless treasures. The voyage had been uneventful, mild seas and making landfall in good time. Damn the fools who said that most never make it past the beaches. Where were all of these dangers spoken of? Pah, obviously fake. He snorted. They'll see. Unless... Leonart had claimed to have seem something in one of the streams, but Indi looked he saw only ripples. Everyone had laughed at Leo, told him that that he needed new spectacles. He looked behind him. Only Augustus was displaying any kind of fear. The others were tired, sure. But not afraid. Augustus claimed heritage to a long line of wizards and that he still maintained a psychic connection with the world. He still muttered at night about them being watched. Indi sighed and moved the next branch and held it out for Augustus. Augustus looked up at him briefly, took the branch and resumed his furtive scanning, his eyes never resting in one place. Indi determined not to let any of this affect him. --- Suddenly there was no more jungle. The group stood at the edge of a massive plateau. Huge, stone buildings stretched out into the distance but dwarfed in turn by a towering ziggurat. "Well at least the map is right!" exclaimed Otto, the guide they'd hired due to his supposed experience on the continent. He motioned Indi closer. "Indi," he whispered, "Something's not right..." "Gah, not you too!" Indi shrugged off his hand and turned to the others. "Press on!" With the usual joshing and banter as his friends and their troops started off towards the closest structure. Indi was about to continue himself, when he saw that Augustus hadn't moved. Drat, he thought. "Come on Augus, I'll give you some of my beer tonight. Make it easier for you to sleep, eh?" Indi tried to get him moving but Augustus grabbed his hand. "He knows we're here, Indi." Shrugging off the hand, Indi threw up his hands in frustration and started walking after the others. Augustus followed after a brief pause. The jungle had fallen silent around them. --- Indianus chewed on some dried beef as they started up the steps to the Pyramid. He realized that he had been fretting for no reason whatsoever. Whoever had spread the rumors about this place had obviously just been trying to keep treasures for themselves. There was no intelligent life here! He put one hand on the yellow stone of the pyramid. It was very clean cut. Normally, cut stone had chisel type marks due to repeated hammering. This one had none. As if it had been cleaved with a single blow. He shivered and told himself again not to get jumpy. Looking up, he saw that the advance guard had made it to the top of the pyramid steps. Fritz waved to him and indicated that he was going in. Indi stopped halfway up the stairs and looking behind him. The city was spread out like one of the maps of his father's realm. The symmetrical precision the buildings was impressive, as if supposed to be viewed from the sky. He looked up. The sun blazed down. He mopped his forehead and started up the stairs again. The inside of the pyramid would be cool. As he climbed, he wondered. How was the city not overgrown by the jungle? There was a clear delineation of where the jungle ended and the city limits began. All of roads and walkways showed no sign of deterioration. Pah, it's just heat getting to you, he told himself. Get inside and cool off. Indi and his attendants stepped into the pyramid entrance. The last porter disappeared into the gloom. A wind blew through the plaza, the only sound breaking the silence. --- Indi was worried. He stood in front of a stone pedestal, on which sat a gleaming gold pendant with a large emerald, bigger than his fist, set in its center. He had expected… something when they had entered. A maze, maybe. Or perhaps a snaking tunnel. They had encountered nothing of the sort. They had found themselves in a long, expansive hallway, easily able to fit a steam tank down its middle. They had lit their torches and had walked down the slightly sloping ramp. The walls did not glisten with moisture, but nor were there spiderwebs or dunes of dust on the floor. They had marched forward, initially bold and joking, but slowly dwindling into silence as they progressed. Indi had tried joking remarks for the place’s caretaking, but after some half-hearted responses from his comrades they had fallen silent and so had he. The silence was oppressive, disturbed only by a bone-dry breeze. He hadn’t thought what kind of sounds he expected, but by Sigmar this felt like a tomb! They had ended up in a large columned chamber, the whole space flanked by stone friezes on the walls depicting various sized beasts in battles and scenes of savagery. In the torchlight, the beasts moved. In his minds eye, he felt these stone monstrosities eyes on him and could not escape the oppressive watched feeling. He wasn’t the only one. All of the guards were on alert. As he looked around, he found all with weapons in hand. Looking down, he found his own rapier in hand, though he couldn’t remember drawing it. Gods, they needed to get OUT. But he couldn’t make himself move. He stared at the gem. It was just an emerald, he told himself, just TAKE it. His hands started shaking. SNAP! They all spun round at the sound, levelling all manner of weapons at the source of the sound. One of the porters stood, white-faced as the group bared steel at him. Indi closed his eyes, it had just been the fire of the torch. Around him, men lowered weapons. But only slightly. They couldn’t see the threat, but they could feel it. Indi turned to the gem, mustering his courage, grasped the amulet. With a low rumbling sound the pedestal sank into the floor. Indi jumped backwards. The pedestal was now level with and indistinguishable from the floor. Loud slams from either side made him jump again. Large blocks of stone slammed into place on either side of them, between the columns, hiding the carvings from view. Within moments they stood in a corridor at a dead end. Indi stumbled backwards, his instincts telling him to get out, GET OUT, as fast as he possibly could, but somehow not able to find his voice. The wall in front of him rumbled upwards, releasing a further passageway. For a split second, he wondered if this was another way out. A deep screeching sound, somehow high and low at the same time, thundered through the chamber, followed immediately after by rapid, pounding footsteps that shook the walls. “RUN!!!!” he screamed, taking his own advice and fleeing as fast as he could in the other direction. His fellows needed no urging and hastened to the opposite entrance. Indi rapidly overtook the burdened porters and guards, sparing a glance over his shoulder for the noise’s source. Eyes widening, he started sprinting as a gargantuan… thing surged up the passageway behind them. Like an elephant from Araby, but no trunk, just scales and a beak of a face topped with two large, curving horns. As he turned back, a porter was crushed underneath one of the massive feet, while another was impaled and tossed into the air like a rag doll. Indi ran even faster, feeling the floor beneath him move. He leapt forwards and in his peripheral vision saw the floor drop away, stranding over half of their party on the lower level with the beast. Trying to catch his breath, he turned only to see Fritz clutching his throat, hands around a dart as he began frothing at the mouth. The entire group started running again towards the light, as more darts flew out of hidden holes in the walls claiming more and more of the hunting party. Flames erupted out of other holes, creating man-sized, screaming conflagrations. Indi found his second wind, abandoning his rapier and throwing his pack to the ground as he outdistanced them all. Gurgling death rattles and screams of pain followed him as he frantically reached the entrance. Another shudder. Without thinking, Indi threw himself forwards onto the sunlight ground as the ceiling behind him crashed down, the thundering impact reverberating through him which he felt rather than heard. And then silence. Complete silence. He lay there panting, face against the hot stone, gasping and trying to catch his breath. Thoughts tumbling over one another. His breathing and heartbeat gradually slowed. A slight scratching sound. He raised his head and found a large, clawed foot in front of his face. Terrified, he scrambled backwards on his hands and knees and backed up against the wall. A large reptilian figure stood before him. Covered in brilliant sky blue scales, bedecked in a gold and jewel encrusted armour, the figure carried a large, double-handed, glossy black sword on its shoulder. Easily 6 ½ feet in height, its muscled bulk did not move as the cold, vertically slit eyes regarding him. The only movement being its forked tongue darting once out of its mouth. The figure stepped aside and motioned him onwards, resuming it’s statuelike state immediately after. All but it’s eyes, which continued to track him. Indi got up, wits befuddled as he stumbled forwards. The entire plaza was packed with a riot of color, glassy black stone and gold shimmering in the sunlight. Figures with less gold and metal, but hefting large shields and a variety of maces, sword-like arms and axes stretched out on either side of the levels of the ziggurat. Each standing in a group of similar colours, purples, yellows, oranges and others he couldn’t categorize. Stunned to insensibility Indi staggered down the steps. Silence greeted him, silence and their impassionate, staring gazes. Indi reached the ground level of the pyramid. Behind the ranks of creatures he could see smaller lizards beyond count, some bearing blowpipes and some goading larger, creature forwards. As he watched, one of them jabbed at the creature and a large gout of flame expelled from its mouth. The thought hit him that these had been in the passageway during his parties’ flight. Gods, there were scores of them… Deep, thumping sounds jerked his attention to the other side where behind the ranked warriors, over a dozen of the horned elephant-like creatures moved into position behind the warriors and stopped. Unable to meet the alien gaze of these large monsters, he sped up, irrational fear now giving way to the silent army now arrayed around him. He turned to face forwards again and immediately stopped. Inches away from his face was an oversized reptilian snout. As it opened his mouth, Indi was confronted by a cavern of multiple rows of razor sharp teeth. A moment later all thought was eclipsed as his entire body was pushed backwards by an earth-shattering roar. Then silence. The reptilian snout withdrew, heavy stomps making the road he stood on vibrate marking it’s departure. Indi stood utterly insensible, unable to process the magnitude of what he was seeing. Something forced it’s way into his mind. Visions assailed him. As he watched, time after time explorers came to the temple, tried to retrieve the jewel and were slaughtered. He saw all of the groups slain and each time one spared and sent back to tell the tale. Over and over the visions repeated, an Arabyan, a Kislevite, on and on. He blinked. He realized that he was viewing the present again. Looking around him he realized he was the one left to tell the tale. Needing no further encouragement, he ran down the boulevard of the city, watched by the silent legion. --- Slann Lord Ack’Huapek watched the human flee into the jungle. Turning to his Skink scribe, he indicated the date to be marked as a new messenger sent to the Old World. Turning, he floated deeper into the temple. His mind already on other things… Spoiler: Story Seven: "The Visitor's Revenge The Visitor's Revenge Lord Therizinuital had been feeling more and more uneasy for the past several months. He knew that an old enemy was on its way, and that it was fated to arrive at the city of Oxylan upon the fourth moon of the twelfth month. What made him especially anxious was that the fourth moon of the twelfth month was today. He knew not what the evil was, whether it was the hordes of Chaos, the vile Ratmen or the barbarous Greenskins, all that he did know was that it was intended to destroy Oxylan today, and that even he, with his almighty Slann wisdom and knowledge, would be unable to save it. His fears had continually interrupted his meditations, and after a couple of months he had stopped eating. Naturally his Skink attendants had been consistently trying to force-feed him Itxi Grubs and other treats, but he grew weaker and weaker with every passing day. What was worse, their closed, tiny minds could not find anything wrong with him, which made them fret all the more. Every hour, every minute, every second felt like an eon to Therizinuital as he continually spent his energies probing every inch of the world and the universe around it for any sign of the prophesied destroyer, to no avail. It was then, however, that he detected what he had been searching for. Some sort of metal ship, soaring high in the sky above the jungles, was now descending from the heavens. A ship of a design that Therizinuital had seen only once before - when the Automaton came. Yet this one was bigger. Far bigger. In his mind's eye, the Slann watched as the ship silently landed in a jungle clearing not far from the city, and many Automata disembarked, at least a score of them if not more. Once the last had emerged, they immediately turned and advanced towards the city, merciless and full of purpose. They turned out of the jungle onto the road leading to the main gate of the city as a column two abreast, and marched toward it in full sight of the sentries there. Immediately the alarm was sounded, and Skink sentries hurled poisoned javelins down upon the Automata, yet they walked through them as a Saurus warrior would walk through rain. The wooden gates of the Temple-City provided similarly little opposition to the metal monsters - even though their swords and double-handed scythes looked to be made of metal no different than the gold that covered the city and its protectors, these weapons hewed through the thick jungle logs the gate was composed of in barely a minute. A battalion of Saurus had already mustered just behind the gate to take the fight to the invaders, but Therzinuital knew that they were doomed. He saw that his Saurus legions fought valiantly, battering and denting the Automata with their clubs, but with their lethal weaponry the Automata ruthlessly and efficiently carved their way through the serried ranks of Lizardmen. Even as the last Saurus toppled to the ground with his head parted from his shoulders, however, the Automata spent no time celebrating their victory - this was what unnerved the Slann the most. Even the Daemons of Chaos, offspring of the Great Catastrophe and the most reviled foes of the Lizardmen, knew how to celebrate if they had prevailed. These, on the other hand, comprehended only a cold, unrelenting discipline that matched that of the Saurus, yet each of those Automata was stronger than five Saurus put together - in short, the perfect fighting machines. Despite this, Therizinuital was not completely despondent. Even as he watched the Automata march further and further into his Temple City virtually unscathed, despite continual assaults from the defenders, he had expected this to happen. When the first Automaton had arrived, it had done just the same, and the Slann now knew that this lack of adaptation in strategy could be the one way he could defeat these monsters once and for all. Just as before, the Automata were making a beeline for the Great Pyramid of Huanchi, where the Slann himself resided in his personal meditation chamber, yet this was where Therizinuital had deployed his secret weapons. The first of these was a very recent development - after the first Automaton's assault upon Oxylan, Therizinuital had instructed his Priests to begin researching the qualities of a mineral first discovered with the arrival of an asteroid that had landed nearby. This stone seemed to resonate with the power of the storms themselves, so the Priests had named it 'Celestite' in honour of its origins and nature. What they had found out was that it could certainly have been interpreted as a gift from the Old Ones in preparation for the trials that lay ahead, for if a Lizardman weapon was tipped with this mineral it was discovered that it could slice through virtually anything with a single strike - a single Saurus equipped with such a weapon would be able to cut down the thickest rain forest trees, and even stone would crack significantly with a blow from it. If anything mundane could cause significant damage to the Automata, it was highly likely that this would do the trick. However, there was only enough Celestite to tip the weapons of Therizinuital's Temple Guard, and as his elite guardians, they were given priority access to the stone. It was these Temple Guard who were now alerted to the presence of the Automata as they strode up the steps of the Great Pyramid. Those in the front ranks raised their shields to protect their comrades with double-handed weapons behind from any incoming missiles, yet the Slann knew it was not missiles they needed to be concerned about, for when the leading pair of Temple Guard descended the steps to engage the Automata, instead of their halberds ringing uselessly off the monsters' metal bodies, the Saurus' weapons scythed clean through them, the Celestite sending crackling bolts of energy to frazzle their foes' metal innards as they did so. As the foremost pair of Automata toppled listlessly from the Pyramid steps, their sparking corpses crashing to the bottom, those behind them suddenly acted more defensively, using their shields to protect their bodies from these new weapons - these seemed to possess some sort of energy technology that deflected any Celestite halberd that came into contact with them, granting the Automata a measure of protection that meant they were still able to gain the upper hand over their opponents, who had no protection against their swords and scythes. As a result, the relentless band of Automata was gradually pushing their way up the Pyramid steps, felling Temple Guard after Temple Guard with carefully calculated strikes and repelling their foes' attacks with their shields. On occasion a Temple Guard would decapitate an Automaton, briefly halting the advance of the rest, but the enemy were just too skilled for the Temple Guard's new weapons to turn the tide. Therizinuital estimated they would make it to the top in less than five minutes, so the Slann prepared his second line of defense - his loyal Skink Priests, each a potent sorcerer in his own right. In his paranoia, Therizinuital had ordered the city's full council of priests to stay with him all day and all night in readiness for when the evil arrived, for he knew how magic was one of the few things that could harm these creatures. Knowing that their species would send more of their kind to kill him after he had defeated their first emissary, the Slann knew that concentrating all the city's magic users in the one place the Automata intended to visit would give the servants of the Old Ones the best possible chance of destroying them once and for all. So it was that when the dozen remaining Automata got to the top of the Pyramid's steep stairway and entered the chamber of their target, Therizinuital was ready for them, yet when he set his eyes upon them the Slann felt a stint of genuine surprise - the lead Automaton was the exact same one that he had slain last time. He recognised the creature's more embellished shoulder ornamentation and the golden symbols adorning its head and chest. Even scorch marks from the fireball he had used to slay the first Automaton were present. Somehow, these creatures had conquered death. Somehow, they had learned to resurrect themselves. Judging from the time between the two attacks, Therizinuital knew that this must have taken some time to occur, or otherwise they would have attacked sooner, but the fact they could resurrect at all meant that he had to reconsider how the children of the Old Ones should take on this threat - it was uncertain if the Celestite would prevent such resurrections or not, so he would have to prepare for if the latter was the truth, but that would have to wait. Even if they could not truly stop them, he and his Priests could at least delay their inevitable campaign of invasion against Lustria. So it was that he gave the telepathic order to attack, and immediately his Priests began to bombard the Automata with lightning from their outstretched hands. As expected those Automata with shields deflected the bolts, but a couple of them instead hit their comrades behind who were unable to do so, and these Automata were wracked with electrical energy, their internals shorting out and their weapons dropping to the floor. The others immediately advanced forward, beheading several Priests closer to them, but the Slann was undaunted. He launched a gout of flame from an outstretched hand at the first Automaton, who deflected it with his shield but was pinned in place by it. With another portion of his mind the Slann channeled power through his most trusted Priest, Izqua, and soon instead of releasing lightning the Skink was manipulating the compounds within the skin of the Automaton nearest him, compelled by skills that were not his own. Before his very eyes the surprised priest had turned that Automaton's entire body into molten metal, its internal components incinerated by the heat of its own liquid carcass. Where most seemingly deceased Automata disappeared in an alien green light after a while, this one remained where it was, the Slann noticed - maybe this was how they could be stopped from returning to life. Such a distraction was fleeting, yet it also proved crucial, for while the Slann's mind was preoccupied for that scant amount of time, he did not see one Automaton swing its keen-edged blade and sink it deep into the side of Therizinuital's blubbery neck. His lifeblood pouring down his body and his mind now reeling, Therizinuital spasmed in extreme agony. His expansive mind immediately shifted focus from gaining more knowledge how to defeat the Automata to the need to transmit the knowledge he had to another Slann, one that could send it all across the Geomantic Web so that all Lizard-kind would be prepared for this insidious new threat. While his most devoted Skink Priests were now bombarding the Automaton with lightning to keep it from finishing their master off, Therizinuital channeled much of his remaining energy into contacting the nearest Slann to him, a Second Generation Slann who governed the Temple City of Hexoatl many miles away. "I am here, Thirdling," Mazdamundi mentally spoke reassuredly to Therizinuital, "tell me all that you know." "They are coming...the C'Tan's children are coming...Metal Lore and Celestite can kill them, nothing else can..." Theriznuital responded weakly, "Tell the others, before it is too late..." But before he could utter any more, the Automaton swung again, almost completely severing the Third Generation Slann's head. "You know what to do..." Therizinuital whispered telepathically to the distressed Izqua beside him before the last inklings of his soul faded from him completely. As his master died, Izqua reached to the heavens, and enacted the final ritual to ensure that the Automata would never get out of Oxylan alive. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Even as the Automata finished off the last of the Priests, and began to venture into the temple's chambers to search for intelligence upon the hated gods of these savages, they were powerless to defeat the comet that was diverted from its orbit down to the planet below, and obliterated the Temple City of Oxylan and all its inhabitants. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Many millions of miles away, back upon the homeworld of the Lychguard sent to Oxylan, their Stasis-Crypts buzzed into life in the attempt to return their charges to life. Yet these industrious whirring turned into bleeps of distress, as all that appeared within each crypt was an assortment of burnt, battered and melted parts that not even the living metal of the Necrons could repair. Spoiler: Story Eight: "Brothers to Remember" Brothers to Remember Forty years ago The newborn Saurus crawled on to land on all fours. Instinctively he stood up to his full height and looked around. He looked around as his brothers emerged behind him and beside him. He began to gain his bearings blinking in the sunlight of this new dry world he emerged into. He looked at the sky and clouds in wonder. Then looked down. A smaller scaled creature vaguely like himself was examining him closely. This new figure was dryer, bedecked with feathers, somewhat shorter and much less muscled. The Saurus only half-understood what the smaller creature said. “The first to emerge is also the tallest and the strongest. Clearly this one is destined to lead the others of his spawning. We shall name him Yuqtal.” I am Yuqtal. These are my brothers. I shall lead them to glories and keep them safe. I have thirty-six brothers to protect. ******************************************************************************* 38 years ago The spawning had been tested by its first battle. A small skirmish all things considered. About a hundred Saurus Warriors, two hundred Skinks, and six Salamanders had killed or captured nearly every enemy in a force of warm bloods numbering four hundred soldiers and a hundred of their four-legged maned warmblood beasts that they used in place of Cold Ones. These enemies were called Huemons, but the details didn’t matter, these Huemons had sought to steal sacred relics, so they had to die. It was a great victory, but not without cost. Yuqtal would get his first scar. A gash across his shoulder. Many of his brothers received their first scar. The most impressive scar belonged to Kroqekar. He was impaled by a lance. The Skink healer assured Yuqtal that he would fully recover within two months, but he needed to be kept out of the field until then. Choaquel and Takyu were not so lucky. They had been hit multiple times by the metal explosive blowguns the Huemon sorcerers crafted. Yuqtal lost track of time how long he stood over Choaquel's and Takyu’s bodies. Kroqekar limped over, being half-carried by two of his brothers. “Do not despair Yuqtal. I heard you defended my limp useless body and Zecxla’s body too. You killed seven Huemons. You are a good. spawn leader. You led us to victory.” Their other brothers roared in agreement. I am Yuqtal. These are my brothers. I shall lead them to glories and keep them safe. I have thirty-four brothers to protect, two to remember. 24 years ago If I have to stare at the ceiling of the hospital tent one more day, I will lose my mind. The campaign was over, the latest Skaven offensive was broken. Chameleon Skinks and Terradon Riders were guiding the other Skinks in tracking down and eliminating the dregs and stragglers that remained. The Saurus warriors’ work was done…for now. Yuqtal’s abdomen still ached, but the physical pain wasn’t half as bad as the boredom. The boredom wasn’t half as bad as the vomiting. I wonder if this is what Salamander’s feel like every day. The wound in his gut was shallow but poisoned. The anti-toxins were doing their job….slowly. At least he stopped vomiting, freeing up more of Yuqtal’s attention to focus on his boredom. Yuqtal stood up out of his cot. Spots danced before his eyes, but Yuqtal refused to lay back down. Yuqtal’s second, Kroqekar entered the tent. “You are on your feet, brother. Good, it is time. ” Yuqtal walked forward and stumbled. “You can lean on me.” “I’m perfectly capable of walking by myself!” “Of course you are, brother. But you helped me so many times when I was injured that you are going to let me help you just to even things out slightly. You are generous to indulge me, brother” Yuqtal grinned. “Okay. I think I’m done vomiting, but If I start retching. Try to angle me towards Healer Aquite.” “I heard he wanted you to stay in bed another two weeks? Try not to vomit until after the ceremony though.” “Of course. Thank you for leading the unit while I was out cold.” “It was not difficult. I watched you lead long enough. Every brother was out to avenge you. The rats didn’t stand a chance.” Over a thousand of the First Children of the Old Ones gathered along the banks of the river that the Skink priests had consecrated for the memorial service. Hundreds of Skinks and Sauri had perished, very few bodies were recovered to be placed into the river. Yuqtal’s dizziness had passed, but he barely listened to a word of the various Skink priests’ flowery eulogies. Yuqtal focused his lost brothers. Before the spawning’s first real campaign, Yuqtal and his brothers only fought small unconnected battles. In fourteen years, they had lost seven brothers. They lost eight brothers in the last two months. Qualesh’s body was laid to rest in the river. After the Skinks were done talking, the Sauri of various spawning approached with their memory stones. Yuqtal’s living brothers, many still recovering from poisons themselves, tossed their stones into the river one-by one to mark the brothers whose corpses were lost. SPLASH “Aquilta.” SPLASH “Tehata.” SPLASH “Noqyu.” SPLASH “Gaxill.” SPLASH “Pylirah.” SPLASH “Karjah.” Yuqtal threw the last stone SPLASH “Faltuk.” I am Yuqtal, these are my brothers. I shall lead them to glories and keep them safe. I have twenty-one brothers to protect, fifteen to remember. Five years ago The last remnants of the Daemon army’s corpses had faded away, having returned fully to the foul realm that spawned them. Yuqtal spawning had not suffered a fatality in almost a decade, now they suffered their greatest single day loss. All the bodies were recovered cleansed, and returned to the pool that spawned them. Yuqtal barely listened to a word of the Skink priest’s eulogy. In his heart, Yuqtal wanted to be with his living brothers, but he had to put some distance between them. He marched out in the jungle outside the city. Kroqekar caught up with him a few hours later. “Why did you leave us?” “How did you track me down?” “You always walk the same path near the city when you are troubled. Why did you leave us?” “I am a bad Spawning leader.” “You are a good spawning leader. The losses we suffered were not as bad as the other spawnings. Our brothers did not die in vain. Why did you leave us?” “I am a bad spawning leader. If the men see me cry that shows weakness. Perhaps I am weak. Today I have more brothers to remember than I have to protect.” Kroqekar took a long time before replying. He rubbed his old scars gently. “The wounds that caused these scars should have killed have me several times, but you kept me safe while I was weak. You did this because you are a good spawning leader.” “You survived because you are strong, not because of me, Kroqekar. I am a bad spawning leader” “You cry because you are sad. You are sad because you are a good spawning leader. I would follow you anywhere against any foe. So would the others. You have led us to glories before and will do so again. You have twelve brothers to protect you.” One year ago Yuqtal barely had time to give the order to lock shields before the hydra barreled into the contingent of Saurus warriors. Many Saurus were knocked down as the creature’s clawed feet and many snake heads lashed out at the Sauri. Tekhat was dead, no doubt about it. He’d seen his brothers recover from severe injuries before, but a Saurus body could not bounce back from being crushed under the full weight of a monster that size. The shield wall held up more or less. A lot of his brothers were knocked into the mud, but their shields have taken the brunt of the damage. Most got up again. Kaxilli and Zecxla did not. They could pull through if they got the attention of a Skink healer soon. For his brothers to live, the monster had to die quickly. A warrior Skink might have pondered how this snake headed creature Anathema was a personal insult to Great Sotek. Yuqtal didn’t focus on the spiritual implications of the creature’s existence. He sought only to assess the monster’s weaknesses and slay it. The creature seemed to lack weaknesses. Its body was tough, and its scales were thick. The foul snake heads were somewhat less imperious to attacks but they moved with great agility. A head that was crushed or severed grew back quickly. The creature’s body turned aside all but the truest strikes. The relatively small wounds his brothers inflicted on the monster’s body disappeared even faster than the heads. About half his brothers were nursing a variety of cuts and bruises, and these minor wounds not disappearing. This mattered little in a short term. To a Saurus, such minor injuries are trivial. They would not even leave visible scars. Still, Yuqtal knew in the long term, a warrior nursing many minor injuries would become fatigued faster as his strength literally bled out. As his brothers became more tired, more serious injuries would follow. One of the heads bit deep into Kroqekar’s chest. The best Skink healer would not be able to stitch him back together. A Slann’s magic might be able to save Kroqekar. Without thinking Yuqtal roared in anger and plunged his axe into the snake creature’s forehead. The snake neck writhed as its head head hissed in anger and pain. Yuqtal was spattered in drops of putrid black ichor. Yuqtal struck again severing the head. Three or four more of his brothers were lying in the mud, bleeding, unconscious or worse. The few times one of his brothers was able to strike the hydra’s body, the scales deflected the strike. Not far away his brothers Taheki and Zlaot had destroyed another head. Yuktal saw that new heads were already beginning to regrow but he sensed the foul creature slowing down. This healing power takes a lot out of the monster. “Smash the heads! Ignore the rest!” Tired and battered, the brothers roared defiantly pressing their seemingly futile attack. A warmth fell over the spawning brothers as Yuqtal sensed the hand of a Slann as a gash across his forehead that he barely registered sealed itself. Kaxilli and Zecxla were back on their feet attacking as ferociously as anyone. Most his brothers were renewed with great vigor, but Kroqekar and several others did not stir, nor would they ever stir again. Yuqtal wanted to yell “For Kroqekar!” but all that came out was an inarticulate roar of pain and fury. That was enough though. The roar was echoed by his brothers as they surged forward. The Sauri were striking down heads faster than they could regrow. The creature began to step back reluctantly, the ugly heads’ assorted hisses sounded more frightened than frightening. Yuqtal and his brothers were winning, but the beast was not going to die quickly or quietly. Zecxla was knocked down again by a snake head. Zecxla was only stunned, but the Anathema followed up the head’s strike with a clawed foot, rending Zecxla into pieces. Zecxla was beyond even a Slann’s healing, and the Temple Guard had carried the Slann to far away to help regardless. The beast was slowing down, but Yuqtal feared he would be the only Saurus left standing. “For Sotek!” came the shrill battle cry of a small group of Skinks. The wounded and staggered Hydra was impaled by three horns as an ancient Stegadon charged its exposed flank. The Hydra collapsed. Its body was too broken for its unholy healing power to repair. The battle had largely moved elsewhere. Most of their friends and foes alike were some distance away. Yuqtal rallied and regrouped the survivors of his spawning. His brother, Uxua picked up the unit’s discarded drum set out of the mud. There would be time to mourn later, now was the time for action. A few Sauri had lost shields or weapons and they scavenged replacements from their fallen brothers. Uxua awkwardly beat out the rhythm, for regrouping. He turned towards Yuqtal for orders. Yuqtal had eight brothers to protect and lead to glories. Nearest to them, another spawning of Saurus, the Third Jade Spawning of the Pool of Tlaxcotl, was fighting another Hydra. A young spawning, almost fifty warriors strong. This was their first real battle. The spawning was wet. They were slowly losing. Their spawning leader was dead or unconscious. There was no Slann nearby to cast a spell on their behalf. There was no ancient Stegadon to provide a supporting charge. If the Jade Spawning was to have any salvation, it would be from nine very tired and battered Saurus Warriors… Yuqtal pointed at the second Hydra. “Brothers! Attack!” This afternoon Yuqtal stood with his five brothers facing Third Jade Spawning of the Pool of Tlaxcotl. Other spawnings watched from a distance. A Skink priest walked in front of him speaking of honor, brotherhood and valor. Yuqtal hung on the priest’s every word. The priest addressed his five brothers with a battery of questions before finally turning to Yuqtal. “Do you accept these Sauri as your brothers?” “Yes!” “Do you promise serve the Old Ones beside them?” “Yes!” “Do you promise to stand beside them in battle?” “Yes!” “Are their friends your friends?” “Yes!” “Are their enemies your enemies?” “Our enemies will die!” Several among the assembled laughed at the nonstandard answer. His unorthodox answer was certainly acceptable. The Skink priest waved his hand over Yuqtal and his five brothers then addressed the larger Saurus group. “Do you accept these Sauri as your brothers?” “YES!” came the thunderous reply. The various onlookers erupted in cheers as Skink attendants splashed the Sauri with ceremonial spawning pool water. The priest’s final blessing was mostly drowned out, but Yuqtal was close enough to hear. “Let all here witness these are brothers are bound by the Old Ones. What the Old Ones bring together, none can sever!” I am Yuqtal, these are my brothers. I shall lead them to glories and keep them safe. I have forty-eight brothers to protect, thirty-one to remember. Spoiler: Story Nine: "A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE The saurus warrior, Gilmok, was on duty patrol, at the border of the jungle. It was not a serious task, as there was no organized opponent in this region. Anyway the chameleon skinks would have warned them for any approaching intruder. So Gilmok was relaxing, enjoying the warm sensation of the sun upon his dorsal crest, sending waves of heat through his veins, uncaring of the occasional butterflies and of the hopeless beetles that were trying to chomp through the scaly skin of his feet. Behind him, the walls of Itza-Oatl, the First temple-city, were growing higher, raised with the sandstone’s blocks that the kroxigors were bringing from the nearby quarry. In the distance, a small squad of skink handlers was pushing a cart filled with cold ones’ eggs toward the barracks of the freshly spawned saurus knights, for the incoming imprinting ceremony. The golden globe upon the pyramid was shining bright, and high in the sky there was the omnipresent Eye of the Gods… dark during the days and bright in the nights, which was keeping watch upon the lizardmen. Without even realizing it, Gilmok nodded in approval. ------------------------------------------------------------- Lord Tla’Tol, the Fifth of his generation, was floating upon his throne, in the divination room. In the Pool of Visions, the reflections of the distant planet’s life were taking form… A Cold One whelp was fixing its ecstatic eyes into the ones of its future rider… at the top of the Temple, a skink priest was preparing the sacred tools for the ceremony of the Blessing of Chotec. Tla’Tol sensed a disturbance in the fabric of magic, and promptly let the water turn back to its inactive state. After a few moments, a translucent figure materialized in front of him. Tla’Tol greeted his guest with an imperceptible smile. “Lord Ulha'up, Fourth of his Generation, I welcome you in my Temple-Ship” “Greetings, Lord Tla’Tol… my friend. Let us put aside formalities, do you agree?” “I do. I sense you are worried” “I am. What are you doing, my friend? The oldest Slanns are uneasy, if such a word can be used. It seems that the Lethargic Chambers of your Temple-Ship are… no more at their full capacity.” “Tell them that I needed to do some additional awakening; it is my prerogative, as Lord of this Temple-Ship. Let them know that I could not wait for the Council’s approval, but the Temple and its cargo are not at risk”. “I will report your message, but you know they will require a more detailed explanation.” “When the time will come, I will” Ulha'up stood silently for half a minute. He knew Tla’Tol better than anyone else. “Just be careful, my friend. I salute you”. The astral projection of Ulha'up wanished, leaving Tla’Tol alone. The Slann pondered the inevitable course of actions. After a few moments, a skink priest entered the room. “What are your commands, my Lord?” “Prepare the Golden Plaques, and tell the High Priest of the Chambers we need to proceed to phase two”. ------------------------------------------------------- The Sacred Plaques were found in the site shown by the falling star… the Tear from the Eye of the Gods. The site around the holy meteor was chosen for the building of Chuq-Hex, the Second City, and Gilmok’s regiment had been selected to guard the place. In the inner chambers of the growing temple, the High Priests were studying the prophecies written by the Gods… there were rumors about the contents of the Plaques, it was said that great portents were announced, as great threats and mortal dangers. But there was no fear in Gilmok’s heart, because he was a warrior born and destined to fight whatever threat they will be going to face. Softened by the outer walls of stone, the distant echo of a bellowing roar reached the barracks… it was Itza-Kor, the Great Carnosaur, found in the eastern jungle and tamed by the Veteran Bok-Kai, the undisputed leader of the saurian army. No one shall deny the greatness due to Lizardmen, the Children of the Gods. --------------------------------------------------------- Lord Tla’Tol knew the moment would have arrived, and in his mind, he already acted the possible scenes multiple times. There was so much at stakes. He was in the Hall of Dawn, staring at the constellations dotting the night sky, through the force field that shielded the opening, when the astral projection of Lord Ulha'up reached him. “Lord Tla’Tol, Fifth of his Gener…” “Don’t you think it is a beautiful sight?” “Lord Tla’Tol, I’m here on an official…” “Don’t you think it is a beautiful sight?” Ulha'up blinked. Twice. “Tla’Tol, I don’t understand...” “Lord Ulha'up, you are here as voice of the Slanns’ Council, to inquire me about my conduct as Slann of this Temple-Ship. Am I right?” “Yes, you are. Listen, I have asked to be sent here. The Oldest are saying that half of your chambers are empty. I don’t know what you are doing, but it is not too late. Explain to me what is happening, and together we will talk to the Council.” “Answer my question, please. Is this a beautiful sight?” Ulha'up looked at the stars. “It is beautiful, indeed. But cold.” Tla’Tol smiled. “Tell the Council that I invoke the Great Plan. My actions adhere to it, so I must be given the time to complete them. Within a year from now, I will explain” “Don’t do this, I beg you. If you say so, they will dissect your doing, and if they find it is not true…” “Just tell them. I, Lord Tla’Tol, have spoken” He watched the astral projection fade away. “Farewell, my friend… and remember the stars are cold”. ----------------------------------------------------- Gilmok was trying to hold his breath and fight the urge to run away. The other warriors and the skinks that were part of the exploration patrol, were hiding in the shadows. Despite the absence of wind and the undergrowth's heat, the saurus warrior was cold. “It cannot be. Such a beast is impossible”. Beyond the canopy of foliage and bushes that were hiding them, an enormous four legged reptile was feasting upon the remains of a feral bastiladon. Its crested spine was standing higher than the secular trees. The massive jaws were cracking with ease the iron-like plates of its dead prey. “Its head alone is big as a whole stegadon…” The gargantuan beast noticed the presence of a terradon that was flying high above, and challenged it with a primeval roar. Gilmok was almost deafened by the power of the scream. The beast then turned back on its path, following the trail of destructed trees, tored down during the chase of the Bastiladon. The skink chief that was hiding near Gilmok, dared to break the silence. “It’s going North. This must be the border of its territory. It’s a good thing we are expanding toward South”. Gilmok nodded. They both knew this was definitely something that needed to be reported. ---------------------------------------------------------- Tla’Tol was standing at the center of the Shrine of the Old Ones, the core of the Temple-Ship; in front of him, the Council: Ten Slanns, all of them second and third generation… and behind them, unbothered, was Lord Kroak, sitting silent and immobile as a statue. The documents and the monthly reports were floating mid-air from a Slann to another, each one arousing new telepathic questions. “Lord Tla’Tol… many details are unclear, but what has been done here is inconceivable. The events of the End Times gifted you with the command of one of our richest Tempe-Ship, despite your young age. So many irreplaceable embryos and eggs… even one of the few remaining true Dread Saurian. All of them awakened on this single world. The Chambers are empty.” “The Old Plan was doomed to fail so we could see the truth… the real war that was going to happen, a war that engulfs universes. The destruction of the Old World revealed the Great Plan in its grandeur… and you wasted our limited resources to bring to life a resemblance of old Lustria.” “Worse than all, you have created false Plaques, simulating the Sacred ones.” “Not only your actions don’t adhere to the Great Plan… they are heresy. We never thought the Ritual of Undoing would have been cast upon a Slann, but your actions give us no choice. Do you have something to say?”. Tla’Tol knew the end was near. But something had to be said. “We wage war with the power of our minds, our summoned fighters have nothing at stake. The children of the Old Ones deserve something better than cryostasis. I gave them something worth to fight for.” A tear was forming in the eye of Tla’Tol, but it never reached his cheek. The ten Slanns casted in unison the ancient spell of Undoing, and the body of Tla’Tol vanished into particles of energy which lit up the room for a moment. Then it was dark again. “Lord Kroak, what should we do with this… world?” Up til now, Lord Kroak had taken no part in the Council; now, his head rose. “Nothing. I will hide this Temple-Ship on the planet, in a place where these newborn Lizardmen will be able to find it, when the due time will come. Go away now”. -------------------------------------------------------------------- The particles of energy that once were Tla’Tol, were dissipating into the universe. They would have been absorbed by Dracothion, minimally increasing the fabric of magical energy of the universe of the Order. But something much less stronger, yet much more nearer, dragged the magical essence of the dead Slann toward the underlying planet… ------------------------------------------------------------------ Almost the whole population of Itza-Oatl had gathered nearby Tza-Mundi, the swamp of the Sacred Pools. The skink priests and their attendants were encircling the central, most mysterious pool. The one that gives no spawnings. Gilmok was alongside the other warriors; all of them had been released from any kind of duty and were just standing there, waiting. The officiants were chanting odes to the Old Ones since three days, alternating so as not to interrupt the prayers. Since the Eye of the Gods was no more watching upon them, vanished from the sky. The Plaques told it. When the children of the Old Ones would have been ready to walk by themselves, the Gods would have left… but a final gift would have been given to Lizardmen. Their true leader. The water of pool began to ripple. Slowly, something emerged. A great, bloated toad with large head and bulbous eyes. Gilmok bowed down. Spoiler: Story Ten: "The Little Things" The little things The setting sun gleamed on the golden temples of Hexoatl. Terradons wheeled ponderously through amber beams that transfixed the passing insects in a sepia constellation. The bustle of the lizardmen slowed as the day reached its end. The kroxigors put down their picks and left the quarries. Skink priests rolled up their scrolls and headed for their chambers. High above it all, in the Inner Sanctum of the Great Temple of Chotec, positioned on a point of immense geomantic power at the very centre of the city, the Mage Priest Mazdamundi, child of the Old Ones, tutored at the feet of Lord Kroak himself when the world was new, once again directed his titanic intellect towards the mysteries of the Great Plan. Many stories below, in the depths of the Temple, the two least important lizards in Hexoatl began the night shift. Some temple cities rejoice in their own decrepitude. They make no effort to correct the ruination of Time, wearing their crumbling masonry, rampaging weeds and dusty surfaces as a badge of honour. Not Hexoatl. Here alone did the lizardmen attempt to preserve some portion of that heady grandeur that must once have blazed throughout the cosmic domain of the elder gods. The golden flagstones still burned unblemished in the sun each day, and glimmered under carefully-lit braziers at night. Alone among the great temple cities, Hexoatl still employed cleaners. Geck - Private Second Class of the Greater Hexoatl Maintenance Corps - put on his apron and hefted his duster. His fellow skink and night-shift partner Fotl was waiting at the door as he arrived for work. Geck was close to an hour early, but as usual, Fotl was earlier. "Evening," said Geck. Fotl scowled. They fell into a familiar routine. Tonight they were doing the lower levels. As lizards slept across the city, Geck and Fotl dusted shelves of ancient storerooms, swept the floors of forgotten chambers and polished the blades of ceremonial obsidian clubs. They didn't speak. Geck soon settled into a trance-like zone. But every now and then he would happen to catch sight of Fotl. The other skink looked furious at all times. Fotl concentrated on his work like the fate of the world depended on it. Where Geck would pass over a shelf with a duster, Fotl would follow and fidget with each small item or scroll to align them perfectly in grid-like precision. Occasionally, Geck amused himself by messing with these perfectionist quirks, quietly nudging a tablet to a slightly crooked angle. Sure enough, without fail, Fotl would return and correct the error minutes later. Geck would shake his head and grin at the deepening of his partner's frown. You had to appreciate the little things. "Do you ever wonder what you might have been if you weren't...this?" asked Geck. They were in one of the deepest storerooms in the Great Temple, where the labyrinthine guts of the ancient structure sank deep into the stony earth. Many tons of masonry above them, the city bathed in the dark of midnight. They were on their mandatory break. Fotl clearly hated the lack of activity, chewing angrily on some luckless lunchmeat as if his biological need for sustenance were a personal affront. At Geck's question, his brows furrowed dangerously. "The question is self-contradictory and moronic," he muttered. Geck grinned. "You act all cross but really you love your life, don't you? You love being a cleaner. Someone who pays attention to the little things." "Naturally, I do not experience anything so irrational as an emotion concerning my profession. It is simply what I do, and it is correct that I do it. The city must be cleaned. Order must be maintained." "You love it! I bet when you go home after work you organise all your possessions by colour and size before you go to bed. I bet you spend your free time in the archives looking for mis-filed plaques." "Hrmph," said Fotl, but Geck saw a flicker of embarrassment cross his face. "Don't you ever dream of something greater?" Geck persisted. "Didn't you ever want to be a war hero, or a mighty mage?" "There is no logic in imagining a world that does not exist," muttered Fotl. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to witness the turning of the great wheels of history? Wouldn't you like to see Chaos defeated, Lustria restored, the Old Ones returned?" "Rebirth is just a kind of change. Things ought to be kept alive, not killed and brought back. I do not concern myself with great wheels of history. My work is with the little things, as you put it. Order must be maintained. " "You're saying the return of the Old Ones would ruin your life? For such a devout skink, you do have some very heretical views, Fotl." "You are intentionally twisting my words. I no longer wish to converse with you. The break is over." Geck grinned again as he followed Fotl into the next chamber, lighting its brazier with a torch. They were in the oldest and most neglected part of the temple now. The stones here were worn by truly stupendous lengths of time. The small room was completely empty. Geck marveled at the intricate, faded carvings on the wall. Facing the door was a large, stylised image of the sun. Fotl was already busy sweeping the dust on the floor into discreet little piles. Geck moved forward and slowly, reverentially stretched his claws towards the carving. "This must be an old shrine to Chotec. Perhaps the oldest in the city," he breathed. Fotl ignored him. Geck's hand reached the centre of the carving, where the swirling lines that comprised the sun icon came together at a nexus. To his surprise, the spot where his claw touched the stone depressed slightly with a soft but definite click. The whole wall slid apart, splitting into two halves and vanishing away from each other with astonishing speed. Geck gasped. Seconds passed. Behind him, he heard the sound of Fotl dropping his broom in amazement. Ahead, a newly-revealed staircase led downwards, even deeper into the earth. Its stone walls were lit at intervals by soft white lights that definitely weren't any kind of flame. With a dry-mouthed gulp, Geck turned back to look at the dazed face of Fotl. Then he began to walk down the stairs. "No!" shrieked Fotl in an unnatural, strangled voice. "We mustn't! This place doesn't exist. There is no record of it. For gods' sake, undo this abomination!" Geck felt calmer than he ever had in his short life. He didn't even turn his head. "I'm going down. Join me." He kept walking. Seconds later, he heard Fotl's furious footsteps pattering to catch up. They descended for several hours, following stairs that spiraled straight down.. Occasionally, a telltale mewling sound gave an indication of the roiling horror that was filling Fotl's mind. The air grew hot and breathless, but the lights remained soft and assured. The stairs ended in another stone chamber, this one larger and brightly lit by the same white lights. The room was full of smooth machines with strange flat surfaces and indecipherable buttons. In the centre of the room was a circular pedestal with a flat black tabletop. Fotl stared in horror. Geck wandered in. He found a spherical object on one of the surfaces that was clearly a helmet connected by wires to the machinery. Instinctively, he put it on, ignoring another desperate plea from Fotl. Part of the nearby surface lit up with a small red square, but otherwise nothing happened. "For the sake of all that is holy and ordered, we must leave this place at once," cried Fotl, wrenching the helmet from Geck's head and clutching it tight. "A little longer," muttered Geck, waving him off and continuing to wander dazed across the inexplicable laboratory. "This is the first new room I've seen in years. It's incredible. I've dreamed of something like this. There must be such secrets..." Geck caught sight of Fotl's miserable expression. "Come now. Surely, deep down, there's a small part of you that knows what I'm talking about. That longs for something new, something ...big!" Fotl's face hardened from piteous to wrathful. He still clutched the helmet to his body like his life depended on it. Geck noticed another light appear on the surface behind him, this time blue rather than red. "Listen to me, you cretinous, criminal disgrace," Fotl began in a voice like ice. "There is no part of me that longs for anything new. I am Private Fotl of the Greater Hexoatl Maintenance Corps, spawned of the First Race, and with every fibre of my being the only thing I desire in the entire span of my existence is stark, unadulterated, perfect ORDER!" Geck stared. With his voice crescendoing, Fotl hadn't noticed that his speech had been accompanied by the growing sound of the machines around him spinning up. More blue lights appeared on the screen behind him, joined by yellows and pinks, until fully half the room was ablaze with colours that sped up and down the wires connecting the helmet to the apparatus. When he realised what was happening, Fotl dropped the headgear with a yelp. But the lights continued to ignite around him, and the sound of spinning machinery grew to a roar. "You did it!" cried Geck. "That's what it's been waiting for! Someone with sufficient purity of belief! Fotl, do you realise?! This could be it! This could be the rebirth!" Aghast, the skink stared at what he had wrought for a long, awful moment, before turning and fleeing up the stairs. As he left, the room's central circular plinth detonated with a tremendous beam of green light directly into the ceiling, where it spread in burning electric lines of green fire across the stones. Geck shut his eyes against the terrible brightness and stumbled after Fotl. Breathing hard, he staggered up a staircase now alive with tendrils of the same green light. He reached Fotl in the little shrine where he had first found the hidden door, and both skinks caught their breath while fearfully watching the glowing walls. They supported each other against the ground that was now shaking like an earthquake, dislodging spumes of dust from the ancient stones above. Upwards they continued, proceeding through chambers that should have been familiar but which now shone with hidden images picked out by the green fire. Finally, they made it out onto the temple steps, under a sky fuzzy with the cresting light of dawn. But in the west, it was still dark as they turned to look at the temple summit. There, against the blue-black cosmos, a pillar of pure, incandescent green stretched forever into the unknown, making the golden flagstones flare with a glory not seen in many ages. And far off, coming down to meet the light-column from above, the two skinks saw the diaphanous, shimmering undercarriage of the first of the colossal silver skyships, returned at last to Hexoatl. The order of the stories was determined completely randomly. The order has no bearing on which pieces were submitted in what order. If someone wants me to fix a typo or formatting error that slipped through the cracks. Please let me know by private message AND please post the entire story with all changes made. It's lot easier for me to copy and paste a new story rather than for me to dig through the text to find the three or four errant sentences. Per usual, critiques, comparisons and friendly banter is encouraged. I'm not going to be too strict on this, but if you are aiming to do a comprehensive critique, I'd prefer you make a few large posts rather than a swarm of little ones. Mainly for the benefit of people who are reading this thread a year from now. You can vote for up to three pieces.