The theme for our 19th seasonal short story contest provided by a small comittee was "Alternate Settings" Please read all seven stories before voting. You may vote for up to two pieces. Spoiler: Story One: "The Wendigo" The Wendigo The two Skinks rode their culchans through the snow with a string of rabbits they caught. Their tribe would eat well. The smaller Skink paused and scratched his feathered chin. “Look over there, Kai’ax” “Through those trees is a farmhouse. A family of humans live there. We should give them a wide berth, lest they start hollering ‘the Liz’uns are attacking’” “Do they live there?” “Are you speaking riddles, priest.” “This close, we should be able to smell and see smoke from their hearth. No smoke means no fire. No fire means no humans.” “So?” “I aims to find out why they are gone.” The farmhouse was dark and quiet. The door was in splinters, but the rest of the house was intact; snow billowing in. When the two Saurios entered the house, they were shielded from the wind, but the inside somehow felt much colder than the outside. They found disheveled bones and tatters of clothing scattered about the entry way. There was very little flesh on the bones. Judging by the more intact clothes fragments, it was an adult male human. Not far from the heap of bones was a rifle. The larger Skink checked the firearm. “This is still loaded. Whatever took him out killed him before he could take a shot.” The priest looked around the cabin. There were cans, jars, and barrels of assorted food, enough for a good sized family to last the rest of the winter. After only a few minutes of searching, he found silver coins, ammunition, spirits, and medicine. He spoke out loud. “Nothing was stolen. This wasn’t a robbery.” They found the bedroom door was knocked off its hinges. Behind it were far more tattered bones and tattered clothing. Four new skulls with rotting eyes and bits of skin hanging on them. “The father guarded the door, the mother took the children here,” the priest said. The larger Skink picked up a revolver and opened it. “Four shots in a six shooter. No bullet holes in the walls. The attacker kept going after eating two bullets. No way these bodies could rot to the bone that fast.” He picked up a femur and examined it. “The bones were gnawed on. The blood stains are pretty small for five deaths. The blood was lapped up,” he said. “Skaven and greenskins will eat the flesh of the people they bushwack…” the priest replied, almost hopefully. The larger Skink picked up a full can of beans and waved it at the rest of the food stores. “Whatever did this ate the people and left the food and shinies. What kind of cross-grained varmit does that?” “A wendigo does that,” said the priest. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * About twenty men and a half a dozen women crowded in Hammer Gulch’s town hall building, standing closer together than normal due to the cold. “I think everyone who is willing to come out here is already here,” said the general store owner. “Just get started!” said Widow Ivanov shivering. “Alright then,” said the sheriff in a slow drawl. The grey haired man stepped away from the crowd and the fire so he could be seen and heard better. Despite being cold as everyone else, he didn’t shiver or show any signs of discomfort. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a situation. The Millers are dead….” “Serves them right for hording all the food from everyone else in our harshest winter…lost two brothers in arms from exposure, not enough food.” Private Dimitri muttered getting some dirty looks from those nearest him. The sheriff continued as if he didn’t hear him. “So are the Turgenevs and the Lopezes. They were killed in their homes. Men, women and children.” The crowd erupted in inarticulate expressions of grief, anger and fear. Followed by recriminations. “The Estalians did it!” “Why would they kill the Lopezes?” “Shriznak’s Boys did it.” “Yeah, the goblins did it! String up their green necks.” As more people called for the goblins’ heads, the sheriff glared. “Quiet!” The crowd continued to shout, their anger finally making them all warm. “QUIET!” “Ain’t no goblins done this. Whoever did this treated the corpses as their chuck.” Most of the expressions of horror were silent. “I heard Goblins will eat man flesh!” Shouted Private Dimitri. The sheriff was quiet and stern, milking a pregnant pause. “Whoever killed those families, ate them folks up down to the bone and left the foodstores. They left the money, they left the whiskey, they left the irons. Ain’t no goblin passes up that kind of unguarded treasure.” The crowd erupted in confusion and fear. Reverend Jonas stepped away from the crowd and all eyes turned toward him. He tried and failed to repress a shiver. “The Four Horsemen of Chaos rode forth and sent a monster to plague us!” he exclaimed dramatically. “Sigmar save us!” shouted a woman in the crowd. “Kill the monster!” shouted another man. The sheriff held up a hand for silence. “I cotton to kill the monster, sir. We don’t know what we are dealing with. Reverend?” “Winter like this, Famine is strong. Whatever it is has a great hunger, a hunger not satisfied by ordinary vittles.” “Oh dear!” shouted a woman in the crowd. The lone dwarf stepped away from the crowd to be better seen. The stout mining foreman preened his threads pompously before speaking. “Now we all cannot have no business with a monster knocking around. A thousand dollars gold, split up evenly to any man who brings this creature’s head.” Private Dimitri perked up. “But how do we find this monster? We don’t even know what we’re looking for.” The door swung open dramatically. A feathered lizard in a Stetson hat strode in. “I’m your huckleberry.” * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Three horses and two culchans rode out of Hammer Gulch. Private Dimitri proudly wore his faded Union army winter jacket. Deputy Schneider, who insisted the sheriff defend the town, was bundled up like a mummy against the cold. Next to him was the headstrong Becker boy who shivered; eager to get two hundred dollars and make a name for himself. None of the men dared take their eyes off the two Saurios riding ahead. Eventually Dimitri got bored and rode alongside the Skink priest. “So Rango, I have a question.” “Don’t call him Rango,” admonished the deputy. “He has a real name. It's Yukelshow.” “It’s actually Yuqal'Cho-ax” replied the priest, “But that’s hard for your kind to pronounce so ‘Rango’ is fine.” The larger Skink snorted in derision. “What’s your name then, big feller?” Dimitri asked. “Rango,” he said. Becker broke into nervous laughter. Dimitri turned back towards the smaller Skink. “So Rango, why do you ride them giant prairie chickens? Even greenskins learnt to ride horses. Horses are faster.” “Culchans handle the winter cold and summer heat better than horses.” He replied calmly. “Bah, we don’t ride chickens, we eat them. I can’t believe the sheriff and the reverend condones working with Liz’uns on this.” Dimitri retorted. “I cannot believe Yuqal'Cho-ax convinced me to take on a wendigo to help a bunch of lukewarm bloods.” The Skink replied. “Four hundred dollars buys a lot of irons and bullets.” The priest replied. Dimitri seemed like he was struck silent by the Skink’s retort, his face was briefly contorted with rage as if in a trance. “There!” the Skink priest pointed to some fresh tracks in the snow. A cross between a naked human foot and the talons of an owl. “Damn! Those tracks are heading away from the Johnsons’ homestead,” said the deputy. “Too late for them, let’s get the damn windy-go!” said Dimitri. “Agreed,” said the smaller of the two Rangos. All five unlikely riding companions turned and rode as one. Hours passed as the five riders rode deeper into the woods. As the terrain got rougher, the culchans fared a lot better than the horses, but neither of the Skinks paused to gloat. The sun was setting rapidly and the temperature was dropping even faster. The horses whinnied nervously. Even the culchans seemed rattled. “It’s near…” whispered the Skink priest. The riders looked in the dusk in all directions. “It’s too dark to see nuthin’.” Becker muttered. Yuqal'Cho-ax began muttering a prayer in ancient Saurian. Those creatures with hair felt it stand up straight as a wave of static washed over them. The nearby forest was bathed in soft light, as if from lightning but not dissipating. The riders looked nervously in all directions. All directions except above them. A dark figure swooped down from a tree and slashed Becker’s throat. He didn’t even have time to scream. “Mahrlect!” Kai’ax pulled his rifle and fired, but was too slow. The skink pulled some torches off his belt and magically lit the first one with a small burst of electricity, then used the first torch to light the others. He handed them out to his colleagues as quickly as he could. “Wendigos hate fire.” The deputy was the last to get the torch. As he was reaching for one, a dark shape descended and slashed its talons at his horse’s front legs. The bleeding mare cried out in pain and bent forward, spilling the deputy onto the snow. Dimitri's horse bucked him off, though the army veteran somehow landed on his feet. The two Skinks opted to dismount voluntarily. Schneider got up unhurt, though a little staggered, for the snow cushioned his fall. He shook the snow off his torch before the flame was extinguished. “Circle up!” he ordered. They formed a loose circle around the culchans and the one uninjured horse which hadn’t bolted. In the flickering torch light the wendigo was finally able to be seen clearly. Over six feet tall, it was emaciated thin with arms longer than a human would have. Its eyes were red, full of malice and greed. The creature’s fingers were even longer and thinner, ending in owl-like talons. It wasn’t a true skeleton, but the creature’s coal black skin was stretched grotesquely over a very thin frame and skin that was nearly translucent. Its gums were rotted, giving it the appearance of a corpse's grin. It sucked in a deep breath through its teeth, making a noise that was a cross between a death rattle and the winter wind trying to sneak below a doorframe. It approached Dimitri who froze, staring at the monster in silent awe. The wendigo went around him and rounded on the deputy. The deputy fired his six shooter into the monster but the bullet only created a very small mark of glowing blue blood, the wound sealing up rapidly. The wendigo swiped his talons at the man’s chest and sent him sprawling to the ground. The wendigo licked its withered lips as if savoring the meal it was about to enjoy. “RAAAAARR!” bellowed the larger Skink as he rushed forward, thrusting his torch into the monster’s chest. The beast burst into flames so fast it was as if the wendigo was soaked in kerosene, but the flare up was brief. The fire was out but the wendigo was staggering as if winded. “Shoot now!” the skink priest shouted. Dimitri and the two lizards pulled their long arms and fired. The shots that hit the burned wendigo struck true and caused much bleeding. The wendigo did not rise again. They shot it some more just to be sure. Yuqal'Cho-ax cleaned up the deputy’s chest wound. “It’s not deep. Your three coats took most of the talons. It will hurt like hell for a few weeks, but you’ll live.” He turned to the others who had just finished gathering up the stray horses. “We need to build a big bonfire to burn it. We cannot stop until the wendigo’s icy heart melts. The horse and Becker too, we need to burn them lest they bear the mark of the wendigo.” “Poor kid. He was just between hay and grass,” the deputy said. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Becker didn’t do anything but die. It seemed unfair that his family got a full share of the thousand bucks. Still, it’s not every day that Dimitri had two hundred dollars in his pocket. A month or so later when winter was finally turning to spring, Dimitri was riding to the nearest real town to spend his reward when he saw there was a cloaked rider on a midnight black horse in his path up ahead. “Dimitri….” the rider's voice was little more than a harsh whisper but it carried on the wind across an almost impossible distance. “What? Who are you?” The rider came closer. “You have betrayed your brothers in arms, “came the dry hissing voice. "No, I didn’t, they died on their own!” “You have tasted your brothers' flesh," the voice hissed; the words seeming to coalesce in Dimitri’s body. The rider approached closer again. “I had to survive. They were already dead, and I didn’t want to join them!” Dimitri exclaimed. The Cold washed over him as the veteran clutched his chest in pain. Dimitri screamed as he felt his heart turn to ice. The rider was almost within touching distance now. “Your heart belongs to me. All of you belongs to me.” “No, I…I won’t…I…I hunger.” “Indeed, but now is not the time to sate your hunger. Spring is here.” The rider touched his brow and Dimitri dismounted his horse and lay on the ground comatose. The ghastly rider smiled. “Sleep well, my wendigo. Your time will come.” Spoiler: Story Two: "What's All the Fustria about Lustria" What's All the Fustria in Lustria? Bright, suspicious eyes watched from impassive, reptilian faces festooned in feathers and finery. In the midst of the ancient, grandiose temple chamber stood a bizarre, brightly coloured box on wheels, from which several warmbloods were emerging. The head of the great council of Itza stepped forward and held out his claws. "Greetings, oh great Masters of the Occult," croaked the aged skink. "Forgive us for bringing you here. You are our last and only hope." "That was one groovy portal we came through," said Fred, running a hand through his perfect blonde hair. "Jinkies! I didn't think the Mystery Machine would survive it," continued Velma, adjusting her glasses. "Just where on earth is this place, Mister?" asked Daphne, a hand on one hip. The high priest regarded the trio, irritably. "We were told there were five of you," he rasped. "I'm sure Shaggy and Scooby will wake up soon." "They slept through the portal?! Never mind. There is no time. The end has come for us. The final Doom is here. All our defenses are rent and broken. The daemons will be upon us any minute now." "Daemons?" asked Velma, suspiciously. "The very legions of darkness. They have come from the most evil corner of the cosmos to ravage everything in their path. They know no mercy, no sliver of humanity. They are the end of all life." "You've come to the right group of kids, sir. We'll get to the bottom of this." "When did these daemons first show up?" asked Daphne. "And what do they want with this place?" added Velma, as Shaggy and his oversized dog emerged from the psychedelic van behind them with a yawn. "The first wave fell up on us a century ago. Since then we have known nothing but war. As for what they want - they are the harbingers of the End Times, the unholy minions of Chaos; the daemons want nothing but the destruction of this world and all worlds! They have destroyed everything but this last bastion of lizardman strength." "Zoinks! Like, d-d-did he say 'd-d-daemons'?" said Shaggy, in a voice broken by too many off-screen joints. "Ruh-roh," opined Scooby. "Let's split up and look for clues!" commanded Fred, cheerfully. "If you venture beyond this sanctum, we will not be able to protect you," replied the high priest, uncertainly. But the Gang were already out the door. The cloaked man turned around and stared at his arcane colleagues, silently. *** Out in the hellscape of the ruined city, surrounded by giant piles of rubble, Velma, Daphne and Fred came upon a hovel with a lone survivor. "You must flee this place!" cried the ragged old lizardman. "They will be back any moment now!" "We'd just like to ask a few questions if that's okay, sir," said Fred. "Flee! Flee!" "Have you seen anything unusual around here lately?" asked Velma. "Apocalypse! The end is nigh!" "Jeepers, what's this?" said Daphne, retrieving a glowing red object from beneath a pile of bricks. "I don't know anything about it! It's probably a dangerous artefact of Chaos. Put it down and flee from here!" "Looks like a high frequency quantum chronal crystal," said Velma. "How strange. This gives me an idea!" *** Meanwhile, Shaggy and Scooby crept through an old, ruined temple-palace, on tiptoes, heads turning from side to side in fear. "Like, do you see any daemons, Scoob?" "Ruh-ruh," replied the hound, accidentally heading down a different corridor, now creeping backwards until his backside came into contact with something large and fleshy. Slowly, patting the creature with his paws, Scooby turned around until his was face to face with a huge, terrifying daemon - all eyes and limbs and tentacles. The beast roared ferociously. "Rrrrrun!" gulped the dog, sprinting off in a cloud of dust. "Scooby Doo! Where are you?" cried Shaggy, only for the Great Dane to come barreling into him, the dog continuing his sprint with the scruffy human in his arms. "D-d-daemon!" said Scooby, eyes wide in fear. "Zoinks! Like, let's get out of here!" said Shaggy. They sped through a doorway leading off the corridor, followed closely by the ginormous, salivating daemon. At that same moment, they emerged through another doorway, further down the corridor, now chasing the beast instead of vice versa. Several combinations of doors and chasers ensued. Finally, Scooby slipped on a loose stone, sending all three of them flying through a large tapestry and into a nearby garbage chute, only to emerge on the street just as Fred, Daphne, Velma and the council of Itza arrived. Velma stepped up to the daemon, who was now hopelessly entangled in the tapestry. "Time to see who was really behind this apocalyptic plot!" she said, pulling off the creature's top section, revealing it as little more than a felt suit. And inside - "The old lizard from the hovel!" cried Fred. "But how did you know?" "Simple. The old skink was using this chronal crystal to travel back in time to create the legend of the daemon incursion, driving away all local armies so that he could seize power for himself!" "And I would have got away with it too if it wasn't for you meddling kids," grumbled the skink. "Amazing!" cried the head priest of the council of Itza. "And to think, all this time, the world-ending plague of hell daemons ravaging our land was just one old lizardman in a suit! How can we ever reward you?!" "Like, how about a comically oversized sandwich!" said Shaggy. "Res rease!" agreed Scooby. Spoiler: Story Three "Madness..." “Madness…” The bodies of lizardmen were sprawled out amongst ferns and undergrowth. They laid with eyes staring and mouths agape, as blood poured from their wounds. There were other lizards who stood above the bodies. They either berated their dead kin, or sought refuge somewhere else to heal. Amidst the living, were skinks looting from the bodies, sauri roaring towards the heavens, and kroxigors hefting corpses into their jaws. It was a decisive victory for a minor force of Tlaxtlan over an Xlanhuapec reconnaissance group. A clash that mirrored the ones of long ago, and will see itself repeat on end in the future, spilling reptilian blood relentlessly. The lizards’ hatred for another scorched like a fire throughout their past. Tired, the Tlaxtlan warriors looted whatever they could, as the stench of the dead settled in. One of them was a skink skirmisher, Koriki. He searched for anything of use until he spotted a lone saurus who stood erect, peering out onto the skies above. The muscled warrior loomed over a few dead sauri with scars running across its scales. Koriki struck a conversation with his buddy who was alongside him, pointing with his claws. “Who in Chotec’s name is that?” His buddy, Nakaux, followed where the claws pointed with his eyes, spotting the lone saurus. “That’s Chaska. He’s been doing that ever since we won.” “You know him? Bit of an awkward one. Sauri usually don’t stare like that as if they’re deeply in thought.” “Maybe, maybe,” Nakaux said as he curiously looked on. “It is certainly the first time I’ve seen him stare in such a way. Makes me wonder what he’s thinking about.” Koriki leaned in closer, smiling with glee widely. “Let’s ask him then!” “Ehh…” Nakaux muttered whilst trying to push away the excited skink. Such brash rudeness didn’t register so well in Nakaux’s mind. He had always appreciated the wisdom quietness can often give. His curiosity, however, peaked to a near unbearable level. “I suppose it’ll be fine. Chaska is slightly more talkative than you might expect.” Koriki’s smile brimmed even wider as he grabbed Nakaux along with him. The intrigued skinks went on over to Chaska. The lone warrior still gazed towards the skies - his club dripping with blood as it quivered. “Chaska. Koriki here. Proud, stealthy slayer of the Xlanhuapec scum!” “Madness.” Koriki’s head shook, confused with the reply. Nakaux even more so as he stepped forward. “I think Koriki meant ‘Why are you standing here by your lonesome self?’” “Madness.” The two skinks turned towards each other, blinking with bemusement. “Madness? Are we mad? Are you mad? Are all lizards mad?!” Koriki enthusiastically questioned. The lone saurus gazed towards the skies - his club quivering on. “Madness.” Nakaux pondered on what Chaska meant by his repetitive utterances of ‘madness’. Was the saurus warrior simply mad? Or was it something else? He thought back to when Chaska reminisced of times most lizards have long forgotten. Times when lizards from both Tlaxtlan and Xlanhuapec traded in peace before war engulfed all of Lustria. Such recollections caused Nakaux’s eyes to drift towards the bodies lying by Chaska’s feet… “You feel sorrow for those you’ve killed, huh? Those dead sauri.” “Madness.” Nakaux shook from the answer. He continued staring towards the dead sauri until scenes of Chaska’s spawn brethren flashed before him. To the lone saurus, these spawn mates of his were united like branches of a tree. They were everything, for the gazing saurus never learnt anything else. So did the branches start to fall when Chaska and his cohort of brethren were ambushed by salamanders and skinks. The time when Chaska told all of this vividly played out in Nakaux’s mind. He soon began trembling and baring his teeth when a realization came to him. “Is this all about your spawn brethren? They’re all dead, Chaska! Countless lizards have already lost their lives, and many others will follow suit, so whimpering about won’t change anything!” Chaska gazed onto the abyss that was the skies - his club trembling with a quiver. “Madness.” That single, dreaded response made Nakaux’s blood seethe; his frustration boiling. The three lizards stood there as trees swayed side to side; the wind surfing about them as tails thrashed. Koriki looked on in bewilderment, trying to process why Nakaux was yelling, and why Chaska kept on repeating the same word monotonously. He also pondered on why Chaska’s club kept on quivering. The quivering itself captivated his attention. Upon focusing on it, a new sense of understanding suddenly flushed throughout him. What he had seen as bizarre, suddenly became relatable… And so, Koriki enthusiastically ran towards the lone saurus, hugging one of his arms. He embraced with all his might, for he finally understood. “Are you afraid? Are you afraid of what’s to come, Chaska?” Chaska’s quivering halted. His gaze turned away from the skies, and locked onto the skink hugging him. Eyes of the lone saurus that had seen centuries of blood splattering, centuries of lizards dying, and centuries of suffering pass by, stared towards pupils that haven't even experienced a year’s worth of time. Having seen so much, it was near impossible for him to know what was to come. Chaska raised his head and drew breath. He returned his gaze towards the skies once more. “Madness…” Spoiler: Story Four: "The Twisted Reflection" The Twisted Reflection Borg-qar marched at the head of the implacable Saurus phalanx of the Spears of Quetzl, who themselves had been the first to enter the gateway battered down by an Ancient Stegadon, and led his flawlessly-disciplined Saurus up the main street. All around them civilians of the Xho’za’khanx were panicking and fleeing, yet the Saurus were no simple predators. There was no honour in killing such wretched creatures, especially as such actions would bring further delay to their search for the Twenty-Seventh Great Plaque of Chotec. This precious artefact had been accidentally translocated out of Borg-qar’s Temple City by an inexperienced Skink Priest. It had then disappeared from the location it had been transported to when the City’s Priesthood found it, for it had materialised at a point beyond the enchanted marshes that protected the city from trespassers, and of course it had soon been discovered and carried off by opportunistic Xho’za’khanx like a pack of wild Huagerdons. The Saurus Lord of that Temple City, for the last Slann in the city had perished centuries ago, had instructed Borg-qar to retrieve the Great Plaque no matter the cost, for the Sun God was the prime deity of that city, and to defy his wish and abandon one of his sacred plaques would be an irredeemable offence. The mass of fleeing citizens scattered into alleyways and alcoves as a cavalcade of plate-armoured Knights thundered down the main street, lances lowered, but all Borg-qar had to do was bellow the command to receive their charge, and immediately his warriors tensed, keeping their shields braced against their chests so the impact of the cavalry charge would not shatter their arms, and raising their spears so the Xho’za’khanx riders would be propelled by their steeds directly onto the lethal iron barbs. Borg’qar immediately raised his own shield to deflect the lance of the rider heading straight for him as the Knights hit home, the point of the weapon embedding itself into the scaly hide of his shield, before swinging his jagged club around in an arc to sever the Knight’s leg at the knee. With a cry the maimed Xho’za’khanx fell from his steed as he lost the stability of the stirrup his lower leg had been in, landing with a clatter upon the stone cobbles. He immediately reached up with his left arm to release his remaining foot from the other stirrup, which had got caught in the fall, but this distraction left him powerless to escape the overhead blow that the Oldblood then dealt to finish him off. His opponent slain, Borg’qar turned to find that the rest of the enemy cavalry had been repelled by the spears of his warriors. While many lay dead or wounded upon the cobbled road, a few remaining Knights could be seen galloping back up the street, most likely to regroup further on up the road. If the Saurus did not keep moving, the warm-bloods would return, and in greater numbers. “Search the buildings,” Borg’qar ordered simply to his regiment, who immediately began to disperse to ransack some of the nearby buildings in their search for the Plaque. Borg’qar himself made his way over to an especially old, crooked-looking house with a front wall that slanted forward so that it looked as if it would fall flat upon its front at any moment. Forcing the door open, he shoved his way into a poky hall. The Oldblood snorted in disgust at the stench that permeated the room, which seemed to be a mix of the natural odour of the Xho-za-khanx and that of what could only have been defined as herbs, although none that the Priests of his Temple City would ever have heard of. The house was poorly lit, but the Oldblood could see strangely-coloured lights coming from the top of a small wooden staircase, and hear the voice of a warm-blood chanting in his crude language: “Ovren die Pordal zur werled au die oddar zeede Veren die vru Emprah durn alzeede Begonnen wit die Empire, guten-tag die Imperium, Ovren die duur die Immaterium!” Ignoring the mumbo-jumbo, Borg-qar rifled through the lower level of the hovel and, finding no trace of his prize, stumped up the frail wooden steps, splintering what was left of the banister into matchsticks with his tail, and encountered the source of the illuminations. The Xho-za-khanx wizard who had been reciting the phrases had reached the peak of his ritual - what had previously been a flickering swirl of multicoloured lights was now a circular portal. All around the cramped room were assorted phials, jars and boxes containing all number of different ingredients, but it was what was hanging upon the wall to the left that made Borg’qar clench his fists in simmering rage. Upon that wall, supported by metal hooks underneath it, was the Twenty Seventh Plaque of Chotec, slightly chipped but otherwise intact. It had been this wretch and his cronies who had abducted it from where that puddle-brain of a Skink Priest had teleported it. “Vhoo art du? Vhat du dewing eer?” Borg-qar was interrupted in his thoughts now by the sorcerer, who was shocked to see the Saurus standing right in the middle of the doorway to his workroom. He, however, had no time to say anything else as the Oldblood then turned and swatted him away with one great sweep of his club, the Xho-za-khanx flying into the right-hand wall and slumping to the ground, a massive gash in his chest where the club had killed him instantly. His enemy pulverised, Borg-qar then turned to retrieve the Twenty Seventh Plaque, but as he attempted to march over and gently pick it up, he felt himself being…dragged backwards. He turned to smash whoever was subjecting him to such a humiliation, but there was nobody there. Except the portal. Borg-qar dug his claws into the wooden floor, but the magical force of the portal continued to drag him ever backwards, away from the Plaque. He began to feel a tingling sensation in the tip of his tail as it disappeared into the portal, which then rose up through his body until he was completely engulfed, whereupon he sped along, spiralling round and round along a tunnel which shone in every colour of the jungle both separately and all at once. Even for a toughened Saurus Oldblood who had fought and bludgeoned individuals from every lesser race the Old Ones had created, and a good few from those that they had not, the experience was very disorientating. What was worse was that this portal that subjected him to such torture was a foe he could not defeat. No matter how many times he swung at the edges of the tunnel with his club, it simply passed through magical...stuff. Finally, with absolutely no warning whatsoever, Borg’qar was spat out of the other end of the vortex, he flew several feet and came sliding to a halt on a flat surface of dry earth. He gradually got to his feet, returned his club to its holder on his back, and shook himself of the dust that had coated his scales, relieved at least to finally be somewhere mundane again. However, mundane as this place was, it was nothing like the world he knew. The buildings were the first thing Borg’qar noticed - buildings of shining white stone and riven with great arched windows with multicoloured glass, and crasftsmanship that almost rivalled that carved by the Skink stonemasons back in his home city. “Haltea, monstro!” a warm-blood voice suddenly yelled in his direction. Borq’qar spun round, and saw a pair of Xho-za-khanx strutting towards him. They were taller than any Xho-za-khanx he had ever seen before, and were well-armoured, even more so than the knights that had charged his regiment back in the town of wooden buildings. They brandished long metal weapons that Borg-qar recognised as firearms, akin to the smoky, unreliable weapons used by the warm-bloods defending the walls of the wooden town, but were longer and more streamlined in their construction. Were these soldiers created by the Old Ones, possibly intended to supplement the Saurus but never distributed to the Temple Cities accordingly? Such beliefs were soon quelled as the two warm-bloods each placed one of their hands firmly upon Borq-qar’s shoulders, evidently threatening him to come with them, to where Borg-qar did not know. All he did know was that these Xho’za’khanx would have known that the First were friends, not foes, if they had been designed to obey the Old Ones’ commands. “Cum quet avos, monstro, tuas ondro areste!” ordered the warm-blood to his right. “Nos sont marinii Imperium, et nos cognum ni fearr!” spat the warm-blood to his left. Both of the armoured Xho’za’khanx hauled upon Borg’qar’s arms to drag him away, but the Oldblood stood his ground and instinctively wrenched his right hand free, using it to deliver an overarm punch to the warm-blood on the left. As his fist came into contact with the plate armour of the recipient, Borg’qar felt the innate toughness and firmness of the metal as it refused to cave in to his strength, but his ferocity still inflicted great enough an impact to send the armoured soldier sprawling, at the same time tripping up the other with his muscular tail. He drew his club again and raised it to behead the one he had punched, but he then heard a loud crack and felt a sudden, stabbing pain in his back. The second warm-blood that he had tripped had calmly got up, aimed his gun and fired while Borg’qar had been distracted. The shot had missed his internal organs but had wedged itself into his body somewhere that was still excruciating. Clenching his teeth, the Oldblood whipped round and swung his club in an arc downward, slamming into the first warm-blood’s shoulder. Such a strike should have killed such an innately weak creature, but the thick armour this soldier was wearing meant the spikes of the club only just penetrated it and jabbed into the Xho-za-khanx’s shoulder, rather than cleaving halfway through his chest. The injured warm-blood flinched, but hefted his gun and swung the butt around as a club of his own, catching Borg-qar on the side of the head. Normally this would have done nothing to halt the Oldblood’s rampage, but, weakened as he was from his wound, this was enough to cause Borg’qar to slump to the ground and pass out. When he awoke, Borg’qar found himself within a cage barely tall enough for him to stand in, with a cacophony of shouts from warm-blood voices all around him. The cage he was in lay at the centre of a vaulted chamber, surrounded by a circular amphitheatre populated with wrinkled Xho’za’khanx clad in eccentric-looking robes who were wheezing and groaning amongst themselves. The wounds he had suffered from the armoured warm-bloods were still painful, but were no longer bleeding and had been crudely stitched with thread. He tried to force apart the bars of his prison, but they had been fashioned from the same metal as the thick armour of the warm-blood gunmen, and it was no use. “Arese poro le Imperator!” a warm-blood voice suddenly yelled out, and all the Xho’za’khanx sitting upon the benches arose as a figure clad in golden armour, evidently the ruler of these warm-bloods, strode into the stone pavilion raised above the other wooden seats and sat down upon a golden throne adorned with eagles and the same arch designs as could be seen in the windows of the chamber. A deathly silence fell upon the chamber as the golden figure began to speak and the wrinkled warm-bloods below him sat down again and quietened in reverence. “Es Imperator, denucio vos por monstro et abominatus. Par le legalitii de cet domina, setecio ad mortem par gladiatoris. Si gagnus, liberatas, si vanquis, mortas.” Of course, Borg’qar could not understand a thing the golden warm-blood was saying, but if he could, he would have known that he was being sentenced to death in arena combat. After this, Borg-qar’s cage was carried out of a grand arched doorway underneath the stone pavilion by a couple of shrunken Xho-za-khanx assistants, and dumped upon the back of a large wagon alongside several other cages. The Oldblood recognised several of the False First and a Dro’ka’khanx in those cages, alongside other creatures he had never seen in his world. The wagon was then driven along a paved street, along both sides of which crowds of warm-blood citizens had gathered to hurl insults and more solid objects at him and the others that were caged. As much as Borg’qar wanted to show these petulent Xho-za-khanx the true extent of the power of a faithful servant of the Old Ones, such acts would be futile. After several minutes of being jolted about and bombarded with warm-blood refuse, Borg-qar saw that they were heading for a collection of assorted holes in the ground, around which yet more of the Xho-za-khanx citizens had gathered and were cheering as they spotted the wagon’s approach. They applauded even more when the wagon stopped beside the first cavernous pit and two of the hunched warm-bloods driving it clambered into the back and opened the door to Borg-qar’s cage, tipping it forward over the side of the wagon to send him tumbling in. Staggering to his feet and dusting himself down after his second unpleasant landing of the day, Borg-qar heard the braying laughter of the Xho-za-khanx spectators as they squinted down at him from the edges of the pit, and now knew in his bones that they were eagerly anticipating his death, and had put him in here to fight. He steeled himself as he heard the creaking groan of a prison door on one side of the pit being raised, but faltered as he heard a familiar roar burst from the open doorway. The roar of a Carnosaur. His Carnosaur. Spoiler: Story Five: "Reunited Once Again" Reunited Once Again Gru'tun gripped his war-club tight, the old leather felt comfortable in his palm. His spawn-brothers gathered around him, each one of them held their weapons firm and close, testing them before the storm of battle engulfed them. Flicking his tongue out on the air he tasted foul smells, rot, death, age. Their foe approached. "The enemy marches, signal the troops." He growled to their musician, who began hastily beating his war-drum. Without another order the rest of the cohort regrouped, mounting their Cold Ones. The beasts snarling and restless, sensing what marched towards the temple-city. The riders sharing their mount's unease at the situation, only having fought interlopers of the jungle, foul ratmen, greedy men, self centered elves, enemies that could be clubbed and fall. The foes that shambled through the jungles this time were different, unnatural and unwavering, their dead flesh breaking and falling and rising again. The Skink mages of the temple said they had ways to deal with this dark magic, but it required time to prepare the proper alignment of the Geomanitc Nexus, time that would need to be bought, and if they do not barter then stolen from the enemy. Leaving the gates of the city for what could be the last time each warrior knew this was their purpose, to fight in the name of The Great Plan, but this was a perversion of combat. They had all been told what happens to the fallen, that they would wake from death to fight their own again. A thought that unnerved even Gru'tun, to fight his spawn brothers? A horrible thought. The riders assembled in the thick jungle as instructed, awaiting the drums that would call their charge. Anticipation held them captive, their steel nerves taught within their skin. "I do not like this battle," I'kran grumbled "It does not feel right to fight what is already dead." "It is not," Rup'tl concurred, "But until the priests complete their ritual we must protect them, even if daemons burst from their rotten flesh!" He swung his mace at in invisible foe. "If it does I hope your club works as well as your mouth," Gru'tun chuckled "We will fight and kill well, if it has died once it can die again." The rotting wind blew closer, the clatter of feet rumbled in the distance, the dead marching their wordless march with no sounds uttered. While across the field of battle the Old One's children mounted their counter offensive, drums and the skink's war chants reverberating through the jungle trees. The fighting lasted for half an hour before the order was given for the riders to emerge, to make their way into the enemy rear and cut the rotten heart from this desiccated beast. Letting the keen sight of the cold ones guide them to the tree line the cohort burst forth onto the killing grounds, clubs and maces at the ready and their mounts hungering for battle. Their comrades fought a losing battle, surrounded by the dead and unable to manoeuvre they fought with tooth and blade, every saurus who fell took a regiments worth of dead with him. Riding towards the rear lines, Gru'tun could see the foul mages struggling to control their army, their feeble human minds unable to direct the power needed to effectively control their force in the face of the priests of the temple city and their ritual. If one of them were to fall so would their army. Cold scale pounded the ground as the riders picked up speed, homing in on the near defenseless mages they swung their weapons and roared a ferocious battle cry. Drums rang from behind the lines of the dead and the saurus sprung back with renewed vigor, decayed hands trying to drag their mountainous frames down were smashed away and their bodies broken. Skinks renewed their offensive, harrying their foes with dart and javelin while keeping the dead at distance, doing all they could to prevent any of the force from turning on the riders at their rear. A frigid blast tore through the flank of the riders as they closed in, the mage hurriedly throwing a blast of necromantic force at his assailants, the scales sloughing from I'kran's shield arm, the muscle beneath rotting away and the bone crumbling to dust. With a bellow of pain and rage he pushed his steed further, rushing to be the one to destroy the tainted caster. His rage blinding him to his surroundings he rushed forward and by the time the other riders had spotted the foe it was too late. Black riders clad in rusted plate and riding steeds of bone and foul magic crested over the hill behind the necromancer. The plate, that once would have shimmered in the sunlight, shook with dull rattles as they began to charge, lowering their lances, Gru'tun could see the macabre grins on their skulls as he ordered the riders to close together. To not let them come between them. I'kran was too far away to be saved, with no shield to guard with the lead rider impaled the enraged saurus on his lance, the next knight skewering the cold one before it could lash out. Closing the gap the saurus held their shields close and their weapons at the ready, one eager rider on the flank was the first to strike, his blow deflecting from a shield but they all heard the ancient bones crack and saw the shield fall. "If it died once it will die again!" The riders roared as they tore into their foes. Clubs broke steel and bone while maces shattered skulls and lances. As the saurus reveled in their carnage the dead began to knit together as their comrades pushed the reptilian riders back, taking up blades again to protect their master. The fight lasted for many minutes, each one a lifetime of struggle for the saurus. Outnumbered they fought with all the ferocity and skill they had but the regenerative powers of the dead was taking a heavy toll. Six of the original twenty who rode out were now slain while only two of the black riders had stayed down. Gru'tun began to doubt their chances and if the army would survive long enough for the ritual to be complete. Around him more saurus and skinks fell to ancient blades and tearing hands. Looking for an opening he found one. One of his spawn brothers had opened a hole in the knights formation that they could break. He called for the rest of the riders to punch through the hole, leading the charge himself. Rushing through the breach he heard hoof and claw beating the ground behind him. The mages must die The message rang through his head, an order from the priests behind him. A mission they had lost so much to achieve and would not fail now. He swung a mighty blow to his rear, crushing the head of the steed that was in pursuit it crashed into the dirt. The necromancer was distracted, his focus on driving his horde forth. He never saw the blow that ended his cursed existence. After the cursed dead returned to the gave the reptilian army turned home for reprieve. What was left of the riders returned to the temple-city with the rest of the army. Only Grut'un and his cold one marched through the gates. A cold feeling gripping his soul. The other riders lay in the ground and yet he walked back to report to the priests. Why would the Old Ones decide for only he to live? Without a cohort he could not fight anymore. What was his purpose? Questions for the priests. He thought. Many cycles had passed since that fateful battle and by the grace of the Great Plan and the momentary waking of their revered master Gru'tun had found new purpose, guarding the skink priest Xhac'sun. This priest was a sacred messenger, his task to traverse Lustria and to find lost lore and artifacts and return them. Wandering between temple cities with the priest he had seen more of Lustria than he had ever expected, from the vast swamps that protected the northern cities to the immense mountains that Lord Mazdumundi himself created and the great expanse of the World Pond. However much awe he felt at these sights and the power of the Old Ones to create them he always felt something missing. Something within him would always cry out work its way into his soul and he did not know what. Xhac'sun was a source of much wisdom and insight, with an understanding of life much greater than anyone Gru'tun had been around. So it came that the feeling of hollowness would become too great and after camp was made he consulted the priest. "Great priest I ask for your wisdom." "Of course, what troubles you my friend?" The skink chirped gently. "Since we traveled I feel strange, if part of me is missing, travel and new things make me strange. I am proud to do this work but I do not know why I feel this." "You were a warrior before you joined me yes?" The skink cocked his head, "mayhaps you just miss the temple you guarded?" The saurus looked into the fire for a moment, thinking. "No. I defended temple yes, but that is not the feeling. I still protect, I protect you and I still act in the Great Plan. This feeling is something different." "Well how was it that you were chosen to travel with me? A spawn leader like yourself is a strange person to send away from his brothers." "My brothers died, they fought dead things while I killed the mage." The fire cracked and slumped low as the travelers sat in contemplation. "I miss my brother's scent. I miss my cold one's scent." "A spawning shares a bond, almost as strong as that the Slann share, but different. To be taken away from them like that, I think that is what you feel. Even while you still do the Old One's work you wish you were still with them, that you still rode with them." Gru'tun placed a new log on the fire, tending the flame in silence before slumping against a tree stump, looking to the stars above. "How do I stop the feeling?" "I don't know..." The duo traveled for many moons after, becoming very successful in their duty. One day they found themselves in a ruined temple-city, fallen in the age of chaos, rumors of strange power drawing them in search of a long forgotten artifact. Great foundation stones lay strewn about, smashed to rubble in years past, a sombering reminder to Gru'tun of why chaos must not be allowed to return. Moss and plant ruled this place now, covering every stone and walkway they found, a nest of birds lay in a nook above where a baracks had once stood. Decending deeper into the ruins the pair were ambushed, a skaven patrol surrounding them. Gru'tun fought them with a fury that they could not match, their rusted swords unable to peirce his thick hide and his club tearing limbs from their owners with every strike. With the priest giving the order to fight a retreat they backed away to a place with less rats, a place they could plan. It was sudden and violent. Gru'tun saw the shadow as it lept, the rat aiming for Xhac'sun. His club would not be able to hit in time. The blade sunk deep into flesh, in between the thick scales of the saurus who interposed himself. Tearing the filthy rat's throat out with his bare teeth he slumped down against the rubble, the poison weakening him greatly as it burned through his blood. "I will not escape, you go, bring back more." Growling through the pain, he bid his charge to escape. "The Old Ones bless you Gru'tun, I hope you see your brothers again." The skink chanted a final prayer for the dying warrior and nimbly fled into the jungle. Vowing on his final words to destroy the clan that did this. Gru'tun closed his eyes, wishing the priest the speed and protection of Huanchi. The pain grew distant. Everything was numb. Gru'tun opened his eyes. A familiar scent filled his snout. His brothers roared a their cries as they charged from the heavens. Chaos worshipers marched into the Freeguild lines, they would not make it out. Aqshy would be purged of their taint. I'kran kept the beat of the war-drums steady, Rup'tl held the star-icon high, Gru'tun led the charge once again. Spoiler: Story Six: "In the Grim Darkness" IN THE GRIM DARKNESS The huge portal is glowing dark blue in the night: the Polar Gate is oozing darkness and spewing forth mutating energy: the raw stuff of warp is crackling, implementing the engines of the Chaos Warlord Titans that still walk around the battlefield, trampling the remnants of the imperial Baneblades and Land Raiders. The assault has been a massacre, as predicted. But the lines of defense have been weakened, and through the cracks the real attack can slip… a small scout squad, equipped with a Vortex Cataclysm mine which, if placed correctly, will do the work. The future of this word rests, literally, upon my shoulders. So, here we go. Our 3-men squad moves silently, exploiting the cover of bunkers’ ruins and crests of molten rock… we know our camo cloak can hide us up to a certain point, and Khorne’s Raptors patrol the field. We have moved through, and we have silently killed random sentries, but the counter on my screen visor reminds me that time is running short. A choke point is ahead us, and I don’t have the luxury to waste time by going around it. I see a couple of berzerkers on guard duty… Through the sight of my sniper rifle I observe the pattern of their move, until I’m ready. My ceramite pad shoulder absorbs the silent recoil, and the head of one of them becomes a blood flower… the body crumbles in a nearby crater, exactly when the other berzerker, as planned, was looking in a different direction. And when he turns, a second shot puts him out, giving him no time to raise a cry of alarm. We run forward, finding cover near the fallen traitor. Behind the corner, another couple of berserkers are in wait, but this time I cannot do the same trick as before, so I have to risk a combined assault. I shoot one of them, while one of my brothers charges the other one… the power blade cuts his torso in half, but not before a shot of bolt rifle has been fired. Now we run into shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping our cloaks will suffice: a Raptor squad is approaching the choke point to investigate, and soon the alarm will be done. We’re almost at a pillar of the Gate… it will be guarded, but we have heavy weaponry too, and at that point silence will be unnecessary. Only surprise will matter. Then, a overcharged plasma shot takes down my brother with the power sword. Totally unseen, a squad of Dark Angel Fallen emerges from a dark alley, opening fire against us. The only unit sneakier than us… “Run! You know your duty! For the Emperor!” My brother puts himself between me and the Fallen and opens full fire with his heavy bolter… one of the Fallen falls again, and now forever. I run forward, but the enemy has been alerted by the noise… I’m only 50 yards away from the pillar, when a Helbrute enters the open space; I throw away my rifle and take the missile launcher, the only way I have to stop that walking behemoth… its reaper autocannon opens fire, and one shot rips apart my flak armor; while my secondary hearth starts to compensate the damage, I let loose the missile. The explosion shreds to pieces a leg of the Helbrute and it crumbles to on side. Then the autocannon fires again. ------------------------------------------------------------- “Mahrlect!” the skink threw away the holovisor on a bed. He was in a room with white walls, shelves filled with books and cd. From the radio, Primal Scream was singing to don’t give up… if there was some irony, it went unperceived. “Stupid game! it’s impossible to complete the hard mode mission with a warmblood allegiance!” A second skink started laughing. “Ah! Told you. War for the Gates II is unbalanced. The best camo cloak available gives just an additional 20% of being undetected, while chameleon infiltrators start from a natural 40%. Hard Mode needs Lizardmen. And with the upgrade you gain access to solar beams, while human scouts are limited to those inadequate missile launchers.” “Trikkit did it. With humans.” “And cheat codes.” “… Well, I suppose that against chaos it’s fair game. I really need to borrow a couple of those codes…” “What we really need, would be to study advanced biochemical engineering. The next month we’ll have the test on programming Spawning Pools’ cells”. The first skink walked to the window. It was a sunny day and from the palace there was a nice view of New Tlanxla. The streets were busied with lizardmen walking and riding and there were tiny little rainbows where the fountains were sprinkling drops of water in the air; in the outskirts of the city, the luxuriant palms were keeping at bay the sands of the desert, while airships filled with tourists were floating toward the ruins of the Black Pyramid of Nagash. “Yes, I suppose we have to. But the daily summoned rain has ended, so I’d say we could bring the books on the roof, so we can study while taking a sunbath. It’s a win-win!” Spoiler: Story Seven: "The Skink With No Name" The Skink with No Name Fort Dank stood high above the desert atop a lofty mesa, its wooden palisades were topped with the skulls of trespassers into the elfin domain. Many slaves toiled about the fortress, strengthening the trenches and earthworks that led up the craggy path to the fort entrance. From the walls a lookout could just barely able to see the town of Powder Keg across the desert with a looking glass. The Skink with No Name could not see the town of course; neither the cacti in the desert, nor the toiling slaves and the great views of the mesa. Nor could he hear the sounds of a thundering battle in the distance, where elf-fought-elf in a struggle for supremacy over this shadowy continent. Water leaked from the roof of his jail cell, where he had been thrown by his captors after they had confiscated his weapons. The jail was mostly empty, save for a single bearded dwarf in the adjacent cell. “Where did you get that rifle stranger?” dwarf asked immediately after the elf guards had left. The dwarf had introduced himself as Ruco, a prospector, after the skink had arrived in his cell. The skink said nothing, contemplating his fate as the dwarf continued to pester him with questions. “Your pistols, they were dwarf make? But your rifle, it looked like the hilt was made out of gold! Those were not dwarf runes, they looked foreign. Not elfish either, too complicated for gobbos...” The skink could tell the dwarf had been in the cell for some time; unwashed dwarf was a pungent odor. The dwarf was unfazed of course, he was too happy for the company. “…heard the stories of a fabulous golden weapon that could never miss. Were the runes Arabyan perhaps? Cathay? Is that why they captured you? Why did they bring you here?” The skink finally responded to Ruco’s torrent of questions. “I am looking for Blue Bart.” “Never heard of him,” replied the dwarf, scratching his beard as he pondered the skink’s statement. “I reckon you mean Barin Bluebeard? He was a dwarf prospector too, went mad looking for the gold mines at the Lost City of the Sun, up high in the mountain provinces.” The skink did not answer, listening to the approaching footsteps in the distance as the dwarf continued to babble on about the legends. “…clan thought he was daft, especially when he came home babbling about the huge mother-lode he found with no proof to show for it. Nothing but a map with strange symbols on it no proper dwarf could read. Went back to go get proof too, captured by dark elves and never seen again.” The dwarf continued uninterrupted until the jailors returned. “The Captain wants to see you,” one of the elves said, ignoring the dwarf. The two elves unlocked the cell and grabbed the skink by either arm, roughly dragging him out into the corridor and up the steps. Ruco hollered after the skink, “…say, the glyphs on the map probably looked a lot like the ones on your rifle, where did you say you found that rifle again? Cathay? Ind? Let me know when you come back stranger!” I doubt I will be back thought the skink as he was led up the corridor into the gloomy fortress. ******* “I should torture you like I do our other ‘visitors,’ but I know that our pleasure would be wasted on a child of the First. So tell me skink, where are you from and where did you find this weapon.” The skink was crouched in front of the elf captain, seated on a wooden chair and dressed in his navy-blue robes of office. Behind him were the blood-striped flags with the rattlesnake emblem of the army, fluttering to the breeze of a distant thundering battle. Prodded by the saber of the elf guards to his rear, the skink replied to the captain. “I am looking for Blue Bart.” “Never heard of him,” replied the captain, dark eyes glinting as he surveyed the skinks weapons, laid out on the table next to him, “But I believe you.” The dark elf picked up and examined the hilt of the golden rifle. “These markings, they are the writings of the First, aren’t they?” The skink said nothing, but even the elf could pick up on the new wariness now hovering over his prisoner. He smiled as he continued, soft booms of artillery sounding in the distance. “I too know the legends of the lost Black Ark, that long ago raided the Lizardmen city of Zarmunda. The Blue Dark itself, filled to the brim with stolen Lizardmen artifacts, lost forever in the Undersea.” The Captain rose from his dais and pulled out a mold-worn parchment. “Do you recognize this, skink? It was believed to be a map, drawn by your priests detailing the location of the lost Blue Dark and its treasure-hoard. No elf alive can translate these glyphs, but they match the ones on your weapon here.” The dark elf smiled. He watched the skink blink his reptilian eyes as the artillery sounds on grew louder and closer. “I can read it,” replied the skink with a flick of his forked tongue. “Then we can help each other after all,” the dark elf said, replacing the rifle on the table and leaning back in his chair. “We both have something the other wants. You desire your freedom, and I desire to know where this map leads. This civil war is not very profitable for a lowly commander of troops, and the recovery of the Blue Dark would be worth a lot of gold.” Another muffled artillery barrage, closer this time, rocked the fortress gently as the dark elf finished the terms of the deal. “…when we arrive, you will be set free and on your way. Refuse, and I will have to rethink my policy of how I deal with the children of the Old Ones.” The elf looked down at his prisoner with a wicked sneer, “What do you say, skink?” A loud explosion tore through the side of the stone wall before the skink could answer. Stone fragments and splinters were thrown into the air as the blast ripped through the room. In the shower of debris the skink jumped up, eluding his elfin guards under the collapsing ceiling, and snatching the map and his golden rifle in the confusion. Panic quickly spread through the fortress as artillery pounded the walls. Elves ran to return fire as slaves scurried for cover. Soon the escaped skink made his way to the fortress stables, guards having fled in the madness. Not finding his previous mount, he stole a new cold-one (one that was less derpy-looking than a Lustrian cold-one and much more lethal, like a raptor) and snuck away as the High Elf army closed in on the fortress. ******* The Skink with No Name looked up at the mountain, noting that its four sides were perfectly symmetrical. It almost appeared as if an ancient pyramid had been covered over with earth, and now had small trees and shrubs growing up its smooth slopes. This was the location the map led him too. Climbing up the slopes of the mountain, the skink soon found himself at the entrance of a mine-shaft at the top. Lighting a torch from the shrubbery and wood lining the entrance, he peered down the tunnel. He did not hear the figure come up behind him. “Well done, skink, you have found the entrance.” Whirring around in shock, the skink found himself face-to-face with the dark-eyed elf captain. His uniform was not as clean as it was in their last encounter, but his leveled crossbow pistol was enough for the skink to realize that the elf had no trouble escaping the fortress explosion. “Thank you for leading me here. But your job is not finished yet.” Pointing at the shadowed entrance, he gestured the skink forward. “I have been in enough tunnels to know there could be deadly things waiting for us inside. Just keep that torch in front of you and your other hand where I can see it.” Shadows played along the rough corridor walls as they travelled down the mine-shaft. Slowly, the walls began to grow straighter and cleaner. The skink noticed that the walls were now more solid; the wooden struts that held up the rough tunnel were replaced with smooth masonry. Muffled footsteps were replaced with the sounds of claw and shoes hitting stone steps. “This is no entrance to the Undersea,” the skink heard the elf mutter under his breath as he followed. “…this is a tomb!” At the end of the long corridor they arrived at a half-broken door. Inside was a small chamber, ornate and covered in painted murals barely visible in the torchlight. In the center of the room the skink and his elfish shadow could clearly see the lidded sarcophagus. “That is one of the Slann,” the dark elf breathlessly intoned, staring at the stone lid with a greedy expression while keeping the skink in the sights of his crossbow pistol. “It is,” responded the skink. The stone slann’s froglike visage was unmistakable, as were the carvings detailing the world tree and underworld symbols to his lizard-eye. “This must be it then!” The elf exclaimed. “Blue Bart, a name for a Slann? There must be a fabulous treasure buried here, maybe even the remains of a buried slann itself! Just think of the magical properties of a slann skeleton, how much gold it would be worth!” Behind both the elf and the skink, a figure stepped out of the corridor and into the stone room. “It would be worth a fortune.” Ruco the dwarf stepped into the chamber, shackles still chained to his ankles where the artillery explosions had blown off his chains, a pistol aimed at the two of them. In his other hand was a stick of dynamite. Immediately the dark elf rounded on the dwarf, repeater crossbow pistols at the ready. The skink, sensing his chance, unslung and pulled out the rifle slung on his back. The standoff didn’t last long, dramatic eye close-ups notwithstanding. The three gunslingers opened fire at the same time. The skink shot the dark elf square in his chest. The dark elf shot the dwarf, crossbow bolts hitting the dwarf full on in the beard. The dwarf, firing widely from his pistol, landed shots on both the elf and the skink, and dropped his dynamite as he did so. All three were knocked down in the resulting explosion that wracked the chamber, throwing them against the walls and onto the floor. ******* Sometime later, the dark elf got back up. Shaking the ringing from his pointed ears and dust from his shoulders, he inspected the damage to his dragonscale shirt under his cloak. Fortunately the skink’s bullet had not penetrated, leaving only the smallest scratch on the scales. Laughing to himself at the two lifeless forms, specifically the dwarf blown to pieces by the brunt of the dynamite blast, he holstered his pistols and sauntered over to the sarcophagus lid, easily prying it open. Immediately he flew into a rage, throwing his hat and cursing the skink for his treachery. Under the lid the coffin was empty; nothing was inside except for a small glass-stone pendant in the shape of a frog. A far cry from the skeletal remains of an ancient Slann, or a vast treasure hoard. ******* The dark elf left the tomb, stomping back down the slopes of the temple-mountain. In his head he planned to travel back to the wreckage of Fort Dank and enlist the aid of his men, who were currently rebuilding the fort in the wake of the last high elf attack. He would assemble an army of slaves and take apart the hidden temple brick-by-brick until they found something of greater value than the worthless trinket in his pocket. The dark elf never got far however. Mounting his cold-one at the base of the temple, he looked back to the top of the mountain, at the entrance to the mine-shaft tunnel he had just left. He saw the flash of light, as though a rifle had gone off within the tomb. Before he could understand what happened he fell from his steed, shot between the eyes by a magical bullet that could never miss, even down a winding tunnel with low light. The skink, crawling up the corridor, had survived. Against all odds, all thanks to his six-plus scaley-skin armor save. The skink slowly made his way down the mountain to the motionless remains of the dark elf, his dragonscale shirt useless against a headshot. Picking through the corpse, he pulled out the small frog-pendant. Once in his hands the pendant began to glow bright blue. His prize obtained, the skink got back onto his cold-one, riding off to the west to report the good news and to collect his bounty. 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 formating 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.