A Long Journey (April-May 2019. Theme was "Doom and/or Destruction") Spoiler: Thought Process on Writing this So a long time ago I really went all out making this thread about Lizardmen religious practices. That thread is one of my favorite things I've created on Lustria-Online and when @Sreeves broke the long comment hiatus on that thread around the time the new contest was started I vowed to use one of the rituals in here for a short...again, I write short stories centered around religious festivals pretty often. When "Doom" was named the topic for this contest, making a story around the Rite of the Last Journey clicked pretty fast. It just took me a few days to refine the concept into the idea of simulataneously celebrating and mouring the life of hero. Then it was just a manner of showcasing different stories. I wanted a mix of high and low stakes stories. A mix of serious and funny stories, and differing storytellers. This piece flowed pretty fast from my point of inspiration to Microsoft Word. The other contest where I won (well tied for first place), "Watching Things Burn" was also based on loss. Apparently if I want to wrack up votes for my short story contests I need to write a piece while thinking about my late father a lot. Tear jerkers for the win. If this my lot in life, so be it. I shall drown Lustria in tears! Several large planks were brought out and balanced on some logs in a jungle clearing to make a simple table. This table was brimming with carefully prepared meats of at least five different slain beasts. There were twice as many varieties of fruits. There was breads and pies. There were gourds filled with the finest nectars and a large pitcher of the purest water from the most well filtered springs. Fourteen saurus warriors, six skinks, and a kroxigor sat, stood or knelt around this sumptuous feast. “This is one the finest filets of tallosaurus flesh I ever had in a century! Have you tried this Zlakar?” the Scar Veteran asked his elder. Zlakar motioned for the meat. A skink moved it towards him and the Old Blood ripped off a small chunk of meat and ate it. “Very good, yes” “Do you remember that tallosaurus hunt we went on that one time, with the log?” Zlakar nodded and smiled. “It’s not that big a deal, Xoatkrok” he replied. “Not that big a deal?!?” Xoatkrok said incredulously. He turned towards the others at the table and gesticulated enthusiastically. “That was a hunt for the ages! The skink spotters found an old lone bull tallosaurus. Large and strong, but also old and sick. Seemed like good hunting. Anyway, it still had some fight in it. He barreled through the snares the skinks said like they weren’t even there. We were hitting it but the beast but he couldn’t feel it. He knocked out two saurus, others even bolted liked skinks—” He looked awkwardly at the skink chief. “That is to say a lot of the First were not holding steady, but Zlakar wasn’t going to give up even though his axe snapped in half with the blade was stuck in the tallosaurus thigh. The beast moved his big neck to bite at him, and Zlakar just picks up a log and then bashed his brains out. Probably saved some hunters’ lives, and we certainly ate well.” “To eating well!” said Zlakar. The table cheered and everyone took a bite of whatever food they had though Zlakar abstained. “To Zlakar!” said Xoatkrok. “To Zlakar!” the table resounded. Zlakar opened his mouth to speak and then closed it without saying anything. One other saurus besides Zlakar was fairly quiet. Another saurus turned to him. “Tlakori, you are allowed to enjoy yourself. You won’t get stripped of your eternity warden status for having a little fun.” “How often do you get a day off of guard duty anyway?” A skink asked. Tlakori paused then spoke. “We typically get a day off every century or two...if we can be spared from our duties.” A few of the other lizards laughed. Then the skink started. “Wait, you are serious aren’t you?” The Eternity Warden nodded. “I am usually quite serious. I rarely ask for or receive time off duty, but I had to be here for my last spawning brother. There were fifty-three of us once. Now we are two. I remember a battle, many years before we took on our respective callings. There were twelve of our spawning left then, we were no longer wet warriors, we all had many scars…but many scars still to come. Zlakar had become our new spawn leader, a promotion well deserved. “We didn’t know just how well deserved until this battle. We were fighting Daemons under the command of Oldblood Ikachoa.” He paused turned towards the crowd. “Ikachoa was before most of your times. He was a fine leader. We were on the south flank attached to work with a stegadon crew and a small skink and kroxigor regiment. Ikachoa was battling the enemy general atop his carnosaur and our center was holding. It looked like our flank was quiet. A few demon skirimishers were shot down by our skilled skink compatriots, but no major threats were apparent. “Zlakar had great instinct, worthy of mighty Itzl. Somehow the daemons’ scent and sight was hidden from the stegadon’s mighty nose and the skinks’ sharp eyes. Zlakar intuition found where three score daemons had buried themselves under the ground. They had rigged trap doors with foliage for cover. Zlakar stopped us all from marching into the ambush. We ambushed our ambushers. “Once Zlakar identified where our foes were, the skink chief with us positioned the stegadon for a pre-aimed shot then had his soldiers set fire to the foliage above the demons’ hiding place. I never seen a giant bow fired so accurately. Between the fire, bow, and javelins barely any demons survived long enough to even reach us. Our brothers were ready and made short work of the Old Foes. Naturally, I was the only one of our spawning that was seriously injured.” Tlakori paused, removed the piece of armor over his chest and revealed a deep and old scar. The others politely admired the scar’s impressiveness before Tlakori continued. “While I was barely conscious and staining the forest floor purple with my blood, Zlakar defended me with the ferocity of a carnosaur. If he didn’t save me that day, I would never have survived long enough to be an eternity warden. Everyone and everything I defend is ultimately due to Zlakar.” The table looked at Zlakr with even greater respect. Zlakar took a shaky sip from a gourd of juice to cover his embarrassment and then he spoke. “I cannot take their credit for your accomplishments. You saved my life plenty, brother. That is just what brothers do. You saved my life at least seven times” “I count nine times, but that’s nine against your saving me nineteen. There is no contest—” “—Speaking of contests!” The Skink Chief, Tlayta paused awkwardly. “Forgive me for the interruption, honored one.” The Eternity Warden just nodded and waved on him to continue. The Skink had been clearly aching to tell his story. Tlayta showed obvious relief at the permission then continued. “When I was newly spawned I had a very portentous spawning. I was a spawning of one and this gave me a huge ego. Lots of skink instructors taught me tactics, combat, history and many other things, but only a saurus could teach me what I really needed which was humility. “The first time I met Zlakr was in the training fields. I was doing target practice with javelins. Nearby Zlakr was working with the city’s youngest spawning of saurus warriors. He was drilling them in basic marching formations and maneuvers. I stopped what I was doing and marched over. “I thought the saurus warriors looked clumsy. I made some loud disparaging remarks about how much faster, smarter and more agile Skinks were then lowly saurus….comments unworthy of my pretentious spawning. “Zlakar halted his company and he turns to me said. “Great Skink who is wise and agile, I challenge you to a contest of ranged attacks.’ I could barely hold in my laughter. A saurus beating a skink at ranged attacks? Absurd. So I said ‘I accept your challenge.’ “Zlakar picked up a javelin off the ground, pointed at a wooden practice target and said ‘I can strike this target more than you can.’ I said ‘show me.’ “So Zlakar walks up to the firing line, mimes throwing a javelin, pauses a long time then he puts the javelin down and walks away. I can’t figure out what he’s doing. Is he forfeiting? He picks up this huge rock and takes it to the line. He kind of half-throws half-rolls it towards the target and it’s reduced to kindling. He turns to me and says. ‘Now you try to strike the target'. “My jaw just about hit the muddy ground in disbelief. ‘I cannot hit the target, it is impossible for anyone to hit it now.’….. So Zlakar says ‘I guess I win then.’” Everyone at the table erupted in laughter. “I want to tell a story now!” the lone Kroxigor bellowed. “I was with small patrol. Bad elves beat us. Captured me and my big and little spawning brothers. Bound us in chains. Not chains to keep weapons and tools in hand. Bad chains. I was shameful. Bad elves plan to do bad things. Tried to take us away. Zlakar ride in on Cold One. Run at the elves. He killed them and made them run away. Zlakar broke bad chains.” A few continued looking at the ancient kroxigor awkwardly as if there was more details to this story, but he seemed to be done talking. Tlayta broke the silence. “You have no reason to feel shame at anything Xalt. We all lose sometimes. It is good that Zlakar saved you because you went on to lead many kroxigor regiments to victory against many worthy foes.” Xalt beamed with pride. Zlakar took a shaky sip of juice to hide his smile. Tlayta did learn humility and proper respect for the other races of the First afterall. Zlakar’s stomach rumbled. He hoped he wouldn’t vomit all over the table and ruin the good feelings. The companions ate and drank and told stories of Zlakar. Stories of glory, stories of humor, stories of friendship, stories of leadership, all positive. One story remained unspoken but wore on Zlakar’s mind. Zlakar was second in command of the army below only the slann. He rode his faithful cold one of over two centuries, Groq. He was joined by twelve of the city’s bravest cold one cavalry. The southern flank was faltering. The Skaven’s missile troops had defeated the skink skirmishing units. They had slain two razordons and who knows how many skinks. The rest were fleeing being pursued by filthy rats while Tlayta the skink chief tried in vain to get them to the rally and fight back. Zlakar turned his soldiers towards around the fleeing skinks and hit the flank of their singled minded pursuers. The hunters became the hunted and the saurus knights butchered them without mercy. Seeing this, the skinks and their beasts took courage and rallied. The line held. Zlakar ordered his troops to hold position rather than advance. They didn’t need to advance much because the northern flank had decisively defeated the rat men and were turning towards the Skaven’s center. Zlakar positioned his troops to cut off any clear line of retreat. Once properly positioned, the two halves of the army of the First closed in on the Skaven from both sides like the jaws of a carnosaur snapping shut. Zlakar rode at the front. His sword arm already stained red with the warm blood of his enemies. He sensed a weakness in the enemy lines and rode towards the heart of the enemy army. As his comrades butchered their way through the skavens’ supposedly elite infantry, Zlakar looked for the alpha. A large rat almost a full head taller than his fellows and wearing thicker shinier armor. He locked eyes with the enemy general and a challenge was clear. The warlord showed fear but also determination. He knew he almost certainly dead and his only slim chance of survival lay in defeating this new challenger. The rat feinted a strike with his spear towards Zlakar then stabbed downward piercing Groq through his eye into his brain. The cold one thrashed and Zlakar instinctively rolled and got to his feet in a fury he had seldom been in. Groq’s death throws wrenched the spear away. With the rat temporarily unarmed, Zlakar took the opening and struck at the rat’s shoulder, piercing his armor but only slightly. His foe was still standing. The rat unsheathed a sword and squeaked something in its own foul tongue that was clearly some kind of taunt. He pressed forward with almost impossible speed with precision feints, parries and strikes but Zlakar had his foe’s measure now. He knew what to block and what to ignore. The skaven was fast but he was wasting a lot of energy on superfluous motions. So duplicitous he couldn’t stop useless feints even in the face of death death. The warlord was tiring out. Zlakar was not. Most of the ratmen were killed at this point, some of the survivors were already being bound, so they could be rendered unto Sotek later. More and more golden eyes turned to watch Zlakar’s duel. The warlord was almost completely on the defensive now. Despite his fatigue, he clung to life with the tenacity only a desperate Skaven could muster. Finally Zlakar knocked away the rat’s serrated sword then kicked him into the ground, flat on his back. Zlakar put all his weight into the sword to pierce the rat’s armored chest plate. The rat gurgled on his own blood as the onlookers cheered. After his victory Zlakar let his guard down for a split second. With a daemon’s will, the dying Skaven pulled a dagger out of his sleeve and stabbed the Saurus in the thigh, the highest part he could reach. As he died, the skaven mouthed words Zlakar couldn’t translate, but the context was clear “you die too.” Zlakar had recovered from far worse wounds than this. He would have gladly taken three or four such wounds if he could have Groq alive again, but Zlakar didn’t yet know the dagger was coated in an especially virulent poison. The skaven never intended to use the dagger this battle. The dagger and the poison were both intended for the warlord’s superior officer later. The ministrations of the Skink healers were completely ineffectual. Even the magic of the Slann could only slow the poison, not cure it. His strength was slowly but inevitably fading day by day. He couldn’t let the others seem him die like that. He had to undergo the Rite of the Last Journey. Once most of the food was eaten, the laughter and stories died down. Zlakar held up a hand and everyone fell silent respectfully. “It is time.” The assembled lizards respectfully got up and formed two lines while in salute towards the deep jungle. Zlakar’s legs wanted to buckle, but he willed himself to stand up straight and maintain a steady marching pace. After Zlakar crossed the short line. Tlakori shouted. “To Zlakar, the greatest oldblood Xlanhuapec has ever known.” “TO ZLAKAR!” Once out of sight of the others, Zlakar allowed the weakness in his body to show as he hobbled deeper into the jungle. His final journey had begun.