"WE didn't feed 'em, Boss. Didn't you 'ear that godawful squeaking during the night....."
Tuesday, 15 April 2014
The False Moon War: Chapter 3
The majestic Temple Cities of Lustria share some common features.
"WE didn't feed 'em, Boss. Didn't you 'ear that godawful squeaking during the night....."
The cities are dominated by massive pyramids commissioned by the Old Ones during their dominion of the earth. These coincide with nodes of the geomantic web, granting the Slann Mage Priests access to power, telepathic communication and travel on the astral plane. The greatest of the mystic amphibians perch atop these temples in their star-chambers.
Less lofty structures, which are no less magnificent, are dedicated to the worship of the Old Ones. Newer temples raised to the upstart Sotek, the Serpent God are now to be found infiltrating the pantheon.
Some abandoned cities have been eroded by neglect but retain their stately grandeur nonetheless.
The living Temple Cities bustle with activity as the diverse sub races of Lizardmen toil like ants to continue the Great Plan. Quick footed skinks scurry industriously, intent on the discharge of their duties. Their oversized brethren, the kroxigor, provide the brawn to perform heavier tasks. Saurus warriors hone their bodies, and weapons alike, for combat in service of the Old Ones. In addition, monstrous creatures are press ganged into the Lustrian forces to serve as beasts of burden or living weapons.
At the heart of the cities lie the spawning pools. From these underground basins spring the denizens of Lustria. Sometimes ranks of saurus march fully formed from the waters. At another time it might be a cohort of skinks. Rarely, a single lizardman is spawned, touched in some way by the Old Ones and destined for leadership or sorcerous might. Not even the wisest of Slann have the knowledge and ability to summon a particular spawning, let alone create a spawning pool. They are content to accept that their gods generate each spawning for a purpose which aligns with the Great Plan.
Despite the uniform purpose of the inhabitants of Lustria, each Temple City and region has its own unique flavour. Tlaxtlan - City of the Moon and seat of Mage Priest Tecciztec, specializes in astromancy and lunar counterinsurgency. Beneath the Lone Star Province of Texustria, supplies of sacred oil, used for votive offerings, are drawn from the earth. Gallustria distils the nectar of vine berries to produce cork stoppered flasks of the potion of ebullience. The region of Australustria supplies the most talented and handsome generals from its arid heart.
Under the benign Leadership of the Great Slann Mage Priest named Taisteslaikch'ken, the inhabitants of the Temple City of Los'tmabo'tl were distinguished by oddness.
To the outside observer, the legions of Lustria appear to be regular in composition and regimented to the extreme. Lustrian forces act with a formidable singleness of purpose and mechanical efficiency as they prosecute adherence to the Great Plan. In reality, any spawning pool in Lustria will occasionally produce what could be unkindly referred to as freaks.
These individuals rise from the waters with strange attributes such as enlarged eyes, or a proclivity toward flower arranging. In Los'tmabo'tl these aberrations became more and more frequent, eventually becoming the norm rather than the exception. These individuals were not mutants, nor chaos tainted. They were just... odd.
The existence of an entire city with a concentration of such eccentrics might be seen as a potential annoyance to the other regions, but in fact it was a boon. Every other Temple City in Lustria happily sends its misfits to Los'tmabo'tl on urgent, but one-way, errands. More conventional residents of the city gradually trickle away into the jungle to join other communities.
The convocation of Slann raised no objection to this situation. They took the long view that the Old Ones would sort it all out. When the Gods returned, everyone would have a good laugh, Los'tmabo'tl would be expunged with fire, and they all could get on with the Great Plan.
Taisteslaikch'ken, certainly had no concern, if anything could be read from the beatific smile which adorned his meditating face.
Thus it came to pass that the avenues of Los'tmabotl were filled with bickering saurus, incompetent skinks and frolicking carnosaurs. The military leader of the Legions of Los'tmabo'tl was Oldblood Mossy, a saurus so ancient that he kept his teeth in a crystal decanter as he slept.
Some elements of society were too disruptive to stay within the city bounds. There was really only one fit use for them. Picket duty.
In their tiny outpost in the jungle, two saurus warriors of no special rank stood snout to snout and glared at each other with unblinking golden eyes. They were unexceptional to look at, and near identical because they had come from the same spawning pool at the same moment. They stood the regulation seven and a half feet tall and possessed the common blue scale colouration. Their lashing tails were adorned with horny spines which ran in a jagged row up to the nape of their necks. Each had lips drawn back to reveal double rows of serrated teeth. The two had lithe, muscular arms and legs each digit terminating in a sharp claw. Each sported a thick skull roofed with a bony crest.
It was here that the twins differed. One's head was adorned with a large half-eggshell, no doubt a relic of his spawning.
In their fists each held a brutally efficient weapon constructed from obsinite.
This particular debate had been running intermittently since their first day of basic training. The pair seemed to be unable to agree on anything, although they rarely came to blows. The real problem was that their contrariness was contagious.
They had been banished from the city bounds when the entire population had taken sides in the magic "Lore of Life" versus "Lore of Light" debate. Ultimately the convocation of Slann had to authorize widespread use of High Magic to hose down the impending civil war.
Although they may have grumbled about being left in each other's company, the pair were better off than most of their kin. Outside the city, it was a little warmer. The unnatural chill which had gripped the area was centred about the great temple itself.
Lizardmen are usually (but not always) inured to pain and discomfort, hence the cold did not cause distress, but, as with all things cold blooded, the Legions of Los'tmabo'tl became more and more sluggish. The reptilian beasts of the jungle either moved away from the cold epicentre or found a comfortable hollow and slept it off.
Welhung Thunderloin was a legend among Ogres. He was, without doubt, the most adventurous and successful raider of his generation. His choice to delay the foray into the Lustrian interior was evidence of his canny leadership.
In his experience, cold blooded foes became slower as the weather cooled, and so he had bided his time until the turn of the Lustrian Winter. This freak cold snap was just a bonus. With his breath fogging the early morning air, he was confident that he would capture his prize.
Welhung did not adventure for glory or riches. He did it for love.
His wife, Hellun of Troyargh was a magnificent specimen. She was said to have 'the face that sank a thousand ships'.
Considering her husband's prowess as a pirate, this was probably no exaggeration.
Hellun's statuesque frame was reminiscent of the rugged beauty of the Ogre homeland, the Mountains of Mourn. That is to say, she was massive and lumpy.
She was no mere beauty, though. She was an Ogre princess born into the line of Ogre King Marbutt Hurrtz.
Welhung was devoted to her and showered her with gifts and affection whenever they were together.
If she had one fault, it was that she seemed to be perpetually pregnant. Welhung had already sired a full horde of ogrelings from her. He loved each of his progeny, in his way, but the expense of supplying their need of nutrition and replacement nannies necessitated his constant raiding. There were just too many.
Through careful observation, Welhung had determined where babies came from, but he could not deduce how they might have got there in the first place, or what might prevent more from appearing.
Time and again, he had consulted the wisest Ogre elders of his community to gain insight into this puzzle. They had just mumbled some vague words about "bees and flowers" or shyly evaded the subject. At the time he had just shrugged and added this to his long list of unfathomable mysteries of life. Later, as his brood grew to unsustainable proportions he resolved to take action to preserve what remained of his wealth and sanity.
He would eradicate every bee and flower, down to the last hive and bloom on earth. Perhaps then his misery would cease.
The burden of child rearing was not his only concern with his wife's fecundity. Ogre pregnancy is no joking matter. Ogre Gestation is measured in years rather than months, and for the full duration each blushing beauty is transformed into a rapacious monster.
The first trimester is dominated by morning sickness, and an Ogre with an upset tummy is an upset Ogre, period.
In the second trimester, the cravings begin. The gravid human female might unreasonably request strawberries out of season. This is as nothing compared to the exotic demands of an ogress, let alone an ogre princess. This kind of behest from his wife, delivered with a voice powerful enough to strip the hide from a bull Thundertusk, was the motivation behind many of Welhung's more hair raising adventures. The episode with the self-regenerating hydra pudding was one would he would rather forget.
The third trimester sees the expectant maiden become corpulent to the verge of immobility and her appetite intensifies. This phase is of indeterminate duration because of a quirk of ogre reproductive physiology. Labour does not commence until a worthy sacrifice is made to the Great Maw. If a suitable offering is not made, both mother and unborn child will eventually perish.
So it was that love had brought Welhung to this Maw-forsaken shore with his wife's dulcet voice still ringing in his ears, "FEED ME A SLANN! NOW!!!"
He had almost fallen over himself in his rush to satisfy her craving. The memory of her request brought a tear to his eye. He winced and shook himself out of his reverie.
"Argsplat!" he bellowed.
His trusted irongut detached himself from the assembled column of ogres and gnoblar camp-followers and lumbered to his side. "Send the rest of those 'orrible little scouts ahead of the mob." He paused, "Wait, are you even uglier than before?"
Argsplat reached up and fingered a livid gash that ran from forehead to cheek, punctuated by an empty eye socket. "Yaaa. This one's new."
"You let one of them rats mark you?" asked Welhung incredulously.
"Naaa. It was at the feast after. I still can't handle them little sticks too well. They oughta be called chop sticks." Argsplat spun on his heel and bawled his leader's orders to the anxious gnoblar scouts.
The scouts crept cautiously through the first clumps of dense foliage and were soon lost to view. After a few uneventful minutes, Rodekhil Offaleater ambled to the head of the column with his finger stuck in his meaty ear. As he breasted his commander, he withdrew the digit and examined his prize. With a grunt of satisfaction he flicked the hard lump of wax over his shoulder. There was a yelp of pain as the projectile ricocheted off the oversized nose of a nearby gnoblar beast attendant. One of the ponderous rhinoxen brayed and tossed her horned head. These were the only sounds.
Before long, there was a commotion at the edge of the clearing. A fraction of the scouting party burst from the undergrowth and scampered past, back to the ogre lines. The tyrant plucked one into the air by the scruff of his neck.
"What 'appened?" he demanded.
"Flowers, flowers!" the little scout whimpered, "flowers got us!"
"Flowers, eh?" Welhung casually tossed the unfortunate gnoblar aside. "I know 'ow to 'andle those!"
The tyrant's eyes glinted menacingly under his meaty brow. My old enemy, he thought to himself, yet he did not rush to engage. He held aloft one mail clad hand and made a fist, signalling the column to grumble to a halt.
His band had none of their usual exuberance. The ogres muttered to each other in hushed tones and the gnoblars huddled close to the pack beasts as if they were islands of refuge.
There was no obvious threat, but all were oppressed by a sense of hostile vigilance from the surrounding forest.
Enormous jungle trees rose like columns, their soaring boughs intertwining to form the vaults of a dim green cloister. This deep into the forest, the thorny vines at the margins had given way to a springy carpet of moss which deadened the sound of each footfall.
Here and there in the gloom were splashes of colour. Welhung beckoned Rodekhil to join him and the pair crept forward to investigate what appeared to be an enormous bud about to burst into full bloom.
The other patches of colour in the gloom around them were also titanic flowers, some in bud, others wide open and exuding an inviting scent. The petals of each flower were a fleshy crimson colour and covered a span of roughly eight feet. At the centre of each bloom bright yellow stamen, laden with pollen, waved gently despite the absence of breeze. The obscene purple pistils pulsated visibly.
"This one ain't bloomed yet, Chief" Rodekhil indicated the bud before them.
"Oh, I think it 'as." Welhung had noticed a tiny boot protruding from the seam between two leathery petals. Rodekhil stooped to retrieve it. It came away from the bud easily, trailing a gobbet of red goo. The pair examined their find.
The boot contained a grey foot. Attached to the foot were a polished tibia and fibula. The ogres exchanged a glance. Welhung nodded wordlessly towards the nearest open flower and Rodekhil lobbed the leg onto the petals. In the blink of an eye, the petals closed about this prize with an audible snap.
"What've I been telling you, Rodekhil? Flowers. They've got it in for us!" The tyrant turned back toward the ogre war band and bellowed. "Firebelly! Firebelly!"
The tyrant knew that his fire wizard would make short work of this grove. He was surprised when Argsplat ambled up to join them.
"Where's my Firebelly? I want these infernal flowers torched!"
" 'E's in the back of a wain and 'e won't come out. Says 'e can't channel no winds since the cold set in."
Welhung growled. "Then we'll do this the other way. Bulls to the front!" he roared, "Tear up every blooming one!"
Suddenly there was a high pitched buzz.
"Aaargh! For the Love of Elevenses!" Welhung clutched the area between his shoulders and head in agony as a frightful stinging pain seared that particular part of his anatomy.
"What's up? Let me see!" Rodekhil pulled his masters hand away and saw an ugly weal which doubled in size as he watched. "What's that?" he scraped at the lump with a dirty fingernail.
He came away with a tiny barbed spine with a feathery tuft at one end. It glistened wetly in the gloom.
Welhung blanched at the sight of the dart. "Oh no no no no! They're after us, too!"
"Bees! Bees are after us! That's a sting isn't it? You know! Bees! When they get you, they leave the sting behind!"
Rhodekhil scratched his head. "I dunno Boss, I didn't see nothing..."
"You dumpling! Didn't you hear the buzz? They're quick these ones... Owww! Midnight Snack!"
Welhung doubled over and clutched his leg. In the tiny gap between armour plates another feathery barb protruded. "Did you hear it? Did you hear it that time?" He wind-milled his arms to fend away the stinging insects.
"Move out, move out! Get moving!" he howled as he staggered deeper into the gloom. Rodekhil and Argsplat shrugged to each other and trundled after him as the ogre column creaked back into motion.
"Picnic on a Rug!!!!" Welhung yawped as he stopped and clutched his ample behind.
Welhung Thunderloin soon took to stomping at the head of his war band with a gnoblar perched on his shoulder.
The little grey servant's military career had, without doubt, hit an all time low. Not for the first time, he cursed his ancestors for creeping into the Mountains of Mourn and swearing fealty to the ogres. His present situation was uncomfortable, embarrassing and likely to end fatally.
The gnoblar clutched a large swatter fashioned from a rhinox tail. His duty was to deter the invisible bees that had plagued the ogre tyrant since the first day in the jungle.
His guardianship was futile. Each sting would be preceded by a high pitched buzz emanating from a nearby tree or bush. By the time the gnoblar could move to intercept, another feathered barb would appear in a chink of armour or some other tender place.
The worst had been when the tyrant had stopped to relieve himself behind a thicket.
Every time a bee penetrated the gnoblar's questionable defence, the ogre would curse and bray like a rhinox in rut and lash out at the forest around him. The gnoblar would grimly hang on and try to stay out of his master's reach.
The greatest indignity was that some fool irongut with one eye had suggested that if the ogre tyrant smeared himself in rhinox dung, the bees might be deterred by the smell. That experiment had failed dismally.
The end result was a terrified, resentful gnoblar perched on an itchy, enraged ogre tyrant.
With both of them covered in poo.
The diverse races of earth each have a distinct physical profile. A stocky, bearded dwarf would not be mistaken for a green-skinned orc. Nor would a man be confused with an elf, although the lizardmen of Lustria could not distinguish easily between elves of the high, dark or wood varieties.
Beneath the skin more fundamental differences existed. An orc is an orc, all the way to his obstreperous core.
Some races might be known for exceptional bravery, others for animosity, dexterity or greed. These attributes, which govern the motivation and characteristics of the races, are known as "species" or "special" rules.
Rare individuals who have been touched by gods have additional special rules of their own.
The bickering saurus had company. An imposing kroxigor and his skink spawn-kin were delivering a crate of provisions.
"Bob and Joe, are you two still arguing about the best weapons for saurus warriors?" Rychek enquired. "I heard that halberds are becoming popular with saurus scar veterans."
The pair paused and gaped at him. The diversionary tactic had worked.
"Put it down there," Rychek gestured his kroxigor companion. The huge saurian moved to comply and wound up stepping on Joe's tail.
"Waaa-aa-aaah! Get that heavy lump of me!" shrieked the stricken saurus as he turned to lay hands on the brute.
Before he could push at the wall of blue scales, Rychek had interposed himself protectively between saurus and kroxigor.
"He ain't heavy, he's my brother!"
"Sorry, Joe," Mahtis removed the offending foot and lowered the crate. "I'm clumsy today."
This was certainly true. That morning his tiny brother had dressed him up warm with a woolly scarf and beanie to ward against the unnatural cold. The mittens the kroxigor was wearing were joined together by a short cord to prevent loss. The cord also prevented him from moving his hands more than a few inches apart, limiting his dexterity.
"Are you okay, Mahtis?" Rychek gazed up at him. From the moment these brothers stepped from the spawning pool, Rychek had been protective of his spawn-kin, coddling him and shielding him from harm. Even in battle when the pair fought in a mixed unit of skinks and kroxigor, Rychek would attempt to selflessly use his body as a shield to protect Mahtis.
"Why do you do that?" asked Joe massaging his tail, "Why do you protect him from everything?"
Rychek shrugged. "It's a spawn-kin thing," he replied, as if that made any sense.
Bob pulled his egg shell helmeted head out of the new supply crate. "Take the empty back with you."
As Mahtis stooped to comply, a tiny rodent fled from its hiding place beneath the box and skittered out of the redoubt.
"We must pursue!" whooped Bob. Joe and Mahtis leapt to join him in running down and obliterating the hapless vole.
"Mahtis stop that! It's embarrassing! Why do you always have to pursue anything that flees?" Rychek was mortified.
Mahtis shrugged. "It's a predatory fighter thing," he rumbled in reply.
There was a high pitched buzz.
"Aaaargh! Snack on the Run!"
The ogre bivouac stirred to life in much the same way it had done every morning since beginning its trek across the Lustrian interior. Every day the air had grown more chill and the dappled sun a little less bright, but aside from the invisible bees, which only seemed to target the tyrant, there was no menace in the gelid forest that the war band had any need to fear.
"Argsplat! Assemble the hunters!" Welhung Thunderloin was a picture of misery, covered in angry welts from head to toe. His eyes were almost swollen shut.
His one eyed iron gut shambled forwards and regarded his chief with concern. "The poo didn't work 'ey? My dam used to say if you burnt socks, the smoke would keep the bities away..."
"Then go and burn your socks, you pudding!" Welhung dismissed Argsplat angrily.
The ogre hunters trotted up to receive orders. These were the handlers for the mostly-wild sabretusk pack which accompanied the ogre train.
These lion-like beasts sported dagger like tusks for taking down large prey. Their thick, shaggy pelts gave them some measure of protection from retaliatory teeth and horns.
However, the greatest weapon they had in their arsenal was an instinctive team work. Individual sabretusks would feint towards the flanks of their victims, keeping them turning this way and that until an opening appeared for one of the pack to clamp its vice like jaws around the victim’s throat.
"Alright, hunters. We are getting close to the city. I want your pack of 'tusks to form a screen ahead of the boys so we don't get no surprises. I hope your cats are 'ungry and ready for battle!"
"Aah. Sorry, Chief," the lead hunter apologized. "They is well fed and contented this morning."
"What? 'Ow come you fed them?"
"WE didn't feed 'em, Boss. Didn't you 'ear that godawful squeaking during the night....."