to Chapter 20: The Great Maw
Tuesday, 29 July 2014
The False Moon War: Chapter 19
to Title and Contents
to Chapter 20: The Great Maw
Chapter 19. The Mountains of Mourn
Scalenex had become unofficial leader of the freshly spawned Dyslexians. His first act had been to index the extensive library of plaques that he had found in the pyramid vault. New spawnlings flocked to his tactica index to develop their combat readiness.
Rychek had taken council with Scalenex about their planned route. The two skinks agreed that the party should take a south easterly heading to intercept the ogre's trail. This would occur regardless of whether the war band had continued east, or if it had veered north again after bypassing Victor's domain.
Bessie and her riders were accompanied for the next leg of their journey by a troop of Dyslexic Chameloen skniks who had been provided by Scalenex. The nearly invisible escorts ranged far ahead seeking signs of the ogre warband.
After some days of travel, one of their guides materialized unexpectedly with a chip of rhinox dung clenched in his claw. He chirped excitedly and beckoned. The ogres had indeed turned north again, but the pursuers had lost many days.
Rychek saluted the escort with a raised crest. Bob and Joe roared, and Mahtis beat his breast with rocklike fists. In return the chameloen displayed a cascade of bright colours on his scaly flanks.
After the scout had ghosted away Bob observed croakily, "I know we've been making a special effort with non verbal signs of communication, but those guys just outclass us."
Mahtis nodded and rubbed his bruised chest.
The ogre trail eventually led them to the mouth of the Pass to the East.
Atop the wall which controlled the eastern border of the realm, ogre guard number one shielded his eyes against the ruddy light of the setting sun. "Is that a thundertusk? I didn't think any 'unters were out."
Ogre guard number two squinted. "Funny looking for a tusk."
When the monster came within hailing distance he bellowed, "Who goes there? Friend or food?"
One of the monster riders dismounted and scurried forwards, "Friend! Friend!" he cried holding up empty, blue scaly claws.
Guard number two leaned over to his colleague and asked in a low voice, " 'Ave we changed the password recently?"
Guard number one scratched three of his stubbly chins. "No. I fink it's still, ‘It's me, you gormless 'alfwit! Open the gate!’.”
"So 'E must be food."
" 'E's not very big. Just a snack...."
"Maybe a hors d'oeuvre?"
Guard number one shuddered. "Oh, I don't like 'orse doovers! Not unless the rest of the 'orse is still attached. Call the duty captain. Let 'im deal with it."
He kept a jaundiced eye on the visitors as guard number two tromped down the stairs. The messenger returned minute later with the iron gut captain of the watch.
The captain absently scratched a livid scar below his empty eye socket with an iron hook. "That 'orse doover looks a lot like the lucky chef. The two warriors remind me of some statues I saw in Lustria. The big un might be an 'andful, and I don't like the look of that monster. Give me a minute to get the lads, then open the teeth.”
The iron toothed portcullis soon creaked open and swallowed Bessie and her riders. In the courtyard beyond they were greeted by a score of very efficient looking ironguts.
Rychek cleared his throat. "We are but poor lost circus performers......"
The ogre leader held up a hook. "Not my concern. To the kitchen with you."
Joe gulped. "This is not promising...."
Any thoughts of fighting their way clear soon evaporated. The ogres were well disciplined, well armed and in peak physical condition. Their escape was barred by the iron teeth of the gate. These ironguts were very obviously elites. Every other ogre the fellowship saw were scrawny and sickly in comparison.
The captain was obviously a veteran of many campaigns. He certainly had no fear of the lizardmen as he clambered aboard the howdah to take the load off his wooden legs. The lizards were guarded in their responses to his questions, but he did establish that they had travelled long and far on some kind of quest.
He sighed. "I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took a chopstick to the eye, some flames to the feet, a shark to the 'and, and an 'ook to ear."
"What happened to your nose?" enquired Joe innocently.
The guard captain winced. "Don't ask."
High Chef Caneghem revolutionized the cuisine of House Welhung, but none of his morsels tempted Hellun. The entire household was tense and wary as her constitution steadily failed.
At least the skink priest had free access to his lord. The Slann had been accepted as a welcome addition to the kitchen. The stegadon horns which embellished his palanquin were useful to hang wet tea towels on.
The skink would occasionally attempt to rouse the slann by speaking to him, but Taisteslaikch'ken continued his contemplations. Caneghem couldn't shake his lord awake because of the clashing auras of the geomantic web and the Pendant of Khaeleth, and he would not remove the talisman for an instant.
The Swedian Chef had unexpectedly announced his retirement from high office the day after Caneghem's arrival. He made his incomprehensible speech of succession with Rodekhil Offaleater standing just behind him sharpening a flensing knife.
The Swedian remained on Caneghem's staff, but seemed to somehow resent his new High Chef. At about the same time, a series of mishaps began.
Although an upturned cauldron or a carelessly flung meat cleaver could be easily understood in the bustle of the busy kitchen, the falling piano was hard to explain. Caneghem resolved to keep the pendant on, just in case someone meant him harm.
He needed to stay alive, ready to serve his lord when he awoke.
He was surprised and pleased when the familiar misshapen figure of his fellow traveller, Argsplat the Irongut, stumped into the kitchen.
"Oi, Lucky Chef. I've brought some strangers to see you."
Caneghem narrowed his eyes, "Who are they? What do they want?"
"I dunno. One of them says 'e comes from 'Where folks know what picante sauce should taste like'...."
Caneghem almost knocked Argsplat off his pegs in his haste greet his compatriots.
The skink priests of Lustria rarely mingled with the beast class skinks and kroxigors, although Caneghem had a vague recollection of Rychek and Mahtis. Bob and Joe he knew by reputation. He was careful to stand as far away from the pair as possible just in case they somehow managed to cause a mishap and destroy his kitchen.
The questers were awestruck to be in the presence of their lord Taisteslaikch'ken. They had never heard him speak, or seen him up close before. They had, however, seen his incredible sorcerous power unleashed in battle, and seen the bloody, smoking aftermath. They bowed low before his floating throne.
After an uncomfortable period of silence Joe stretched his aching back.
"Now that we've rescued him, what should we do?" he asked Caneghem, who was lounging against the palanquin.
"Rescued him? Our lord doesn't need rescuing. He is quite content with the current situation."
"Content? He's been kidnapped and dragged halfway across the world against his will and subjected to uncounted perils."
Caneghem snorted. "You've never seen him extend his power like I have. If there had been any real threat to himself or the Great Plan, he would have reacted decisively."
"How? He is asleep."
"No," Caneghem shook his head. "Not asleep. He is just...elsewhere. Wherever his will is now, and whatever he is doing, I would say it is all going pretty well."
Taisteslaikch'ken's face indeed shone with smug contentedness.
The tall doors of the chamber suddenly crashed open. The imposing figure of Welhung Thunderloin stood framed in the doorway, with the faithful Rodekhil a pace behind him.
"You. Chef. You are a wizard of your people?"
Caneghem bowed, "Yes, I am."
"You 'ave access to knowledge that is 'idden from others?"
"Well.... I have picked up a bit here and there..." Caneghem began modestly.
"You 'ave studied the cycles of life and nature?"
"Indeed I have." The skink priest bowed again.
"Then you are an expert on reproduction and pregnancy?"
Caneghem's jaw dropped. He stammered inaudibly.
"Are you?" Welhung was clearly upset, and not inclined to patience.
Joe stepped in for the priest. "Of course he is! In fact we are all experts in rear-projection!"
Welhung glowered at him. He seemed unconvinced.
"... and Bob here...why! He was pregnant just last week!"
Bob beamed and waved at the ogre tyrant.
"You, Chef. Come. And bring your midwives." Welhung span on his heel and stomped out of the room.
"Well, that's lucky! Still on his good side. What's reproduction, Caneghem?" asked Joe.
Caneghem looked sick. He whispered where Joe's ear should have been. Joes lidless eyes grew large.
"Where do they incubate the eggs?"
Caneghem whispered again.
Joes eyes went from large to plate sized. "Warm bloods are SO disgusting!"
" 'Urry up!" a thunderous voice bellowed from the doorway.
In the weeks since returning to his homeland, Welhung had watched his people growing weaker. Even his voracious children were not thriving as they should. They should have been devouring everything that they could lay hands on, but they had become fussy eaters.
Hellun was worst hit. She would barely eat, and the child which grew inside her sapped her strength like a parasite. Welhung was worried sick.
The five lizards had to scurry to keep up with the ogres' purposeful strides. Presently, he arrived at their destination with the panting reptiles in his wake. Welhung and Rodekhil crossed their bellies in the traditional "M" shape which reflected the elegant golden arches of the building before them.
They were at the Shrine of the Great Maw.
The ogres strode confidently past the butchers and lesser priests of the Great Maw and entered the chamber of sacrifice. The pit of sacrifice, in the centre of the room, was a fang lined representation of the bottomless Maw.
At its edge he found the High Slaughtermaster, Ironjaw Censor-Bearer. Ironjaw was well named. His lower jaw was indeed a wrought from iron, complete with blade like teeth. His current appearance was daunting, but in fact, prior to his extensive orthodontic work his protruding fangs were far more sinister. The absence of lips on his metal jaw made him a very messy eater, and he wore a food spattered apron which trailed to the floor.
When Ironjaw realized that it was Welhung who had burst in on his contemplations, he sighed and rolled his eyes. "I'm not sure 'ow many other ways I can explain this, my lad, but I will try again." He cleared his throat dramatically. "It's like the bees and the flowers. When a daddy ogre likes a mummy ogre very much they....."
Welhung held up his meaty hand and cut the explanation mercifully short. "That's not why I'm 'ere this time. What is wrong with all the ogres?"
Ironjaw's great shoulders slumped. "You mean the Malaise. It began 'alf a year ago, and with every full of the Chaos Moon it grows worse. Surely you felt it, wherever you were."
Welhung patted his belly gently. "When Morrslieb is full, my stomach churns."
"Yes. It is the same 'ere. Each month it gets worse. Our people have lost their appetite. We weaken."
"My ogres are still strong...."
"I don't know why they've eaten so well. 'Ave you been given unusually tasty food?"
Welhung graced the Lucky Chef with a grateful nod before continuing his interrogation. "My wife, Hellun, is weaker than the others. Why?"
"She is with child. She withers from the influence of the Chaos Moon, and her babe devours 'er from inside. They will not last long."
"Then I must make the natal sacrifice! It is a little early, but..."
Ironjaw held up his hands to hush the tyrant. "The Maw no longer accepts our sacrifices. 'E 'as abandoned this temple."
"What? I don't believe it!"
"Let me show you." Ironjaw turned and bellowed at his acolytes. "Bring the Persian!"
A gold cloaked, dark skinned human was frogmarched in and placed in front of the pit of sacrifice. He carried with him a string of crowned skulls. His dark eyes flashed with arrogant hostility.
"This is madness!" he hissed.
"Madness? No! This....Is....Slaughter!" Ironjaw placed his foot against the Persian's chest and shoved him into the pit.
"Aieeeee!......" the Persian's voice trailed away to nothing. A moment later he called, "That was really irresponsible! I could have sprained my ankle!"
The Persian poked his head up at the edge of the pit only to have Ironjaw absently stomp on it. "Hey!" he protested, but he kept his head down.
Bob trundled over to examine the pit of sacrifice. "A better sacrifice, maybe? Of noble blood?"
"Hey! I'm totally of royal blood! Do you take me for some common yokel?" Bob stamped on the Persian's fingers which were curled over the edge of the shaft. "Owww!....." The voice trailed away again.
"Why not go to the Maw itself?" asked Joe.
The ogres gasped.
"It won't accept sacrifices here, but surely it wouldn't reject something put directly into its mouth."
"We ogres do not often go to the Great Maw," Ironjaw explained slowly, " 'Is hunger is to be...respected. Preferably from a distance."
"It could work. If you went to the Maw with a really good sacrifice, like a battle standard bearer, or a powerful general, or wizard, or something," Bob mused.
Rychek was doing throat cutting gestures to shut him up.
"Or all three!" Joe chimed in. Rychek's face palm echoed through the large chamber.
Welhung snapped his fingers. "Yes! I will take that slann frog and jam it down the Maw's gullet, and I will hold it there until he accepts it!"
He was reenergised. "Rodekhil, harness a rhinox! Get Argsplat to muster the ironguts! You, Chef!" He jabbed a finger at Caneghem. "It is an arduous journey. Organize your midwives and kitchen supplies. We leave at dawn."
to Chapter 20: The Great Maw