V. Fiends and Festivities
The Bounty was carrying both its original crew and the Qotalan force up the coast to the settlement. Despite the language barrier, the priests and warriors of Faerun and Maztica were getting along amicably, huddled in groups and swapping stories through the few who could translate, wordlessly showing off weapons, equipment, and the ship with suggestive gestures, or just stealing furtive glances at one another and trading smiles.
Onyx sat along the side of the ship, near the helm, looking up to it at Anomen, who was preaching before a mixed congregation. The priest had studiously learned Maztican from books and elder Helmite priests on the trip over, and his speech seemed natural enough to Onyx’s untrained ear, and those seated before him seemed to nod and understand. Yoshimo was translating for him, having also been trying to pick up some Maztican on the trip over. Onyx suspected his motives were less pure than Anomen’s, although the widely traveled Kara-Turan did already know a myriad of tongues and Onyx admired his forgiven friend’s worldliness.
“Let’s see,” Yoshimo translated, “ ‘He also serves who stands and waits and watches carefully.’ ‘Careful planning always defeats rushed actions in the end.’ Okay, now he’s charging them to be fair and vigilant in the conduct of their orders. Protect the weak, unpopular, the young, yadda yadda, don’t sacrifice them for others. Anticipate attacks, be ready, know your foes, care carefully for one’s allies and weapons.”
Onyx peeled an orange and tossed another to Yoshimo. They chewed the fruit, tasty and revitalizing after a month of jerky and cram, and savored the juice.
“‘Never betray your trust’,” Yoshimo continued. “Be vigilant. This philosophy extends to thinking about how best to guard and protect, both in terms of weapons and deployment, and anticipating of what attacks may come and having a practiced plan ready.”
Yoshimo punched holes in a coconut with a dagger, took a few swigs and then passed it to Onyx. Onyx drank the rest of the sweet juice and then cracked it open on his knee, passing one half back to Yoshimo, and they each chewed on the coconut meat.
“Now more about vigilance and watchfulness. Never taking your eyes of your task. Okay, he’s asking for a volunteer. This should be interesting.” A young Maztican warrior stood and faced Anomen. The priest nodded and they began staring one another down. They looked straight into each other’s eyes for minutes on end, jaws held firmly, their eyes blinking but not moving. At last someone in the audience stirred and the warrior’s glance darted away for but a split second while Anomen’s stood still. Several others pointed and chuckled and the young warrior sat down sheepishly. Another volunteer stood and stared Anomen down.
“Okay, I’m bored, let’s give them a real test,” Yoshimo muttered under his breath to Onyx after an interminable length. Onyx was growing bored too, but was surprised to notice that most of the congregation seemed to be vigilantly watching the test of vigilance. Yoshimo held up a shard of coconut and tossed it. It sailed between the faces of the two staring men, and Anomen’s gaze held fast while the volunteer’s caught the moving fleck of fruit. The audience nodded solemnly and both Yoshimo and Onyx bit their tongues to suppress chuckles.
Another volunteer stood. Anomen engaged him in the staring contest. This time, it went on for seeming ages. Yoshimo tossed another shard of coconut but neither gaze flinched. He began singing a boisterous Kara-Turan melody but neither gaze flinched, and the audience scarcely gave notice either.
“I’ve got an idea,” Yoshimo whispered to Onyx and walked to where Jade was sitting enrapt. He leaned down behind her and whispered something – Onyx wondered with fiendish curiosity what – and she gave a startled gasp and then a giggle. Anomen’s eyes, his entire head in fact, turned to look at her and Yoshimo gripped his own sides with laughter. Onyx could barely contain his own amusement.
Temactitlan's pyramid of Qotal had been desecrated and converted to a pyramid of Zaltec. Atop it, beneath an oppressive sun, Yamash stood over a stone table and a bound Maztican youth, holding his Viperknife aloft. "Mighty Zaltec, Bringer Of War and Eater Of Hearts, we offer you this for your eternal feast." He plunged the dagger deep into the young man's chest and began to vigorously but expertly cut out his heart. Yamash then held it aloft to the burning sun as his jaguar knights threw the body rolling down the stairs of the pyramid. "The appetite of the great Zaltec is unending and all-consuming. We go forth in your name and devour all in out path." He squeezed the heart and the blood flowed from the heart, dripping into a hollow pedestal next to the table, flowing down into the pyramid.
A tired and bruised hishnashaper ran up the pyramid and kneeled before Yamash, panting. "O great Yamash, upon the arrival of the proselytizing intruders, which you so wisely foresaw, we bravely ambushed them, but the Qotalans came to their aid. We were defeated, great master, and Animaul and Beastor are slain."
"And you ran from the battle," Yamash sneered and cast a fiery orb from his hand which incinerated the messenger. "Why, it seems that these mongrels from across the sea have dared to venture deep into the True World yet again," he griped to himself, pacing. "These preaching would-be-conquistadors of the Far World should have learned by now that our land belongs not to their gods. But I see they hunger for another lesson in the ways of Zaltec."
He drew from his cloak a scorpion and a lizard. Each he threw onto the stone at his feet. "Rise, Scorpicon and Reptilius, generals of the armies of Zaltec,” he commanded. The scorpion grew and shapeshifted into a large man with exoskeleton-like armor, sharp pincher-gauntlets, a spear, and a long, stinging tail. The lizard grew into another man with reptilian-leather armor, clawed hands, two axes, and a lashing tail. A bird flew by and Reptilius quickly spat a gob acid at it, shot out his long whiplike tongue, and grabbed and ate the bird, all in a fraction of a second.
Yamash then drew forth from his robes three baby snakes, an asp, a boa constrictor, and a rattlesnake. He threw them to the ground as well. “Rise, Aspa, Boa, and Rattlel, my archshapers of hishna." They grew into three snakeskin-clad women wielding Viperknives and baring venomous fangs of their own.
"My most serpentine of shapers, we must call forth the fiendish servants of the great demon chief Jaguagorgon," Yamash spoke. Scorpicon and Reptilius grabbed another nearby slave and tied him onto the stone slab. Aspa, Boa, and Rattlel began chanting the dark tongue of hishna as Yamash cut out the Maztican's heart and held it high. As the priestesses completed their chant, the heart burst into flames and a great fiery gate opened over their heads. A Maztican demon with angular features, catlike grinning teeth and eyes, and a snakelike tail flew down from the gate and landed before Yamash.
"My massster, the great Jaguagorgon, desiresss more sssacrificesss," the fiend hissed, its forked tongue flicking in the air. "Ssspare no ssslave and you ssshall have a demon army. When the time isss right, you mussst poissson and dessstroy the Fountain of Youth upon which thisss pyramid isss built.”
"The forces of Qotal and the Far World bear down upon us now. You must grant us the power of your tribe now!" Yamash demanded angrily.
"The mighty Jaguagorgon ssshall not be summoned but when he desssires, mortal," established the demon, "but he ssshall grant you a meansss of defenssse. Begin the sssacrificesss as commanded, but now you ssshall have a mythal."
The fiend ripped his own great demon heart from his chest and fell upon the slab dying. He held it aloft in his hands and Yamash, Aspa, Boa, and Rattlel began chanting. The fiendblood from the heart and the body oozed down the sides of the pyramid and turned the water of lake Temaclac to venom. Green gas rose up from its edges, enshrouding the city within a noxious hemisphere, poisonous and deadly to any who were good that might pass through it.
"Zaltec be praised," laughed Yamash. "We shall now commence your sacrifices undisturbed and summon the tribe of Jaguagorgon and lay waste as you have commanded, O Eater Of Hearts."
Far up the beach from the site of the day's battle, the Amnish missionaries were enjoying a night of festivities among the temporary settlement of the free Mazticans. Spirits were high despite the impending confrontation, and food, drink and dance were to be found in abundance amidst bonfires and music.
Anomen and Onyx each sat away from the merriment, on the sand, facing the calm sea. Anomen was in quiet but worried prayer, looking to Helm for guidance, but Onyx was merely rubbing Aerie's handkerchief in his hands and across his cheeks, looking contentedly far across the ocean over which they'd come.
Anomen finished his prayer, having found more questions than answers, and looked across at Onyx's near-stupor. "How can you daydream at a time like this?" Anomen demanded. "You're as bad as those heathens back there who drink and dance when they should be resting and readying. Along with our soldiers and even some of our priests! Helm is surely displeased!"
"High spirits will be a great ally in the coming battle," Onyx countered, "Let them have their fun for tonight. It is good that our soldiers and the natives should associate. Our force must understand and know the people they are defending. Perhaps some will even find new things to fight for."
"Don't romanticize their hedonistic fraternizing," Anomen scolded and looked over his shoulder, spotting Minsc devouring endless quantities of maize-cake and tequila, Imoen dancing crazily, and Yoshimo entertaining several native girls with card tricks and tall tales.
"Causes can be personal as well as philosophical," Onyx mused calmly, looking at Aerie's handkerchief again. "Your faith and valor are unsurpassed, Sir Anomen, but even you must desire another reason to go into the breach – to wear your heart on your sleeve. You know my meaning."
Anomen sighed. "Yes, Onyx, but...I have found it not."
"Not it - her," corrected Onyx. "It is strange, you have loved many throughout the time I have known you at the Order, and yet you say you have seek still?"
"I have yet to find a reason to stop seeking. But I will I know when I do, Onyx? How did you?"
"You just know, Anomen. I suppose it was like when I realized beyond a doubt what I wanted to become a paladin, or when I learned of my parentage and decided assuredly what I would make of it. I suspect it was much the same when you knew you had found your faith in Helm."
Anomen nodded, seeming more certain of himself now. "I felt like that again when I envisioned this place, and I knew what had to be done. And when…well, er, maybe…”
"When you saw Jade," Onyx finished bluntly. Anomen nodded sheepishly. "You may make your fate in her and this land. For the latter, we shall see. But for the former, now is the time, my friend. Go and speak with her."
"I couldn't, not with the battle still to come and my valor yet to be proved, it'd be roguish."
"Nay, you have proved it already today. And the battle to come gives you all the more reason to act. It's funny, I've never understood it, but...well, you know how it was with Aerie and myself, happening over the course of our most dangerous adventures ever, rescuing Imoen and combating Irenicus and my siblings...it has been like that over the ages, with the great heroes and heroines of old. It was thus with the Heroes of Phlan, it was thus with the Heroes of the Savage Frontier, it was thus with the Heroes of Icewind Dale.”
“You embellish like a skald. It’s merely the idleness of long weeks on the road and the recklessness of knowing each day or night might be the last.”
“Aye, for many, but sometimes there’s more to it than that. There's something about the midst of a quest, Anomen, it brings something out - the best of us, perhaps, the best within us. I can explain it not, but it is in our darkest hours that we find our brightest stars."
"Onyx, that can't be - that's a fantasy, at best an ideal, that’s not this world," Anomen shook his head sadly.
“Well, then I guess we’re just characters in an epic in a fantasy world.”
Onyx and Anomen exchanged a series of are-you-thinking-what-I’m-thinking glances with each other and the sky. They looked around nervously, as if expecting their existence to end at any moment.
They took deep breaths, as if relieved to still be sitting there, and Onyx continued, "Go, speak to her. Dance with her. Divine her heart and profess your own." He stood and practically yanked Anomen up with him. The priest stood and took a deep breath, looking longingly across the festivities at Jade, who he caught shyly snapping her head away before turning back to meet his gaze. Onyx, furtively gripping his arm, walked forward with him and pushed Anomen off in the right direction, then went his own.
He spied Imoen dancing and singing on a table, her thin limbs and pink hair flying about. “Cuz we are living in a magical world, and I am a magical girl, yeah magical! Woohoo!” the eternal child sang and laughed, spinning about like she was about to drunkenly fall off the table but truly in control of every movement like the lithe thief she was.
"Hey sis," he grinned, walking up to the table and holding his hands out to catch her, "Way to express yourself! Wanna dance?"
"You betcha!" she grinned and leapt down toward him. “Ooh! Like a virgin, touched for the very first time!” she started singing as he caught her in his arms and swung her around in the beginnings of a dance. They spun away together, Imoen catching and following Onyx's gaze back toward Anomen and Jade and knowingly grinning along with her brother.
V. Fiends and Festivities
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