The Scar-Veteran Qua-Tli made his way across the ruined battlefield at a hobbled limp. A wound on his hip showed bloody meat beneath a torn rift in his scales, and the seriousness of the injury left him leaning on the shaft of the Sandmaw’s army standard for support. The Saurus’s scaly lips pulled into a tight grimace with each slow step.
The twin priests Qori and Qolle fell in pace with the Scar-Veteran as he walked, with Qolle leaning close to examine the wound while Qori offered to carry his weapon. Qua-Tli warned the skink away with a low, rumbling growl.
“We can fix this,” Qolle said hopefully, “The priests of the True Moon know a way. They showed us after the last battle.”
“They brought back the Patriarch Triceradon from the brink of death,” Qori followed, “It’s amazing what they know.”
Qua-Tli frowned at the thought. After their first battle with the Ogres, both Triceradons had been beaten so badly that they were barely recognizable as more than meat and bone. The magic of the Temple of the Silent Star had brought back the Matriarch, but the Patriarch had apparently required other methods. Qua-Tli hadn’t known until now.
“What of the Star Temple’s magic?” the Scar-Veteran questioned, “Why must we rely on the True Moon’s priests?”
Qolle offered a shrug, “The temple’s magic is waning.” Qori nodded, and added quickly, “The stars have moved on.”
“Then what of my fallen warriors?” Qua-Tli asked.
“We will save those we can,” Qori answered. His brother finished for him, “The rest will be buried in the sand near the sea.”
Qua-Tli grimaced and looked away. It was as he feared.
The two priests studied Qua-Tli for several seconds, as if trying to understand his mood. After a moment, Qori offered, “It will be okay. We now have two victories against the brutes.” Qolle agreed with a quick nod, “Their losses were worse than ours. They won’t face us again.”
Qua-Tli frowned. He did not believe it.
Qori gestured back toward black-crowned fires at the treeline, “The ogre bodies have been burned according to Popopoyotl’s directions. The corruption of this place will be cleansed with their scattered ashes.”
Qolle nodded and went on, “And to add to their disgrace, the ogre tyrant was released back to what remains of his army. Netzahualcoyotl’s visions show that he’ll kill more of the invaders before fleeing across the sea.”
The Scar-Veteran showed hooked fangs as he sneered, “And this is all according to Lord Mazatl’s directions?”
The priests traded confused looks, then said together, “Yes.”
“And do we do everything the True Moon priests tell us to?”
Again the skinks blinked and exchanged questioning stares. Then—again—they chirped, “Yes.”
Qua-Tli snarled a bit as his weight again came down painfully on his bad leg. He growled, “I’m going to Kai-Gor to report. I’ll see your healers when I am done.”
“Be careful with him,” Qori suggested. Qolle nodded agreement, “He has not been himself.”
Kai-Gor had chosen a position on the hill near where the battle had apexed to direct the follow-up actions of his warriors. Both of Triceradons grazed on the long grass behind him, their beaks occasionally crunching on metallic bits of shattered leadbelcher cannons. The ogres had lost two of their number in explosive misfires when the Triceradons had charged up the hill, and had lost their hunter’s pack moments later. For once the skink crews that rode on the Triceradon’s backs had made it through the battle unscathed, as had the majority of the Sandmaw’s Terradon riders. The skink crews now stretched and chittered to one another in the bright sun, drinking in its warmth as reward for the bravery they had shown.
Qua-Tli frowned at the thought. Had it been bravery or only luck? Had bravery caused the Ogre’s cannons to misfire or caused the hunter’s spear to catch on a crevice in the Triceradon’s frill? Had bravery driven Qua-Tli and his warriors into a charge against the Ogre Tyrant and his ironguts? Was it bravery that had earned them such punishment at the end of the Tyrant’s cudgel and beneath his soldiers’ thundering boots?
Kai-Gor’s Carnosaur Graulla slumbered at the top of the hill with the heat of the jungle sun on its ridged back. The beast had feasted well on the Ogre corpses, and now would sleep for days if given the opportunity. Each of Graulla’s slow breaths hummed with the sound of a low earthquake, warning back any who might come too close. All knew that only Graulla’s master was safe inside the reach of the beast’s rending jaws.
The general of the Sandmaw stood silent and stoic in the shadow cast by his monstrous mount. His eyes moved slowly back and forth over the fields of the battlefield and out to the ocean beyond. From here the glittering beaches of the Lustrian coast were visible, where seabirds swooped and dove above the ocean’s churning waves. The birds’ aerial dances were the first thing in Lustria that had reminded Qua-Tli of home. Wounded as he was, he wanted nothing more than to find a quiet spot and watch them circle.
But first came his report. Qua-Tli dropped to one knee and saluted Kai-Gor with a dip of the Sandmaw’s banner. He said, “General…I’ve come.”
Kai-Gor nodded acknowledgment. His steely gaze felt heavy on Qua-Tli’s shoulders.
Qua-Tli bowed further, “I apologize for my failure in the last battle General…I could not hold the line—not after what they did to Tehotl. I shouldn’t have let him answer the Tyrant’s challenge—I should have gone instead.”
Kai-Gor did not answer. Qua-Tli did not dare look up.
“Twice now I have let my warriors run when they should have held. Twice now they have paid in blood for my mistake. Forgive them General—punish me instead. I have failed you, and deserve your wrath.”
Kai-Gor’s voice came as a slow rumble, “There will be no punishment.”
Qua-Tli was surprised to find no relief in his General’s forgiveness. Instead the pardon pulled at his pride, like a barbed hook turned slowly in his guts. The pain of the feeling brought his gaze up to meet his Kai-Gor’s eyes.
“General, you must see what these victories have cost us. I barely have the warriors I need to redress my ranks. I’ve sent for reinforcements from Hoxitlkil, but even with their help we are still preciously short. Our victories against the ogres have taken scores of my best warriors. Magic can’t return them to us, nor can their skills be replaced. Each warrior we lose is one less we have for the battles to come…and we are so few already.”
“What are you saying Captain?” Kai-Gor asked darkly.
Qua-Tli closed his eyes and lowered his head. He forced the words out despite the treason they represented, “General…I fear this war is destroying us. Every victory costs us more than we have to lose. Mazatl and his priests have the whole of the jungle from which to find reinforcements, but we are few, and our numbers dwindle. Maybe the Gods say it is our fate to be ended here…maybe the Old Ones have chosen to sacrifice our tribe to defeat these invaders. But surely Lord Zhallax would not wish it so. Surely he would want us to survive.”
Qua-Tli’s scaled hand tightened on the shaft of the banner and his lips drew back. His voice rose in fierceness as he said, “If you call this cowardice General, then I am a coward and will accept your judgment. But if this is truth, we must think of the Sandmaw’s future. We can not let the memory of Itlcouzal die here.”
As these words faded on the wind, Kai-Gor shifted forward, and walked slowly down to where Qua-Tli knelt. Qua-Tli heard his general’s bladed spear shift from hand to hand. Full of remorse and shame, Qua-Tli braced himself for the blow to come.
But what he felt instead was Kai-Gor’s hand at his shoulder. He looked up, and saw his general beckon him to stand. The general’s outstretched arm helped lift Qua-Tli to his feet.
Kai-Gor’s words were resolute, “It is not cowardice to long for peace.”
Qua-Tli searched his General’s eyes, and found them different than ever he had seen before. There was no longer anger in them—no burning rage or simmering hate. What remained were only steadfast resolution and immeasurable pride. Kai-Gor seemed stronger now than Qua-Tli could ever have imagined. And the presence of his strength gave Qua-Tli the power to proudly raise his head. It gave him hope.
“This war is penance,” Kai-Gor continued, “It is payment for Zhallax’s gift, and punishment for our long hatreds. We must see it through Qua-Tli. No matter what the price, we must see it through.”
“Rally your warriors,” Kai-Gor followed, “Tell them I honor their sacrifices. Tell them Lord Zhallax watches them and blesses their spirits.”
“I will General.”
Kai-Gor saluted the Sandmaw banner across his chest, then began the slow limp back to his warriors. His back was a little straighter now—his limp less pronounced. He seemed somehow buoyant with new pride.
Kai-Gor looked back to the sea, and whispered a silent prayer. He asked the Old Ones to guide his actions, and for Zhallax’s spirit to protect his tribe. And when that was done he moved back to Graulla and resumed his watchful vigil over his army. The sea birds whirled and the waves crashed, and for a moment the war was far away.
Kai-Gor knew it would not last.