Gareth tried to avoid cursing audibly as his carriage traveled through the lizard person shanty town haphazardly set up in the Edra region. The newly constructed road was shoddily made and full of ruts. Most of the poor lizard people looked half-starved, but, if the reports were to be believed, they didn’t trust imperial soldiers enough to take the food and relief supplies that were offered. It stood to reason, what with those very same troops ripping them out of their homes and dragging them at spearpoint across a third of the Empire to drop them off next to a ramshackle collection of huts just a couple days earlier, but it didn’t make Gareth’s job any easier.
In the street, a young lizard person stared blankly at his carriage. Anne Bosteel, who he could swear he hadn’t actually invited on this trip, waved at the creature from where she sat next to him. He was also fairly sure that the rules of decorum dictated that only the minister sit in plain view in the official carriage on a state visit, but there she was. It waved back, only for an older lizard person to dart out from a nearby shed and hustle the child back towards the buildings, all the while staring fearfully at the carriage and Gareth’s armed guards.
“Anne, would it be possible to not antagonize the locals?” He asked her tiredly.
“I just thought that it would be nice for them to see a friendly human face smiling back at them,” she replied cheerily. “Our bards have already gotten wind of and suppressed two peasant pogroms before they could actually attack a refugee camp. I haven’t gotten word that anyone is sponsoring the unrest, the nobles got their lesson back at Diyall Square. They’ve been laying low ever since. Instead you have desperate, scared and superstitious people. The flood took everything from them, and now they’re seeing something strange and new so of course they’re going to try and destroy it.”
Gareth shook his head as gazed up and down the street. Lack of gratitude seemed to be the one unifying factor for the citizens of the Empire. The Edra refugees lost everything and the Church bent over backwards to try and fix the situation. The new villages were larger and better appointed with modern irrigation systems and farming equipment. Instead of a simple ‘thank you,’ all the treasury got were complaints from peasants who didn’t want to learn how to use the fairly complex new irrigation system or who were unhappy with the new enchanted auto-tilling machines. Then, in the midst of the largest humanitarian mission in the Church’s history, here they were. Ornery and trying to pick a fight with another group of people that the Church was saving from toxic magical exposure at great expense. Of course, the lizard people weren’t terribly happy either. Most of them were still in shock after being pulled from their marsh and shipped across the Empire, but it was only a matter of time before they started protesting their situation. Really, the entire situation was an alchemical nightmare, full of volatile chemicals and hissing steam vents, ready to explode into open unrest if anyone prodded it.
“I’m sure they’re glad to see your friendly face Anne,” Gareth closed his eyes as he leaned back in the carriage seat, the wood behind the thin cushion biting into his back. “Please tell me we at least have some sort of plan to figure this entire mess out. Balthus hasn’t really been responding to my letters beyond telling me that some of the rain has cleared up and that they’re making more progress. Every time I ask him what I should do, he tells me, ‘what I see fit.’ Right now, I’m about one more dismissive letter from ‘seeing fit’ to return to the Ember Palace and having my first real dinner in a week. If I never had to see dry bread and stew one more time I would be a very grateful man.”
“The last I checked, the priesthood hadn’t invented a magical cure for stupidity,” she replied with a shrug. “I’ve tried informally to reach out to leaders among the lizard people in the refugee camps to see if we could start a dialogue. A chief of the Scarscale clan survived capture and internment and we’ve managed to persuade him to speak with you. To be clear, persuade is a euphemism for tortured and threatened. He’s willing to talk but he isn’t happy. Also he might be missing his dew claws. All part of the persuasive process.”
“Anne,” Gareth sighed, “is there anyone here that you haven’t had tortured? We are trying to re-establish trust with these people, not traumatize them further.”
“I’m pretty sure that I haven’t had the child I just waved to tortured,” she responded cheerfully. After Gareth frowned at her, she continued, chiding him. “Oh lighten up. Lizard people don’t operate like humans. Everything is about shows of force and dominance. They hardly would have respected us if we responded to an act of rebellion with anything short of a little recreational torture.”
“Fine,” Gareth said in resignation. “I give up, just don’t turn into Matthias on me. I think that the Empire has suffered through enough senseless bloodshed. Tell me what I need to know about this Scarscale chieftain and what we hope to accomplish. I’m an accountant, not a diplomat or a spy. I think I used up all my available menace threatening the elders of the inquisition. We really need Balthus here for something like this instead of dallying about making mud patties in the Dakhmar swamp.”
“It sounds like a bit more than mud pies,” Anne chuckled, “my reports say that the troops are terrified of him after the ‘archangel debate’ as they have been referring to it. Between him and Armand, they are pushing through some intensely hostile terrain but they are making good progress. At the moment they’re only a couple of days from the lizard person ancestral burial grounds where the remaining natives are digging in for a fight. Everyone is hoping that it will be the last battle of the ‘forced evacuation.’ If not, it sounds like things are going to take a while and we’re going to have a plague of abominations to deal with.”
“I’m sure Balthus is working hard,” Gareth grunted, eyes still closed, “he always is. I just need to know what I’m expected to tell this chief you’ve wrangled a meeting with. I really don’t know the first thing about who he is or what he wants. I can try to explain the finances of the situation to him, but I’m not sure that he will be impressed by me complaining about how much saving him and his reluctant species is costing the rest of us.”
“Although I’m sure I would love observing additional torture on Chieftain Rombrok,” Anne answered him, “I think making our case in a less boring fashion would be preferred. I do know that the Scarscales in general and Chieftain Rombrok in particular are devout worshippers of Al’Shazan. My agents are reporting that the primary source of their resistance is that almost seven hundred years ago, High Priest Sastinial promised them autonomy to honor their ancestors on their traditional land and in their traditional manner. Since then, the Empire has done fairly well about keeping that promise despite some of their traditional rituals consisting of infanticide which rubbed many of those with more delicate sensibilities the wrong way. Apparently, most of the Scarscales don’t believe that Al’Shazan has ordered us to remove them from their homeland given Sastinial’s promise to them. Every bard, painter, and mime that has talked with them assures me that they genuinely believe that Al’Shazan would not order the present crusader incursion. They all believe that it is only a matter of time before Al’Shazan punishes his ‘wayward church’ and they are restored to their swamps.”
Gareth opened his eyes blearily and turned to Anne. She was as beautiful as ever, and at some point she had even managed to style her hair despite both of them being stuck in this carriage for almost three days straight. As much as he would like to continue petulantly slouching, he knew that she would just laugh at him.
“Anne,” he asked her, “how is it that I am at the head of a theocratic dictatorship, and my primary opposition is fundementalist zealots of my own religion? They aren’t even fucking heretics, Al’Shazan didn’t order us to remove them. It strongly implied that we should kill all of them.”
“As far as I can tell, they’re a lot more dedicated to their faith than High Priest Aster or you,” she supplied helpfully.
“While probably true, that does nothing to tell me what I should be saying to this individual.” Gareth answered, slightly testily.
“Tell him that his clan’s fight was noble and that you plan to spare his life,” Anne shrugged. “I don’t really know, half of the anthropologists at Lyles Hall insist that the prefix ‘anthro’ only applies to human beings and refuse to study them. The other half are either afraid of being eaten or just outright racists. There really aren’t any scholarly studies on the lizard people. We just know that they are a confederation of tight knit clans and that they are pretty serious about their worship of Al’Shazan.”
“They’ve been citizens of the Empire for seven hundred years,” Gareth looked at Anne incredulously. “Do you really mean to tell me that no one has bothered to actually talk to them or study them enough to figure out how their culture works? I’ve read multiple competing treatises on barbarian tribes one tenth the size of the lizard person population. That can’t be right.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Anne shrugged. “They paid their taxes on time and were generally straightforward about worshipping Al’Shazan. That’s all that previous leaders of the Church asked for. They wanted to be left alone outside of sending a couple of annual pilgrims to Diyall, and the Empire was more than happy to leave them to their business.”
“We didn’t even send in any missionaries?” Gareth sputtered as Anne shook her head. “But they could have been doing anything in their swamps! Engaging in major sins, worshipping the deceiver, or even concealing assets from taxation! How is it that I am just finding out about this state of affairs now? I feel like someone should have checked up on them in the last seven hundred years, at least just to say hi, maybe ask to borrow some sugar. You know, at least be neighborly.”
“I don’t know how much worse it could be than eating their young,” Anne muttered. “That was the one thing we were able to confirm. They lay a clutch of eggs and the strongest of the clutch eats all of its siblings. Apparently it’s a ritual of great significance and thus protected by Sastinial’s promise. As for why no one has bothered to actually talk to them? I suppose it’s because their home is inhospitable and awful and the lizard people themselves are a fairly blunt and abrasive folk. Not really something anyone would embrace voluntarily, and the historical records on the region are rife with explorers making excuses as to why they needed to be somewhere else.”
“You don’t have anything on this guy do you?” Gareth asked Anne in an accusing tone, his eyes narrowing slightly.
“He doesn’t like having his dewclaws ripped out?” She responded, shrugging once again. “You’re just going to have to turn on the old accountant charisma and see if you can get somewhere with him. All we got was him screaming that he’d rather die than dishonor his ancestors while straining against his manacles until they drew blood. Also, his blood is green.”
“Fine,” Gareth replied, rolling his eyes. “Wake me when we get there and make sure that there are guards with me when I meet him. I could really use a nap, and I would prefer him to not discover the color of my blood respectively.”
Almost an hour later, Anne shook Gareth out of his nap. He grunted and wiped his eyes blearily, taking in the slightly better developed shanty town that he found his carriage in. Slowly, it came to a stop before the only two story building in the entire encampment, a rather ramshackle wooden affair with the words ‘Imperial Inquisitor Branch Office’ painted on the side in white. Outside the front of the building stood two nervous looking crusaders, clad in full plate, spears in hand and short swords at their sides.
Gareth grunted as he hefted his weight out of the carriage, wincing at the sore pain in his legs and back from spending so long in the jolting carriage. He acknowledged the guards with an upraised hand and walked into the building, Anne and two of the guards from his carriage following him inside. The interior of the building was dingy and poorly lit. Two inquisitorial clerks took notes in some manner of ledger while another four crusaders sat on benches, ill at ease and with their spears within easy reach.
One of them stood up and approached him, but Gareth cut the man off, too emotionally exhausted from the journey to put up with forced politeness.
“I’m here for the Scarscale Chief, Rombrok, I’ve heard he’s being held here?” He asked the guard.
“But of course,” the man glanced at Anne, a hint of fear in his eyes, “your associate Ms. Bosteel warned us that you were coming minister. We have him in the basement. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep him in a more comfortable room. He has a nasty tendency to break everything during his frequent escape attempts.”
“Great,” Gareth responded, acid dripping from his voice. “Please introduce me to the giant violent warrior that we’ve tortured and imprisoned, I’m sure that we have much to discuss about peaceably resolving this situation.”
The guard quickly nodded and took Gareth to a trap door. Beneath the trap door lay room, dimly lit with lanterns and accessible only via a sturdy looking steel ladder. Gareth stared balefully at the ladder for a full second before he resigned himself to yet more exertion. Twenty seconds later and breathing heavily, he was in the basement room. It wasn’t terribly large and appeared to be a store room of sorts except for the pair of steel barred doors leading to obvious holding cells. Inside one, stood a nine foot tall blue-scaled behemoth. The creature was covered in scars that were dyed crimson. In totality, a rather imposing look. Gareth was pretty sure it was impressive to the lady lizard people.
“Chief Rombrok I presume,” he said to the chained lizard person. It shuffled to its feet and walked to the edge of the cell, its bulk filling the barred doorway.
“Are you the one that has done this to my people little man?” It asked, its voice coming out in a sibilant hiss, giving it an aura of menace.
“I am the minister of the treasury, Gareth Theones,” he said, flinching back slightly from the huge lizard person. “High Priest Balthus Aster gave the order, but it was a unanimous decision between him, me, and the Knight-Commander of the Inquisition, Armand DeSoto. We weren’t really given much of an option, Al’Shazan told High Priest Aster that your swamp needed to be cleared of life. When the God of All speaks, we have to obey. It was either resettling your people or committing genocide.”
“The Godking Al’Shazan gave us that land before your kind climbed down from the trees,” it hissed in reply. “It would not take the land from us. That was its promise to our kind. It might order our deaths in combat so that our stories may be remembered for centuries to come, but it would not order us off of the land. You are mistaken little man.”
“Well,” Gareth replied, coughing slightly as he was more than a little put out by Chief’s intensity. “Al’Shazan did give us the option of killing all of you. It simply wanted the land cleared out and the triumvirate thought that it would be much more humane to resettle you in a new location rather than simply eliminate your species.”
“Humane?” The lizard laughed quietly, a deep chuffing sound. “It even has your species name in the title. The Folk do not need you to be humane. We need to be allowed to honor the traditions until it is time to stop. You are greedy for our land, our histories and our magics. We will not let the greedy men from the Empire take what is ours. We were captured because your mages disabled us, but the rest of our forces will fight to the last. Even if we are not to survive, we will drown you in the blood of our children while spitting curses at you. As Al’Shazan has preordained.”
“Greedy?” Gareth questioned the chieftain. “The Empire doesn’t even know what you have, we could hardly be greedy to take it from you. No, this entire venture was costly and difficult, we just wanted to help.”
“There is no help, human,” it laughed again causing the hair on the back of Gareth’s neck to stand straight up. “Our priests have told us of the One True God’s glory from before your priests reached our verdant home. They told us that we would be given a glory like no other, we would be allowed to live atop the font of life itself, the source of all mana and magic in the entire Empire, but eventually the end would come. The divine would drop his holy waste to Earth to renew the font, and with it we would change. We would lose our beautiful scales and become monsters of flesh, tentacles and teeth. Soldiers from the Empire would come, as was their duty, and we would fight battles that would echo through the ages. Eventually, our race would perish only to be reborn from the font of life when it was once again time for the Dakhmar Swamp to be thrive with life. Every child that survives the culling knows this story. We do not fear your soldiers or the magical change that is sweeping over the marsh. Instead we welcome it as our fate to die only to be reborn anew in the service of Al’Shazan.”
“Wait,” Gareth stopped, eyes growing wide. “You knew what was happening this entire time? Why did you not tell anyone about this? Blazes, why did you stand for it? Your entire civilization exists solely to be wiped from the face of the world in one moment of supreme divine indifference. How could you simply let this happen to your people?
“Why not?” It asked back. “All men die sooner or later. It is simply our turn to die in the manner laid forth for us by our ancestors. Just as you humans inherit the estates and shops of your parents, the Folk inherit this glorious death. It is our birthright and every generation prepares for it, hoping that we will be the ones that can die in battle to make the One True Flame proud. As for why we allow it? A simple answer. It is as the Godking Wills. Nothing more, and nothing less.”
“I need to write Balthus immediately,” Gareth fretted aloud, eyes darting back and forth. “If all your people want is a glorious death, we can easily accommodate. We can make the final battle at the ancestral burial ground as momentous and historical as you want. It’s just that no one bothered to tell us what you wanted, and why.”
“Little man,” the chieftain locked its yellow eyes on Gareth, “no one bothered to ask. You just tore into our swamp and told us you knew better than us, you looked down on us. All the while, we were the ones truly following Al’Shazan’s WIll.”
“I have to say,” it continued talking before Gareth could speak up, “it does make me feel a little smug. Humans with your big cities filled with industry, magic and art thinking you know everything, but you never stopped to talk to the folk. You never stopped to actually talk with us as if we were intelligent beings with agency that could chart our own fate. Now, all that I ask is that you can arrange a final battle for my people here in this refugee camp. We will set a date and a time for the uprising, we will attack your guards, and you will win. Then when the time is right, we will all be reborn, as was foretold.”
Gareth looked to his side where Anne shrugged, for once as surprised and lost as him. Even after days of torture, no one had been able to figure out any of the salient details of the lizard person faith. Apparently, only because no one bothered to just come out and ask. With a shrug of his own he turned back to Rombrok and replied.
“We have a deal Chieftain Rombrok. We will set a time when the Scarscales will be set free and allowed to fight a final battle that the bards will sing of for years to come, but first I have to let High Priest Aster know that he is about to make a terrible mistake.”