Colonel Lewis Cayce, formerly of C Company, 3rd US Artillery, and now commander of what he still referred to as his Detached Expeditionary Force as well as the entire "Army of the Allied Cities of the Yucatán," stood ramrod straight in his best (only, actually) dark blue frock coat. Carefully tailored to be stylishly tight and therefore, in his mind, unfit for combat, it could barely contain his wide, strong shoulders. A burgundy sash encircled his narrow waist beneath a freshly whitened leather sword belt, and his treasured, privately purchased and lightly embellished M1840 artillery officer's saber hung at his side. Like his belt plate and gilded shoulder boards, as well as the single row of brass eagle buttons down the front of his coat, the saber's polished steel scabbard gleamed brightly under the late-morning sun in a cloudless blue sky. Lewis's often sullen orderly, Corporal Willis, had even bestirred himself sufficiently to put a shine on the scuffed and battered black leather knee boots he wore, as well as the abbreviated brim of his 1839-pattern "wheel" hat. The latter had faded considerably, but Willis had reshaped and restuffed the saucerlike top with fresh horsehair so it stood tall and crisply round on Lewis's head like a big, blue mushroom.
Otherwise, the colonel's brown hair and full beard had been neatly trimmed by Mistress Samantha Wilde, a lovely, remarkably capable Englishwoman stranded on "this" Earth alongside roughly six hundred surviving American soldiers. Despite his curmudgeonly persona, Corporal Willis was devoted to his colonel and wouldn't deliberately harm him, but his ability to manipulate tools was reckoned roughly on a par with otters', and it was preferred by all that he not bring sharp implements too close to the army commander's face. Samantha was an artist with scissors, and along with growing into the once-unimaginable authority (if not title) of assistant field quartermaster for the army, she'd become like a sister to Lewis.
His uniform for the day was completed by a new pair of sky-blue trousers-without the red artillery stripes-just arrived, along with a great many other supplies at this newly opened port by ship from the principal Allied city of Uxmal. Except for the dark blue hats, sky blue was the dominant uniform color of the entire combined army. It was mostly composed of infantry, after all, whose trousers and jackets were both that color, with white branch trim. All officers wore dark blue frock coats for dress occasions, but only mounted troopers had dark blue jackets-dragoons (yellow trim), lancers (red collars and cuffs), riflemen (white trim like the infantry), and Rangers (no trim at all). The mounted artillery had red trim, of course. That's what Lewis preferred in the field. But everyone in the army wore sky-blue trousers and for this event, in front of the whole army-that part that was present-Lewis wanted it plain he was "of" them all, not just his cannoneers. Now he gazed forward, gray eyes peering through lids narrowed against the sun, taking in the scene before him.
"Gran Lago is quite impressive for what amounts to a 'frontier' city," murmured the beefy, florid-faced Colonel Andrew Reed beside him. He was another "regular" from the "old army" originally sent to join General Winfield Scott's campaign against the Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Most believed General Scott had surely managed without their comparatively meager participation in that other war on another world, but the good people of Uxmal and other remote cities across the Yucatán Peninsula would probably already be dead or enslaved if . . . something (Reverend Harkin still maintained it was God) hadn't brought them to this one instead. Reed was Lewis's second in command and had assumed responsibility for the infantry, largely in regard to training and organization as new regiments of "locals" were formed. That duty had fallen to others now that he directly commanded 1st Division.
"It's almost as large as Uxmal, in fact," Reed added, tone a little tight as always of late. His implication was that this relative backwater of their sworn enemy on this world was on a par with the best they had. Lewis knew that wasn't true on so many levels, but it might seem that way at a glance. Reed wasn't shy; he had plenty of courage, but the farther they advanced from their new "home" in the Yucatán toward the heart of a far more numerous enemy that inspired righteous fury and superstitious dread in equal measure, the more uncomfortable he'd become.
Lewis nodded at his words, ignoring the sentiment. "Yes. And more important, we took it largely intact."
Situated on the north coast of what should've been southeastern Mexico, Gran Lago stood on a narrow land bridge between the Gulf of Mexico and the great, brackish lake it was named for. Villas on expansive estates easily employed the slaves and lowborn freemen so it wasn't surrounded by the miles-deep slums Lewis had been told to expect around principal enemy cities. It therefore had a picturesque, almost Mediterranean quality, durably constructed of cut stone, plastered coral, and well-kept adobe. All had been freshly whitewashed after the recent calamity and in honor of this day. The buildings-particularly the high, stepped pyramid and the walls surrounding it and the gathered onlookers and formations of troops on parade in the center of the city-gleamed almost painfully bright.
One of the easternmost outposts of the "Holy Dominion," Gran Lago was well positioned to guard against the approach of monsters or invaders from "La Tierra de Sangre" beyond, and would've done so admirably if sufficiently defended. But the Dominion and the depraved Blood Priests who increasingly controlled it were arrogantly oblivious to the necessity for defense. Virtually all the troops for hundreds of miles not already called to participate in an even more distant campaign against a longer-standing enemy of the Dominion had been so intent on conquering the previously unaggressive and decidedly nonexpansionist cities of the Yucatán that Lewis was able to move his forces wide around them and force them to attack him here. There'd been action along the way, to be sure, but that only honed his already blooded and ever more professional army.
The great Battle of Gran Lago had broken more than the Dominion's Eastern Army of God. It broke the-apparently-long-strained and dwindling faith of its commander, General Agon, and many of his surviving troops. There'd been other contributing factors, of course, but Agon's defeat had clinched it. The Dominion was ruled by a twisted, comingled perversion of Christianity and older, darker faiths, born of a collision between Spaniards arriving in this world aboard a Manila-Acapulco galleon at least two centuries before, and descendants of Mayan, Aztec, and perhaps even more ancient castaways. With neither group able to dominate the other, a bizarre, unholy, monolithic "compromise" faith emerged that would suffer no dissent to exist. A totalitarian theocracy arose with the formation of the "Holy Dominion," ruled by thirteen "Blood Cardinals" (one was supreme over the others), who were chosen by virtue of their blood ties to the founders. They insisted that God (in his underworld heaven) required suffering and blood sacrifice as a price for grace and salvation. Perhaps most bizarre of all, the suffering of his son, Jesus Christ, was proof-and held up as the example for all to emulate. Those who wouldn't compromise the most basic tenets of their Christian or even old pagan beliefs were hunted to extinction or hounded into exile. That was the origin of the Americans' very recognizably Christian allies in the Yucatán, in fact.
General Agon and the Eastern Army of God had suffered above and beyond what should've been required for salvation. Already beaten once and forced through multiple tortuous marches, they were abandoned by the zealous Blood Priests, a relatively new order that believed God must literally be nourished by the effusion of human blood, and who were not only the instigators of their misery, but had launched a coup in the Holy City of Mexico to diffuse the power of the Blood Cardinals and open that status to their own common selves. They'd complete their triumph by purging all who opposed them in a sea of blood that would, incidentally, glorify them even further in the eyes of their bloodthirsty God. It was insane, and even for the more "moderate" faithful-at least by degrees-too much. There would be civil war.
For Agon and the remainder of his army, however, the "old" faith of his enemy had proven triumphant. Again, it was obviously more complicated than that, but he'd converted to the Christian faith as espoused by the Uxmalo priest, Father Orno, and decreed that any of his troops who wished to remain and fight for the soul of the Dominion beside him must do the same. Father Orno and Reverend Harkin-a Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania-had baptized seven thousand former Doms in the salty water of the great lake by the city. Today, in the plaza surrounding the pyramidal temple in the center of Gran Lago, General Agon would be baptized-and more-in front of his men and former enemies, in the presence of the few thousand civilians who'd remained in the city, and under the eyes of a God he was just getting to know.
"It's all very exciting . . . if true," gushed Samantha, ivory-framed fan nervously opening and closing in her hand as she voiced the qualifier present in all their minds. Samantha stood just beyond Colonel Reed in a tasteful new day dress she'd commissioned to her design, made by an elderly seamstress in the city who hadn't possessed the physical ability or inclination to flee the approaching heretics. Quite a few had been in her position, resigned to their fate, believing they'd be eaten by demons and their souls destroyed. Worse, even if the city was "liberated" by their "own," they'd be painfully "cleansed" to death. This was partially a punishment for allowing the city to fall in the first place, but more to scour the evil taint actually viewing the heretics would leave on their souls and make them acceptable in God's presence once more. After Captain Holland, commanding HMS Tiger, "accidentally" conquered Vera Cruz during an effort to recapture an American steamship held there, Lewis knew it was mostly so no one lived to tell that the enemies of the Dominion weren't "demons" after all. In any event, he'd encouraged his men and camp followers to be friendly with the locals, and the sutlers to do business with them if they could-all while remaining wary. Some of the locals doubtless even stayed to join them against their masters, but it was possible that many had remained to do them ill. The zealous disregard for human life-even their own-among the enemy "true believers," particularly Blood Priests, was quite astonishing.
"If true," agreed Colonel "King" Har-Kaaska, with lingering, bitter skepticism touching his voice.
If anyone fit the Doms' physical description of a "demon," it was King Har-Kaaska, along with Consul Koaar-Taak (commanding the 1st Ocelomeh Regiment) and Warmaster Varaa-Choon, currently coordinating defensive preparations at Vera Cruz. Calling themselves "Mi-Anakka," not only were they, and a mere two others of their kind known to be present on this continent, not human, they'd been in positions of authority over the pagan Ocelomeh (Jaguar Warriors) since their more conventional arrival twenty years before. They'd actually been worshipped at first, due to their furry and somewhat feline appearance-not to mention long, expressive tails-reminiscent of ancient gods sacred to the Ocelomeh. It took a while to straighten that out. The land they came from on this world (the location of which they refused to reveal to anyone) was more technologically and militarily advanced than the Indios who adopted them, however. They'd voluntarily stayed here all these years to help "their" people oppose the Dominion and other threats to civilization in the Yucatán. Meeting Varaa soon after they were wrecked on this world finally jarred Lewis Cayce into understanding that something remarkable and unprecedented had happened to the stranded soldiers he'd taken responsibility for, and he'd tried to ease them into the same realization as gently as he could. Unfortunately, they'd immediately been confronted with a traumatic battle against Holcano Indians and even stranger, far more frightening creatures than Mi-Anakka. Varaa-Choon and her Ocelomeh helped them in that fight. The strong comradery of shared combat that resulted between the marooned American troops and the Jaguar Warriors, then the Christian Uxmalos and others, probably did more to "ease" Lewis's men into an understanding of their current circumstances than anything he could've done. Even Warmaster Varaa-Choon became popular with them, and she helped clarify their situation as much as she was at liberty to. Ultimately, she and Lewis became close friends. Closer than Har-Kaaska thought wise, at first. Initially counseling restraint, he was now fully on board with the alliance. If anything, he'd even more firmly embraced the "cause" the Presbyterian Reverend Harkin and vaguely Catholic Father Orno had combined to define as their own holy mission to crush the depravity of the Doms and Blood Priests entirely.
"We've fought the Doms and their creatures so long. . . ." Har-Kaaska sighed, blinking furiously. Mi-Anakka blinking served much the same purpose as human facial expressions. It was very confusing, but Lewis had picked up enough to believe Har-Kaaska was signaling incredulity. "It will take much to convince me that a . . . ceremony of any sort can possibly transform any Dom, and Agon in particular, into . . . a person." Mi-Anakka believed all races or even species capable of thought were "people" and indistinguishable in the eyes of their "Maker of All Things." As long as they had honor. Honor was the key, the threshold upon which the divine spark separating them from animals stood. Even other Mi-Anakka without honor were no better than the lowliest insect. Worse by far, in fact. Lewis and many others, nominal Christians of various denominations themselves, had somewhat easily converted to that philosophy.
That raises the question, Lewis had to agree, gazing now at the altar and large basin Father Orno had caused to be erected at the foot of the pyramid, its steps still dark with countless years of sacrificial blood despite repeated applications of whitewash. Can Doms really change? he asked himself. Can they become "people" as Har-Kaaska defines them? Agon had honor already, a sliver at least, but he fought all his life for an evil beyond anything I thought could exist. He ultimately rebelled against a greater evil, but disavowed his "own" God only when He seemed to abandon him. Can his conversion, his . . . epiphany, be trusted? Can souls as stained as his truly be redeemed? Father Orno seems to think so, and perhaps he's right. Lewis shifted uncomfortably. "I hope so," he said aloud, answering Har-Kaaska, but reflecting on the state of his own soul as well. None of us is pure.
Copyright © 2023 by Taylor Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.