Arcanis: Gonnes, Sons, and Treasure Runs (COMPLETED) - Page 3
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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 1: Into the Breech

    "Okay, Beldin and I are in front. Sebastian, you stay in the middle. Kham, Ilmarė, you bring up the rear."

    The ancient entrance before them was circular in style, its wooden door having long since rotted away into dust centuries ago. It was stylized with the bas-relief of a large, sinewy reptile.

    Quintus advanced cautiously, shield up and spear out.

    "That's strange," said Kham.

    "What?" asked Quintus over his shoulder as he continued into the entryway.

    "There's no debris on the floor."

    "So?"

    "I don't know…are hobgoblins known for their cleanliness?"

    Ilmarė snorted. "Hardly."

    "Then why is the floor so—"

    There was a yelp and Quintus and Beldin disappeared into a dark pit. Sebastian peered over the edge.

    Quintus was holding onto his spear with both hands, the ends of which spanned—barely—the length of the pit. Beldin hung from one of his legs. Wicked looking spikes sparkled in the torchlight, twenty feet below them.

    "Amazing construction," said Beldin, looking down. "It must work on a clockwork mechanism. Old, but effective."

    "I could use a little help here!" shouted Quintus.

    After Quintus and Beldin were safely at the bottom of the pit, everyone else rappelled down one side and climbed up the other.

    "This time, you go first," Quintus said to Kham. "This is not my element. I'm best on an open battlefield."

    Kham sniffed. "What makes you think it's my element?" He pointed to Sebastian and Beldin. "Why don't you put Tall and Stumpy in charge. They're accustomed to living underground."

    "What did you call me?" asked Beldin indignantly.

    "You may want to take a look at this," said Ilmarė from further down the hallway. She was standing near a circular opening on the left.

    A faded mural of a viper covered the entrance to the chamber. The viper had its jaws wide open, giving the illusion of walking into the creature's mouth.

    Quintus cautiously stepped inside. Ilmarė followed.

    Rough sleeping mats made of dirty straw were strewn haphazardly about the area. Leftover meals of meat swarmed with vermin. A banner covered a mosaic along the northern wall, depicting a serrated tongue on a field of black.

    "So it's the Serrated Tongue tribe," said Ilmarė.

    Sebastian poked at the meat with one boot. "And this is human flesh."

    "There's something behind here," Ilmarė said. With a mighty tug, she tore the banner down that was nailed to the wall.

    Beneath it was a mosaic worthy of a master craftsman. The centerpiece of the mural depicted a scene of a very large man in the midst of battle. All around him lay the ruined bodies of his enemies, a testimony to his combat prowess. The rest of the scene implied the looting and pillaging of a much larger force, but the details were difficult to make out due to the faded color of the tiny tiles.

    "Looks like a Ying Hir tribesman," said Beldin. "But he's more ferocious and feral than most."

    "Maybe it's the wolf-motif," said Sebastian. "Here, here, and here." He pointed to the man's helmet, armor, and pommel of his curved blade.

    "Let's keep moving," said Quintus. When nobody moved, he added, "I'll lead."

    They returned to the hallway, only to reach a doorway on the left that was in the shape of a huge lion's jaws. Quintus kicked open the double doors.

    The chamber was adorned with a faded mural like the room before, but it was of a pitch-black lion. Sheets of spider webbing blanketed the room. A wrapped humanoid shape hung just off the floor.

    "Gaius?" Quintus shouted. "Gaius, can you hear us?"

    The cocooned figure did not respond.

    Quintus turned to his comrades in the hallway. "I think—"

    A handaxe flashed towards his face. He ducked just in time.

    "What's in the name of…" Quintus' shout died in his throat as he caught Beldin's expression. The dwarf was reaching for his battleaxe.

    A huge bulbous shape blotted out Quintus' shadow as multiple spindly legs unfurled themselves. Quintus slowly reached for his gladius as he turned.

    "Where the hell is Kham?" he shouted.

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 2a: The Secret Chamber

    Kham stopped in the hallway at the opening of a yawning wolf. Unlike the other chambers, there was no doorway in the wolf's mouth.

    "Ahha!" said Kham to himself. It was just as he had been instructed. "Khidam was said to have hidden his treasure within the wolf's mouth, so this must be it."

    Kham pressed one thumb against the wolf's left eye. "Jezzalec Khidam ic baldis illanta!" he said. Translated into ancient Auxunite, it meant, "Lord Khidam is master of all!"

    As the phrase passed Kham's lips, the solid stone wall began to ripple like the surface of a shimmering black pool.

    Kham put his hand to the wall. It felt cool and oily but did not resist his touch. He started to enter and then paused.

    He patted himself down. "Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…okay." If he had more than 20 shots of blackpowder, it would explode upon entering an extra-dimensional portal.

    Taking a deep breath, Kham plunged through the wall.

    Three floating orbs cast a dim pall over the entire chamber. Through the shadows, Kham could make out overturned casks and chests. The room was completely ransacked.

    At the far end, there was a shimmering pillar of coruscating light. Kham moved closer to take a look.

    Resting on a pedestal within the pillar of light was a bejeweled collar made of gold and studded with precious gems.

    "The Collar of Khidam," Kham whispered.

    The collar had been fashioned during the final days of the Imperium for the internment ceremony of the Dowager Feleqsha val'Sheem. It was thought to be lost forever, but Khidam found it in the Blessed Lands. On its back was inscribed the entire life of the ancient Dowager. Its return to the Emerald Society would bring to light new insights into the life of Khidam and the Imperium as a whole.

    A similar pedestal stood just outside of the energy column. Standing near the outer pedestals were three statues.

    Kham walked up to the crown.

    "Beewaaaaaare," hissed three voices inside Kham's head. They all spoke in exact harmony and the voices wafted through his mind as if they were shrieking across a great distance.

    "Whoa!" he shouted, stumbling backwards. "Who said that?" His handgonnes were out in a flash.

    "Weeeee are the three wives of Khidam."

    Kham squinted at the statues. Each was in the form of a comely woman, her hand outstretched towards the pedestal that stood in darkness.

    "Weeeee tried to reach for the collar, but the pillar barred us."

    "Okay," said Kham, "so no reaching for the collar. Got it."

    "Weeeee tried to solve the riddle of the pedestal, but the pillar cursed us."

    "So don't screw up the riddle," said Kham. "Great."

    The pedestal had a series of five raised tiles, each in the shape of different animals: a sinewy dragon, a howling wolf, a sitting toad, a coiled viper, and a shadow lion. There was an inscription on the side of the pillar in a language Kham could not read.

    He pointed to the inscription. "I don't suppose you ladies can translate what that says?"

    "Weeeeeak shall fall before the strong."

    Kham looked at the three statues. "Fitting. So I have to push the tiles in order, from the weakest to the strongest, right?"

    "Weeeee think so."

    "You're not sure? What did you press?"

    "Weeeee do not remember."

    "Great." He sighed. "The Society doesn't pay me enough for this. Okay, well, let's see: Dragon is the strongest and I'm pretty sure toad is the weakest. So that leaves the wolf, the viper, and the—what the hell is a shadow lion anyway?"

    The ghostly voices did not answer.

    "I'm going to assume that's just a lion. Which can still eat a wolf, hands down. Wolves are more ferocious than vipers. Unless you count the fact that vipers have poison. What kind of viper is it?"

    The statues continued to stare at the column like they had for centuries.

    "Oh, sure, now you're quiet. So if I've got this right, it's: toad, viper, wolf, lion, and then dragon."

    His hand hovered over the tiles. "Any last words of advice before I risk life and limb for this gauche fashion statement?"

    The statues remained silent.

    "Great. Here goes everything…"

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 2b: The Secret Chamber

    Quintus looked up and down at the statue.

    "Yep. It's definitely Kham."

    "Fool," hissed Ilmarė. "He was dealing with magic he did not understand, ancient magic."

    "The inscription on the pedestal reads 'The weak shall fall before the strong'," said Beldin.

    "Kham learned that the hard way," Ilmarė added.

    Quintus took a deep breath. ""Anyone can be fooled under the right circumstances.

    "You mean how you thought the cocoon was Gaius?" asked Sebastian.

    Quintus ignored him. "We have to get Kham back."

    "And if you fail?" Sebastian asked.

    "Then I would expect any of you to do the same for me."

    Ilmarė looked away. "I will not sacrifice myself needlessly for the petty greed of humans."

    Quintus' eyebrows went up in surprise. A momentary expression of confusion and betrayal passed, only to be replaced by grim determination.

    "And what of you two?" Quintus said, staring at Beldin and Sebastian. "Do you think you are above all this?"

    Sebastian looked down at his feet. Beldin returned his gaze, but said nothing.

    Quintus took a deep breath. "When I led my contubernium, I never asked a man to take a risk that I wasn't willing to take myself. Every one of my men would do the same for me."

    Ilmarė snorted. "There is a limit to loyalty. A single Elorii life is too precious to waste. By your thinking you would all suffer the same fate, even die together."

    "You're right about one thing," Quintus said, his eyes distant, "they all suffered for their loyalty."

    Ilmarė turned around to watch Quintus with her arms crossed.

    "I do not expect you two to understand our customs," he said, nodding towards Ilmarė and Sebastian. "But you, Beldin, have sworn as a citizen of Solanos Mor to defend all humans."

    Beldin's eyes went wide. "I am aware of my duty."

    "Then I shall hold you to it," said Quintus. "If I should fail, I call upon your ancient oath as a Penitent of Illiir."

    Beldin's lip twitched. "You question my loyalty?"

    "No," said Quintus, "I merely remind you of mine." Quintus put his shield and spear down, his eyes on the pedestal. "You can place me in the Coryan Square. I should like to give the birds a place to rest."

    Quintus' stepped up to the pedestal. "The weak before the strong. Toad is weakest." He pressed the toad tile. It slid down with a grinding sound.

    Ilmarė bit her lip.

    "Viper is stronger than toad, but weaker than wolf." Quintus pressed the viper tile. It also slid down to the sound of grinding stone.

    Quintus' hand hovered over the wolf tile. "Wolf—"

    "Wait," said Ilmarė.

    Quintus blinked. "What?"

    "Everything we've witnessed indicates that Khidam's totem was a wolf."

    Sweat dripped off of Quintus' chin. "I don't know if there's a time limit…"

    "If I know arrogant human men," said Ilmarė, gazing pointedly at Quintus, "Khidam holds his totem above all, even dragons."

    "So…?"

    "Must I spell it out for you? The order is toad, viper, shadow lion, dragon, and then wolf."

    Quintus caught her gaze. "Are you sure?"

    The corner of Ilmarė's lips curled slightly in the barest hint of a smile. "Trust me."

    Quintus took another deep breath. Then he pressed the shadow lion, dragon, and wolf tiles in order.

    The coruscating light around the pillar pulsed and grew brighter. It flashed so brightly that they were all momentarily blinded.

    When the light faded, Kham stood with the jewel-encrusted crown in his hands. Quintus was shocked but still in the flesh.

    Kham turned to Quintus, "Wow, powerful magic!"

    "You have no idea," said Ilmarė, a hint of relief in her voice.

    "Solving the riddle teleported you all to me!"

    Quintus smacked his forehead.
    Last edited by talien; Saturday, 11th December, 2004 at 04:28 AM.

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 3: The Amber Menagerie

    Ilmarė put up one hand to halt the rest of her companions' progress down the hallway. She peeked into the adjoining room and then came back to them.

    "Five hobgoblins and a prisoner," she whispered.

    Kham's eyes lit up. "A prisoner? What kind of prisoner?"

    "Altherian, judging by his robes."

    Kham took off his lenses and threw open his jacket to grab two handgonnes from their holsters.

    "Okay," said Quintus, "they haven't seen us yet—where the hell is he going?"

    Kham rushed past Quintus, a handgonne in each hand. His headache had reached a fever pitch and his head throbbed with a high-pitched whine that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

    Quintus snarled and grabbed his spear. "Let's back him up!" he shouted as Kham skidded into the room.

    The hobgoblins appeared to Kham as slow-moving white shadows, their every action precipitated by a wave of action that signaled their moves. He took aim at the heads of two of the shadows.

    BLAM! BLAM!

    Both hobgoblins walked into the path of the bullets and fell, dead. Perfects shots had pierced them between the eyes.

    Javelins clattered around him, but Kham saw them coming. He dove and tumbled to his feet near the Altherian.

    "Qolwa!" he shouted.

    The older man had obviously been treated roughly. "Kham!"

    "They're surrounded!" said Quintus. The three remaining hobgoblins advanced with longswords drawn on Kham.

    Just then, Sebastian strode boldly forward before the three hobgoblins, one palm raised before him. "Fuco aspergo!"

    A vivid cone of clashing colors sprang forth from his hand, engulfing the hobgoblins. They clutched their eyes, screaming, and fell to the ground.

    Quintus' eyes were wide. "I didn't know you could do that."

    Ilmarė calmly walked over to the hobgoblins. They were twitching on the ground, unconscious.

    "Wow," said Kham, blinking over at Sebastian. "I take it all back. I'd rather have you watching my back any day."

    Sebastian gave a weak smile. "I try not to advertise my abilities." He looked over his shoulder at Ilmarė. "What are you doing?"

    "Finishing what you started," she said, wiping the blood off her blade.

    "You…slit their throats?" Sebastian said as he looked over at the spreading pools of blood beneath the hobgoblin corpses.

    "Did you expect me to let them get back up?" said Ilmarė coolly. "Would you have preferred they alert the others?"

    "No, but…"

    "If you want to survive Harvesters, you're going to have to be a lot more ruthless," said Ilmarė. "Hobgoblin life is brutal and short. I gave them a peaceful death. May you be so blessed when your time comes."

    "You will need more than sorcery to defeat the cult," said Qolwa.

    "Cult?" asked Quintus.

    "Yes, the cult. They worship the blasphemous aspect of Larissa in her incarnation as Lady of Thorns."

    "You two know each other, I take it?" asked Quintus.

    "This is my…uh, Uncle Qolwa val'Abebi," said Kham, patting the old man on the shoulder. "He is a Sage of the Great Library of Coryan."

    "You've strayed a bit from the library," said Quintus.

    The old man smiled a weak smile. "I was invited to the Menisis estates to study these ruins, but I never made it to the manse."

    "Impossible!" said Quintus. "The General would never willingly lure you into a trap."

    "The letter I received had the seal of the General himself," said Qolwa.

    "I believe you," said Kham, peering into his uncle's face for signs of harm. "Are you alright?"

    "I'll be fine. They were forcing me to translate tomes written in ancient Auxunite. The things I've read…" He shuddered. "My goodness, I never noticed before," said Qolwa, his gaze locked with Kham's. "It seems you have the Gift! Did you know that the Gift runs strong in our line—"

    Kham put one finger to his lips and Qolwa fell silent. "Can you make it out of here on your own?" he asked.

    "Yes, I'll be fine. Did you retrieve…the item?"

    Kham's eyes flicked nervously over to his companions, who were watching the exchange curiously. "Yes."

    "Praise Althares!" said Qolwa, obviously relieved. "Then this wasn't all for naught."

    "We were talking about the cult, remember uncle?"

    "Yes, the cult! You must hurry. They've moved one of the chunks to the central chamber," Qolwa gestured at the teardrop-shaped hunks of stone.

    "If I know cultists, that can't be good," said Kham.

    Beldin was staring into one of the yellow teadrops. "This is amber, at least two tons each," he said. "There's something inside each of them."

    "They call them the Beloved of Larissa. The Devourers of Flesh," said Qolwa.

    Beldin peered closer. Inside was a massive figure, warped and misshapen. Suddenly he flinched backwards. "I think one of them moved."

    "Let's get out of here," said Quintus.

    "Yes, let's," said Kham, putting his lenses back on his nose. "I need to teach some cult members not to mess with the val'Abebi clan."

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 4: Council Overheard

    "You never mentioned your uncle before," said Quintus, brow furrowed. "What have you been up to Kham?"

    Kham put hand to his chest in mock-offense. "Me? I haven't been up to anything. You have your orders, I have mine."

    "Orders?" asked Sebastian. "Orders from whom?"

    Ilmarė hushed them. She was peering through a small hole in the wall.

    Inside were a group of hooded men in red robs huddled around a low table. On the table was a set of six doll-sized wooden mannequins. Across the way, Gaius val'Tensen was strapped to an inclined table.

    "I am loyal…please, I've been loyal to you!" he blubbered in near hysteria. "Your creatures attacked too early! Please!"

    One of the hooded men addressed the wooden mannequin. "Master, we have need of your council."

    Defying all reason, one of the wooden dolls shuddered slightly and rose. Its voice was hollow and tinny, as if coming from a great distance. "Speak, my disciple. What is so urgent that you interrupt me again?"

    The hooded speaker bowed low. "My master, we have taken the val'Tensen as you instructed, but he has led a group of warriors to our lair. What is your wish?"

    "The val'Tensen has already cost us the lives of some of the hobgoblins of the Serrated Tongue," said the mannequin. "It will be costly to compensate their warlord for the loss. His use has ended. Prepare him for my return. I will see if it is the head, this time, that holds the power."

    Gaius' pleading turned into wails of mercy, almost drowning out the hooded acolyte's final question. "And what of the invaders?"

    Another doll rose up. Its voice was much more commanding and merciless. "There must be no witnesses. Kill them all!"

    "Your will be done, mighty lord," replied the acolyte.

    "That's all I need to hear," said Quintus. "Let's not make it easy for them."

    "Did I hear him right?" Kham looked over at Sebastian. "He called us warriors?"

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 5: The Children of the Molder of Flesh

    As they turned the corner, the southern corridor became wider. Huge stones and boulders that made up the eastern wall were apparently cleared to form the passageway.

    "Something's coming," hissed Ilmarė. Her warning was followed by the scuttling noise of many legs.

    "Beldin, stand at my side," said Quintus, pointing with his spear at the other side of the hallway to his left. "Sebastian, Kham, you're in the back. Ilmarė, you stay in the center." He crouched down behind his shield.

    What came around the corner were mockeries of men. There were three small, twisted abominations with many arms sprouting from bloated torsos and heads embedded in their chests. Directing them was a large woman, her torso elongated to accommodate an extra set of arms that were stitched on like a slave's rag doll. She had a gladius and a buckler in each pair of hands.

    "By the gods!" Sebastian shouted involuntarily, hand to his mouth.

    "Stand fast!" shouted Quintus. "Take out the leader!"

    Quintus stabbed at one of the flesh dolls with his longspear. It grabbed onto it with three of its arms. Beldin swung mightily with his axe and lopped off one of the thing's arms, but it kept coming, snapping at him with jagged teeth.

    Kham found himself sheathing one of his handgonnes. He looked down in surprise to discover his hand on the hilt of Flesh Ripper.

    Next to him Sebastian chanted, "Magicus telum!" A sliver of bright blue energy spiraled its way over Quintus shoulder and slammed into the flesh doll leader. She didn't even flinch.

    Ilmarė fired an arrow at her but it bounced off one of her shields. Beldin and Quintus kept two of the flesh dolls at bay, but the third walked between them. She fired an arrow into its torso. The arrow perforated one of its eyes, but it kept coming.

    "They're breaking through!" she said. "Shoot it!"

    Beldin hacked straight through one of the flesh dolls and engaged another that had wrested itself off of Quintus' spear.

    "Thanks!" shouted Quintus. He pulled the spear back for a long thrust and shoved it through the torso of the flesh doll leader.

    Glazed eyes looked down at the spear. There was no blood or even evidence of a wound. Using two of its hands, it pulled the longspear out. Quintus stumbled backwards but held on.

    Then it lifted the spear up in the air and Quintus with it. Using the longspear as leverage, it slammed Quintus into the wall. Dazed, the legionnaire fell to the ground.

    Kham forcefully unclenched his hand from Flesh Ripper's hilt and, with effort, grabbed one of his handgonnes.

    Sebastian pointed at the flesh doll and chanted, "Radius gelidus!" A bluish-white beam of energy sliced into the flesh doll. One of it arms was covered in frost. It kept coming.

    "Kham, if you're going to do something," said Ilmarė as she dropped her bow and unsheathed her sword, "I suggest you do it now!"

    Kham, sweat beading on his forehead, pressed the barrel of the handgonne against the flesh doll's headless torso. Multiple hands grasped for the weapon even as lifeless eyes stared up at him.

    BLAM!

    There was an explosion of debris as brittle bone and dried flesh bounced off the stone floor. The flesh doll had exploded into its component parts, unrecognizable as anything but bits of corpses.

    Quintus reached for his gladius even as the flesh doll leader loomed over him. He blocked the first two attacks with his shield as he struggled to rise, his back against the stone wall of the hallway. But there were too many arms attacking at once. Quintus gladius was slapped out of his hand. A pair of arms grabbed the shield and wrenched it out of his grasp.

    Quintus looked up at the flesh doll leader. She looked familiar.

    "Helena?" Quintus said, incredulous. "Helena Vorosa! Is that you?"

    The thing's face twitched in confusion. It raised two gladiuses over Quintus…

    Before it could strike, Beldin's axe smashed into its back, protruding through its collarbone. Arms flailed to dislodge the weapon until the body fell to the ground, once again lifeless.

    Beldin helped Quintus up. "Brilliant tactic. How did you know its name?"

    Quintus stared down at the broken, patchwork body. "Not an 'it', a 'she'. That was Helena Vorosa. She was a legionnaire of the Reluctant Warrior. She lost her arms in of our campaigns against the Voei." He placed his fingers over her eyelids and closed them. "How did you come to this, Helena?"

    "Look well on that corpse," said Ilmarė to Beldin. "It is the result of Coryan vanity and hubris."

    Thunder boomed ominously overhead and the sounds of rain on stone reverberated above them.

    Quintus kneeled down before the body and muttered a quick prayer to Illiir. Beldin joined him.

    "What are they doing?" asked Kham, reloading his handgonnes. "We don't have time for this!"

    Sebastian put one hand on Kham's shoulder. "I think we must make the time."
    Last edited by talien; Monday, 3rd March, 2008 at 03:50 AM.

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    Temptations of the Flesh - The Lair of the Vivisectionist

    The inner chamber was a Nerothian physician's chamber of horrors. Illuminated by two large hanging braziers, the scene was straight out of a nightmare. Tables lay about, covered in the flayed remains of human beings. One man was sliced open, with all of his still-connected organs arranged carefully outside of his body. His eyes were open and he moaned with each breath. Next to him was Gaius val'Tensen, still shrieking for his life.

    Hooded acolytes huddled around a large chunk of amber. Their leader had just finished reading from a scroll as the amber began to smolder. Overhead through a circular crystal ceiling skylight adorned with blasphemous sigils, lightning flashed and rain cascaded down in sheets.

    "Alright, as we discussed," said Quintus, a vial of oil in each hand. "Beldin, you take the left, I'll take the right."

    The four acolytes unraveled long, chains covered in barbed spikes all along their length and began swinging them overhead.

    As the acolytes advanced, Beldin and Quintus lit the vials of oil and threw them. The glass vials were easily slapped out of the air with the spiked chains, but it only caused the oil to burst into a sheet of flame, engulfing two of the acolytes.

    "Hold the line!" shouted Quintus over the roar of the flames. He picked up his longspear and lifted his shield. Beldin reached for his axe.

    Kham was rifling through his overcoat. "They were chanting over that hunk of amber. You know what that means, Quintus."

    "I said hold the line!" Quintus shouted back. "You want to get us all killed?"

    Sebastian stepped around Quintus shield into the open. "We must press the advantage while we have it!"

    Sebastian extended his palm. "Fuco aspergo!" A vivid cone of clashing colors sprang forth from his hand, engulfing the three of the acolytes. Two of them fell to the ground, but a third kept coming.

    "He's not going to make it," said Kham, patting himself down. "I…"

    "What's wrong?" asked Beldin.

    "I can't seem to find my handgonnes!" Kham shouted with a hint of desperation in his voice.

    "Why do you keep holstering them?" said Ilmarė, snapping an arrow off at one of the acolytes. "Have you gone mad?"

    With significant effort, he finally managed to locate his handgonnes, as if they were somehow hidden on his person. "Maybe," he said through gritted teeth. Then he stepped around Quintus' shield.

    "They never listen," said Quintus. He speared one of the acolytes who had fallen, skewering him through the throat.

    A spiked chain snapped hard against the floor, causing metal and stone to spark as Kham leapt to the side. He dove and rolled, coming up in front of Sebastian.

    "You're crazy, jumping into the fray like that! " he shouted at Sebastian over his shoulder. "Who do you think you are, me?"

    The acolyte didn't give Sebastian a chance to answer. The spiked chain whistled overhead, forcing them both to duck.

    Kham thrust both handgonnes out before him and pulled the trigger.

    BLAM! BLAM! Two smoking holes felled the acolyte in his tracks.

    There was a shuddering thud that caused all the combatants to pause. Something heavy and wet hit the ground.

    Then another shuddering thud followed. A perpetually oozing monstrosity, covered in undulating flesh, had risen out of the amber. Two lidless eyeballs floated in and out where its head should have been. It was only vaguely humanoid in shape, with no discernable hands or feet. It stumped forward, leaving behind small pools of flesh with each footstep.

    "Uh, Sebastian…" said Kham, struggling to reload his weapons.

    "I see it," said Sebastian. He took a half-step back even as he chanted "Radius gelidus!" A bluish-white beam of energy coruscated from his pointing finger into the blobby form. It turned white and then was enveloped.

    Ilmarė fired an arrow into the thing. It absorbed the arrow into its body with a slurping sound. Then it shambled towards Kham.

    "Ladies, don't fail me now!" shouted Kham. He took aim and fired. BLAM! BLAM!

    The handgonnes made one large gaping hole in the center of the thing. Through it, Kham could see the lead acolyte sneering back at him.

    "Now, you will experience the joy that is Larissa!" shouted the lead acolyte. "Behold, her Beloved!"

    The hole slowly filled in with more oozing flesh. "Run!" Kham shouted, elbowing Sebastian aside.

    The Beloved lifted one appendage and smashed down at Kham. Waves of flesh splashed over his feet, covering him up to his knees. It flipped him upside down.

    Kham took his second pair of handgonnes out from their holsters, but before he could fire them the Beloved sucked the Val into its body. He disappeared without a sound. Like a child in the womb, his flailing could be seen in the Beloved's torso.

    "He'll suffocate," said Quintus, drawing his gladius. "Aim for limbs, slashes only. If you strike the torso you may hit Kham!"

    He hacked at the thing's left leg, only to tear away a glob of flesh that quickly filled in.

    "Witness Larissa's Beloved," shouted the lead acolyte. Ilmarė drew a bead on him. "Witness the Devourer of Flesh! "

    "Will you SHUT…" Ilmarė fired an arrow, "UP!" It struck the acolyte between the eyes. He slumped onto a nearby table.

    Beldin had dispatched the remaining acolyte and was hacking away at the Beloved's limbs. "Kham's not going to last long in there!"

    Quintus ducked back behind his shield as the Beloved vomited a stream of flesh at him. The force of the blow against the shield slid him backwards. "Don't you think I know that?"

    Suddenly, the Beloved began to produce a seeping black boil. There was a slash, and dark ichor spewed from the side of thing. Something long and pointed jutted from the side of the blob, tearing its way like a jagged knife through cheese.

    "Get down!" shouted Quintus.

    Flesh Ripper ripped through the middle of the Beloved in a wide arc, spewing fluid in all directions. Kham dropped to his knees from its center, covered in black liquid; only his very white eyes were visible. He looked like a man possessed.

    "Are you alright?" asked Sebastian.

    Something dripped from Kham's lips but he did not move to wipe his face. He had both hands on Flesh Ripper, blinking as he stared about the room.

    Kham took one trembling step towards Gaius with the wicked blade held over his head.

    "Stop him!" shouted Quintus.

    Beldin grabbed Kham by the legs as Sebastian grabbed his arms. The Val let out a loud croak as Gaius squealed in terror, his murderous rage thwarted.

    Then Kham stopped struggling and fell to his knees. He vomited a long gout of Beloved flesh.

    "He'll be fine," said Ilmarė with a smirk.

    Quintus rolled the lead acolyte off of the table. At its center was a book bound in human flesh. Beldin poked at the book.

    "It is the holy scripture of the Goddess Larissa, the Lady of Thorns." The dwarf paged through it. "This is…disgusting."

    "What?" asked Sebastian.

    "It's a book about ancient Auxunite torture techniques," he said. "The acolytes were following it to the letter."

    "What of this poor man?" asked Sebastian, who stood over the tortured soul with his entrails hanging out.

    Ilmarė walked over to him. "I'll take care of him," she said, cradling the man's chin in the palm of her hand.

    "Can you heal-"

    There was a loud crack that answered Sebastian's unfinished question. There would be no healing.

    Kham slowly rose to his feet, Flesh Ripper still in his hands. "I have some healing for Gaius too," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

    Quintus barred his path. "No, he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of Coryan law. " He lowered his voice and spoke to Kham conspiratorially. "If you kill him here, like this, you're no better than them."

    Kham spat out another glob of something but said nothing more.

    Gaius, still strapped to the table, looked down over his chest. "I had nothing to do with this!"

    "We heard you," said Quintus grimly. "We heard everything. Tell us who did this."

    "The Vivisectionist! He's obsessed with discovering the physical reasons as to why Val have special powers and humans do not."

    "And who were those men?"

    "The Acolytes of the Flesh. They came to the ancient temple and discovered the Holy Book of the Tormentor of Flesh." Gaius nodded in Kham's direction. "But they had me under a spell!"

    "Under a spell, you say," Quintus exchanged glances with Kham.

    "Yes, those dolls," Gaius whispered, "they talk!"

    Beldin picked up one of the dolls. "They seem to be harmless now."

    The doll's head spun around and leaned in towards Beldin's bearded face. "You have meddled with affairs far beyond your reckoning for the last time!" it said in guttural tones. Then it burst into flames, singing Beldin's beard.

    "That's it," said Beldin with a huff. He threw the flaming doll to the ground and crushed it under his heel. Then he set about hacking up the dolls with his axe.

    "You must set me free, I am the nephew of General Menisis!"

    Quintus took a deep sigh as he drew his gladius.

    "What are you—what are you doing? You can't kill me! Not in front of all these witnesses!"

    Quintus shook his head, his face grim as he lifted the gladius over Gaius. Gaius' voice became a high-pitched wail as the blade came down, severing his restraints.

    He grabbed Gaius by the throat and hurled him to the ground.

    "Thank you," Gaius sobbed, "you will be rewarded!"

    "I don't want your reward," said Quintus. He dragged Gaius to his feet. "Move." Quintus turned to the others. "Let's get out of here."

    After he left, Ilmarė asked, "Why so glum? Did we not save a citizen of the Empire, as Quintus swore to do?"

    "Leave him be, elf," said Beldin. "Honor is a tricky thing."
    Last edited by talien; Monday, 3rd March, 2008 at 03:53 AM.

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Epilogue

    Quintus was talking with the members of the Legion of the Defiant Shield, Gaius cowering at his side.

    "So all the goodwill we built up with the val'Tensens is lost," said Kham with a smirk. "We're doing more damage to that family than if we let the Acolytes of the Flesh kill Gaius."

    "You can pick your friends," said Sebastian, "but you can't pick your family."

    "You can say that again," said Kham.

    "Why?" asked Sebastian, "Didn't you hear me say it the first time?"

    Kham rolled his eyes. "We need to find you a sense of humor."

    By the end of the conversation, two legionnaires grabbed Gaius roughly by the arms and dragged him off. Quintus walked over to the group.

    "Well, that's settled," said Quintus. "Kham, I'd like to hand over the collar as evidence."

    Kham thrust his hands in his pockets. "I uh…lost the collar."

    "What?"

    "I lost it."

    Quintus' face turned red. "You…lost…it?"

    "This doesn't by any chance have to do with the departure of Qolwa val'Abebi?" asked Ilmarė.

    Kham shrugged and began whistling to himself.

    Quintus shook his head, as if to clear the cobwebs. "You want to keep secrets? Fine. Where's the book?"

    "I destroyed it," said Sebastian.

    Before Quintus could say more, Acastus approached them with Oriena in tow. "Your words did not do the place justice," he said.

    "That heretical temple was a true perversion of our faith," Oriena added, her face pale.

    Ilmarė coughed into her fist at the word "perversion."

    "And what of the body?" asked Quintus.

    "It's here now. We will give her a proper burial," said Acastus. Quintus walked over to a stretcher where the mangled body of Helena Vorosa lay.

    Sebastian took Acastus aside, but Oriena followed him. "What of Elandre'?" he asked.

    "I am calling off the wedding," Acastus responded, looking curiously at Sebastian. "The val'Tensen line has fallen greatly indeed. Now if you'll excuse me, I have much to attend to." He stormed off, clearly upset at the turn of events.

    "Do you fancy Elandre'?" Oriena asked Sebastian.

    Sebastian swallowed hard. "I know when there is a grave injustice. That wedding should not have happened, so I am glad for her."

    Oriena's carefully plucked eyebrows narrowed. "And what of the book?"

    Sebastian cleared his throat. "I burned it."

    "You what?" said Oriena. "Why?"

    "Because it was a perversion of everything decent, including your religion. I thought it best that nobody ever read it again."

    Oriena sighed. "I suppose you're right. But I would have been very grateful if you were to retrieve such an important part of our history." She smiled. "Since you have been such a boon companion, would you consider escorting me back to my home in Savona?"

    Sebastian looked uncomfortable. "Well…"

    "The High Priestess of Larissa would most certainly be interested in meeting your companions. After all, you did uncover a heretical cult in our midst."

    Sebastian looked around for Quintus. Quintus had both hands raised up, his head down, kneeling in prayer before the corpse of the former legionnaire.

    "I'll have to check with the others, but I don't see why not."

    "Then I will consider it done," said Oriena with a sly smile. "I will feel safer with you protecting me."

    Kham shook his head in disbelief as he watched Oriena hug Sebastian. "How does a freak like that get all the women?"

    "He's kind and loyal," said Ilmarė, staring at Quintus. "Some women look for those traits in a mate."

    Kham caught her gaze. "Even Elorii?"

    She looked at him sideways. "What happened to your eyes?"

    Kham looked down as he polished his lenses and placed them on his head. "Let's just say," he said with a slight smile, "I'm seeing things with a new perspective."

    He put one arm around Beldin's shoulder and steered him away from the conversation. "I've got this fine blade that I think Master Elabac might be interested in…"

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    Portrait of Ilmare

    Well, here we are at the end of 2004. We played another game just before Christmas vacation that I'm still working on. I'll have an update some time in 2005 probably. In the mean time, here's my attempt at drawing Ilmare.

    This picture is a composite of a graphic my wife uses as her portrait on her character sheet, the costume she wore on Halloween, and a picture of a female elf in the Codex Arcanis. The elves have an Elfquest-type look, with a more flattened face which I think makes them look different from typical elves.

    Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed the story so far. I have no idea how far we'll go with this, but we plan to enjoy the ride along the way. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for 2005!
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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Introduction

    Happy New Year! Welcome to the new series of 2005 updates in our Arcanis campaign.

    This is the third Hard Point of the tournament module, "The Seeds of Our Destruction," written by Henry Lopez and set in the Arcanis setting. You can read more about Arcanis at http://www.onaraonline.org. Our cast of characters includes:

    · Quintus Aurelius Ignatius (human Clr3), played by Mike Tresca (that's me): http://michael.tresca.net
    · Kham Val'Abebi (val Rog1/PsiW2), played by Jeremy Ortiz: http://www.dreamsculptor.com/index1.html
    · Ilmarė Galen (elf Brd3), played by Amber Tresca (my wife)
    · Sebastian Arnyal (dark-kin Sor2), played by George Webster.
    · Beldin (dwarf Ftr2), played by Joe Lalumia.
    · Vlad Martell (human Ftr2), played by Matt Hammer.

    Our DM is Robert Taylor, a gaming legend in his own time: http://www.storyboardz.net.

    This is one of those scenarios where the majority of our characters were uncomfortable and out of place. Traveling to Sweet Savona is like going to Mardis Gras, and if you're not there to party it's a little weird. Being a female makes it even more awkward (Amber was not thrilled about most of the adventure).

    That said, this scenario is very dark and moody. It's a real murder mystery that unfortunately doesn't quite let you solve the murder (that's for the next scenario, ya see). I liken it to a 70's cop show, complete with cheesy "wakichika, wakichika" soundtrack in the background. When Quintus runs off down the street to chase the bad guy, you can just hear the music thrumming in the background.

    Ironically, Ilmarė had a lot to do with the plot, because she's an Elorii. Similarly, Kham has a fun time in Savona (nobody's surprised, right?). And really, this is Sebastian's show…he gets the opportunity to be the kind, caring, creepy guy to lots of women while Quintus gets squeezed to a pulp.

    This adventure allowed us lots of role-playing opportunities and emphasized just how awkward Quintus is when he's out of his element. I mean, for most of it he runs around without a spear OR a shield. The horror!

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Prologue

    "I don't recall agreeing to go to Savona," said Ilmarė, her arms crossed.

    "The sooner we get out of here, the better," said Quintus. "I get the distinct feeling we're not wanted on the val'Tensen estates any longer."

    "And with good reason," said Sebastian. "The rest of you don't have to go if you don't want to."

    Ilmarė rolled her eyes. "Fine. But you do realize that it's the Saturnalia ex Mille Basiare."

    Kham piped up from the nearby table, where he was laying with his chin on his hands. "That's the only reason to go to Savona!"

    Beldin arched an eyebrow. "The what?"

    "The Festival of the Thousand Kisses!" said Kham, hopping up from his seat. "It commemorates the victory of the Pantheon in the God's War."

    Ilmarė's lip curled in a sneer but nobody noticed.

    "Larissa bestowed one thousand kisses upon her husband Cadic to bring him back from the dead," said Kham.

    Someone cleared his throat, interrupting the conversation. It was a legionnaire of the Defiant Shield.

    "Duty and honor," said Quintus, putting his fist to his breast and raising it high.

    "Duty and honor," said the legionnaire. "We have captured a Nierite at the estate gates. He said he knew you."

    "Oh?" said Quintus. "What does he look like?"

    "He's wearing full plate armor," the legionnaire said. "And he's angry at being detained."

    Kham slapped his forehead. "I told Vlad that armor would get him in trouble."

    Quintus turned to the legionnaire. "Actually, he's a Milandisian. We're leaving now anyway, so he can accompany us to Savona."

    The legionnaire nodded and marched off.

    They walked outside of the estate to where Oriena's wagons were waiting. Four other pure blood Cafelans, acting as her handmaidens, accompanied her.

    Vlad greeted them with a warm smile. "How'd it go?"

    "We didn't kill any Howling Bears," said Ilmarė as the Elorii hoisted herself onto her mount.

    "We did send our host to prison though," said Kham with a smirk. "And I nearly died a couple of times."

    Vlad seemed unsurprised. "Oh," he said.

    "Was your journey productive?" asked Quintus as he climbed onto his mount.

    "Not really," said Vlad. Some of Oriena's servants helped the armored Milandisian onto his steed. "Tensions run high, but it was more a show of force than an actual mission. Still, we're not at war yet, so I guess it was a success."

    Oriena got into her wagon. "Joining us, Sebastian?" she said, with the door open.

    Sebastian looked at the horses. The horse whinnied nervously back. "Yes," he said, "I think I will."

    Kham shook his head in disbelief as Sebastian got into the carriage with five buxom women. "Unbelievable. It must be the hair."

    The wagon train started to slowly amble its way down a wide cobble stoned thoroughfare. Quintus and Ilmarė rode in front, side by side, with Vlad and Beldin behind. Kham climbed onto the carriage and grabbed hold of the reins.

    "What brought you here?" asked Quintus.

    "Another mission," Vlad said, staring southwards. "There's a missing ship of blackpowder that the Duke asked me to track down. I think it's a reward for leading the men. I mean, it is the Saturnalia after all."

    Quintus frowned. "The Saturnalia is filled with debauchery. You can lose an entire legion in Savona."

    "Speaking of free love," said Kham from behind them, "we're traveling on the Via Amare."

    "So?" asked Beldin.

    "Any couple that travels to Savona upon the Via Amare is promised true love and happiness," Kham said with a grin.

    Quintus and Ilmarė exchanged a glance. Quintus coughed and sped up his mount slightly.

    Kham leaned forward from the carriage, addressing Beldin and Vlad's backs. "You two will make a cute couple."

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 1a: Finally, Sweet Savona

    "Pardon my question, but you're not from around here, are you?" Sebastian asked the fifth of Oriena's female servants.

    The other servants were of pure Cafelan blood, with olive complexions, luxurious long black hair, and large, deep eyes. But the fifth servant had short hair and her skin was a coppery hue.

    "N-no," the servant said after Oriena nodded her permission to speak. "I'm a Myrantian."

    "Do Myrantians have names?" Sebastian asked with a hint of a smile.

    "My name is Hetshapet," she said, fingering an exotic amulet dangling from her throat. "I'm actually from Savona. I have a sister there." She shot the other servants a glance. "If anything, THEY'RE not from around here. And where are you from?"

    Sebastian smirked. "I'm not from around here either."

    Up on top of the carriage, Kham was espousing the glories of the Saturnalia ex Mille Basiare to Vlad.

    "The way it works is you run around the city bare-chested," said Kham. "And you try to get as many women as possible to kiss you."

    "Wow," said Vlad, wide-eyed. "And they do it?"

    "Oh yeah," said Kham with a wicked grin. "Of course, a little wine doesn't hurt. And the smell of Savona itself probably helps. They don't call it 'sweet' for nothing."

    When Vlad's confused expression didn't change, Quintus offered over his shoulder, "Some say that Sweet Savona's scent is a mild hallucinogenic, mixed with Helvasta."

    Kham rolled his eyes. "All business, all the time. You're no fun Quintus."

    "In a city like Savona, letting your guard down can lead to trouble. I prefer to celebrate this time of year by giving gifts to loved ones, not drunken debauchery."

    Kham waved him off. "So anyway, all these women wear red lipstick, so you can count how many kisses you've accumulated."

    "What do you win if you have the most kisses?" asked Vlad.

    "You get the title of Consort of Larissa."

    "That's it?" asked Vlad. "Just a title?"

    In front of them, Ilmarė snorted in a decidedly unladylike manner. "The Consort of Larissa stays in the Temple of Larissa for an entire week."

    Vlad looked back at Kham for guidance.

    "The Consort of Larissa officiates in certain select ceremonies sacred to the Smiling Goddess."

    Vlad blinked. "Wow," was all he said.

    "Don't get any ideas," said Quintus. "We're on a mission and we'll see it through to the end."

    When Quintus wasn't looking, Kham parroted Quintus' speech.

    Without looking up, Quintus said, "I saw that."

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 1b: Finally, Sweet Savona

    Sweet Savona's city gate swung into view as they rounded a bend, but they smelled they city long before they could see it. The fragrance was neither too pungent nor too cloying, but just sweet enough to entice travelers into its gates.

    The streets were festooned with colorful stringers and banners, letting everyone known of the Saturnalia's imminent arrival. Everywhere they turned, small bridges linked the city together. Sweet Savona was actually a series of small islands, strung together like a string of pearls. Passengers were ferried from the main island down the Grand Canal to the other parts of the city.

    The small caravan of Larissan pilgrims dismounted and entered through the Porta Amare, Savona's main gate. At the center of the city was their destination, a ziggurat with an apex crowned by a large brazier that burned the sacred incense of the Smiling Goddess.

    Kham nudged Vlad. "The Temple of Larissa," he said.

    They took a scarlet lacquered gondola to the temple and smoothly approached a paved landing occupied by a smiling and laughing crowd.

    Oriena stepped onto the platform ahead of her servants. All of them seem relieved, even the reserved Hetshapet. Sebastian escorted Oriena onto the main road of the city.

    "This is the Via Risum," Oriena said to Sebastian. "It is also known as the Way of Laughter."

    Sebastian looked around. "It seems appropriate."

    The road leading to the Larissan temple was a miniature festival unto itself. The Via was lined with open aired Tavernas, where sweet meats and fine red Savonan wines flowed like Yariss' beard. Small vendors plied their wares along the street, selling anything from small handcrafted goods to fine delicacies, from masks to garish garments for the upcoming Saturnalia.

    Quintus shot Kham a look. "Stay focused," he said.

    Kham pretended he didn't hear him.

    Oriena led them unerringly through the temple's maze-like interior, passing various chambers and shrines. In one chamber, a fountain flowed with heady, golden wine. In another, the chamber was filled with large, soft cushions and oversized divans. Suggestive murals adorned the walls, depicting scenes that appeared to be nigh biological impossibilities.

    "Normally," Oriena explained, "the lady Meliza val'Sheem resides at the Governor's Palace, but during religious festivities she can be found here."

    Oriena continued up a marble staircase to the top floor of the Temple. They passed through a small foyer into a large room that took up the entire floor. A veritable army of attendants, scribes, and sycophants scurried about the chamber like bees attending their queen.

    In the center of the ordered chaos was Meliza herself. Although she was an older woman, she had a vivaciousness and sensuality that a woman half her age could barely muster. Her long, dark hair, braided with twin golden twine, cascaded down her left shoulder. Meliza wore a diaphanous scarlet robe that left little to the imagination as she reclined upon a gilded throne, crafted to resemble a peacock. One immaculately manicured hand rested upon the head of a large black leopard.


    "All hail Meliza val'Sheem, Governor of the province of Cafela and High Priestess of the Temple of Larissa!" shouted a servant.

    Oriena bowed and her servants followed suit. Everyone inclined their head except Ilmarė.

    "Holy One, I present to you Sebastian Arnyal of Canceri." She rubbed Sebastian's arm, "Sebastian and his companions helped root out and destroy the heretical cult in Coryan. He safely escorted us to here."

    Quintus glanced over at Ilmarė. She shrugged her shoulders in response. "Burning a book apparently makes you a hero."

    Seated before Meliza in a comfortably cushioned mahogany chair was a familiar man dressed in a finely tailored white toga.

    "Decimus?" asked Quintus in surprise.

    "Aurelius Ignatius!" Decimus exclaimed, rising to his feet. "It's good to see you." Decimus turned to face Meliza. "Holy One, it appears that the Lady of Fate has seen fit to have my path and that of these fine citizens cross again. I have had dealings with them before and they were most capable and discreet. Perhaps they may be able to assist my employer yet again."

    Meliza appraised them through half-lidded eyes. She said but one word: "Dahhhhhling."

    The governor waved her hand in a vague gesture that could have meant she was impressed with their accomplishments or that they should be dragged out and hanged.

    Decimus cleared his throat. "Yes, well. Suffice it to say, lady and gentlemen, that a shipment meant for my employer was broken into. The good senator is a collector of antiquity and wishes to recover three items that were stolen from a crate I was to receive on his behalf. The items were a helm, a staff, and an urn from an ancient civilization, possibly Elorii."

    Ilmarė, who was watching some of the servants through barely concealed disdain, snapped her head about to focus on Decimus.

    "I wish to hire you to reclaim these artifacts and bring the thieves to justice," said Decimus. "Can I once again count upon your efficiency and discreetness?"

    Quintus stepped forward. "Having successfully discharged our duty here, we will take this task-"

    Beldin stepped in front of Quintus with hands on hips. "How much will you pay?"

    Decimus favored Beldin with a smile. "Ah, I do not believe we've met. Well, master dwarf, I can extend 200 imperials for the safe return of the goods."

    Satisfied, Beldin nodded.

    "We'll do it," said Ilmarė.

    "It's done then," said Decimus. "One of the Governor's assistants will escort you over to Dock 18, in Little Savona. It's just off the coast."

    "Excellent," said Quintus. "Let us… "

    The legionnaire looked at his companions. Sebastian was too busy saying goodbye to Oriena to respond. Beldin was in conference with the assistant. Ilmarė stood with arms crossed, facing Quintus. Vlad and Kham were missing.

    "Where's Kham and Vlad?"

    Vlad walked in with one arm holding up Kham, who half-stumbled out into the chamber.

    "Hi guys!" said Kham, a smile plastered across his face. He started to walk towards the black leopard with hand outstretched. "Oooh, nice kitty."

    Vlad yanked him back.

    "Don't tell me…" said Quintus.

    "The fountain of wine," Ilmarė finished.

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 2a: Sitting on the Dock of Savona

    A short trip across the Savonan Channel by barge brought them to the docks of Little Savona. Being early evening, the amount of activity on the dock was almost non-existent. Most ships had already released their cargo ferried their crews over to the mainland. The few people still around were dockworkers taking care of some last minute business.

    The assistant ushered them over to the Captain of the Guard in the warehouse where the merchandise was being held for transport.

    The warehouse was a large wooden structure with only one door. The back end of the warehouse was filled with creates and numbered 1 to 30. One create in particular was pulled out of the ordered stacks.

    The Captain, a young woman in her mid-thirties with average Cafelan looks, stalked over to them. "Who are you?" she said.

    "I am Quintus Aurelius Ignatius, Signifer of the Legion of the Triumphant Rays of the Invisible Sun. I am on a mission at the behest of the Governor to investigate the theft."

    The Captain was unconvinced. "You have a writ?"

    The assistant stepped forward and handed it to the Captain, then excused himself.

    "Ah," she said. "I am Captain Priscani. We're questioning this dockworker," she pointed at a man surrounded by two other guards.

    "You believe he had something to do with the theft?" asked Quintus.

    "He was one of the dockworkers on duty until early this morning. He says that he, along with most of the skeleton crew manning the docks late last night, fell asleep. In fact, it appears that everyone on duty fell asleep last night. He swears he knows nothing about the robbery or the murder."

    "The what?" asked Sebastian.

    "The murder. The Dockmaster was found with his throat torn out in his office."

    Quintus glanced into the smaller room that was contained within the warehouse proper.

    "Did you examine the body?" asked Quintus sternly.

    "No."

    "Were there any signs of forced entry?"

    "We haven't-"

    "Well what have you been doing all this time, Captain?" Quintus snapped. "We'll take the investigation over from here."

    Quintus turned his back on Flavia. "Ilmarė and Kham, check the lock. Vlad and I will check the corpse. Beldin, check the crate. Sebastian, see if you can find out more from the dockworker."

    Flavia looked as if she wanted to cut Quintus in half. "Sergeant Aquillus will assist in the investigation," she nodded towards one of the guards. Then she marched out of the room with the remaining guard in tow.

    Inside the Dockmaster's office was a scene of utter carnage. He was face down on his desk in a pool of blood.

    Vlad kept his hand on the hilt of his sword as he looked around the room. Quintus turned the body over.

    The Dockmaster's throat had been torn sideways and it looked as if he had been thrown onto the desk after he was dead, discarded like a rag doll.

    "Something powerful did this. Something with claws," Quintus said, pointing at the Dockmaster's ragged throat.

    Vlad nodded. "Maybe…a leopard?"

    Quintus looked up at Vlad. "Perhaps. But this attack shows signs of intelligence. Animals go for the throat and great cats rake downwards with their hind claws. His left arm looks broken. I'd expect bite marks elsewhere on his body. Whatever attacked the Dockmaster, it went straight for his throat."

    "Look here," said Vlad. He tapped a sheaf of paper. "There's a log of every item here in these shipping documents. The crates were supposed to be forwarded to Coryan and consigned to Decimus, but their place of origin is blank."

    They went back to the center of the warehouse to find the others waiting.

    Beldin reported out first. "The crate is where they left it, in the middle of the room. It's empty except for the straw used to pack its contents."

    Quintus nodded. "Kham?"

    Kham rubbed his head. "Well, the door to the warehouse was locked, but somebody picked it. He rubbed his finger against his thumb. "There were scrapes and shavings around the lock."

    "Interesting. Sebastian?"

    "The watchman is missing. He was a Myrantian youth who was recently hired. According to the workers, he was a bit on the thin side and had the same overall look of an average Myrantian. The only distinguishing mark was a tattoo of a black teardrop off the corner of his left eye."

    "So the Myrantian is our only lead," Quintus said with a sigh.

    "Not quite," said Ilmarė. "Someone is watching us from the crow's nest of a nearby docked vessel."

    "Oh really?" Quintus walked over to the doorway. Ilmarė pointed to a figure that ducked as it realized it was spotted.

    "Simple enough, he's not going anywhere," said Quintus.

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 2b: Sitting on the Dock of Savona

    They marched over to the docked ship. No one else was on board. Above them, a head bobbed in and out of sight.

    Quintus turned to his companions. "Okay, so who's going to climb up there?"

    Ilmarė crossed her arms. "Not I. That's suicide."

    "Beldin?"

    "Dwarves aren't climbers," said Beldin with a snort.

    "Vlad?"

    "In this armor? It'll take me more time to get out of it."

    "Sebastian?"

    Sebastian narrowed his eyes as he peered up at the crow's nest. "No thank you."

    "Kham?" Quintus muttered something under his breath as he realized Kham was missing. "Where did he go now?"

    No one answered. "Fine," he said. "Well, I'm not going to peel off my armor to get up there either."

    Quintus looked up again, only to see a young boy's face peering down at him.

    He took a deep breath. "Boy, get down here! We're not going to hurt you!"

    Upon Quintus' command, the boy clambered down out of the crow's nest and landed lightly on his feet before them. He was obviously scared out of his wits.

    Quintus smiled and got down on one knee. "How long were you up there, son?"

    "Since my father told me to hide."

    "When did he tell you to hide?"

    "In the wee hours of the night, a thick white fog came in," said the boy. "It put everyone to sleep. Father told me to hide until he came for me. I went up this mast and waited."

    "And then?"

    "Then a black-hulled ship, with dark sails furled, docked in an empty slip."

    Sebastian leaned down next to Quintus. "A black-hulled ship? Are you sure?"

    The boy nodded, his cheeks streaked with old tears. "Yes. A man came off the ship and spoke with father. Then father took some papers from him and pointed to that warehouse." The boy pointed to the warehouse. "Then the…things came."

    Sebastian cursed in Cancerite. "Harvesters," was all he said.

    "The things were all spiny and scaly. They started carrying big, heavy crates from off the ship to the warehouse. Then the man had one of the scaly creatures grab father while another slashed at him with its claws. Then I hid because I was afraid."

    Vlad shook his head. "So much for the leopard theory."

    "Can I see my father now?"

    Quintus stood up. "I think maybe he should see his mother," he said quietly.

    "I'll take him," said Sebastian. He patted the boy on the head. "Do you know how to get to your home?"

    The boy nodded. "What happened to father?"

    Sebastian's lips became a thin line. "It may be best if your mother explains," he said.

    The boy's home was not far from the warehouse. Sebastian rapped lightly on the door.

    A grieving woman, wrapped in a dark black veil, answered the door.

    "Are you the wife of the Dockmaster?"

    She nodded and then saw the boy step out from behind Sebastian.

    "Oh thank Larissa!" she shrieked, clutching the boy to her. "Thank you, at least I have him."

    "Mother? What happened?" the boy asked in confusion.

    Sebastian extended a purse full of coins. "Here. Please take these 50 imperials. Spend it on whatever you require."

    The woman took it wordlessly. "You are a very kind man," she whispered. She kneeled down to talk to her son.

    Sebastian shut the door and turned on his heel.

    He walked quickly away, but not fast enough—Sebastian heard the wail of sorrow echoing through the streets behind him. It was an all too familiar sound…the same gut-wrenching grief that had overcome Sebastian when his mother sacrificed herself to help him escape a Harvester attack.

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 3a: Re-acquaintance With a New Friend

    Their next stop was to find the Myrantian youth, who lived in a ghetto on the southern end of the city. Immigrants from Abessios came up to Sulpecci and Savona looking for an easier way of life, but what they got was squalor and ill treatment.

    "Where were you, anyway?" Quintus asked Kham. His gaze was focused on a smudge of red lipstick on Kham's collarbone.

    Kham buttoned up his shirt. "Taking in the local sights," he said with a straight face. "But enough about me, you need to finish changing your clothes."

    "I don't see why I have to change and no one else does," said Quintus.

    Quintus had, after much convincing, changed clothes into his "normal" everyday wear. His usual longspear, lorica segmata and shield were left behind. He only wore his gladius and a commoner's tunic.

    "That's because you represent the law in Savona. The rest of us, even a Nierite in full armor, are just strangers here." He looked at Quintus in the full-length mirror. "That's a little better," said Kham. "Now, try to stop walking like you're in the military."

    Quintus looked at him sideways. "What are you talking about? I'm totally relaxed when I walk."

    Ilmarė snorted.

    Quintus turned around to look at the others. "What?"

    Sebastian coughed and looked away. Beldin stroked his beard and said nothing.

    "Well, you could maybe…loosen up a little bit," said Vlad.

    Quintus took a deep breath. Then he imperceptibly lowered one shoulder.

    "There, now I'm relaxed."

    Kham rolled his eyes. "Just stand in the back and let the normal people do the talking."

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 3b: Re-acquaintance With a New Friend

    The squalor of the Myrantian portion of Savona was well hidden from casual visitors and tourists. The pavement was uneven and broken in places. The walls of the building were layered in soot and dirt. Even the bridges connecting the very small island were cracked. The fragrance of Savona's holy incense could not dispel the stink of human misery.

    Sergeant Aquillus led them onward. "Be careful," he said. "This is not a safe place to be after hours."

    Heads from the shadows peeked out from garbage strewn alleyways, but practiced eyes noted their bearing. Thugs turned away to hunt weaker prey.

    Aquillus pointed to a sign swaying languidly above a splintering wooden door. "That is the ancient tongue of the Myrantians," he said. It read, “um'Shakti."

    "Um'Shakti means 'cracked or broken god'," said Ilmarė.

    Aquillus nodded. "The um'Shakti was one of the heretical gods they worshipped before their deliverance from barbarism. Yet, the old ways are sometimes hard to dispel, even after centuries."

    Ilmarė sneered at Aquillus back. "The new ways are not as entrenched as you may believe."

    Aquillus did not reply. Here merely pulled his cloak closer around him against the chilly evening and stood back from the door.

    "Not joining us?" asked Vlad.

    The sergeant shook his head. "These vermin can smell a guardsman, even when in disguise."

    "In that case, maybe you should stay out here too," said Kham to Quintus.

    "Bah! I can blend in with the best of them!" said Quintus, a little too loudly.

    Kham bit his lip. "Okay, fine. Just…don't say anything."

    The Taverna, unlike the many they were accustomed to in the Coryan Empire, had no outside tables. Given the bleak surroundings, it was probably for the best.

    Inside, patrons sat upon cushions at tables that lay close to the ground. A smoky pall hung over the entire room, complementing the sullen nature of the Taverna's inhabitants. The scent of rank sweat mixed with that of cinnamon in a nauseating combination.

    A traditional bar extended across the west side of the room. A heavyset man, his face glistening from a layer of oily perspiration, nodded as they entered. At the far end of the bar, three young Myrantian women stood next to a small vertical shrine of Larissa.

    "Here for the one of the girls then?" the bartender asked. "If you want one of them to bestow Larissa's Holy Communion, it'll cost you."

    Kham stepped forward before anyone else could open their mouth.

    "We're looking for a Myrantian boy," said Kham, sidling up to the bar. "He has a teardrop tattooed under one eye."

    The bartender pulled up a mug. "Going to have something to drink?"

    Kham nodded. "Sure. We'll all have a mug of a'Talkin."

    The bartender smiled a gap-toothed smile and served up the hot, bitter mead. After everyone had their drink, the bartender leaned forward.

    "That kid was always pestering one of the priestesses. Ask Maatkare," he pointed at one of the girls with a jab of his thumb. "But I warn you, any time spent with the girls will cost you."

    Sebastian wiped his mouth and stepped forward. "How much?"

    "25 imperials."

    Sebastian nodded. "Fine," he plunked down 25 coins into his empty mug.

    Maatkare was a very pretty girl, not more than 17 summers old. She was clad in a diaphanous short robe that left little to the imagination. Maatkare exchanged a sad little smile with Sebastian as he walked over to her.

    "I would like to speak with you for a moment," Sebastian said, returning her smile. "I'm looking for a boy with a teardrop tattoo."

    Her eyes lit up. "Has anything happened to him?"

    "We don't know. He has disappeared and we want to ask him questions about missing cargo and…a death."

    "A death? I haven't seen Senmet all day."

    "Is that his name, Senmet?" Sebastian asked. "He may be in trouble. If you can tell me where I can find him—"

    "I don't think so," she said quickly. "Now if you have business upstairs that's fine, but I'm done talking."

    Just then, a woman swathed in an expensive robe and hooded cloak entered the taverna. The scent of expensive perfume wafted around her.

    The woman pulled back her hood. Sebastian recognized her.

    "Hetshapet?" he said in surprise.

    "Maatkare?" asked Hetshapet, striding over to them.

    Sebastian looked between them. "I take it you two know each other?"

    Hetshapet hugged Maatkare tightly to her. "Sister! I have enough to buy you from the Myrantians!"

    Maatkare wept as she clung to her older sister.

    "T-they haven't been by the taverna this evening," she said.

    "Hey!" the bartender said, leaning forward. "I don't know what this sudden interest with Maatkare is all about, but nobody is taking her without Menu's authorization. Not you," he pointed at Kham, "and not you either." He pointed at Hetshapet.

    Quintus took a deep breath. "Then maybe it's time we had a little chat with this Menu."

    Kham glanced sideways at him. "I thought you were going to not talk today."

    Maatkare wiped her eyes. "I-I don't know if I can trust you," she said.

    Sebastian put one hand on Hetshapet's shoulder. "These are my friends," he said softly. "If anyone can make this right, they can. But we can't do it without you. Maatkare must let us know what happened to Senmet."

    After a whispered exchange between Maatkare and Hetshapet, the younger sister turned to Sebastian. "I will tell you all that I know."

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 4a: Massacre at the Old Tenement Building

    "It appears that Senmet was a recent émigré from Abessios and fell in with the wrong people," Sebastian explained as Aquillus led them to the tenement building. A garbage-strewn canal sloughed by, emitting the foul odor of human refuse as they crossed the final bridge to their destination.

    "That would be Menu's gang," Kham said.

    "Right," said Sebastian. "Senmet was always very kind to her. He even protected Maatkare when one of her clients got violent."

    "How chivalrous," said Ilmarė.

    "But what was he doing at the docks?" asked Vlad.

    "He was letting the other thugs in whenever a big shipment of goods arrived," said Sebastian.

    "We're here," said Aquillus.

    Looming before them was a seven-story building that looked like it might collapse at any moment. A gust of wind swirled by, tossing up a small amount of soot. A piece of masonry flaked off the top of the building.

    "You want us to go in THERE?" Kham asked in disbelief.

    Sebastian nodded. "The basement, specifically."

    Few lanterns were lit in the dead of night. Even the drunk derelicts were missing from nearby streets.

    Vlad kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and made his way inside.

    The air was warm inside the building. A lantern's meager light illuminated the hallway. From behind a termite-infested door, a child wailed in hunger. Next door, a couple was having a loud argument.

    They walked past those scenes of misery into the basement area. A single light illuminated the steps below.

    "Careful," said Ilmarė. "It's far too silent for a basement filled with men."

    Vlad reached the bottom step first. He stood, transfixed.

    It was a scene of savage carnage. The bodies of several men lay strewn about the room, broken and shattered like rag dolls long forgotten by their owners.

    Quintus stepped past Vlad and crouched down to look at the bodies. "Snapped bones, skulls and chests crushed. Men didn't do this."

    "Don't be so sure," said Ilmarė. "There is much evil that men can do."

    "He means they're not strong enough," said Kham. "I've seen gang wars. They're fast and messy. Not like this. This is…deliberate."

    Beldin rolled one ragged body over and pulled forth a staff. "I think we found our missing staff."

    "And the helm." Vlad reached into the bodies and lifted a helm with the tip of his sword.

    "But no urn?" asked Quintus.

    "Well, parts of it," said Sebastian. In one corner were the remains of a thin ceramic shell. The inside of the shell smelled like rotten eggs and the interior was covered with a thin layer of effluvia.

    "And the boy?" asked Quintus.

    Vlad shook his head. "No sign of him. If Senmet's dead, his body isn't here."

    Ilmarė was staring at the helmet. "The fool Decimus was right," she whispered out loud to herself. "These artifacts are of Elorii make. I remember…"

    The world swam and then all was dark.

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    The Seeds of Our Destruction - Part 4b: Massacre at the Old Tenement Building

    Ilmarė was no longer Ilmarė in the swirl of memories that was the birthright of all Elorii. She was Kildarė, a scout in service of the Nevanos the Slayer.

    Nevanos was dressed in full battle regalia, his armor spattered with black ichor. Two large, sculpted leaves swept up on the sides of the helm and a single white feather, tipped with red, acted as its plume. Nevanos prided himself on being visible on the battlefield to ally and enemy alike, even though it singled him out as a target.

    A huge bastard sword was in both of his hands. Nevanos was breathing hard as he yanked his blade out of the body of a massive insect-like humanoid.

    "Try your mind tricks now, bug," said Nevanos. He rapped his helmet with a gloved knuckle. "You'll find Marokene magic is much more powerful than you anticipated."

    Nevanos pointed at Kildarė with his sword. "Kildarė! Report!"

    "These are the last, sir," she said. "We have destroyed all of their eggs." She had the remains of a slime-covered shell in one hand. "With the death of the queen, the ilHuan threat will finally be eliminated."

    "Don't you mean murdered?" asked Endrade, walking up behind her. His hands and staff were covered in the same black ichor. "Nevanos, this is wrong. Whatever quarrel we have with these people, they have as much a right to live as we do. This is no longer a war, you have turned it into some sort of mad quest for genocide."

    Nevanos stalked over to him. "You would rob me of my victory?" He sneered at Endrade. "But you are correct, I have been selfish. The Ardakene should also share in the glory."

    He looked over at the insectoid body. "The ilHuan queen is still alive. Finish it off."

    Endrade clutched his staff with both hands. Nevanos grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved the Ardakene towards the body of the ilHuan.

    Endrade stumbled over to the queen's body. Its chest rose in long, shuddering gasps.

    "Go on, finish it," said Nevanos. "Then you can be known in the history books as Endrade the Merciful."

    Endrade placed his staff on the ilHuan queen's multifaceted head, as if to strike her. It was a gnarled staff made of a single branch of wood, topped by the carving of an Elorii maiden's head. A soft gold glow emanated from its tip and flowed across the ilHuan's body.

    "You mean to heal it!" Nevanos shouted. " Now I have proof of your treachery!"

    "It is true," Endrade shouted back. "I have healed all who needed it, Elorii and ilHuan alike. This war is wrong, Nevanos, and you have gone mad with power!"

    Nevanos pointed at Kildarė. "As Marokene warlord, I find Endrade guilty of treason in service to the Elorii Empire. Execute him."

    Kildarė reluctantly took her bow off of her shoulder and knocked an arrow. She took careful aim at Endrade's head.

    "I don't want to do this, Endrade," she said through clenched teeth. "Put the staff down."

    Endrade smiled up at her. The glow grew stronger from the staff as the Queen's wounds began to close. "You knew me well, once. You know I can't."

    Tears streamed down Kildarė’s face. "It doesn't have to be this way!"

    Nevanos walked up behind her. "Do it," he said.

    "We have hidden the eggs in a place where you will never find them!" Endrade said, the whites of his eyes showing as he gazed unflinchingly at Kildarė's arrow. "They will survive in spite of your mad-"

    A shuddering shaft sprouted from Endrade's forehead. He fell backwards, finally silenced.

    "Well done," Nevanos said from behind Kildarė, one hand on her shoulder. "You will get a commendation for this."

    Kildarė whirled around, her bow forgotten, fists clenched. Just then, the ilHuan Queen rose up on its haunches behind Nevanos…

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