Arcanis: Gonnes, Sons, and Treasure Runs (COMPLETED) - Page 4




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    Awesome writing -- keep it coming.
    (That applies to both Mike and the module authors.)

 

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Prologue

    "How do I look?" asked Vlad, arrayed in the bright red full plate worn by the Knight of Nier.

    "You look ridiculous," said Kham. "Everyone's going to think you're a Nierite."

    Vlad stuck his chin out. "So? This is the most finely crafted armor I've ever seen. I can deal with anyone who wants to make an issue of it with this."

    He waved a silvery longsword. It was one of Elabac's "failures." Engraved on the blade was the word "emtavas" and the personal seal of Elabac.

    "What does 'emtavas' mean, anyway?" asked Quintus, looking at the same inscription on the blade of his spear.

    "It means brother in arms," said Sebastian, entering the room. He was dressed head to toe in a black coat, a scarf wrapped around his neck—even his hands were covered in fine black gloves. Beldin trailed behind him.

    "Sheesh, you must burn easily," said Kham.

    Sebastian stared hard at him. "More than you know," he said.

    "Emtavas can also mean friend," said Beldin, smiling sheepishly up at them. The dwarf was wearing a backpack, with a large battleaxe strapped across it.

    "So, now both of you are coming with us?" asked Quintus.

    "If you'll have me," Beldin responded. "Master Elabac has appointed Maten as his chief apprentice. There is no longer any need for me to stay in Solanos Mor." He almost seemed sad.

    "So, he's kicking you out because Maten's the better weaponsmith?" Kham was fingering something on his wrist. "That sucks."

    "He's not kicking me out," said Beldin. "I chose to leave. I can do much good outside of Solanos Mor's halls."

    "Sure, sure. You're starting to sound like Quintus." Kham jabbed a thumb in Quintus' direction. As he lifted his arm up, the sleeve of his greatcoat slipped down to reveal something metal on his wrist.

    "What's that?" asked Vlad.

    Kham put his arm down and pulled the sleeve of his greatcoat down further over his left wrist. "Nothing."

    Vlad's eyes narrowed. "I'm not the only one robbing the dead. That's the bracers that were on the Nierite sorcerer!"

    Kham crossed his arms. "Fine. Whatever. These babies will keep me alive and they're a lot easier to conceal than your armor. And I still think you look ridiculous."

    Vlad shrugged in his armor. "We're wearing what we need to wear to survive. That's as good an excuse as any. What about you two?"

    Quintus snorted. "A legionnaire wears only what the Empire supplies him. I'd rather sell the booty than wear it."

    Vlad turned to Ilmarė. "And you, Ilmarė?"

    Ilmarė had her back to them. She spun around quickly and tucked the priest's red-gold holy symbol into her blouse. "Nothing of value," she said.

    "You do not need to loot bodies when you have Master Elabac's blades. The weapons you have are superior to anything ever crafted in Onara," said Beldin with pride. "Let me demonstrate." He put one hand out to Vlad, who dutifully handed over his sword.

    Beldin plucked one long hair from his beard and threw it. It gingerly wafted its way towards the ground.

    There was a flash, and then two pieces of hair were floating downward.

    Beldin handed the blade back to Vlad. "It will puncture even Altherian steel," he said, glancing at Kham.

    Kham opened his greatcoat to show four holsters, two under his armpits, two at his ribcage. "You've got to reach me first. Thanks to the money we made off the booty," he tapped the forth gonne's handle, "Alita has joined my happy family."

    "We have enough members of our happy family already," muttered Quintus. "If you two are going to keep up with us, you'll need to carry your fair share of the load." He paused a beat. "And Kham's too, come to think of it."

    Sebastian looked at Kham in dismay. "Load?"

    "Menisis val'Tensen is a general in the Coryani Empire. We should all be on our best behavior in his presence. It is a great honor to be invited to an Imperial Hunt."

    "Maybe for you," Ilmarė said under her breath.

    Quintus turned to Ilmarė, hands on hips. "General Menisis val'Tensen is the Empire's greatest hero. Many courtiers and sycophants would kill to have the opportunity to attend any function hosted by the great general. It's only because we rescued Senator Tensen-Balin's son that we're invited at all."

    Kham rolled his eyes in response. "Don't worry Quintus, with our new arms and armor, we'll look appropriately heroic. Speaking of which…I don't think we ever got paid—"

    Vlad shot him a look.

    Kham hunched down. "Just kidding. Tell Master Elabac that the blades are a far better payment."

    The dwarf looked at him sideways but said nothing.

    "Learning to ignore these two is a requirement for joining us," said Ilmarė. "You'll do just fine. Now, for the most important matter at hand: is there anywhere in Marketplace that sells bara lawr bread?"
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 1a: Meeting the Guests

    The trip through the region of Ulfila was both long and arduous. The region's harsh and unforgiving terrain, filled with treacherous paths and rockslides, kept everyone on their toes. The caravan had just finished the one-day journey northeastwards, stopping at Nevanne.

    "We'll branch off from the caravan southwards to Val'Tensen estates," said Quintus, staring south at the majestic mountains that slowly trickled into hills all around them.

    "Great. Anything to get out of these mountains," said Kham. He looked at Beldin. "I don't know how you people manage to survive. That place," he gestured with a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Solanos Mor, "is a deathtrap."

    Beldin was also peering out at the hills, his bushy brows furrowed. "I prefer four walls around me to open space. You know where your enemies and allies are in the womb of the Corlathians. Out there…" he nodded in the southeasterly direction, "there is nowhere to hide."

    After dismounting and gathering enough belongings for a night's stay, they began a search for a suitable inn. Quintus led the way, with Vlad and Ilmarė behind. Beldin and Sebastian stuck together by followed them at a discrete distance. Kham sighed and strolled behind them.

    Quintus stood with hands on hips, staring up at the weathered exterior of an unnamed building. "This place looks as good as any," he said, not entirely convinced.

    "It doesn't look any worse than the others," said Ilmarė.

    Kham shoved past them through the entryway. "You know," he said out of the corner of his mouth, "just because we all travel together doesn't mean we have to stay at the same inn."

    As he entered, Kham nodded towards a patron who imperceptible nodded back.

    "Been here before?" said Ilmarė, the only one who noticed the gesture.

    Kham froze. He looked sideways at Ilmarė but said nothing. Then he shoved his hands in the pockets of his greatcoat, shrugging his shoulders as he walked in the opposite direction of the nodding patron.

    A longspear blocked his way. "Kham," said Quintus. "Stay out of trouble."

    "I can take care of myself," Kham replied. "But you should probably watch out for the rest of your little entourage."

    Quintus arched an eyebrow. Kham nodded over the signifer's shoulder.

    He turned around, only to discover several Milandisian men talking excitedly to Vlad. When Quintus turned back to respond to Kham, he was gone.

    After Vlad finished speaking with the men, they filed out of the inn. He sat down in a huff and ordered a drink from the barmaid.

    Quintus sat across from Vlad and waited.

    "My Canton has been called up to investigate a disturbance in Ashvan."

    "Ashvan?" said Sebastian, joining them. "That's on the border between Milandir and Canceri.

    Vlad's expression was grim. "The Duke has hand picked a crew from my Canton to go, me included."

    "Why not send the entire Canton?" asked Ilmarė.

    "A large scale military action would provoke Canceri," said Sebastian. "With the invasion of the Nierites, too many troops could be misinterpreted as a precursor to an invasion."

    "Word of your deeds has spread," said Quintus. "It is a heavy burden to bear. You should go help your people."

    Vlad sighed, taking a long swig of his drink. "The Hunt sounds more exciting. But you're right, I have to go." He flashed a wan smile. "Kill…what are you going to hunt, anyway?"

    The blank stares confirmed his suspicion. "Well, whatever it is, kill it for me. I must leave immediately. Take care of yourselves." Vlad clasped Quintus' forearm in farewell and waved to the others before he left the inn.

    Ilmarė looked after his departure wistfully.

    Quintus nudged her with his elbow. "I get the feeling you'd rather go with him."

    The Elorii looked sideways at her human companion. "I would take a plague over Coryani politics any day."
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 1b: Meeting the Guests

    It was two days since they had begun to negotiate the trade routes and trails when finally, in the late afternoon hours, the group turned down a barely noticeable path that spilled out into a verdant valley. Just south of Nevanne, the ensconced estates of the val'Tensen lands spread out before them.

    There was a whistle behind them, a warning from a hidden sentry. Five heavily armed and armored legionnaires road up shortly after. Quintus rode ahead to speak with the vanguard.

    "The Legion of the Defiant Shield demands you state your name and business!" shouted the lead legionnaire.

    "I am Quintus Aurelius Ignatius, Signifer of the Legion of the Triumphant Rays of the Invisible Sun. I and my companions are guests of the Tensen-Balin family."

    The legionnaire squinted at Quintus. "Signifer, hmm? What proof do you have of your invitation?"

    Quintus reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a wooden box. He snapped it open, revealing a silver dagger.

    Kham, who had ridden up behind Quintus, leaned over to look at the dagger. "You kept yours? I sold mine."

    Quintus' glare stopped him from speaking further.

    "Follow us," said the lead legionnaire. He wheeled his horse about as some of the other legionnaires' mounts fell in step with the others.

    The legionnaires escorted them to the main entryway of the estate. Waiting in the doorway was a bald, heavyset man wearing a plain tunic and sandals. He wordlessly motioned for a couple of young boys to grab baggage and stable mounts.

    Sebastian was having difficulty getting his mount to stand still. The bald man took the reins.

    "Thank you," said Sebastian as the major domo led his horse away. The man simply nodded, carefully avoiding Sebastian's gaze.

    "Why does he not speak?" asked Sebastian. "Have I offended him in some way?"

    Quintus looked sideways at the Cancerite. "He is a mute," he responded. "All servants have their tongues cut out so that they cannot easily repeat what they witness."

    "And they call Coryan the cradle of civilization," Ilmarė said in disgust.

    They were ushered down a short tiled hallway to a large atrium built in the center of the house. Four massive-yet-elegant colonnades surrounded a large fountain. At its center was a huge bronze statue of the storm god Hurrian, his hands spread above him as he captured an arcing lightning bolt. Seated all around the statue were guests reclining on divans, all of them doll-like in comparison to the statue that towered over them.

    A servant was the first to greet them with a silver plate balancing several goblets of wine.

    Quintus led by example, taking a goblet from the plate.

    Kham spotted a fair-skinned young woman across the room, idly playing with her long blonde dresses. He grabbed two goblets and began sipping from one of them.

    "It is customary to sacrifice some wine to the divine patron of the household," hissed Quintus.

    Kham, in mid-sip, spat the wine back into the goblet. "Now you tell me," he muttered.

    Quintus walked up to the fountain, bowed, and poured some of his wine into the fountain. Sebastian and Beldin did likewise. Ilmarė's lip curled into a sneer as she turned the goblet's entire contents into the fountain.

    Kham looked from his two goblets to the fountain and back to the blonde woman. He flicked his fingers into one of the goblets and flicked a few droplets into the fountain. When he looked up again, Sebastian was talking to her.

    "Damn," he muttered, scanning the room.

    Quintus had joined two other older men. One wore the long dun-colored robes of the Beltinian clergy. The other wore a long, dark purple robe that covered him from chin to foot and was adorned with all manner of strange sigils and mystic amulets.

    A dark-haired beauty dressed in a diaphanous scarlet toga, cut much too short to be modest, was leaning on a tall, powerfully built man wearing dark breeches and an orange-red tunic that matched his shock of red hair.

    Kham wandered closer to her, pretending to admire the gigantic fountain. He was listening to several conversations at once.

    "I am Elandre Val'assante," said the blonde woman, "the first daughter of Prelate Acastus val'Assante of Coryan."

    "I am Sebastian Arnyal of Canceri," he said. "I could not help but notice that you seem to be very melancholy."

    Elandre smiled wanly. "Sad? Me? Not at all, I'm to be wed next month. I couldn't be happier."

    Sebastian smiled politely back. "To whom, if you don't mind me asking?"

    "Oh, to Gaius val'Tensen, the General's nephew."

    Sebastian nodded. "I am not familiar with Coryani politics."

    "Gaius is a man of noble birth and rank," Elandre said forcefully. "He shall be a most perfect a most perfect husband."

    Ilmarė stood where she was at the fountain. Beldin joined her, watching the others. "Not joining the party?" asked Beldin.

    "I see and hear enough, dwarf," said Ilmarė. "That woman that Sebastian is speaking to? She wears too much makeup. Do you know why?"

    Beldin stroked his beard thoughtfully but said nothing.

    "She is trying to cover up a bruise." She shook her head. "Human women are weak. And Kham is eavesdropping on the two lovers there."

    Kham hadn't moved from his spot. He was riveted by the conversation he was listening to, one ear cocked.

    "I hear Nierites wield huge swords," said the raven-haired woman, her ruby lips pursed. She was practically devouring the larger man with her eyes. "One must possess a strong sheath to contain its full length."

    "M-my lady," said the man, obviously flustered, "you flatter me."

    "Flatter you? I can do much more than that." She traced one finger along the man's collarbone. "Have you ever heard of the Sacrament of the Goddess of Forbidden Pleasures?"

    "No. I really shouldn't—"

    They were interrupted by Quintus' shouting.

    "All religions should be unified under the Mother Church," he said loudly. "This division is disastrous—look at the Nierite attack on Ventaka! Unity with the great nation of Coryan will ensure harmony, and religion is no different. All should return to Illiir's bosom."

    "See, here's a man who understands the importance of reintegration," said Morushun val'Ishi, standing next to Quintus.

    "Nonsense," said Garan val'Mehan, his accent betraying his Cancerite origins. "De Nihang Council has always followed de true path of unity."

    Quintus jabbed a finger at the Cancerite. "Are you implying we are heretics?"

    "Not at all," the Cancerite said with a smile on his lips. "After all, it vas your Patriarch's visdom that initiated dis integration. Are YOU implying dat his Divine Grace is erring?"

    Quintus raised one hand, finger pointing in the air, to make another dramatic point, when the tinkling of a bell echoed throughout the chamber. It was the major domo, gesturing for them to follow him.

    As they began to walk out of the room, Kham handed Beldin and Ilmarė a gold Imperial.

    "What's that all about?" asked Sebastian as he caught up with them.

    "Oh, nothing," Kham said, smiling to himself.

    "We were betting on which would happen first: Quintus would start a fight, the Larissan priestess would leave with the Nierite, or that you would insult the lady of the house."

    "What part of 'don't tell anybody about the bet' didn't you understand?" said Kham through gritted teeth.

    Ilmarė ignored him. "Stupid human politics," she said.
    Last edited by talien; Thursday, 25th November, 2004 at 05:09 AM.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 2: Of Servants and Gifts

    They were led back into the west wing of the house, up a flight of stairs to the guest quarters. The quarters of the manse were arranged down a long, "I"-shaped corridor. Each guest's equipment was delivered to his or her room, along with a servant holding evening attire for the evening. Once they were settled in, each servant ushered his charge out into the hallway.

    "Where are we going?" asked Sebastian nervously.

    "It is customary to take a bath before dining," said Quintus, "especially in the presence of Coryani nobility."

    Sebastian froze.

    "What's wrong?" asked Kham.

    "I…can't take a bath."

    "If you ask me, you need one," said Kham. "You spend all that time wrapped up in that black overcoat. I think you could use a little airing out, if you know what I mean."

    The servant tugged at his arm. Sebastian wouldn't look at him. "I can't. I have my reasons."

    He ducked back into his room and slammed the door.

    "What's his problem?" asked Kham.

    Sebastian's door slammed shut. "Perhaps he is modest," said Beldin.

    Ilmarė walked beside the men as the servants led them on.

    "Speaking of modesty…" said Quintus, his gaze flickering to Ilmarė.

    Ilmarė returned his gaze. "Don't project your human prudery on me," she said flatly. "I don't mind bathing in the presence of males."

    Kham grinned a wicked grin. "Neither do we."

    The servant tugged insistently on Ilmarė's arm. "Fine, I will adhere to your ridiculous customs," she said. And with that, she was led to a separate bath.

    A wave of steam and heat greeted her as the servant opened the large wooden door. Inside, large steaming pools of water and a servant girl waited with a horsehair brush.

    Ilmarė disrobed and let loose her long, silver hair from the headband she normally wore.

    "Mind the hair," she said, shaking her tresses out. "The purple streaks are easy to wash out and hard to dye." She lifted one handful of hair to demonstrate the purple highlights.

    The servant girl nodded mutely and went to work scrubbing her elven charge.

    There was a knock at the door. The female servant handed Ilmarė a large towel and held it up just as another man entered.

    Ilmarė stood up from the bath, stepping beyond the towel. The intruder averted his eyes and cleared his throat.

    "Yes?" she said after a moment, still dripping from the bath.

    "I-I have come with greetings from my master," he said. "My master understands that since you are Elorii, you may not have brought a gift for your host, as is customary here in the Empire."

    Ilmarė's lip curled in a sneer. "It is true that I am unfamiliar with your customs."

    "As such, my master does not wish for you to embarrass yourself this evening. My master has asked me to bring you a gift fit for the High General."

    He extended a small wooden box in her general direction.

    Ilmarė snorted and took the box from him. She opened it and looked inside for a moment. Then she snapped it shut.

    "What is this creature?"

    The servant smiled, sneaking a glance at her unclothed form. "The High General will know."

    Ilmarė shook her head. "I'm sure he will. And who is this master of yours?"

    The servant took a step back. "I have been instructed not to say," he said. "My master wishes for you not to feel obligated." And with that, he backed out of the room.

    The female servant, having given up on trying to get Ilmarė to cover herself with the towel, offered her evening clothes. In the distance, Ilmarė's sensitive hearing could make out the bell signaling dinner.

    Ilmarė held the clothes up to her body. It was a long woman's tunic, made of two wide pieces of cloth sewn together almost to the top, leaving just enough room for armholes. It was girded once under the breast and, judging from how the servant girl was dressed, was girdled again at the hips. It was also entirely impractical for combat.

    "Stupid human clothing," she said.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 3: Look Who's Coming to Dinner

    Dinner, as it turned out, was to be held in the uppermost floor of the manse. A large, roofless room offered a spectacular view of the surrounding hillsides. The view was marred only by ominous storm clouds that loomed overhead, lighting up the sky with flashes of ball lightning. Thunder rumbled off in the distance and echoed through the dining room, shaking the table such that the tableware tinkled as the guests entered.

    Ilmarė's arrival elicited a gasp from the male guests. She wore a white tunic that covered her from neck to ankle and was fastened at the shoulders with clasps. It wrapped just under her bosom. A shawl was wrapped around her shoulders and arm. Ilmarė's almond-shaped eyes and arching eyebrows were further accented by careful application of kohl. Her lips were tinted with alkanet root and ochre. Ilmarė's purple and silver hair was up in a bun held by a net of gold. Pearls adorned her throat and pointed ears.

    "You clean up nice," Kham whispered with admiration. None of them had ever seen Ilmarė dressed for a social occasion before.

    Ilmarė frowned. She stiffly carried a box in her hands. "These garments are difficult to move in."

    Beldin stroked his beard, which had been carefully combed. He wore a smaller white toga. Hanging from the end of his beard were several small gold beads in the shape of warrior's faces. Beldin's long hair hung in ringlets around his shoulders.

    "Actually, I find it quite comfortable," the dwarf replied.

    "I don't," said Sebastian, his eyes darting nervously to and fro. He wore his toga long enough so that his hands were not visible. Most notable of all was the complete lack of white hair; Sebastian had donned a gausapa, a wig made of thick black hair. It covered his ears and framed his face in a fashion similar to Beldin's. He had a wooden box under one arm.

    "I'm with the elf," Kham added, tugging at the sleeve of his toga. "I'm afraid this toga's going to slip off of me. Quintus seems to be in his element though."

    Quintus walked ahead of them, his focus on the guests already reclining around the table.

    Morushun, the Beltinian Prelate of Enpebyn, was already reclining on a divan near the table.

    "Where are the seats?" whispered Beldin.

    "Welcome to a royal feast in Coryan," said Kham with a smirk.

    "Hurrian is pleased this night," Morushun said. He looked at the High General Menisis val'Tensen, seated at the head of the table. "He sends good portents for his most favored son, the great General Menisis."

    Seated at the head of the table was the High General, who loomed over them all even when seated. His toga picta, entirely purple and embroidered with gold stars, immediately identified him as a victorious general. Menisis' frosted head of hair and imposing physique were intimidating even when he was relaxed. The small scar on his left cheek did little to mar the infectious grin that had won the hearts of the citizens of Empire. He stood up to greet his guests.

    "Hail High General!" said Quintus. "I am Quintus Aurelius Ignatius, Signifer of the Legion of the Triumphant Rays of the Invisible Sun." He gestured to each of his comrades in turn. "My companions include Kham val'Abebi of Altheria, Ilmarė Galen of Entaris, Sebastian Arnyal of Canceri, and Beldin of Solanos Mor."

    Menisis lifted his goblet in greeting. "Ah, welcome lady and gentlemen." His voice rumbled like the thunderheads above them. "I thank you for honoring our humble home with your presence."

    "The honor is ours," said Quintus in measured tones. He smiled. "Thank you for having us."

    Menisis turned to the guests nearest him. "These brave souls risked life and limb rescuing one of our own from the Harvesters of Ymandragore. My good cousin, Senator Tensen-Balin, spoke highly of them and felt that their company would enhance our small gathering."

    At Menisis' right was a handsome young man with a perpetual scowl on his face. Built like a warrior, he was slurping loudly from a goblet of wine. He wore a white toga and tunic with purple bands. Judging from the wine stains on his toga, it was an action he had performed many times that evening.

    "Great heroes indeed, uncle. No need to fawn over them. "In truth, I believe our good cousin the Senator wishes to spy on our festivities and find out why such prominent members of the Mother Church are…"

    One withering glare from Menisis silenced him. "Gaius val'Tensen is my nephew," said Menisis. "You've met the others I believe, but for this distinguished gentlemen here." He gestured in the direction of the blonde-haired man. "This is Acastus val'Assante', Illiirite Prelate of Coryan."

    Acastus had a noble profile, with piercing gray eyes and curly blonde locks that identified him as a val'Assante. His long golden robes and large ring in the shape of a sun identified him as a high-ranking priest of Illiir. He politely inclined his head in Quintus direction.

    Quintus bowed low. "We are doubly blessed," he said.

    Kham rolled his eyes.

    "Now, please," said Menisis, "join us and enjoy our simple repast."

    Quintus took a divan to Morushun's right. Ilmarė sat with perfect posture next to Quintus. Everyone else took the remaining available divans at the end of the table.

    The first course that the servants brought out was a huge bowl of green, leafy salad. Ilmarė's expression brightened as the bowl was passed before her. Beldin frowned.

    "No meat?" he whispered to Kham.

    "Eventually," Kham said.

    "I've heard much about you all," said Gaius, his singsong voice striking just the right annoying notes, "How goes your transfer from your old legion, Quintus?"

    Quintus blanched. "Slowly," he said.

    "Ah yes, what was it?" Gaius put one finger to his chin. "Oh that's right! You upstaged a centurion. Quite an achievement for a man of your rank, don't you think?"

    Quintus strained to smile through clenched teeth. "You flatter me."

    "Oh don't thank me, thank Senator Tensen-Balin," said Gaius with a sneer. "I dare say it's thanks to your good deeds that he keeps you in the legion at all!"

    Quintus face turned bright red but he held his tongue.

    "Speaking of our dear cousin, have you heard the latest gossip from the capitol, uncle?"

    Menisis was doing his best to ignore his nephew. Gaius blathered on.

    "No? Then let me tell you: he is opposing our glorious Emperor's request for a slight increase in taxation!"

    "Our glorious Emperor wants that money to enlarge the Summer Palace in Salantica," said Menisis. "Senator Tensen-Balin merely believes that the taxes upon our citizens are high enough."

    "Expanding an already luxurious villa could be perceived as frivolous in these times," said Acastus.

    Gaius feigned a shocked expression. "Does not our Emperor deserve to have a few moments of respite from the burden of leading our Empire? To oppose such a small request is tantamount to treason."

    Everyone turned to look at Gaius as he spoke the last word.

    "This guy makes Quintus look like an anarchist in comparison," whispered Kham out of the side of his mouth to Beldin. The dwarf merely nodded.

    "We are all his servants, after all," Gaius said. "I would toil all the harder if I knew that it would give His Glory comfort during his few moments of rest, for I love our Emperor."

    Menisis took a deep breath and put down a forkful of salad. "Given that you have never toiled a day in your life, I'm sure the Emperor is relieved to know that you are now ready to make such a grave sacrifice."

    Gaius' response was interrupted by the next course of roasted duck with almonds and assorted vegetables.

    Beldin licked his lips. "Much better," he said.

    "Speaking of loyalty," said Gaius, "I heard the Leonydes val'Vridan led an attack on Ventaka itself. Is that true, Attalus?"

    The redheaded young man that had previously fended off the dark-haired beauty's overtures chewed for a long moment before answering. "Yes, it is true. Not all Nierites share the Sword of Heavens' …perspective."

    Gaius smiled sweetly. "Such measured tones from such a tempestuous people! Surely, the slaughter of the Nierites at the hands of some of our guests today speaks volumes about your kin."

    Garan cleared his throat. "Even an invasion can bring about change. My people have been rallied in a vay dey have never been before. Indeed, it is largely because of de attack dat I am here—to promote peace and unity amongst all peoples."

    Gaius sneered at Garan. The guests he had hoped to inflame had outwitted him.

    "While we're on the topic of the differences between people, Quintus mentioned you were from Altheria, correct?" Gaius asked, inclining his head towards Kham. "You're quite light-skinned for an Altherian, and a val at that. I bet you've got some Coryani blood in you. "

    Kham's eyes turned to slits. He put both open palms face down on the table.

    "Perhaps you even are a distant member of our glorious val'Tensen clan," continued Gaius. "I know that some of our ancestors dallied with their servants."

    "Kham…" Quintus warned.

    Just then, the raven-haired beauty stood up and bowed towards Menisis. "If I may?"

    Menisis nodded back at her. Everyone stopped talking as the room's attention focused on her.

    "Who is that?" asked Beldin.

    "Oriena val'Sheem, a Larissan priestess," said Kham, still glaring in Gaius' direction.

    Oriena stepped away from the table and began inscribing a holy circle of prophecy about her on the stone floor with a consecrated piece of red chalk. One of Oriena's servants in one corner of the room began rhythmically beating a drum.

    Oriena's practiced hands finished inscribing the intricate circle. She grabbed a goblet filled with fine Savonan wine and held it up to the heavens. Then she began to sway within the mystic confines of the circle, moving slowly at first to the pace of the drum and slowly increasing, faster and wilder.

    With each sultry movement of her arms, swaying of her hair, and bucking of her hips, some wine sloshed out of the goblet inside the inscribed mystical circle. The drumming and dancing reached a frenetic pace, entrancing everyone at the table. Kham caught himself tapping his foot to the rhythm.

    The music finally reached a fever-pitch crescendo. Oriena twirled so quickly she became a blur of black and scarlet. Then, with a final loud beat, it was over. The priestess lay in the exact center of the circle, folded up like a pre-morn rose, her long black hair splayed about her like a gigantic spider's web.

    Everyone caught their breath, waiting expectantly for what would come next.

    "What is she doing?" asked Ilmarė.

    "She is a Larissan priestess," said Quintus. "She is reading the spills and splashes of the wine in the circle to divine her prophecy."

    Ilmarė crossed her arms as Oriena rose from the center of the circle. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she spoke in a strangely masculine voice.

    "Hail the High General of the Empire. Hail the conquering hero. The wailing of the vanquished shall be your heralding and the throne shall be your spoils."

    And with that, Oriena dropped to the floor like a marionette whose strings had suddenly been severed.

    The all-pervading silence of the room was shattered by Gaius' nasally whine. "It looks like your liberation of Milandir will be successful. Best to keep your eyes upon that throne, great uncle, for the other is beyond your reach."

    A strained smile crossed over Menisis' face. "Blood is only so thick, dear nephew."

    Oriena resumed her seat at the table as the main course was served. It was roasted wild boar with an assortment of roots and vegetables. Beldin rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

    "What, don't they feed you in Solanos Mor?" asked Kham.

    "Not like this!" said Beldin as a servant sliced two, then three, then four slices of meat onto his plate.

    At the other end of the table, Garan spoke in the tongue of Canceri to Sebastian. "It is good to see one of our own here," he said with a smile.

    "I was not present for the rescue of the Senator's son," responded Sebastian in the same tongue. "I have come on behalf of Master Elabac to present a gift to the High General."

    Garan nodded, still smiling. He switched to common. "As have I. But dat does not diminish our presence amongst dese honored guests. Your accent is very good. How long have you lived in Canceri?"

    Sebastian's lips became a grim line. "Too long. I have traveled much. I was staying with the dwarves in Solanos Mor prior."

    "Ah. Dat explains it. And yet, you seem reluctant. Is everything alright?"

    Sebastian attempted a smile. "I can sympathize with the boy's dilemma," he said in Cancerite.

    Garan winked at him. "I understand, say no more," he replied in the same tongue. "There are no Harvesters here."

    Sebastian's gaze flickered to Gaius. "But there are plenty of snakes."

    Garan smiled politely. "And now, it is time to present our gifts."

    Garan reached behind his divan and pulled out a box. He looked to Acastus, who did likewise. Morushun and Oriena followed suit.

    Sebastian took out his own box. He arched a questioning eyebrow as Ilmarė did the same.

    Acastus stood up and approached Menisis. "I bring greetings from Coryan. Please accept this gift as a small token for your generous hospitality." The servants opened the box and Acastus lifted from it a glittering gold chalice. It was inscribed with benedictions to Illiir. Menisis smiled and nodded.

    "Uh, what are they doing?" asked Kham.

    Quintus' eyes were wide. "It is a gift ceremony," he hissed through gritted teeth.

    "Do we have a gift?"

    "No," Quintus said ruefully.

    Morushun stood up next. "I bring greetings from Enpebyn," he said. "Please accept this gift as a small token for your generous hospitality." Morushun reached into his box and produced a large ring mounted with a topaz opal. Menisis graciously accepted it.

    "Aren't you supposed to know these sorts of things?" asked Kham. "Everyone else knew to bring a gift. The Cancerite has his. Hell, even the elf brought something. Maybe she can present it on behalf of all of us."

    Beldin shrugged. "Sebastian presents on behalf of Solanos Mor, so that will be my gift as well."

    Garan approached Menisis. "I bring greetings from Nishanpur," he said. "Please accept this gift as a small token for your generous hospitality." He presented a Sarishan dagger, gilded in silver.

    Quintus looked over at Ilmarė. "Where did you get that gift?"

    Ilmarė didn't look at him, her attention focused on the gift-giving ceremony. "A servant gave it to me during the bath."

    Oriena sashayed over the Menisis. "I bring greetings from Savona," she husked. "Please accept this gift as a small token for your generous hospitality." She bowed and spread her arms. A dozen female servants stepped forward, all clad in very short tunics.

    "Oh man, the priestess just gave him twelve girls!" Kham exclaimed in hushed tones. "How are we supposed to beat that?"

    "What's in the box?" asked Quintus.

    "A beast of some sort, carved of green stone," she said, rising to her feet.

    It was Sebastian's turn. He swallowed hard and rose to his feet.

    "I bring greetings from Solanos Mor," he said, his voice unsteady. "Please accept this gift as a small token for your generous hospitality." He bowed low and presented the open box to Menisis. Menisis gingerly took a silver gladius from the box. The word "emtavas" was etched on the blade.

    "A worthy gift indeed," said the general. He personally handed it to one of his servants, impressed.

    "Another one of Elabac's failures," said Kham. "Great."

    Sebastian returned to his divan.

    "You did well," said Beldin with an encouraging smile.

    Sebastian turned to Ilmarė. "Your turn," he said.

    Ilmarė made her way over to Menisis. Quintus matched her stride for stride.

    "What kind of beast?" he whispered.

    "I'm not familiar with it," she said. "It has great tusks, with large ears, and a long trunk."

    They were both standing before the general. He stared at them expectantly. Ilmarė started to open the box…

    Quintus slammed it shut.

    "I must apologize, General. We have no gift."

    Ilmarė turned to Quintus. "What? But-"

    "Later," Quintus hissed. They awkwardly backed away from Menisis and returned to their divans.

    There was an uncomfortable pause, broken only by Gaius' snort of derision. Then Menisis rose to his feet and raised his goblet to his guests. "Thank you all for your generosity. Please, enjoy the rest of the evening."

    Menisis left the room. The other guests trickled out after him.

    "What was that all about?" asked Ilmarė, irritated in the hallway in front of her quarters.

    "That statue is of an elephant," Quintus said. He seemed more exhausted from the dinner than she had seen him in any battle.

    "And?"

    "Queen Alezha gave the Emperor the very same gift upon her arrival to the Empire. Giving it to the High General would imply that he is having an affair with the Queen."

    "Better to be slightly embarrassed by presenting no gift at all," said Sebastian behind them, "than to give that to our host."

    Sebastian and Beldin disappeared into their own rooms.

    "Quintus," said Ilmarė, "I…"

    Quintus held up one hand. "It's alright. I know you are well traveled, but you can't be expected to know every nuance of Coryani custom. Someone tried to manipulate you to get us all thrown out. We will have to remain extra vigilant."

    "Oh, I intend to," said Kham before he shut the door to his own room.

    Ilmarė was still searching for words as Quintus turned on his heel and walked into his room. The door thudded softly behind him.

    The Elorii bit her lip, her hands balled into fists. "Stupid human customs!" she snarled. Then Ilmarė stomped into her room.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Part 4: Strangers in the Night

    Kham waited patiently until Quintus's snoring fell into the steady pattern that indicated deep sleep. Fortunately, Kham's dwarven neighbor on the other side of his room was easier to monitor—Beldin nearly shook the foundations with his snoring.

    He tiptoed over to his holsters and strapped them on. Kham had changed into his usual pants and shirt; he had no intentions of sleeping that night. He then strapped his scimitar onto his belt and shrugged on his overcoat.

    Kham rubbed his forehead. The others were out of their league, more accustomed to facing their foes than having to look over their shoulders. Kham, on the other hand, had been looking over his shoulder since he was born. Someone had manipulated Ilmarė and he intended to find out who.

    If only he could stop his headache. Kham had suffered from hangovers before, but this was different. He took another swig of a goblet of wine near his bed. The wine didn't deaden the pain; it just made him care about it less.

    Kham slowly opened the door to his room, mindful of it squeaking too loudly. After he stepped into the hallway, it took an eternity to push the door silently back into place. There was a click behind him.

    A young man in servant's garb had just rounded the corner. Kham didn't release his hand from the door's handle, feigning as if he was about to enter rather than leave his room.

    "Oh, I'm sorry," said the servant. "I didn't mean to wake you."

    Kham's eyes darted everywhere. "That's alright," he said.

    There was a long pause. "I thought I heard someone walking about and came to investigate."

    "Well, that would be me," said Kham. "I think the fresh air did me some good," he said with a slight smile.

    More uncomfortable silence. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I must report back to the Major Domo."

    "Right," said Kham. He stepped back into his room and closed the door.

    Kham listened to the man's footsteps pad away into the distance. When they were inaudible, he slumped against the door in relief.

    "Whew!" That was too close. Kham wondered what it was the servant thought he heard.

    Then he remembered: none of the servants in the manor could speak because none of them had any tongues!

    Kham flung the door open and stuck his head out into the hallway. There was no sign of the servant.

    He ran into the hallway. A figure disappeared down another hallway to his left.

    Kham jogged back to Beldin's room and hammered on the door. "Wake up, dwarf! Get Quintus! I think you should take a look at this!"

    The snoring stopped for a second, started again, and ended with a "zzzzzwha?"

    Satisfied that he the dwarf would eventually wake up, Kham ran down the same hallway the servant had taken. He came skidding to a halt at the end of it.

    Doors branched off the hallway, but none were placed at the end. Only a small table and a vase filled with white flowers greeted him.

    "Has to be a secret door here somewhere…" he said to himself.

    Kham leaned forward, holding onto the vase so that it wouldn't tip over as he peeked behind the table.

    There was a brief grinding sound and then the wall swung backwards into darkness. Kham mentally congratulated himself as he stepped into the dark secret passage.

    Then something happened, something that had never happened before.

    A deafening high-pitched buzzed screamed through his brain. Kham's headache flared so brightly that he was momentarily blinded. Everything was bathed in a stark white light. He saw, in the unbearable brightness, a white shadow of an arm bearing a wicked-looking dagger. It sliced downwards towards his head…

    And then he was back in the darkness. Kham dropped to the ground and felt the same wicked dagger slice across his shoulder blades instead. He tumbled to his feet and unsheathed his scimitar in one smooth motion.

    The servant lunged at him, but Kham was ready. There was another flash of whiteness, and Kham watched in fascination as the faux servant feinted a dodge to the left but struck at Kham's left side. Then he was back in the darkness of the tunnel and the servant was dodging left.

    Kham casually stuck his scimitar out, looking dumbstruck at the weapon as the servant impaled himself on it. The look of shock was mirrored on both their faces. Kham had no idea just how sharp his scimitar was. He felt no resistance as the blade slid through the man's torso like butter.

    The servant was lying dead on the floor when several legionnaires of the Defiant Shield arrived, led by a half-dressed Quintus.

    "What happened?" he asked, tucking his tunic in.

    Kham winced. There was a bloodstain—his blood—smeared behind him on the wall he was leaning against.

    "An assassin is my guess," he nudged the corpse with his boot and jabbed a thumb in the direction of the alcove behind him.

    Ilmarė, wrapped in a white robe with her hair down, inspected the alcove. She looked considerably different from her appearance at the dinner.

    The alcove had a glass tube with a rubber bulb attached at one end to a small peephole. Ilmarė leaned forward on her toes, removed the tube, and squinted through the hole.

    "Attalus val'Virdan is asleep in that room," she said.

    Ilmarė popped the bulb off of the tube and some powder flaked out of it. She dipped one pinky into the powder and tasted it.

    "Helvasta," she said.

    "Helvasta? Are you sure?" asked Quintus.

    "Yes. It's a strong hallucinogenic. It induces paranoia and homicidal madness after enough exposure."

    Quintus' expression was grim. "That powder is used by Larissan priestesses for some of their religious ceremonies."

    He exchanged looks with one of the legionnaires, who wordlessly marched off to retrieve Oriena.

    Kham took off his overcoat and shirt and began wrapping his torso with strips of cloth.

    "What were you doing up fully dressed anyway?" asked Beldin, his beard unkempt and his eyes puffy with sleep.

    Kham looked over at the legionnaires, who were watching him curiously. "You know an awful lot about poisons," he said to Ilmarė, quickly changing the subject.

    "Of course," Ilmarė replied. "It is just one more tool to use in the War."

    "What war?" asked Kham.

    "The Final War. When the Elorii shall avenge themselves on the Gods of Man and their servants."

    Quintus looked bewildered. "The Gods of Man?"

    Sebastian finally arrived, wrapped tightly in a robe with his hands buried in its pockets. Trailing behind him was Attalus, rubbing his eyes.

    The legionnaires brought Oriena in, hands on her elbows. She shouldered them off.

    "Brutes!" she hissed. "I don't know why you dragged me here!"

    "We found Helvasta in this bulb here," said Quintus, holding it up in the torchlight.

    Oriena strode over to Quintus. He was careful to look her in the eyes—her sleepwear was especially revealing. She dipped one pinky into the bulb and sucked on it, her eyes closed.

    Quintus swallowed hard.

    "This is not mine," said Oriena. She opened her eyes and pointed at the assassin's body. "And I have never met that man before in my life."

    "He's not one of your servants?" asked Kham.

    "No. My servants are all much more attractive than that brute. Besides, why would I try to drive Attalus mad? I have nothing to gain from it."

    Attalus nodded in agreement. "I believe you. Someone wished to show a Nierite to be the reckless brutes we are all perceived to be. But who?"

    Quintus looked down at the corpse. "We may never know."

    The legionnaires escorted everyone back into the hallway and removed the body. Beldin peeked out one of the hallway window slits. "There are horses and a carriage outside. Is someone leaving?"

    "The General received urgent orders to leave for Coryan at once," said another of the legionnaires.

    "Convenient," muttered Kham.

    "I recommend that all the delegates sleep under armed guard tonight," said Quintus. The legionnaires nodded.

    Oriena pouted and looked around the hallway. "And whom shall I sleep under tonight?" She licked her lips.

    Ilmarė rolled her eyes as the other men sputtered and looked away. Oriena sidled up to Sebastian.

    "Perhaps you will protect me?" she asked, entwining her arm around Sebastian's elbow.

    Sebastian smiled slightly. "I really should get some rest."

    "It's okay," she whispered into his ear, "I don't mind your ta-"

    Sebastian shushed her and walked stiffly into his room. Oriena gave everyone a sly smile and slipped after him, closing the door behind her.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - The Royal Hunt

    "By the grace of Althere!" shouted Kham, slapping his forehead at the spectacle before them.

    Gaius was astride the lead horse, a hunting horn dangling at his side. A flagpole jutted from a holster by his foot, clearly identifying him as the leader of the morning's hunt. Everyone but Sebastian was astride their own mounts.

    Kham struggled to retain any expression other than horrified shock. "Oh look, EVERYONE'S here."

    Quintus' upper lip was twitching. "Why Kham, how good of you to join us," he said through gritted teeth. "Gaius will be leading the hunt today in place of the High General."

    Sebastian was struggling to keep mount his horse, which was bucking violently away from him. Oriena ordered her servants to help him, but the mount was giving them considerable trouble. From a distance, Attalus watched with bemusement.

    "The priests send their apologies," said Gaius over is shoulder. "They say there is still much to discuss between them before they travel to Coryan."

    Kham smoothly mounted his steed even as Sebastian finally got his horse under control.

    "What of Elandre?" asked Sebastian.

    Gaius shot him a glare. "It is unseemly for a woman of such high noble birth to participate," he said. "Women of lesser birth are of course welcome to do as they please."

    Ilmarė narrowed her eyes at him but said nothing.

    Gaius kicked his horse into a trot. "We will have to travel beyond the estate lands. It is only there that we shall find our quarry."

    "Isn't that Ulfilan territory?" asked Quintus.

    "Oh I'm sure the Ulfilan Governor won't mind," Gaius said with a sneer.

    "And just what is our quarry, exactly?" asked Kham.

    "Why, the Howling Bear, of course," said Gaius.

    Kham looked at Quintus, who merely shrugged his shoulders.

    "For those of you who have never been on a royal hunt before, I suggest you keep a tight grip on the reins," said Gaius. "It can get…exciting. Try not to soil my mounts."

    And with that he kicked his horse into a gallop and disappeared into the woods. Quintus stared daggers in Gaius' direction but rode off after him.

    The woods were surprisingly temperate. The surroundings were lush and full of life.

    Ilmarė looked around. "Osalian is pleased."

    "You mean Hurrian," said Gaius.

    "No," Ilmarė responded levelly, "I mean Osalian."

    The songs of a hundred different birds joined seamlessly to create a soothing serenade.

    Beldin was looking all around him. "I don't like this."

    "You're just not used to being outside," said Kham.

    "No, it's not that. The screeching. All that noise. Don't they ever stop?"

    "He's more accustomed to the sounds of bats," said Sebastian. "At night, their squeaking can be quite beautiful."

    Kham sighed. "You two need to get out more. Seriously. Speaking of getting in touch with nature, haven't you ever seen a horse before, Sebastian? You seem to be having problems with your mount."

    "There are not many horses in Solanos Mor," Sebastian said, staring off into the distance.

    "While we're on the subject of unique perspectives," said Quintus, "where did you get those lenses?"

    Kham adjusted the round tinted glasses he was wearing. He silently mouthed back "hangover."

    Quintus arched an eyebrow but nodded.

    Ilmarė pulled her horse alongside Gaius'. "This bear…does it howl?"

    "No, it purrs." Gaius rolled his eyes. "Of course it howls, why do you think we call it the Howling-"

    "DOWN!" Ilmarė shouted and launched herself at Gaius. They tumbled to the ground as a javelin whistled through the air where he had been sitting.

    "Alarm!" shouted Quintus as he spun to spot the attackers. "It's an ambush!"

    Several things happened at once. Another javelin suddenly jutted from Oriena's shoulder, pirouetting her off her mount. Sebastian's horse bucked and tossed its rider. Gaius screamed like a frightened child and grabbed hold of his mount as it galloped off, half-dragging him into the foliage.

    "Dismount!" shouted Quintus. "Keep your back to your horse!" He grabbed his shield from the saddle and landed roughly on his feet, spear at the ready.

    A loud keening wail erupted from all around them.

    "I don't suppose that's the sound of the Howling Bear?" asked Kham as he slid off his horse, both handgonnes at the ready.

    "Not unless the bear learned to use javelins!" Ilmarė shouted back as she landed on her feet with an arrow knocked in her bow.

    A javelin clanged off of Quintus' shield. "Too many to count, take your targets where you find them!"

    Ilmarė loosed an arrow and something wailed in response. "Now there's one less."

    Another javelin sliced through the air and pierced the flank of Kham's horse. As it bucked and galloped off, the protruding javelin shaft smacked Kham in the back of the head.

    "Ow! Whose stupid idea was it to stand with our back to the—"

    Out of the woods swarmed brutish humanoids with bright blue noses and reddish faces, waving longswords over their heads.

    "Hobgoblins!" shouted Ilmarė.

    "Hold the line!" Quintus shouted back. He looked over his shoulder. "Where's Beldin?"

    Just as the hobgoblins crashed into them, Beldin galloped his horse into their midst with his axe held high. A tufted head and a gout of blood launched into the air as he passed.

    The hobgoblins milled about in disarray after Beldin crashed disappeared into the woods. "I thought he never rode a horse before," said Kham. He squeezed the trigger and tree bark exploded next to a hobgoblin.

    Quintus speared a hobgoblin through the side as it charged at him. He struggled to remove the longspear and then gave up as more hobgoblins closed, drawing his gladius instead.

    "Switch to blades!" shouted Quintus.

    "Not…" Kham shouted as a hobgoblin charged straight towards him. He aimed carefully at the hobgoblin's head and pulled the trigger just as it reached him. There was a burst of red and black smoke and the headless body collapsed at his feet. "Yet!"

    Beldin managed to navigate his mount through the thicket of woods and was coming around for another charge. Attalus and Sebastian stood protectively over Oriena's body. They were surrounded by four hobgoblins.

    Quintus lurched over to Kham, covering him with his shield. "Attalus needs our help."

    "Our help? The ladies and I do just fine, thanks," Kham said, pulling two more handgonnes out of their holsters by his ribcage. "Just stay out of my way."

    A hobgoblin stuck his head around the shield and Quintus thrust his gladius at it. Kham took aim…

    BLAM! BLAM!

    Two hobgoblins fell even as Attalus dispatched another. The fourth pressed hard against Sebastian, who had only a dagger to defend himself.

    There was a flash and the last hobgoblin fell forward on its face. Ilmarė stood over the corpse, her sword dripping with hobgoblin blood.

    And then it was over. Hobgoblin corpses lay all around them.

    "Oriena's hurt," said Sebastian with concern.

    The Larissan priestess was unconscious, with a javelin protruding from her shoulder. Her left leg was at an odd angle. "She may have broken her leg as well," said Quintus. "Stand back."

    He placed his palms on Oriena's forehead. "Illiir, iuvo sana sua vulna levis." Golden light encircled her form for a moment.

    Quintus grabbed the javelin and pulled it out of her shoulder. She gasped in pain but did not awaken.

    "Keep pressure on the wound," said Quintus to Attalus. "She'll live, but someone will need to take her back to the estate."

    Sebastian was about to volunteer when Attalus stepped forward.

    "I will," said Attalus, clutching one arm. "I'm no good to you anyway, I've hurt my sword arm."

    Kham was reloading his handgonnes. "Actually, you hurt is probably more useful than Sebastian…" He caught Quintus' disapproving gaze. "Look, why don't we all go back to the estate?"

    "Because he is General Menisis' nephew," said Quintus, saddling up on his mount. "And I'm sure there will be a reward if we return him alive."

    "I doubt he would do the same for us," said Ilmarė, gazing in the direction where Gaius had fled.

    "I think the 'glorious val'Tensen clan' can take care of its own," Kham added.

    "Go if you want," said Quintus. "I am duty bound to protect the citizens of Coryan. Gaius, regardless of how I personally feel about him, is under my protection. It is my honor to serve all citizens of Coryan," he looked over at Kham. "That includes you."

    Kham spat. "Well…I'm going to need another horse."

    Quintus' expression brightened. "Kham, you ride with Beldin. Sebastian, you ride with me."

    Beldin put out one hand. Kham sighed and took it, saddling up behind Beldin. "Great, I get to ride with the guy who's afraid of birds."

    "Ilmarė, can you track him?" Quintus asked.

    Ilmarė sniffed. "Simple enough," she said. "We can just follow the trail of slime." And with that, she took off at a gallop.
    Last edited by talien; Monday, 3rd March, 2008 at 02:46 AM.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Introduction

    This is the second part of the tournament module, "Temptations of the Flesh," 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 Clr2), played by Mike Tresca (that's me): http://michael.tresca.net
    · Kham Val'Abebi (val Rog2), played by Jeremy Ortiz: http://www.dreamsculptor.com/index1.html
    · Ilmarė Galen (elf Brd2), played by Amber Tresca (my wife)
    · Sebastian Arnyal (dark-kin Sor1), played by George Webster.
    · Beldin (dwarf Ftr1), played by Joe Lalumia.

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

    We played both of these adventures back to back in one long marathon session. The problem is that the session didn't actually break up that way for our characters—we did not have a day to rest. That means any spells Quintus and Ilmarė already cast we're not coming back for the second major battle.

    I should note that what you see in the story is only the relevant pieces that are entertaining. Although I'm a hard-core role-player, I'm not stupid…Quintus buffs up just about everybody with every spell and power he has before a combat. The problem, of course, is that I wasted all that at the end of the last act of the first module. In other words, I correctly guessed that we were at the "boss fight" at the end, but I didn't realize we'd keep going right into the second adventure.

    This means Quintus has to basically rely on his legionnaire skills exclusively. So it's a good thing he's talented enough to play multiple roles. Conversely, Sebastian saved his spells until he knew he could use them best—when facing large groups. In fact, our characters didn't know he was a spell caster until the second part of the adventure!

    Man, am I glad we bought burning oil.

    Finally, Kham got himself into real trouble in the second part. Most of this has to do with his secret society connections that we've been hinting at since the beginning (although Ilmarė is far too observant to not notice something is up). Sebastian also has his own secret motives that will eventually be revealed and are relevant to our past.

    By the last battle, things were getting desperate. Quintus and Ilmarė were tapped and Sebastian took a real risk in casting spells up front. Kham overreached (in typical Kham fashion) and it nearly got him killed. But in the end, we survived…just barely.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

    Want more? Subscribe to my column; follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and Awfully Familiar. Become an Examiner and get paid to write today!

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    Temptations of the Flesh - Prologue

    The tracks went on for a few leagues, running alongside a small stream that led them out of the forest. The forest's edge ended abruptly at rocky terrain. They had dismounted and Ilmarė was carefully studying the ground before them.

    "The tracks lead this way," said Ilmarė. "But once they leave the forest, I'll lose the trail."

    "We're not even sure that this is the right way," said Kham. "I still think we should have followed the horse tracks."

    "They were the tracks of a human. Or a Val," said Ilmarė, glancing up at Kham. "Several pairs of them, with twin rows as if someone was being dragged."

    "Sounds like brave and noble Gaius fell victim to another ambush. Maybe he'll be dead by the time we get there," muttered Kham. "If we ever find him."

    "I don't think we have to look any further," said Beldin, pointing at the mountainside.

    Nestled in the crook of two outcroppings was an ancient looking fortress, heavily damaged from rockslides and avalanches of ages past. The eastern portion of the building appeared to be completely caved in under the weight of the rocks. The top section of a tower lay strewn before it, as did countless smaller stones and boulders. A small waterfall cascaded next to the building, feeding the small stream.

    "What is this place?" asked Quintus.

    "Looks like an Auxunite structure, from the later dynasties," said Beldin, squinting in the direction of the fortress. "Portions of it have been recently excavated. My guess is that most of it still lies entombed in the earth below."

    "Auxunites?" asked Sebastian.

    "Barbarians that came from the north, before the time of the raising of the Wall of the Gods," Beldin replied. "They ruled a large area through tyranny and mayhem until the val'Tensen family finally overthrew their rule."

    Ilmarė hissed a warning. They all crouched down behind some boulders.

    "More hobgoblins," she pointed one slender finger towards tiny figures walking slowly back and forth in front of the fortress. "There."

    "Alright," said Quintus, "we'll take them by-"

    There was the sound of thundering hooves as Beldin galloped passed them.

    "Where is HE going?" shouted Quintus.

    "To bring the battle to the enemy, of course," said Sebastian matter-of-factly.

    "Fool! He just cost us the element of surprise!"

    BLAM!

    Kham was standing over a small boulder with one of his handgonnes smoking. He aimed the next one. Ilmarė knocked an arrow.

    "No help for it now," she said as she released the arrow and a hobgoblin collapsed in the distance.

    A cloud of dirt billowed up as Beldin connected with the enemy. After a moment, it seemed as if Beldin was retreating.

    "That's not Beldin," said Ilmarė. It was a hobgoblin on horseback, galloping towards them.

    Quintus shook his head and grabbed his longspear roughly. "He's lucky if he doesn't get himself killed! I'll take care of this one."

    The legionnaire stood in front of the largest boulder, shield at the ready. Quintus held his longspear up high as the rider, a hobgoblin of some rank, descended upon him. He held in his right hand a long, serrated sword filled with jagged edges, each as long as a dagger. The leader swung the sword over his head as he closed in.

    BLAM! The bullet ricocheted off of his chainmail armor. He kept coming.

    An arrow glanced off of the hobgoblin's shoulder. He kept coming.

    Just as the hobgoblin was within range, Quintus lowered his spear and butted it against the boulder behind him. Unstoppable force met immovable object as the momentum of the hobgoblin's charge drove the longspear through his shoulder. His horse whinnied and fell to the side even as the rider was torn out of the stirrups and lifted into the air.

    Quintus let got of the spear as the hobgoblin crumpled into a bloody pile of chainmail. He turned to Sebastian.

    "Now, as I was-"

    "Look out!" Sebastian shouted, eyes wide.

    There was a blinding flash of pain as Quintus's left shoulder was almost torn out of its socket. The serrated blade tore through his lorica segmata and bit deep into flesh, cutting into muscle. The hobgoblin leader had dragged himself up the length of the spear and attacked Quintus from behind.

    Quintus yelped as he fell to the ground. He brought his shield up, but to no avail. The leader put one foot on Quintus' shield, pinning him beneath it. The hobgoblin pointed the end of his sword at Quintus' nose.

    "Flesh Ripper shall feast on your face," he said through fanged teeth.

    Then an arrow sprouted from his eye. The hobgoblin staggered backwards, clutching his face. He fell backwards in a spray of ichor, the shaft of the arrow sticking straight up into the air.

    Kham walked over to Quintus, who was still prone since the attack. The legionnaire twitched beneath his shield as Kham lifted it off of him.

    What he discovered beneath the shield made him gasp: Quintus' arm was drenched in black blood. The wound pulsed with a life of its own.

    "Quintus is hurt, bad," said Kham. "I don't have any-"

    "Stand back," said Ilmarė. She put her hands on Quintus' bloody wound. "Nesta lim haru!"

    A soft purple glow flowed from Ilmarė's hands into Quintus' arm. When it dissipated, the blood was gone and a long, ugly scar was all that remained.

    Quintus' eyes fluttered upon. "Apology accepted," he said with a brief smile. Ilmarė blinked back at him in surprise. She smiled uncertainly back at him.

    "You can heal?" asked Kham. "Why didn't you say something before?"

    "You never asked," she said.

    Kham shot her a glare and picked up the hobgoblin's sword. "What the hell kind of weapon causes a wound like that?"

    Quintus struggled to his feet. "A coward's weapon. Leave it."

    Kham's eyes lit up. "I think we should hold on to it," he said quickly. "In case your wound festers again."

    Quintus was about to say something when Beldin returned, his axe dripping hobgoblin blood. "The way is clear, but I think we alerted the guards."

    "Ya think?" asked Kham, shaking his head.
    Last edited by talien; Monday, 3rd March, 2008 at 02:48 AM.
    Mike "Talien" Tresca

    Want more? Subscribe to my column; follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and Awfully Familiar. Become an Examiner and get paid to write today!

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