After weeks of exhausting riding, the travelers reached Messantia, the City of Coin. The rest of the journey through Shem had been uneventful. The Nemedians had become acquinted with the entourage following Dionysos. Most of them still called him Bhaal, a mysterious and powerful sorcerer. Basil, the Zamoran alchemist, turned out to be very interested in ancient history. He spent much of the journey interrogating the others about Pteion and other locations of interest.
The Nemedians entered Messantia disguised with great care. They were wanted men in the city, framed by the cult of the Golden Lord as murderers and robbers. Worse yet, the city was one of the main bases of the cult. Being identified would mean immediate retaliation, both by the city guard and cult assassins. The Zamoran entourage proved out to be a great boon. Luba and Basil were not known in Messantia and could handle all business. They rented a house for “Lord Bhaal” and the entourage, with a plan to spend a few days in Messentia. While there, the Nemedians would sell the rest of their loot from Pteion. They planned to sail home along the river Tybor. Ditrius and his group found quarters in the local Mitraneum. Selcides departed soon after, eager to see an old friend.
A few days passed. The Nemedians stayed indoors, resting from the journey, while Luba sold most of their loot. Alcemides and Tyrus slipped out once, disguised from head to toe, for some shady business. Then, one early morning, Ditrius and Selcides returned to their companions. The friend Selcides had looked forward to meeting had disappeared. Ditrius suspected that he had been kidnapped. Tranicos was the librarian of the main Mitraneum and had lately been acting strangely. He had disappeared several times before and returned with no memory of where he had been. Ditrius thought eldtrich forces were afoot and asked the others to help him. They reluctantly agreed.
The group entered the local Mitraneum, hoping to find clues about the disappearance. Castel, the assistant librarian did his best to assist the men in their search. He provided them with access to the personal quarters of Tranicos. Dionysos secretly pilfered a magical link from the beddings, hoping to locate the man through sorcery. Meanwhile the others scoured the rooms for clues. Alcemides noticed a hidden space behind a heavy desk. In it were several old scrolls, a curious statue and a diary. The statue stood up to the knee of a grown man. It was made of green metal and portrayed a hideous creature with features both human and bestial. Dionysos mentioned in passing that it was a god or goddess of ancient Acheron. The scrolls showed a map through the sewers underneath the city – and the old tunnels beneath. Apparently the librarian had traced a route to the fabled Tartarus, an Acheronian city Messantia was built upon. The diary was filled with the scribblings of a madman, describing nightmares and hallucinations, and revealing memory lapses of ever increasing length.
Dionysos voiced suspicions that Tranicos had been taken by the cult of the Golden Lord. While he could not claim certainty, madness seemed to follow the cult everywhere. He set his third eye upon hairs of the priest and was sure he was still alive, albeit wounded, somewhere underneath the city. After a brief discussion, the heroes agreed they would seek answers in the sewers.
The Nemedians, Sergei, Basil and Luba followed the map to the nearest sewer entrance. Dionysos hypnotized the sewer workers and made them provide the heroes with appropriate gear. One whiff of the terrible stench was enough to convince Luba it was better for her to stay behind. Thus only the six men entered, covering their faces with scented cloth. Even thus prepared, they were struck nearly delirious by the nauseating fumes on their way down. Its force felt like a physical blow to the head, numbing the senses. The sewers seemed oddly empty of workers. Silently, the men made their way ahead in the shadowy corridors with just an occasional cough or gag. After a tiresome walk, the men finally located a secret door in a sewer wall. Behind it descended steep, slimy stairs into ominous darkness.
The stairs finally ended in to a corridor with a very low ceiling. Basil and Dionysos had trouble moving due to their tall build. Suddenly the corridor opened in a hall with several doors. Flickering candlelight illuminated one of the doorways. Beyond it was a room filled with rotting barrels. Alcemides found another secret door, opening into another steep stairway. As the men descended, the walls surrounding them turned to red Acheronian stone. Dionysos sensed ahead with his third eye and felt the priest closer. They were on the right track.
The stairs lead into a circular chamber with three doorways. Two of them had been sealed, but the third one was broken open. The walls were inscribed with people and creatures cowering at the feet of Acheronian witch-kings. The air was stale, but still pervaded with the stench of decay. Wandering through the deserted corridors, the men heard distant sounds of metal hitting stone. Ditrius suggested that it meant a mining operation was nearby, strange as it was in the surroundings. The first hall the group entered was filled with obscene inscriptions. The walls showed humans, animals and demonic creatures copulating. Women then gave birth to terrible abominations, which were worshipped by human figures. Above the calamity stood an imposing witch-king. Alcoves within the walls were filled with statues of abominations, similiar to the one in the quarters of the missing librarian. One of the alcoves was empty.
At the far end of the hall, the floor had collapsed. Somewhere underneath loomed a huge cesspool, where a broken sewer pipe flowed in a waterfall of disgusting slime. Poised over the edge of the pit was a huge statue of black basalt. It was an image of a terrifying female thing with scores of horns, mammaries, tentacles and limbs. Smaller statues of horned children and tree-like things were placed in reverie at its feet. The mere sight of the obscene goddess filled the men with dread. Dionysos muttered that his aunt back in Nemedia talked of a similar divinity and advised the group to leave the hall.
The men quickly retreated back to the corridors, now following the sounds of labor instead. They entered a series of corridors illuminated by fresh torches. On the way towards the noise, Alcemides spotted an interesting chamber. It was furnished as a temple, with a small round pit in the middle. On the floor in the pit was inscribed the sign of the Golden Lord, in pure gold. The gold in the sign was worth a fortune and on an altar nearby was a huge gong. Deciphering the incriptions on the walls, the scholars came to a disturbing conclusion. Apparently even the Acheronians had worshipped the Golden Lord in some capacity. Written on the altar stone were instructions for summoning “enlightenment”. A simple ritual had to be performed, the gong struck thrice and a supplicant standing in the small pit would find wisdom from the stars. Basil was disturbingly interested in the possibility, but Ditrius convinced the others to leave the chamber alone. They could return later to retrieve the gold. Alcemides sabotaged the gong briefly, in case someone would use it to summon something while they passed on.
Heading along, the intrepid adventurers found another set of stairs, though the corridor continued on. The noise came from the stairs. Alcemides sneaked ahead to have a look. The stairs ended suddenly in a dark room filled with the living dead. A dozen corpses were chiseling pieces of the red stone from the walls, chipping them into blocks and stuffing the blocks into wooden shipping crates. The undead did not react to the presence of the living men, even when they were shoved around. The corpses simply carried on in their duties. Most were relatively fresh and dressed in dirty rags. The heroes decided to leave the corpses alone for now – the noise of their work would cover the sounds of their approach from their master. Now sneaking, the six men climbed the stairs back up and carried on along the corridor. They entered a hall filled with high pillars incribed with demonic forces. At the far reaches of the huge room stood a silent figure wrapped in tatters of yellow silk.
The man approached the intruders with a gleeful cackle, advising them to step forth in Nemedian. With a sardonic bow, he introduced himself as a priest of the Golden Lord. From among the yellow tatters, the heroes could see flesh terribly ruined by leprosy. As Alcemides promptly charged ahead with a sword in hand, not interested in parley, the cultist reacted with sorcery. With a flick of a wrist and a strange, coarse scream, he conjured a strange phantom in midst of the men. It was the Golden Sign, but as a floating, wavering apparition, which danced in the air. Its mere sight paralyzed many of the men, forcing them to stare at it in rapt silence. Basil resisted the sign and launched two globes of demon-fire at the sorcerer, but they both exploded against the tall pillars. Luaghing with insane glee, the cultist let forth a wailing, undulating shout, which caused the flesh of the men to bubble and blister, as if it wanted to dance with the sound. Paralyzed by the sign and mauled by the strange, blubbering song, the heroes seemed to have to have reached the end of their journey. Alcemides saved the day by shaking himself free of the paralysis. His savage attack ceased the wavering song and forced the sorcerer to retreat to an inner chamber. Alcemides pursued and ran him through with his blade.
Several of the heroes had been badly hurt by the sorcerous maladies of the dead priest. Sergei had fallen on the floor and appeared comatose, his soul wracked by the power of the Golden Lord. Investigating the chambers revealed a box full of letters, some alchemical ingredients and a little gold. Upon the person of the priest Alcemides found a signet ring belonging to a local merchant house. The dead priest was obviously well connected. Behind one pillar Dionysos finally found Tranicos. The librarian was naked, tied up, gagged and unconscious, but physically unharmed. Upon his back was branded the symbol of Skelos, but the mark was obviously at least several months old.
The men left the sewers, dragging the unconscious assassin and librarian with them. They encountered no obstales on their way back to the rented house. Ditrius summoned Selcides, who tended to the unconscious priest. Finally he woke up and was able to tell a short story. The librarian had simply woken up in the sewers, tied up by the leper sorcerer. He had no recollection of other events. The leper had interrogated him on his interest in the ruins below, then knocked him unconscious with alchemy. Ditrius and Selcides escorted Tranicos back to the Mitraneum and left the others tend their wounds.
Next morning Ditrius was back, knocking furiously on the door. As servants of “Lord Bhaal” escorted him inside, the Nemedian produced a burst of profuse oaths. The librarian had gone missing again, this time obviously kidnapped. Castel, the priest who had helped to find him, was missing as well. Ditrius asked Dionysos to seek them out with his sorcery. Enjoying the chance for attention, the Acheronian-blooded set about to conjure visions. Surprisingly, he could bring forth naught but dark mist and chanting in a guttural, primitive voice. Frustrated by the obstacle, Dionysos used the hair of the librarian to gauge his state of mind and body. He declared the man was not a prisoner, but traveling rapidly upstream of his own volition. The Nemedians considered riding after the river ship, but abandoned the idea after a short discussion. Catching up with the ship would be very difficult and they had barely recovered from the fight in the sewers. They would seek Tranicos on their way upriver, later on. Alcemides suspected the librarian had been swallowed by a snake-man, who had stolen his skin. The others were, for the most part, amused by the notion.
The rest of the day was spent in idle slumber, repairing damaged equipment and tending wounds. The letters retrieved from the leper sorcerer seemed to be describe a large scale shipping operation. The blocks of Acheronian stone from the sewers were packed aboard ships in Messantia, whence they traveled to Zingara, Ophir and Zamora. Three men had corresponded with the leper in arranging the shipments – a Korzetta of Zingara, Z. from Ophir and Zevras from Zamora. Obviously the cult had a longer reach than the Nemedians had dared to suspect before. Among the letters was a crude map of the known world. Over it had been drawn a giant V with red ink. It covered the western coast from Zingara to Messantia, then reached up till Shadizar in the northeast. Seeing the symbol filled the men with strange dread, but meant nothing at the moment. As the night fell, their dreams were invaded by the glow of a baleful star, alone in the crimson sky. Meanwhile stealthy feet padded on the roof of the house and steel glinted in the moonlight.
After reaching Messentia, I and Alcemides spent a night confirming what the Child of Nergal had told us about the red-handed assassins. As told in a letter we had received after the attack, one of the dock warehouses concealed a secret entrance to a simple negotiation chamber. An envoy of the assassins greeted us there, telling us much of what we already knew. In addition, we each were given the possibility of learning about one other negotiation place. I chose Belverus, and Alcemides chose Kordova. With cities so far apart, we would at least have a reasonable distance to any one of them, no matter where we would travel. However, Belverus was the only meeting place which I assumed would ever get used.