The mansion of Baron Castante was a spectacular palace, surrounded by a large garden filled with rich and powerful guests. Exotic animals ranging from lions to hyenas and from zebras to strange birds were on display around the grounds. Drink flowed freely and inside, half-naked men and women shuddered on silk pillows in lotus-induced dreams. Strange and wonderful items were everywhere to be seen inside the mansion, ranging from strange, inhuman statues to ancient suits of mail on wooden dolls. Servants and slaves moved silently among the guests, providing wine and other, more depraved pleasures to the rich and mighty.
Alcemides and Noam dived in to enjoy the party right away, feasting and filling themselves with wine while Tyrus, Barathus and Dionysos went to discuss business with their host. The veiled Baron lead the trio in to a gallery of ancient statues, many of Acheronian origin, some perhaps from times before the oceans drank Atlantis. There, offering wine for his guests, he offered to buy some of the Acheronian coins the party had achieved earlier in the mountains. After a short negotiation, a deal was made and a hundred coins or so exchanged hands. Obviously pleased, Castante proceeded to entertain his other, more important guests. As the other Nemedians merely enjoyed the party, Dionysos did his best to find new useful contacts. It seemed that many powerful, important figures were present at the party, ranging from an envoy of a Messantian merchant house to the local high priest of Mitra. A hotheaded young nobleman tried to provoke Dionysos to a duel, but the crafty Nemedian managed to talk himself out of a situation that appeared to be some kind of set-up.
Many following days passed in idle recovery from the past challenges and the splendid party. The Nemedians realised that they were rich now – not only had they won considerable amounts of coin from the arena, they had also finally managed to exchange the majority of the Acheronian gold to usable currency. Many purses of silver were spent in a few days on better clothing, wine and temple harlots of Ishtar. The young Korzetta had told Dionysos that the mysterious party would be held in five days. Days of idle speculation followed. The two sorcerers spent much of their time investigating the scrolls they had recovered from the crypt and since identified as the writings of Vathelos the Blind – a work perhaps not as famous as the Book of Skelos, but as potent in its knowledge. However, it was obvious that they had only two of the six parts.
As the day of the mysterious party approached, a messenger arrived to bring six wooden masks to the inn the Nemedians resided in. They were made of white wood and were featureless save for eyeslits and a larger opening on the mouth. Among them was a note from Korzetta, instructing the men to cover their faces with the masks before stepping aboard a carriage that would be sent to fetch them from their inn after dark. In the evening, Thothmekri appeared, wearing grey, shapeless robes that covered his whole body. The Nemedians put on their best clothes, donned their masks and stepped inside a black carriage when it pulled to halt before the inn. Heavy shutters were pulled over the windows, blocking the view from the inside. A journey lasting almost an hour commenced, the carriage obviously moving in circles to make the passengers lose their bearings.
The five veterans and the Stygian spy stepped out of the carriage in a large stable, obviously somewhere near the sea. The smell of the sea was strong, but no sounds of the harbor could be heard. Men wearing black capes and masks of dark wood on their faces lead them silently onward, torches in hand. They marched downwards through a maze of stairs and passages, in the forsaken, sunken part of Kordova only know as the Pit, passing armed groups of similarly garbed men standing guard at regular intervals. Finally, they arrived at what looked like a market square swallowed by the earth itself. In its center was a well, towards which the masked men motioned the guests to go.
Climbing down a rope ladder, the six companions entered in to a huge natural cave. A few torches were lit on the walls, giving shadowy illumination to the part of the cave directly underneath the well. A dozen or so men and women milled about in similar masks, talking in low tones. They were dressed as Zingaran nobility, but showed no family crests. After a few moments of waiting, two men wearing vulture-like masks appeared in the light, lighting black candles on a large altar-like stone. Jewelry worn by the taller, thinner man hinted that he was Baron Castante or someone impersonating him. Soon, two other masked figures followed – a third, obese man in a vulture-like mask and a strange figure in shapeless robes, with a golden mask on its face.
A silence fell in the cave as the mysterious stranger with the golden mask stepped forth to speak. The robes hid its body so well that it was impossible to determine if underneath them was a woman, a man or something completely inhuman. The mask portrayed a flawlessly beautiful face with both female and male features. Upon its forehead was placed a strange triangular glyph, which seemed to swirl as the shadows played on it. The voice of the person, obviously a priest of some sort, was a booming wave of authority that echoed in the cave and yet, lacked any identifiable qualities.
The priest preached a booming welcome sermon of a god known as the Golden King and the benefits of worshipping him. The greedy would receive gold, the vain recognition, the ugly beauty and the lonely new friends. The Golden King was a true, present god with power over mortals, not a weak shadow like Mitra, Set and the other gods. By submitting before the Golden King the initiated would find great power and make others submit before them in turn. As the priest spoke, the symbol on the mask swirled faster and the power of his words seemed to multiply with each sentence. The Nemedians had to fight hard against a powerful sensation of belief that was slowly creeping into their very souls. Just as their willpower started to wane, the sermon ended. New torches were lit deeper in the chamber, where a long table brimming with food and wine was visible. The priests motioned the initiates to follow them and to feast for the glory of the Golden King.
A feast of strange but pleasant meat and thick, salty wine was offered to the initiates, with the three vulture-masks partaking eagerly and the robed figure with the golden mask sitting at the end of the table. The talk of the table soon revealed that the obese man was Don Estebio, the collector of madmen. Yet the identity of the third vulture remained a mystery – it seemed that Korzetta was not among the men around the table. Black-garbed servants moved silently among the guests, bringing more meat and wine for them to enjoy. As Alcemides and Noam observed the surroundings, it became obvious that there were at least a dozen masked men standing in the shadows around the table.
After each participant had drank a few cups of wine, the priest in the golden mask spoke again, asking each of the initiates to follow alone to the altar to speak about what the Golden King had to offer them. As the first of the Zingarans followed the robed figure into the dark, the Nemedians switched to speaking Nemedian among themselves. Masking their concern under cheerful tones, they agreed that Tyrus would go find out what the mysterious priest had to say. Yet they all agreed that they should leave somehow before the strange party was over – for it seemed likely that some sinister ritual would crown the event.
Tyrus returned from his talk with the masked priest in morbid silence. He hurriedly explained that the priest had a sinister sorcery of some sort working against the initiates and that they should leave as soon as possible. Thothmekri agreed with their proposal – yet leaving from the guarded table would be hard. Barathus insisted that the perverted collector had to die for the horrors they had seen in his manor.
Alcemides decided to take action, acting drunk and asking the masked servants to lead him somewhere to void his bladder. A lone man in a black mask lead him to a recess deeper in the cave, where an improvised privy had been dug. Still acting drunk, Alcemides suddenly pounced on the servant, knocking him unconscious with a swift blow. Then he hastily stripped the man from his mask and cape, revealing a rough-looking Zingaran armed with a short sword. Disguised as a servant, Alcemides returned to the table. While serving wine for the guests, the half-pict managed to gain the attention of Noam. The woodsman followed the example set before him and together the two men knocked another servant unconscious. Noam disguised himself as a servant and the two Nemedians agreed that Alcemides would go to scout the route back while Noam would tell of their plan to the others.
Alcemides sneaked back underneath the well and climbed to the top, surprising two men standing guard there with swift punches. Now armed with an arbalest and two shortswords, the half-pict silenced three more guards before returning to the well. Meanwhile, the Nemedians were getting restless. It was obvious that they could not avoid talking with the priest in the golden mask for long. A brief plan was formed using languages the Zingarans could not understand – Thothmekri promised to arrange something to deter pursuit, if a distraction of some kind would only allow them to flee the table.
Alcemides sneaked back to the cave, hiding beneath some rocks with a good line of sight to the table. With a loaded arbalest in hands, he considered his options. He sprung to action as one of the other guests left for the closet with one of the masked servants. Aiming carefully, he let loose a bolt that nailed the obese collector to the table, piercing his head and sending fragments of his skull flying. Thothmekri and the four other Nemedians jumped on their feet – this was the moment they had been waiting for.
A stunned silence turned to a sudden skirmish, as the men cut down who they could reach while bolting towards the rope ladder. As they reached the rope, a new sound emerged – a chittering call followed by crunches of breaking bone and bloodcurling screams from the dark. Thothmekri smiled cruelly, reminding the Nemedians that he had promised to arrange a distraction of his own. Climbing for their lives, all six managed to reach the top of the well and cut off the rope ladder right as their first pursuers were reaching their end. The Stygian started leading the men in the dark corridors, explaining that he knew most of the Pit rather well. The route they had taken would soon be blocked – they could only evade pursuit by disappearing in the oldest tunnels.
After hours of marching through the corridors, the men finally smelled fresh air ahead, appearing in the harbor of Kordova. They soon concluded that the obviously well-connected cult would be looking for them at their residence once they realized that the Nemedians had gotten out of the Pit. Thothmekri promised that he could keep him safe in his hidden shelter until the black galley would arrive in a few days time. Thus the Nemedians ran through the silent streets to get their belongings from the inn, bribing a few curfew patrols on the way.
Back at the harbour, Thothmekri lead the men to his hiding place, located beneath a shady tavern. As they could finally settle down and catch their breath, the Stygian explained that his worst fears concerning the strange cult had come true. Spies employed by Thothmekri had kept their eye on the cult for almost a year. Without going in too much detail, he told that they were a perverted lot that threatened not only interests of his masters but the well-being of all citizens of Kordova as well. He claimed that behind the golden mask was hidden the Argossean envoy from Castante’s parties. He and Baron Castante would have to die.