As the Stygian galley slid ever closer to Messantia, the coastline turned from dark forest to cultivated land, with farms and orchards. The men who had taken part in the destruction of the mask suffered from terrible nightmares, but were slowly recovering from the blow to their sanity. Yet it seemed that Alcemides and Tyrus had been affected by the forces from beyond more seriously than the others. A creeping terror seized Tyrus whenever he saw golden items, while Alcemides had been convinced that he was, in fact, invincible. Dark dreams of the ruined city devoured by sand and a baleful star glowing over it like eye of a great beast invaded Noam’s dreams again and again. His bad luck in games of chance and combat alike seemed to carry on with no end, finally leading the Nemedians to believe that he was, in fact, cursed because of killing the Zingaran sorcerer. Stygian sorcerers might be able to remove the curse – for a heavy price – once they reached the soil of that dark, ancient nation.
As the glittering spires of the City of Coin became visible on the horizon, Thothmekri visited the Nemedians again. He informed the men that the galley would dock at Messantia for a few days, receive replacements for crewmembers fallen in the battle and then continue off to Stygia. The enigmatic priest offered Barathus and Dionysos a chance to attend with him a business meeting that might offer them interesting opportunities. The two men agreed and decided to bring the other two with them. As the black galley approached harbor of the great city, the Nemedians were gaping at its splendors with open awe. Messantia, one of the richest cities in the World, was there, with all its vices, within their grasp for them to explore and enjoy. Leaving the ship, they wished the liberated prisoners good luck on their long journey home. Barathus spent more of his gold to buy Brocas and his companions supplies for their travels.
The Nemedians settled down in a magnificent inn, enjoying a well deserved rest. Dionysos went shopping for new, exquisite clothing, later joining the others in spending much coin on song, wine and women. The following day the men strolled streets of the city, filling up their supplies for the rest of the journey. Alcemides bough himself a finely crafted Akibatan shortsword, decorated with onyx and opals. There was still the matter of the golden chunks left from the mask to handle. Asking around from the local goldsmiths, the Nemedians were directed to an alley of goldsmiths. Entering one of the largest stores, they presented their golden problem to the guildsmen. Examining the chunks, the goldsmith offered a sizable sum of coin for the gold – but explained that he would not be able to pay it before next evening, after examining the precious metal in detail. Trusting that the guild would not cheat them, the Nemedians accepted a receipt for the gold and went off to enjoy vices of the city some more.
Rested and relaxed, the five comrades headed towards the guild in the evening, walking unknowingly towards an ambush. As they were walking down the alley, the men noticed too late that something was amiss – the reinforced oak door in to the goldsmiths store was hanging open on its hinges. Wagons came crashing at both ends of the alley and shadowy shapes sprung up from the roofs around them, the explosive clacking of arbalests soon showering the Nemedians with bolts. A single, piercing hit brought Tyrus down on the street, seemingly lifeless. Barathus covered Dionysos with his shield as they rushed inside the store. Inside was a mess of broken glass and jewelry spread on the floor, the goldsmith slumped dead behind his counter. Noam followed, releasing arrows at the assassins on the roof. Feeling certain of his invincibility, Alcemides did not bother with cover but charged towards other end of the alley, climbing on top of the wagon and starting to pull himself on roof of the building. Luck was with him, as a dozen bolts just whizzed by him, striking deep in walls around the half-pict.
Inside, Dionysos and Barathus raced upstairs, guessing that there should be some way to access the roof from the building. On the way they came upon more carnage, as the whole family of the goldsmith had been killed. Even his youngest children had not been spared. Noam exchanged fire with the assassins on the opposite roof from the doorway. They were obviously well prepared with loaded arbalests ready at their side to fire on the Nemedians. At the end of the volley, Alcemides struggled to climb on the roof, his grip constantly coming loose. As he finally managed to pull himself up on the roof, two disguised assassins attacked him with jagged scimitars. They had covered their bodies in wide, flowing capes and pulled scarves on their faces. Moving with the speed of a striking serpent, Alcemides dodged their blows, feinting and slashing at their throats, his new Akibatan blade feasting on blood for the first time.
Just as Dionysos and Barathus were about to reach the roof, Alcemides spotted another shadowy figure rising from the roof of a building a few blocks away. He waved a yellow flag a few times around his head before disappearing. The assassins immediately withdrew from combat, tumbling down on carts full of hay parked on the street below. They dropped their weapons, scarves and capes, having ordinary clothes underneath them and disappeared into the crowd. Alcemides ran after them in a fruitless pursuit, leaving the others behind. Investigating their fallen comrade, Barathus and Dionysos found that Tyrus was still barely alive. Luck had turned the bolt that had brought him down so that it had narrowly missed his heart. While they tended his wounds, Noam noticed that unit of Argossean guardsmen was approaching the alley. Barathus convinced the others that he could talk them out of the situation.
The patrolmen quickly removed the wagons from both ends of the valley and investigated the situation. A polite young lieutenant discussed the situation with Barathus, but insisted that the Nemedians would need to come with him to the nearest station to sort out the situation and where a doctor could be called for wounded Tyrus. Soldiers entering the goldsmith’s were horrified to find corpses of his family strewn around the building. The four companions muttered grimly among themselves – it was obvious that the assassins had been merely delaying them for a set-up. After Dionysos and Barathus insisted on it, the lieutenant sent some of his soldiers to search the roofs for corpses. They returned empty handed, increasing suspicions of the Nemedians. The three standing men were lead towards the nearest guardhouse with Tyrus carried behind them. Alcemides returned from his chase just in time to see the patrol and shadowed the group to the fortified building.
Inside, the four men were led to a sparsely furnished dining room inside the guardpost. They were told they would need to wait for hour or two, before a senior officer could be reached to come discuss the matter with them. Two armed guards stayed to stand watch by the only door, while there were probably over two dozen additional soldiers inside the building. Tyrus was revived back to consciousness and the others explained to him what had happened. An hour and then two passed in uncomfortable anticipation. Dionysos and Barathus speculated that the cult that had obviously framed them controlled the city guard as well. It seemed strange that they had found the Nemedians so quickly. Meanwhile, Alcemides stalked outside the guardhouse, wondering what to do. Not someone used to idleness, the half-pict decided to get his companions out. Walking casually among the crowd, he scouted a good position among the cobbled roads, clenching a flamepowder bomb inside his fist. Waiting for a group of nobles to pass by on horseback, he threw the bomb at the feet of their mounts, causing instant mayhem as the horses panicked from the sparkling boom.
Pandemonium broke out in the streets, as the panicking horses spread their terror to other animals. Merchants and commoners ran for their lives, while the riders struggled to stay on their mounts. Soldiers rushed out of the guardhouse to investigate the racket and while they were pacifying the area, Alcemides slipped inside. He quickly knocked the lone guard in the entry hall unconscious and sneaked in, finding the other Nemedians with pure luck. Quickly subduing the soldiers in the room, all five slipped out of the guardpost and ran. They spent a few silver to disguise themselves as peasants and sneaked to the black galley moored in the harbor. As the companions explained the situation to Thothmekri, the Stygian agreed that the whole mess was the creation of followers of the Golden Lord. He reminded the Nemedians that they had chosen to keep the golden mask, that obviously brought misery even after being destroyed. At least now the remains of the mask had been lost.
Alcemides went to investigate the aftermath of their escape the next day, while the others stayed hidden in the ship. It became obvious that the Nemedians were now wanted men in Messantia – not only for the muder of a whole family, but for public disturbance as well. The goldsmith’s guild had promised a considerable amount of silver for their capture. As the half-pict returned onboard, Thothmekri was preparing to leave. He explained Niccolo, the man he would meet, was one of the most prominent information dealers in the whole city. Reaching him was very hard and without Thothmekri, the Nemedians would have had no chance to ever meet him. They could accompany him, disguised, at their own peril. Tyrus was the first to say that he would come, as he wanted to ask the broker about scrolls of Vathelos the Blind. The mere thought of finding more parts of the book made his eyes gleam and hands shake. The others reluctantly agreed to accompany him.
A few hours later, the Nemedians were following Thothmekri disguised as servants. After reaching the large house of the information broker, they were taken in a richly decorated lounge by polite servants. Shedding their disguises, the Nemedians sat down to enjoy fresh fruit and expensive wines. A Vendhyan girl less than ten years of age sat in the corner, playing an ektara for their enjoyment. Thothmekri was lead in to inner chambers of the house – the Stygian said that he had business to conduct with their host before their presence would be requested. Sipping wine, the men discussed idly their situation. It was obvious that followers of the Golden Lord used Messantia as some sort of power base. Yet it seemed likely that they would never need to return to the City of Coin. They would merely go to Stygia, take a load of exotic goods to Nemedia and lead a comfortable life with their wealth.
More than an hour passed before the oriental girl left the room and then returned, motioning the five men to follow. They were taken to a huge study, richly decorated with mats from Iranistan and silk curtains from Khitai. Thothmekri was sitting in a beautifully engraved chair. On the other side of a massive table sat Niccolo, a pale Ophirian man with handsome face and dead, cold eyes. The Stygian introduced the men to the information broker, who greeted them politely. As they had been offered seats, he went straight to business, asking if there was something he could do for them.
A quivering Tyrus could barely contain himself as Dionysos and Barathus discussed with Niccolo about the followers of the Golden Lord. Their host evaded most questions, smiling wryly, but told that the cult had indeed a major network inside Messantia. Their influence had arrived in the city through eastern trade routs a decade or so ago, seducing young noblemen and the idle rich to its grasp. They promised power and riches to those who already had aplenty and used them to their own purposes. Finally, Tyrus could not contain himself anymore and blurted out if Niccolo knew something about the scrolls of Vathelos the Blind. Smiling, the information broker said that he had heard about the scribblings of the blind sage. In fact, for a right price, he could tell the locations of two parts of the book. Frustrated, Tyrus was not in a mood to negotiate. As Niccolo named his price – a bag of gold and a favor in the southern lands – he agreed, tossing a heavy sack full of coin on the table. Chuckling lightly, Niccolo told that a small temple of Ishar in Ophir, located in a border town near Aquilonia, had one set of scrolls in their library. The priests there did not realize what they had and stealing or buying it should be an easy task. Then he pulled a small, skillfulyl made wood carving from his pocket and threw it on the table.
The carving portrayed the face of a woman, obviously beautiful, but with passing features of cruel, disturbing effect. It was obvious even from the carving that she had Acheronian blood flowing in her veins. Still smiling, Niccolo explained that the woman in the carving was Nefertari, an old friend he wanted to locate. He had heard that the Nemedians were going to Stygia and had a reason to believe that she was there as well. Sipping dark red wine from jewelled goblet, Niccolo mentioned that he had a feeling the Nemedians would come across the woman in their travels. They only needed to find her and tell him were she was. He would then give them location of the second set of scrolls in return.
As Barathus asked why Niccolo did not request such service from Thothmekri instead, both men just shrugged and smiled. Dionysos and Niccolo kept eyeing each other in a way that was starting to disturb the other men. Discussion faded slowly in to a small talk. As Thothmekri and the Nemedians prepared to leave, Dionysos announced his intention to stay behind for a few sips of wine with their host. Shrugging and already used to lecherousness of their companion, the four others returned to the harbor with the Stygian sorcerer.
Dionysos returned in the morning as the ship was being prepared for departure. He was pale and drawn, as if his very life had been sucked out of his body. The young half-Acheroninan just went to sleep without a word. The others did not ask anything, presuming his weakness to be the result of some forbidden perversion. As the ship was readied for departure, Thothmekri paced restlessly on the deck, obviously waiting for something. Finally, a heavy carriage approached. Burly black slaves carried a large bulk covered with cloth from it, taking it to the cargo hold of the galley. As they were taking it below the deck, a breeze from the sea raised the cover for a moment. Underneath was a sarcophagus made of bright green jade, decorated with cryptic hieroglyphs and carvings of snakes.
From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First
As we were leaving in Messentia, I had begun to feel dissatisfied about my performance during the recent fights. Especially the ambush at the goldsmith had seen me merely catching bolts and not even delaying the enemy, while more seasoned warriors did their work. More specifically, the heavy army greatsword felt clumsy in my hands and offered little protection from arrows. I yearned a nimbler weapon, which would hinder hinder my mobility less and leave my other hand free. Unlike Alcemides, I wasn’t daring enough to go after archers without a shield.
I regretted that i had not had time to attend a fencing school in Zingara, but Barathus offered to teach me his elegant swordmanship. Luckily an officer on the ship traded my old equipment for a sturdy broadsword and a small shield, which enabled me to spar and train. I immediately felt more comfortable, and never looked back. Though it would be quite a while until I could beat Barathus in a duel, my self-confidence soared.