Conan Acheronian Edition

Session XIII: The Children of Set

The First Taste of Stygia...

The Stygian galley sailed southwards, every pull of its long oars bringing it a little closer to the dark realm of fell sorcery and bestial gods. The terrain shifted from the orchards and fields of Argos to the fertile meadows of western Shem. Dionysos and Tyrus continued to spend their time drinking deeply of the wisdom of the blind sage, while trying their best to learn the rudiments of modern Stygian, a task made easier by their fluency in the related languages of Acheronian and Classical Stygian. Barathus, too, tried his best to learn some of the language of the country they would soon be spending time in. The rest of the men lounged about bored on the deck, one day to the next. Although the crew members and the captain were now more polite towards the Nemedians, after the battle with the black corsairs, they could still offer them little entertainment. Thothmekri spent most of his time out of sight, perhaps in contact with his dark masters through sorcerous means.

Bored and annoyed by the increasingly intense sun, Barathus, Alcemides and Noam spent most of their time engaged in idle games of chance, petty sums of coin exchanging hands each day. Strange dreams continued to trouble Noam’s nights – dreams where a baleful star shone on a blood red sky and civilizations were reduced to ruin and former humans reveled like animals, hunting and killing to satisfy their monstrous appetites. He also dreamt of a city, destroyed and rebuilt three times, each time devoured by the sands of a merciless desert. Under the baleful star its towers and palaces crumbled to dust and its citizens became bones bleached under the desert sun. From underneath the sands and the ruins he could hear a pounding sound, inviting and calling for him, summoning Noam to its presence. The dreams continued, more and more demanding each night. Slowly a name echoed through the mists to his mind – Pteion the Damned, hidden in the dark lands of Stygia.

The black galley continued its journey south. One evening a green glow was seen on the sea, slowly approaching the ship. The sight drove the Stygian sailors to a panic, causing a flurry of activity as the men fled under the deck. Approached by the worried captain, the Nemedians were explained that the approaching glow was that of a sea demon, a vicious creature that enjoyed confusing sailors and making them run their ships aground. He told that the only way to be safe from its evil influences was to be unseen, beneath the deck until it would get bored and go away. With those parting words, the captain turned and ran to his cabin, leaving the foreigners alone on the deck, with the eerie glow slowly enveloping the water around the ship. Arguing what to do, the Nemedians decided to inspect the phenomenon further. Dionysos and Tyrus bent over the railing, but their sorcerous senses did not register anything. The men lowered a bucket to the sea and lifted up some seawater. The water in the bucket glowed as the sea around the ship, although less intensely, but showed no other signs of something unusual.

While the others were examining the water, Alcemides sneaked in the deserted cargo hold where the sarcophagus had been taken to in Messantia. Pulling back the covering on the sarcophagus, the half-pict admired its rich carvings and occult decorations. It was obviously made completely from the finest jade and the snake motifs on its lid looked almost alive in the shadows of the hold. Dionysos joined Alcemides in admiring the sarcophagus, but upon seeing the face etched on to the lid the young Nemedian with Acheronian blood in his veins swore under his breath and fled to the deck. As he was explaining to Tyrus and the rest that the ship was carrying the remains of Xaltotun in its hold, Alcemides struggled with the heavy lid, finally pulling it slightly aside. Peeking inside he saw a curious sight – a shriveled mummy wearing fresh, new silken clothes and around its neck a golden pendant with a huge red gem that seemed to radiate a dim glow of red light by itself.

As Tyrus climbed down to the hold, Alcemides was busy trying to cut off the head of the corpse. The shriveled flesh proved to be surprisingly tough, making it hard for the half-pict to saw the neck with his blade. His attempts to open the golden necklace has failed, leading in to the next logical step – beheading the corpse. The eerie glow from the gem cast dark shadows across his scarred face, reflecting a manic gleam in his eyes. With great difficulty, the young sorcerer managed to convince him that beheading the mummy of an ancient wizard was not the wisest thing to do. Standing by themselves on the deserted deck, with an eerie green glow casting dark shadows around them, the Nemedians engaged in a heated debate about what to do next. Alcemides urged them to seize the chance, grab the splendid necklace and escape from the ship with a boat to the coast of Shem. Dionysos and Noam were against such deeds, albeit for different reasons. The Acheronian argued that the necklace was most likely cursed – and if they’d escape with it, the Stygian priests would send terrible spells after them, making their lives short and miserable. Noam decreed that it was his destiny, as it was revealed by gods in his dreams, to go to Stygia and visit the damned city of Pteion that was calling out to him. Besides, it was obvious that he was cursed by the sorcerer his arrow had slain in Zingara and in Stygia, a land renowned for sorcery, the curse might be lifted.

The arguments flowed high and loud back and forth, as Alcemides had been captured by the beauty of the red gem. Tyrus became convinced by his arguments of great wealth within their grasp – obsessed as he was, Tyrus started to think that by possessing the gem he could use it to find more scrolls of Vathelos the Blind. Considerate as ever, Barathus tried to calm the opposing sides in vain. Wrestling ensued on the slippery deck, as Alcemides proclaimed that he would go to cut the gem for himself and Noam pounced on him, attempting to prevent him from going in the cargo hold. While the two struggled, Dionysos did his best to convince Tyrus to abandon the idea of theft. He reminded Tyrus of the deal they had done with Niccolo and that the mysterious information broker would tell them location of another set of scrolls once they passed through Messantia again on their way back to Nemedia. Thus going to Stygia was a more likely way of obtaining another part of the writings than running through the meadows of Shem with ire of the serpent priests on their heels. As Alcemides subdued Noam with a deceitful kick between the legs, he learned that he had lost his ally in the argument, the spell of the gem broken with carefully placed words that flamed the sorcerers obsession.

No longer supported by any of his companions, Alcemides finally admitted defeat. Yet still he was unable to comprehend how the other veterans could miss such an obvious opportunity to gain great wealth. He proclaimed that by letting this opportunity pass by they would miss their one and only great chance of receiving great treasures and walking out alive with them. As the ship would reach Stygia, the sarcophagus would surely be taken away to be guarded with swords and sorcery beyond their ability to penetrate. The dark lands of Stygia would surely have nothing but trouble and curses in stock for them – and the city of Pteion that Noam so foamed about would turn out to be nothing but an abandoned ruin haunted by demons of the worst kind. The half-pict swore to the others that surely this was an opportunity set before them by gods of the forests and nothing else would ever be handed to them again. Only scars and memories of horrors beyond mortal comprehension would be their rewards from the journey that they would now take on – and they would perish before blades of broadswords and tulwars in some nameless hellhole, no richer than they were at birth. Silent and grumpy, the men separated and went to sleep amidst the green glow and the words of Alcimedes ringing in their ears with a prophetic echoes.

The green glow – demon or not – had disappeared as the dawn shone on the galley again. Journey towards the serpent of the south carried onwards under the scorching sun. With every passing day, other black galley become a more and more common sight. Finally Thothmekri approached the Nemedians again, telling them that the ship would arrive at Khemi in a few days. The Stygian held a lecture at the men, informing them of the religious taboos and curious customs upheld with draconian laws. The priest recommended the Nemedians to first spend several days in the foreigners island outside the city proper before using the permits awaiting them for the first time. Trading licenses of the kind they would receive were extremely valuable in the right hands and using them lightly might well result in their deaths. Learning of the hygiene habits of Stygia, the men decided to shave as well when the sailors started to shed themselves of bodily hair two days before their expected arrival. Noam and Barathus refused to shave themselves completely bald, and Dionysos would not part with his luxuriant mane, but others had no such objections.

Two days later, the galley approached the river Styx and the dark city of Khemi. The spires and palaces of the inner city loomed against the morning sky in the distance and behind them the Nemedians could see the vague shapes of huge pyramids, somewhere in the desert further away. The sea carried strange and exotic noises and smells from the city that was both familiar and alien in appearance and spirit. Raised as they have been to believe that Set was a demon of worst kind and the Stygians some form of human monsters, the apparent banality of the lives of the common people working on the fields and fishing on the sea challenged their prejudices. Yet still strange obelisks and huge statues of bestial, threatening gods could be seen looming among the buildings of the Stygian city. The galleon rowed its way to a military harbor, where dozens of black ships both similar and larger were moored underneath dark bulwarks. A group of muscular black slaves guided by half a dozen acolytes of Set were waiting as the ship slowly docked. As the slaves entered the ship and headed down to the cargo hold, Thothmekri approached the Nemedians with one of the acolytes. The young priest of Set handed two papyrus scrolls to the Hyborians while Thothmekri explained that they were the trading permits he had promised them. He told that a boat would take them to Tortoise Island, a place of residence for foreigners with no permit to enter the city itself. From there on the men would be on their own, but they could send word for him at the House of Healing inside the city if they wished.

The Nemedians bid their farewells to Thothmekri, making their way on a boat where a naked slave waited to take them to the island. As the slave rowed the boat towards the island, the Nemedians saw the muscular slaves carry the jade sarcophagus away from the ship, perhaps to disappear inside one of the many pyramids that had surely swallowed many wonders like it during their long existence. Soon enough they had again land underneath their feet, as they wandered the narrow alleys of Tortoise Island. Dirty, half-naked mercenaries slumbered in shadows under the scorching sun that seemed to threaten to burn Hyborian skin to cinders.Eventually the Nemedians found their way to the best inn they could find on the island – a dirty place called the Yellow Rose. The men spent a few days just relaxing after the long journey and getting to know the local regulars. They were a ragged bunch from across the Hyborian nations and further away – mercenaries and cutthroats from north, a tomb robber from Shadizar and a strange Shemite dressed as a Darfar, with empty eye sockets but acting as he could see and a huge, sweating and panting wolf always at his feet.

Making plans and discussing their options the Nemedians soon found out that the trading season was only beginning. Caravans with silk and lotus would start to arrive to Khemi in a week or two, leaving them with nothing to do. Unwilling or unable to stay idle, the wanderers came up with a plan – to seek their fortune in the swamps nearby in the form of black lotus. After all, how dangerous could a flower be? Surely the chilling tales of its dangers were merely tales spun by those who wished others to stay away from their sources of the fabled drug. Dionysos speculated that by drying the lotus in to powder they could make a fortune if they could take it all the way to Nemedia – perhaps hidden inside crates of silk. In a few days they had hired a Stygian lotus guide to take them to places where black lotus was to be found.

In the evening before their departure to their trip, Noam and Alcemides learned that the eyeless Shemite was a mad storyteller known as Tawil At’Umr. He had been part of a mercenary company on the southern border of Stygia and went missing a few years ago after the mercenaries had been attacked by Darfars. All his companions had thought that he had died, but the man had suddenly appeared in Khemi half a year ago, blind but yet somehow able to act as if seeing and accompanied by a wolf. Ever since he had claimed that he had been enlightened by a goddess and given knowledge of things past and present. The madman spread forth insane tales for anyone willing to listen – and held those interested in some sort of spell, for they never left without leaving enough coin to pay for his room and food. Intrigued, Noam approached the blind man and asked if he knew anything about Pteion.

Smiling knowingly, the eyeless Shemite started telling a story of ancient times when the serpent kin of Valusia called the world their own. He told of their rites to appease the Old Serpent and strange, alien cities built in distant and hard to reach places. With a singing, powerful voice he told of how Atlantis was taken by the waves and how the blood of Atlantis clashed with the blood of Valusia. A baleful star shone upon red sky as the serpent people were struck down and their realm cast in to forgotten ruins and whispered legends. The city of Pteion, as it was called, was cursed and devoured by the sands of the deserts, waiting for another time. The new time came with the people who built the realm of Old Stygia and the sands of the desert parted, revealing Pteion again. The city was rebuilt and populated, new buildings constructed over the warrens of ages long gone. Yet again the red sky came and the baleful star watched down with merciless eyes as Pteion again fell and the sands devoured it again, cursed for the second time. Then came the ancestors of the Stygians, conquering the Old Stygians and fleeing some dire catastrophe far east. The sands of the desert parted and for the third time, Pteion was built under the naked sky. Yet still what had passed would come again and the baleful star appeared on the sky, cursing the city for the third time. Now it again slept under the sands, Pteion the Thrice-Cursed, Pteion the Damned, a relic of times far older than what men could remember.

Still smiling, the storyteller looked Noam in to eyes with his empty eye-sockets and told that the fourth appearance and the fourth cursing of Pteion would soon come to pass. The baleful star would once more gaze upon the world and the horrors and wonders of the old world would be again unburied. He told that the Nemedians would find Pteion if the city wanted them to come to it – old roads would appear from the desert sand and they would find their way in to the city. Yet to visit the damned city would mean to become damned or enlightened themselves – and most men, weak of will and faint of heart, would die shaking and with a froth of madness at their lips if they experienced the glory of Pteion at full. One by one all the Nemedians had arrived at the table to listen to the powerful story and one by one they left, leaving silver at the blind storyteller. Night came dark, cold and sudden. Noam slept uneasily and in his dreams, a baleful star gazed down from a blood-red sky.

An Insert From the Journals of Dionysos Thaurian

What Alcemides fails to realise is that the thought of me dying with as much wealth as I was born with does not bother me in the least. Oh, those silly commoners.