Five Nemedians had come to the silent city of Erkulum, but only four left towards the southern deserts. Strange madness had fallen upon Barathus, filling him with religious zeal. He spoke of portents and signs – how the snake-goddess Ishiti had saved them in the city of scorpions. In return, the goddess would require service. Barathus declared his will to serve the bestial goddess and no amount of convincing could change his mind. With heavy hearts, the other Nemedians left Barathus on the steps of an imposing basalt temple.
Journey south was hard for the companions. The days were filled with burning heat and the nights with freezing cold. The camels were strange beasts they were not used to ride or handle. Noam kept preaching about the wonders of Pteion till everyone else was tired of his voice. After five days of hard travel, the men arrived upon a desert oasis. Camping there was a small group of Stygian nomads. They turned out to be friendly enough after some bread was shared. Of Pteion, the nomads could tell little. They knew the place to be haunted and avoided it. Bravest of them had sometimes went close enough to see the area, which was but ancient ruins sunken in desert sands. Hyenas of considerable size patrolled the area. The nomads knew of a caravan mostly composed of foreigners which had gone the same way several weeks ago.
The following days were filled with anticipation and dread. According to Tawil At’Umr, the city was far older than people remembered. Once it had been the headquarters of the Black Ring. When the Hyborian barbarians attacked Stygia, the dark sorcerers unleashed terrible fury upon them. So mighty were their spells that the Hyborians were driven back north – and the very land around Pteion devastated. So the sorcerers abandoned Pteion and set west to Kheshetta. Yet before the Black Ring, Old Stygians had performed their unspeakable rites in there. Before the Giant-Kings, it had been sanctuary of the Snakes Who Walk. Perhaps even before the scaled folk, there had been a city in the very same spot, now buried under the sands of time.
After a windy desert night, the Nemedians found themselves camped right besides an ancient stone road. Sweeping winds had uncovered it and Noam convinced the others it was a sign. The city itself wanted the Nemedians to find it. After a half a days travel, the companions were standing on an ridge overlooking a plain filled with ruins. The ruins were surrounded by ancient statues, partly buried in the sand, arranged in a circle. As they passed between the statues, the sorcerers felt a jolt of power, as if they had passed an invisible wall. A few sections of the ancient city walls still stood erect. Behind them, only a handful of buildings had even one wall left. Hyenas, both small and very large, lazily lounged among the rocks and broken monuments. The sight was one of desolation and ancient tragedy, not splendor and riches Noam had described for months.
While surveying the ruins, Dionysos suddenly spotted a lonely rider speeding furiously through the desert towards northeast. It was too far to make out details, but the figure was riding away from Pteion, hard as if all the demons of hell were on his (or her) tail. A small argument broke out among the men – perhaps intercepting the rider would provide them with valuable information. Finally the Nemedians agreed to leave the lone rider in peace and instead investigate the city carefully. They suspected that the cult had reached the city before them and might have an ambush laid in wait for them.
Observing the ruins was fruitless. Thus the men decided to advance down to Pteion the Damned. Nothing moved among the broken stone, though there were signs of recent inhabitation here and there. From the most intact buildings the companions found camp sites. A large number of people had obviously stayed there just a day ago at most – and left all their things behind. In one of the buildings Alcemides found a bloody ritual altar and a room filled with the bloodless corpses of black men. A few had been dead for weeks, but the most recent a few days at most.
Among southern parts of Pteion the Nemedians found foundations of an ancient temple. A huge hole had been dug through the stone. An improvised ramp lead down into the darkness below. After a short discussion, the companions left their animals in an almost intact building. Then they collected barrels of water from the other camp sites and hid them with the animals. After having closed down the openings so no hyena could get inside, they descended down into the true Pteion. Then the darkness swallowed them whole.
Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus woke in pungent darkness, bodies aching like after a beating. Fumbling around with a barely controlled panic, they finally managed to light a torch. They were at the bottom of a pit and covered with fine, white mist. Dionysos was nowhere to be seen. Climbing out of the pit proved out to be bit of a challenge. Alcemides and Tyrus both slipped and fell back a few times. Finally Noam managed to scale the wall and pull the others up with the help of a rope. Soon the men realised they were lost somewhere in an underground warren they had never seen. Faded geometric inscriptions decorated walls of dark green stone. It was as if hours had been wiped clean from their memory. Perhaps Dionysos had lead them in to a trap.
Wandering through the corridors, the Nemedians suddenly heard distant voices shouting to each other in Zingaran. Guided by the echoes, they found a strange chamber. Two dozen Zingaran men labored weakly, building an idol of some sort from bricks piled against the wall. Several seemed too weak from thirst to do little but crawl – but they still tried to help. As the men stepped in the chamber, Noam and Tyrus were overtaken by a strange obsession. They charged to join the Zingarans in building the idol, suddenly working together as if they had been known each other for years. No amount of pleads, insults or threats seemed to return them to their senses. Finally Alcemides knocked both men unconscious and dragged them away from the chamber. Back in the hallway, they were free from the compulsion, but left with a feeling of unexplainable dread about the idol.
Whatever the purpose of the idol chamber was, it was luckily located near the ramp out. Climbing up, they realised the sun was about to set. They had lost most of the day – a gap in their memories which would never be fixed. Not wishing to brave the tunnels at night, the Nemedians made haste to their shelter. Inside, it was obvious Dionysos had been there. One camel and a large portion of supplies was missing. The Acheronian half-breed had taken a mount and left somewhere towards north, judging from the tracks. As the darkness was about to fall on them, the trio decided not to pursue him.
Night came and with it, the ancient city seemed to come back to life. Guards heard stranger and stranger sounds as the night went on. There was clattering of hooves, sounds of a busy marketplace and the noisy rumbling of chariots speeding through the streets – yet nothing was to be seen. Somewhere after the midnight the sounds became clearer – and were followed by movement. Standing guard on the roof, Noam heard approaching stampade of a marching military unit. Gazing over the ruins he saw an astonishing sight. A full phalanx of soldiers was marching down the street right towards him, breastplates and spear-tips gleaming in the starlight, banners fluttering in a wind he could not feel.
Noam quickly alerted Alcemides and Tyrus, who hastily armed themselves and joined Noam on the roof. As the phalanx approached, it seemed to age rapidly – gone were the banners, gone was the gleam from the armor, declining was their number. Instead it was a troop grinning skeletons in ancient equipment and before them ran for his life a naked black man.
From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First
When Dionysos left, I felt regret moreso because there would be less souls to share the risk, than for his supposed betrayal that Alcemides and Noam were fretting over. If Dionysos had truly planned to disappear or had become certain that Pteion would mean death for all of us, he would have taken the scrolls with him. There was no indication that the stash was even touched, so I was practically certain that the young pervert had merely faced some temporary obstacle. We would see him again, but under what terms and when, I didn’t know.
At that time, my mind was more focused on Nefertari and on how to beat her. It never crossed my mind that she could have left already, despite the bleak encounters with the statue-builders. Everything on the camp suggested that it had been used the very morning, and the vile trollop would probably ambush us in the corridors when we least expected it.
The coming morning and Dahab’s eyewitness account would change our minds, but it seemed that merely surviving the night couldn’t be taken for granted.