From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First
I was a bit put off for not being able to attend the tomb exploration trek the other day, but unaccustomed to both lotus and heavy drinking, the repercussions of Yunet’s party were so bad that I felt almost feverish. Luckily the symptoms subsided, the next day, and when Noam declared that he has another mission for us, I was fit to travel.
The witch who removed Noam’s curse had heard of an old artifact of power in Khet, a deserted sacred city of the scorpion god Selkhet. We had paid a hefty price for the removal of the curse, and the witch was prepared to refund our payment, should we fetch the artifact for her.
Preparations were soon done and we set out for the desert. Khet was only around four days away from Khemi. The trip was uneventful and quite comfortable, for we had prepared adequately. We arrived late in the afternoon, and headed out for the biggest temple of the area, where Noam assumed the artifact would be hidden. The temple had a large main hall circled with terraces on three stories. The horizontal architecture seemed strange and combined with the abundant engravings and arabesques, also very expensive. The ancient stygians didn’t seem to be short of coin.
We set camp and prepared to explore the temple, but were interrupted by a booming voice. On the terrace above us, loomed an apparition wreathed in blue flames. It demanded peace and our immediate departure on the pain of death, but naturally Alcemides only offered curses in return. As if waiting for this very response, we were met with a hail of arrows from the upper terraces. I got hit by a poisoned tip, and if not for Dionysos’s skills in healing, would surely be a dead man. After a long an bitter fight, my companions managed to drive the rest of the attackers away. When scouring through their remains, we found out that they were simple bandits who didn’t possess anything of significant value. The blue flames and the apparition were merely some alchemical powder and a puppet. Strangely some of the dead bandits were ravaged by an unnatural amount of parasites and diseases, which we found very strange, but couldn’t explain yet.
We climbed the stairs to the various terraces and finally to the topmost level. Everything had been througly looted dozens of times over and I begun to question the existence of the whole artifact. Hoever, the pict, with his good eyes, noticed an unusual crack in the wall of the upper sanctum, and led us to a small room. Stored under a heavy stone slab was the artifact we were sent to find.
I did not recognize the markings and engravings on the wall of the small room, and especially its resting place was strangely plain. Stranger still, was the artifact itself. Its form was that of a large ankh, around two palms in height and one palm in width, but the whole structure seemed to be knit from bone. You may question my words, but carved it was not. Upon touch, the ankh was dry and hard as rock, but it seemed as if the bones had once been malleable as wax, and twisted around each other like the strands of a rope. Noam seemed fascinated by the artifact and didn’t let me touch it for long. He said he felt the power in it, and even though I would prefer to call it evil, I was loath to deny his words.
After eating, we left the temple to explore the other ruins. Everywhere else the looters had been thorough and apart from clay pottery and the architectural wonders of the city, absolutely nothing was left. This bothered me, as it seemed extremely unlikely that the artifact would still be here, and so easily found. Just before going back inside, we noticed a something green to the east of the main temple. We got closer to find something magnificent.
Here, in the heat and drought of the desert, inside walls of twice a man’s height, was a lush and tranquil garden. Trees carrying apples, bushes full of berries and extraordinarily colorful flowers were growing in a dark, moist soil. Central to the garden was a fountain carved in the shape of a beautiful woman, with the hindquarters of a snake. That was Ishiti, the goddess of silence and tombs, whose power seemed to keep the garden alive. Before anyone could eat from the trees, Dionysos pointed out that the apples were those of Derketa, and immensely poisonous. We carefully collected a few, as they might come in handy later. Perhaps we could even sell them back in Khemi. Dionysos also noticed that he could not cast any spells in the garden, as the statue seemed to draw all the power from his divinations.
After admiring the garden for a while longer we explored the city a bit further, at which point lady luck decided to reward us rather generously. Half-buried in the fine sands of a dry riverbed, we found the remains of a caravan. Some dead camels and crates lay scattered in the ground without a soul in sight. Judging by the condition of the bodies, we were witnessing the remains of a recent battle, but for some reason, most of the remaining crates seemed untouched by robbers. Luckily Barathus noticed the similarities in the loot and some of the loot in the bandits’ remains. I and Dionysos then realized that their diseases were probably caused by curses set to the openers of the crates. Empowered with this information, we dragged the crates to Ishiti’s garden and opened them in the protection of the benevolent goddess. Most of the spoils were simple alchemical substances or clothing, but one of the crates revealed thirty-nine flasks of honey-colored, viscous substance. At first we were bewildered, but Dionysos recognized it as the mythical and valuable Golden Wine of Xuthal.
While we marveled our newfound wealth, the wind rose, and Noam told us that it would probably become worse. Knowing that a sandstorm would sweep over the city soon, we decided that it would be best to not face the desert under these conditions. The animals were also taken inside temple, and we were preparing to spend the night, when Alcemides suddenly became certain of having heard singing in the whistling winds. Before anyone could object, the pict left out to investigate, and I ran behind him.
Alcemides told me that the singing came further from the east. The coming darkness and blowing sand made it hard to see, but soon we reached the edge of the city. Still following the song, we planned to head for the nearby cliffs, but suddenly a trio of riders in heavy clothing came upon us. We were rather unprepared, but managed to drag one of the riders down from her horse just to notice that she was in fact a woman. This bewildering fact almost got the best of me, as I paused in hesitation and was severely wounded by a flanking rider. Fleeing to the narrow streets of the city, I saw Alcemides battling all three of the women and wounding one before retreating to the crumbling alleys himself.
Back at the temple, the others too reported having heard the singing. Dionysos was visibly distraught when we told him about the rider-women, and hypothesized that the incident was probably related to the ankh, which had seemed all too easy to find. We assumed that another fight would ensue, and used the opportunity to coat our blades with the apples’ poison. However, despite waiting and reinforcing our position, no attack came. The rest of the night was uneventful, and while the sandstorm lasted until next midday, we eventually packed our bags and set out to the desert.
Not far from the temple, we were charged by seven women on horseback. Their bladework was impressive – for women – and their mobile tactics frustrated us severely. The women augmented their fighting skills with sorcery. Many times a landing blow was stopped by a swift gesture, as if an invisible shield had blocked the blade. Finally the luck turned again on our side, as Alcemides pulled a passing rider from her saddle and stabbed her brutally to death. Apparent leader of the group was brought down by Noam’s arrow. The shot was so accurate that even a sorcerous gesture could not stop the projectile. It penetrated the eye of the woman and brought her down without a sound. Having lost their leader, with many of them wounded, the attackers retreated and we had no further trouble on our way to Khemi.
Much of the return trip was spend deliberating our future options. The wine was probably a present to the pharaoh or one of the high priests of Set. It was by far too valuable to leave rotting in the sand, so it was inevitable that someone would come looking for it sooner or later. Thus, it would also be challenging to sell it within Stygia’s borders, and excessive loitering in Khemi would risk us getting caught possessing the wine. All things considered, waiting for the silk trade season seemed less and less attractive by the moment. When Noam used this opportunity to yet again propose a quick visit to the hidden city of Pteion before crossing to Shem through the border city of Erkulum, we were much less resistant to the idea. So it happened that after four days in the desert, we simply set camp outside the city walls and quickly fetched our possessions before heading towards the eastern reaches of Stygia.
A Fragment from the Journals of Lord Dionysos
As dusk fell on the second day of our journey, we broke camp and headed off again. Some hours had passed, judging from the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the bright moonlight and the clear starry skies lit the desert as well as daylight. After a while we heard a strange ululation unlike any we had heard, and after a while it became apparent that it was emanating from a cyclopean tower some distance off to our left, seen as a black silhouette against the constellations. As we drew nearer to investigate, the howl seemed to intensify, as if whatever was making it had become aroused by our proximity. We noticed a circle of polished stones surrounding the tower, and I drew the conclusion that it was some manner of binding-circle, and we should leave whatever it was keeping at bay be. So, despite the protestations of Alcemides, ever the troublemaker, we headed back towards…