Conan Acheronian Edition

Session XXI: Crossing the border

The first days in Shem and an encounter with an honest informant

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

Though we had barely survived Pteion and were ecstatic with the wealth we gathered there, the journey through the desert was not easy. We no longer had our camels and thus the only water we had was what we could carry. It was not easy making it last for the week’s worth of desert on foot.

Each day we slept under makeshift tents and each night we walked as far as we could. When I closed my eyes, the serpent-men from Alcemides’s testimony visited me in my dreams and demanded the return of something Nefertari stole. In return, they promised limitless wealth and services from the vaults of the city in the sands. I did not talk of the dreams at first, and when the distance to Pteion grew, they decreased in frequency and intensity. I don’t remember anymore whether I had any intention of heeding these visions, as the desert was much greater an adversary.

Many were the complaints of Alcemides and just as many were the encouragements of Noam. All the water had been spent and we were almost sure our days were numbered, before we saw the first signs of human life. Huddled around a small desert oasis was a nomad camp. The last steps were almost the hardest, for we feared that the oasis would prove a mirage. Fortunately, this wasn’t so and we reached it just as real as it had initially seemed. Not all was right with the scene, however, as the camp was abandoned. We found signs of struggle, but no bodies of men or animals were around, which was quite unnerving. Content with the luck we had had so far, we decided not to push the issue, and to this day I do not know what had happened to the camp. After filling our waterskins, we immediately headed to Erkulum, which we knew should be only a little more than two days away.

Erkulum was as quiet and morbid as always, so we did not stay for long – just enough to buy supplies and spend one night under the roof of an inn. The following morning we bought horses, for we didn’t plan on crossing any deserts in Shem, and no-one preferred the company of camels any longer.

Due to the stress and paranoia we felt about looting the city of the sands, I have little memories of the initial days after crossing the river north. Shem seemed less prosperous than Stygia, and the contrast was almost uncanny. I have to admit that the presence of filth and lepers on the streets and whores on the corners was shocking for me, as the few months in Stygia had accustomed me to the unnatural cleanliness and order of the southern kingdom.

Wanting some distance between ourselves and the desert horrors, we soon left northwest, for we dared not sell the gold and gems so close to the Stygian border. The days of the following week were spent briefly stopping at villages and smaller cities, where we slowly materialized our loot and bargained for the prize of raw gold. Little could be done, however, before we reached the city of Eruk, which was rumored to be a merchant’s paradise. Indeed, it had all the services and disservices of a large city, and we settled for a longer while, enjoying our life and newfound coin. Noam and Alcemides spent recklessly on clothes, jewelry and lavish decor on their weapons and armor, but I tried to preserve most of my wealth, for I would surely have an use for it in Nemedia. I eventually invested in weapons and fine wine, which I believed I could sell for profit at home, but was rather skeptical on whether I could transport all of it through the countless miles north.

Granted, the tranquil days of my recent life have been scarce, and so were these. Not a week had passed when three gifts had been left at our quarters in the inn. On each of our beds, lay a large yellow flower with a long stalk. No matter who we asked, we couldn’t find out who had left the gift and what it meant. Alcemides of course merely assumed that his manly reputation had preceded him and aroused the interest of some local girls. The detail didn’t bother me initially either, but no continuation to the mystery ever came. We finally livened up when Noam rushed to the inn and told that he had seen Dionysos on the busy streets, riding on a carriage in the company of Tawil At’Umr.

It was of course of great interest to us what the young pervert was up to, and was he perhaps following us. We set out to turn every stone to find the young noble, but no matter how much coin we spent and how many locals we questioned, no-one could or would not provide any insight to the whereabouts of either Dionysos or the wandering sage.

Overcome with these mysteries, we eventually turned to the temple of Bel, whom Alcemides had bargained with while liquidating most of our more precious gems and art objects. The priests of Bel proclaimed they had arranged a meeting for us with a third party who had something important to tell us. We were taken to an underground chamber, where thick steel bars separated us from another chamber. A priest intoned the place was sacred and no blood should be shed, then left the room. A booming voice greeted us from the other chamber.

Three figures, shrouded in shapeless robes, set a torrent of overflowing praises on us in Stygian. After flattering our manliness and bravery for a long while, they proclaimed we were favored by Yajur the Red-Handed, the god of stranglers. We had been chosen to become the next sacrifice, which was marked by the flowers. In 30 days time, the sacrifice would be commenced. Then the three figures left their side of the chamber, unmoved by the insults Alcemides hurled after them. As we hungered for more knowledge, the acolytes directed us to the temple of Nergal, which had influence in the city and surely also priests capable of scrying for us.

The priests of the death god likewise offered little help directly, but advised us to seek the guidance of a Child of Nergal, which we would meet in the desert just outside the city gates after sunset. The encounter was indeed an interesting one, as the child was no man and not of entirely ordinary wisdom. The information came with a prize and we bargained extensively, eventually agreeing on the seeds of the emerald lotus we had found in the Stygian swamps. To this day I rue myself for by poor judgment on the trade, for the Child would not settle for half the seeds, instead wanting all of them, no matter how many we had. I am certain that the it had no true need for all the seeds, but gained greater delight in seeing us part with them. Had I separated the seeds into two bags, giving the other would surely have sufficed.

Bad bargain or not, the Child told us many things. It had almost intimate knowledge of Nefertari and the exploits and nature of this mercenary-vampiress. We were to beware, as Nefertari was as selfish and cruel, as she was strong and cunning. The Child assured us that she would never ultimately work for anyone but herself, and the co-operation with the cult was but temporary. Having told further about the scene in Pteion and my dream-vision of the snake men, the Child was sure that Nefertari had betrayed the cult there. Whatever she had stolen was merely for her own use.

Of the masks, the Child told that they originated from the east. It believed that they were from as far as Khitai, and that the religion of the mast was self-sustaining and purely a product of the masks themselves. Whoever would put on the mask would become its slave, and the masks shared the power in the cult themselves. Of their eventual motives, it claimed to know nothing, and I can not rightly say whether it was lying. However, as far as I have been able to later confirm, the Child of Nergal was truthful in all of its accusations and histories, which never ceases to amaze me, considering its nature.

The Child told that the Red Hands of Yajur were an assassin cult from Vendhya. Whoever received the flowers would be attacked by the cult after thirty days had passed, as would be also our fate. It would best set our affairs in order, for it was extremely rare to survive the attack. However, such a thing had come to pass, and whoever survived, could themselves use the services of the cult.

I don’t remember anything other very significant, but naturally we discussed Shem and the cults there. We even asked about Nergal, but he was a simple god, and there was little to discuss. In the end we returned to the issue of the Red Hands, as it was of greatest importance. Unfortunately the Child could not offer a lot of wisdom on beating the assassins, but death and blood amused it greatly, leading it to chronicle about Xaltotun, the war we had lost and the Heart of Ahriman. Of course every wizard worth his eyes and words has heard of the artifact, but truthfully the Child knew much more than most. What I’ve told of the artifact earlier in these pages largely comes from its mouth. Strange thing was, that no matter how garrulous it were, the Child dared not speak about Thoth-Amon, and we departed soon after we asked about the famous wizard.

With heavy hearts and the doom of the strangler cult looming above us, we returned to the city and decided to leave Eruk behind us. I don’t recall our exact motive, but remember that we thought facing the assassins in the open wilderness would be better than fighting in the confines of a busy city. We were sure they were following our every move and in the open ground, we might spot them and strike first. Things would again turn against our expectations, but we wouldn’t know it until later.