Conan Acheronian Edition

Session XXXIII: The Temple of the Lost Goddess
Also viewing: Our Heroes vs, The Last Byakhee

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

The roads got constantly worse as we reached the foothills, but as if compensating for this, the skirmishes with the Byakhee seemed to stop. Thank the gods for small favors. Crude mountain paths still existed, so we weren’t forced to abandon our horses entirely. We had to leave them temporarily, however, for they couldn’t follow us during the climb to the temple of the long-lost goddess.

I remember Alcemides being skeptical about the existence of the temple itself, and quoted numerous occasions wherein our lotus dreams had been merely dreams. Fortunately Dionysos was particularly insistent, and the climb wasn’t long, so convincing Alcemides to guide us wasn’t too difficult.

I had hoped that the endeavor would remain uneventful, but on the first night Basil alerted us of landslide just in time. We quickly relocated our camp under a ledge, but it soon became apparent that we weren’t alone. Basil recalled stories of grey apes in the Zamoran mountains, which used to hunt by triggering landslides and crushing their prey. Fair enough, the suspicion was immediately confirmed, as two such creatures stormed the camp.

The battle was quick. Dionysos was caught in a deadly embrace and almost crushed to death, but Alcemides jumped on its back and stabbed the creature furiously. It immediately fell limp, grasping its bleeding neck. When the other creature saw this, it abandoned the fight. We never met it again. Inspecting the carcass, we found remains of broken manacles its limbs. Where the creature had escaped and why someone had brought the beast here, we never found out.

The temple wasn’t as high as we had expected, and we actually reached it the next day. It was barren and thoroughly looted, with walls so worn that one couldn’t tell what god it had been built for. A headless statue of an nondescript female faced us from the back wall, and Dionysos’s visions told that one had to grab its hands and close ones eyes to attain enlightenment. So I did. At first nothing seemed to happen, but then a stinging headache of images and visions rushed from the statue and ripped into my mind. I wrestled to control them, and just as I felt I was gaining an upper hand, an image of a lonely citadel on a steep cliff formed before my eyes. Instinctively I knew that it would house the fifth volume of the scrolls of Vathelos.

When I came to my senses, I found Dionysos and Alcemides still in stupor. The pict recovered first and held his temples, asserting that the statue must have been coated with cheap poison. Dionysos was nonsensical for a long time, but eventually returned with a vision of the scrolls of his own. He proclaimed that another set could be found from Ong, the City of Pain in Zamora.

We discussed about our individual visions and soon became convinced that mine depicted a scene from the shores of the great Vilayet, but from exactly where, we did not know. Such a citadel would be a clear landmark, however, and the answer would surely be found in Turan.

Meanwhile, Basil, who claimed to not have touched the statue, pointed us towards a narrow crack in the wall. In had probably once been a secret passage, but now lay breached. Behind it, we found a small room with a sacrificial altar and a well. The well seemed impossibly deep, and before we had time to study the room in more detail, Alcemides had chosen to drop a torch in it. We never saw it hit the bottom, but from the well boomed a sound we’d heard long ago in another temple. I must admit that my sanity left me, and my next recollection was from the foot of the mountain. Luckily, our horses were still safe and sound.

We decided to continue through the mountains, as circling them would have been too troublesome. As if to confirm that homecoming wouldn’t be too easy, we then faced the Byakhee once more.

They appeared in the middle of the night while we were camping on a desolate ledge. This time they came in greater numbers, and were accompanied by a large example of their brethren. Their big sister was terrible to behold – it was as large as two men, and fought with powerful signs of sorcery. We fought valiantly, but even though we could harm the smaller byakhee, their big sister shrugged off our blades and bolts with ease. It was then that Alcemides drew the atlantean blade I had loaned him and thrust it against the beast, piercing its skin. The creature let out a horrible wail and immediately grappled Alcemides, wresting the blade from his grasp. We tried to stop it, but it managed to rise to its wings, certainly willing to steal the blade or throw it down from the ledge. I would not stand for it, and collected all my remaining power, calling for skin-flaying pain to strike the creature. For once, my sorcery didn’t fail me, and the beast fell to the ground, staggering. Dionysos then cleaved the creature with his all his might, seriously wounding it. When Alcemides dived for the atlantean blade it had dropped, the beast lost heart and the flock vanished into the night.

After licking our wounds and struggling with the byakhee’s poison, we descended the slopes and reached the pass that would lead us into Nemedia. Ditrius and Luba were waiting for us at the border and after some hassle, the border guard allowed us into the country. We immediately set our sights at Belverus. What followed would become the most important attainments of my yet short life. They were set into motion by unforeseen events, which revealed rather interesting facts about our friend Ditrius and his entourage.

Session XXXII: Behold the Flaming Bull!
Battling evil with a spectacle.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

The keep was surrounded by a low palisade which in turn was surrounded by a large, unkept refugee camp. After talking to the local baron, Barathus managed to secure a corner of the courtyard for our horses. The encampment also had a small inn, so we didn’t need to sleep outside with the peasants. This chance for refreshment was welcome, and everybody enjoyed a respite from the attacks that had plagued us on the way.

This far from the capital and heavily weathered by our trip, we didn’t need to be as careful about our appearance, so we took upon ourselves to move a bit among the refugees and buy more supplies. Alcemides reported something strange about the religious ceremonies taking place in the camp, so I took upon myself to attend one of the services, which proved to be of fairly insidious nature.

The stage was large and sturdily constructed, with large contrast to the tents and shacks of the refugees. It was used by a disgustingly obese priest, who furiously paced it while almost shouting. Even though the priest holding the sermon was influencing the people by using mitran methodology and mannerism, it soon became evident that he served someone else entirely. He preached about the corruption of the world and its coming end through Mitra’s fury. Even though I wasn’t religious, it was clear that a priest of Mitra would never say such things, and the false priest was merely sowing despair into the hearts of the people. This scheming insincerity in his thoughts was almost audible, yet the ignorant masses parted with what little they had, carrying generous tribute to his greasy, waiting fingers.

The scene disgusted me, and the others felt the same. Talking to the locals revealed that likewise apocalyptic sects were appearing in the wake of the civil war and operating throughout the Ophirian countryside. Barathus consulted the master of the keep, who also felt the presence of the priest to be a nuisance, giving us his blessing to dispose of the sect by any means necessary. By now it was clear to us, that at least this false prophet would feel the wrath of the god whose words he was distorting. Alcemides volunteered to strike him down, but the twisted mind of Dionysos came up with a deliciously wicked plan.

In the coming night, we sabotaged the stage by sawing hand-sized holes in the floor. Then we bought a bull from the nearby countryside, killed it, painted it white and coated the carcass with oil. The next day, when the sermon was being held, Barathus rose up and engaged the priest in a religious argument. Intensely tutored by Zaphmed about mitran dogma and aided by his skills in rhetoric, Barathus easily cornered the priest and caused dissent in the people. While the speakers were shouting, the plan moved to the second phase. Dionysos breathed false life into the corpse of the bull and set the oil aflame. Amongst the uproar, the bull then appeared to the scene. Barathus proclaimed it to be the worldly avatar of Mitra, coming to strike down this blasphemy.

Though I didn’t see it directly from under the stage, the others told me that the face of the priest was unforgettable. He couldn’t do anything but sweat and stutter weak excuses, while the crowd loudly disowned him and his prophecies. I used his stupefaction to my advantage, and reached from the holes in the floor to draw the strenght from his limbs. Paralyzed, the priest fell off his feet, ready to be trampled by the burning bull. Dionysos then guided the beast into the depths of the river, having it disappear as suddenly as it appeared. Ignited by the oil, the stage burned to the ground. We left chuckling, while the crowd was none the wiser.

Before departing, we looted the belongings of the priest, finding alarming objects. Buried under silken robes was a wooden replica of the golden masks. The connection did not seem obvious. At first I thought that the tribute might be used to further the economy of the cult, but the peasants were poor beyond belief, and the priests’ coffers had little more than would be needed for his own lifestyle. Thus, it seemed as if, for some reason, the masks saw benefit in advancing the culture of fear and chaos that Ophir wallowed in. Troubled by this knowledge, I felt it imperative to tell someone about what we had learned.

Even though Dionysos and Alcemides thought it unwise, I used Barathus’s influence to arrange an audience with the military officers of the keep. I told them about our encounters with the cult of the golden masks and how they seemed to have enclaves in all important cities of the civilized lands. I told about the strange tower in Ianthe and the manner of stones, which were used to build it. I also told about the murder of the grand secretary, and what we suspected the golden masks had in store for Ophir’s royalty. Finally, I told what we found in the priest’s belongings, and pleaded them to contact their superiors before more harm could be done.

It was clear that at least the officers understood the threat and believed in my sincerety. From my story, the lot recognized us as the fugitives the royal guard was looking for, but opted not to force an arrest. I do not know whether my words had any consequences, or whether they were ever heard by anyone of significance, but at least we were allowed to leave in peace, and the soldiers gave us enough of a head start that we never saw them again.

The road worsened in the borderlands, but we were propelled by the thought of our homes. After our long journey, we were finally about to reach Nemedia. Little of importance happened in the remainder of the trip, except for a brief foray into a small temple in the mountains. The temple itself and what we learned there proved to be quite important, though.

Session XXXI: Of Byakhee and Curses
Few literally fight their demons every night.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

Seeing the grand secretary of Ianthe lying in a pool of his own blood made me ponder whether our intended actions had been just or unjust. Perhaps the man had been used by the cult, and discarded, or perhaps the servants of the masks were merely extremely indifferent to the fates of their kin. Regardless, his death was slightly too premature to ease my curiosity, and conveniently for our adversaries, we were caught red-handed at the scene of the crime.

We quickly fled the manor through the windows and climbed down the walls using the ropes we had set earlier. Our horses were waiting downhill, behind the estate grounds, and a frenzied escape ensued. The Ophirian guard outnumbered us greatly and we saw a number of them approaching the ridge. We steered away from the city into the river, but it soon became evident that we didn’t have enough of a head start to get a ferry across. Eventually, when were just about to get caught, Dionysos called upon nature and raised a thicket between us and the pursuers. This bought us time to leave our horses and scatter into the city limits. An agreement was made to meet tomorrow in one of the dock taverns.

I went to the slums with Basil, and even though we managed to find a shack to spend the night in, our troubles were not over. In the morning mist, while navigating towards the docks, we stumbled upon a guard patrol. To our distress, the men immediately recognized us, even though I had attempted to change my attire and I presume Basil wasn’t even well known in the cult ranks. This did not bode well, for it probably meant that we had been spied on for a prolonged time.

We fled, but it soon became evident that the horsemen would circle ahead and trap us. I already considered resigning to my fate, but Basil chose to demonstrate that he was more than a mere alchemist. He turned to face the riders, and unleashed a blast of gale, which swept both man and beast off their feet. We didn’t stop to see the damage, but instead bolted for the alleys and zigzagged towards the docks. In the tavern, we learned that Barathus and Dionysos had not faced difficulties. Alcemides was wounded and muttered something about soldiers in full plate armor. I never told anyone of Basil’s actions, for he had chosen to remain silent of his abilities and I honored this.

A whole day was spent hiding in a low-key inn, while Luba and Ditrius spent the day securing transportation. Under disguise, we boarded the raft and advanced upstream. In the first larger town, we again switched to horses, for the raft was slow and we feared the guard would eventually catch us on it. Constantly buying new mounts begun to seem a tad expensive, for now that I recall, I had abandoned a horse in Zingara, gotten my camel killed in Pteion, deserted another in Messentia and then again in Ophir. This would be my fifth one, and it turned out I wouldn’t be able to hang onto it very long either.

Advancing towards the Ophir-Nemedia border was relatively hasty. The countryside was ravaged by civil war and mostly desolate, but even though armies were moving in the area, we faced none and suffered no delays. I felt sorry for the husks of men huddling in burnt farmsteads and hanging onto their diminishing food supplies. I could do little to ease their plight, but when we bought cattle for slaughter, I made sure to pay a little extra. Speaking of slaughter, our entourage seemed to waste a lot of meat, but I soon learned that almost all was spent on Alcemides’s worryingly disproportionate appetite. That was the least of our problems, however, for we soon became plagued by other scourges.

About a week after leaving the raft, when darkness fell, distorted women with leathery wings and scorpion tails descended upon our group. They fought with bites, claws and stingers, but didn’t ultimately seem interested in an all-out conflict. When we felled one, the others lost heart and turned tail, though the reason for this probably was that the sorcerous poison from their tails was far beyond the ability of Luba to cure, and they saw no need to risk further casualties. Were I not well-versed in annulling curses, Basil and Dionysos would surely be dead.

After the night, Luba and the rest of Dionysos’s entourage separated from ours. We feared that we could not protect them from the demon women, and were certain that the beasts were sent after us by none other than the cult of the Golden masks. Ditrius weighted his options for a while, but eventually chose to join Luba, taking his charges with him. Dionysos was a little fearful of the separation, but we saw no other way. Later on the speculation proved correct, and when we met again on the Nemedian border, Luba told that they had not faced the beasts.

Many similar attacks happened in the weeks that followed. The matters seemed to be partly tied to the wretched luck that we had been experiencing since our visit to Tartaros, and whose exact manner we had so far been unable to decipher. I consulted the scrolls for answers and found that disturbing the peace of the witch kings indeed commanded dire consequences. Misfortune would follow us and our brethren for seven full generations. In addition to this, breaking the peace of any of the individual chambers called upon the wrath of a different king and of different sort. With respect to this, I studied further the banes of all of us, and learned the following.

Dionysos and Basil were marked by a baleful star. Sepulchral liches and nocturnal demons would be drawn to them like moths to a flame, and their flesh would be especially tasty to all the horros that feasted on men. Alcemides was plagued by the hunger of the ghouls, yarning for raw meat and carrion. In time, he would shed his humanity and become a beast himself. The pict also said that he saw visages of the witch-king in the night, stalking and taunting him. For my part the warrior king had cursed me with weakness of the blood, yearning to see my life depart through battle and witness my fluids streaming into the ground. I and Basil, who had tried to enter the tomb of the Boneweaver, were also plagued by an unknown curse, the manner of which I could not decipher. This unnerved me the most, as what I did not know, I could not be watchful for. Finally, Dionysos claimed that he was cursed with a lust for corpses, but hadn’t that always been the case?

For many a night I worked on undoing the curses, but with little success. Removing the weakness of blood seemed easy in comparison, and I suspect that the witch-king in question had been more interested in battle than sorcery. Also Alcemides’s yearning for raw flesh began to wane after I unraveled the webs that were laid upon him. The other curses I could not touch, and each time I tried, they seemed to slip further from my grasp. To my horror, this was not merely my imagination, as the scrolls revealed that even curses could be cursed. Each time I tried to fight them, they learned from it and became stronger, accustoming to my attacks. I despaired, for my ignorance doomed myself and my colleagues. The curses were now beyond my power to remove.

While I battled with the hexes, the attacks of the women, whom Dionysos finally recognized as Byakhee of the outer dark, continued. They were wary of human settlements and we avoided some trouble by sleeping in abandoned granaries and stables. However, one night they killed our horses, and on another they set the roof of the building on fire. We fought them on multiple further occasions, but they seemed even less interested in combat and mainly used hit and run tactics, acting as a nuisance. Each morning after their departure, we found symbols and arrows made from hay and twigs, all pointing towards the forests in the west. Bewildering as they were, we never found exactly the true meaning of the signs, for none were interested in following them. Basil recalled that the woods were supposed to be home to a great witch, and suspected that perhaps the byakhee were sent to guide us there. The attacks might merely have been caused by the mark of horrors that they were unable to resist.

Regardless of the reasoning, we continued onward and disregarded the creatures as best we could. As we neared villages, their visits grew infrequent, and we never saw them when many other people were present. We took advantage of this by taking asylum amongst peasant refugees attending a strange religious assembly near a local keep. To discuss what happened there, it’s better to begin a new chapter.

Session XXIX: The Golden Peacock of Sabatea
A present from Nefertari and the legend of Alcemides grows

Thick fog engulfed the fortified temple island, suppressing sound and sight alike. The inner yard was silent and deserted. No guards walked on the battlements. The few awake had taken refuge from the wet darkness in the bastions. Alcemides explored unobserved and unopposed, seeking excitement and loot. The few buildings around the garden seemed empty and deserted. Peeking through windows, the half-pict only saw an alchemical laboratory in one of the buildings, with an ancient crone hard at work. The building where Tyrus and Dionysos met Khossus was locked and silent. Strong iron bars in the windows prevented entry and the iron-shod door was barred from within.

Pressing ear against the door, Alcemides could hear faint sounds of rhythmic chanting. It echoed from somewhere far away, perhaps from the corridors underneath. As he turned to return to his comrades, the savage was faced with an imposing sight. Suddenly, middle of the fog-shrouded courtyard stood a huge tree with great many branches. No such tree had been there before. Crouching in the wet darkness, Alcemides heard the sound of distant wings and rustling of leaves, as if something large had descended to rest upon the stout branches. The half-pict skulked away to fetch the sorcerers.

Meanwhile, the others engaged in idle planning. Gabai, unaware Alcemides had left to skulk around, was trying to convince the others inspect the buildings. He was alarmed by the secrecy and suspected the high priestess was held captive in the compound. Just then Alcemides entered with an incoherent story about huge trees appearing from the mist and a stench of carrion in the air. Motivated more by boredom than alarm, the others followed the half-pict in the deserted courtyard. No tree was to be found where Alcemides had seen one. Inspecting the ground, Alcemides swore the tree had stood where now was but an old well. Peering inside, the men found the well to be empty and very deep. Even the night eyes of Dionysos could not see the bottom. The young Acheronian decided to summon a crow and send it down to inspect. The bird came from the mist and disappeared in the well, never coming back.

Others wanted to climb down the well to investigate or break in to the main building and follow the ritual sounds. Tyrus was strongly against such actions. He reminded Dionysos they were on the island for the Scrolls of Vathelos and nothing else. Tomorrow Khossus would take them to the scrolls. They would need to act nice till then or risk losing their objective. Dionysos and Tyrus managed to convince the others wait and the men returned to their quarters. As the night progressed, the thick fog trickled down in to the corridors. Distant sound of ritualistic drumming echoed occasionally through the island. The dreams that night were dark, vivid and fearsome, where the gods of old returned to haunt the mankind.

The mist had not dissipated in the morning – if anything, it had only grown thicker. Alcemides reminded Tyrus of the strange fog they had encountered in the Zingaran mountains. Expecting the worst, the group was summoned to see Khossus. The obese priest met them in the courtyard, where two servants attended his breakfast. Khossus devoured obscene amounts of half-cooked meat, grease and blood pouring down his chin. Between mouthfuls of meat, the man managed to tell Dionysos that an acolyte would guide them to the underground vaults. The men followed a young priest to the main building and down long stairs in to bowels of the island. The acolyte, obviously drugged, merely shambled ahead, eyes wide and frozen.

The rocky island turned out to be honeycombed with ancient tunnels, tombs and shrines. The acolyte led the group through a maze of silent tunnels. Occasionally open doorways allowed glimpses into workshops, living chambers and ritual rooms. Most were empty, some occupied by sleeping or drugged priestesses. Finally, after another stairway, the men were led in the lowest vaults. The acolyte motioned the men to continue to the chambers ahead. Then he left without a word. Unable to control their enthusiasm, Dionysos and Tyrus charged ahead. The chamber inside contained a Stygian sarcophagus, rotting chests and an iron-shod crate. The crate was engraved with the rune of Skelos and Tyrus dashed right to it, ignoring the sarcophagus. He pulled the crate open with shaking hands and saw inside the writings of Vathelos. Unfortunately, attached to the lid of the crate was an alchemical firebomb. Opening the crate released the bomb. Time seemed to slow to crawl, as Tyrus watched the bomb fall towards his precious treasure. Fate smiled upon the Nemedian, as he lunged forward and managed to cup the bomb in his hands. Miraculously, it didn’t ignite from the impact and the scrolls were saved.

While Tyrus nurtured the scrolls like a lost child, the others inspected the sarcophagus. It was of dark stone and engraved with serpentine images. Dionysos set his third eye upon the sarcophagus and declared it resting place of Nefertari, who had obviously set the alchemical trap. The men readied their weapons and pulled the sarcophagus open, but it was empty save a few clay tables and old documents. The documents followed bloodlines of a Nemedian noble while the tablets contained notes in Old Stygian. Dionysos looted the contents and joined Tyrus in examining the scrolls just as a loud rumbling echoed through the vault. Alcemides and Gabai ran to investigate and soon returned with alarming news. The way inside was now blocked with a massive stone block. Digging through would take days. They would need another way out.

Wandering aimlessly through the corridors, the men found all three exists blocked with stone blocks. Finally they chose the thinnest block for their escape attempt. Tyrus spent some of his waning reserves of the Atlantean acid and the others attacked the stone with rotting tools they scavenged from ancient storage rooms. Finally, after several hours of uninterrupted work, the blockade yielded to their efforts. Stumbling through the dust, the adventurers found themselves from a deserted corridor. Gabai heard a distant sound of running water and the heroes headed towards it with parched throats. Soon, the corridor descended in to a natural cave. The cave was filled with mist from the river. Doorway to the cave was covered with silver dust and protective runes. Two longboats were drawn on the ground by the water, but upon closer inspection, both had several holes. There were planks and tools nearby, but none of the heroes were skilled in woodcraft.

Moving carefully through the fog, Alcemides found a hidden alcove leading to a narrow passage. Others followed him through to an ancient room with a dark altar in the middle. Faded inscriptions on the walls hinted at ancient, obscene deities long forgotten. Tyrus and Basil deciphered the ancient runes on the altar, but dared not to share their findings. Meanwhile, Alcemides and Gabai found another concealed alcove opening in to a steeply ascending staircase. As Alcemides tried to enter, he felt as if hitting an invisible wall. Basil and Dionysos managed to pass through, but the other were stuck. Finally Tyrus managed to dispel and break the compulsive enchantment, which some unknown sorcerer had left to guard the stairway.

The stairs climbed up and up, before finally ending in to a cold stone wall. During their ascent, Alcemides thought he heard the sound of wet, bare feet behind them, but the others paid no attention to his warnings. Basil quickly found the mechanism controlling the secret door. It opened in to a shadowy hallway. After peeking through windows, the men understood they were inside the outer walls of the monastery. The mist made it hard to see and it had poured inside the corridors from the arrow holes.

The heroes decided follow the wall inside till they found the gatehouse. Suddenly Alcemides, moving as a scout ahead, heard coarse voices from a chamber he was passing. The half-pict opened the door a little and saw inside five strange men. They were very muscular and large, dressed in ill-fitting robes of Ishtarian acolytes. The brutes were taking turns to sip from a cauldron filled with deep yellow liquid. Suddenly one of them turned around and saw Alcemides.

The five brutes charged immediately, with a froth of mad rage pouring from their mouths. Gabai and the Nemedians ran to aid Alcemides, who was hard pressed to avoid being torn apart. Despite being unarmed and outnumbered, the brutes fought with mad rage, inhumanly strength and showed no fear. They had to be hacked to pieces before the last gasps of life left them. Wounded and exhausted, the heroes had a short rest, preparing to face more foes. Yet none came, even though the racket of battle had echoed through the halls. There was only mist and silence – whether it was night or day, none could say.

Finally the six men reached the gatehouse. The doors were barred, but unguarded. Remains of an unfinished meal remained on a table and the floor was covered with puddles. Basil noted the water smelled like the sea. After a few moments of hard work, the heroes unbarred the outer gate and made their way slowly down the steep, slippery stairs. At the shore, the fog was almost too thick to see anything at all. There was no raft to be seen and the rope to the mainland had been cut loose. There was nothing to do but return to the boats. Once inside, all men now heard the sounds of wet feet on hard stone, running closer. Unnatural dread pressed on them and they decided to dash through the courtyard rather than head back to the underground harbor. As the adventurers jogged through the wet grass, great wings could be heard overhead in the mist…

The heroes retrieved their belongings from the guest quarters and headed back to the tunnels. On the way towards the staircase, Basil heard a gagging sound from a room nearby. Inspecting closer, he found a brute similar to the ones they had just seen, laying on the floor. He appeared to be drowning. The fiend-blooded alchemist crept closer and stabbed the man with his stiletto. Unfortunately his strength was insufficient to even pierce the skin. Only with the fifth stab, the helpless man finally died. Black seawater burst forth from his mouth and nostrils, slowly forming a reeking puddle mixed with blood. Basil speculated the water was offshoot of an Atlantean sea creature, stalking in the temple slaying the cultists. The others were too busy mocking the strength of his arms to listen.

Descending back to the underground labyrinth, the heroes found their way to the first stone block barring entry to the vaults. On the way, they saw no signs of life, but the stench of sea water was everywhere. Finally, it seemed they had only two routes towards the river – a deserted corridor where led several wet footprints or a stairway, from which ominous chanting echoed. The heroes decided to rather face the cultists than whatever it was with the stench of stagnant sea water. Sneaking up the stairs, the adventurers reached a balcony circling around a humongous temple. They could see another corridor on the other side of the balcony. Peeking at the room below, they spied a strange and elaborate ritual.

Over a hundred men stood in the temple below, dressed in dark yellow robes. Thirty among them were shaking, growling brutes, alike to the ones recently slain. Khossus led a strange ceremony on an altar of Ishtar, stained dark with fresh blood. Upon the altar stood a golden peacock, moving up and down its wings in rhythm with the chanting. Priestesses and acolytes of Ishtar knelt chained before the altar in a drugged haze. Sneaking around the balcony, the heroes found the corridor lead to the tunnel to the riverside cave. A set of stairs lead down to the temple chamber. Others wanted to go straight to the boats, but Alcemides would have nothing like it. He returned to the balcony, with Basil in tow, while the others waited in the tunnel.

The half-pict and the alchemist crawled to the edge of the balcony, peering down. In the temple chamber, Khossus was taking the ceremony to its climax. The priestesses were forced at the altar and ritually slain, their blood pouring over the peacock. The unnatural bird seemed to absorb the blood and with every drop, the gold of its feathers shone a little brighter. Grinning, Alcemides prepared his crossbow and spent a moment to aim carefully. Then he hit the peacock straight in the head with a well-placed bolt, splattering blood and brains all over Khossus. Corpse of the peacock seemed to shimmer and change in to a broken mask of gold… Basil bolted towards the corridor, while Alcemides stood up on the ledge. He waved his crossbow and shouted “I’m Alcemides of Nemedia!” at the enraged mob below… who soon charged towards the nearby stairs with bloodthirsty howls.

Session XXVIII: All Is Not Well in the Temple of the Ivory Goddess
Even in Messantia, there are things gold can not buy...

With their cover blown, our anti-heroes decided to leave Messentia. The priests of Mitra would not give the reward they had promised earlier, as the cult of the Golden King had gotten away with Tranicos. They would, however, write a letter of recommendation which might assist the Nemedians in their quest for the Scrolls of Vathelos, one part of which was held in a temple of Ishtar in an Ophirean town on the banks of the Red River.

They faced a dire dilemma, however: Exiting the city of coin could prove hazardous, as they were now hunted by both the city militia and guild mercenaries. As the men weighed their options, a shadowy messenger arrived on their doorstep. Niccolo, the purveyor of information the Nemedians had previously dealt with, offered to arrange the men safe egress from Messentia. In return for the bone Ankh that had damned Noam the archer, the men would be driven to the Ophirean border in covered wagons, eblazoned with royal heraldry, ensuring safe and uninterrupted passage. Grudgingly, the adventurers accepted the offer.

Planning ahead, Tyrus and Dionysos decided that they would try to reach the Nemedian border before the weather worsened, as entry into Nemedia lay at a point where the Border Range melded into the Karpash range, and snowfall wound be a great hindrance to the large group of travellers. Should the internal strife in Ophir cause great trouble, the men would chance a crossing into Aquilonia, though still following the river: Aquilonia would still be in turmoil after the war, and the Road of Kings could be hazardous, especially now that the Nemedians were cursed with ill fortune.

Basil proposed a different route, suggesting the band take a detour into Koth, stopping to pay tribute to Pelias, the new master of the Crimson Citadel, whom he much desired to meet. He enticed Dionysos with the prospect of learning what had transpired during the time he was known as Lord Bhaal, and what purpose this “possession” had served. The others dismissed this idea, as it would mean prolonging the journey by at least another six months.

Reaching Lodier in Ophir after nearly two weeks of travel, the band found the local temple of Ishtar empty. The locals were in turmoil, and were about to burn a number of witches. They planned to burn the temple next, as the Mitran majority blamed the followers of Ishtar of sorcery. Tyrus and Luba went to witness the event, relishing in the irony of the situation, with the only withces present at the witch-burning being in the crowd of jeering savages rather than on the pyre. They came away disgusted and saddened, as it was obvious that the poor wretches were merely scapegoats for the misery that the civil war had inflicted on the community.

After some inquiry, the travellers learned that the staff of the local temple of the Ivory Goddess had fled to a fortified temple on an island upstream. After a night spent in a mediocre inn, the party took off upriver, leaving the majority of the band behind under the charge of Luba. In a curious turn of events, as dawn broke, Basil began to walk towards the river, as if in a state of somnambulism. He managed to wade into the river, with the water reaching his waist, before Alcemides forcefully removed him from the chilly embrace of the Red River.

Reaching the crossing post to the temple, the band, accompanied by Gabai Av Pteor, an itinerant champion of Ishtar alarmed by the odd occurances in the area, found a single small raft. It was incapable of bearing the weight of their horses, which the men were then forced to leave behind. Cursed as they were, the young witches and the half-savage were certain that they would not see their mounts again. The temple had thick stone walls with ramparts, but seemed poorly defended, with only two guards, who let the foreigners through when shown the letter given by the scholarly priests of Messentia. Inside the walls was a magnificent garden where grew both the Upas-tree and, somewhat surprisingly, the tree which bore the Apples of Derketa.

The men were eventually brought before a grotesquely obese man with the mixed features of a Kothian, by the name of Khossus. The Nemedians introduced themselves as travelling students of the arcane, interested in obscure scrolls in the possession of the temple. Tyrus presented the letter of recommendation, which the priest read without much enthusiasm. Obviously a very corrupt man, he was quite visibly elated by the gift of lotus and gold the Nemedians gave him after deciding that another approach was needed, and promised them full access to the storerooms the scrolls were held in, though they would have to wait until the next day due to festivities taking place that night. Inquiries about the priestess in charge of the temple raised some alarm in the adventurers, as Khossus told them she was last seen leaving the island in the company of a tall, pale woman matching the description of Nefertari, the Stygian vampiress. The men were led to their chambers, where they set about plotting their next move nervously. Alcemides would have none of it, and took off to explore the monastic fortress alone.

Meanwhile, a thick fog was raising from the river…

Session XXVII: The Tombs of the Witch Kings
Where even stolen riches are taxed.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

I have to admit that my taste for ancient sepulchres had waned a lot since Pteion, but the other group members except Alcemides were determined in their resolve to visit and loot the tombs of the witch-kings. The pict was very pessimistic about our chances of survival, and I was partial to his opinion, but in my calculations, I was still quite a bit short of the necessary investment for any meaningful title. This would surely be the last time. Once I had the money, I surely wouldn’t risk my life so easily, and the money from the nobility would allow me to copy the sets of scrolls in Belverus’s university library.

Anyway, Dionysos had probed the tombs with his minds eye. The insides of the actual tomb were off limits to his sight, but as we had expected, the way to the entrance resided behind one of the large statues we found while searching for the librarian. Thus, we knew the easy way in and wouldn’t have to wander the streets of Tartarus excessively. A welcome change.

After a couple of days of preparation and planning, we descended into the darkness. Unable to find any opening mechanism from the statue, we were forced to soften the thick and hard stone with the Atlantean Stone Eater before finally breaking through. The broken doorway then revealed an endless, fifty foot wide pit with ledges spaced evenly each sixty feet of depth. About three ledges down was the entrance we were looking for. Corridors extended in both east and west, and since the former one supposedly lead to the tombs, and the other to a chamber filled with treasure. Even though it seemed too good to be true, we decided to investigate the treasure chamber first.

The western corridor was long and narrow, and Alcemides, with his eyes of a cat and sharp reflexes, was advancing first. Dionysos remained in the main ledge to guard our backs (or perhaps just out of cowardice), and Ditrius chose to remain in the inn, choosing not to abandon his charges, should he perish.

Here, even the traps were lavish and displayed elegance. The first one Alcemides avoided, and a whole barrage of demon-fire dropped harmlessly on the floor. The second he missed and I accidentally activated it. My face was sprayed with the maddening gray lotus dust. I remember little of the consequences.Basil and Alcemides later told me that I had lunged around ravenously, almost blinding Basil and killing Alcemides. Fortunately Basil had managed to restrain me, but how the scrawny weakling had managed that, I never found out. Alcemides shrugged at his wounds and we kept on, avoiding a falling slab trap and finding a yet another door, which seemed suspiciously cold to the touch. When thinking about the matter and the validity of Dionysos’s visions in general, the whole door seemed suspicious. Alcemides knocked the slab, and from the echoes, claimed that the room was probably filled with water. Sensing a trap, we struck my climbing cleats into the wall and tied Alcemides to them before returning to the ledge and opening the door.

As expected, a thousand barrels of water rushed through, safely draining to the bottomless pit. Alcemides had weathered the flow hanging on to his rope and came back to inform that the door simply revealed a round room with a modest altar. As if to mock us, on the altar was placed a pile of copper coins, and we found nothing else despite our best efforts. Stranger yet, the room was both dry and nowhere big enough to hold the torrent of water that had supposedly gushed forth from it. The coins were stamped with a face of asexual beauty with a throughly amused grin. Dionysos later speculated the coins to be a jest or a taunt by a guardian demon set to watch over the tombs and had the likeness of the creature.

Back at the main intersection, I chose to descend the ledges a bit. At around two hundred feet, our ropes fell short and the ledges remained plain and uninteresting. When dropped, the waning light of a torch revealed little about the depth. Bewildered by this, I left the matter be and climbed back up. At the time, I understood nothing about the purpose and means of construction of such pits, and it suffices to say that its scale was truly disheartening. It is fortunate that I had other matters to think about, as my present knowledge suggests that spending such a long time in such pits is not the best of ideas.

When I returned, my companions had pried open a couple of coffers that decorated the walls of the crypt entrance. None of them contained any valuables, but did have mummified husks of ancient warriors in deteriorated pitch-black plate mail. When investigated closer, the tongues and eyes of the mummies proved to be in perfect shape and as moist and colorful as they probably were in life. Wary of this discovery, Alcemides pried open all the coffers and threw the lifeless bodies into the pit. We then proceeded to break the crypt door with picks and acid.

The first chamber merely contained a carriage, built of strangely well-preserved wood and generously decorated with gold and silver. At first it seemed that this would be a treasure in itself, but Basil, with his knowledge of alchemy, knew from weight that the metal parts were merely gold-plated steel. There had to be another treasure, and thus we pushed forward.

The next door was easier to open and revealed an extremely large chamber that contained a miniature of an entire city. The phallic architecture led us to believe it to be Tartarus itself, and I must admit that the craftsmanship was extraordinary in both scale and attention to detail. While such a find would be completely invaluable to a historian, even the prettiest temples would be difficult to pry out and transport to the surface, and thus it was without value to us.

A more through search of the whole room revealed a lot of writing in the south wall and more on a terrace circling the whole chamber. Suspecting it to be important, both I and Dionysos spent some time investigating the acheronian writing. Such it was, indeed. The engravings confirmed what the scrolls had previously hinted about the insignificance of the brief rule of man in this world, and the true masters of cosmos that would come both before us and after us. Even though this was merely writing on the wall by long-dead madmen, through the connection with the scrolls, I was filled with utter certainty that it was true. Such knowledge shook me to the very bone, but for some reason I can’t really understand, the revelation did not make me lose hope. In Dionysos’s eyes, I saw the comforting and engrossing gleam of madness, as surely the same knowledge had crushed some of his humanity.

The young pervert snapped out of his trance when Alcemides came to tell us that he had found a new path. In the east wall, there was a concealed door that opened into a surprisingly large, well-preserved corridor lined with torches, which still proved to be in operational condition. The corridor led to a smaller door, behind which bellowed the noises of a lively ball with countless nobility chattering and dancing to their hearts content. This insanity stopped us on our tracks, but Alcemides braved the mirage and soon instructed us to follow. While inside the room, its reality was revealed, and the mummified corpses of an acheronian court were found sitting in tables and benches on the walls. the room was large, but again seemed to just have a single exit to a narrow stone corridor, whose ending finally revealed what we were looking for.

The tombchamber of the witch kings was a septagon-shaped room with one face relief-encrusted door on each of the walls except for the entrance. The center of the room was decorated by a man-sized phallic obelisk the likes of which we had already seen in the city miniature. All seemed to be in order and soon the whole entourage was inside discussing the next move and deciphering the names of the six witch-kings. A moment later we were again surprised by a trap.

In my recollection, we had taken the utmost care in our each step, but alas, I was not swift enough to notice the lowering door. Alcemides dove to safety, but the rest of us were trapped when water – yet again – begun to pour from the ceiling. As if to mock us, the trap had been designed to kill slowly and minutes would pass before we would be left out of breath. We searched for an exit feverishly and Alcemides tried everything he could to break the door. However, it was extremely thick and even the stone eater would not help him to save us in time. Suddenly Basil formed an idea about pushing the images of the witch-kings in sequence, and guided by some clues neither I nor Dionysos saw, proceeded to guess the combination and disarm the trap. The water drained away almost instantly, and Alcemides joined us in looting the tombs.

We decided that it would be best to be as quick as possible. Each chose a chamber and grabbed as much as he could. For some reason, I seemed to draw the short end of the stick, as the tomb I chose was simply filled with utility articles made out of bones and human skin. Despite feeling that such items would be almost completely without value for everyone except the most deranged collectors, I grabbed numerous examples and managed to find precious stones lodged into some of the most delicate ones. There was also a small locker that contained a silver box with a large black pearl. Unable to find anything else, I took another door and saw a completely bare chamber with an incredibly large set of armor and weaponry resting behind three barrels. The armor was worn and way too large to transport, but the set had two jewel-encrusted scabbards – one for a poniard and one for a longsword. The poniard proved to be missing, but the longsword was present, though broken in half. It still seemed incredibly decorated and valuable, and the blade was made of strange metal. Even with half of its length missing, the blade was long enough to be used by a man of my size.

Delighted with finding the pretty scabbards, I broke the barrels which would surely be full of valuables. Unfortunately, I found just ash. I couldn’t believe my eyes and dug inside the ash for anything, but found only child bones and more ash. I broke the other barrels and fell them to the floor, but the contents were similar. The room had no sarcophagus, no lockers and nothing else of value. Almost furious by such mocking trickery, I ran to a third door, but opening it revealed a revolting mess of mummified human organs and bones knit and molten into impossible constructions. I again use these strange words, but they are the best ones I can fathom as behind the door was the tomb of the Boneweaver. She had apparently built a lot more than the Ankh, as the chamber was filled from ground to roof with such contraptions. In the light of my lantern, I saw many precious gems and trinklets, but simply couldn’t bear to enter. An unnatural sense of dread and despair forced my shaking hands to reseal the door. The others found me collapsed from its base and motioned for departure. I saw Basil open the door slightly and reach for the darkness, but even he seemed unable to enter the room and recoiled shortly thereafter. From what I gathered, the others had been luckier than I, with the three other chambers practically filled with riches and elegant art objects. Dionysos was also carrying three large tablets of gold that were completely covered with small, strange inscriptions.

The road back to the corridors of the buried city was uneventful. Dionysos kept on hurrying us, as he had experienced a vision of something rising from the pit. Nothing came, however, and when ascending, we also saw that the roof was designed to be able to crush climbers, but it remained as still as the pit. Either the mechanism had rusted shut, or we had somehow failed to activate it, which seemed a welcome twist of fate. However, it seemed as if misfortune accompanied good fortune as readily as itself, as our troubles seemed to be far from over. The corridors above were crawling with ghouls.

At first, we were able to avoid the corpse-eaters even though they blocked our original exit route. We tried a couple of staircases and uncertain corridors, but each seemed to be a dead end. Desperate, we settled on the other route to the sewers that had previously been used as the docking place for the feeding raft, and miraculously the ghouls were not present. However, once we begun to scale the actual sewer corridors, we noticed that the place was crawling with bandits from the sewerworkers’ guild. Dismayed by the discovery, we weighted our bets and chose to face the ghouls, as they were both unorganized and fearful of light. If we killed a few, the others would probably flee, and such a route would be much less risky than facing two dozen men with crossbows.

How wrong we were. Immediately after facing the scouts in the wine cellar entrance, we knew that these ghouls would not be just some rabble. They fought ferociously, with great skill and without fear. We couldn’t hold our own against their superior numbers, as they forced us to retreat back downstairs, and soon thereafter, into the far rooms of the cellar. We managed to block the doorway with some debris and hold a defensive line in a narrow entrance, but the ghouls were relentless and completely oblivious to their losses – we must have killed more than a dozen before they finally retreated. The reason for their restraint soon became apparent, as an old ghoul clad in tattered silken robes approached with an imposing guard of hulkish ghouls clad in ophirian gold-plated ceremonial armor. Deep down, I was certain that this would be the end of us, and considered a prayer to Mitra, that my parents used to worship.

We endured the stalemate for a while, as the ghouls seemed content to smirk and howl at their cornered and wounded pray. The sorcerer seemed reluctant to sacrifice any more of his kind, and eventually, to the revel of its subjects, it spoke the first words of great necromancy. I recognized the spell that beckoned the bodies of the recently dead, and instantly knew what to do. Placing a bolt on my crossbow, I took quick aim and pulled the trigger. The bolt hit the ghoul in the shoulder, causing it to lose control of its conjuration. The revitalizing energies of the words turned against their speaker, and the sorcerer and its nearest guards were putrefied and turned to ash in an instant. We were hit by a black shockwave that tried to desecrate our bodies and snuff away our breath, but further from the focus of the blast, we survived. The ghouls, seeming to lose heart, turned tail and fled.

It was a bitter victory. Our skin was black where the shockwave had swept over it. My hair was falling off in tatters and Dionysos’s fingernails were brown and rotting. Nothing but the surface mattered now. We ran and leaped through the corridors in the familiar route, wishful of rest and care. Yet there seemed to be no respite for us, as in the sewers, we were ambushed by the men of Kostokos. We repelled the first scouts and staggered back into the sewers, but hope was scarce.

Kostokos had accompanied the men himself and demanded everything we had in exchange of our lives. Granted, we were wounded and tired, completely without a chance of victory. The sewer king outnumbered us greatly, but Basil’s bitter resolve saved the day a bit. Not willing to give up his newfound riches, he screamed that if the sewer whore wanted everything, he would get nothing. We would rather throw everything in the sewage cleft or the ghouls than give up now. So sincere was the bargain, that to this day I do not doubt his resolve, and neither did Kostokos. He settled for the gold plaques Dionysos and Basil had found in the other tombs. To my utter surprise, the king was a man worth his word, as after given the plaques, we were allowed to leave in peace.

Rarely have I felt that the bed of an inn would be as welcome, and as rarely have I felt my life to be as cheap. Countless times in the last days could I have lost it, but somehow I still had it. Such happiness could not be bought with money, but perhaps my newfound wealth could buy what I truly wanted. I would be happier still when the blackness would peel off to reveal pale and healthy skin, and in a couple of days, I could brush my head to find fresh stubble.

More trouble would follow us, eventually. Especially the evil of the witch-kings would reach much further than we expected. I wouldn’t know of it until later, though, and for the first time in a long while, it felt as if everything was locking into place. I was content.

From the Chronicles of Lord Dionysos Thaurian

I was bitterly disappointed that whatever was guarding that accursed tomb would manage to frustrate me so, even distorting the dreams brought to me by the Blossoms of the Black Lotus. In retrospect, I should have spent more time researching what Amenkhun had used to subdue the demons bound to the site. And I shall not rest until I have feasted on the soul of Sergio Kostokos. Oh yes, Messentia has not seen the last of me.

Session XXVI: The City Below
Sailor's tears and scholarly discussions among vomit

Silent shadows skulked on the roof of the house rented by “Lord Bhaal” and his entourage. The guards and servants downstairs were fast asleep. The decision of the killers to strike through the windows saved their lives, or at least prolonged it for a few minutes. Steel glinted in the moonlight as blades were covered with poison. Silent nods were exchanged and the attackers slipped through the flimsy window covers with murder on their minds. They made their way through the main hallway of the second floor and divided into pairs. Motivated by greed and bloodthirst, the cutthroats crashed through doors into the silent bedrooms of their prey.

Alcemides was awoken by the racket and was on his feet just in time to see two assassins burst through the door. Tyrus, who shared the room with the half-pict, had barely woken up by the time one attacker died with a shortsword in his heart. Meanwhile Dionysos and Luba were struggling with another pair of killers, who grievously wounded the Acheronian-blooded sorcerer. Blinded by a stinging dust thrown in his eyes, his only chance to prevail was to use the chamber pot to wash out the alchemical weapon. Only in the room of Basil there seemed to be no struggle, only two silent thuds. A moment later, the alchemist stepped out, brandishing a sceptre-like staff inscribed with black spiders. Their momentum and the advantage of surprise lost, the attackers were quickly brought down. Luba saved the life of one assassin with timely first aid, while the others were left to die. The heroes decided to stay up for the rest of the night and move immediately for another place to stay come dawn. The corpses would be left in the house – it had been rented under a false name in any case.

The morning came without further incidents. The Nemedians and the Zamoran entourage slipped away, carrying an unconscious prisoner with them and acquired another house in a less respectable part of the great city. After they had settled down, Dionysos proceeded to interrogate the prisoner. Eventually the hypnotic powers of the young sorcerer overpowered the will of the assassin and he fell to a dominated trance. The assassin turned out to be just a small-time crook from the harbor districts: A thug for hire, who had been paid to murder merchants. He knew nothing of the cult, but could provide a name. Publio, a fence and a dealer in poisons and drugs, had hired the cutthroats to attack the house. The thug knew not where Publio lived, but told of a seaside tavern and brothel he frequented. Apparently the fence used the place as his office, meeting clients and minions inside. He was on good terms with pirates of the Barachan Isles and always kept half a dozen corsairs around as bodyguards. Having combed the thug’s brains for every ounce of information, Dionysos sacrificed him for sorcerous power, enjoying the thrill of cold-blooded murder with a thin smile on his pale lips.

The men decided to send Luba to gather information on the streets, while they sat down to consider what to do. Finally they decided to go after the fence, capture him and then extract any information he might have. Alcemides mumbled grimly about pirates and how they were his only equals in the art of sudden death, but the others paid little attention. In the evening Luba returned with little news. The city guard and the guilds were not looking for them for now, so whoever had sent the assassins also wanted the presence of the Nemedians to remain a secret. Dionysos suspected the attack was retaliation for the events in the sewers, but only finding Publio and forcing him to talk would confirm it.

As night fell on Messentia, the men disguised themselves in rags and made their way to the shady parts of the great harbor. Drunk pirates brawled on the streets amongst prostitutes and dealers of lotus wine. The few guards were more interested in harassing the street girls for discounts than maintaining order. Even before they reached the tavern, Alcemides got bored and attacked a street dealer peddling lotus and opium. He threw the man in the murky waters of the harbor and confisticated a satchel of drugs. The others didn’t even bother to ask him why, as the act of random violence seemed to improve the half-picts mood considerably.

Finally the men made their way in to the tavern/brothel called the Purring Mermaid. It was a rowdy, dirty place where sailors and soldiers came to look for cheap trollops and cheaper wine. Publio had a room in the back, separated from the common room by a thick curtain. After waiting for the previous client, a dark-haired man with a huge beard and the bearing of a pirate, to leave, Dionysos brazenly entered the booth. He intended to immediately subjugate the fence with his hypnotic gaze, after getting up close under the pretense of using his services. Yet as Publio saw the young sorcerer, he immediately jumped up and ordered his bodyguards to attack. Three brawny pirates assaulted Dionysos with cutlasses, forcing him out of the room.

The other heroes charged to aid the nobleman and more pirates joined the fray. As blows were exchanged, drunk tempers flared all over and the tavern was soon engulfed in chaotic bloodshed. Someone set the building aflame and the heroes barely managed to fight their way out before general panic turned the fight into a stampade. Alcemides sneaked back inside through a window and found that the fence had fled through the back door. Before leaving the burning building, he picked up the cup of wine the man has used, bringing it to Dionysos for sorcerous uses. Then the half-pict faded into the night, declaring that he would go “milk the tears of sailors”.

The others made their way back to their base and treated their wounds. Dionysos used the cup of wine and the saliva within to locate the fence through sorcery. He saw the man aboard a ship about to set sail despite it being a night. It seemed the fence was so terrified by the men he was going to flee the city. Seeing little else they could do, Tyrus used the cup to lay down a barrage of curses upon the man. At least he would be plagued by ill fortune for a year and a day. Alcemides returned after dawn, beaten black and blue, but with a happy grin on his mauled face. During the day, Dionysos cast divinations upon the fence again, becoming certain he was headed towards Kordova onboard a pirate ship.

Once again, the men were at a loss at what to do. The librarian was now too far away to pursue and the fence was beyond their reach as well. Alcemides suggested that they cut their losses and leave Messantia with the next ship, but the others wanted some tangible benefit before leaving. Finally Basil convinced the others to make another trip underneath the city. He suggested that the huge golden mark on the roof of the ritual chamber could be broken up and looted. They could also explore the stairways and tunnels they had previously seen. Promises of pure gold quickly convinced Dionysos and Tyrus. Alcemides and Ditrius tagged along with less enthuism.

Despite the death of the sewer mage, the sewers were still curiously empty. The heroes had no trouble reaching the chambers underneath the sewers. The undead miners were still hard at work, suggesting some other force than the dead leper had created them. Alcemides prooceded to cut them in to ribbons and the risen dead did naught to resist. Meanwhile the others tried pickaxe, sledgehammer, acid and brute force on the golden symbol in the ritual chamber. No amount of force or skill would even dent the stone. Frustrated, Dionysos finally proclaimed the symbol to be obviously somehow an enchanted tool in itself. Breaking it would require sorcery and the destruction would undoubtedly strain the walls between realities. It would be easier for them to scour the tunnels and seek something else to loot. Ditrius and Basil both seemed very pleased with the proclamation.

Moving through the old tunnels, the heroes found more obscure, blasphemous incriptions on the walls and eventually a set of wide stairs leaving somewhere deeper underground. A strong stench of carrion assaulted their noses. Alcimedes sneaked ahead and when descending the stairs, noticed many, many marks of clawed feet upon the stone. He could hear distant tittering, growling sounds echoing from somewhere afar. Alarmed by the report of the half-pict, the men decided to turn around and search other tunnels. Dionysos giggled with a mad gleam in his eyes about the hungry ones chewing the bones of the very world in hidden tunnels.

Finally the plunderers found a hidden stairway leading deeper in to the catacombs. Climbing down, they found a hole in the stairwell, leading in to a natural cave next to the stairs. Curious as ever, Alcemides went in to investigate and came back to tell the whole cave was filled with human bones. Dionysos and Tyrus waded around in the bones, confirming they were human in origin. All had toothmarks on them and most were broken and the marrow within missing. Stumbling among the bones, Tyrus kicked something hard. Among the bones was a gilded helmet with a high horse hair crest. Basil recognized the helmet as one used by the Royal Guard of Ophir several centuries ago.

Underneath the stairs, the men were assaulted by a stench so terrible it made them gag and puke in helpless revulsion. They had found the huge cesspool they had observed from above. Peering up, they could see the huge god-figure above, leaning dangerously towards the chasm. Peering down, they saw a ledge underneath opening into a large hall. So great was their revulsion that the men had to flee the stench. Still determined to find something valuable, Dionysos suggested to soak straps of cloth in perfume and cover their faces with it. Thus prepared the men went back, again hit by the terrible stench, but now at least able to stay on their feet. Using a rope, they descended on the ledge below, hands shaking with the staggering assault of the stench. On the edge of the cesspool was a winch and a bucket, which seemed fresh and working, as if someone occasionally dipped in to the disgusting muck below and lifted up whole buckets of it. The hall seemed to be a dining room, with silverwares incribed with scenes of murder and cannibalism. All but Alcemides were deeply disturbed by the implications. The half-pict proceeded to merrily loot the silver, caring little for the strange stains on them.

Staggering in the stench, the men made their way through the hall to the corridor beyond. It ended soon in a place where the roof had collapsed. The eastern side of the corridor opened to a chamber with a pile of corpses covering the floor. In the roof was a hole from which the corpses had obviously been dropped. Some were clothed, some naked, all in advanced states of decay. On the western side was a curtain of stained silk. From behind it emanated a glow of candlelight and low muttering, occasionally broken with smatterings and clicks. While the others pondered their options, Basil pulled the curtain aside.

Behind the curtain was a large chamber illuminated by a few black candles. Everywhere it was covered with scrolls neatly laid in piles and pyramids. At the back of the room was a rack on which large pieces of leather were stretched to dry, perhaps to be used as vellum. A huge creature, at least seven feet tall, stood beside a stone pedestal. It was covered with a dark stained robe which left only large, clawed hands visible. The creature was constantly writing a scroll of some kind and although it acknowledged the presence of the men with a nod, it never ceased to write. With a gurgling, smattering voice, it invited them to step in and asked what brought them in the catacombs.

Somewhat surprised by the behavior of the creature, the men nevertheless engaged it with words instead of swords. The creature explained it was a scholar and a librarian interested with local history and tasked with guarding something underneath Messentia. Basil, Dionysos and Tyrus asked many questions and learned much about the catacombs around them from the being. It already knew the leper sorcerer had been killed and congratulated the men for the deed, warning them of the ghouls prowling in the tunnels. As the scholars portrayed interest in Tartarus, the creature told how to enter the sacrificial pit which would lead to the tombs of the witch-kings, though he warned the men of the dire forces guarding the death-slumber of the Acheronians. As the other men left the chambers, Basil stayed behind for a few moments and emerged cluthing an old scroll. Back on the ledge, the plunderers decided they had had enough.

The Nemedians made their way back towards the surface. When they reached the secret door hidden in the wall of the storm drain, the party was alerted by the sounds of men issuing nearby. The most silent and swiftest of the adventurers, Alcemides sneaked ahead to investigate. Rounding a corner, he witnessed members of the sewer worker’s guild, armed, unloading corpses and living prisoners off a shallow skiff, chaining the sullen wretches to the wall. One of the prisoners still living was a young female prostitute. Before the others became aware of what was happening, Alcemides charged the messentians. Unfortunately, the half-pict, his wits clouded by his bloodlust, stepped in a puddle of filth with a loud splash, and the three sewer workers turned in unision to face the savage, who froze in his tracks. Witnessing the spectacle of Alcemides, half-naked with his sword drawn, one of the men fired his arbalest, striking the Savage Dancer in the chest. Alcemides fell back, without uttering a sound, and lay still with the heavy bolt portruding from his sternum. The sewer workers were still standing still, shocked, as the others rounded the corner, and seeing their comrade laid low, charged without asking questions. The workers in the skiff met terrible deaths as they drowned in sewage, pushed off their flimsy skiff, though one worker managed to flee, ducking bolts, as the Nemedians were slowed by their armour. As the adventurers checked to see if their fallen comrade had finally failed to cheat death, they were amazed to discover a faint pulse. The bolt had missed his heart and arteries by a hair, and had merely disturbed some nerve that had knocked Alcemides senseless. The men freed the girl chained to the wall, though she could say nothing on why she was bought here for her trivial offense. Limping back to the surface, the men realised that when they would next head below the city, the sewer guild would undoubtedly double their efforts at security, dictating even greater caution and secrecy. They returned to the rented house and spent the rest of the day bathing, trying to scrub off the terrible stench. Yet now they had a new goal – the tomb of the Acheronian witch-kings.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

One of the days we spent at the inn, I inquired Luba about the military presence in the city and the actual status of the warrant on our heads. From what she had gathered, the search was no longer very active and I would probably be safe on the streets with a modest disguise.

Encouraged by this, I took it upon myself to visit good old Niccolo. As a man of my word and as repayement for the information I had bought, I told him everything I had learned about Nefertari. The man seemed visibly amused. By the tone of his questions, he seemed much more interested in the vampiress than I had initially assumed. Even though our debt was now settled, Niccolo even rewarded me with a nominal sum of silver. Perhaps out of principle.

The information dealer was also interested in everything I could tell about Pteion, but not enough to offer a reasonable prize, so we let the matter be. When I was leaving, he stopped me one last time to hand me a stone tablet decorated by his family signet with a request to break the tablet when I would finally meet Nefertari. I accepted, for the man had been nothing but fair, and I was certain that our paths with the vampiress would yet cross.

I remember thinking about the possible effects of the tablets, and believed that there existed a sort of feud between Niccolo and the hag. From what I could gather, perhaps the tablet would unleash a curse, or perhaps it was some kind of a tracking spell. If either of these was true, I could only deduct that Niccolo did not expect us to survive an encounter with Nefertari. I would later prove him wrong, but not in the sense that I then assumed.

Session XXV: Underneath the City of Coin
The catacombs underneath Messantia hide both danger and opportunity

After weeks of exhausting riding, the travelers reached Messantia, the City of Coin. The rest of the journey through Shem had been uneventful. The Nemedians had become acquinted with the entourage following Dionysos. Most of them still called him Bhaal, a mysterious and powerful sorcerer. Basil, the Zamoran alchemist, turned out to be very interested in ancient history. He spent much of the journey interrogating the others about Pteion and other locations of interest.

The Nemedians entered Messantia disguised with great care. They were wanted men in the city, framed by the cult of the Golden Lord as murderers and robbers. Worse yet, the city was one of the main bases of the cult. Being identified would mean immediate retaliation, both by the city guard and cult assassins. The Zamoran entourage proved out to be a great boon. Luba and Basil were not known in Messantia and could handle all business. They rented a house for “Lord Bhaal” and the entourage, with a plan to spend a few days in Messentia. While there, the Nemedians would sell the rest of their loot from Pteion. They planned to sail home along the river Tybor. Ditrius and his group found quarters in the local Mitraneum. Selcides departed soon after, eager to see an old friend.

A few days passed. The Nemedians stayed indoors, resting from the journey, while Luba sold most of their loot. Alcemides and Tyrus slipped out once, disguised from head to toe, for some shady business. Then, one early morning, Ditrius and Selcides returned to their companions. The friend Selcides had looked forward to meeting had disappeared. Ditrius suspected that he had been kidnapped. Tranicos was the librarian of the main Mitraneum and had lately been acting strangely. He had disappeared several times before and returned with no memory of where he had been. Ditrius thought eldtrich forces were afoot and asked the others to help him. They reluctantly agreed.

The group entered the local Mitraneum, hoping to find clues about the disappearance. Castel, the assistant librarian did his best to assist the men in their search. He provided them with access to the personal quarters of Tranicos. Dionysos secretly pilfered a magical link from the beddings, hoping to locate the man through sorcery. Meanwhile the others scoured the rooms for clues. Alcemides noticed a hidden space behind a heavy desk. In it were several old scrolls, a curious statue and a diary. The statue stood up to the knee of a grown man. It was made of green metal and portrayed a hideous creature with features both human and bestial. Dionysos mentioned in passing that it was a god or goddess of ancient Acheron. The scrolls showed a map through the sewers underneath the city – and the old tunnels beneath. Apparently the librarian had traced a route to the fabled Tartarus, an Acheronian city Messantia was built upon. The diary was filled with the scribblings of a madman, describing nightmares and hallucinations, and revealing memory lapses of ever increasing length.

Dionysos voiced suspicions that Tranicos had been taken by the cult of the Golden Lord. While he could not claim certainty, madness seemed to follow the cult everywhere. He set his third eye upon hairs of the priest and was sure he was still alive, albeit wounded, somewhere underneath the city. After a brief discussion, the heroes agreed they would seek answers in the sewers.

The Nemedians, Sergei, Basil and Luba followed the map to the nearest sewer entrance. Dionysos hypnotized the sewer workers and made them provide the heroes with appropriate gear. One whiff of the terrible stench was enough to convince Luba it was better for her to stay behind. Thus only the six men entered, covering their faces with scented cloth. Even thus prepared, they were struck nearly delirious by the nauseating fumes on their way down. Its force felt like a physical blow to the head, numbing the senses. The sewers seemed oddly empty of workers. Silently, the men made their way ahead in the shadowy corridors with just an occasional cough or gag. After a tiresome walk, the men finally located a secret door in a sewer wall. Behind it descended steep, slimy stairs into ominous darkness.

The stairs finally ended in to a corridor with a very low ceiling. Basil and Dionysos had trouble moving due to their tall build. Suddenly the corridor opened in a hall with several doors. Flickering candlelight illuminated one of the doorways. Beyond it was a room filled with rotting barrels. Alcemides found another secret door, opening into another steep stairway. As the men descended, the walls surrounding them turned to red Acheronian stone. Dionysos sensed ahead with his third eye and felt the priest closer. They were on the right track.

The stairs lead into a circular chamber with three doorways. Two of them had been sealed, but the third one was broken open. The walls were inscribed with people and creatures cowering at the feet of Acheronian witch-kings. The air was stale, but still pervaded with the stench of decay. Wandering through the deserted corridors, the men heard distant sounds of metal hitting stone. Ditrius suggested that it meant a mining operation was nearby, strange as it was in the surroundings. The first hall the group entered was filled with obscene inscriptions. The walls showed humans, animals and demonic creatures copulating. Women then gave birth to terrible abominations, which were worshipped by human figures. Above the calamity stood an imposing witch-king. Alcoves within the walls were filled with statues of abominations, similiar to the one in the quarters of the missing librarian. One of the alcoves was empty.

At the far end of the hall, the floor had collapsed. Somewhere underneath loomed a huge cesspool, where a broken sewer pipe flowed in a waterfall of disgusting slime. Poised over the edge of the pit was a huge statue of black basalt. It was an image of a terrifying female thing with scores of horns, mammaries, tentacles and limbs. Smaller statues of horned children and tree-like things were placed in reverie at its feet. The mere sight of the obscene goddess filled the men with dread. Dionysos muttered that his aunt back in Nemedia talked of a similar divinity and advised the group to leave the hall.

The men quickly retreated back to the corridors, now following the sounds of labor instead. They entered a series of corridors illuminated by fresh torches. On the way towards the noise, Alcemides spotted an interesting chamber. It was furnished as a temple, with a small round pit in the middle. On the floor in the pit was inscribed the sign of the Golden Lord, in pure gold. The gold in the sign was worth a fortune and on an altar nearby was a huge gong. Deciphering the incriptions on the walls, the scholars came to a disturbing conclusion. Apparently even the Acheronians had worshipped the Golden Lord in some capacity. Written on the altar stone were instructions for summoning “enlightenment”. A simple ritual had to be performed, the gong struck thrice and a supplicant standing in the small pit would find wisdom from the stars. Basil was disturbingly interested in the possibility, but Ditrius convinced the others to leave the chamber alone. They could return later to retrieve the gold. Alcemides sabotaged the gong briefly, in case someone would use it to summon something while they passed on.

Heading along, the intrepid adventurers found another set of stairs, though the corridor continued on. The noise came from the stairs. Alcemides sneaked ahead to have a look. The stairs ended suddenly in a dark room filled with the living dead. A dozen corpses were chiseling pieces of the red stone from the walls, chipping them into blocks and stuffing the blocks into wooden shipping crates. The undead did not react to the presence of the living men, even when they were shoved around. The corpses simply carried on in their duties. Most were relatively fresh and dressed in dirty rags. The heroes decided to leave the corpses alone for now – the noise of their work would cover the sounds of their approach from their master. Now sneaking, the six men climbed the stairs back up and carried on along the corridor. They entered a hall filled with high pillars incribed with demonic forces. At the far reaches of the huge room stood a silent figure wrapped in tatters of yellow silk.

The man approached the intruders with a gleeful cackle, advising them to step forth in Nemedian. With a sardonic bow, he introduced himself as a priest of the Golden Lord. From among the yellow tatters, the heroes could see flesh terribly ruined by leprosy. As Alcemides promptly charged ahead with a sword in hand, not interested in parley, the cultist reacted with sorcery. With a flick of a wrist and a strange, coarse scream, he conjured a strange phantom in midst of the men. It was the Golden Sign, but as a floating, wavering apparition, which danced in the air. Its mere sight paralyzed many of the men, forcing them to stare at it in rapt silence. Basil resisted the sign and launched two globes of demon-fire at the sorcerer, but they both exploded against the tall pillars. Luaghing with insane glee, the cultist let forth a wailing, undulating shout, which caused the flesh of the men to bubble and blister, as if it wanted to dance with the sound. Paralyzed by the sign and mauled by the strange, blubbering song, the heroes seemed to have to have reached the end of their journey. Alcemides saved the day by shaking himself free of the paralysis. His savage attack ceased the wavering song and forced the sorcerer to retreat to an inner chamber. Alcemides pursued and ran him through with his blade.

Several of the heroes had been badly hurt by the sorcerous maladies of the dead priest. Sergei had fallen on the floor and appeared comatose, his soul wracked by the power of the Golden Lord. Investigating the chambers revealed a box full of letters, some alchemical ingredients and a little gold. Upon the person of the priest Alcemides found a signet ring belonging to a local merchant house. The dead priest was obviously well connected. Behind one pillar Dionysos finally found Tranicos. The librarian was naked, tied up, gagged and unconscious, but physically unharmed. Upon his back was branded the symbol of Skelos, but the mark was obviously at least several months old.

The men left the sewers, dragging the unconscious assassin and librarian with them. They encountered no obstales on their way back to the rented house. Ditrius summoned Selcides, who tended to the unconscious priest. Finally he woke up and was able to tell a short story. The librarian had simply woken up in the sewers, tied up by the leper sorcerer. He had no recollection of other events. The leper had interrogated him on his interest in the ruins below, then knocked him unconscious with alchemy. Ditrius and Selcides escorted Tranicos back to the Mitraneum and left the others tend their wounds.

Next morning Ditrius was back, knocking furiously on the door. As servants of “Lord Bhaal” escorted him inside, the Nemedian produced a burst of profuse oaths. The librarian had gone missing again, this time obviously kidnapped. Castel, the priest who had helped to find him, was missing as well. Ditrius asked Dionysos to seek them out with his sorcery. Enjoying the chance for attention, the Acheronian-blooded set about to conjure visions. Surprisingly, he could bring forth naught but dark mist and chanting in a guttural, primitive voice. Frustrated by the obstacle, Dionysos used the hair of the librarian to gauge his state of mind and body. He declared the man was not a prisoner, but traveling rapidly upstream of his own volition. The Nemedians considered riding after the river ship, but abandoned the idea after a short discussion. Catching up with the ship would be very difficult and they had barely recovered from the fight in the sewers. They would seek Tranicos on their way upriver, later on. Alcemides suspected the librarian had been swallowed by a snake-man, who had stolen his skin. The others were, for the most part, amused by the notion.

The rest of the day was spent in idle slumber, repairing damaged equipment and tending wounds. The letters retrieved from the leper sorcerer seemed to be describe a large scale shipping operation. The blocks of Acheronian stone from the sewers were packed aboard ships in Messantia, whence they traveled to Zingara, Ophir and Zamora. Three men had corresponded with the leper in arranging the shipments – a Korzetta of Zingara, Z. from Ophir and Zevras from Zamora. Obviously the cult had a longer reach than the Nemedians had dared to suspect before. Among the letters was a crude map of the known world. Over it had been drawn a giant V with red ink. It covered the western coast from Zingara to Messantia, then reached up till Shadizar in the northeast. Seeing the symbol filled the men with strange dread, but meant nothing at the moment. As the night fell, their dreams were invaded by the glow of a baleful star, alone in the crimson sky. Meanwhile stealthy feet padded on the roof of the house and steel glinted in the moonlight.

From Tyrus

After reaching Messentia, I and Alcemides spent a night confirming what the Child of Nergal had told us about the red-handed assassins. As told in a letter we had received after the attack, one of the dock warehouses concealed a secret entrance to a simple negotiation chamber. An envoy of the assassins greeted us there, telling us much of what we already knew. In addition, we each were given the possibility of learning about one other negotiation place. I chose Belverus, and Alcemides chose Kordova. With cities so far apart, we would at least have a reasonable distance to any one of them, no matter where we would travel. However, Belverus was the only meeting place which I assumed would ever get used.

Session XXIV: Reunion
Confusion and paranoia as Dionysos rejoins the Nemedian wanderers, along with a strange retinue

Dionysos was woken by the orange glow of the late morning sun reflecting off plain white walls, filtered through a curtain of some fine fabric. The air was warm and dry, and the sounds of traffic and tongues unknown to him carried into the chambers he lay in through an open window. There was also the sound of steady breathing, of others still slumbering, in his chambers. He lay on a luxurious bed, his naked, youthful body wrapped in a thin sheet of silk. His last recollection was of descent into the depths of the cursed city of Pteion, followed by darkness and vague, uneasy feelings of confusion, helplessness and frustration. The young noble chanced a glance around himself, and found his bedmate to be a woman, older than himself but still attractive, very tall and thin yet voluptuous, with an unusual complexion he could not quite place. In an adjacent corner, sleeping on pillows, were three servant-girls of mixed breeding, their musical instruments close by. Half-empty amphorae of wine and bowls of fruit lay scattered about in the opulently furnished, yet oddly plain and simple, room. Gingerly, Dionysos eased himself out of bed of obviously foreign design, and tiptoed as silently as he could over to a small wash-basin in the opposite corner. Observeing his reflection in the water, he noted that his face still bore make-up in the Stygian fashion. As he splashed water over his face and drew his hands through his hair he felt something odd. Looking down at his hands, he noted that a single joint was missing rom the least digit of his left hand. Dumbfounded, Dionysos stared at this desecration of his body. The wound was no longer painful, indeed looking as if it had been healing for weeks. “Fhtagn” , he silently muttered. As if in reply, a husky voice from behind him, soft and pleasant, yet with a hard and eerily sinister edge to it, inquired, in the toungue of his father’s people, “Lord Bhaal? Is something not to your satisfaction, my husband?”.

Bewildered, but determined to gather his wits, Dionysos looked around the apartment, which seemed like a suite in some expensive inn. He entered another chamber, apparently converted into a makeshift alchemical laboratory, the strange occupants of which were already awake. “Dare not disturb the works of Basil, you lame fool!”, exclaimed one to the other, who merely lowered his gaze meekly in response to the abuse. The more assertive alchemist was, like the strange woman claiming to be the wife of Dionysos, improbably tall and thin, as if stretched on the rack, with pale skin and and uncanny features. The other was a hunchback, with Zamoran features, his face pockmarked with burns. All of the strangers Dionysos had seen in this place wore items common to the spider-worshippers of Zamora. Yet, from what he had seen and heard, he was certain that he was not now in that shadowy land. “I see that Lord Bhaal has decided to grace us with his presence”, said the tall alchemist. “Shall we be making our leave of this place soon, then? Are we to proceed as planned?” Deciding it best to play along until his head cleared, Dionysos responded, as authoritatively as possible, “Yes, as soon everyone is prepared. Refresh my memory, where were we headed next?” Seemingly without hesitation, the weird figure replied, “Why, to Stygia, of course. To purchase some rare chalks of great potency.” Nodding, Dionysos exited the room to find something to eat, deciding that it was best to listen to the Zamorans before making any further inquiries. Behind him, he heard a faint chuckle, pregnant with malign ambition, “Excellent…”

Telling his servants he fancied a walk, Dionysos headed outside, into the heat of a bustling Shemite city. Weighing in his mind the potential benefits of either running away or trying to pass himself off as whoever his new followers thought he was, at least until his memory returned. Turning a corner, he was suddenly faced with a wrathful Tyrus and Alcemides, their weapons drawn. Of Noam the Archer there was no sign. “Give me one reason not to skewer you on the spot, perfidious worm of Acheron!”, Tyrus hissed. Alcemides merely looked on with a passive expression of bemusement, though Dionysos knew better than to underestimate the deadliness of the half-savage. Thus cornered, Dionysos decided that to tell the truth was the wisest course of action. At first his former companions were intensly skeptical of his professed ignorance of what had transpired after the band entered Pteion, but the young witch pleaded them to follow him to his residence, where his story would be confirmed by the Zamorans present. In fact, he suggested that Tyrus might better be able to extract information of what had happened to Dionysos from the Zamorans, without unduly alarming the spider-cultists, who apparently mistook the noble half-Acheronian for someone else.

Tyrus and Alcemides were introduced to the Zamorans as former acquaintancies, to be trusted and treated as welcome guests. After a while of politely questioning Luba and Basil, Tyrus had formed a rough picture of what had happened to Dionysos in the past months: He had apparently traveled from Pteion to Yezud, in Zamora, impossibly fast, introducing himself simply as “Lord Bhaal”. He had impressed the priests of Zath, and traded with them for the hand of Luba in marriage and the serveces of his brother, who, it seems, were not wholly of this Earth, but formed of a union between humans and the denizens of the Outer Dark. From Zamora he had travelled back south again, through Koth, where he had met the famed sorcerer Pelias. Beyond that the Zathians knew little, but Dionysos was determined to find out what had happened, through Lotus visions and Dreams of Prophecy, should all else fail.

Eventually, Tyrus was, though still cautious, satisfied with Dionysos promising to do what he could to bring back memories of what had happened in the past three months, and that he was not likely to blame for the misfortunes that had fallen on the band of Nemedians, or the fate of Noam. Dionysos was introduced to Selcides and his guardian, Ditrius. Well into the afternoon, the small caravan took leave of Asgalun, leaving on the road to Messentia, not too far from western Shem. The new followers of Dionysos included his new wife, Luba, a former sacred dancing girl of the spider-god Zath and her brother Basil, an alchemist formerly serving the cult. Additionally, his retainers included a couple of guardsmen, a Zamoran assassin, an alchemist and a scribe, musicians and household servants. Dionysos found himself riding a fine Balkhanan stallion, a warhorse of inestimable value, though he seemed to have lost the trading licence to Khemi granted by Thothmekri as reward for his services to the House of the Black Ring.

Musings of Alcemides

I was not disheartened by the unexpected disappearance of Dionysos in the least and thus felt no need to utter a rebuke for leaving us in Pteion. He seems to have done well for himself in his absence.

Session XXIII: The Red Hands of Yajur
..and the most expensive arrow ever

The thirty days of preparation were about to come to an end. Nervous and – in the case of Alcemides – excited, the Nemedians were preparing to face the oriental assassins. They double-checked their weapons every day and night, slept with a sword in hand and inspected every drink with the fear of poison in their mind. Noam and Tyrus had bought doses of purple lotus, hoping the expensive toxic might give them an edge. Ditrius and the Hyperboreans followed the men wherever they went, guarding their backs.

Tired of waiting, the Nemedians sought ways to find the assassins and take the battle to them. Yet all tries to locate the killers proved futile. No amount of streetwise, no amount of gold and bribery achieved anything but false leads. Finally Noam had a strange idea. He announced he would spend a day doing nothing but smoking black lotus. Surely the lotus dreams would bring him insight in to the nature of their enemies, for he would be guided by his powers as the Scorpion King. The others thought Noam had finally went completely insane, but could do little but give him his portion of the lotus.

After spending an entire day in the caress of the lotus, Noam approached the others again, red-eyed and giggling. He gave a detailed account of three assasins he had seen in drug-induced visions, one for each. An assassin assigned after him was incredibly fast and impossible to fool by stealth or guile, striking swiftly with cutting blades. Tyrus was targeted by a woman, who flew through the skies like a lightning bolt striking from a clear sky. Alcemides was threatened by a bear-like shadow, a hulking brute, who would rip his limbs apart and break his spine like a twig. Although the others did not believe Noam completely, he seemed convinced of the accuracy of his vision.

The days dragged on. Alcemides continued with his blunt attempts to seduce the Hyperborean sorceress, but she only ignored him with the determination of an iceberg. After a week of courting, she asked Noam and Tyrus to accompany her to “special entertainment”, as if to spite the half-pict. The two men followed her, but Tyrus quickly returned with a look of disgust on his face. Noam came back with the cold woman, much later and with a strange gleam in his eyes. Finally exactly 30 days had passed from the challenge of the Red Hands. The Nemedians fortified their room in the inn and stayed inside first for a day, then two. Ditrius and the Witchmen kept guard in shifts. Yet the assassins did not come. After staying indoors for several days, the heroes decided they had enough. The attackers were obviously trying to break their spirits. The heroes decided to set an ambush instead.

Tyrus went for a stroll in the city, while Noam and Alcemides followed covertly. Soon enough Tyrus noticed he was followed by a shadowy figure. He took a turn for an alley, which was suddenly blocked by a very large man. Behind him appeared a Shemite woman in long, flowing robes. They had succesfully lured out two of the assassins. The brute stayed in place, while the woman charged Tyrus in a whirling fury of striking feet and hands. She was quick as a cobra and the Nemedian couldn’t even scratch her with his sword.

As Alcemides and Noam appeared on the scene, the brute turned and fled into the busy streets. The nimble woman followed, but with three Nemedians on her tail. She ran swiftly, but not swiftly enough for Alcemides and Noam. They drove her into a cul-de-sac, an inner wall of a garden blocking the route. Yet the woman did not stop, but ran up to the wall at top speed. Realising she was trying to scale the wall, Noam drew an arrow poisoned with the precious purple lotus. Just as he was about to let loose the shaft, a buzzing insect flew straight in to his eye, jerking his aim so the expensive arrow went flying high on to the sky. The assassin cleared the wall in one amazing leap and the Nemedians gave up the chase. Defeated for now, they returned to their inn.

The day passed uneventfully as the men pondered their next move. They finally decided to stay in the inn for now. They went to sleep with one of the Witchmen standing guard at their door. Little did they know this was the night the assassins would strike. At midnight, on Noam’s guard shift, a faint scratching sound from the closed window alerted him. The archer barely had time to shout a warning to his sleeping comrades, when the windows burst open. Inside fell a glass globe, exploding in a sputtering cloud of blinding smoke. Noam was unable to do little but cough, while three figures jumped in the room. Alcemides and Tyrus had luckily woken and grabbed their weapons, facing their would-be killers wearing naught but loincloths.

The familiar woman vaulted past the other men and landed next to Tyrus with a stunning kick on his jaw. The others had little time to help him while he was being beaten senseless, as the two others assassins had not been idle. Noam was assaulted by a strange small man with a face completely covered in dirty rags. He was armed with claw-like blades on each hand and attacked with blinding speed, flaying his target with sadistic fervor. The hulking brute grabbed Alcemides in a deathly embrace, twisting the half-pict’s spine to breaking point, with an ecstatic smile on his thin lips.

The attack was quick and it was over even quicker. Several deadly blows were dealt in an instant. Tyrus recovered from the onslaught of whirling feet and fists just in time to remember the lotus poison on his dagger. With a lucky thrust he managed to scratch the female assailant and she fell on the floor, instantly paralyzed. A second strike struck her heart. Meanwhile, the female Witchman burst through the door, her right hand appearing icy as morning mist in the far north. She struck the muscular wrestler in the back with her open palm and the huge man went down, dead before he hit the floor, with a frozen frostbite in the form of an open palm on his skin. Alcemides was left breathless on the floor, spine aching and only a moment away from death. Meanwhile, in the other corner of the room, swift fist-blades struck their final blows and Noam collapsed on the floor, his throat cut from ear to ear.

Quickly charging back into the fray, Alcemides struck the last attacked down, stabbing his lungs while he was fending off the Hyperborean woman. All three attackers were dead by the time Ditrius and the other Witchman charged in. Yet Noam had been struck down and there was nothing the others could do to revive him. All that was left was to arrange a burial and move on with heavy hearts.

From Tyrus

I remember how Alcemides lamented Noam’s poverty when we were splitting his possessions. Of course he was right, as except for the gold from Pteion that Noam had already spent on weapons and clothes, our fabled scorpion king was as poor as a beggar. Eventually we settled on a split that gave me Noam’s gold-buckled belt and the Ankh, while Alcemides took pretty much everything else – especially the golden trinklets that I felt uneasy with. The large turanian gold ring, along with all of Noam’s weapons, we left to the grave.

Perhaps I could have negotiated for a better split, as mere possession of the artifact was enough to stain my dreams with detailed histories of its crafting. Such visions were almost untolerable on the first night, fortunately fading to merely very unpleasant on the tenth. The Ankh promised might to anyone willing to submit to its power and embrace its philosophies, but after witnessing Noam’s spiral into madness, I wanted none of it. My main interest was in the monetary value of such might. The Ankh would surely be invaluable to the scholars of Belverus, and if I couldn’t bear the burden so far, no doubt also in Messentia. Patience and guile would multiply my profits, as always.