Conan Acheronian Edition

Session XXII: The City of Steel
..and compatriots encountered on the road
A story whispered by Ditrius Bartol

The Red Hands of Yajur… yes, I have heard of them before. Seen them too, back south, in Shem.

Selcides and I had been left in Eruk by the caravan from Stygia. With us was the mute Darfar and the girl Selcides had adopted in Stygia. They followed him like dogs. It was up to me to make all the decisions, as usual. Stygia was a strange and haunted land, filled the sorcerers, ruins and snakes, but at least you always knew where you stood there. You could count on the dark nature of the priests of Set and decadence of the nobility. Shem is different. There all words are covered with honey, even as the speaker plots to part a man from his coin or life. The men of Shem are all liars and the women…they are much worse.

It was thus a great joy to hear my favorite language of the world – Nemedian – in the inn we stayed for the night. I met Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus there for the first time. The two, at first, were a sight hard to miss, dressed as they were in gold and silk. Noam’s attire was especially outlandish, with a huge silk turban decorated with a golden scorpion with small rubies for eyes. His insane obsession with scorpions became clear during the following weeks – perhaps the desert heat had boiled his brains. I had seen it happen to men often enough.

Still, we – Selcides and I – thought them to be amiable enough. We found out they were just about to leave Eruk for Akbitana and then proceed west to Messantia. It was agreed we would travel together, for there was safety in numbers. Tyrus warned us that a powerful enemy had sent assassins after them and thus their company might not be very safe. I cared not about such trivial matter and Selcides agreed that Mitra would protect us. No barbarian heathen from the dark east could harm one protected by true faith.

The journey to the City of Steel was dusty and uneventful. Asshuri patrolled the caravan routes and no bandits troubled us. Our new companions were paranoid to the extreme. They kept eyeing every passer-by suspiciously and insisted on keeping double guard at night. Yet no assassin troubled us and if we were followed, our shadows were very stealthy and unnoticeable.

The City of Steel was just another Shemite city-state to me. Stout walls, hedonistic temples, shining ziggurats, exotic gardens and glittering bazaars – the details vary, but the noise, the filth, the strange smells and sights always remain the same. Merchants from far and wide had come there to bargain for the famous weapons. There was even a group of merchants from the mythical land of Khitai camped outside the city proper. Our new companions declared they would stay in the city for at least two weeks. For reason or another, they had decided to face the assassins in Akbitana instead of the open road. Alcemides used the time to order a customized sword from the master smith, spending a whole bag of gold as payment. I agreed that we had time to stay with them, for my own reasons.

The Khitan merchants interested the trio very much. They sought their aid against the assassins. Indeed, the merchants had a very rare poison – purple lotus, I was told – in their possession. However, they demanded outrageous sums of silver to part with it. Much to my amazement, Noam and Tyrus each bought a dose, for over a thousand silver each. For two hundred gold, they could have hired a company of asshuri to guard their backs, instead of oriental cantrips of questionable effect. I still thought them wise to trust their sword-arms rather than hired foreigners.

Thus their next decision appalled me somewhat. In the same inn with us stayed three strange Hyperboreans, two men and a woman. Two of them – a man and a woman – were cold and featureless creatures, the infamous Witchmen. The third spent his time completely drunk, but was still in command of the others. It turned out he was waiting for some special delivery to complete, something to take up north to the cold, dark realm. I don’t know who came up with the idea, but the trio ended up hiring the Hyperboreans as their bodyguards. I can see it was a good deal for their leader – he would have more money to drink without losing anything. Ever since then, the two cold human-shaped creatures followed us everywhere we went. Strangest still was how Alcemides seemed to quite fancy the cold, hostile woman.

Yet time passed and the assassins did not come. Tired of waiting for them, Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus finally ventured out on the streets again. It must have been what the Red Hands had been counting on all along.

Session XXI: Crossing the border
The first days in Shem and an encounter with an honest informant

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session XX: The Secrets of Pteion
Surely the city is called "the Damned" for no reason

The night was alive with clattering metal, as the skeletons of ancient spearmen marched upon the Nemedians. It had been their task to defend Pteion from intruders and now they had been roused from their graves to do so once more. The Nemedians helped the Darfar on the roof without questions – now it was just the living against the dead, other things mattered little. Half of the undead marched to the edge of the building, harassing the Nemedians with ancient javelins. The rest marched straight inside and to their horror, the men on the roof heard the death cries of their camels and sounds of breaking wood. All attempts by the skeletal warriors to climb on the roof were defeated with great difficulty. Despite their skill in arms, the dead of Pteion were very fragile after centuries of dry desert air and their equipment brittle to the touch. After an exhausting fight, the undead were laid low. All of the living had suffered wounds, but the fate of their supplies was a far more serious concern. All of their mounts were dead and the ancient warriors had broken all the carefully conserved water containers. There was only enough water left to last for a day at most in the scalding desert heat.

While they rested, the Nemedians finally turned their attention to the Darfar. In broken Stygian, the large man introduced himself as Dahab, a hunter and skull-breaker from the south. He had been taken as a slave some time ago and sold to the Zingaran expedition. Dahab explained how the expedition had dug their way to the underground warrens of the city. There they had found a tomb with ancient sarcophagi, filled to the roof with gold and gems. Nefertari had betrayed the others there, summoning something to feed on their flesh. Dahab was the only one to escape. He had hid for two days among the ruins and seen her leave the day before. During the night, the dead of Pteion had come for him and their relentless pursuit drove him to the Nemedians.

Knowing that Nefertari had left Pteion was both a relief and a disappointment for the Nemedians. Yet the most important piece of knowledge the Darfar could tell was that the Zingaran cultists had found a water source somewhere underground. Dahab had never been there, but the Zingarans had brought fresh water from underground every day. No slave had been trusted with the location of the spring or stream. Thus the group agreed they would go look for the water once they had rested – though a gleam of avarice started to lighten the eyes of Noam and Tyrus when Dahab described the riches below…

The morning came, relentlessly hot. Strange sounds had continued to echo through the night, but no further patrols of dead soldiers attacked the living intruders. The men drank their last drops of water, gathered their gear and marched down to the pungent darkness of the underground. Wandering through the dark corridors, the heros descended deeper and deeper into the bowels of Pteion. The very stone around them changed to hues of green, with faint incriptions in Old Stygian on the walls. Sometimes strange, distant cries echoed around them. Several slopes leading downwards had been crossed with faint lines of silver the heroes dared not to cross.

Finally the four plunderers saw ahead a circular room illuminated by a faint glow from green stones within the ceiling. Three other doorways beckoned in the sides of the chamber. Middle of the room was a small altar completely covered by ancient coin. As the heroes stepped inside, the entrances were blocked by heavy pieces of stone. Dahab exclaimed this was the route to the great tomb, but nothing like this had happened before. The walls of the chamber were inscribed with strange, flowing script unlike anything the Nemedians had ever seen. On the door blocks was inscribed strange poems in Old Stygian. Each door had a small block of stone that could be pushed. Alcemides suggested they should push the blocks in a specific order. Small holes on the walls suggested that a wrong order would be punished lethally.

After longs moments on contemplation, Noam remembered details of the story told by Tawil At’Umr in Khemi. The idea proved out to be correct and after pressing the door blocks in order, they all rumbled into the walls. Once inside, Dahab showed the Nemedian the way through the labyrinthine tunnels. The walls on the way were of green stone inscribed with the same serpentine script. Illustrated scenes showed men with the heads of a snakes labouring among mountains and trees, the raising of strange buildings and strange temples. Scrawny ape-like men worked as their slaves and the creatures bowed before idols of a great snake. Then a strange star came to the sky, the same star which had haunted Noam’s dreams. Some of the serpent-priests bowed down before the star in secret and inscribed a familiar sign – the golden sign on their foreheads. Then came a war between the followers of the great snake and those who bowed before the star. The star shone on the sky and the great cities were broken in to ruin. Those of the serpent-men who bowed before the star masked themselves with the faces of men and stayed under the stars. The others fled the baleful star underground, turning away from it and the golden sign. The inscriptions left the men silent and thoughtful.

Suddenly the group found themselves in a great chamber glittering with gold. Sacrophagi of all sizes was stacked on the walls, decorated with gold, gems and precious stones. Yet the great chamber was a site of great slaughter. Corpses were tossed all around the floor – and even high on the walls. Many were ripped apart, cleaved in two, heads and limbs missing. All had small round wounds in their flesh and were in a state of advanced decay – far more rotten than corpses two days old should have been in the dry, cool air. The sight and the stench were terrible. Noam and Tyrus admired the treasures along the walls, barely noticing the carnage – but Alcemides and Dahab convinced them that water was a priority, so the four men left the chamber the same way they had come to seek the source of water.

Wandering through the dark corridors, the heroes quickly lost their sense of time. Only by thirst and hunger they knew hours must have passed – yet only empty chambers and tunnels could be found. Then a strange sound pierced the dusty air, hysterical laugher of a woman ending in loud sobbing. It approached from a slope leading somewhere down in to the dry darkness. Not wanting to meet the laughing creature, the heroes rapidly moved to the opposite direction. Yet the laughter and the sobbing followed them, the distance of the sounds only diminishing after a long burst of running. While the men stopped to catch their breath, Alcemides heard something extraordinary – the sound of a running water.

The heroes followed the acute ears of the half-pict to an underground orchard of some kind. Strange and fantastic fruit and vegetable grew in pots of green stone, among small channels of running water. The men quickly drank themselves full, then filled all their containers with water. Only then did they inspect the fantastic garden in detail, noticing how among the trees and gardens prowled small, venomous snakes. Picking a fruit from the garden might prove to be a fatal mistake. Moving among the channels and vegetation in awe, the heroes were suddenly startled by the sound of insane laughter close by. Sneaking among the pots, they saw a crawling, shaking figure blocking entrance to the garden. The laughing, sobbing creature had found them, but for some reason, would not or could not enter the hall. The men huddled together in fear, doubting the effect of steel on the abomination. Finally Noam became tired of the planning and simply charged forward with a demon-fire in hand. The bomb hit the perfect spot and the crawling horror exploded in a shower of goo. The heroes quickly fled, dragging as much water as they could with them.

Back on the surface, the men stashed most of the water in an intact ruin, then pondered what to do. Noam and Tyrus wanted to go to the tomb and loot gold and gems. Alcemides thought it to be madness. They had seen the corpses, they had seen what the Guardian could do. Looting the chamber would surely awaken the Guardian, he argued, resulting in the deaths of them all. They should just leave while they still could. Despite dark grumblings of the half-pict, the others decided to return to the chamber and in the end, Alcemides came along.

Back in the chamber, Dahab, Noam and Tyrus started to climb along the stacked sarcophagi and laborously cut loose golden ornaments and jewels. It was slow, dangerous and hard work. As time went on, a slowly increasing sense of dread fell on the heroes. Alcemides wanted no part in looting and instead paced on the floor of the chamber like a caged beast. Finally he declared he would not stay in the chamber to be killed with the rest. He would go to the surface and wait for the rest near the water stash. If they were not back before sunrise, he would leave without them. With those words he left alone.

After a while, distant sounds of struggle carried to the chamber. The plunderers left their tools to investigate and found Alcemides naked and paralyzed on the ground. His clothing and equipment was laid neatly on the ground near him. Several bitemarks adorned his body. There were puddles of blood around, but no sign of the attackers. The others carried Alcemides back to the chamber and continues the looting while he recovered. The half-pict claimed he had been attacked by serpent-men and one of them had been about to devour him alive, when sounds of the approaching heroes had sent them fleeing. The others continued looting and, as the sense of growing dread was becoming unbearable, decided they had enough. As they prepared to leave, Dahab heard muffled cries from a sarcophagus on the floor level. The men pried it open and from inside burst forth a weeping Korzetta.

Mewling and gibbering, the young Korzetta had been obviously driven insane by what he had seen. With froth on his lips, the Zingaran rambled on about the Guardian of Pteion and how Nefertari had given the cultists to it in exchange for ancient tablets of stone. He laughed and gurgled about the Golden Lord and how the stars would soon be right again. Pus trickled down his forehead. Interrogating him provided little, but the heroes nevertheless decided to take him to the surface. Just as they were gathering the loot carved from the sarcophagi, the bronze double doors at the end of the hall were blasted open. Forth beyond the doors blew a black wind, bringing with it dark dust and a terrible stench. While the others hurried to gather as much loot as they could carry, Alcemides noticed how the golden sign had formed on Korzetta’s forehead. Not wanting to take any chances, he stabbed the man in the heart. As the corpse hit the ground, it began to writhe and pulsate, as if something was trying to break through from within. The heroes now had two good reasons to run and so they did, like they never had before.

Luck or fate guided them through the labyrinthine tunnels, the black wind blowing at their back and brought them on the surface. It was evening and the ruins were silent. Hurrying, the heroes headed for the edge of the city. There they realised the city limits were now blocked by packs of hyenas, seeminlgy on purpose, as if the animals were guided by some malignant intelligence. Alcemides, who had taken nothing from the ruins, simply walked past the animals, which were content to sniff his clothing and then step aside. After a moment of consideration, Dahab threw his portion of gold and gems on the ground and followed Alcemides. When Noam and Tyrus tried to follow him, they were immediately attacked and had to retreat. As night started to fall, Alcemides and Dahab camped on the ridge outside the city, while Noam and Tyrus pondered their next move. They were obsessed with their newly gained wealth and not willing to leave it. The two Nemedians camped on top of an ancient wall, where Tyrus sought power from the hallucinatory stupor of the black lotus. He hoped that the drug would give him the strength to break through the hyenas in the morning with his sorcery. The dead of Pteion helplessly patrolled the streets for the night, unable to find a way to reach the top of the wall.

As morning came, Noam and Tyrus made a run for it. Tyrus summoned a clying stench from the underworld around him, which kept most of the common hyenas in bay. However, the larger ones attacked through it, assaulting the two men viciously. They had to fight their way every step and soon had deep bites over their bodies. Finally Dahab charged to help his companions, later followed by Alcemides. The heroes managed to fight their way on the ridge, but not without losses, as a large hyena severed the leg of the Darfar with a mighty bite. Dahab was left dying in the desert sands, the others running for their life. As the three men reached the statues marking the boundary around Pteion, the last curse of the damned city was released upon them. A black, howling wind launched from the ruins and whipped them with its foul touch. All three could feel their flesh rot and muscles wither, as the wind drank their very life. Yet still they managed to stagger past the statues and the wind of death died away. They had escaped the grasp of Pteion the Damned and left it howling in impotent rage for months to come, echoing in the ears of every sorcerer in the know through the whispers of the night.

Drunken ramblings of Alcemides

After a pointless trek through the Stygian sands we finally reached Noam’s goal, the sandy demon’s asshole called Pteion. I was forced to visit this cursed city because of Noam’s feverish babblings. I think I had gone somewhat mad from his yammering and stories about scorpions and power, but I hoped my months-long suffering would now stop and he would realize his own foolishness.

All we could see was forgotten ruins in the middle of demon-haunted nowhere. Seeing the anticipation of my mentally decayed companions, I could only think of my own death in the claws of some nameless beast.

We found some remains of other fools and looted their water before entering the bowels of curse-ridden stone arse. I don’t remember much of what happened after that because I woke up in a dark, deep pit with Noam and Tyrus. I felt like two Stygian ships had rammed my head from opposite sides – not that I was really surprised. At least I was still alive. I wish not to describe all the death-traps, monsters and even sorcerous wonders we saw there but the end of our visit started with us standing knee-deep in scraps of dead men in a room filled with treasure. I took no part in plundering and just wanted to finally leave. I walked out when Noam and Tyrus had totally lost their senses and pried off gems from some sarcofagus.

Sneaking up the corridors, I met a strange woman called Red Sonja. It was confusing – I had met her once in Stygia, I knew she was a mercenary but there was no way she could’ve come this far – so this was most likely a ruse. I don’t remember all the things said and done but when I finally tried to cut her down she was lightning-fast and hard to hit. In combat she showed her true face, that of a serpent, and I was soon surrounded by similar creatures. Fighting off the walking snakes felt like a lotus dream. I cut them down in dozens but they kept coming and finally their poison drained my strength and I fell down senseless. I woke up naked with Tyrus and Noam looming over me. I don’t think they bought my serpent-story even though I never lie about my accomplishments – I have no need to!

The two oafs helped me up and took me back to their beloved abattoir. They had found one live Zingaran noble from some sarcofagus. He started sprouting tentacles or oozing slime or something other suspicious so I struck him down. I think this was the last straw as it sent Noam and Tyrus running for the surface. Outside the ruins were besieged by giant hyenas, some of them larger than full-grown bulls. I ran through the pack and they fearfully bowed down as I was not a soft-headed witch. Tyrus and Noam feared the beasts and they remained inside for one night. I waited for them one night with a runaway slave we found earlier. He was ripped in half in a battle the next day when I liberated my companions from the hyenas.

Even while running away from Pteion we were pelted with curses and death-spells. I must thank my forest-bred vitality for surviving the barrage of sorcery. Surprisingly Noam and Tyrus survived too. No matter, I thought to myself, and led them toward Shem.

Session XIX: Pteion the Damned
Some things should stay buried

Five Nemedians had come to the silent city of Erkulum, but only four left towards the southern deserts. Strange madness had fallen upon Barathus, filling him with religious zeal. He spoke of portents and signs – how the snake-goddess Ishiti had saved them in the city of scorpions. In return, the goddess would require service. Barathus declared his will to serve the bestial goddess and no amount of convincing could change his mind. With heavy hearts, the other Nemedians left Barathus on the steps of an imposing basalt temple.

Journey south was hard for the companions. The days were filled with burning heat and the nights with freezing cold. The camels were strange beasts they were not used to ride or handle. Noam kept preaching about the wonders of Pteion till everyone else was tired of his voice. After five days of hard travel, the men arrived upon a desert oasis. Camping there was a small group of Stygian nomads. They turned out to be friendly enough after some bread was shared. Of Pteion, the nomads could tell little. They knew the place to be haunted and avoided it. Bravest of them had sometimes went close enough to see the area, which was but ancient ruins sunken in desert sands. Hyenas of considerable size patrolled the area. The nomads knew of a caravan mostly composed of foreigners which had gone the same way several weeks ago.

The following days were filled with anticipation and dread. According to Tawil At’Umr, the city was far older than people remembered. Once it had been the headquarters of the Black Ring. When the Hyborian barbarians attacked Stygia, the dark sorcerers unleashed terrible fury upon them. So mighty were their spells that the Hyborians were driven back north – and the very land around Pteion devastated. So the sorcerers abandoned Pteion and set west to Kheshetta. Yet before the Black Ring, Old Stygians had performed their unspeakable rites in there. Before the Giant-Kings, it had been sanctuary of the Snakes Who Walk. Perhaps even before the scaled folk, there had been a city in the very same spot, now buried under the sands of time.

After a windy desert night, the Nemedians found themselves camped right besides an ancient stone road. Sweeping winds had uncovered it and Noam convinced the others it was a sign. The city itself wanted the Nemedians to find it. After a half a days travel, the companions were standing on an ridge overlooking a plain filled with ruins. The ruins were surrounded by ancient statues, partly buried in the sand, arranged in a circle. As they passed between the statues, the sorcerers felt a jolt of power, as if they had passed an invisible wall. A few sections of the ancient city walls still stood erect. Behind them, only a handful of buildings had even one wall left. Hyenas, both small and very large, lazily lounged among the rocks and broken monuments. The sight was one of desolation and ancient tragedy, not splendor and riches Noam had described for months.

While surveying the ruins, Dionysos suddenly spotted a lonely rider speeding furiously through the desert towards northeast. It was too far to make out details, but the figure was riding away from Pteion, hard as if all the demons of hell were on his (or her) tail. A small argument broke out among the men – perhaps intercepting the rider would provide them with valuable information. Finally the Nemedians agreed to leave the lone rider in peace and instead investigate the city carefully. They suspected that the cult had reached the city before them and might have an ambush laid in wait for them.

Observing the ruins was fruitless. Thus the men decided to advance down to Pteion the Damned. Nothing moved among the broken stone, though there were signs of recent inhabitation here and there. From the most intact buildings the companions found camp sites. A large number of people had obviously stayed there just a day ago at most – and left all their things behind. In one of the buildings Alcemides found a bloody ritual altar and a room filled with the bloodless corpses of black men. A few had been dead for weeks, but the most recent a few days at most.

Among southern parts of Pteion the Nemedians found foundations of an ancient temple. A huge hole had been dug through the stone. An improvised ramp lead down into the darkness below. After a short discussion, the companions left their animals in an almost intact building. Then they collected barrels of water from the other camp sites and hid them with the animals. After having closed down the openings so no hyena could get inside, they descended down into the true Pteion. Then the darkness swallowed them whole.

Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus woke in pungent darkness, bodies aching like after a beating. Fumbling around with a barely controlled panic, they finally managed to light a torch. They were at the bottom of a pit and covered with fine, white mist. Dionysos was nowhere to be seen. Climbing out of the pit proved out to be bit of a challenge. Alcemides and Tyrus both slipped and fell back a few times. Finally Noam managed to scale the wall and pull the others up with the help of a rope. Soon the men realised they were lost somewhere in an underground warren they had never seen. Faded geometric inscriptions decorated walls of dark green stone. It was as if hours had been wiped clean from their memory. Perhaps Dionysos had lead them in to a trap.

Wandering through the corridors, the Nemedians suddenly heard distant voices shouting to each other in Zingaran. Guided by the echoes, they found a strange chamber. Two dozen Zingaran men labored weakly, building an idol of some sort from bricks piled against the wall. Several seemed too weak from thirst to do little but crawl – but they still tried to help. As the men stepped in the chamber, Noam and Tyrus were overtaken by a strange obsession. They charged to join the Zingarans in building the idol, suddenly working together as if they had been known each other for years. No amount of pleads, insults or threats seemed to return them to their senses. Finally Alcemides knocked both men unconscious and dragged them away from the chamber. Back in the hallway, they were free from the compulsion, but left with a feeling of unexplainable dread about the idol.

Whatever the purpose of the idol chamber was, it was luckily located near the ramp out. Climbing up, they realised the sun was about to set. They had lost most of the day – a gap in their memories which would never be fixed. Not wishing to brave the tunnels at night, the Nemedians made haste to their shelter. Inside, it was obvious Dionysos had been there. One camel and a large portion of supplies was missing. The Acheronian half-breed had taken a mount and left somewhere towards north, judging from the tracks. As the darkness was about to fall on them, the trio decided not to pursue him.

Night came and with it, the ancient city seemed to come back to life. Guards heard stranger and stranger sounds as the night went on. There was clattering of hooves, sounds of a busy marketplace and the noisy rumbling of chariots speeding through the streets – yet nothing was to be seen. Somewhere after the midnight the sounds became clearer – and were followed by movement. Standing guard on the roof, Noam heard approaching stampade of a marching military unit. Gazing over the ruins he saw an astonishing sight. A full phalanx of soldiers was marching down the street right towards him, breastplates and spear-tips gleaming in the starlight, banners fluttering in a wind he could not feel.

Noam quickly alerted Alcemides and Tyrus, who hastily armed themselves and joined Noam on the roof. As the phalanx approached, it seemed to age rapidly – gone were the banners, gone was the gleam from the armor, declining was their number. Instead it was a troop grinning skeletons in ancient equipment and before them ran for his life a naked black man.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

When Dionysos left, I felt regret moreso because there would be less souls to share the risk, than for his supposed betrayal that Alcemides and Noam were fretting over. If Dionysos had truly planned to disappear or had become certain that Pteion would mean death for all of us, he would have taken the scrolls with him. There was no indication that the stash was even touched, so I was practically certain that the young pervert had merely faced some temporary obstacle. We would see him again, but under what terms and when, I didn’t know.

At that time, my mind was more focused on Nefertari and on how to beat her. It never crossed my mind that she could have left already, despite the bleak encounters with the statue-builders. Everything on the camp suggested that it had been used the very morning, and the vile trollop would probably ambush us in the corridors when we least expected it.

The coming morning and Dahab’s eyewitness account would change our minds, but it seemed that merely surviving the night couldn’t be taken for granted.

Session XVIII: The Road to Erkulum
The blood of an innocent is just as red.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

The journey east was swift. We had decided that it would be best to visit Erkulum for supplies first and then depart for the trackless sands. Nobody seemed to know where exactly Pteion was, but Noam was convinced that his visions would lead us to the city. Alcemides loudly stated that he didn’t believe in our sorcerous babbling and conjuring tricks, and that probably Pteion was just an old wives tale. He was perhaps right, but the mythical riches and knowledge buried within were so alluring that wandering a few weeks in the desert was an acceptable vexation, even if we found no city.

My mind was changed, however, when Dionysos begun to spend his nights having visions and dreams of the place, describing the ruins in great detail. Once he even showed the visions to us in the smoke of a fireplace, and we marveled at the streets of the desert city and the green stone used to build the largest monuments therein. Then, without warning, the vision was wrested from Dionysos’ grasp and the images in the smoke were sent violently tumbling through underground halls and corridors, before finally settling in close orbit around a dark, thumping heart. Dionysos confirmed that this was how his dreams always ended, and no matter how he tried, his third eye would be set upon the heart for the rest of the night.

The vision changed Alcemides’s attitude a bit, and instead of lamenting the fruitlessness of the expedition, he became sure that it would lead to our certain, untimely deaths. I also felt this to be a likely outcome, but didn’t raise my voice, as I still wanted to see the city in the sands.

We kept going upriver and the days were uneventful, until one morning Noam tried to kill us. We overpowered him quickly and seeing that he was under the influence of sorcery, bound and gagged him until the spell subsided. We didn’t get an explanation for this, until later when Dionysos tried the same. When he came to his senses, he told that the face of a priestess in the stream commanded him to murder his comrades. It seemed as if the rider-women weren’t short of tricks to get back the ankh. After contemplating we deducted that reflective surfaces were needed for the spell, and thus everybody drew water from streams and wells with their eyes shut from this on.

The concern of the priestesses’ sorcery was strong. When pausing to a city by the river, we asked the local priests of Set for a ward against sorcery and reluctantly traded a couple of vials of the golden wine for it. Dionysos assured that we were being swindled, but the priests accepted no smaller payment. Little did I know of their religion, as the children I assumed would help in the ceremonies, were swiftly sacrificed before our very eyes. We were splashed with their blood, and I wanted to protest, but the words stuck to my throat. The children were already dead, so what good would it do. I curse the wicked priests to this day. I may have gained the blessing of their god, but while I could wash away the blood, the shame would remain.

We expected a more serious confrontation with the priestess-women, but it didn’t come until later, when we set camp within a half day of Erkulum. I was asleep when the attack had begun. Alcemides told that he had been sprung over by something that was either a woman or a jackal or both. We barely managed to gear up before the riders rode from the night, surrounding us. They outnumbered us greatly, and I was sure my days were done – a state of affairs I found a rather just payment for the children’s lives. For one reason or another, this was not to be, as Noam pierced his palm with the ankh and bellowed an order to all the scorpions of the desert. Miraculously, the vermin heeded the call and came to help us in great numbers. The ground was alive with them, and they stung the horses and crawled over the women, almost tipping the fight to our favor. More strange things were about to pass, though, as our assaulters were suddenly themselves attacked by another form from the night.

One of the women was snatched from her horse and carried into the darkness. When the shadow came back for another, the priestesses fled. We assumed we would be saved, but the form attacked us too. It was lightning-fast and cold as ice, with a form of a ragged, pale man. It tried to grab Alcemides, who managed to wrest himself free of its grasp. It assaulted us repeatedly, racing to and from the darkness, clawing us on its way. There we stood, in a circle around the fire, waiting and fearing, until it came to me what I had to do. When the demon sprung again, I looked it in the eyes and unleashed my evil eye on its dark soul. Our wills wrestled while our bodies were motionless, and my companions sliced it with all their might. It managed to break away once, but the beast was as proud as it was evil, and would not leave its prey. Alcemides finally set the shadow alight with a demonfire, but not before it had tainted my soul with its dark mind.

Surely we were safe for a moment more, but unlike never before, I felt my sanity and rectitude slipping away. I felt despair and worthless, and my mind, which the demon had touched, saw dark dreams each night. I would have joined Alcemides and called off the expedition to Pteion, were I not certain its secrets could promise wealth… and salvation. The scrolls were constant, if my sanity was not. With the knowledge in them I might even cure myself, for what answers could you not find with such a power? Pteion would surely have a great library, which I merely had to find.

Thus, when morning came, we made our way to Erkulum for a well-deserved rest. It was a strange place obsessed with death and the cruel religion of Set. Giant snakes roamed the streets unhindered and we were told that they had the right to eat whoever they wished. We bought our supplies in silence from the timid citizens and resolved to leave first thing at sunrise. Unfortunately, as if there already hadn’t been a wealth of trouble, Barathus woke with a wish to cease his travels and worship the serpent goddess Ishiti. We loudly complained about the foolishness in this, but our friend would not sway an inch from his decision. Having no choice we divided from our wealth what was rightfully his, and left him at the gates of the temple. After that, it was the trackless desert under Noam’s guidance.

Now, let me warn you. Though our exploits may already sound sensational, this detour to the city of the sands will surely be the grandest yet. I admit that my words do not have the weight they need, as my companions in that damned place are long dead and the gems and gold we stole from the tombs have since been sold. Whatever your judgment on the truth of our words may be, I swear by all the powers under the stars that what I am about to tell is none less than the truth.

Almost a week went by before…

Session XVII: Two Treasures
Lady fortune knows both frowns and smiles.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

I was a bit put off for not being able to attend the tomb exploration trek the other day, but unaccustomed to both lotus and heavy drinking, the repercussions of Yunet’s party were so bad that I felt almost feverish. Luckily the symptoms subsided, the next day, and when Noam declared that he has another mission for us, I was fit to travel.

The witch who removed Noam’s curse had heard of an old artifact of power in Khet, a deserted sacred city of the scorpion god Selkhet. We had paid a hefty price for the removal of the curse, and the witch was prepared to refund our payment, should we fetch the artifact for her.

Preparations were soon done and we set out for the desert. Khet was only around four days away from Khemi. The trip was uneventful and quite comfortable, for we had prepared adequately. We arrived late in the afternoon, and headed out for the biggest temple of the area, where Noam assumed the artifact would be hidden. The temple had a large main hall circled with terraces on three stories. The horizontal architecture seemed strange and combined with the abundant engravings and arabesques, also very expensive. The ancient stygians didn’t seem to be short of coin.

We set camp and prepared to explore the temple, but were interrupted by a booming voice. On the terrace above us, loomed an apparition wreathed in blue flames. It demanded peace and our immediate departure on the pain of death, but naturally Alcemides only offered curses in return. As if waiting for this very response, we were met with a hail of arrows from the upper terraces. I got hit by a poisoned tip, and if not for Dionysos’s skills in healing, would surely be a dead man. After a long an bitter fight, my companions managed to drive the rest of the attackers away. When scouring through their remains, we found out that they were simple bandits who didn’t possess anything of significant value. The blue flames and the apparition were merely some alchemical powder and a puppet. Strangely some of the dead bandits were ravaged by an unnatural amount of parasites and diseases, which we found very strange, but couldn’t explain yet.

We climbed the stairs to the various terraces and finally to the topmost level. Everything had been througly looted dozens of times over and I begun to question the existence of the whole artifact. Hoever, the pict, with his good eyes, noticed an unusual crack in the wall of the upper sanctum, and led us to a small room. Stored under a heavy stone slab was the artifact we were sent to find.

I did not recognize the markings and engravings on the wall of the small room, and especially its resting place was strangely plain. Stranger still, was the artifact itself. Its form was that of a large ankh, around two palms in height and one palm in width, but the whole structure seemed to be knit from bone. You may question my words, but carved it was not. Upon touch, the ankh was dry and hard as rock, but it seemed as if the bones had once been malleable as wax, and twisted around each other like the strands of a rope. Noam seemed fascinated by the artifact and didn’t let me touch it for long. He said he felt the power in it, and even though I would prefer to call it evil, I was loath to deny his words.

After eating, we left the temple to explore the other ruins. Everywhere else the looters had been thorough and apart from clay pottery and the architectural wonders of the city, absolutely nothing was left. This bothered me, as it seemed extremely unlikely that the artifact would still be here, and so easily found. Just before going back inside, we noticed a something green to the east of the main temple. We got closer to find something magnificent.

Here, in the heat and drought of the desert, inside walls of twice a man’s height, was a lush and tranquil garden. Trees carrying apples, bushes full of berries and extraordinarily colorful flowers were growing in a dark, moist soil. Central to the garden was a fountain carved in the shape of a beautiful woman, with the hindquarters of a snake. That was Ishiti, the goddess of silence and tombs, whose power seemed to keep the garden alive. Before anyone could eat from the trees, Dionysos pointed out that the apples were those of Derketa, and immensely poisonous. We carefully collected a few, as they might come in handy later. Perhaps we could even sell them back in Khemi. Dionysos also noticed that he could not cast any spells in the garden, as the statue seemed to draw all the power from his divinations.

After admiring the garden for a while longer we explored the city a bit further, at which point lady luck decided to reward us rather generously. Half-buried in the fine sands of a dry riverbed, we found the remains of a caravan. Some dead camels and crates lay scattered in the ground without a soul in sight. Judging by the condition of the bodies, we were witnessing the remains of a recent battle, but for some reason, most of the remaining crates seemed untouched by robbers. Luckily Barathus noticed the similarities in the loot and some of the loot in the bandits’ remains. I and Dionysos then realized that their diseases were probably caused by curses set to the openers of the crates. Empowered with this information, we dragged the crates to Ishiti’s garden and opened them in the protection of the benevolent goddess. Most of the spoils were simple alchemical substances or clothing, but one of the crates revealed thirty-nine flasks of honey-colored, viscous substance. At first we were bewildered, but Dionysos recognized it as the mythical and valuable Golden Wine of Xuthal.

While we marveled our newfound wealth, the wind rose, and Noam told us that it would probably become worse. Knowing that a sandstorm would sweep over the city soon, we decided that it would be best to not face the desert under these conditions. The animals were also taken inside temple, and we were preparing to spend the night, when Alcemides suddenly became certain of having heard singing in the whistling winds. Before anyone could object, the pict left out to investigate, and I ran behind him.

Alcemides told me that the singing came further from the east. The coming darkness and blowing sand made it hard to see, but soon we reached the edge of the city. Still following the song, we planned to head for the nearby cliffs, but suddenly a trio of riders in heavy clothing came upon us. We were rather unprepared, but managed to drag one of the riders down from her horse just to notice that she was in fact a woman. This bewildering fact almost got the best of me, as I paused in hesitation and was severely wounded by a flanking rider. Fleeing to the narrow streets of the city, I saw Alcemides battling all three of the women and wounding one before retreating to the crumbling alleys himself.

Back at the temple, the others too reported having heard the singing. Dionysos was visibly distraught when we told him about the rider-women, and hypothesized that the incident was probably related to the ankh, which had seemed all too easy to find. We assumed that another fight would ensue, and used the opportunity to coat our blades with the apples’ poison. However, despite waiting and reinforcing our position, no attack came. The rest of the night was uneventful, and while the sandstorm lasted until next midday, we eventually packed our bags and set out to the desert.

Not far from the temple, we were charged by seven women on horseback. Their bladework was impressive – for women – and their mobile tactics frustrated us severely. The women augmented their fighting skills with sorcery. Many times a landing blow was stopped by a swift gesture, as if an invisible shield had blocked the blade. Finally the luck turned again on our side, as Alcemides pulled a passing rider from her saddle and stabbed her brutally to death. Apparent leader of the group was brought down by Noam’s arrow. The shot was so accurate that even a sorcerous gesture could not stop the projectile. It penetrated the eye of the woman and brought her down without a sound. Having lost their leader, with many of them wounded, the attackers retreated and we had no further trouble on our way to Khemi.

Much of the return trip was spend deliberating our future options. The wine was probably a present to the pharaoh or one of the high priests of Set. It was by far too valuable to leave rotting in the sand, so it was inevitable that someone would come looking for it sooner or later. Thus, it would also be challenging to sell it within Stygia’s borders, and excessive loitering in Khemi would risk us getting caught possessing the wine. All things considered, waiting for the silk trade season seemed less and less attractive by the moment. When Noam used this opportunity to yet again propose a quick visit to the hidden city of Pteion before crossing to Shem through the border city of Erkulum, we were much less resistant to the idea. So it happened that after four days in the desert, we simply set camp outside the city walls and quickly fetched our possessions before heading towards the eastern reaches of Stygia.

A Fragment from the Journals of Lord Dionysos

As dusk fell on the second day of our journey, we broke camp and headed off again. Some hours had passed, judging from the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the bright moonlight and the clear starry skies lit the desert as well as daylight. After a while we heard a strange ululation unlike any we had heard, and after a while it became apparent that it was emanating from a cyclopean tower some distance off to our left, seen as a black silhouette against the constellations. As we drew nearer to investigate, the howl seemed to intensify, as if whatever was making it had become aroused by our proximity. We noticed a circle of polished stones surrounding the tower, and I drew the conclusion that it was some manner of binding-circle, and we should leave whatever it was keeping at bay be. So, despite the protestations of Alcemides, ever the troublemaker, we headed back towards…

Session XVI: Tomb Robbing and the Festival of Bast
...or the story about the mad foreigner and a lion

Previously in the Green Lotus, the Nemedians had met Petruso, a Zamoran thief and an expert in Stygian tombs. As Yunet had thoroughly seduced Dionysos, however much the young nobleman refused to acknowledge it, she had no trouble in persuading him to retrieve an item of interest to her, a jewel-encrusted mummified serpent, from the tomb of a high-ranking Stygian priest, with Petruso acting as the guide. Having been persuaded by the prospects of keeping any other treasures they might come across, the adventurers, less Barathus and Tyrus, set off back towards Tortoise Island, where Petruso was waiting for them with a small boat. For his own sinister purposes, Dionysos had purchased two mute slaves.

From a ruined keep between the Fangs of Set near the port, on a islet known as the Claw of Ishiti, the men sneaked down a hidden staircase that led to an ancient network of tunnels beneath Khemi. In passing, Petruso mentioned legends that the tunnels were older by far than Stygia, and were a part of an enormous maze of hidden underground passages that connected the secret places of the World. As the party moved in silence in the lightless depths, they witnessed from their hiding place a procession of priests, wearing carved masks of their bestial gods, moving in the opposite direction. After another similiar encounter, Alcemides, whether motivated by greed, curiosity or savage bloodlust, set upon the priests, and after a brief fight the Stygians were forever silenced. Hiding the corpses in an alcove, the tomb robbers continued their journey without further complications, with Alcemides proudly wearing his new Ape-mask, proclaiming it to be the countenance of Gullah, the Pictish gorilla-god.

Emerging near the burial grounds, with the great black pyramids looming menacingly in the moonlight, Petruso and the three Nemedians parted ways, with the Zamoran promising to meet the adventurers near the entrance to their point of egress. Darting from the shadow of one mausoleum to the next, the party halted as they heard the approach of a patrol of Stygian infantry. Though Dionysos failed to find adequate cover for his long frame, the soldiers were unwilling to investigate, no doubt fearful of tales of the restless dead and worse prowling the necropolis.

As the tomb of the priest had already been broken into previously, entry would not be a problem as such. At the door, Dionysos promptly sacrificed the two slaves, so that their life-energy would fuel his necromancy. He raised one of the corpses to act as a mine-canary of sorts, hoping that its shambling might set off any traps the previous thieves had not stumbled in or disabled. The robbers then walked down, after the shuffling corpse, mute even in death.

Inside the tomb, the party found the remains of one of the previous robbers, who had met a mysterious and gory death and had his mangled corpse set inside one of the sarcophagi. After exploring the tomb, finding many wondrous and terrible things befitting the final resting place of an accomplished sorcerer, Alcemides discovered a shaft, hidden behind a wall, leading downwards into a small chamber where the mummified serpent lay. Not satisfied by the trinkets they had recovered so far, and confident that the actual treasure chamber was yet to be discovered, Dionysos and Noam set about looking for it, while Alcemides explored the hidden tunnel. While the nomad and the nobleman struggled with false treasure chambers and their deadly traps and otherwordly guardians, Alcemides found an exit in the nest of enormous scorpions that opened into the necropolis beyond. At the lowest level, he also discovered an enormous Son of Set, resting upon a bed of countless bones. Only a well-aimed pouch of Black Lotus managed to confuse the great serpent long enough for the adventurers to make their escape into the breaking dawn. The party had failed to locate the primary treasure chamber, if there ever was one, but had at least lived to tell the tale.

Back in Khemi, the whole city was preparing for a great festival in honour of the lioness-headed goddess Bast. Hearing that blood-sports in her honour would be had, Alcemides became animated, wishing to test his mettle against great predatory cats. Even after witnessing the gory spectacle of lions mauling and butchering their human prey, the half-pict was undeterred, and proceeded to challenge one of the beasts with naught save his bare hands. At first, the uneven match proceeded as one might presume, with Alcemides inches away from a bloody end, but improbably, he was able to slay the lion, thrusting his fist down the bewildered animal’s throat, crushing the beast’s vitals. The horribly wounded Alcemides was tended to by the finest of Stygian physicians, so that he too, along with his companions, could spend the rest of the night in orgiastic revelry. A closed country though Stygia might be, the tale of this fantastic deed would precede Alcemides whereever he would set foot from now on.

From Tyrus

Watching Alcemides get mauled by the cats was unnerving. Many a time I discreetly set my evil eye upon the beasts, sparing his skin a lot of torture. Naturally the ungrateful brute refused to acknowledge my aid, just blathering about how “those tricks of yours are but skin deep”. I expected no less, but as remote as it may seem to the pict, someday he’ll overestimate his might again, and I won’t be there to help.

From Alcemides

So typical of those decandent scholars. They live in fear of beasts – and other men – and try to feel better by claiming other people’s conquests and spreading more fear.

I’ve seen the cheap tricks of conjurers, and some real sorceries too, and all I can say they’re cowards. Always trying some archaic and arcane deceit instead of confronting and conquering their opposition. My way is the way of Gullah, who lives on the moon. Their way is the way of serpents, sniveling and crawling through their miserable lives, full of alchemies and useless books.

Cut the snake’s head and rise, fools.

Also, the lion truly was an opponent worthy of a feast.

Session XV: Hostess Yunet
Lotus, snakes and sinister entertainment

From Dionysos

As I walked in the merchant district looking for a moneychanger, I noticed a richly decorated palanquin that appeared to be following us discreetly. Our curiosity aroused, I addressed the occupants, politely requesting that they inform us of their intentions and the reason for their surveillance. To my surprise I was met with the playful chuckle of a woman of refined bearing, and was given no further reply save a lotus blossom dropped at my feet. While we had been warned that such flirtations from a noblewoman might provoke the wrath of someone we might not wish to anger, I found myself oddly pleased and intrigued by this encounter.

Having decided that the best time to return home with our souvenirs was in a later season, and that we would be spending a significant amount of time in Stygia, I deemed it necessary to purchase a residence more befitting my worth. From the priests of Set I found a bargain, a house well-situated in an area inhabited mainly by the few other aliens allowed to reside within Khemi proper. The suite included a number of slaves and some furniture, which I found adequate for my needs and those of my fellow Nemedians. Using my Sight beyond Sight on a rack found in a hidden cellar room I discovered that whoever had dwelled here before had met his entertainingly painful demise at the hands of masked men bearing the mark of Skelos.

No sooner had we settled in that we were invited to festivities in the noble quarter of the City, by a noblewoman by the name of Yunet. My inquiries into her revealed that she was the wife of a Stygian prince, who apparently hunted her many lovers for sport. Intrigued by the possibilities inherent in such a potential resource within my grasp, I did not hesitate to graciously accept the invitation. The festivities were somewhat disappointing, as while the entertainment and refreshments were more than adequate, the highest-ranking local nobles proved quite distant and difficult to reach. The woman Yunet seemed to be quite besotted with me, and it was soon apparent that the soft, malleable wax of her heart stood no chance against my wiles; I was certain that she would prove to be quite useful while we remained in Khemi.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

It had come to pass that we were invited to socializing occasion by Yunet, a Stygian noblewoman known for her influence. She had taken peculiar interest in Dionysos, perhaps for his Acheronian features. I have to admit, that the morbid sense of humor and sadism of the stygian culture did not bode well for the feast, but as the son of a merchant, I was more than aware that we should establish connections. Indeed, we had the trade permits, but using them might be difficult, had we no-one to buy from.

Evening came and we set foot to a lavish apartment. The food was good and wine plentiful, and I recall that no more than an hour passed by before Alcemides was blitheringly drunk. The entertainment consisted of erotic dances between snakes and women, and humorous plays by midget jesters that the locals found quite amusing. One of the midgets got bit and turned black under the very eyes of the crowd, but it seems I was the only one really bothered by this. Oh well.

Fed up with the entertainment and emboldened with the wine, Dionysos and I decided to talk to… and later interrogate Yunet. I was interested in the mercantile practices of silk trade, and once the wine got the best of me, also in Nefertari and Thotmekri’s master. Of the latter, I heard little, but I was told about Nefertari’s enigmatic cruelty and unusually large build. Yunet was a good listener and I have to say that conversing with her was indeed a rare pleasure. Perhaps a little too rare, as I tolerated her inquisitiveness about our past undertakings. Dionysos claims I slipped something about the scrolls, yet I can remember no such thing. That blasted fool probably couldn’t shut his mouth and tries to mount the blame on me. I shouldn’t have left him to the wiles of that wench, but tiredness was getting the best of me and I wanted to find Alcemides and Noam.

Had the pict passed out, it was only temporary. I found all the others in the lotus pit getting accustomed to a new vice. I had never tried the smoke myself, since they say that it rots the mind, but these accusations are false. Having the benefit of experience, I must affirm that Lotus brightens your spirit and awakens your inner strength. The smell is also quite enjoyable. If it only were cheaper, I might grow a habit.

Anyway, the smoke had gotten the best of Noam, and it seemed that the manhoods of both him and some turanian noble were being called into question. I feared that it would become a fight, but my intervention was not welcome and ‘everything was all right and friendly’. Both then proceeded to inhale the smoke in turns for quite some time. Before long everybody else had passed out and I didn’t fancy the streets alone at night. It was best to accept the hospitality of our hostess.

In the morning Noam displayed a gold ring he had supposedly won from the turanian. In my memory, it was more of a tie, but no matter. At least he wasn’t that as loud about his success than Alcemides. Which remids me that I have to reason with him about dividing the profits from the silk trade. That blasted pict has somehow hoarded more capital than the rest of us combined, but refuses to acknowledge that personal risk is an integral part of the investment.

From Alcemides

Bel’s balls, this was the most tiresome party ever. I don’t even know why we attend these things unless we’re planning to kill some stiff noble bastard. I got drunk on some Stygian hard stuff and my memories are somewhat shaky. I recall that weak-wristed Noam ripping off some Turanian lotus-fiend and taking his fat gold ring. I think I’ll add it to my collection later.

Session XIV: The Quest for Wild Flowers
Black Lotus can be quite elusive.

Exploring the Lotus Swamps

Having secured the services of a native guide, the band of Nemedians took off along the Styx at dawn, abroad the skiff piloted by Kamoses, a weathered middle-aged Stygian of the labouring class. The expedition was planned to last for two weeks, with a provision for a few additional days, as long as the foreigners were willing to pay. Kamoses had many years of experience on braving the Lotus Swamps, which showed in the many scars left on his skin by the whip-like fronds of the Lotus. The men would have to spend several nights on the shore, making their camp well clear of the riverbank, lest they were devoured by beasts such as the famed river horse or the great Stygian crocodiles. As dusk turned to night on the second day of the journey, the camp was set upon by strange beasts with the body of a leopard and the head of a snake, though the aberrant animals, most likely driven to investigate the travelers out of curiosity, were promptly dispatched by Alchemides.

The Nemedians broke camp at dawn and headed off towards the swamps. The ruins of an abandoned Stygian city at the edge of the swamp piqued the curiosity of the scholarly Nemedians, who also persuaded Alchimedes and Noam to come along with the promise of possible treasures, disregarding the warnings of Kamoses. The ruins were mostly unremarkable, though they were assaulted by what appeared to be a large, mobile carnivorous plant of some kind. Fending off the creature with fire, the party explored parts of the ruined settlement, discovering ancient relics of Ibis worship and a pouch of seeds, which the scholars of the group suspected being the seeds of the infernal Emerald Lotus that had attacked them.

As the band was led deeper into the swamp by their guide, they finally came upon a number of Black Lotus plants. Trusting in the power of a wet blanket to guard their breath against the sophophoric miasma of the legendary blossom, the Nemedians set upon the mystical vegetation, and promptly fell fast asleep. After waking from a haunted slumber, the band reassessed their tactics. Cutting down even one fully grown Lotus plant proved to be quite the labour for the men, especially given the constant lashing they received from the poisonous fronds. Noam seemed especially resilient, as he would not fall down despite a score of wounds crisscrossing his body and limbs. The band, dissatisfied with their meager harvest, decided to stay for another day. Next morn, the group came across a very large Lotus-tree topped by a huge blossom and flanked by smaller Black lotuses. After a struggle of steel and sorcery, the band prevailed, and set off on the journey back towards Khemi. Along the way they were attacked by a huge crocodile, upon whose back seemed to grow an emerald-green plant like the one that attempted to exsanguinate the adventurers in the ruins two days before. After a fierce battle that almost saw Alchmedes meet his doom betwixt the jaws of the monstrous reptile, the Nemedians returned to Khemi, exhausted but triumphant. The lesser blossoms were ground up to be used in a smokable form, while the party decided to sell the great blossom to the temple harlots of Derketo.

Session XIII: The Children of Set
The First Taste of Stygia...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Insert From the Journals of Dionysos Thaurian

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