The Stygian galley slid through the waves like a black serpent. The ominous pounding of its drums echoed far and wide, making fishermen on the shores shudder with fear in their sleep.Grim, silent Stygian sailors went about their duties on the deck, avoiding the Nemedians. They kept eyeing Dionysos warily, afraid of his pale visage. As the men were tending to their wounds, Thothmekri appeared on the deck, now wearing the robes of a priest of Set. A new air of confidence and authority around him, the sorcerer explained that the galley would sail straight to Messantia. There they would stay in port for a few days, letting the rescued prisoners on the shore and resupplying for the journey to Khemi. The former prisoners were staying in the fore hold and the Nemedians could sleep there with them or on the deck. However, they’d have no business going anywhere else on the ship. With that, Thothmekri left for the captain’s cabin, promising that he would introduce the men to Stygian customs closer to Khemi.
The following days passed slowly, as the galley followed the Zingaran coastline towards Argos. All other ships they saw circumvented the black galley from afar, fearful of the ominous pounding of its drums and the serpentine decorations on her decks. Barathus and Noam spent time with their compatriots,ho were lead by a grizzled Adventurer veteran by the name of Brocas. He had plans to take the rest of the men to Nemedia along the Road of the Kings or possibly by following the Red River if Aquilonia proved to be too dangerous to travel. Dionysos and Tyrus concentrated on investigating the books of Vathelos, though they were frustrated by their eccentric structure. Alcemides merely enjoyed the rest, recovering from his injuries. Breaking open the two chests taken from Castante, the Nemedians found the Acheronian gold they sold the baron, as well as precious stones from the south. In the other chest were placed twelve vials full of a translucent liquid, an ancient, crumbling map of an oval city and encrypted letters.
Weeks went by uneventfully. As the group did not trust their Stygian patrons, they continued to keep a night watch. To their consternation they noticed that Dionysos had taken the habit of sleepwalking – not just aimlessly, but always towards the hiding place of the golden mask. Every night, unless awakend, he would shamble towards the mask, trying in vain to put it on his face. Worried, the men started to wander if the mask was indeed cursed or worse. Noam demanded that they should throw it overboard or tell about it to Thothmekri, but the others insisted on keeping it. They argued that the mask could not do them harm at sea and they would get a fortune by selling it in Messantia. It was solid gold, after all, and the precious metal alone was worth hundreds of gold coins.
It seemed that nothing short of tying him down with ropes would stop Dionysos from sleepwalking. His nights were filled with strange dreams of ruined and destroyed cities underneath a blood red sky with a single bright star shining on it like the baleful eye of some nameless god. He could see generations of men and women passing by with the mask on their faces – but instead of wearing the mask, the mask wore the skin of their faces. Formless monsters hunted him on desolate plains under an alien sky. Discussing the matter with the other men, Dionysos found out that Noam had been plagued by nightmares as well. His had been different however – he had always seen the same city, ruined and rebuilt again and again with the baleful star glowing on a blood red sky, but nothing else. A wordless call came to him from the city, urging him to come to it. Dionysos speculated that his dreams were caused by the mask while Noam might have captured some eldtrich essence of Baron Castante as the sorcerer died by his arrow.
Time flowed slowly as Barathus, Noam and Alcemides had little to do onboard. The crew avoided the foreigners and the Nemedians had to entertain themselves through various small games. Bad luck seemed to plague Noam, as he was always losing in games of chance. Slowly the ravaged orchards, manors and farmlands of Zingara turned into dark and foreboding forests. The men had heard rumors in Kordova that in its shadows hunted manlike beasts known as corpse-eaters or ghouls. It was said that somewhere deep in the forest was an ancient city built before the fall of Acheron, where the ghouls prowled, worshipping their dark, nameless gods. The two sorcerers hardly noticed the changing landscape, as their interest in the scrolls of Vathelos the Blind was slowly turning towards obsession. Tyrus was struck especially hard by the desire to find the rest of the scrolls. He could feel that by combining together all six books of Vathelos he would find power undreamt of. Investigations of the two did not go in vain – in the weeks spent onboard they had learnt secrets of the Upas Tree and how its juice could be distilled into a potent poison against sorcerers.
As the ship was passing the forest, all wind suddenly died for several days, considerably slowing down the galley. A few days later a ship was spotted approaching the galley – a black ship much like the Stygian vessel, but of a thinner and longer build, a ship of the Black Corsairs. Having no time to wonder what a such craft was doing so far north, the crew and the Nemedians quickly started preparing for battle. Armed with khopesh swords and massive Stygian bows, the crewmembers readied themselves. Thothmekri stepped on the deck, explaining the Nemedians that they should join the combat should the ships lock together in a boarding action. The five Hyborians almost greeted the approaching corsair ship with joy, as a moment of mortal danger might drive away their boredom.
The two black ships approached each other, the pounding of their drums echoed on the empty seas. Suddenly the still air moved again, a strong wind appearing out of nowhere, blowing against the Stygian galley and propelling the corsair ship towards them at a ramming speed. Spitting foul curses, the Stygian captain barked orders from the aft castle. The ships kept closing, soon coming within the range of archers on both of the ships. Remembering the glass globes found in the Acheronian chest they had received in the mountains, Dionysos scrambled to get the large black orb that he had claimed as his. He had a feeling that it was a weapon of some sort, and that it might turn the tide of the battle to their advantage. He handed it over to Thothmekri, who had before shown his talent at launching projectiles through his sorcery, instructing him to lob it at the other ship. The Stygian agreed, saying that he would wait for a certain hit. Hopefully, the contents of the black orb were flammable or worse.
Closing fast, the drums on both ships started pounding in a manic speed, sending the black hulls almost flying above the waves at ramming speed. Arrows were let loose on both ships. Black shapes fell on the crowded deck of the approaching corsair ship, while their shots did little harm on the black galley. When the ships were so close to each other that the Nemedians could see the whites of the eyes of the corsairs, the Stygian captain barked new orders. Oars on the port side of the ship were swiftly pulled inside the galley and the black ship started to turn towards the side of the approaching corsair. The captain of the pirate vessel was either incompetent or taken by surprise and did not react swiftly enough. With a mighty crash of breaking wood, the Stygian galley smashed apart all oars on one side of the corsair ship, passing it very close. Thothmekri sent the large glass globe flying onboard the enemy ship with an arcane gesture. The orb crashed on the deck of the ship with little apparent effect.The few grappling hooks thrown from the corsair ship were quickly dispatched and distance between the ships grew again. Archers on the both ships fired as fast as they could, filling the air with whistling arrows.
Gaining more distance, the Stygian galley started to turn around, now taking advantage of the wind that had almost allowed the corsair ship to destroy it. The corsair ship was obviously in distress, trying to turn in vain with just one bank of oars intact. Thothmekri explained to the Nemedians that the captain would try to ram the corsair ship now that it had lost much of its agility. If the ramming hit would not cause enough damage, a boarding combat would most likely ensure. Indeed, the black galley started to surge forward towards the corsair ship, now powered both by oars and the strong wind.A few arrows were fired again, but most of the men aboard both ships soon started to brace themselves for impact rather than shoot at their enemies. As the galley neared the corsair vessel, the mast of the enemy ship suddenly fell without any apparent reason. The Nemedians had no time to ponder what caused the event, as the Stygian galley rammed the corsair ship full force, a deafening crash sending splinters of wood flying high in the air. Yet the hull of the corsair ship did not break from the impact and close combat ensued.
As the Nemedians had been near the bow of the galley, they were the ones to meet the onslaught of black pirates head on. They dispatched the first few corsairs with ease, but following them were massive black men with ritual scars on their faces and dreadlocks in their hair – cannibalistic black tribesmen from the continental south. Disturbingly, some of the ritual scars formed the same spiral-like symbol as on the golden mask. The men had no time to discuss geography as the black giants were on them, blades clashing on theirs. Behind them came a torrent of black corsairs. As the fight ebbed and flowed, short breaks allowed the Nemedians to catch glimpses of the corsair vessel. It seemed like some kind of mold was rapidly eating away at the hull of the ship. The glass globe they had thrown on the vessel had indeed contained a potent sorcerous weapon.
The black corsairs boarded the Stygian galley as one rolling black wave of human flesh, fighting with a savage ferocity born out of desperation. As Dionysos and Alcemides were brought down by the savage blows of the black giants, Brocas lead the most experienced former prisoners into the fight. The heavy arrows of the Stygian bows ripped holes in the corsairs further back on the deck. Thothmekri fought savagely, a cruel smile on his face and an aura of unexplainable terror around him. Soon enough no ordinary corsair dared to step close to the priest of Set, going as far as throwing themselves overboard to avoid him. Stepping near the most dangerous of the black giants, the Stygian sorcerer brought him down with a single sweep of his hand. As he smacked the giant with his palm, the tattoeed snake on his arm seemed to come alive and the Darfari fell, clutching his neck, the bite of a viper on it.
The fighting could not last more than a few minutes, but each moment seemed to drag on towards eternity, time slowing in a macabre dance of spilt blood and cracking skulls. Finally the Nemedians brought down the last of the black giants, sending a wave of panic among the remaining corsairs. Instead of facing the blades of their enemies, they now jumped into the waves, swimming desperately towards the shore. Barathus noticed that the strange mold eating away the corsair ship had reached the ram of the Stygian galley, stuck deep inside the other vessel. He ran towards the Stygian captain, yelling at him to get their ship away from the corsair hulk by whatever means necessary. At the same time, Tyrus and Brocas jumped down on the ram, trying to cut it off before the mold would reach their ship through it. Their final blow cut it off just as it was about to spread to the hull of the ship, allowing the rowers of the Galley to pull it free of the sinking hulk. Fierce determination frozen on his face, Thothmekri cut open the throats of the few wounded corsairs lying onboard the Stygian ship. Shouting in an unknown language, he then pulled from his belt an ivory amulet in the shape of a shark. Soon enough, fins could be seen approaching the swimming black corsairs on the waves.
As the fight died down, the Stygian galley kept rowing away from the corsair ship, now a rapidly sinking, slowly crumbling mass of rotting wood. Those with the necessary skills moved among the wounded, sewing up gaping wounds and bandaging scratches. Alcimedes and Dionysos were both bandaged and bought back on their feet, and corpses were thrown overboard for the sharks to feast on. The captain decided to give his crew a chance to rest and the ship was anchored in a nearby cove. Speaking to the Nemedians for the first time, the Stygian thanked them for their help and sent them bottles of Shemite wine from his private storage. Resting on the deck, the five Nemedian veterans speculated on the implications of the battle. All of them had their share of wounds and bruises, although Alcemides and Dionysos had taken a such beating that they could barely walk. They agreed that the attack was not merely a coincidence. Dionysos and Tyrus speculated that a sorcerer or devil of some sort was spying on them through the mask. As long as they had the golden mask, they would face more trouble. Noam repeated that they should just throw the cursed thing overboard, but others were overcome by greed. Alcemides came up with the idea of melting down the mask to a lump of gold – even if it did not destroy its magic, it would be unrecognizable when sold in Messantia.
Despite the objections of the other men, Barathus decided that he would tell Thothmekri of the mask and their beliefs concerning the attack. The former Adventurer found the sorcerer standing on the deck, staring at the sea with a contemplating look on his dark face. Upon hearing what Barathus had to tell, the Stygian gritted his teeth and his features turned into a mask of barely contained fury. Approaching thr rest of the Nemedians, he demanded to see the mask. As Tyrus presented it to Thothmekri, the sorcerer carefully avoided touching it while savouring every little detail with his eyes. Turning back to the men, he stated that they had two options – either leaving to ashore with the mask on the spot or throw it away and continue their journey aboard.
Despite his obvious anger, Tyrus and Dionysos managed to convince the Stygian of a third option, destroying the mask. Thothmekri told that they were free to try to melt the mask – if they did it on the shore. The Nemedians would take a launch to the shore and do whatever they wanted to with the mask. Should something unexpected and dangerous happen, the ship would simply leave without them rather than take any risks for their foolishness. If they managed to destroy the mask and return to the ship, the galley would continue. The Stygian ship would wait for them only for one full day. Having no chance but to agree, the tired Nemedians started gathering their equipment to leave for the shore at once. Noam decided to stay on board the galley. He proclaimed that the mask had been nothing but trouble to begin with and would do nothing but harm if they tried to destroy it. Trying to turns its gold to coin would not be that easy. Shrugging off his proclamation, the four men started rowing to the beach leaving Noam to look after them from the deck.
The four Nemedians built a firepit in the shadow of the ancient forest. While looking for wood, Alcemides spotted tracks that were left by beings thatn walked on two legs, yet were not men. Perhaps there were ghouls lurking in the woods, observing them even at that very moment. Hastening their efforts, the men had soon built a bonfire, upon which they left the mask to melt in a cauldron. None of them had any experience from metalworks, but they presumed that it would take at least a few hours for the gold to melt. Thus the Nemedians set up a little picnic, resting and sipping Shemite wine on the beach. After two hours Alcemides went to check on the mask – noticing to his alarm that it was completely uneffected by the heat. Touching it carefully, he realized that the mask was still cool, despite the heat from the fire.
Discussing the matter among themselves, the Nemedians speculated that the cursed item could not be harmed by fire. Frustrated, Alcimedes announced that he would just bash the damned thing apart with a rock. Afraid of the consequences, the three other men agreed, but only if they could first walk a hundred or more feet away, just in case. Hammering the mask with a large stone, Alcemides noticed that the item was much more resistant to blows than any gold should have been. Yet it was slowly bending, one blow at the time. Suddenly the mask bent on its own and the half-pict could feel a surge of power around him, like thousands of invisible eyes watching him intently.
Grinning madly, he struck the mask one more time, splitting it in two. A wave of invisible force struck him like a mallet, sending him on his back on the beach and striking down the other men further away. The world seemed to fade and twist, then turn into a thousand worlds at the same time, like watching the world through the shards of a broken mirror. All four men fell into a realm of insane nightmares, beset by visions their minds could and would not comprehend or retain in their memories. After lying on the sand for over an hour, hallucinating, they reginaed some of their senses, but not all. Giggling madly, they stumbled to their boat, recovering the two halves of the mask on the way. All features on it had simply faded away, leaving only two lumps of pure gold. Somehow, the four men managed to row their way to the galley, even though they had been robbed most of their sanity for a time.
From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First
Ah, I remember the first time when the scrolls shined their wisdom upon me and I truly understood their value. It was as if scales were lifted from my eyes and they were made to see the world as it is.
I felt certain that the forays into sorcery I had experienced in my childhood, the exile from my family, years in the army and even the great defeat which separated me from the rest of the army seemed to have a purpose. They were to unite me and the scrolls, and to grant me power unheard of.
And unlike the child of the tainted tree, Dionysos, I would be wise. I would not fall for hedonism and indolence – would not rot my brain on lotus and whores. Truly, I would master the scrolls, and not have them master me.
Laughable, but such were my thoughts then. As all children, I would be proven wrong time and time again. Still, sometimes naivete has its place, as without integrity, one has no future. Even now, engulfed by the smell of lotus and surrounded by my concubines, I’d like to think that I’ve maintained at least some of that resolve. Though my body is old and weak, my mind is still my own, which I doubt any of my old friends can claim, wherver they now roam.