Conan Acheronian Edition

Session X: Assassins in the House
Baron Castante must die!

The flickering flame of a lone torch cast its light about a damp chamber below the harbour of Kordova. Grim men sat around a wooden table, concentrating on plans of murder. As the Nemedians sipped strong wine, Thothmekri explained that he had prepared for slaying Castante and his guest. The mysterious Baron rarely left his manor, so those wishing to kill him would need to break into his home. The Stygian had infiltrated the manor with one of his spies, who had provided rough sketch of the mansion and its grounds. The man inside would also leave one of the outer gates and one door inside unlocked for the killers to enter – but he could do little more than that.

An attack on the manor would not go unnoticed, however, no matter how silent the assassins were. Castante’s neighbours might be inclined just to enjoy the show, as many of them were his rivals and would love to see him brought down. However, the city guard would arrive on the scene in strength eventually.Thus a diversion would be necessary, something big that would attract official attention – such as setting a fire on the temple district.

Thothmekri explained that he needed the Nemedians to be one of the two parties – either entering the manor grounds to kill Castante and the Argosean nobleman, or to create a distraction elsewhere in the city. He would take the other role with his men, but the choice was up to the veterans. He promised that the men would be richly rewarded for their service – he was planning to begin the attack once the black galley his master had sent would be ready in the harbour. With these words, the dark-skinned sorcerer left the room to allow the Nemedians to discuss his proposal among themselves.

In an hour, all of the men agreed that they would take the offer and attack the mansion themselves. That way, they could loot the treasures of Baron Castante in the process. The questions of what to ask as a reward was more challenging to decide. Finally, Tyrus and Alcemides convinced the rest that they should ask Thothmekri for Stygian trading permits. That way they could sail straight to Stygia with the black galley, invest their newly found wealth in silk and outfit a caravan to take it back to Nemedia. They reasoned that going back home with a hundred gold coins was fine – but a thousand coins was even better. As the Stygian returned, he was a bit surprised to hear what the men wanted but agreed at once. His master could easily arrange such things for the services rendered.

A few days on intense planning followed. The information provided by the spy inside the manor allowed the Nemedians to draw a rough map of the manor and its surroundings. Castante had over two dozen men in arms, as well as a few bodyguards that were rumored to be exotic and effective. Many options ranging from inciting a slave riot to an explosive entry using flame-powder were examined and discarded. Finally, the men came up with a plan all could agree upon. It was a strange and daring plan, but one that might just work. Thothmekri gave the men two strange and beautiful daggers, which he instructed to leave in the bodies of their two targets. The weapons were decorated with gold and had likeness of a bird – the blade was like its beak, the handle its legs and body. Dionysos recognized that they had resemblance to the Ibis bird – it was obvious that Thothmekri wanted to frame the Cult of Ibis for the murders.

As the Nemedians prepared for the assassination attempt, one of Thothmekri’s men informed them that a group of slaves had been brought to Kordova for sale. Not just any slaves, but the very same Nemedians which the Zingaran mercenaries had captured in the rout from Aquilonia. The Nemedians were pressed with hard decisions – leaving the shelter would be an immense risk, as the cult was surely looking for them now and their attack had been planned to happen that very night. Yet Barathus insisted on seeing what they could do for their former comrades. He came up with a plan to disguise the men as lepers, whose presence everyone would surely avoid.

Thus five lepers dressed in rags appeared in the market square, begging for alms near the slave pens. True enough, each man recognized a few faces among the prisoners – although all the noble-born were missing, likely held for ransom by their families. Returning to their shelter, the men engaged in a heated debate. Barathus wanted to buy all of the prisoners their freedom, but others argued that they would have nowhere to go. The former Adventurer solved the problem by convincing Thothmekri to take the lot aboard the Stygian galley and with it to Messentia. Yet still the others refused to use their wealth for the freedom of their fellows. Finally Barathus alone spent the majority of his fortune on buying freedom for all of the prisoners through a proxy. Moved by his generosity, Alcemides and Tyrus spent some gold each to buy them provisions and equipment – but Noam and Dionysos would not budge.

As darkness fell on Kordova, the Nemedians were already on the move. A tunnel from the Pits allowed them to enter the manor district near their target. Followed by a dozen or so cutthroats hired through Thothmekri’s contacts, they slided from shadow to shadow. The five Nemedians entered through the side gate, which was left open as agreed, while the Zingaran scoundrels stayed to wait outside. Once in the garden, the five men split in two groups, silently wishing each other luck. Dionysos, Alcemides and Noam sneaked towards the manor while Tyrus and Barathus moved towards the animal shelter. Two poisoned arrows weighed heavily in Noam’s quiver. Thothmekri had promised that the dark liquid they had been dipped in would prove to be especially potent against sorcerers.

Tyrus and Barathus reached the animal shelter silently, swiftly striking down a lone guard sipping wine at the rear entrance. Inside, they threw drugged meat to the lions and other beasts held inside. After opening their cages they then raced to climb on the roof of the building. Soon enough, beasts of all kind, unnaturally enraged through the herbal poisons running through their veins bolted forth in the garden. Across the wide grounds, the Zingaran cutthroats entered the manor through an unlocked back door, falling on the surprised guards and servants alike in a whirlwind of bloodthirsty blades. A noisy chaos erupted in the manor grounds, as insane beasts, confused guards and greedy scoundrels hacked down whoever they could reach. In the horizon, the glow of a great fire could be seen against the night sky. Thothmekri and his men had completed their part.

Meanwhile, the two scouts and the sorcerer with Acheronian blood had climbed on the balcony of the second floor. Sneaking ahead, Alcemides peeked inside the windows of the guest suites, locating the Argosean nobleman. He was sitting in one of the rooms illuminated only by a lone candle, talking to a woman dressed in a robe-like outfit. The woman was black as night, from the jungles of the hot south. Neither seemed to notice that they were being watched from outside. The three men moved in to positions behind the open window. Alcemides jumped inside, two shortswords gleaming in the light, while Noam and Dionysos fired at the man, wounding him grievously.

Yet as the element of surprise ran out, both of the two defenders were quick to act. The black woman leaped at Alcemides like a striking serpent, stunning him with a quick kick in the groin and drawing two short, crescent-like blades from her long sleeves. Noam’s arrows narrowly missed the Argosean, as he jumped underneath his bed, pulling hastily the golden mask on his face. Just as the southern woman prepared to slice the half-picts throat, a lucky bolt fired by Dionysos hit her straight through the left eye, killing her instantly.

As Alcemides was returning back to his senses, the Argossean had managed to put the mask on and shouted for help in a familiar, booming voice. The Nemedians felt a strange force compelling them not to harm their target – the strange symbol on the golden mask whirled in the shadows, forcing them to submit before it. As the others stood back, Noam charged the bleeding man blind, stabbing him with a dagger with eyes closed until he did not move. Alcemides and Noam moved to investigate the bedroom that had turned into a slaughterhouse, carefully listening by the door. All they could hear was the sounds of fighting downstairs and the bellowing of the beasts on the grounds. As they stood their backs towards him, Dionysos stripped the golden mask from the dead man and placed it upon his own face.

Alcemides and Noam were surprised as Dionysos suddenly turned on them with his fell sorcery, the symbol of the mask twirling in the darkness. Together, they managed to wrestle the pale sorcerer on the floor and pull the mask off his face by force. Trembling slighty, Dionysos explained that something had taken him under its control through the mask and turned him against his fellows. Throwing the accursed golden item in a sack, the trio moved carefully onward, leaving the first of the Ibis daggers stabbed in the body of their target.

Climbing stairs up to the third floor, the Nemedians faced a new dilemma. Only two routes lead in to the chambers of Baron Castane – and both were blocked, in a different manner. The first route was guarded by a lion, which Alcemides saw through a keyhole – and the second was barricaded from within. Just as the men were preparing to take their chances with the lion, they heard approaching steps from the stairs. As they prepared to spring an ambush, they recogniced Barathus and Tyrus just before landing the first blows. The former Adventurers had managed to elude the chaos in the garden and followed the three men inside the manor. Together, the five men dispatched the lion with ease – the poor beast had no chance, as it was filled with crossbow bolts the moment it charged towards the opening door. Satisfied with their success, the assassins pressed onwards.

Moving quickly but carefully, the intruders entered a well-lit, luxuriously decorated room. Oil lamps and incense burners hanged from the ceiling, the floor was covered with oriental carpets and a beautiful map of Hyboria covered one floor. The desks, drawers and chests made it obvious that this was the study of Baron Castante – yet he was nowhere to be seen. An open hatch on the ceiling hinted where he had gone, perhaps just a moment before. Preparing themselves, the Nemedians started to climb up on the roof. Alcemides raised his head first, only to receive a glancing blow from a tulwar on his head, followed by a bright, burning flash that burned his eyes. Jumping blindly on the roof, he was followed by the other men under the night sky.

On the roof was standing three men – the veiled Baron eyed the Nemedians with nothing but contempt in his burning eyes. Between him and the intruders was standing two men, a young Zingaran wielding a dagger and an arming sword and a massive Shemite wielding an equally massive tulwar in his hands. Steel clashed with steel under starlight, and the men could clearly hear the marching sound of approaching soldiers on the streets below.

The fight ebbed back and forth on the roof. Barathus disarmed the Shemite with a cunning parry from his shield, only to be pushed off the roof by the Zingaran. Tyrus exchanged blows with both bodyguards in vain, while Alcemides recovered from his stunned state only to receive a handful of dust on his face, robbing him of his sight. While the Shemite hacked Alcemides with a handaxe he had pulled from his belt, the Zingaran sent Noam flying over the edge of the roof after Barathus. Yet he did not live long to embrace his victory, for the greatsword of Tyrus and Dionysos brought him down the very next moment.

Bleeding and stinging from the dust in his eyes, Alcemides still managed to charge the Baron blindly, grabbing him in a hold. Yet as Dionysos and Tyrus closed on the remaining bodyguard, Castante gurgled in inhuman voice and belched forth from his throat a torrent of spiders, whose stinging bites brought the blind and wounded half-pict gasping on the ground. Horrified, Tyrus and Dionysos pulled back from the biting swarm. Just as the dark might of the Zingaran warlock was about to smite the remaining Nemedians down, Noam charged back on the roof. His fall had been softened by skillfully sculpted bushes, sparing him of broken bones. Aiming more with instinct than his eyes, he let fly an arrow that hit Baron Castante in the throat, dimming the light from his eyes. The Shemite bodyguard jumped down on the balcony below and ran for his life.

The Nemedians quickly looted the corpse of their mark and left the last dagger stabbed in the cooling corpse. As a badly hurt Barathus finally reached the roof again, he was astonished to notice that badly maimed Alcemides was still breathing. Seeing a squad of Zingaran soldiers approach the manor, the Nemedians quickly climbed downwards. Having no time to pick and choose, Tyrus and Noam grabbed each a locked chest on their arms while Barathus and Dionysos carried their unconscious comrade between them. Now running, the men sprinted across the garden filled with gore just as the soldiers were breaking down the main gate. They ran like men fighting for their lives run, ignoring their wounds and burdens, until they had the black planks of the ominous Stygian galley underneath their feet.

Session XI: Curse of the Golden Lord
An Encounter on the High Seas

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.

Session XII: The City of Coin
Where everything is for sale...

As the Stygian galley slid ever closer to Messantia, the coastline turned from dark forest to cultivated land, with farms and orchards. The men who had taken part in the destruction of the mask suffered from terrible nightmares, but were slowly recovering from the blow to their sanity. Yet it seemed that Alcemides and Tyrus had been affected by the forces from beyond more seriously than the others. A creeping terror seized Tyrus whenever he saw golden items, while Alcemides had been convinced that he was, in fact, invincible. Dark dreams of the ruined city devoured by sand and a baleful star glowing over it like eye of a great beast invaded Noam’s dreams again and again. His bad luck in games of chance and combat alike seemed to carry on with no end, finally leading the Nemedians to believe that he was, in fact, cursed because of killing the Zingaran sorcerer. Stygian sorcerers might be able to remove the curse – for a heavy price – once they reached the soil of that dark, ancient nation.

As the glittering spires of the City of Coin became visible on the horizon, Thothmekri visited the Nemedians again. He informed the men that the galley would dock at Messantia for a few days, receive replacements for crewmembers fallen in the battle and then continue off to Stygia. The enigmatic priest offered Barathus and Dionysos a chance to attend with him a business meeting that might offer them interesting opportunities. The two men agreed and decided to bring the other two with them. As the black galley approached harbor of the great city, the Nemedians were gaping at its splendors with open awe. Messantia, one of the richest cities in the World, was there, with all its vices, within their grasp for them to explore and enjoy. Leaving the ship, they wished the liberated prisoners good luck on their long journey home. Barathus spent more of his gold to buy Brocas and his companions supplies for their travels.

The Nemedians settled down in a magnificent inn, enjoying a well deserved rest. Dionysos went shopping for new, exquisite clothing, later joining the others in spending much coin on song, wine and women. The following day the men strolled streets of the city, filling up their supplies for the rest of the journey. Alcemides bough himself a finely crafted Akibatan shortsword, decorated with onyx and opals. There was still the matter of the golden chunks left from the mask to handle. Asking around from the local goldsmiths, the Nemedians were directed to an alley of goldsmiths. Entering one of the largest stores, they presented their golden problem to the guildsmen. Examining the chunks, the goldsmith offered a sizable sum of coin for the gold – but explained that he would not be able to pay it before next evening, after examining the precious metal in detail. Trusting that the guild would not cheat them, the Nemedians accepted a receipt for the gold and went off to enjoy vices of the city some more.

Rested and relaxed, the five comrades headed towards the guild in the evening, walking unknowingly towards an ambush. As they were walking down the alley, the men noticed too late that something was amiss – the reinforced oak door in to the goldsmiths store was hanging open on its hinges. Wagons came crashing at both ends of the alley and shadowy shapes sprung up from the roofs around them, the explosive clacking of arbalests soon showering the Nemedians with bolts. A single, piercing hit brought Tyrus down on the street, seemingly lifeless. Barathus covered Dionysos with his shield as they rushed inside the store. Inside was a mess of broken glass and jewelry spread on the floor, the goldsmith slumped dead behind his counter. Noam followed, releasing arrows at the assassins on the roof. Feeling certain of his invincibility, Alcemides did not bother with cover but charged towards other end of the alley, climbing on top of the wagon and starting to pull himself on roof of the building. Luck was with him, as a dozen bolts just whizzed by him, striking deep in walls around the half-pict.

Inside, Dionysos and Barathus raced upstairs, guessing that there should be some way to access the roof from the building. On the way they came upon more carnage, as the whole family of the goldsmith had been killed. Even his youngest children had not been spared. Noam exchanged fire with the assassins on the opposite roof from the doorway. They were obviously well prepared with loaded arbalests ready at their side to fire on the Nemedians. At the end of the volley, Alcemides struggled to climb on the roof, his grip constantly coming loose. As he finally managed to pull himself up on the roof, two disguised assassins attacked him with jagged scimitars. They had covered their bodies in wide, flowing capes and pulled scarves on their faces. Moving with the speed of a striking serpent, Alcemides dodged their blows, feinting and slashing at their throats, his new Akibatan blade feasting on blood for the first time.

Just as Dionysos and Barathus were about to reach the roof, Alcemides spotted another shadowy figure rising from the roof of a building a few blocks away. He waved a yellow flag a few times around his head before disappearing. The assassins immediately withdrew from combat, tumbling down on carts full of hay parked on the street below. They dropped their weapons, scarves and capes, having ordinary clothes underneath them and disappeared into the crowd. Alcemides ran after them in a fruitless pursuit, leaving the others behind. Investigating their fallen comrade, Barathus and Dionysos found that Tyrus was still barely alive. Luck had turned the bolt that had brought him down so that it had narrowly missed his heart. While they tended his wounds, Noam noticed that unit of Argossean guardsmen was approaching the alley. Barathus convinced the others that he could talk them out of the situation.

The patrolmen quickly removed the wagons from both ends of the valley and investigated the situation. A polite young lieutenant discussed the situation with Barathus, but insisted that the Nemedians would need to come with him to the nearest station to sort out the situation and where a doctor could be called for wounded Tyrus. Soldiers entering the goldsmith’s were horrified to find corpses of his family strewn around the building. The four companions muttered grimly among themselves – it was obvious that the assassins had been merely delaying them for a set-up. After Dionysos and Barathus insisted on it, the lieutenant sent some of his soldiers to search the roofs for corpses. They returned empty handed, increasing suspicions of the Nemedians. The three standing men were lead towards the nearest guardhouse with Tyrus carried behind them. Alcemides returned from his chase just in time to see the patrol and shadowed the group to the fortified building.

Inside, the four men were led to a sparsely furnished dining room inside the guardpost. They were told they would need to wait for hour or two, before a senior officer could be reached to come discuss the matter with them. Two armed guards stayed to stand watch by the only door, while there were probably over two dozen additional soldiers inside the building. Tyrus was revived back to consciousness and the others explained to him what had happened. An hour and then two passed in uncomfortable anticipation. Dionysos and Barathus speculated that the cult that had obviously framed them controlled the city guard as well. It seemed strange that they had found the Nemedians so quickly. Meanwhile, Alcemides stalked outside the guardhouse, wondering what to do. Not someone used to idleness, the half-pict decided to get his companions out. Walking casually among the crowd, he scouted a good position among the cobbled roads, clenching a flamepowder bomb inside his fist. Waiting for a group of nobles to pass by on horseback, he threw the bomb at the feet of their mounts, causing instant mayhem as the horses panicked from the sparkling boom.

Pandemonium broke out in the streets, as the panicking horses spread their terror to other animals. Merchants and commoners ran for their lives, while the riders struggled to stay on their mounts. Soldiers rushed out of the guardhouse to investigate the racket and while they were pacifying the area, Alcemides slipped inside. He quickly knocked the lone guard in the entry hall unconscious and sneaked in, finding the other Nemedians with pure luck. Quickly subduing the soldiers in the room, all five slipped out of the guardpost and ran. They spent a few silver to disguise themselves as peasants and sneaked to the black galley moored in the harbor. As the companions explained the situation to Thothmekri, the Stygian agreed that the whole mess was the creation of followers of the Golden Lord. He reminded the Nemedians that they had chosen to keep the golden mask, that obviously brought misery even after being destroyed. At least now the remains of the mask had been lost.

Alcemides went to investigate the aftermath of their escape the next day, while the others stayed hidden in the ship. It became obvious that the Nemedians were now wanted men in Messantia – not only for the muder of a whole family, but for public disturbance as well. The goldsmith’s guild had promised a considerable amount of silver for their capture. As the half-pict returned onboard, Thothmekri was preparing to leave. He explained Niccolo, the man he would meet, was one of the most prominent information dealers in the whole city. Reaching him was very hard and without Thothmekri, the Nemedians would have had no chance to ever meet him. They could accompany him, disguised, at their own peril. Tyrus was the first to say that he would come, as he wanted to ask the broker about scrolls of Vathelos the Blind. The mere thought of finding more parts of the book made his eyes gleam and hands shake. The others reluctantly agreed to accompany him.

A few hours later, the Nemedians were following Thothmekri disguised as servants. After reaching the large house of the information broker, they were taken in a richly decorated lounge by polite servants. Shedding their disguises, the Nemedians sat down to enjoy fresh fruit and expensive wines. A Vendhyan girl less than ten years of age sat in the corner, playing an ektara for their enjoyment. Thothmekri was lead in to inner chambers of the house – the Stygian said that he had business to conduct with their host before their presence would be requested. Sipping wine, the men discussed idly their situation. It was obvious that followers of the Golden Lord used Messantia as some sort of power base. Yet it seemed likely that they would never need to return to the City of Coin. They would merely go to Stygia, take a load of exotic goods to Nemedia and lead a comfortable life with their wealth.

More than an hour passed before the oriental girl left the room and then returned, motioning the five men to follow. They were taken to a huge study, richly decorated with mats from Iranistan and silk curtains from Khitai. Thothmekri was sitting in a beautifully engraved chair. On the other side of a massive table sat Niccolo, a pale Ophirian man with handsome face and dead, cold eyes. The Stygian introduced the men to the information broker, who greeted them politely. As they had been offered seats, he went straight to business, asking if there was something he could do for them.

A quivering Tyrus could barely contain himself as Dionysos and Barathus discussed with Niccolo about the followers of the Golden Lord. Their host evaded most questions, smiling wryly, but told that the cult had indeed a major network inside Messantia. Their influence had arrived in the city through eastern trade routs a decade or so ago, seducing young noblemen and the idle rich to its grasp. They promised power and riches to those who already had aplenty and used them to their own purposes. Finally, Tyrus could not contain himself anymore and blurted out if Niccolo knew something about the scrolls of Vathelos the Blind. Smiling, the information broker said that he had heard about the scribblings of the blind sage. In fact, for a right price, he could tell the locations of two parts of the book. Frustrated, Tyrus was not in a mood to negotiate. As Niccolo named his price – a bag of gold and a favor in the southern lands – he agreed, tossing a heavy sack full of coin on the table. Chuckling lightly, Niccolo told that a small temple of Ishar in Ophir, located in a border town near Aquilonia, had one set of scrolls in their library. The priests there did not realize what they had and stealing or buying it should be an easy task. Then he pulled a small, skillfulyl made wood carving from his pocket and threw it on the table.

The carving portrayed the face of a woman, obviously beautiful, but with passing features of cruel, disturbing effect. It was obvious even from the carving that she had Acheronian blood flowing in her veins. Still smiling, Niccolo explained that the woman in the carving was Nefertari, an old friend he wanted to locate. He had heard that the Nemedians were going to Stygia and had a reason to believe that she was there as well. Sipping dark red wine from jewelled goblet, Niccolo mentioned that he had a feeling the Nemedians would come across the woman in their travels. They only needed to find her and tell him were she was. He would then give them location of the second set of scrolls in return.

As Barathus asked why Niccolo did not request such service from Thothmekri instead, both men just shrugged and smiled. Dionysos and Niccolo kept eyeing each other in a way that was starting to disturb the other men. Discussion faded slowly in to a small talk. As Thothmekri and the Nemedians prepared to leave, Dionysos announced his intention to stay behind for a few sips of wine with their host. Shrugging and already used to lecherousness of their companion, the four others returned to the harbor with the Stygian sorcerer.

Dionysos returned in the morning as the ship was being prepared for departure. He was pale and drawn, as if his very life had been sucked out of his body. The young half-Acheroninan just went to sleep without a word. The others did not ask anything, presuming his weakness to be the result of some forbidden perversion. As the ship was readied for departure, Thothmekri paced restlessly on the deck, obviously waiting for something. Finally, a heavy carriage approached. Burly black slaves carried a large bulk covered with cloth from it, taking it to the cargo hold of the galley. As they were taking it below the deck, a breeze from the sea raised the cover for a moment. Underneath was a sarcophagus made of bright green jade, decorated with cryptic hieroglyphs and carvings of snakes.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

As we were leaving in Messentia, I had begun to feel dissatisfied about my performance during the recent fights. Especially the ambush at the goldsmith had seen me merely catching bolts and not even delaying the enemy, while more seasoned warriors did their work. More specifically, the heavy army greatsword felt clumsy in my hands and offered little protection from arrows. I yearned a nimbler weapon, which would hinder hinder my mobility less and leave my other hand free. Unlike Alcemides, I wasn’t daring enough to go after archers without a shield.

I regretted that i had not had time to attend a fencing school in Zingara, but Barathus offered to teach me his elegant swordmanship. Luckily an officer on the ship traded my old equipment for a sturdy broadsword and a small shield, which enabled me to spar and train. I immediately felt more comfortable, and never looked back. Though it would be quite a while until I could beat Barathus in a duel, my self-confidence soared.

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.

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 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 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 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 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 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.