Conan Acheronian Edition

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 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 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 IX: Have you seen the Golden Sign?
A party to remember....

The mansion of Baron Castante was a spectacular palace, surrounded by a large garden filled with rich and powerful guests. Exotic animals ranging from lions to hyenas and from zebras to strange birds were on display around the grounds. Drink flowed freely and inside, half-naked men and women shuddered on silk pillows in lotus-induced dreams. Strange and wonderful items were everywhere to be seen inside the mansion, ranging from strange, inhuman statues to ancient suits of mail on wooden dolls. Servants and slaves moved silently among the guests, providing wine and other, more depraved pleasures to the rich and mighty.

Alcemides and Noam dived in to enjoy the party right away, feasting and filling themselves with wine while Tyrus, Barathus and Dionysos went to discuss business with their host. The veiled Baron lead the trio in to a gallery of ancient statues, many of Acheronian origin, some perhaps from times before the oceans drank Atlantis. There, offering wine for his guests, he offered to buy some of the Acheronian coins the party had achieved earlier in the mountains. After a short negotiation, a deal was made and a hundred coins or so exchanged hands. Obviously pleased, Castante proceeded to entertain his other, more important guests. As the other Nemedians merely enjoyed the party, Dionysos did his best to find new useful contacts. It seemed that many powerful, important figures were present at the party, ranging from an envoy of a Messantian merchant house to the local high priest of Mitra. A hotheaded young nobleman tried to provoke Dionysos to a duel, but the crafty Nemedian managed to talk himself out of a situation that appeared to be some kind of set-up.

Many following days passed in idle recovery from the past challenges and the splendid party. The Nemedians realised that they were rich now – not only had they won considerable amounts of coin from the arena, they had also finally managed to exchange the majority of the Acheronian gold to usable currency. Many purses of silver were spent in a few days on better clothing, wine and temple harlots of Ishtar. The young Korzetta had told Dionysos that the mysterious party would be held in five days. Days of idle speculation followed. The two sorcerers spent much of their time investigating the scrolls they had recovered from the crypt and since identified as the writings of Vathelos the Blind – a work perhaps not as famous as the Book of Skelos, but as potent in its knowledge. However, it was obvious that they had only two of the six parts.

As the day of the mysterious party approached, a messenger arrived to bring six wooden masks to the inn the Nemedians resided in. They were made of white wood and were featureless save for eyeslits and a larger opening on the mouth. Among them was a note from Korzetta, instructing the men to cover their faces with the masks before stepping aboard a carriage that would be sent to fetch them from their inn after dark. In the evening, Thothmekri appeared, wearing grey, shapeless robes that covered his whole body. The Nemedians put on their best clothes, donned their masks and stepped inside a black carriage when it pulled to halt before the inn. Heavy shutters were pulled over the windows, blocking the view from the inside. A journey lasting almost an hour commenced, the carriage obviously moving in circles to make the passengers lose their bearings.

The five veterans and the Stygian spy stepped out of the carriage in a large stable, obviously somewhere near the sea. The smell of the sea was strong, but no sounds of the harbor could be heard. Men wearing black capes and masks of dark wood on their faces lead them silently onward, torches in hand. They marched downwards through a maze of stairs and passages, in the forsaken, sunken part of Kordova only know as the Pit, passing armed groups of similarly garbed men standing guard at regular intervals. Finally, they arrived at what looked like a market square swallowed by the earth itself. In its center was a well, towards which the masked men motioned the guests to go.

Climbing down a rope ladder, the six companions entered in to a huge natural cave. A few torches were lit on the walls, giving shadowy illumination to the part of the cave directly underneath the well. A dozen or so men and women milled about in similar masks, talking in low tones. They were dressed as Zingaran nobility, but showed no family crests. After a few moments of waiting, two men wearing vulture-like masks appeared in the light, lighting black candles on a large altar-like stone. Jewelry worn by the taller, thinner man hinted that he was Baron Castante or someone impersonating him. Soon, two other masked figures followed – a third, obese man in a vulture-like mask and a strange figure in shapeless robes, with a golden mask on its face.

A silence fell in the cave as the mysterious stranger with the golden mask stepped forth to speak. The robes hid its body so well that it was impossible to determine if underneath them was a woman, a man or something completely inhuman. The mask portrayed a flawlessly beautiful face with both female and male features. Upon its forehead was placed a strange triangular glyph, which seemed to swirl as the shadows played on it. The voice of the person, obviously a priest of some sort, was a booming wave of authority that echoed in the cave and yet, lacked any identifiable qualities.

The priest preached a booming welcome sermon of a god known as the Golden King and the benefits of worshipping him. The greedy would receive gold, the vain recognition, the ugly beauty and the lonely new friends. The Golden King was a true, present god with power over mortals, not a weak shadow like Mitra, Set and the other gods. By submitting before the Golden King the initiated would find great power and make others submit before them in turn. As the priest spoke, the symbol on the mask swirled faster and the power of his words seemed to multiply with each sentence. The Nemedians had to fight hard against a powerful sensation of belief that was slowly creeping into their very souls. Just as their willpower started to wane, the sermon ended. New torches were lit deeper in the chamber, where a long table brimming with food and wine was visible. The priests motioned the initiates to follow them and to feast for the glory of the Golden King.

A feast of strange but pleasant meat and thick, salty wine was offered to the initiates, with the three vulture-masks partaking eagerly and the robed figure with the golden mask sitting at the end of the table. The talk of the table soon revealed that the obese man was Don Estebio, the collector of madmen. Yet the identity of the third vulture remained a mystery – it seemed that Korzetta was not among the men around the table. Black-garbed servants moved silently among the guests, bringing more meat and wine for them to enjoy. As Alcemides and Noam observed the surroundings, it became obvious that there were at least a dozen masked men standing in the shadows around the table.

After each participant had drank a few cups of wine, the priest in the golden mask spoke again, asking each of the initiates to follow alone to the altar to speak about what the Golden King had to offer them. As the first of the Zingarans followed the robed figure into the dark, the Nemedians switched to speaking Nemedian among themselves. Masking their concern under cheerful tones, they agreed that Tyrus would go find out what the mysterious priest had to say. Yet they all agreed that they should leave somehow before the strange party was over – for it seemed likely that some sinister ritual would crown the event.

Tyrus returned from his talk with the masked priest in morbid silence. He hurriedly explained that the priest had a sinister sorcery of some sort working against the initiates and that they should leave as soon as possible. Thothmekri agreed with their proposal – yet leaving from the guarded table would be hard. Barathus insisted that the perverted collector had to die for the horrors they had seen in his manor.

Alcemides decided to take action, acting drunk and asking the masked servants to lead him somewhere to void his bladder. A lone man in a black mask lead him to a recess deeper in the cave, where an improvised privy had been dug. Still acting drunk, Alcemides suddenly pounced on the servant, knocking him unconscious with a swift blow. Then he hastily stripped the man from his mask and cape, revealing a rough-looking Zingaran armed with a short sword. Disguised as a servant, Alcemides returned to the table. While serving wine for the guests, the half-pict managed to gain the attention of Noam. The woodsman followed the example set before him and together the two men knocked another servant unconscious. Noam disguised himself as a servant and the two Nemedians agreed that Alcemides would go to scout the route back while Noam would tell of their plan to the others.

Alcemides sneaked back underneath the well and climbed to the top, surprising two men standing guard there with swift punches. Now armed with an arbalest and two shortswords, the half-pict silenced three more guards before returning to the well. Meanwhile, the Nemedians were getting restless. It was obvious that they could not avoid talking with the priest in the golden mask for long. A brief plan was formed using languages the Zingarans could not understand – Thothmekri promised to arrange something to deter pursuit, if a distraction of some kind would only allow them to flee the table.

Alcemides sneaked back to the cave, hiding beneath some rocks with a good line of sight to the table. With a loaded arbalest in hands, he considered his options. He sprung to action as one of the other guests left for the closet with one of the masked servants. Aiming carefully, he let loose a bolt that nailed the obese collector to the table, piercing his head and sending fragments of his skull flying. Thothmekri and the four other Nemedians jumped on their feet – this was the moment they had been waiting for.

A stunned silence turned to a sudden skirmish, as the men cut down who they could reach while bolting towards the rope ladder. As they reached the rope, a new sound emerged – a chittering call followed by crunches of breaking bone and bloodcurling screams from the dark. Thothmekri smiled cruelly, reminding the Nemedians that he had promised to arrange a distraction of his own. Climbing for their lives, all six managed to reach the top of the well and cut off the rope ladder right as their first pursuers were reaching their end. The Stygian started leading the men in the dark corridors, explaining that he knew most of the Pit rather well. The route they had taken would soon be blocked – they could only evade pursuit by disappearing in the oldest tunnels.

After hours of marching through the corridors, the men finally smelled fresh air ahead, appearing in the harbor of Kordova. They soon concluded that the obviously well-connected cult would be looking for them at their residence once they realized that the Nemedians had gotten out of the Pit. Thothmekri promised that he could keep him safe in his hidden shelter until the black galley would arrive in a few days time. Thus the Nemedians ran through the silent streets to get their belongings from the inn, bribing a few curfew patrols on the way.

Back at the harbour, Thothmekri lead the men to his hiding place, located beneath a shady tavern. As they could finally settle down and catch their breath, the Stygian explained that his worst fears concerning the strange cult had come true. Spies employed by Thothmekri had kept their eye on the cult for almost a year. Without going in too much detail, he told that they were a perverted lot that threatened not only interests of his masters but the well-being of all citizens of Kordova as well. He claimed that behind the golden mask was hidden the Argossean envoy from Castante’s parties. He and Baron Castante would have to die.

Session VIII: First Strands of the Golden King
Steel reigns supreme over elder evils!

The weary men marched onward on the swamp road, racing ahead as the shadows grew longer and the night crept closer. Several times the sounds of the swamp were pierced by the howls of a lone wolf, a sound most strange in such environment. Speaking little, the Nemedians pressed onwards, followed by the stench of death and decay. They were a dirty lot, covered with tomb-dust, mud from the swamp and dried blood.

As the Nemedians arrived on the first wooden bridge crossing one of the many deceptively deep swamp streams, they noticed that it had collapsed. After a short discussion, the men decided to build an improvised bridge. Alcemides and Noam instructed the others in felling a few trees, which were then tied together with ropes and pushed over the stream. Luckily, the bridge had been short and they could cross the stream without problems. Yet manufacturing the improvised bridge wasted valuable time and sunset was closer still.

After an hour of walking the sun was about to sink beneath the horizon and the men reached another broken bridge. It was obvious that someone – or something – was moving ahead of them and creating delays. Noam leaped across the swamp stream to investigate the bridge, which had not been completely demolished, but had been broken off at the far end, leaving it halfway submerged. Leaning to inspect the damage, he noticed that the supporting pillars had been obviously cut with a tool – most likely an axe. As the woodsman was kneeling on the edge of the stream, a lean figure appeared from the bushes, bull rushing him over the edge and diving after him into the murky waters.

As the others rushed to the edge of the stream, Noam fought for his life, trying to reach the surface. The being that had attacked him swam away, nimbly avoiding the bolts launched after it. Finally the Nemedians managed to pull Noam away from the waters with the help of a rope and many pairs of sturdy hands. Luckily, the woodsman had not been wounded in the previous fight. Otherwise the murky water would surely have infected his fresh wounds with some wasting disease. Now keeping a close guard, the men once again constructed an improvised bridge and pressed onwards as the sun fell underneath the horizon. As the dark fell, the lone wolf howled again, somewhere out of sight.

The weary men were only an hour away from the lights of Kordava, when their pursuers caught up with them. Ghouls lunged from the undergrowth, some of them brandishing weapons, followed by the woman-like being from the tomb. Alcemides had barely enough time to shout a warning before the creatures were upon them. The sheer numbers of the beasts threatened to overcome the Nemedians, but all stood their ground, brushing off the horror caused by their inhuman enemies with sheer determination. Hard blows were exchanged and blood flowed, staining the road. As a lucky hit split the skull of the female creature, its body exploded in a fetid shower of rotten bone and entrails.Seeing the creature die by mortal hands, the ghouls lost their appetite for a fight and fled to the undergrowth. Honest steel had overcome the ancient horrors.

Resting their aching bodies, the Nemedians debated on what to do next. finally, they decided to head back to the tomb and loot it thoroughly instead of waiting for the next day. Setting their broken bodies back in motion, the men marched back to the entrance of the tomb, with their greed having overcome their pains. Descending back to the bowels of Earth, they pried forcefully open the sarcophagus in the inner chamber. Portrayed upon its lid was a fierce looking man with a long beard knotted in an eastern fashion – yet inside there was no corpse to be found. Instead they found an iron strongbox and a large plate made of silver. Inscribed on the lid of the box was a symbol the sorcerers recognized – the glyph of Skelos!

While the rest were searching the tomb for loot, Alcemides spotted a cool draft in the chamber. Inspecting further, he found a hole in one of the alcoves with the armoured skeletons, large enough for man to crawl in. As the Nemedians inspected it in detail, they noticed a horrid stench emanating from it, and the tunnel beyond seemed to continue as long as they could see with the light of their lantern. Dionysos spoke aloud what everyone thought: That the tunnel might very well lead straight to Hell itself. Not wishing to tarry any longer in a such accursed place, but neither wishing to risk hazards of the swamp in the dark, the Nemedians decided to barricade themselves in a hidden chamber within the upper tomb. Breaking open the iron box, the men found twenty scrolls in ivory tubes and another twenty covered by black leather. Ecstatic, the two sorcerers wondered if they had actually found the Book of Skelos. The rest of the night was spent in restless slumber, The very presence of the nearby tunnel creating an atmosphere of tension. Yet the morning came and the men left for Kordova, reaching the great city without further complications. A new kind of confidence bolstered their spirits – they had, for the first time, faced beings not born from the loins of a woman and bested them in mortal combat.

Reaching the capital of Zingara, the weary warriors bathed thoroughly and recovered from their wounds in the inn. Soon they received a message from Thothmekri, who was anxious to see them. As the Nemedians dragged themselves to the seaside tavern, the Stygian met them again in the dusty cellar. He asked to see the silver goblet and to investigate it for a moment in another room, while a servant would bring fruits and wine. Although suspicious, the men agreed and Thothmekri disappeared to another underground chamber behind a well-hidden doorway. After a while he returned, handing back the goblet. The Nemedians inspected it suspiciously but it seemed to be the same item. The Stygian spy instructed them to give the goblet to the young Korzetta as they had agreed – and reminded them again that he would need to come with the Nemedians to the mysterious meeting Korzetta was arranging. The Nemedians agreed to the plan and left for more rest – they had arranged another arena fight for themselves in a few days time and prepared to put all their coin in one great bet, in an effort to win great riches.

Next morning Dionysos delivered the mysterious goblet to Korzetta in the temple of Ishtar, where the young noble seemed to spend all his time. Obviously very relieved and happy to have the item, Korzetta was quick to agree to the request to bring one extra guest to the party. He told that there would be a week before the party would take place. Dionysos sweet-talked the nobleman, obviously distracted by the silver item, to promising to handle all the bets in the arena for the Nemedians, in such a way that they could bet large sums of money without drawing too much attention to themselves.

The Nemedians spent the following days resting and recuperating from their hardships, preparing for the upcoming fight. They would be facing a pair of fighters, a woman from the Black Kingdoms and a Shemite man who fought as a team. They had a reputation for acrobatic agility and dirty tricks. Dionysos and Tyrus concentrated on examining the mysterious scrolls. Although they had no time to decipher them at any great degree, they came to the conclusion that they had two of the six books of Vathelos the Blind in their hands. What the mark of Skelos on the iron box meant, they did not know, but even incomplete, the set of scrolls they had was priceless. The two scholars agreed that they’d examine the scrolls in more detail during the long sea journey from Kordova to Messantia.

As the day of the fight approached, Baron Castante renewed his invitation to the party that would take place in his manor after the arena events. Alcemides decided to bet all his money on the upcoming match, even loaning more coin from Dionysos and Barathus to make a greater bet. The othera put great sums of silver into play as well, but none as much as the half-pict. As the day of their battle came, the Nemedians had many reasons to feel excited. Not only were they going to step before a cheering crowd once more – they had a chance to make themselves rich.

Dressed up and prepared as in their last fight, the men stepped on a sand that had already been blooded by lions that had teared up prisoners before their match. Cheers of the crowds were loud enough to hurt ears, as five men prepared to face a man and a woman. Careful circling lead in to a fast exchange of blows, as their two faces tumbled with blinding speed through their rows. A quick kick by the black woman landed between the legs of Barathus, immediately removing him from the fight in a flash of pain. Yet Alcemides and Tyrus managed to maneuver the Shemite between them. The fists of the half-pict were guided by fate, as his stealthy attack brought the dark-skinned man down with one loudly cracking blow. The crowd howled in ecstatic cheers.

Fate seemed then to turn against the Nemedians, as the nimble woman landed blow after a blow, stepping aside from their attacks and even leaping over them in stunning jumps. Dionysos staggered and fell before her strikes, followed by Noam. More through luck than skill Alcemides and Tyrus brought the she-devil down, staggering and barely standing themselves, staying on their feet only through the last shreds of their willpower. The crowd greeted the victorious fighters with thundering roars, as the standing and unconscious gladiators alike were taken to the underground quarters to rest their injured extremities.

As the arena events were nowhere near ending, the fallen Nemedians had plenty of time to recover enough to rise back on their feet – yet all were badly beaten and barely capable of walking on their own feet. The exotic couple they had faced came to greet the victors in their quarters, congratulating them for a victory well earned. A more welcome visitor was the young Korzetta with several purses full of coin. True to his word, he had arranged bets for the Nemedians and they were now all at least a hundred silver richer. A black carriage decorated with silver awaited them outside the arena, sent by Baron Castante to take them to his mansions. Deciding to nurse their bruised bones with alcohol, the men climbed in the carriage, heading to one of the largest manors in Kordova.

Session VII: Eaters of the Dead
..and the collector of madmen

The young Korzetta explained that he was suffering from an ailment of some sort and did not expect to live longer than a year or so. There was, however a way to cure it. In the great Zingaran swamps lay the burned ruins of an old manor and in their grounds was a hidden tomb, untouched and unlooted. If the Nemedians could locate the tomb and bring a specific goblet for him, they could have any other items they could find – as well as receiving an invitation to a “very special party”, that would bring interesting opportunities for them all.

Tipsy and dizzy from smoking lotus, Dionysos accepted the offer. The Nemedians would need to find a Zingaran veteran, known for his crippled legs, who was supposed to have the map to the tomb. Thus, next morning, the men went off to scour the slums of Kordova looking for the man. Splitting into two groups, the Nemedians set off, questioning the orphans and beggars. In the evening they met again at the inn, sharing the information they had received. It seemed the cripple they were looking for had not been seen for a few days, although one old drunk had claimed to have seen him being abducted by armed mercenaries with a gilded palanquin.

Frustrated and empty-handed, the five men sat in sullen silence when a dusk-skinned messenger entered the inn. He had a scrap of parchment with him, the handwriting of Thothmekri easily identifiable. He asked to see them in a specific harborside inn and promised to help them in their troubles. Although suspicious of the good timing of the message, the Nemedians still made their way to the harbor. If nothing else, at least they could down a few ales tonight.

The seaside tavern was full of dirty men and loud noises. The tavernkeeper, a dark-skinned man of questionable descent, guided the group to the cellar of the tavern. Inside sat Thothmekri behind a wooden table, reading a papyrus. Wine and fruit were brought to the group as the enigmatic Stygian welcomed the men into his den. With hushed tones he explained that the offer Korzetta had given to Dionysos had drifted to his ears. The Stygian offered his help in finding the tomb, if in exchange, the Nemedians would arrange him to accompany them to the meeting Korzetta had offered as a reward. He would as well wish to see the goblet Korzetta wanted before it was given to the Zingaran.

After a short discussion, the Nemedians agreed. Thothmekri explained that the map they seeked was actually branded on the skin of the veteran and that the man in question had been abducted. A local noble, Don Estebio, was a man of questionable taste and unquestionable wealth. He had a strange habit, the collecting of madmen. The veteran they seeked was the newest prize of his collection. Thothmekri told that the Nemedians could either try to break in to his manor or try to convince him to let them see his collection. The fortified manor was located half a days ride away from Kordova on the seashore.

Leaving for their inn, the Nemedians started making plans for their trip to the Estebio Manor. Dionysos and Barathus convinced the others to choose a diplomatic approach, at least as a scouting foray. They would introduce themselves as foreign nobles interested in Estebio’s bizarre collection, while the others would play the part of their entourage. Next morning, they set forth from the gates, changing their travel-stained clothing in to court outfits once the manor was in sight.

The Estebio Manor had once surely been a magnificent sight – a walled manor of white stone surrounded by orchards and overlooking the sea from a high cliff. Now time had taken its toll and the walls were ruined, the manor itself obviously lacking in maintenance. Yet still armed men seemed to patrol the crumbling walls and the advancing Nemedians were soon challenged by the nobleman’s soldiers. Stating their wish to see the master of the manor, they managed to talk their way inside.

The splendid main hall of the manor did not share the disrepair of the outer walls, being full of finely decorated furniture and art. Don Estebio turned out to be an obese nobleman in his late fourties. His features had perhaps once been strikingly handsome, but now bore the marks of decadence and a touch of cruelty. After offering some wine to the Nemedians, he listened to their elaborate pleas and agreed to show them his collection. Taking the men upstairs, Estebio entered a room full of old pottery, glowing with pride. The confused Nemedians were taken to a tour of old pots, none of which seemed particulary valuable or exotic.

Barathus, Dionysos and the rest followed the noblemans tour politely, before finally admitting that they had come to admire a collection of another type entirely. Seemingly triumphant, Estebio admitted that he had been only testing them to see if they had come to appreciate true beauty. Almost dancing his way down, the Zingaran lead the Nemedians downstairs to the cellar and then towards stairs leading underground. The dark entry was guarded by two huge Shemites leaning on tulwars.As the nobleman opened the heavy gate leading downwards, shrill, barely human shrieks pierced the air. Obviously, the true collection was located there.

The stairs ended in to a huge cavern, only partially lit by torchlight. A strong smell of salt pervaded the air, suggesting that the cave was connected to the sea – although it was almost overwhelmed by the stench of unwashed human bodies. A few massive Shemites seemed to be guarding the cavern, on the walls of which were cell doors of reinforced wood. Estebio sat in a decorated chair in the middle of the room, declaring that he would spend a moment enjoying the music his collection produced. He invited the guests to take a look at his treasures through the viewing slots in the cell doors.

In each of the small cells was stuck one to three human wrecks, some free and others chained to the walls. Various maladies of mental nature apparentally troubled them all – some were shrieking madly, others sobbing in corners and one man was drawing furiously on the walls with his own blood. The Nemedians could hardly hide their shock and disgust from their host. Yet, in one of the cells they found a man matching the description they had been given. The men asked Estebio for permission to look at some of his prisoners more closely.

After some flattery, the Zingaran agreed and one of his minions opened doors to the cells the Nemedians wanted to inspect. Wishing to hide their intents, the men first spend some time with other prisoners. As they came to the veteran with the map, Dionysos and Barathus drew away the attention of their host while Tyrus quickly sketched the map burned on the back of the poor cripple. Leaving the mansion behind, the men stopped to argue on the way back to Kordova. Barathus wanted to go back, slay the collector and release his prisoners, but others convinced him that it could wait untill when they’d be ready to leave Zingara once and for all.

Trekking back to Kordova, the Nemedians planned their next move. They’d have to go to the ruins of a burnt out mansion located in the Great Swamp and locate the crypt following the sketches they had made. The men decided to leave fr the tomb right away and spend the night in the swamp. That way they could arrive at the ruins at dawn and have a full day at their disposal to rob the tomb. Looting the dead at night did not seem like a good idea to anyone. Crossing the Black River, the Nemedians headed for the swamps, marching until darkness fell on them like a black blanket. Taking the midnight guard shift, Noam was startled by a sound strange in such anenvinronment – the distant howl of a wolf. Yet nothing came from the darkness to interrupt the sleep of the weary travelers, other than tiny insects thirsty for their blood.

In the morning, the men continued their journey after a meager breakfast, dirty and itching from countless insect bites.In a few hours, they arrived at the ruins, now reclaimed by the swamp. Following the instructions on the sketch from the back of the madman, they soon located a sealed entrance to a family tomb, well-hidden among the trees of a deserted orchard. Forcing their entry with sledgehammers, the Nemedians descended into dusty darkness that had not been visited by mortal men in generations.

A steep stairway lead to a circular burial chamber with eight sarcophagi crafted from stone. Korzetta had instructed Dionysos that the first burial chamber would be a decoy and a secret passage would lead to the true tomb. After a few moments of rest followed by intensive searching, the men found that one of the sarcophagi could be moved. Contents of all were a disappointment – mere bronze jewelry, which the Nemedians nevertheless looted. Pushing the sarcophagus aside, they revealed another stairway descending into darkness. A putrid stench surged forth from the tunnel.

With a sense of dread, the tomb robbers proceeded now with weapons at hand. A narrow tunnel lead ahead, ending in to a sharp turn. The men pressed onwards and the two sorcerers were met by a disturbing sight. The walls, ceiling and even the floor of the tunnel were decorated with haunting, vile images of cannibalism. Both men and human-like monsters feasted on the flesh of the living and dead in unholy revelry. Tyrus managed to turn his gaze away, but Dionysos was filled with a strange sense of hunger and morbid fascination with the tasting of human flesh. Their companions, without sorcerous sight, only saw bare, dust-covered walls, listening to the description offered by the two sorcerers with unease.

The twisting tunnel ended at another sealed doorway. As Dionysos stepped forward to examine it through sorcerous means, a large slab of stone crashed down from the ceiling. Narrowly avoiding being crushed to pulp, he was still badly bruised. After a while, the slab rose back to the ceiling, pulled by rusty chains. Once his injuries had been tended to, the men decided to spring the trap again and this time cut loose the chains to prevent it from rearming. A new session of hammering followed, as the sealed portal seemed impossible to open without brute force.

As the pounding of sledgehammers faded to silence and the dust settled down again, the flickering light of their torches revelead to the Nemedians a hallway lined by recesses with an armored skeleton in each, eternally guarding a sacrophagus at the end of the hall. On each side of the sarcophagus there was a stone pedestal reminiscent of an altar. On the right was the dark goblet they desired and on the left a goblet made of silver. On the base of both goblets was a crown, on the left of black stone and on the right of untarnished silver – almost like the male and female version of the same item, one light and the other heavy and rugged in construction.

The Nemedians went ahead, eyeing the ages-old skeletons in their rusted gear warily. Suddenly Alcemides spotted a hidden figure, hiding behind one of the skeletons. As he cried a warning, a most unexpected sight stepped away from the shadows. An old woman, dressed in mouldy rags, peered at the men from the darkness. Speaking in broken Zingaran, the hag asked what the men were doing in the crypt. As the Nemedians expressed that they only wanted one of the goblets, the crone promised that they could have it and more – if they just left for the night and came back in the morning, allowing her and her “children” to leave the tomb. As the discussion carried on, Alcemides got too frustrated to merely wait and shot his crossbow at the crone. Springing to action, he rushed at the other altar, grabbing the black goblet in his sack.

As the crossbow bolt hit the old woman, blasphemous shapes stepped forth from the recesses they had been hiding in. Monstrous mockeries of the human form with canine-like faces and rubbery skin stepped forth, assaulting the Nemedians fiercely. Alcemides, Noam and Barathus were overcome by terror and fled, but Alcemides was caught in the slavering fangs of one of the ghouls, preventing him from fleeing. The hag herself laughed with an inhuman voice and ripped her rags away, revealing tentacles and a monstrous mouth in her belly, towards which the tentacles started dragging their unfortunate victims. The fight was vicious and seemed to be going against the mortals, until Barathus, overcome by shame, returned to the battle. Managing to free Alcemides the men fled as Tyrus beheaded one of their pursuers with a lucky blow from his greatsword.

Outside, the Nemedians tended to their wounds and planned for their next move. It seemed obvious that the abominations in the crypt would not come outside during the daylight hours. Thus, they decided to start jogging towards Kordova. With luck, they would have enough of a headstart before the monsters started to pursue them that they might just make it. There was neither time nor breath to lose – at least they had the goblet they had come for. With luck, they might yet have their skins as well in the next morning. Grim and silent, the Nemedians started marching away from the tomb that was left open, ready to belch its horrors to the World outside once the sun would set.

Session VI: The Lures of Civilization
Expensive women and cheap wine

The moment of temptation seemed to drag on forever. Dionysos and Alcemides were especially keen to cut the throats of the unsuspecting crew and claim the ship for themselves. Finally, Barathus convinced them otherwise through simple logic – none of them were sailors. Thus the crew was woken up and the journey commenced next morning. After a few days, they saw the walls of Kordova on the horizon.

The city seemed exotic to the Nemedians, who had not visited other foreign countries than Aquilonia. Thothmekri seemed to be right at home after they had entered the capital of war-torn Zingara. The mysterious Stygian recommanded an inn for the weary travelers, promising to send some people for the corpse of the Acheronian sorceress and bring the silver promised. With those words, he disappeared into the crowd. Alcemides went forth to deliver the orphans to a local Mitraneum, paying the priests handsomely in exchange for promises of taking care of the children.

The Nemedians were soon taken in by the lures of civilization, busying themselves in whoring, gambling and drinking. The Stygian was true to his word, as the silver coins he promised were delivered to their inn by mute slaves, who took the corpse with them. The temple of Ishtar came especially familiar to the wanderers, thanks to its temple prostitutes. The priestesses claimed that they had never heard of the woman that had attacked the Nemedians aboard the river barge. Soon enough the Nemedians realized that they were both rich and poor at the same time. They had plenty of Acheronian gold from the chest they had mysteriously received, but exchanging such cursed currency to normal coinage would be hard. They’d have to find some way to pay for their booze and rooms untill the sea voyage promised by the Stygian would be arranged. Soon enough they were drawn in to fighting at a local arena for both glory and wealth.

The common fights went well and a local arena manager suggested that Alcemides would put together a group to take on a special challenge – a group of amateurs in unarmed match against a professional gladiator Thorviga the Red. The half-pict accepted, thinking of the glory and the possible wealth from betting. Alcemides had an idea – the group would fight dressed and painted like Picts for extra effect from the crowd, with the pale Dionysos being “an Acheronian Witch-king” for their amusement. He even hired a “shaman drummer” to pound Pictish drums in the background. Noam and Alcemides came up with an idea of seeking helpful herbs from the nearby swamp to use in the upcoming fight.

While the other prepared for the arena match, Dionysos had got himself acquainted with local nobility as he spent much time in the temple of Ishtar. A young Zingaran nobleman by the name of Korzetta seemed to know people interested in Acheronian coins. He spent all his days and nights in the temple, spending coin liberally on both lotus and prostitutes. He confessed that the rest of his family had left Zingara and he was the only one left after the family had abandoned their castle. Dionysos and the young Korzetta seemed to have much in common, at least in their decadence. Indeed, Korzetta came up with an invitation to “an interesting party” after the upcoming arena match, which he would come to watch. Dionysos even convinced him to arrange the bets for the group.

The Nemedians set themselves up for the upcoming match with great care. They had been promised a bonus if they’d put up a good show and they spent much of their wealth in placing bets for themselves. As the gates of the main arena opened, they were greated by thundering roars of the bloodthirsty audience. To their surprise, the gladiator they were supposed to fight with turned out to be a huge Nordheimer woman. Despite the odds, Thorviga wrestled and tossed the men around like children. Only after a heavy beating she did fall. By then both Dionysos and Alcemides were unconscious on the sand, the rest barely standing on their feet. Yet still, they had won and won both large amount of silver and the thundering cheers of the crowd.

A splendidly decorated carriage awaited for the victorious fighters. Dionysos and Alcemides were reinvigorated back to their feet. Korzetta joined the group , delivering them the silver they had won from their bets and congratulating them for their victory. The carriage started surprisingly towards the harbor instead of the more prestigious districts of the town, entering a shady harbor warehouse. Masked servants lead the celebrants to stairs that descended undearneath the city, into the infamous ruins known as the Pit. Yet the corridors they travelled were lit with torches and guarded by masked, armed men. Despite the ill omens, the Nemedians and the Zingaran nobleman arrived safely in a great underground, perhaps underwater, hall that was full of people dressed in rich livery.

Drink and food flowed freely in the party, which was not without its charms. Plenty of young noblewomen were interested in the exotic, victorious gladiators. Korzetta was happy to introduce Barathus and Dionysos to the local nobility. The party dragged on to the small hours. A veiled nobleman who introduced himself as Baron Castante showed special interest in the Nemedians, trying to loosen their lips on the subject of Thothmekri. However, the Zingaran was blunt in his attempt and the foreigners denied knowing the Stygian at all. The enigmatic baron invited the group to a party he would hold in his mansion in a weeks time and showed interest towards buying the Acheronian artifacts they possessed.

The morning was hazy and noisy, as the men tried to sleep off the unfortunate side effects of the party and the arena match.Korzetta met Dionysos in the temple of Ishtar and made him a very interesting offer, that would have more significance than either could even guess…

Session V: To Sail a River of Blood and Slaughter
An peaceful cruise downstream...

The river barge floated downstream towards Kordova, carrying the quickly bored Nemedians onboard. The journey would take a week or so, as the ship had to anchor each night. The barge was transporting tin bars to the sea harbour downstream, her crew and captain happy to accept passengers for some extra coin.

During the first days of the trip, the Nemedians just let the days slip by, engaging in petty gambling and chatting. More out of boredom than true necessity, they started taking part in the night watches. The children stayed silent and closed, yet Alcemides was determined to take care of their well-being. Onboard, Thothmekri told a bit about himself and his past. He had been a street urchin and a thief, untill a burglary went wrong and he was caught. Instead of a gruesome execution he was taken as an apprentice and servant to a powerful wizard. In a few years, he had become the unnamed sorcerer’s assistant and spy in the World beyond Stygia. It seemed that the Stygian enjoyed his role as a proxy of some powerful master in shadowy games of espionage.

On the fourth night of the trip, Tyrus was sitting on the deck as a night sentry when he heard cries of help from the shore. An obviously female voice screamed for help, before being suddenly cut off. Sentries among the crew heard the cries as well, going to wake the captain. He decided that the trouble on the shore was not his problem. Worse yet, it could be some sort of trap by river pirates. Tyrus was not happy with that and instead went to wake up Noam and Barathus, explaining them the situation. They decided to take one of the ships rowboats and go to check the shore, something the captain grudgingly agreed to. They reasoned that Alcemides and Dionysos would not be interested in the plight of a stranger and went on their excursion without waking the two other Nemedians or the Stygian.

As they beached the boat, the trio almost immediately spotted a fire on top of a hill nearby. Against the flames three silhouettes could be seen, clearly visible in the dark night. Tyrus and Noam went sneaking ahead, Barathus following behind them in his brigandine. On the hill seemed to be a camp some sort, with three rough looking men with wild beards and dirty clothes sitting on logs. On the ground was laying a woman in colorful robes, tied and gagged with ropes. The three Nemedians decided to attack without a warning, making short work of the (apparent) bandits.

As they returned to the boat, carrying the gagged and tied woman with them, shadowy shapes followed. Just as they had started rowing towards the ship, crossbow bolts started raining after the men. Instead of rowing to safety, Barathus intimidated the others to turn the boat and return to the beach, setting himself in the front with his shield up. As they reached the beach, the three men and the wardog started giving a chase to elusive, ragged forms, of which some seemed to be women. The frustrating skirmish in the dark forest seemed to carry on and on, although they managed to incapacitate at least one of the attackers. Finally the three decided to retreat, instead of hunting bandits all night long and risking getting lost in unfamiliar terrain. Meanwhile, the sounds of battle had woken up everyone aboard the ship.

As the trio finally returned onboard, the woman was freed from her restraints. Untied, she turned out to be a stunning Shemite beauty. The woman explained that she was a priestess of Ishtar, who had been enjoying the hospitality of a local baron. As she went to the local woods to look for herbs, she was attacked by bandits. Only through sheer luck she managed to escape for a moment later on to shout for help when she saw the lights of the ship. She was not very fond of the baron however, and made it clear she would prefer to journey to Kordova with the boat. The captain was glad to grant her that request. Her presence seems to have an electrifying effect on all the men, and the captain invited her to reside in his personal cabin.

The next few days passed by as before, although the priestess wandering through the decks always caught the attention of the crewmembers and the Nemedians alike. It seemed she sought out the ones easiest to manipulate and then extracted information out of them – something that became obvious only later. The third night before arriving at Kordova the priestess announced that at midnight, a special ritual for Ishtar would take place. All of the group, except Thothmekri and Noam, made sure they were on the main deck as the midnight came closer. As the priestess started dancing, wearing only transparent silk, they forgot the absence of their friends – as well as the fact that no crewmembers seem to be in sight anywhere.

Suddenly Alcemides noticed that something seemed to be wrong. There were rope ladders set against the sides of the ship. Just as he started moving towards them, there was a glint of moonlight on steel and the first of the attackers jumped on the deck. Soon the “priestess” was on him, fighting barehanded like a devil and pricking his skin with a ring, armed with a hidden needle coated with poison.

A brutal combat ensued on the deck, which was soon slippery from blood. Attackers armed with cutlasses and arming swords swarmed over the sides, while the treacherous woman seemed as dangerous with her bare hands and feet as an armed man. Luckily, the noise awoke Noam and Thothmekri, who charged into the fray straight from their hammocks. Finally, Dionysos was reduced to a desperate measure, releasing his arcane energy in a shockwave of death, killing foes and Noam’s faithful warhound. As the remaining aggressors started to withdraw towards their boats, Alcemides and Barathus jumped on the other boat straight from the deck. At the same time Noam peppered fleeing enemies with arrows. As the bloody night was finally over, blood and corpses covered the deck. A few floated in the river, with arrows in their backs, including the corpse of the treacherous woman. Only a few attackers had managed to flee. Yet the Nemedians were badly wounded as well, especially Alcemides, who had become paralyzed by the poison coursing in his veins.

As the wounded were tended to and the fallen inspected, it became obvious that all of the crewmembers were missing. A quick search of the ship revealed that they were all unconscious, from a sleeping draught slipped in the wine barrels. The passengers had been saved from that fate, as they preferred to consume their own rations instead of what the sailors had to offer. The bloodied men were facing a new temptation. As the wounded, exhausted Dionysos said with a rasping voice, they could just slit the throats of the sleeping men and steal the whole ship. Surely it would net them a princely sum of gold and silver.

Session IV: Bloody silver and broken noses
Fighting for coin, Zingaran style

The men and two children moved onward, leaving the mummified horses behind. The loot from the mysterious chest was inspected and removed, after which they buried the stone container in the ground. There was no point in dragging such a heavy object along, even if it was valuable. They could come back to retrieve it later, perhaps. After a while, Alcemides and Noam managed to convince Thothmekri that the corpse of the sorceress would need to be gutted if they were planning to transport it with them. After some persuasion, the Stygian agreed and went on to perform the grim business with Alcemides.

The wide valley turned back in to a mountain passage. Cold rain erupted from the sky, soaking the group. In the coming days it turned in to sleet and then to snow. The Journey onward in the mud was far from easy, especially when the Nemedians had no proper winter clothing. Finally, as the snow turned back to sleet again, a ruined fort came in sight, marking the border of Zingara. The promise of civilization nearby lifted their spirits, and the group camped in the crumbling fortress. Tracks inside the walls told that the Zingaran mercenaries had come the same way a few days earlier, along with their Nemedian prisoners.

Pressing ahead, the travellers set their foot on Zingaran soil, once beautiful but now ravaged by the vicious civil war. During the days that followed, they saw signs of past prosperity everywhere around them. Once lush orchards and fields had been left untended for years, farmhouses were looted and villages burned. Finally, they arrived at the fortified town of Jerida, built on the bank of the Black River. The town had seen better days and it was surrounded by a pitiful refugee camp. Even with its crumbling walls and hordes of beggars it was still a welcome sight. The thought of a warm meal, soft beds and perhaps a drink or two was on the mind of everyone, even the enigmatic Stygian.

Pushing their way through the ragged beggars preying outside the city gates, the men agreed to hold on to their Acheronian tresures untill they reached Kordova. They had some silver to spend, but the jewelry and strange coins would only attract unwanted attention. Besides, the sorry state of the town seem to tell that they’d fetch a miserable price for their treasure here. The group set up in the local inn, then went off to see what the town had to offer for them.

A few days of heavy drinking and relaxation ensured. Eventually the men ended up watching the violent entertainment of a local arena. A drunken thought lead to another and soon enough Alcemides had signed up in the unarmed amateur fighting. Alcemides won his fight, earning a few silvers and cheers from the crowd. Next morning the men started planning the journey ahead. They decided to sell their horses and buy a passage with a river boat downstream to Kordova with the money. The ship, Hawk of Kordova, would leave in five days, so they’d have time to enjoy the joys of civilization for a bit longer.

A few days and many punches later, the arena life seemed pretty good for the Nemedians. Alcemides and Noam had both their share of bruises and punches in the arena, earning more silver to drink through bets and participation prices alike. Indeed, for men with less ambition, living as an arena fighter might have been a good life. With good luck in betting, throwing and receiving a few punches was after all worth enough money to spend two days in drunken revelry – not to mention gaining a name among the ladies.

On their last day at Jerida before the ship was bound to leave, the men decided to bet large amounts of silver on the arena. Alcemides, Noam, Barathus and even Thothmekri decided to fight in the hopes of earning more money for new equipment and travel costs. Through both luck and skill, all four won, earning considerable amount of coin through well-placed bets. Despite their best judgement, an evening of hilarity followed as the victors were drawn in to celebrating their success.

Later in the evening, things started getting out of hand. Dionysos provoked a local mercenary with his arrogant behaviour, punches were exchanged and soon the whole drinking den was turned into one merry barfight. Stools were flying, tankards used as weapons and even a whole table thrown against another brawler. When the city watch entered the scene, half a dozen unconscious men littered the floor. Only the verbal talent of Barathus, the least drunk of the merry group, along with the exchange of a hefty sum of silver prevented the guard sergeant from hauling off Dionysos and a few others off to the jail. Next morning, only throbbing headaches reminded of the fray – and the discovery that the Zingaran prisoner had managed escape with a pouch of silver while the men were drinking themselves senseless.

Morbid and silent, the men boarded the ship, Hawk of Korduva, greeted by the captain. Barathus had asked around after the missing prisoner and found out that he had been sighted in the harbour with some local lowlives. The mercenary knew of the treasures the traveller carried – it was possible, even likely, that the journey to Korduva would not be entirely peaceful.

Session III: The Forgotten God
If you make a bet with a Pict, be prepared for the consequences...

The morning was misty and silent. Thothmekri claimed that he had seen dreams of the time he was enslaved and now knew that the sorceress resided in some sort of tomb or temple, beneath the earth. The men ate breakfast in grim silence, mounted their steeds and prepared for the hunt. Alcemides and Noam set forth early to look for tracks, while the others stayed behind, scavening anything useful they could still find and turning the great hall into a funeral pyre for the dead villagers.

Alcemides and Noam followed the tracks, till they suddenly turned into animal tracks leading up towards the mountains. They waited there for the others, who left the village a few hours later. Together, the group set out to follow the tracks. As the path become steeper, the fog became thicker. Slowly, all sounds of life ceased and the horses started getting nervous. Some of the group heard malevolent whispering in the mists – too silent to hear words or meanings, but loud enough to make the spine crawl with cold fear of the unnatural.

Soon the trail turned in to a steep mountain path, too dangerous to ride. The men decided to leave the horses, children and the prisoner down while they would proceed ahead. The children were given poniards for self-defence and Noam left his warhound to protect and guard them. The thick fog made climbing the mountain path slow and tedious. Finally it ended on a small outcropping, where an entrance to a dark cave was visible. In the stone wall next to it was attached ancient bronze circles and to them tied two ragged, unkempt horses and the black stallion. The stallion seemed unruly and aggressive, so the men just crept on.

The cave was dark and the warriors proceeded carefully, their way lit by lanterns. The cavern seemed natural, continuing a short while downward before widening. There was evidence of digging – discarded tools lying about and a wall breached, opening into a gaping void. Apperentally the hole in the wall opened in the ceiling of a room with walls of worked stone and a floor full of sarcophagi. Soon enough all five were on the floor of the room, having descended there with a rope.

The room seemed to be an ancient burial chamber, now desecrated. Old bones were scattered about the room. Everything from walls to the ceiling was made of purple, almost crimson stone decorated with uncomfortable geometric designs. At the other end of the room were huge double doors, apparentally made of bronze. Tyrus and Dionysos deciphered the engravings on the door as a text stating the place to be a crypt and a temple, where an ancient Acheronian lord named Bhaal Xorat is set to “eternally guard the entrance to N’Kai”. Pressing onwards, the men arrived in a small corridor leading into a very large room. It was empty save for a hole in the floor with the likeness of a well, except no water was visible. Dropping a torch down it made it appear to be hundreds of feet deep – and the insides of the tunnel were decorated as well. The light of their lantern cast uncomfortable shadows on the strange architecture, giving the alien carvings a life of their own.

Carefully, the men proceeded to a staircase leading downwards. Now they heard chanting ahead, lead by a female voice. Alcemides sneaked to a door that was slightly ajar, spying ahead a room with an altar stone or a sarcophagus in a middle, the pale sorceress chanting near it, her back to the door. An attack plan was quickly formulated and Alcemides slowly opened the door… only to get hit by a greatsword, as an armoured Acheronian was standing in wait beside the door.

A fight ensued, a clash of steel and bone and fists. Thothmekri managed to knock his prey unconscious while the others fought with guards of the sorceress. Barathus and Dionysos were struck down, the other badly wounded – one of the Acheronians was left standing alone and yet almost defeated the brave group, enduring strikes that should have felled the man many times over. Finally a strong spear thrust by Thothmekri to his spine made the pale man fall, silently, without a sound – just like he had fought. It seemed they had won. The wounded were tended to and the area inspected. The altar was not an altar at all, but a huge sarcophagus, engraved with wicked runes and eldtrich symbols. In its open embrace was laid a skeleton of a very tall man, still draped in the remnants of rich robes and plentiful bronze jewelry. Around his neck was a bronze collar, identical to the one that Thothmekri had been forced to wear. In his empty eyesockets were two red gems, gleaming in the shadowy light.

Tyrus pried the gems off the skull, while Dionysos and Thothmekri started deciphering the runes on the sarcophagus. The collar of the corpse was as well removed. It seemed that the man lying in the sarcophagus was Bhaal Xorat, named as a traitor in the runes – cursed manyfold for untold sins and set in the chamber to guard the entrance to the temple of a great god, to wait the awakening of the deity in damnation. So powerful and wicked were the words that they might have made those faint of heart to shake in fear. Yet it seemed that there was a stairway in the room, leading downwards – two Acheronians had bursted up the stairs to join the combat. It was agreed that the badly wounded Dionysos and Barathus would stay behind to rest and guard the sorceress, while the other four men would descend the stairs.

The four men crept down the spiral stairs, which seemed to last forever. There was an unspeakable stench in the air, growing stronger by every step, faintly resembling that of a rotting corpse. Finally the stairs seemed to reach the bottom, leading to a corridor, and beyond that, a huge temple. Rows of stone benches lined the walls, enough to hold a hundred in some solemn ceremony. A huge brazier hung from the wall, it’s flame burning sickly green. Across the room was a huge statue of some forgotten god – a creature with toadlike features, squat and alien, like a twisted imitation of a human, covered with something that looked like short fur. Before the strange idol was a twenty feet wide pool of black, jelly-like liquid. On both sides of the statue was a doorway leading somewhere deeper inside the earth. The men stopped, looking at each other, then advanced slowly. When they came closer to the pool, the dark substance started to bubble viciously. They backed off and the bubbling ceased.

Finally, a jest lead in to another and soon Tyrus and Alcimedes were each claiming that the other would not dare to run across the room. Finally, when Tyrus bet 12 silver that Alcemides would not dare to do a such thing, the half-pict agreed. The other three men stayed back as he sprinted ahead. As he neared the pool it first bubbled – and then started moving. Tentacles and maws were growing from it, as it flowed from the basin, black as night and formless, some unnamed horror from times forgotten by men. They were all taken by a great terror – Thothmekri, Alchimedes, Tyrus and Noam, all four – terrified like hunted animals. Perhaps it was some racial memory from the time when the World was young, telling them to run and not look back.

They ran up the stairs and continued on, by their surprised comrades. Cursing, Dionysos and Barathus limped after their fellows, dragging the sorceress along. They did not know what the others had seen, but the look of horror on their faces was enough. They ran and clambered down the rope with the strength provided by pure terror. The Oothers continued on but some morbid curiosity made Tyrus stay back, on the edge of the cliff to see if something would come to the room below. It did not take long of him to run after the others.

They took the two horses, but didnt bother with the black stallion, as it was aggressive and would have required concentration. At the base of the cliff the four men who had been at the cavern forced the others to jump in their saddles and ride as fast as they could. The four of them all agreed that they would have to get as far as possible from the cave before darkness fell. They galloped like all the devils of Hell were on their tails and who knows – maybe they were.

Finally when darkness started creeping on them, Barathus made the others listen to reason. He convinced them that it would be better use the remaining light to find a good, defensible camp site in case something would come after than, rather than rush ahead in darkness. A camp was set up in the fog and this time, guards would do their duty in pairs.

Night crept on. As Dionysos and Noam were on the watch after midnight, the horses started getting restless. The warhound started growling at the darkness, although nothing was heard or seen by the sentries. Dionysos went to wake the other, but some dark slumber had taken over them. Barathus and Tyrus were awakened after much kicking and punching, but the others had been drawn to dark dreams that would not let their grasp loosen. The four men huddled together, drawing their weapons – and then they saw it, a tall, gaunt figure in the mist, walking towards them.

Terrible coldness fell upon them, all four. Dionysos, Noam and Alcemides fell at its grasp, collapsing as if dead. It was a large jagged rock that saved Tyrus and Barathus from the same fate – as they fell, they hit their heads against it, the sharp pain returning them to their senses. Seeing the gaunt figure approach they fled, sensing sorcery in the air. Barathus, seeing the sorceress tied on the ground, slit her throat with his dagger, hoping it to drive the apparition away. But alas, it was of no use and so the two half-naked men fled in to the dark forest, soon getting lost and leaving their comrades to their fates.

Morning came – first morning and then midday. Barathus and Tyrus wandered the woods, finally finding out where they were and heading back towards the camp. Back in the camp, the others awakened. They had seen dark nightmares they did not remember much of and were covered with frost, but were otherwise unharmed. In the middle of the camp site was a large chest, made of purple, almost crimson stone. Inspection revealed that it contained strange jewelry and black globes made of glass – and a silver mirror, decorated with snakes. It was Dionysos who said it aloud first – perhaps Bhaal Xorat was grateful to them, for some reason, perhaps they had released it from its servitude.

As the two missing men returned, the situation was assessed in detail. Tyrus noticed that the gems he had taken from the skull of Bhaal Xorat had turned to a fine dust. Barathus explained that the murder of the sorceress had been caused by sorcery, his hand forced by black magics. Thothmekri was furious at the loss at his prey – but then made a new offer. If the corpse of the woman could be transported to Kordova, he would pay half of the agreed sum as a reward. Strangely, two horses were missing. Alcemides and Noam followed their tracks a little while away from the camp, where they found the corpses. Two mummified remains of horses laid there, withered and dry, as if all liquids had been sucked from their bodies.