Hard Questions for Hard Men
The girl’s scream pierced the dark night as she ran amid the tombstones and dead cultists. All those who had taken Alida had fallen in bloody combat, but the head cultist yet stood despite the arrows jutting from his eye sockets. The girl ran as quick as she could but the tightly packed tombstones slowed her panicked egress. Mighty arms wrapped around her and she kicked and screamed in terror. Alida could barely understand what the man who held her said but he turned her around to face the scene and all who had perished remained still on the ground. Tullweim comforted the attractive young girl while Xacksmith looted the corpses and discovered a small fortune of silver among the 5 cultists. Dhak found a scrap of paper on the head cultist with strange symbols scrawled on it which the sorcerer could not identify. The Stygian contemplated a moment and then asked Cuana to separate the head from the cultist’s body so Dhak could get answers by necromancy in a secure location. The Cimmerian lifted his sword and was poised to deliver the blow when he was stopped by a call to halt.
Up on a nearby hill stood soldiers in the livery of the city watch. The guards came upon the scene and demanded an explanation. Dhak was able to diplomatically pacify the soldiers with the aid of Alida’s tale. She informed the watchmen that she had no idea she was taken or what was to happen to her. She was nabbed from the street by the five men in Asuran robes, bound, gagged, and brought directly to the Delvyn cemetery. The guards decided not to arrest the adventurers but insisted the party accompany them to the guardhouse for further questioning. Once there the party was asked to explain the entirety of the events which occurred that night. Dhak tried to keep any word of the Mitran priest Daphnis from mention, going so far as offering the coin taken from the cultists person. Eventually after telling the tale time and again one of the other sellswords voiced the slain priest’s name. The guards regarded the murder of a Mitran priest as a horrific crime and the tale continued up the chain of command. More and more senior officers heard the story and nearly two hours after being brought in for questioning a man clad in the balckened armor of the Black Dragons, the King’s personal guards, arrived at the guard station. The seasoned soldier informed the party they were released from custody but were ordered to appear at the Chancellory at first light. The adventurers acknowledged the order and returned to their accommodations at the Stag and Whistle for a few hours of much-needed rest.
As dawn broke over the golden city of Tarantia, a rapping at Cuana’s chamber door woke the Cimmerian. A young pageboy, dressed in the livery of the king, introduced himself as Arn and told Cuana that he had been sent by the Chancellor to accompany the band to the Chancellory. Cuana roused the others who filed down the stairs, following the pageboy.
In the morning light the adventurers approached the Chancellory, which was strictly speaking a mansion, but seemed to be designed to withstand a siege. Parapets and crenulations lined the rooftop, and four of Aquilonia’s Black Dragons, stood to attention before the building’s ironbound door. Clad in their trademark blackened armour and horned great helms, they rapped the butts of their spears on the flagstones three times in unison as the party approached, signalling them to halt.
‘The king’s chancellor is expecting us,’ announced Arn, stepping forward. ‘I am to escort these guests to him.’
The quartet of menacing warriors eyed the young man a moment longer before stepping to one side and beckoning the band forward. The Black Dragons relieved the sellswords of their weapons before they followed the pageboy into the Chancellory. Arn led them down a long, columned hall lit by narrow windows high above and through a heavy wooden door at the passageway’s end. The party passed through two large reception rooms before their young guide stopped in front of a well-worn door, flanked on either side by another pair of Black Dragon guards, every bit as regal as those at the front gate. The young pageboy opened the door and gestured for the party to enter.
The room beyond the guarded door was small, its ornate mosaic floor all but hidden beneath a large collection of rugs. One wall hosted a large bookshelf, while the opposite wall contained a wide hearth, on which a low fire smouldered. The room was lit by three tall windows in the wall opposite the door they came through, as well as a brass chandelier laden with candles which hung from the ceiling. Between the bookshelf and the hearth was a long wooden table, eight chairs set about it.
The pageboy bowed briefly and left, closing the door behind him. A moment later, another door, almost hidden by the bookcase, opened and an elderly man in fine clothing walked into the room. A gauntleted hand reached in from behind him and pulled the door closed again.
‘Please take a seat,’ the man said, gesturing to the table.
‘I am Publius, Chancellor of Aquilonia, and I would like to speak to you about last night.’
The party recited their version of what happened once more, often interrupted as Publius asked for more details on a specific incident. The Chancellor dwelt primarily on the words of the dying priest and the particulars of what happened at the Delvyn cemetery. Publius was a patient and careful listener, but was also extremely insightful and very nearly impossible to fool, evidenced by causing Tullweim to slip when calling Dhak by his true name instead of the alias the Stygian had concocted at the guardhouse. The Chancellor was particularly interested in the opinions and insights the adventurers had into the events of the past night. He asked what they thought of the events of the previous evening meant, whether they had any reason to believe Daphnis sought them out after being shot, or if they were simply the first people he stumbled upon and whether they had any knowledge as to the meaning or origin of the symbols found on the Asuran priests. Only after weighing the parties answers did Publius divulge the truths he knew, that the symbols seemed to be markings sacred to the cult of Asura, but there was no indication they had ever been used in such a manner before, certainly not in Tarantia.
‘Very well,’ Publius said once all his questions had been answered. ‘I thank you for your assistance thus far, and would like to impose upon you further, if I may. This is a troublesome business indeed, one that I sense is more complex than it may seem. Where religion is concerned, passions run high – already rumours of last night’s activities in Delvyn are beginning to circulate through other parts of the city, and I fear the rumours will soon become accusations, breeding violence. I must know exactly what is happening, but I sense I would be best served by not making the king’s interest in this matter public, and that precludes my use of more traditional channels of investigation, therefore, I turn to you. I wish you to investigate this incident, discover if there is indeed a deeper truth, and, if possible, resolve this situation before it festers too long. You will, of course, be compensated.’
Cuana asked to be provided with some kind of writ, establishing in writing their authority to investigate this matter, but Publius would not provide it. After all, a large part of his reason for using outsiders to resolve this problem was to keep the government out of it. He offered the adventurers a reward of 1,000 silver pieces if they were able to unravel this mystery to his satisfaction, and was even willing to pay half of it in advance. Dhak then spoke, demanding absolute truth from Publius throughout the investigation. The wise chancellor turned to the Stygian and spoke with a wry smirk on his face, “Of course…Dhak was it? I will deal honestly with you if thou deals true with me.”
After the party agreed to help, Publius identified the arrow that killed Daphnis as one fired by a man named Essenic, an infamous sellsword of Tarantia who could often be found on the Avenue of Roses. With that lead the band was dismissed, recovered their weapons at the door and journeyed once again to the district of brothels, wine, and whores.
Hunting the Hunter
As the party made their way through the streets of the city that day, they heard rumours of what happened the night before – the unholy murder of a Mitran priest and the terrible rites conducted in the public cemetery – were the talk of the town. Most citizens of Tarantia were only then hearing of it, but still, the alternating tones of shock and anger the adventurers heard as they journeyed through the city proved the chancellor right. Finally the band arrived at the Avenue of Roses, a three-acre section of the city which held all but four of Tarantia’s 53 brothels. The party would not call themselves strangers to the interconnected buildings here, at least three stories high, which created a maze of narrow, winding paths. The streets and byways of this region of the city snaked their way between buildings, each filled with those hawking themselves and their wares to passers-by. After an hour of spreading handfills of silver asking eunuch and whore alike about Essenic the adventurers heard that Daphnis’ murderer had gone into the House of Nine Jewels late last night and had not yet left.
Cuana, Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith arrived at the House of Nine Jewels and made themselves comfortable. They seated themselves at the bar and asked the whore attending them of Essenic. She gestured to a blonde Brythunian and said the sellsword was Yarina’s client. Tullweim took the initiative to speak with Yarina while Cuana, Dhak, and Xacksmith stayed at the bar ordering exotic beverages from the women around them. The Aesir inquired of Yarina about Essenic. The whore smiled and informed Tullweim that she charged for talk-jobs. The barbarian returned the smile and said if he must pay he would require her other services as well and placed 10 silver coins into her palm. The Brythunian led Tullweim to a room upstairs to see to business. Though the Aesir enjoyed the interview greatly there was little Yarina could tell him other than Essenic had not stayed the entire night and did not pay her for conversation. The whore then intimated that Essenic was a tall, broad-shouldered man with an unkempt mane of tawny hair, willing to sell his services to anyone with the coin to pay him, and did not care what he was ordered to do. With the business concluded Tullweim returned to his companions and shared the information he had been given. Not wishing to spend the day asking questions of a populace known for despising Stygians, Dhak split from the party to return to the Delvyn cemetery, where he hoped to find the corpse of the Asuran priest to question.
Fortunately for the adventurers, Essenic was not an entirely unknown person in Tarantia. Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith spent several hours and many coins hunting him down. Unfortunately for them the shocked tones of the previous nights events were now gone, replaced by dark threats of violence against the foreign religions and the adventurers had to be cautious with whom they asked information of. The Cimmerian heard a tale of Essenic once killing a man by picking him up by his ankles and flinging him headfirst into a stone wall. Cuana also heard a rumor that the Asurans and their foul sorceries had caused King Conan and Lord Trocero to flee the city. Tullweim learned the sellsword was originally from Shamar but had come to Tarantia a decade prior. The Aesir was then told of children’s bodies, murdered and marked with arcane symbols found inside a locked warehouse in the South Gate Ward of the city in the morning. Xacksmith was informed of Essenic’s wife, Lyness, who worked in the Khorotas Ward outside the city as a laundress. The man who told the Hyrkanian this warned that a number of trade barges plying the Khorotas River between Tarantia and Messantia had vanished recently. Each time, an Asuran funeral boat was spotted heading downriver within hours of the barge’s departure from the docks. With the costly information gained, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith traveled out the South Gate to the Khorotas Ward.
Meanwhile, Dhak had traveled across the city and was up to his elbows digging through the many corpses in a mass grave. The Stygian was aghast at the unceremonious manner the Aquilonians disposed of their dead and even moreso aghast at the stench the open grave held. But the sorcerer pressed on with his gruesome task and at length came across the body of one of the men killed in the cemetery. It was not the priest he’d hoped to find but would suffice. Dhak wove a spell of necromancy and the dead man’s eyes opened in shock. The Stygian put forth his questions, threatening an eternity of decomposing underneath the piles of the dead in complete awareness if the cultist did not answer truthfully. The dead man frightfully answered Dhak’s question without hesitation. The Stygian was able to learn the man’s name was Hegerd and that he was recruited in a tavern called the Weary Road in the North Gate Ward 6 days prior by a man he was certain was an Asuran priest. The Asuran priest did not give a name, but offered the mercenaries 1,000 silver coins to kidnap a random girl, take her to the cemetery and draw certain sigils in blood. The mercenaries had to copy the sigils down as the Asuran would not allow them to take the parchment the priest had brought with him. Hegerd also told the Stygian that he and the others had to acquire the robes they were wearing themselves. Satisfied with the corpses answers Dhak stopped the spell and traveled back to the Stag and Whistle inn.
On the banks of the Khorotas
The Khorotas Ward of Tarantia laid outside the city proper, spread out along the banks of the river from which it took its name. It was home to much of the city’s industry – at least those industries that produced the tremendously unpleasant stench that filled the air there. Docks and jetties projected out into the river from both banks and trade barges came and went at all hours, being loaded and unloaded in a near-constant flurry of activity before leaving to ply their wares up and down the Khorotas River. Many of the barges were marked with the crests of the Messantian merchant houses, whose wealth seemed boundless, and those relatively grand vessels seemed distinctly out of place in this stinking, crowded place, full of warehouses, tenements, unfriendly taverns and the grinding industry.
It did not take long for Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith to find the tiny room on the second floor of a small clapboard tenement where Lyness plied her trade. Great pails of water filled the room as well as piles of soiled clothes. Tullweim stood in the doorway and rapped once on the door. The woman inside was not unattractive but had the weary look of one who labored long hours. She barely looked up at the Aesir, commented on his tattered clothes and explained she charged per garment. Tullweim looked down at his clothes and realized the months of travel and combat had left them in a foul state. He laid a generous amount of silver on a nearby table and stated that he would like his clothing cleaned but he had sought Lyness out in order to reach her husband. It was clear from the moment he mentioned the mercenaries name that Lyness bore little love for her wayward husband. However, she had not seen Essenic in nearly a month, so had little to offer the Aesir other than she knew he wasted much time in a riverfront tavern called The House of Lions. The group decided that Cuana and Xacksmith would check out the tavern while Tullweim waited for his clothes to be washed.
The House of Lions was a single-storey building jutting out onto one of the dozens of docks that lined the banks of the Khorotas River as it passed through this district of Tarantia, built so that half of the building was on land, while the other half hovered over the water, a fitting symbol of the men who made up the majority of its clientele. The tavern was a rowdy place filled with equally rowdy men – river traders, bargemen and dock workers all came to deaden the pains and aches of a day’s toil in a jack of beer. The boisterous tavern offered nothing in the way of entertainment – no minstrels plucked at strings, no girls danced for the hollering crowd. Still, it was loud, and all could hear short snippets of bawdy songs even as one approached the door. Within the taverns gloomy confines, the air was heavy with smoke and thick with the irksome reek of stale sweat, wine and beer. Men gathered about the tavern’s battered tables, playing at dice and calling out cries of victory or anger upon the luck of a single roll. Others hovered about the bar itself, waiting like vultures for a fresh mug before rejoining the revelry. In the centre of the room, one man teetered atop a rickety table, the flash of steel in his hand and the flash of silver in the hands of those about the table as he played a drunken game of mumblety peg. A few heads turned in Cuana and Xacksmith’s direction as they entered, took a cautious look, then turned back to their amusements.
The Cimmerian and Hyrkanian’s eyes scanned a sea of hard, weathered faces, the rough patrons of the House of the Lion, looking for their quarry. Their attention fell on the table in the centre of the room, if for no other reason than the sudden and bloodcurdling scream which rose from it. One of the men playing mumblety peg seemed to have badly misjudged his own skill and had impaled his own foot with his blade. A raucous laugh rose above the screams, emanating mockingly from a tall, broad-shouldered man who scooped a small pile of silver from the table and into a worn leather pouch. Clad in a mail shirt and boasting a mane of unkempt, tawny hair, there was little doubt in Cuana and Xacksmith’s mind this was the man they sought.
Xacksmith walked up to Essenic and offered to take the wounded man’s place at the table as Cuana ordered a stiff drink at the bar. Essenic asked if the Hyrkanian had coin to play and Xacksmith nodded. The drunk with the wounded foot was unceremoniously kicked off his chair as the mercenery invited Xacksmith to go first. The Hyrkanian pulled out the dagger he had pilfered off Galbro so many months ago and threw it at Essenic making a slight cut on the mercenaries’ leg. The mercenary spit vitrol and bile at the Hyrkanian and reached for his greatsword. In an attempt to pacify the situation Cuana offered Essenic the drink which had just been placed in his hand. The mercenery scowled at the Cimmerian, refused the drink, and spat out an insult. Enraged, Cuana smashed the tankard of ale on the mercenaries crown. With a swift motion Essenic drew his greatsword and cleaved deep into Cuana’s side. The Cimmerian reeled from the blow and had to lean against the bar to steady himself. The rest of the patrons went dead silent in anticipation of the killing strike they were sure would follow. They were disappointed as Essenic told the men with him to get the Cimmerian out of his sight and Xacksmith followed as Cuana was cast out the door.
When Dhak arrived at his room in the Stag and Whistle he cast a spell of viewing onto the silver mirror he wore around his neck. There he saw Xacksmith carrying a deeply wounded Cuana into Lyness’ home as Tullweim put his slightly damp tunic back on. The Stygian’s brow furrowed and he followed the vision to his compatriots. He arrived shortly thereafter to find the rest of the party arguing over how to handle Essenic’s capture. Dhak asked for an item belonging to the mercenary and Lyness said she had several. The shrewd woman would not part with it without a price however. Tullweim paid to have a battered and broken helm which Essenic had worn in past battles. Dhak took the helm and viewed it from behind Yag-Kosha’s heart. With the gem the Stygian cast a great curse on Essenic. He then looked to the others and stated they were to aid him in replenishing his sorcerous energy and subdue their weakened prey.
After having subdued a pair of Argossean sailors to refuel the Stygian’s power the adventurers returned to the House of Lions. Cuana, barely held together by the quick stitching Tullweim had given him, decided to remain outside behind a corner. Dhak nodded and told Tullweim and Xacksmith to bring Essenic outside where the Cimmerian and Stygian could surprise the mercenary. Tullweim and Xacksmith entered the tavern and the Hyrkanian pointed out Essenic to the Aesir. Tullweim walked straight to his quarry and grabbed the mercenaries shoulder. Essenic rounded on the Aesir and stood up demanding he take his drunken hand off him or lose it. Tullweim replied that he sought to duel Essenic for the state he had left his Cimmerian companion in. Essenic laughed and accepted with much bravado.
The two warriors stepped outside followed by Xacksmith, the 3 sellswords who had gamed with Essenic, and several of the local drunks who placed bets on the fight. Tullweim drew his weapon as the mercenary did the same but before the battle could begin Xacksmith moved swiftly behind one of Essenic’s men and mercilessly slit his throat. Enraged at the treacherous move the infamous mercenary put all his might behind a wild swing at the Aesir but Tullweim easily side-stepped the clumsy attempt. Essenic swung again and the seasoned warrior was bewildered that his movements seemed slow and off their mark as he missed the barbarian a second time. The sellsword closest to Tullweim had better luck as his broadsword cut through the Aesir’s armor and bit into the flesh underneath. Dhak revealed himself by weaving a necromantic spell to raise the mercenary which Xacksmith had dispatched. The sight of the fallen man standing back up, his throat still spitting blood, caused many of the crowd of onlookers and Essenic’s remaining men to flee in terror. Tullweim’s eyes clouded with rage at seeing the raised corpse and he struck Essenic with 2 vicious blows as Dhak retrieved the Elephant’s Heart from his belt. The Stygian looked through the mystical gem at the sellsword who shrunk to half his size. Essenic screamed in panic and tried to run away as the berserk Aesir brought his gemmed Akbitanan greatsword down carving the still shrinking mercenary in twain. Dhak angrily reprimanded Tullweim and ordered him to pick up the 2 pieces of what had once been their quarry. The Aesir did so and the party fled to a nearby dock before any of the local law enforcement arrived.
Amid the refuse which collected underneath the docks along the Khorotas river the Stygian told Tullweim to hold the 2 halves of the diminutive figure together. The Aesir did so as Dhak attempted to sorcerously breathe life back into the sellsword. The result was a bleeding, warbling abomination without the faculty nor vocal functions to answer any of the adventurers questions. Tullweim cast the monstrosity into the river for the fish to devour as Dhak rubbed his temples to ease the pain their current predicament induced. Finally it was decided the party would return to the Stag and Whistle and renew their efforts in the morrow.
Meeting in Twilight
The sun was just touching the western horizon, colouring the buildings of Tarantia crimson and orange and casting long, thin shadows across the narrow cobbled streets the adventurers had spent the day walking. Their limbs ached and the wounds left by the recent battle with the mercenary Essenic stinging, they found themselves looking forward wistfully to hearth and rest, and perhaps a solid meal and a few skins of ale when a carriage rattled to a stop beside the party and the door swung open. It seemed hearth and rest would have to wait.
A man in his late middle years, clad in the dark robes of a Mitran priest, leaned out of the carriage to beckon the adventurers closer. He was a thickly-built, broad-shouldered man who looked as though he would have made an exceptional warrior, and judging by the crook of his nose, it seemed as if he had been in a fight or two during his life. His head was shaven, but he boasted a neatly trimmed beard of dark, if greying, hair.
‘May I offer you a ride?’ he asked. ‘I would like to speak to you for a few moments, and you have the look of those in need of a rest.’
As they all clambered aboard, he asked the parties destination, called it out to the driver, and waited until the carriage was under way again. ‘I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak to you,’ he continued. ‘My name is Constanus, and, as you may have guessed, I am a priest of the one god Mitra. We were all most distraught to learn of the pious Daphnis’ murder at the hands of the blasphemous Asura worshippers. I understand you were the last to speak to him before he went on to the halls of Mitra?’
During the ride back to the Stag and Whistle, Constanus inquired much regarding what the party heard from Daphnis, what they had discovered during their investigation and what they intended to do next. Dhak took the opportunity to look into Constanus’ soul and found him to be a powerful sorcerer. Tullweim answered many of Constanus questions and Cuana inquired if the adventurers could be allowed to look through Daphnis’ room. Constanus told the Cimmerian that Daphnis was from Nemedia, the room he had occupied was for guests of the Mitraeum and there was naught to find there as the dead priests belongings had already been removed. Cuana explained that he would like to see it still and Constanus again refused stating it was only for Mitran priests to traverse those corridors of the church. The priest claimed to have further evidence that the Asurans were behind Daphnis’ murder but stated he was not yet able to reveal it. The cart finally stopped at the Stag and Whistle and Constanus wished the adventurers luck in bringing the Asurans to justice.
Knives in the Dark
After meals were eaten and copious amounts of ale had been drunk the adventurers retired to their respective quarters to rest their weary heads and forget the days troubles. It was late in the night and the entire inn slumbered when Tullweim was awaken by a stirring in his room. The Aesir opened his eyes to see a shadowy figure enter through the window with a short sword in hand. The barbarian bellowed out with rage as he reached for his greatsword. The would-be assassin slashed into Tullweim’s chest and the Aesir responded by lopping his head off with a single stroke. The others had been roused by Tullweim’s roar, each discovering a slayer in their room. Cuana and Xacksmith were both wounded severely by their attacker’s blades, the Hyrkanian succumbed to the oblivion of unconsciousness while Cuana reached for his weapon. Dhak avoided a lethal strike and unsheathed his ghanata knife which he had previously coated with a poisonous concoction. The Stygian reeled on his attacker and struck a glancing blow which did no great harm to his opponent but allowed the poison access to the assassins veins. The man’s once steady hands trembled and his vision clouded as he feebly attempted to strike Dhak.
Cuana struck at his foe with his sword’s pommel. The assassin deftly avoided the blow and sunk his short sword into the Cimmerian’s shoulder. Tullweim threw open the door to his chambers and noticed other occupants in nearby rooms had been roused by the sounds of battle. The Aesir ignored them and listened for his companions, hearing the sounds of battle from Cuana and Dhak’s rooms but only silence from Xacksmith’s quarters. The barbarian bashed in the door to the Hyrkanian’s room and saw another assassin standing over Xacksmith’s still body. Tullweim charged at the slayer and drove his greatsword straight through the rogue’s gut. Dhak watched with amusement as his opponent’s sight completely left him and blood began to trickle from the rogue’s eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. The wretch attempted one final thrust at the Stygian but his swing went wide and he fell dead to the floor. Dhak looked over his foe and noticed a talisman with an unfamiliar sigil around the assassins neck. The Stygian yanked the talisman free and moved into the hallway as the innkeeper tromped up the stairs demanding to know what was going on. Dhak cast a steely gaze at the innkeeper and told him to return to bed. The man backed away from the stairs and called for the city watch. The only foe yet standing squared off with Cuana. But he too was brought low as the Cimmerian struck him aside the head with a powerful swing of the flat of his greatswords blade.