The God in the Dark, Part II
After taking note of the empty carts from the caravan, which have been abandoned near the Eastern entrance to the city, our heroes slip inside the building, where they find themselves in a long, featureless hallway that apparently circumnavigates the domed structure. The sun has set and it's very nearly pitch in the hall, so Lukas lights his bullseye lantern to provide illumination. They creep along the hall, alert and ready, until they come to a break in the hall--whether this break was once a door or gate, or whether it is just the result of walls crumbling with age they cannot tell. But the opening leads into a vast city under a dome. The rest of the city, though shadowy and dark, is not as pitch as the hallway, due to gaping holes in the ancient dome, which allow some moon and starlight through.
They send Lukas and Valder, their two most silent, into the city to find somewhere they can set up shop and take stock of their surroundings. The two scouts discover a mostly intact building not too far off, which the group can get to with apparent safety. Upon entering, they discover six bodies, four of which are ancient, dessicated, covered with cobwebs, but two that have been skinned and are still juicy. From a combination of scholarship and prior experience with the Picts, Decimus, Merhotep, and Valder determine that while it's not unheard of for Picts to flay victims, it's exceptionally rare--this would seem to be some sort of warning or ritual-based act.
Once they are set up within the building, they are able to spot three (literal) points of light in the city, and the scouts set off to investigate the nearest; even from their hideout, Merhotep can sense magic from this particular lit building.
The building appears to be a large mead hall, single-story (as are all the intact buildings in the city), and one room, albeit with alcoves in the walls. They peer through the windows to discover a richly furnished hall, with a dozen bodies dressed in finery slumped over lavish couches, chairs, and divans. On the central table a great feast is set out, with glasses full of a strange, golden liquid.
Suddenly, a man staggers from one of the alcoves, moving zombie-like as though in a confused stupor. He makes his way to the table, upends an entire goblet of wine, stumbles to an empty chair, and collapses, apparently dead.
Valder and Lukas creep back and inform the group of what they've seen. The group, not comfortable with entering the building blind, decide to give it a pass and continue on searching for their missing goods and Merhotep's apprentice.
So the group creeps through the city to another darkened building where they hide while Valder and Lukas check out the second of the three lit buildings. This one is a small house, lit by candles, in which a robed figure scribbles in a book at a desk. Suddenly, the figure's head snaps up, he squints into a corner, then gathers up all of his papers and books and flees. Lukas moves around the building to see where the man goes upon exit, when the city is rocked by an unearthly screech. Lukas breaks into a run, and rounds the front of the building to find the man very dead, his face frozen in a look of horror, his skin sheet-white and his books and papers scattered around him. He is splayed on the ground, but there is not a broken bone or wound on him. Lukas looks around and thinks--though he cannot be sure--that he sees a huge shadow gliding off through the city.
Lukas gathers up the papers and book and with Valder in tow heads back to the group's hiding place. The book appears to be a study of the people in the first building. It appears according to the writings that they are not dead, just in an hallucinogenic, delusionary stupor fueled by the golden wine that they drink. The people in the building were here when the Picts first came, and most avoid the building like the plague, assuming it's a source of evil sorcery and witchcraft. The writings talk about how, occasionally, one or more of the people who drink the wine go into panicked frenzies, screaming in terror and lashing out at things that aren't there.
While Merhotep skims the writings, Lukas, Decimus and Lucius climb atop the building to try and get a better vantage point on the city. Looking around, they note several patrols creeping through the city. Each patrol seems to be comprised of six men--five of whom are possessed of a primal terror and one of whom walks head held high, fearless.
They are, however, able to map what seems to be a safe path to the final lit building, an L-shaped structure near the center of the city. As they creep through the city towards the building, they hear wild screaming and panic. A patrol of Picts comes running around the corner straight for the PCs, who quickly duck into an alley to avoid and watch.
The patrol is definitely fleeing from something in a wild panic. Then, it's as if they're simply swallowed up by darkness. The patrol simply vanishes for a minute, and when they reappear, they are all ghost-white and dead with looks of fear frozen on their faces. Worse, the apparent leader of the patrol is a serpent man.
The group deduce that apparently the Picts and their masters aren't welcome here ("or, Merhotep says," they're very welcome and this is basically just a big pantry.")
The group makes it to the L-shaped building, which consists of multiple rooms and enough windows to get them a good look inside. Within, they see two things of note: in one room a girl lounges on a bed, dressed in fine gowns of black and crimson gossamer. She is apparently of the same race as the people sprawled all over the furniture in the first lit Building. The girl seems nervous--every so often she peeks out the door as if expecting someone to come down the hall. On the bedstand is a decanter of the golden wine, 2/3 full, but she does not seem to be under its influence.
They move to another room, down the hall and around the corner, where another scholar works diligently at a book of his own. After a few minutes, he stands, stretches, and leaves the room. The PCs move about the building, looking in windows, until they note the man walking into the room with the girl...
...only the girl is no longer there. The PCs did not see her leave the room or building, and they dash about checking every window (while one stays to watch the man). She is nowhere to be seen.
The man enters the room, fills a goblet with wine, drains it, and in a minute collapses on the bed in a stupor. Lukas takes the opportunity to climb into the man's study through the window, and steal the book. Valder is surprised that he cannot read the writing, with his command of languages, until Merhotep points out that the book is written in ancient Acheronian, a language which only serious scholars of history and the dark arts can decipher. Merhotep can read ancient Acheronian.
The book appears to be a book of religious ceremonies, rotes and rituals (though no spells) for the worship of Yig, an ancient demon of the Outer Dark. Many believe that Yig and Set are one, but Merhotep is convinced this is not the case, and that Set's cult would be greatly threatened by a resurgence of the followers of Yig. Essentially, where Set's cult seeks to dominate through sorcery, Yig's cult seeks to poison and consume.
While Merhotep reads, Lukas climbs in the bedchamber window and steals the caraffe of golden wine.
At their wits' end, the group tries to climb atop this building to see if they can find anything pointing to where their cargo might be, but witnesses only more patrols (and another patrol swallowed up by the darkness). They decide to make for the Eastern entrance, where the carts were abandoned, and see if their trackers can pick up a trail.
They are successful, but find the trail leads back to the L-shaped building. Looking through the windows again, they find the scholar still drugged, but the girl in another room. At last, they decide they have to enter the building and decide to talk to the girl first.
They first send Valder in to try and talk to the girl as he generally, being an entertainer by trade, has a way with people. However, for the second time he encounters a language with which he is not familiar...but Merhotep knows. The girl is speaking ancient Lemurian. In talking with her, she spins an unbelievable tale that the people in the first building are, in fact, ancient Lemurians, kept sustained and healthy by their addiction to the golden wine, which also leaves them in a catatonic stupor. She herself has broken away from the wine, wishing to live a life, but has been forced into hiding since the newcomers (Picts and Serpent Men) arrived. The other man in the L-shaped building is one of the Newcomers (and so the group summarily kills him in his sleep). She tells them that the Serpent Men have a temple complex beneath the city that is accessible from this building. She leads them to a hidden trap door in one of the bedrooms and the descend into the underworld.
At the end of a long, winding passage they find themselves overlooking a courtyard lit by torches, in which humans (all Hyborian race--not Pictish) commingle with Serpent Men. By their language, the group deduces that the humans are from Nemedia. A bit of legerdemain by Merhotep distracts the inhabitants of the courtyard long enough for our heroes to descend the stairs and make off down one of the side passages. After traversing another series of long, winding passageways, they come upon a chamber which holds the cargo they came to retrieve--guarded, of course, by five humans and three serpent men. During the battle, Lukas is poisoned and forced as a last resort to attempt to quaff the golden wine--he takes only a gulp, hoping that a simple swig will not place him into a catatonic dream state, but will sustain him. His hopes are founded and while he ends up lightheaded, off-balance, and has a hard time focusing his senses on any task, he is able to continue to function.
This battle thus won, the group continues their explorations until they come to a bluff overlooking a temple containing a serpent man priest and twelve human cultists. The priest stands between two braziers emitting plumes of black smoke; he is performing a summoning ritual, and there bound to the table is Merhotep's apprentice. Merhotep manages to disable the priest with a spell, and leaps forward to rescue his girl, as the smoke behind the altar seems to solidify, and a giant, nightmarish creature with a humanoid body with vicious clawed hands, the long, winding neck and head of a cobra, and four tentacles writhing at its sides steps forth. Knowing the creature will turn on the priest first, for failing at the sacrifice, Merhotep hurries to free his apprentice.
True to form, the demon-god catches up the Serpent Man, tears him in two, and consumes him. Valder screams to the assembled cultists that their god has turned against them, and six of the twelve flee in terror. The group does battle with the other six, while attempting to stay out of the way of the demon-god. Eventually, the monstrous abberration chases the lone remaining cultist from the room while our heroes take refuge in an alcove.
They wait until all is quiet and emerge to find the city even more wrecked than before. The sun has risen and there are dead bodies everywhere. The girl who showed them the trap door is still alive, having been smart enough to hide, as is Lucius, the guide provided them by Trocero. They agree to take the girl back with them, and after determining that the demon god is gone, they load up their cargo and return to Poitain, where Trocero congratulates them on a job well done, and provides his personal guard to escort them the rest of the way to Tarantia.