The Ruins of Auromia - Session One: The Mysterious Patron

The great teeming city of Kymaiopoli sat upon the western shore of southern Tirenia, in the shadow of Muntagna Flegree. It was there, one hot day in midsummer, that a small group of people gathered in the upstairs room of a taverna that need not be named for a curious purpose. The first of those gathered was a nameless merchant-man, whose Sahelian heritage was clear from his dusky skin and gentle accent. He had set out the posters around town looking for those who possessed an unusual skill-set and were willing to undergo considerable risk on his behalf for great remuneration. He had paid for the room, and for the refreshments: seasonal fruit, cheeses, and the local flatbread baked with olive oil, with sweet golden wine to drink.

The others present had come to answer his advertisement, and were stranger still. There was a dirty-looking young man with only one arm, with a name in an unrecognizable foreign language. "Nico?" asked another, stumbling over the unfamiliar name. "Noke," the young man gently corrected him. Another wore a hood, from which a piercing blue light shone. This was 'Accluso,' obviously a pseudonym, for who would be called 'Enclosed'? But under the hood, he wore a peculiar melted metal mask. It looked like it had once been a Vanzenian carnevale mask, and it was what shone with that peculiar light. A third was Indovinello - "Call me Dova!", a tufty-eared Cat-Person with black-spotted brown fur, who talked gregariously to anyone and everyone. Finally, a standoffish young woman in fine if somewhat worn clothes: her name was Ilaria.

After the guests had eaten, their new employer spoke. Whoever this man was, he was clearly highly educated. He did not introduce himself, for he wanted to remain anonymous at this time, but he told those assembled that he was looking for capable people to perform a potentially long and highly dangerous task for him. However, the pay would be commensurate with the danger: ten ducats as a down-payment, and another thousand upon the mission's successful completion. There might also be other, non-monetary compensation.  Dova asked about the hypothetical possibility of a scholar achieving academic tenure, and the man laughed and said that it was certainly hypothetically possible. He also stressed that betrayal would be unwise, while a good performance could lead to further opportunities in the future. The man also asked those assembled to introduce themselves, and summarize their special skills. Noke had some command of natural magics, and an affinity with animals; Dova was a university professor with dubious habits; Accluso was a vigilante fighting a one-man war against the Benevoli crime syndicate; Ilaria was a con-artist and self-taught wizard.

It certainly sounded very profitable, but very dangerous from how the man was talking. A few men and women departed, until only four remained: Accluso, Dova, Ilaria, and Noke. Now the Sahelian merchant passed around four small leather pouches with the promised ducats, and spoke in more detail about the errand that he wished them to perform. Nearly three hundred miles to the north lay the city of Auromia. Once it had been the heart of the gold dragons' world-spanning empire; then, the centre of the Salvationist church. Now it lay largely abandoned - and who knew what secrets were still hidden there? To begin with, he wanted the four mercenaries to  go to Auromia and report back to him about the current state of affairs there. Then they would receive further orders. He passed a cameo locket to Ilaria and asked the fledgling stregona what she made of it. Opening her senses, Ilaria saw the flow and eddies of aether in the room, and how they knotted around Accluso's strange mask, the locket, and the patron himself. The locket, she explained, would allow communication between itself and a second locket. What she did not say until later was how the employer was disguised by illusion, and possessed from afar with enchantment magics. This man could actually be anyone under his illusory mask, and he was not even their patron - their true employer was somewhere else. Clearly this was someone who was even more secretive and mysterious than they had realized!

Once the meeting had finished, Accluso and Noke were keen to leave Kymaiopoli as soon as possible, for they were in trouble with the Benevoli. Fortunately, they soon found a merchant carrack bound for Staglia that agreed to take them north along the coast. With the wind behind it, the ship soon made good time. The four had to work while they were on the ship, but Noke managed to unnerve the crew when he began to talk to dolphins that were following the ship, and they were soon given a wide berth. On the second day, the land off the starboard side changed from low mountains to marshlands, and the dolphins departed. The four spent this time getting to know each other. After all, they might be spending quite some time together! That night, everyone shared a strange dream. They dreamed of an ancient and decaying city, overgrown with lush, alien foliage. Strange birds sang in the trees, and beasts moved through the foliage. There was a large four-legged animal in the forest as well, and it was watching them. The dream was at once exciting and unsettling, save for Noke, who was more in touch with the natural rhythms of the world. To him it felt false, like gaudy makeup hiding a hideous face.

The next morning, the crew were even more upset than before - the adventurers overheard them saying that if the passengers weren't getting put ashore that day, then they'd be tossed overboard and good riddance to them! The ship soon anchored in an ancient, long-ruined harbour, and then the four faced the long hike inland. It took the best part of a day, following the course of the Albula River, but finally they reached the outskirts of Auromia. The city was vast, ancient, and virtually abandoned. A few suspicious-eyed faces stared at them from cracked and decaying buildings. One tenement had collapsed, and its rubble lay across the street: no one had bothered to repair it. But they were somewhat relieved that there was no sign of the strange forest from their dreams.

Suddenly a cheerful voice greeted them. A dirty-faced but attractive young woman came towards them and introduced herself as Pia. Pia was an personable local looking to attach herself to travellers in order to make a few coins, and she told them about the city. This was Baraccopoli, a slum city outside the walls of old Auromia. The citizens had been driven out by the forest that had engulfed the heart of the city six months ago, during the time of a rare lunar convergence. No one had seen the forest growing, but it spread with unnatural rapidity, until it stopped at the walls. She then took them to the Cigno, the inn servicing the few travelers - even in these days there were still travelers, mostly religious pilgrims, though they did not stay for very long when they saw the state of the city.

The Cigno was the largest and best-maintained building in Baraccopoli: the publican, Ignazio, was the settlement's de-facto leader. His partner, whose exotic features betrayed some ancient fairy blood in him, was friendlier. His name was Valentino, and he brought them some food and arranged their accommodation. He also explained his role in the local economy: he bought whatever ancient Auromian relics (or trash) people managed to find, and sold them on to pilgrims or to the peddler Claudio who came by every month. He offered to sell Accluso, Dova, Ilaria and Noke some drugs that he claimed would protect them from dreaming of the forest - those who didn't take them were prone to wandering into the ancient city and never being seen again. The group were not interested; nor did they take up his offer of 'insurance' - dragging their bodies out and seeing that they got a good Salvationist burial if he ever found their corpses in the city. But Dova was keen to see what artifacts the man had, and he agreed to show them what salvage he currently had available. He left them with their drinks, while the group considered their next move. Had their patron somehow known that the forest would be there? What would his next instructions be? One thing they were sure about: before long, they would have to face the unknown perils of the otherworldly forest.

Image: 'Portrait of an African Man.' Jan Mostaert, c. 1525.


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