Serpents in the Sands
|Into the lost tombs and endless deserts of Stygia the adventurers trek. Their goal, a forgotten artifact of the god Ibis, the same god whose religion the Stygians expelled from their lands generations ago.|
The Oasis of Manithlal
Tullweim took a long drink from his water bag and wiped the seemingly endless stream of sweat from his brow. The Aesir could not fathom how anybody could live as the nomads do in the desert wastes of Shem. From the looks of Grimnir, the fellow Asgardian who traveled with them, and his wolf, Tullweim was not alone in these thoughts. But mounted on his horse in a sea of desert with no other signs of life as far as he could gaze, there was little else to do. Xacksmith chuckled at the sight of the two sun baked northmen, though even he frowned at how light his supply of water felt. The Hyrkanian asked how Tullweim always seemed to get him into a situation like this. The Aesir answered that he had not forced Xacksmith’s hand to ready his mount when they left Argos. But the barbarian could not help but remember the events which had sent the three of them into these badlands. It started with a farewell to a friend Tullweim would have died for, followed by the separation of a long-time ally he no longer trusted.
The Aesir remembered the day clearly. It had only taken few weeks for the riches and women given for saving Argos’ king to feel trite and transitory. Cuana had left the group, saying he could no longer stomach Dhak’s vile company. Tullweim was nursing an aching crown owed to one last night of drinking with his Cimmerian friend, when a servant informed him of a visitor. The Argossean man presented to him was not what the Aesir was expecting. The man introduced himself as Saevio, a follower of Ibis, and wished to hire the adventurers. Tullweim told the Argossean he would rouse his companions, or what was left of them. Grimnir and Xacksmith came out of their quarters looking similarly in pain from a night of revelry. Dhak, however, remained in his chambers. Tullweim didn’t have the will to force the Stygian to hear whatever Saevio had to say and told the Argossean to speak his matter anyhow.
Saevio told of a priest of Ibis, Ishlan, who had traveled into the deserts of Shem seeking the lost city of Kaetta. The city was an abandoned ruin for 150 years and legend had it the people of Kaetta had incurred the wrath of the immortals. Others claimed Stygian sorcerers were enraged at a Mitran temple so close to their ‘holy’ land. Whatever the case, the great city was destroyed and the people with it. Merchant and caravan routes were changed over time to avoid the cursed city and it was there Ishlan braved to uncover a sacred relic of his god. But Saevio fretted for his friend’s safety as he traveled so close to the River Styx and offered the adventurers a large sum of gems and silver to find and protect Ishlan. All who heard the Argossean’s tale were interested, whether by a lust for adventure or the rewards offered. The three agreed and Tullweim said Dhak would accompany them as well. Saevio thanked them and left to allow the adventurers time to prepare for travel.
Later the same day, Grimnir, Tullweim and Xacksmith were ready to leave the city of Messantia but Dhak had still not risen from his chambers. Tullweim pounded on the Stygian’s door but no answer came. When the Aesir opened the door he found all of Dhak’s items gone and the room laid bare, save a note. It read, “It is time our paths part,” signed, Dhakometri. Xacksmith, ran back into the house the adventurers had borrowed from a thankful noble when he heard furniture breaking. After the Aesir was calmed down and the Hyrkanian was informed of Dhak’s leaving, they both agreed they should convince Cuana to rejoin them. However, this was a pitiless endeavor as the Cimmerian had not said where he was going and seemed to not want to be found. Tracking Cuana down keeping the diminished party from their own task was also on their minds. They left word with the servant to send Cuana to Saevio if the young Argossean saw him, and traveled for a month on horse back into the merciless wastes.
The party’s mood was full of melancholy enhanced by their parched throats and weathered skin. Tullweim cursed Xacksmith for being right about not being able to wear metal armor in the desert, but thanked the gods for the lighter load his leather armor gave. After several days of hard riding across the savannahs of Shem and the desert bordering the River Styx, the adventurers saw a scattering of trees. As they kicked their mounts closer to the haven they could see the remains of ancient outbuildings and way shelters, half covered by the desert sands. Between the shimmering waves of swelter, several white tents were seen and the braying of camels heard. The adventurers dismounted and led their horses to the oasis when 4 men, armed with scimitars and spears, stepped from behind the trees. All of the men were dressed in desert robes and kaftans, and appeared to be of Shemitish descent.
The largest man advanced and spoke in Shemitish, which only Xacksmith understood. The man introduced himself as Barouz, a trader from Shushan and told of he and his son’s caravan being waylaid by bandits. They were forced to flee into the desert to avoid being murdered. Barouz then said the gods smiled on he and his sons as he recalled the old tales his father had spoke of. Of an oasis near the dead city of Kaetta which they risked the burning deserts in hopes the stories were true. The Shemite continued, saying they’d been at the oasis for the last 6 days and were planning on leaving soon. Barouz welcomed the adventurers into his camp as long as they meant he and his sons no ill. Xacksmith relayed all he was told and Tullweim nodded his head, and told the Hyrkanian to say, the only thing he cared to do at the moment was drink the water and lay in the shade, but they would gladly escort Barouz back to Shushan after they’d finished their business. Barouz responded with a large smile and exaggerated salutation and told his sons to lead the party’s horses to the cool water.
As the day ebbed on, Tullweim and Xacksmith basked in the oasis lazily. Grimnir went to an isolated spot and wove sorcerous arts to know all which lived around him. He sensed only himself, his friends, the traders, and various natural flora and fauna in the desert. While the shaman continued his ritual the others noticed peculiar things about the camp. Not seeing Barouz, nor his sons when Grimnir returned, the Aesir and Hyrkanian signaled the shaman to meet on the far side of the oasis from the camp. When they felt hidden, Xacksmith spoke of his belief Barouz’s camp was more permanent than just 6 days. Tullweim nodded in agreement and spoke of the foul odor which occasionally blew through the camp with the desert breezes. All 3 men had smelled the pungence but none knew the source. They decided to confront Barouz about these oddities, but when they returned to the camp in the last rays of the sun they found no one else there. No fire was lit and the trader’s camels were still harnessed to trees. Tullweim and Xacksmith searched as they could in the dwindling light while Grimnir lit a fire. As the sun set and the lengthy shadows crept across the desert dunes, the only human tracks found around the camp were from when the party had first entered the oasis. Several animal prints seemed to leave the oasis but those were ignored by the adventurers as they could not belong to a man. It seemed as if the desert sands themselves swallowed any track or trace of the Shemite and his sons.
Unknowing what became of their host, the adventurers cooked a meal from Barouz’s wares beneath a waxing moon. Xacksmith took a torch into the Shemite’s tent and thoroughly searched for anything unusual, but found naught but clothes and personal affects. With their bellies full and nothing left to do the party divided the night into watches with Xacksmith at the first, then Tullweim, then Grimnir. When his watch ended, the Hyrkanian roused the Aesir barbarian out of Barouz’s tent then went to one of the other tents to sleep. Tullweim put on his armor and stoically watched the fire with his greatsword across his lap. It was at the midnight hour the Aesir noticed the gleam of red eyes in the faint illumination beyond the fire’s light. He rose and called out an alarm as 4 hyenas charged snarling. The hyenas bit Tullweim’s legs and drug him to the ground. The barbarian’s sword swings were clumsy while prone and he could not land a hit on the largest hyena which seemed to laugh at his attempts. Tullweim cried out in agony from the snapping jaws which ripped and tore at his flesh. Grimnir and Xacksmith arose and quickly gathered their weapons.
The Aesir shaman charged with his war sword and ordered his wolf to attack. The wolf bit one of the smaller hyenas but could not bring it down. Grimnir swung at the largest feral beast but it dodged his every blow. Xacksmith entered the fray with his arming sword and shield drawn, striking one of the smaller hyenas. The hyena the Hyrkanian hit turned and clamped its fangs down upon his leg. The beast then yanked the leg from beneath Xacksmith and the thief fell to the ground atop Tullweim. The other hyenas continued to rip at the Aesir barbarian’s struggling form. The Hyrkanian tumbled out of reach of the beasts and Tullweim attempted to rise. The hyenas flashed their snarling maws and each bit once again. But despite his grievous injuries none could bring the Aesir down once more. Grimnir shifted his focus to one of the smaller hyenas and slashed twice. The shaman swore when the downed beast altered into one of Barouz’s sons before his eyes.
Tullweim shouted at the largest hyena, “We have slain one of your sons Barouz. We shall slay you all!” The barbarian swung twice at one of the two smaller hyenas and Xacksmith finished it off, shuddering when it morphed into its human form. Grimnir’s wolf bit into the neck of the remaining son and the shaman delivered a slash which tore the beasts snout from its head. The adventurers then turned to the remaining were-hyena. Tullwein’s legs were unsteady and Barouz slammed into him with a vicious snarl. The were-hyena could not topple the Aesir though and Tullweim responded with an arcing slice which cut deep. The were-hyena bloodily withdrew from the combat and ran out into the dimly illuminated dunes. The barbarian fell to his knees declaring his watch over and Grimnir did what he could to bind Tullweim’s wounds.
The next day, the Aesir barbarian refused to leave his bedroll, saying he needed to recover at least some of his vitality before moving on. Grimnir tended to Tullweim while Xacksmith went out into the desert to uncover the source of the foul smell which still wafted into the oasis. The Hyrkanian traveled to an outcropping of stones about a mile from the camp where he found the source of the strange smell. Many human bodies laid in various states of decay and was obviously Barouz’s storage for whatever travelers he killed. The thief searched the bodies but found nothing but bloody remains and tattered clothes. He knew the trader must have done something with the dead traveler’s belongings and ran back to the oasis. Xacksmith tore into Barouz’s tent again, spending an hour searching. Finally, the Hyrkanian uncovered a strongbox buried under the tent floor. Xacksmith examined the lockbox and saw a poison needle trap built into the receptacles’ lid. The thief disabled the trap then put his picks to the lock. A satisfying click was heard and the box opened revealing a collection of valuables and trinkets. 155 gold pieces of various mints, 246 silver pieces, 2 jeweled talismans of ancient Zamoran design covered in spider images, 3 gold necklaces, 22 semi-precious stones, 3 rare stones, 2 jeweled daggers with gold scabbards, a dark blue robe made of Khitain silk, a set of thieves tools made in Arenjun, and one onyx prayer statue of Derketo.
The Dead City of Kaetta
After 2 days of rest Tullweim was well enough to travel. The road was struck again and the ascent up to the dead city of Kaetta was free of trouble. A large ruined city was seen in the distance. Very few buildings still stood and most appeared to be hollow shells of brick and mortar which creaked and moaned in the wind. A broken, cobblestone path is all that remained of the city’s main thoroughfare. As the adventurers moved through the winding city streets, they all noticed that many of the alleyways and paths were pitted with cracks and holes. Grimnir guessed the entire plateau was unstable and possibly hollow. Xacksmith noticed a small wisp of smoke coming from a partially intact two-story building near the heart of the city. As they approached the building, several men armed with crossbows came out of hiding and shouted, “stand where you are and make no quick move or you shall be slain!” A tanned, 6-foot tall, middle-aged man, who appeared to be of Nemedian blood with a shaven head and no facial hair, moved forward and asked in Shemitish, “What do you in the dead city of Kaetta and by whose order do you it?”
Tullweim responded in Nemedian and spoke of the adventurers mission. The middle-aged man smiled at the Aesir’s words and opened his arms in welcome. “Lower your weapons. Our blessed god, Ibis, has sent us aid through my ally Saevio! I am Ishlan, servant of Ibis and seeker of what is lost. Come into our camp, my friends, humble that it may be, and slake the thirst and dusts of travel.” The party followed Ishlan as their horses were taken by some of the priest’s men. Water was passed and the Nemedian related the tale of how he came to be in Kaetta. He told of the long journey from Numalia to the merciless deserts of Shem. The harried riding through the heat, the parched lips with little in the way to abate them, the bandits who chased them from haven to haven was expected and prepared for as well as could be.
Ishlan’s voice took on an ominous tone, “And then we arrived to the dead city of Kaetta to begin our quest in earnest. Despite the legends, I do not believe this decrepit city was destroyed by gods or some vengeful sorcerers. I declare the city was built upon the remains of an ancient fissure or tear in the earth which had nothing to do with magic but was formed from the aged ground beneath us. Kaetta’s prosperous growth was actually its downfall. And with its fall, too fell the temple of Ibis which tales place in Kaetta over 150 years ago. It is in the temple I’ve risked all to find, to bring back…” An ear-splitting roar interrupted Ishlan’s story, startling the man and the camp followers. The Nemedian immediately jumped up and ran to the nearest window. His men made their way downstairs with their weapons drawn, as a man’s scream was heard from outside, followed by the resounding roar of a lion. The party was not slow to act and beat Ishlan’s men outside. The men gathered around a grisly carcass of what used to be one of the priests followers.
The priest of Ibis said words for his dead follower and told his followers to prepare a burial site. He then turned to the party and said since arriving in the ruins over three weeks ago, their camp had been attacked every three or four days by a lion, though none of Ishlan’s men had seen the beast. Ishlan was sure it was a lion attacking them from its roar and the claw marks on its victims. The camp had been too busy searching and excavating the dead city to hunt the rogue lion down. Tullweim offered himself to hunt the beast with Grimnir and Xacksmith agreeing to do the same. The party set to tracking and traces were found which lead towards the western part of the ruined city. Eventually, the tracks ended at the remains of what was once a tall and ancient tower. The debris, even after a century of decay, remained in a large pile about thirty feet tall to the top, its stones and masonry still showed sharp and clear edges.
The lord of the lair leapt down from the highest part of the pile. It was no lion which roared its hatred at the adventurers but a creature of nightmares and lunacy, with the body of a lion, the wings of a giant bat, and the head of a wild man. Its tail sported several large, sharpened spikes, and stood straight up swaying before the party in a threatening manner. The tail launched 6 spikes with a sound like many darts blown from reeds. 2 sailed through the air at each of the adventurers. Tullweim and Xacksmith were both struck and could feel the venom violating their blood, but both were able to overcome the poisonous filth and all charged. Grimnir advanced with his sword and shield raised and struck the beast a vicious blow. The shaman’s wolf followed suit and bit one of the fiend’s legs. Xacksmith flanked the creature and plunged his arming sword into the monster’s side. Tullweim then brought his greatsword to bear and his blade bit deep. The monster was quickly being overpowered by man’s fury and naked steel and its wings lifted it into the air. All three adventurer’s were able to get a parting shot in before the beast left their reach.
In the air, the manticore flew clumsily and roared, snapping its tail again. Grimnir deflected both spines with his shield and Tullweim’s armor absorbed the puncture meant for his flesh. Xacksmith was struck but fate allowed him to once again ignore the venom. The Hyrkanian pulled out his bow and fired at the creature but missed with both shots. Grimnir and Tullweim sheathed their weapons and scaled the large pile of rubble to reach their foe. The beast fired once more and Xacksmith was again hit. The Hyrkanian grit his teeth and unleashed a volley of arrows at the fiend, this time 1 found purchase in the beast’s hide. Grimnir and Tullweim continued their ascent as the manticore dove towards Xacksmith raking its claws across the Hyrkanian’s back. Tullweim leapt from the rubble and unsheathed his greatsword in the air, bringing it down upon the creatures neck, removing its head and showering Xacksmith in a spray of crimson.
Tullweim planned to take both the body and head back to Ishlan’s camp and it was decided they would mend their wounds there. Xacksmith searched the rubble for anything of value and found a cache of 45 silver pieces, 34 bronze trade pieces, a silvered mirror with gold trim, a broken rod with a gargoyle figurine on top, and a blank journal of elephant hide with 36 vellum pages. The adventurers figured the creature had likely collected the items from past victims and the 2 barbarians lugged the carcass back to the camp. Ishlan and his men were aghast at the site of the creature and he begged the men-at-arms to drag it out of sight. Afterwards, the priest of Ibis opened the last remaining bottle of wine he had carried with him from Nemedia. Ishlan told of how he’d been saving the wine for when the Staff of Ibis was uncovered, but felt the day’s victory deserved it. The party gladly partook of the food and wine offered and the night was filled with lies and songs.
The Lost Temple of Ibis
The next day, Grimnir again wove his arts to learn of all the creatures which inhabited the ruins. He sensed himself, his companions, Ishlan and his men, and various lizards and vermin. He also read the presence of hundreds, nay thousands of something he could not identify. Whatever they were, they did not live, and were gathered in a great multitude beneath the city. On the fourth day after the adventurers arrival, close to the noon hour, Ishlan rushed to the party in a state of great excitement, “Arise…huff…arise my friends! A lost…huff…temple has been uncovered! And beneath it…huff…must be the temple of Ibis. Come, lend me your aid in digging out the ruins.” The party rose and gathered picks and shovels to assist the excavation. 2 laborious days passed when an old staircase was uncovered. Ishlan insisted he be the first to descend the stair into what was once a holy place of Ibis but found resistance from Xacksmith. The priest stressed he must step first and the Hyrkanian compromised, stating he and his fellows would be right behind Ishlan. The priest smiled and said of course the adventurers should join him in this most holiest of moments.
Xacksmith held a torch as the party walked down the darkened stairs. A strange, sulfurous smell assaulted their senses when they neared the bottom. The torchlight revealed a ruined basement and Xacksmith noticed wisps of smoke emanating from cracks in the floor. The Hyrkanian leaned over to investigate the smoke and almost fell over from the miasma which struck him. Tullweim ordered everyone back up the stairs and said he would look about the basement. Ishlan did not wish to leave but relented when Tullweim stated he wasn’t asking. The Aesir searched the room for an hour, but his great fortitude never succumbed to the nauseating vapors. Tullweim cried out in success when he discovered a secret door triggered by one of the torch sconces which opened into another chamber. His companions rushed back into the room and Ishlan called out for equipment to be brought down and for his men to hold their breath while in the first room. Xacksmith said the men should stay at the stairs to ensure no surprise from without and the party would aid Ishlan in the temple.
The temple chamber was large and the walls extended far past the torches light. The room was littered with rock and other debris and several large cracks were seen snaking across the floor. Ishlan immediately ran to a section of the wall, where several wooden shelves could be seen buried under earth and stone. The adventurers moved the largest pieces of debris and the priest gathered several ancient books and tomes in various stages of decay. Ishlan encouraged everyone to continue clearing the rubble in an attempt to salvage as much of the ancient lore they could. Several minutes into their work, Grimnir saw the fiends he sensed days earlier. Creatures which were once men but had died and somehow still moved, crawled out of the crevasses with slow, methodical motions. Despite the horror of the blasphemous creatures, the shaman noticed the dead were dressed in different kinds of clothing and accoutrements from any Shemite he’d seen. He guessed they were the perished citizens of Kaetta and raised his voice in alarm.
Those who Delve in the Dark
Ishlan cried out triumphantly in the gloom and held up an ancient tome unearthed from over a century of debris. Xacksmith held his torch closer to the opening in the floor the priest of Ibis was rummaging through, when he heard movement coming from a nearby tear in the earth. In the same moment, 10 yards away Grimnir bellowed a battle shout which thunderously echoed in the fallen temple beneath the sands. Tullweim spun pantherishly at the Aesir shaman’s alarm and witnessed Grimnir and his wolf, surrounded in the dim torchlight by shambling horrors dressed in the decrepit tatters of men. The northern soldier was held fast from aiding his friend by skeletal arms which rose from one of the open maws snaking throughout the hidden temple’s floor. Xacksmith swore, shoved the lit torch into Ishlan’s already full hands, and drew his arming sword.
The Hyrkanian borderer tumbled past emerging arms, drew his large shield as he stood, and shoved his blade through the gullet of one of the horrors. Grimnir slashed his war sword across the gut of one of the risen dead as his wolf drug another down to the broken temple floor. The Aesir barbarian swung his two-handed greatsword in his crimson mist, like a pendulum of devastation, lopping off arms of bone, and kicked the still moving carcass back into the darkened abyss. But for every shambling terror which was stilled, 4 more rose from the cracked earth’s crust to threaten all who lived. Grimnir was quickly surrounded by groping shapes who yearned to add him to their army of corpses. The Aesir shaman bellowed again and struck one of the denizens of the dark, shearing bone from raked flesh. But those horrors which surrounded Grimnir struck in retaliation, bony caresses of death and hatred lacerated the northman’s hide. The shaman’s wolf was also in dire straits as the risen dead the beast had brought to the ground grappled the wolf. And with 5 unliving terrors assaulting it, Grimnir’s wolf let out an agonized, dying yelp, pulling long strands of withered flesh in its teeth from one of the creatures as another delivered it a mortal blow.
Grimnir cried out in fury and grief as he lashed out at all around, uncaring of any risk to himself. Xacksmith tumbled as close to the shaman as he could and swung his blade, calling for his friend to come to him. Tullweim flung his sword to and fro, but could not thin the advancing horde, as Ishlan cowered with his back to the wall behind the Aesir. The towering Nordheimer took waves of gashes from the groping arms of the dead but held. The priest of Ibis cried out in pain as he was slammed into the broken wall by another of the undead beasts which emerged from the ground. Tullweim called for his sword brothers to fall onto him. If nothing else the fighting men would have their backs to the wall and at least one direction would be free from assault. Xacksmith cleared the way to Grimnir and had to pull the shaman back to Tullweim as Grimnir bellowed his anguish and swung again and again at the horrors surrounding him. Finally, the 3 warriors were pressed tight against the wall. All possible exits were closed in by the ranks of the unliving. The warriors panted heavily as their swords flashed in the torchlight and their enemy approached, in seemingly endless waves.
None of the adventurers could tell how long they held the encroaching dark at bay. They could not advance through the host and knew their arms would eventually give to tiredness. With the thoughts of a last stand plaguing their minds, the 3 fighting men were resigned to their fate, but would take as many horrors screaming back to hell with them as they could. As the risen pressed again a barbarous cry was heard from the secret door into the temple. Though even Xacksmith’s cat-like eyes could not pierce the shroud of darkness, the Hyrkanian knew the shout well. Cuana could not witness the specifics of the peril his friends were in, but he could see them in the torch light Ishlan held, and knew it was there he must go. Flashing eyes from the creatures in the dark threatened the Cimmerian. Several times Cuana was struck by cold, unyielding hands as he ran, drawing blood as the barbarian’s flesh was scored, threatening to overwhelm his resolve and send him fleeing in panic. Instead, Cuana went into a fighting madness and fell into the mass of unholy fiends, cutting an arcing swath before him.
Cuana roared as he struck, over and over, again and again. The risen dead fell before the Cimmerian’s blade and his trapped companions surged forth from the wall. From all directions the fiends came, wave after wave, clutching, grabbing, their putrid claws seeking out flesh, grasping at weapons, trying to wrench them from the adventurer’s hands as they kept coming, inexorably, their strength lying in their overwhelming numbers. Ishlan cried out in pain as he was struck another nasty blow, staggering him and threatening to plunge the room into utter blackness as the torch wavered in his grasp. The Hyrkanian shouted, urging the party to fall into a formation where they could fight their way back to the room’s entrance while protecting the priest of Ibis and all he carried. The men-at-arms took up the task immediately, the two Nordheimers leading the way, with Xacksmith and Cuana covering their retreat.
As blades ripped through one shambling abomination after another, releasing nauseating clouds of dust, more would take their place, moaning, and scraping their way across the dusty floor. Inch by inch, the party fought their way across the chamber. Tullweim pushed through the horrors while Cuana waded among them, cleaving into five at a time, over and over. The creatures fell, more took their place, and then those fell too. The adventurers were bleeding from a score of wounds where taloned hands had raked flesh, scoring multiple gashes from which rivulets of blood ran freely down battered limbs. Finally, the party was able to gain the doorway and escaped the chamber. One at a time, back into the room of gaseous fumes and flickering torchlight the adventurers fled. Once inside, Xacksmith closed the door, the pounding and scratching from the other side a clear indication that the undead had not yet given up their onslaught.
The party pressed up the stairway, past the questioning workers, and back into the the blessed sunlight. Shouting for aid in their task and working for the next hour, the adventurers pushed the surrounding rubble back into the stairway, preventing the fiends from reaching the surface. Staggering back toward the encampment, the party rested for a few moments. Grimnir and Xacksmith staunched some of the more grievous wounds suffered and the rest of the day was spent catching up on recent events and introductions. Tullweim and Xacksmith were glad to have their Cimmerian ally with them again and Cuana felt as if he was back where he belonged. Grimnir was in a sullen mood full of melancholy and sang a dirge for his fallen companion. After the Cimmerian barbarian was caught up on what the party was doing in the ruins of Kaetta in Shem and the Aesir shaman’s pained heart was cooled, the camp was readied for nightfall.
Later that night, Ishlan jumped with excitement from his reading through of the recovered books. “I have found a passage relating to the missing artifact of Ibis! The Staff of Ibis is mentioned within this ancient text!” The Nemedian’s demeanor quickly changes from excitement to sadness. “But…woe be unto me! The tale tells of the staff being stolen by an ancient Stygian lord who called himself, ‘Hepthnon.’ But perhaps our time has not been ill spent. I know of ruins by the same name, which lay just across the River Styx, not more than three days travel from Kaetta. But that may as well be on the other side of the world for followers of Ibis such as myself. If we were found in Stygia we would be unspeakably tortured at the hands of the priests of Set. Though you have already done much for my cause, may I charge you with this most important task? To cross into Stygia, uncover the ruins of Hepthnon and return with the Staff of Ibis?”
The party was reluctant to further their dealings in the wastes as they were hired only to return Ishlan to Messantia. Sensing the unease in the adventurers, the priest brought forth a brown bag and poured its contents unto the floor. The bag contained several uncut opals which glittered in the firelight. Ishlan informed the party he’d planned to take the sack back to Nemedia for the temple coffers; however, he believed the Staff of Ibis to be worth far more and would be willing to trade the bag of gems for its return. Xacksmith quickly appraised the gems and nodded approvingly. Tullweim agreed to the priest’s task and Ishlan called on his men to gather 7 days of food and water for he insisted the adventurers leave with the dawn. The priest of Ibis told the party that on the morrow they should follow the lost road out of the southern part of the city into the desert wastes.
The Ancient Bridge of Nebheth
A day and a half into their journey the adventurers reached the green marshland which borders the River Styx, the natural outskirt of the country of sorcerous villainy, Stygia. The party was within two miles of the bridge of Nebheth when they saw a large dust cloud in the distance, coming from the west. The keen-eyed Hyrkanian, Xacksmith, observed 2 chariots and many horseman, moving at high speed toward the bridge. Though the borderer could see a standard flying, he could not make out its colors in the thick dust. Tullweim, Grimnir, and Cuana recognized they were vastly outnumbered, and agreed the adventurers should speed across the bridge, rather than let the oncoming host with unknown intentions, meet them. And so, the 4 horses pressed to the bridge of Nebheth.
The bridge of Nebheth was of ancient design and appeared to be in poor repair. The ancient overpass was made of sun cracked wood and frayed hemp rope, and sat only inches above the surface of the water. Despite this, Tullweim and Xacksmith spurred their horses over the worn planks. Cuana rushed after his comrades but his horse stumbled with the sound of snapping wood and the Cimmerian was cast into the river. As the barbarian gathered his wits and swam back to the bridge, Cuana heard a large splash and saw his horse attacked by a giant crocodile, 20 feet long from snout to tail. The reptile’s maws crunched the bones of Cuana’s mount with a spray of crimson as the Cimmerian doubled his effort to reach the bridge. But not satisfied with a single horse, the reptile thrashed its tail and slammed onto the bridge. Planks gave way and the violence of the beasts’ collision caused Grimnir’s mount to rear and throw its rider. Cuana narrowly avoided the giant creature’s snapping jaw as he reached out a hand to the Aesir. Amid the sounds of breaking wood, another horse’s screams and snapping bones, the two men fled to the tottering bridge.
Tullweim and Xacksmith met the drenched Cimmerian and Aesir as they made their way to the river’s edge. As soon as the adventurers crossed onto shore, Tullweim slashed his greatsword, cutting the large, frayed support ropes in twain, plummeting the disabled bridge into the water. Now there was no easy way for whatever men pursued the party to cross the River Styx. Though the thought of no easy path to return to Shem was also on the adventurer’s minds. But that was a problem for another day and another path across the Styx would undoubtedly be found. The pressing issue for the party then was with two of their mounts becoming food for a giant crocodile, Tullweim and Xacksmith had to share their horses. Reluctantly, the Aesir soldier and Hyrkanian borderer helped their friends upon their mounts and pushed into Stygia. Another full day of travel passed in the brutal heat which rose from the seemingly endless sands. Always on the horizon were mirages of quenching water, but no cool drink was to be found.
The Ruins of Hepthnon
Riding for another half day, a series of worn statues and columns rising from the sands were spotted. Most of the architecture and designs of the ruins appeared to date back to ancient Stygian culture. Many of the columns were carved in the shape of river reeds that had been bundled together; however, some bore the likeness of serpents. Though the columns had remnants of ancient text adorned on them, none in the party could read it. A thorough search of the ruins went underway and a large crack on the side of the main ruins, half buried beneath the sands, was found. The crack appeared to be large enough to allow any of the party to pass through and the tomb within was pitch black. Xacksmith lit a torch and the adventurers descended into the gloom one after the other in single file, as the torch’s light was whipped back and forth by the desert winds which blew into the ancient catacomb. Many different piles of bones lined the walls of the tomb and various alcoves along the passageway. Ancient writings and artwork depicted Stygian warriors and slaves at work building Hepthnon’s final resting place. Priests and sorcerers were shown intoning dark prayers and casting powerful spells over Hepthnon’s tomb. Amidst the grim imagery, a large set of stairs descended to the level below.
As the party made their way further into the tomb, the wind faded and the darkness became more ominous. Echoing sounds were heard coming from all directions and shadows seemed to move of their own accord. Another level was descended and several braziers set along the wall lit up on their own in a surprising flash of light. Weapons were drawn and knowing looks were exchanged with a tense readiness for action. The increased illumination revealed several large paintings of serpents, ruling over men; enslaving and consuming them by the thousands. At the end of the stairs a large set of wooden doors bound with bronze fittings and studs loomed before the party. Xacksmith set his lockpicks to the task, but the lock proved too difficult for even the Hyrkanian’s practiced hand. With finesse failing, brute force was enacted as Cuana and Tullwiem slammed themselves into the door. The northmen dashed their mighty thews into the door again and again until the wood gave and the ancient precipice gaped open.
The broken door led into a square room, 50 feet from one wall to the next with 2 rows of columns running the length of the chamber. But the adventurer’s eyes were all cast at the center of the room where a creature with the upper body of an attractive Stygian woman and the lower body of a large black panther snarled furiously. The sight of the horror would have caused lesser men to quake in their sandals or flee for their lives, but Cuana and Tullweim entered into a crimson mist of fury as Grimnir and Xacksmith readied their weapons. A jeweled dagger was threateningly waved in one hand and bared claws flashed in the other as the abomination roared in an archaic dialect of the Stygian tongue, “Who dares enter Hepthnon the Great’s tomb? Grave robbers, no doubt. Come and have your flesh flayed for decoration of my loves’ resting place!” Without hesitation, Cuana and Tullweim bellowed war-cries and charged. The Cimmerian’s greatsword shorn through the creatures flesh causing the beast to shriek and grab onto Cuana’s face. The barbarian felt addled by the loathesome creature’s touch, his head grew heavy and his sight went dim. As Cuana attempted to recover Xacksmith thrust his arming sword, piercing the horror’s side, and Tullweim delivered a blow of massive damage with his blade. Another shriek pierced through the chamber as the beast’s human head rolled along the floor and its four-legged body crumpled.
Before the she-beast’s death rattle finished reverberating in the chamber walls, the sarcophagus in an alcove recessed into the tomb’s far wall flew open, revealing its occupant. At first glance the man rising before the party looked to be a large Stygian, dressed in ancient armor and wielding a wickedly cut battleaxe. But as the man gazed upon the adventurers his unsettling differences were noticed. The man’s tongue was forked, his teeth terminated in points, and scaly patches of dark green covered his body. The snake-man blinked at the corpse of the headless melding of panther and woman and hissed in fury, “Sasshia! Noooo! You men shall die a thousand deaths for this blasphemous deed!” With a surge of hatred for the abomination standing before him, Cuana assailed Hepthnon with 2 slicing arcs of savagery. The dread Stygian leveled a steely gaze, reached into his robes and flung a pinch of tomb dust at the Cimmerian, who deftly dodged the powder. Hepthnon roared, reached into the same pouch a second time and hurled the dust full into Cuana’s face. The Cimmerian barbarian’s vision was robbed from him and he again swung his greatsword, but cleaved naught but air.
With a leaping charge, Tullweim slashed twice at Hepthnon’s gut. The first was dodged by the Stygian, the second carving slice opened a gaping wound in the imposing figure’s side. Xacksmith and Grimnir both attacked as well, but the wounded terror avoided both the arming and war sword sent against him. Still blinded, Cuana swung clumsily at the Stygian, his blade again finding purchase in the terror’s hide. Hepthnon roared and attempted to sunder the weapon Cuana held. Sparks flew as the Stygian swung his battleaxe into the barbarian’s sword with all his might, intent on breaking the weapon struck. But it was not to be, as the Cimmerian’s Akbitanan greatsword survived the assault. Tullweim then sent his greatsword swathing through the air, splitting Hepthnon’s head like a ripe melon. The barbarians allowed their frenzy to cool as Grimnir splashed water onto Cuana’s eyes and Xacksmith began looking about the chamber.
Several large urns, wooden chests, and leather sacks laid scattered about Hepthnon’s tomb. Most of the containers overflowed with trinkets and baubles of various makes and sizes. Many of the items were found to be made of clay, wood, and papyrus which disintegrated upon touch. After an hour of searching an object was uncovered and believed to be the Staff of Ibis the adventurers sought. The staff appeared to be very ancient with peculiar markings carved up and down the four-foot length of petrified wood in a language none in the party could decipher. The staff was topped with what appeared to be an image of the god Ibis, its great feathers open and wide as its beak pointed skyward. Tullweim handled the staff and noted the heft with which he could swing it. Xacksmith wished to continue searching the tomb as many of the chests had been untouched, but the Aesir soldier did not wish to tarry, lest some other horror make itself known. In the end it was decided Cuana should carry the staff for the return journey back into Shem.
A half day was ridden north towards the River Styx with no incident until a shroud of thickly flying dust covered the land. A sandstorm, the likes of which had not been seen in Stygia for over a century, stretched for miles upon the horizon. Within minutes of first spotting it, the storm blew on top of the party. Driving sand crept under the adventurer’s leather armor and sandals, relentlessly chafing skin, clogging nostrils, and blinding sight. There was no shelter among the blowing sand dunes and Tullweim called to press through. For many hours the sand storm gushed violently around them. The horses gave under the extreme conditions and were left to die in the vortex. And still the party pushed on, their indomitable endurance allowing them to weather the storm, but unknowing which direction they traveled.