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.