A days travel north of the small village of Wulfricingas our heroes have settled down for the night to sleep; Horesh Komanio their Khemrian death-priest rolls over, fitfully in his sleep and his sleeping mind carries him back down the river of time and memory to an incident that occurred many, many months before.
The southern jungles were hot and sticky, forming a natural boundary between the two seperated nations of Khemri and Stygia and acting as a balwark to prevent all out war erupting again between the two kingdom; from within the tomb cities of Khemri however the Sorceror King's gazed longingly out at the thick expanse of jungle, all that seperated them from forcibly annexing Stygia. The Stygian tribes wanted for nothing more than to cleave to their old ways of being respectful and living with the spirits whereas the Khemrians wished to use the ancient knowledge that their forebears had preserved from the mythical times of the once great Serpent Empire that had ruled the world in the dim and distant past.
A group of six death-priest aspirants hesitantly entered the tomb at the bidding of their master, a senior death-priest called Baufra; they each knew that this test, this trial, would see one of them elevated to the status of a death-priest adept, howeever it would also see those who failed or whose spirits were too weak dead. Horesh ran over the object of the trial in his mind, the group had to enter the Serpent Empire ruin deep within the jungle, only one of them could survive and the victor would emerge bearing the obsidian daggers of a true death priest. Am-Hotep the most headstrong of the group was the first to make it into the ziggurat, running ahead of the others, keen to claim the prize.
Some distance away to the east, on the other side of the jungle expanse, bright, blood red flames danced in the air above a small Stygian village and the crackling of the flames mingled with the screams of the dying; amongst this scene of carnage strode the blood splattered norse warriors of the Timber Wolf clan, their axes and hammers smashing structures and people with little discrimination in their pursuit of plunder. As a large hut collapsed a figure could just be glimpsed dragging a dazed survivor from the ruins, the figure was clad in the same furs as the norse raiders but there was no bloodlust in his eyes only horror and sadness; Ozuchi looked up as he was dragged out of the burning ruins of his village by one of the very same Norsican raiders responsible for destroying it, but he could sense a difference in the barbarian, a dawning realisation or awakening. Pointing at the boundary of the nearby jungle the Norsican shouted "I don't have time to explain, make for the trees, hopefully they'll miss you and come after me?"
"May the spirits bless you" mumbled Ozuchi running towards the trees
"Just go!" shouted the Norsican before turning and charging towards the mob of frenzied warriors emerging from the smoke swinging a large hammer into the first of them; forgetting about the fleeing Stygian the norse warriors attacked Ozuchi's saviour, but the Stygian didn't have time to think about it as he plunged into the forest, swearing to himself that he would not forget his saviours face. Running at his heels Ozuchi's guardian komodo spirit whispered "If it is the will of the spirits then you may yet meet again."
Horesh had been running around inside a ruined jungle ziggurat for what seemed like hours, the words of the death-priest that set him this task seemed to ring in his ears still, "This is one of the ancient tombs, the oldest remnant of the Serpent Empire, if the spirits bless you then you may find your way through this tomb and emerge awakened, if not or your minds are not enlightened enough then you will never emerge from this place."
Occasionally a scream echoed within the ziggurat, but everytime Horesh got to where the sound was coming from he was too late to see what caused it; the ziggurat was a square shaped pyramid with corridors spiralling towards the centre of it, Horesh remembered the old legends of his people about the dire sorceries and traps that the Serpent Empire used to protect their lands from interlopers, perhaps some influence was yet at work on his mind since it felt as though he had been running for days, but that was surely impossible. Horesh was bought out of his reverie by the sound of a scream and a dull thud from just around the corner, moving like a living shadow towards the sound Horesh was is just in time to see a panel in the wall sliding back to conceal an entrance and a pair of legs clad in death-priest robes being pulled into the concealed corridor. Examining the scene Horesh saw a few splatters of blood, running his hands across the panel he began to examine the carving of a great coiled serpent or dragon that adorned it (possibly a depiction of one of the great mythical dragon creator spirits), until his hand roamed over a gemstone forming the eye of the serpent, there was a click as he exerted pressure on it and the stone panel slid upwards, revealing a concealed corridor clogged in dust and cobwebs. Horesh can see a trail in the dust where the body has been dragged, pulling his cloak closer around him the aspirant death-priest hurried into the corridor.
Ozuchi made his way deeper into the jungle, the sound of the massacre fading behind him, he reflected on his knowledge of the Serpent mythology that his tribe had passed down throughout the years about how the once great empire meddled with blasphemous entities or spirits and bought about their own downfall; he eventually arrives at the foot of a large white sandstone ziggurat and stands there admiring it for a moment. Suddenly his warrior instincts cried out and he threw himself to one side as a body fell from the sky and broke upon the ground in the place where he had just been standing. Looking up Ozuchi could see a shadow on top of the ziggurat retreating from view as though someone had hurled the unfortunate person from the top of the stone pyramid; running over to the broken victim Ozuchi could see that the man was not long for the world and was gasping out his last few breaths. Dropping down onto one knee next to the unfortunate person Ozuchi asked "What did this to you?"
Spasmodically the man grabbed Ozuchi's shoulder and whispered the word "Am-Hotep", and then life left his body in a rattling final exhaltation.
Ozuchi's guardian komodo dragon spirit seemed to be sniffing around one of the large stone blocks at the base of the pyramid and, when Ozuchi looked closer, he could see a razor sharp stone spike carved into the slab, it appeared to be stained with dried blood, a carved channel running from the spike down the slab and spiralling towards a small hole in the stone, there was also traces of blood within the carved track. Realising that blood must be the method to open an entrance to the ziggurat Ozuchi shed a couple of drops of his own blood onto the spike, the slab shuddered for a moment but remained still; thinking that perhaps he had't offered enough, but unwilling to risk bleeding himself in the jungle, Ozuchi picked up the body of the deceased death-priest and pushed it onto the spike. As the blood of the death-priest turgidly flowed along the carved channel and into the hole at the centre of the slab it opened with a grinding sound to reveal an entrance to the ziggurat.
Horesh continues=d to explore the cobweb filled corridor within the ziggurat, the light in there started to become very dim but the death-priest was able to rely on his excellent night-vision to help him, but eventually he is forced to feel along the walls for guidance as the light leaves completely; he suddenly pulls his hand back as he feels the unmistakable contours of a human face below his hand.
"Hello?" asks Horesh, but there is no reply and so, carefully, he begins to examine the figure but is distracted by a slight hissing/rattling sound from further down the corridor; he eventually identifies one of his fellow aspirants (now deceased) who appears to have been mounted on a sharp stone spike protruding from the wall of the corridor. There is a thump as Horesh's examination of the body disturb it and a long-extinguished wooden torch falls from the dead fingers of the deceased priest, thinking to protect himself from potential traps Horesh tears some strips of cloth from the deceased priests robes and wraps them around his hand before scooping up the fallen torch, although he lacks the means to light it, behind him the stone slab slides downwards, trapping him in the corridor. Moving the unlit torch infront of him to guide his movements and ward off threats, Horesh begins to slowly move further down the corridor; from up ahead he hears another hissing sound, but this time he believes it sounds more like gas escaping or some sort of mechanism than a serpent fiend, before he had chance to think on it further there was the sound of footsteps and a dark shape bolted down the corridor towards him, colliding with him.
Untangling himself from the other figure, Horesh looked on the pale face of his fellow aspirant Am-Hotep who looked fearful and panicked; Horesh asked Am-Hotep what he was doing there and whether he'd seen the bodies, "Yes I was with Ra when they took him" replied Am-Hotep
"When who took him?"
"Strange hissing creatures who emerged from the wall and took him like the ancient serpent people of myth" babled Am-Hotep showing Horesh his arm, that bore twin puncture wounds, marring his otherwise white flesh. Horesh explains about the secret door that he had discovered and Am-Hotep relays how he had encountered a number of doors with stone spikes where blood has to be spilt on them in order to open them. The hissing sounds again, getting louder and louder, Am-Hotep starts to panic, shouting about it the serpent people coming for him.
Unexpectedly Am-Hotep suddenly pushes Horesh in the direction of the hissing and runs in the opposite direction screaming "No! Take him! You promised you'd let me live if I gave you the others!" Picking himself up Horesh dashes in pursuit of him and, drawing level, strikes Am-Hotep on the back of the head with his unlit torch, driving the other death-priest to his knees; pulling Am-Hotep up into a head-lock Horesh points his fellow death-priest towards the hissing, walking backwards with him. As they draw close to the closed concealed door that Horesh used to enter this passageway, a shadowed mess rounds the corner and slithers closer towards them, twin points of red light staring out of the darkness; Horesh pulls on his knowledge of the ancient legends and shouts out "Hear me serpent of the ruins, I have with me the pretender who would dare to go against his teachings and make a deal with you."
Am-Hotep screams out "No! You don't want me, you want him!"
"One must die so the other may live" comes a hissing voice from the darkness
"Why must it be this way? asks horesh
"It is the balance, wherever there is life there is death" replies the sibilant voice
"Is there a way that we could resolve this in a fair manner?" asks Horesh
"There is no fair, there is no right or wrong, there is only the choice" comes the response.
A short distance away, Ozuchi has crafted himself a flaming torch and has been exploring the ziggurat for some time; he suspects that some form of sorcery is at work that confuses the mind and makes the dimensions of the pyramid seem far more vast than they actually are. Continuing to move down the passageway Ozuchi's sharp sense suddenly pick up muffling voices and a hissing noice from behind a wall to his left, thinking that there must be a concealed entrance he begins to check the wall carvings until his hand moves across a gemstone studded into the wall, they is a loud scraping sound as the gemstone presses in and a secret door opens.
Light bursts out from behind Horesh as the door creaks upwards and he turns his face away so that the sudden influx of light doesn't ruin his vision, Am-Hotep takes advantage of the distraction and wriggles free of Horesh's grasp; peering into the corridor Ozuchi see the two death-priests struggling as one of them breaks free from the other. Too late Am-hotep skids to a halt just before a patch of darkness, a large reptilian claw reaches out, taking hold of Am-Hotep and pulls him into the shadows, there is a muffled scream that rapidly fades into nothingness; the red-eyed shaped begins to advance on Horesh and Ozuchi, quickly grabbing hold of Horesh, Ozuchi pulls him back through the door as the cowled reptilian creature moves forward. Ozuchi spins around and hurls his torch at the creature that emits a high pitched screaming and retreats backwards into the corridor, the secret door slamming shut behind it. There is no sign of Am-Hotep.
Now out of danger Horesh thanks Ozuchi for saving him from the creature, Ozuchi nods and the two of them enter a brief discussion about whether the creature was some sort of snake spirit or if it was some previously unknown remnant of the Serpent Empire before they continue to explore the pyramid, travelling together since it would appear that the ziggurat is more dangerous than otherwise expected; as Horesh mentions the name Am-Hotep, Ozuchi confirms that Am-Hotep had already slain at least one of the other aspirants.
"He obviously had a weak heart and gave into the darkness of the spirit world" said Ozuchi when Horesh explained a little about the trial that he was undergoing and how Am-Hotep had tried to offer him to the serpent creature. Eventually they enter a small chamber containing the dead body of one of the death-priest aspirants, a pool of blood congealing on the floor around him, Horesh moves to examine the body when one of the flagstones moves under his weight with a clicking sound, he hurls himself backwards just in time to avoid a series of small darts that whizz across the chamber from hidden boltholes, they embed themselves in the wall and, a few moments later, crumble into dust. Picking up a crumbling chunk of masonry Horesh drops it on the rooms flagstones, occasionally triggering the trap, until they establish that there is only a single line of trigger stones stretching across the width of the chamber, both himself and Ozuchi leap over the trigger stones and continue their exploration.
The two south-landers emerge into a huge, tall chamber decorated with crumbling friezes and peeling gold leaf, the central feature of the chamber (lit by a shaft of sunlight bursting through the crumbling roof) is a large clear pool of water, a huge stone serpent statue taking up centre place; littered around and in the pool are the bodies of the remaining death-priests. Cautiously heading over to them Horesh sees that each deceased aspirant bears a set of twin puncture wounds on their bodies, Ozuchi realises that, although only recently dead, the muscles of the dead bodies have seized and locked into strange positions as though they had died spasming in agony; as he counts the bodies, realisation dawns on Horesh that he is the last death-priest aspirant remaining alive and he begins to search the chamber for the item that heralds success in this trial.
Hesitantly Horesh enters the pool and begins to peer at the statue, his eyes widen when he realises that both the snake statues fangs are made of the obsidian blades that he seeks, checking that his hand-wraps are still secure Horesh reaches up for the fangs.
Bursting into life the stone serpent sinks it's fangs into Horesh's arms, he feels a strange, numbness creeping through him from the puncture wounds, with the last of his strength the Khemrian grasps the two obsidian fangs and pulls them from the statue; ignoring the potential peril from the animated statue Ozuchi turns his back on it to minister to his injured companion, pulling some medicinal herbs from his small travelling bag and pushing them into the Khemrian's mouth. Unfortunately with his attention elsewhere, Ozuchi is unable to prevent the huge serpent from wrapping it's coils around him and pulling him away, the Stygian feels his ribs begin to creak and crack, however his medicine has done it's work and Horesh begins to feel some of his strength returning; snatching up the obsidian blades from where they had fallen from his numbed fingers Horesh slices out at the animate statue, severing it's head, the statue reverting to normal stone as it ceases to be animated. Gently, his strength continuing to return, Horesh eases Ozuchi free of the statues, sheathing the two blades and the two of them begin to make their way towards the exit of the ziggurat.
As they leave the ziggurat Ozuchi notices that someone appears to have removed the body that he placed on the spike and there is no sign of it as they emerge into the humid jungle air; the two of them are preparing to make camp when, amidst a rustle of foliage, the blood-soaked figure of the nordic warrior who saved Ozuchi's life staggers out of the trees; the warrior grins lop-sidedly and gasps "I'm glad to see you made it" before collapsing face-forwards infront of them, half a spear sticking out of his back.
Horesh groaned as he opened his eyes, he looked out across the campfire at where Gunnar Kron and Ozuchi were sleeping, their bedrolls next to Lord Wulfric, he remembered well the trial and how he had met Ozuchi and how the medicine man had later healed the injured Kron, he smiled before settling back down to sleep.