Perilous Gateways

The Winding Serpent

By James Wyatt

The Black Jungles

Any ship floating in the midst of the Lapal Sea is surrounded by jungles: the Black Jungles to the west and the Mhair Jungles to the east. Cool breezes blow over the water to break the sun's unforgiving heat and disperse the swarming clouds of gnats and biting insects. The water flows gently toward the Great Sea to the south, fed by four rivers, two originating in the mountains to the north (a spur of the Hazuk range), the other two bubbling up in the midst of the Mhair. The sun glaring overhead and reflecting off the water offers a stunning contrast to the darkness of Skullport, and yuan-ti travelers are generally anxious to take cover in the shade of the jungle.

The Black Jungles were once the heart of a yuan-ti empire, or so their legends say. Around the time of Netheril's collapse, an avatar of Set appeared in the jungles of Chult as a yuan-ti abomination with gargantuan wings. The avatar, called Sseth, forged a nation of serpents that stretched from the Peaks of Flame to the eastern extent of the Mhair Jungles, enslaving the emerging human cultures of the region. This yuan-ti empire, called Serpentes, dominated the Chultan peninsula for several centuries before Sseth disappeared and Serpentes collapsed without his leadership. Scattered remnants of the yuan-ti nobility of Serpentes worked their influence in distant regions: A snake cult that originated in the Shining Plains spread under yuan-ti leadership as far as Calimshan and the Vilhon Reach, while another human tribe moved into the Forest of Wyrms to seek ancient relics of serpentkind and unleashed an ancient curse that transformed them into ophidians.

For centuries, Sseth remained distant from the yuan-ti, and tales say that he lay in a state of torpor while his people struggled to regain their lost power. During the Time of Troubles, Sseth reappeared in the Black Jungles for a time, rousing his clergy and exhorting them to muster their strength in preparation for a time when Serpentes would be reborn.

Now, some thousand years or more since the fall of Serpentes, three yuan-ti tribes struggle for dominance over the Black Jungles. The Eselemas and Jennestas tribes have formed a loose alliance, but the Sesehen tribe remains the largest and most powerful. Its power comes in part from its alliance with the Rundeen trade consortium of Tashalar, exchanging exotic spices and poisons for slaves and a means to transport their spies to ports in the north. Their spies, assassins, and thieves are scattered throughout Faerûn advancing the yuan-ti master plan.

The Sesehen engage in extensive experimentation with the other creatures of the Black Jungles. Their most successful creation is the ti-khana, a sort of crossbreed of serpent and deinonychus.

The Sesehen tribe also derives power from the fact that it controls the Pit of Vipers -- a vast, overgrown stronghold that sprawls on the northwestern shore of the Lapal Sea. Once the capital city of Serpentes and the seat of Sseth's reign, most of the Pit now lies in ruins, covered with jungle undergrowth, though teams of yuan-ti move regularly through the ruins, clearing debris and rebuilding where they can. A central temple area still forms the center of yuan-ti power in the Black Jungles and Mhair. Priests of Sseth -- and most other yuan-ti, regardless of their tribe -- consider the Pit of Vipers the most holy location on the face of Faerûn, and a vast egg chamber, tended by broodguards, lies under its central altar.

In the deep bowels of this temple, another portal links the priests of the Sesehen to their greatest allies, the yuan-ti of Hlondeth. Before the holiest altar of Sseth, where the avatar himself is said to have coiled while he ruled Serpentes, lies a shallow pit full of writhing snakes. In the center of this pit stands a raised dais where no serpent crawls. Inscribed with a mystical pattern formed of snakelike shapes, it is the portal. There is no key. The portal operates 5 rounds after any creature sets foot on the dais. Yuan-ti accessing the portal use that time to assume postures of reverence and respect. When activated, the portal instantly transports all creatures standing on the dais at that instant to an identical temple in Hlondeth. Because the two temples are images of each other, it is difficult to be sure the portal has functioned . . . except for the figure on the altar.

The Winding Serpent