The Serpent's Path
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Cheap. They got what they paid for. Stav snapped his fingers and opened his palm over and over. What was once practice, had quickly become a nervous tick as they plunged deeper and deeper into the cool, damp blackness below. The flash of sparked embers from his fingertips ignited a small flickering flame in his palm each time. The fire did not burn his skin. He wouldn’t be much of a spark if it did.
Some sparks could engulf their entire bodies in flame, stand in the midst of a swirling inferno, or breathe fire with little more than a deep breath. As rare as sparks were, those who could do any real damage with their abilities were rarer. Their services were so valuable, that they could charge whatever they wanted. Most sparks remained on retainer for wealthy men with powerful enemies.
Stav could do none of those brilliant things. He could ignite a flickering flame in his palm, and so, he was cheap. He had excepted a hot meal and six clipped coppers in exchange for his services. The coins jingled in his otherwise empty purse on his belt with every echoing step down the tunnel.
He followed the broad back directly in front of him deeper and deeper into the mountain. The brick wall of a back belonged to Denir of Bligh. When Stav met him, the man was shockingly smaller than he had expected. The songs and stories of Denir would have the listener believe the man to be larger than a house. Fitting such a large man through these narrow and damp passages would be a challenge in itself, so thankfully, his reputation was exaggerated. The long haft of an axe slapped against his thigh as he walked.
In front of Denir, his sister led the way with her torch out in front. Slevine was the boss. She had cooked up this scheme. She had hired help. She had convinced her massive brother to follow her into the mountain in search of Kravn’s treasury. The ancient emperor conquered half the world and his spoils had yet to be found, leading to rumors of his loot’s resting place. Mounds of gold and silver were told to rest under this mountain; the only place men could not and would not look for it. Traps, steep falls into oblivion, and disorientation had claimed hundreds of would-be plunderers over the century following Emperor Kravn’s death.
The primary obstacle was The Serpent’s Path, which is why Slevine hired a Brineman, half man, half fish. Being able to breathe air or water, a Brineman was essential to discovering the way through the submerged labyrinth.
Stav lit his little fire and turned to glance at the creature. Webbed feet slapped the stone as it walked. Its giant black eyes shimmered in the warm firelight, betraying no expression. Its circular mouth constricted and widened with each breath it gulped. Stav turned forward again, so as not to stare.
The Brineman wasn’t much for conversation anyway. They lacked the equipment for spoken communication. Instead, they communicated by implanting single thoughts into the minds of those they wished to communicate. This was a strange sensation the first time Stav experienced it, but he could always tell the thought was not his. This seemed less intrusive than the alternative. If the thought was disguised as his own, the fish-men would have control over the minds of others. A terrifying thought given the history between the Brinemen and humankind. The two species had fought over coastal territories on and off since the beginning of time.
“Tough buggers,” Denir spoke over his shoulder. “I cut one in half and the wretch still nearly killed me.”
“What did you do?” Stav asked, his whispered voice echoing down the tunnel.
“I cut it into smaller pieces,” Denir said. “Some say, they live for some time after their heads are chopped off.”
Stav had heard these stories too, but he had disregarded them as folklore. After all, a chicken would run around a barnyard after losing its head. He wouldn’t say that chicken was alive.
“Focus,” Slevine hissed from the front. “Keep your mind on each step.”
She waved her torch over something on the floor. Denir swore under his breath as he passed it. As Stav drew closer, he could see that it wasn’t something on the floor, but in it. The stinking corpse of a man had fallen to his waist into a pit of barbed spikes. An expression of excruciating terror was frozen on his shriveled features. This man died slowly, impaled from the bottom, and unable to crawl out because of the hook-shaped barbs.
Snapping his eyes forward again, Stav took extra caution in stepping where Denir stepped. The downward slope turned to spiraling stairs and back to a steep slope as they delved deeper and deeper into the cold mountain. The thought of frigid water crept into his mind. The Serpent’s Path would be nearly freezing. Images of flames all over his body burned the thoughts of cold water away, but this thought was not his own.
He turned again to the Brineman but it appeared no different than it had before. I can’t do that yet, Stav thought, wondering if the thing could hear his thoughts as well. I’ll just have to freeze like the rest of you.
The tunnel opened up into a wide circular chamber. The sound of their footfalls echoed against distant walls. Stav lit his fire and cautiously stepped into the room. On the other side, three passages led away into the darkness. Firelight reflected back at the group from the center passage. Water.
Two coiled serpents carved from stone hung over the flooded doorway. Stav nervously stared down into the still water.
“What about these other passages?” Denir asked.
“Nothing but traps and those unlucky enough to find them,” Slevine said. “This is the only unexplored path. The treasury must be beyond.”
“How can you be so sure it remains unexplored?” Stav asked.
“No one has ever made it out to say otherwise,” she said as a matter of fact.
Slevine turned to the Brineman and nodded. “This is where you come in. Whenever you’re ready.”
The creature dropped a sack on the stone and pulled a thick iron steak from it and a hammer. It placed the tip of the stake in a crack in the floor and struck the stake’s head with the hammer. A piercing clang shook the chamber, causing Stav to cover his ears. The stake hadn’t begun to penetrate the stone floor. Several more painful strikes assaulted the crew’s ears before Denir waved his arms for the Brineman to stop.
“Let me do it,” the big man demanded.
He took the hammer and the stake from the creature and struck four times, sinking the iron deep enough for its purpose. Stav uncovered his ears, but he could still hear little chimes in them.
The Brineman gave Denir a slight nod of gratitude. It pulled a coiled line from the sack and knotted one end around the stake. Without any more delay, the creature dove into the clear water trailing the line behind it.
“Well,” Slevine said. “Now we just wait.”
“How will we know it made it through?” Denir asked.
Slevine said nothing and tapped the side of her skull.
The sound of water in his ears and a cold, wet sensation washed over Stav. Darkness. He shook the thoughts from his head and put his mind to something else.
“Some say Emperor Kravn had supernatural abilities,” Stav said. “Inhuman strength, claws like a bear, life everlasting.”
“Life everlasting,” Denir scoffed. “Where is he now, then?”
“Stories,” Slevine said. “Those he conquered needed an excuse for being thrashed so hard.”
Stav snapped and palmed his flame, passing it to his other hand before extinguishing it.
“Will you be able to do your part on the other side?” Slevine asked. “The torches will be soaked.”
“I’ve prepared something special for the other side,” Stav said. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
The feeling of gasping for air after being underwater for a long time filled Stav’s mind. With it, a sense of dread. The Brineman had been under for so long. There’s no way Stav could hold his breath that long. Surely the fish-man swam in circles trying to find the way.
“The Brineman made it to the other side,” Slevine said. “Get ready to swim.”
Denir dropped his pack, dry firewood spilling out onto the stone floor. They would need that to get dry and warm once they’ve returned. The large man peeled his tunic off, revealing his scarred flesh underneath. Slevine removed her heavy coat and sat down to remove her boots. Stav removed his tunic and slipped four short torches into his belt, the wax that covered the torch heads stuck to his bare skin.
“What are you waiting for?” Slevine asked her brother. “Go on then.”
“I wouldn’t want to go before our fearless leader,” Denir said, turning to Stav. “The glory should be hers, right spark?”
“Absolutely,” Stav said.
“The great Denir of Bligh is afraid of a little water,” she said.
“The water doesn’t frighten me,” he said. “Getting stuck in there and running out of breath does.”
“Fine,” Slevine said, prying her second boot off and rising to her feet.
With several deep breaths to prepare, Slevine stood at the edge of the water. Then, after a long inhale, she dove into the dark water.
“Insane,” Denir said. “I don’t know where she gets it. Sometimes I doubt we share a father.”
The big man begrudgingly followed his sister’s lead. He prepared himself and dove into the water. Stav stood alone in that large echo chamber as the abandoned torches cast long shadows on the walls. He stepped to the edge of the water and began his own process of deep breathing.
Before he could think better of it, he inhaled, filling his lungs and dove in. The freezing water shocked him into nearly letting all his air out. Finding the cord with wide sweeps of his hand, Stav began to follow it deeper into the dark. He kicked and pulled on the cord, propelling himself through the frigid depths. Swimming with his eyes open, Stav realized he couldn’t see anything but black. Keeping them open did no good and made them burn, so he closed them.
Swimming around bends and turns, he followed the line. There would be no way anyone could find their way through this without a Brineman.
His lungs began to burn and panic entered his mind. He kicked more frantically. His hand slipped off the rope in his haste. He quickly found it again and pulled desperately. He opened his eyes again. Black. No sign of anything ahead.
Should I turn back? He wouldn’t make it if he did. Kicking. Pulling. Swimming further into the black as he hungered for air. Stav let out a muffled scream, expelling the depleted breath from his lungs, and kept pulling forward. As a reflex, he started to breathe in, but freezing water entered his lungs where there should only be air.
His body slowed. Each kick felt heavy. Every pull felt weaker and weaker. His mind grew numb. His chest felt as though it would implode. Warmth spread out from his center and the pain faded. He smiled.
Stav had always thought drowning would be uncomfortable.
Meaty fingers gripped Stav by the hair and pulled. Another hand wrapped under his arm and heaved his limp body into the chilly air and onto the cool stone. Stav rolled to his side and retched. He heaved the water from his lungs and coughed vomit through his nose. Denir slapped his massive hand against Stav’s back to help him expel the water.
Each of his senses returned except for his sight. No, his sight had returned. It was too black to see anything.
“You still have them?” Slevine asked.
Stav coughed for another long moment, refocusing his mind. He nodded his head, but she would not be able to see him. He pulled one of the wax-covered torches from his belt and snapped a flame into his palm.
The small flame lit Slevine and Denir’s faces as Stav held the torch over it. The wax slowly melted away, exposing the cloth beneath. Soon after, the cloth ignited and Stav handed it to Denir wordlessly thanking him for his assistance. Stav quickly lit another, handing it to Slevine. She immediately turned away into the darkness to explore the new chamber.
Reaching to his belt, Stav found only one more torch. The fourth must have slipped out in the water. No matter, Stav thought. I can make my own light. He lit the last torch and handed it to the Brineman. The creature wrapped cold, webbed fingers around it, and nodded gratitude.
“No,” Slevine said from across the room. “No, no, no!”
“What is it?” Denir asked.
“Nothing,” Slevine snapped.
“Then what’s the fuss?”
“I mean, nothing!” Slevine snapped. “No mountains of gold, sea of jewels, and no paths forward. Only a sarcophagus. This is just a tomb!”
Denir jumped to his feet and followed his sister, Stav, and the Brineman close behind. She stood at the head of a rectangular stone object with a heavy stone lid. This was just a tomb.
“Is this Kravn?” Denir asked. “Maybe his treasure is in there with him.”
Slevine clicked her tongue in frustration. “You can’t fit a mountain of gold in there now can you?”
Something’s better than nothing,” Denir said. “We’ve come this far.”
The four stood around the sarcophagus and stared at it for a moment.
“We’ll find out if he has life everlasting, I suppose,” Denir chuckled, but his sister was in no mood for jokes.
Denir shrugged and began to push the heavy stone lid. He grunted and it began to slide. Suddenly, he howled in pain and jumped away from the sarcophagus.
“What?” Slevine asked with worry in her eyes.
“Wax dripped onto my hand from the damn torch,” he said through clenched teeth.
This finally brought a smile to his sister’s face. “A shame, the mighty Denir of Bligh was undone by a drop of hot wax, the greatest of his many foes.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Denir said. “Stand back. I’ll kick it over.”
The crew obliged, giving the large man plenty of room. Denir backed up to the wall and ran at the sarcophagus. With a roar, he threw his foot into the stone lid and kicked as hard as he could.
A sharp hiss filled the chamber blowing out all the torches. A deafening clatter followed as the stone lid toppled over the back of the sarcophagus. Something cold and wet splashed against Stav’s face and neck.
“Light,” Slevine called out in the pitch blackness.
Stav snapped a flame into his palm and Slevine put the end of her torch in it. When it ignited, Stav could barely see something at his feet. Something round and wet. He bent down to take a closer look and found the Brineman’s severed head.
He stood up with a gasp. Denir pulled his axe from his belt and turned to the shadows surrounding them. For several long moments, they listened for any movement at all. Stav lifted a finger to his neck and when he pulled it away, he found the Brineman’s cold blood on it. Slevine lit Denir’s torch for him and together, the three of them crept to the sarcophagus.
Slowly, they peered inside. Nothing. No gold, no jewels, no body.
“What kind of-” Denir was jerked into the air by some unseen force.
He screamed and waved his axe wildly. His torch fell to the floor under him. The sound of bones crunching and flesh tearing filled the small chamber. His blood doused the torch with a hiss. His screams ended and two wet thumps echoed against the walls as his two halves fell to the ground.
Slevine shrieked for her brother and scooped up his axe, swinging it into the dark and waving her torch around.
Flashes of diving into the water and swimming through the dark filled Stav’s mind. He searched the ground for the Brineman and found it looking up at him, mouth still gulping for air. Though even now, its face held no expression, it seemed to be saying, “go.”
Stav ran for The Serpent’s Path. Slevine’s shrieks of mourning turned to screams of agony in an instant. Then only Stav’s beating footfalls and a wet choking sound filled the chamber. Her torch went out just as Stav dove and he was in complete darkness.
Freezing water once again encompassed him, but he did not feel it. His heart thumped in his ears and his cheeks were burning hot. He searched for the end of the line but he could not find it.
Not his thought, but it kept repeating over and over in his head. Stav swam into the darkness.
Stav turned left. His fingers brushed something in front of him. He had found the line again. He kicked and pulled his way forward. He realized he did not have enough air in his lungs for this swim. Still, he pressed on. Going back would mean death.
It was coming after him. I might be dead anyway. A spark dies in some forgotten tomb for a hot meal and a few clipped coppers.
He pulled hand over hand as hard as he could. His feet kicked behind him and he couldn’t help but imagine that creature nipping at his toes. His thought.
Stav’s lungs burned. His arms were growing weaker, but he kept moving. He kicked with all his might. Finally, a flicker of torchlight shimmered ahead. He pulled and kicked to the surface. Gasping into the air, he pulled himself out of the water with his soft arms. He flopped to his back and took in heaving breaths. The stake in the floor jiggled and danced. There was tension on the line. The creature was pulling itself along the path.
Burn the line. Do not let it out of The Serpent’s Path.
Stav rolled to his feet and snapped, but his palm did not ignite. He snapped again. Still no flame. He scooped up one of the dwindling torches and shoved it under the line. It only took a second to burn all the way through the thin line and the smoldering end whipped through the air before disappearing under the water.
Running to The Serpent’s Path, Stav stared into the black water. He couldn’t see any movement under the surface. He watched for a long time before he realized he saw the torchlight when he was swimming through the path. He should douse the torches. This creature should never find its way out.
When he turned toward the first torch, something sharp tore into his side and wind rushed in his ears. He was flying through the air. He struck the stone and tumbled to a stop on the other side of the large circular chamber. He put his feet under himself and tried to stand up, but his side was tied in a knot. He reached down and touched a warm liquid pouring from his ribs. Blood.
Across the room, the creature pulled itself from the water and stood in the flickering torchlight. It vaguely resembled a man, only larger. Long claws tipped each finger. Powerful arms hung from broad shoulders. Its ears were large and pointed, sweeping backward on the head. Its nose was scrunched up on its face like a hog.
Stav snapped and fire licked his palm. He pressed it to his side, cauterizing the wound. He groaned in pain as the stench of seared flesh reached his nostrils.
The creature noticed too. Its hognose twitched in the air as if savoring the smell of burning flesh. Or perhaps the smell of blood.
The beast let out a long screech, revealing rows of needle-sharp teeth, and charged. Stav snapped fire into both hands and joined the two flames by facing his palms toward each other in front of him. Still, the beast charged.
Stav focused on the flame. He envisioned it growing larger and larger. Heat swept over his body from his center, spreading all the way down to his toes. The creature was too close now. Stav thrust his palms out to the beast as if to push it away, and fire flew from his hands in a thick, swirling column.
The inferno slammed into the beast, throwing it backward. It tumbled and landed on all fours. Orange embers pocked its body here and there where the skin had been burned away. The creature charged again. Stav threw a fireball and the creature ducked under it. He threw another one and the creature dove out of the way.
When it drew close enough, Stav focussed on his skin. The heat spread over him again and in an instant, Stav was standing inside a swirling column of fire. The beast lurched back, shielding its face from the heat.
As if he had known all along what to do, Stav pressed the flames into the ground. The fire created a strong current along the floor, sweeping the monster from its feet. It howled in agony.
Stav approached the downed creature as it writhed on the ground. Its flesh sizzled and smoked, filling the chamber with the foul odor of burned hair and charred skin. It scrambled backward, away from Stav as he drew closer, shielding its face, letting out weak, pleading whimpers.
Do not let it leave.
I don’t intend to. Heat collected in Stav’s belly. He inhaled deeply through his nose. At the top of his breath, he focussed on the heat within him and forced the air out his mouth. A cone of flame poured onto the beast and it screamed. A moment later, it could scream no more. When Stav was out of breath, he inspected the monster.
A statue of burned flesh replaced the beast, frozen in terror and pain. Stav took another deep breath and let out another cone of flame. He blew until there was nothing left but swirling ash.
His legs gave out and he fell to his knees. Exhaustion washed over him. The heat faded until he was once again chilled by the cool depths of the mountain.
Thank you, he thought.
But there was nothing else there. The Brineman was gone.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, please take a look at my novel, Well of Bones. Part two of the trilogy will be released this November, so start your read today. Click here to pick up a copy of Well of Bones by Chase Walker.
I post short stories every Friday, either by me or a guest poster. So stop by next week to check out a fresh one. If you haven’t already, Take a look at the older posts. The Little Wooden Box has been my most popular short story so far. Click here to take a look.
Until next week,