I may be on vacation, but here I am, still meeting my own self-imposed deadlines to post every other Thursday. This one is actually inspired by the view from my parent’s house in Upstate New York of one Bare Hill. I happened to look into it, searching for inspiration, and found a legend about a giant snake and a pair of siblings that defeated it. Naturally, I decided to put my own spin on it.
Pythia of Bare Hill
“Practitioner,” the great serpent’s voice thundered from the lake below, though no actual sound was transmitted. The water rippled and vibrated with power. Dominic took another pull from his beer.
“Titan,” he replied.
“And old name, but not the oldest we’ve heard. Speak your peace,” the snake commanded, “before we feast upon you.”
“There’s no need for that,” Dom said. “I brought you a gift.” The undulating shadow below the water twisted and coiled around itself as the vague shape of a great, triangular head turned toward him. “It seems that some idiot has left a trailer with eight very large cows parked close to the water at the south end of the lake. And no one is watching over them.” With little hesitation, the head turned left, southward, the serpentine body uncoiled, and the monster shot off in that direction. Dominic watched as a large wake made its way toward the lake’s head. It vanished from sight, causing a few boats on the water to rock (and no doubt confusing the occupants as their unenhanced senses wouldn’t see the source of a wake, if they bothered to look). He finished his current beer and reached into his cooler for another. It would be a while before the serpent reached the offering and gorged itself.
Dominic finished off one beer, then another. Keeping his mind relaxed—keeping the “buzz” going, as it were—was not only necessary to prolong his Sight, but to make sure that the giant beast that now saw him and knew where he was couldn’t sneak up on him. Ritual magic was still very much dependent on altering the mind chemically, be it through alcohol, drugs, blood loss, sleep deprivation, or the mental disconnect that came with orgasm (which made for a very popular ritual magic, but one that was difficult to sustain). For Dom, beer worked best. Drugs affected him differently depending on any number of circumstances; blood loss was too dangerous, and while sex was certainly fun, he tended to fall asleep. Still, it was a nice excuse to practice sex magic with a willing partner.
While he waited, Dom closed his eyes, opting for a little light meditation. The hill itself was a place of natural power, and it was simple to stick his hand out into its ebb and flow like holding his hand out of a car window. He felt the power of the minor ritual he’d performed prior to his journey here. The magic of making himself as close to invisible as possible without actually invoking an invisibility incantation was one of the simpler ones. He’d purchased last year’s clothing styles off the clearance rack from a discount retailer. He’d eschewed his usual vegan diet for one that was more middle-American; burgers from chain restaurants, breakfast at McDonalds in exceedingly beige suburban neighborhoods, and microwaved meals. The beer he’d been drinking throughout the week was as bland and uninteresting as you could get. He’d even traded in his Tesla (being a practitioner of magic had significant monetary benefits) for a used Honda accord, mid-range model. Chopping off his dreads in favor of a more conservative cut had been the hardest part; even harder than giving himself a complete blood transfusion to swap out his own B-positive blood with O-positive. How that one worked without killing him wasn’t a question he dared to ask. Magic sometimes lost its properties when though about too much. There wasn’t anything he could do about the fact that he was a black man in a very white part of the country, but with a little magic behind his efforts, he doubted that some soccer mom would call the police on him simply for being black in public. Hanging out in a tree with a cooler of beer would have raised eyebrows, but for the few other visitors to the park at the top of the hill, their eyes—if they happened to look his way—just rolled off him without registering anything of interest.
He’d put the final touches on the ritual just that morning in the cabin he’d rented across the lake, roughly sixty-feet above the water on a shale-rich bluff. Those last steps were more esoteric; circles of power drawn on the ground in chalk, chanting ancient words in the most neutral accent he could imitate, and four hours reading over celebrity Instagram updates. If the goal was invoking mind-numbing apathy, any number of the Kardashian’s constant, duck-lipped selfies would alter his visible aura just fine.
Feeling perfectly uninteresting, he’d driven around the lake (he wasn’t about to cross it by boat, knowing what he knew about its prisoner), up to the “Unique Area” of Bare Hill (which was hardly bare, given the heavy tree cover that would obstruct his view of the water). He parked his boring Honda and trekked up to the top with his cooler of watered-down light beer. Once there, passing unnoticed by a handful of visitors to the park, he climbed the highest oak tree he could find. He parked himself on a large branch, wedged his cooler into a fork of another, and opened his mind to the spiritual realm. Whereas wannabe pagans and overly “spiritual” middle aged women would engage in meditation, or even sneak an edible or pop a tablet of Molly, Dom opened his mind through the beer, and lots of it. By the time the pleasant warmness started to spread throughout his body, he noticed the change in the quality of the water.
The mid-afternoon breeze and abundance of boats initially defaced the surface of the water to the point where seeing anything dwelling within was impossible. As his mind cleared and as he felt the energies of this place, for him, it settled and allowed sight to penetrate. It didn’t reach with perfect opacity, but it was enough to see the large shape of the python, easily as long as the lake was wide (and likely more so had it stretched out its winding coils), rippling beneath. That was when the snake had noticed him, and their palaver had begun in earnest.
Now, as he was sitting in the tree waiting for the beast to feed on his offering, he noticed the other loci of magic around him. The hill itself was a wellspring of energy, tied very closely to the serpent in the lake below. He felt presences here; presences that were fettered to the land by terror and pain. As he closed his eyes and opened his mind to those voices, the sky seemed to darken. He could hear the wailing and moaning of ancient ghosts. He wasn’t surprised or frightened; these ghosts were harmless, and he knew about them before he came to this spot. Going into this kind of place without doing one’s homework was a surefire way to end up in the kinds of places between worlds that would shatter one’s sanity. Dom had no interest in ending up like so many others before him who thought they were untouchable due to the power they wielded. As he felt the space around him with his spirit, he heard the sound of giant snake scales pressing through the trees, encircling the hill and the village that once stood here. He heard the cries of fear from long-dead villagers. Herd the whoops of warriors followed immediately by their agonizing screams. The weeping. The moaning. The frantic attempts to escape past the giant snake that had surrounded them and made a sport of feasting on the entirety of the population. The people who had been born of the earth in an ancient gully barely a stone’s throw south of this hill were at the mercy of a merciless beast.
Until there were only two left.
Dom opened his eyes to see the young native warrior and his sister standing at the base of his tree. They stared up at him, unblinking. The brother held a bow tightly in his left hand with a single arrow in the right. Dom knew how the story ended, at least as far as the modern world and it’s spiritual-seeking ex-hippies and new Pagans had been told. The brother was visited in his sleep by an oracle who told him how to slay the beast; where, precisely to put his arrow to kill the serpent that had devoured all of his people aside from himself and his sister. The arrow had slain the beast, causing it to thrash and roll down the hill into the lake, wiping the hillside bare of trees and vegetation before it came to rest in the water of Canandaigua Lake. It had disgorged the heads of the villagers as it tumbled to its end. Heads that, as local legend had it, turned into the round stones that were prevalent in the area. That, Dom knew, was untrue. The round stones were crystallizations of minerals around a single nexus in a slow, geologic process that took thousands of years. The legend was three-parts spirituality, one-part old-fashioned science.
I see you, ghosts, Dom thought to the spirits. They did not blink. You don’t need to stare at me that way; I know how dumb this is. Now, go rest. He lobbed a gentle banishment their way, more like how his grandmother would shoo him out of the house and away from the X-Box to play outside on spring days. The two ghosts turned from him, walked a few steps into the tree line, and vanished.
“You speak to old ghosts, practitioner.” Dom’s heart skipped momentarily. He’d allowed the serpent to sneak up on him after all. It must have eaten well of his offering to not reach out of the water, snatch him from his perch, and drag him to a frigid, watery underworld. Dom composed himself.
“You’re not much more than an old ghost yourself.”
“I am so much more than a ghost, and you’d be wise to remember that. As for your offering, it was very thoughtful, though there were only seven head, not eight.”
“My mistake,” Dom said.
“Nevertheless, we have reached an accord, but your time is limited. You are clearly not here to attempt to vanquish or enslave me—both foolish moves—so I ask you; what is it you wish, practitioner?”
“Knowledge,” Dom replied.
“Ah,” the snake said. “Not many remember my role as keeper of knowledge. They see only sinister intent.”
“Well, the Oracle at Delphi came from your corpse. And you did offer knowledge to Adam and Eve.”
“Foolish human interpretations of the truth, but truth no less.” The serpent lazily twisted around itself in the water in a figure eight. “As a reward, I shall grant you one truth of your choosing, practitioner, within reason.”
“I want to know the full story of how the brother and sister beat you on this hill.”
“The boy was given a dream in which he knew where to strike with a simple arrow. The sister was a last feast before my end. That is the whole story. Honestly, practitioner, that is knowledge that has been recorded. You have wasted your boon. With that, I shall make you the eighth meal you promised me.” Dom saw the giant serpent draw its body up into a tight coil beneath the water. Even from here, he could see the scales ripple as it prepared to lash out at him.
“Yeah, about that.”
The snake did not move, did not reach out to pull him from his perch. “What have you done, practitioner?” Waves of hatred and anger washed over Dom.
“You’re familiar with the numerical significance of seven, correct? The whole ‘seventh son of a seventh son’ being mystically powerful? Those seven cows were each mother to seven bulls. And the sire of those seventh bulls was a seventh bull itself. Turns out that it has meaning even in livestock. With the right rituals, rituals that have been lost for a long time and that you seemed to have forgotten about in your hunger, when presented as an offering that is willingly taken, it gives the gift-giver a bit more oomph when it comes to granted boons.”
“You tricked me, practitioner!”
“I know, and I’m pretty surprised. A being that prides itself on knowledge made a mistake while hangry. Guess we’re all just about the same anyway.”
“This will not last! I will devour you when I am free!”
“I’ll be long gone by then, and this lake will still be your prison. So,” Dominic crossed his arms, “about my request. Show me everything, and I mean everything.”
The serpent obliged.
* * * *
Dominic saw a village on fire. He witnessed as the brother and sister stood in the middle of the great serpent’s ever-tightening coil. The brother with his bow and the sister with no weapon to speak of. She turned to him and they embraced for the last time. As the brother readied his bow, the giant serpent’s head pushed out from the trees, past the flame and black smoke. It opened its giant mouth, jaw dislocated to consume the last two of these sacred people. In its teeth, the siblings could see parts of their brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. Despite the terrifying sight, the survivors steeled their nerves for the final battle. Without hesitation, the sister flung herself at the serpent, drawing its head to the side, exposing the weakness that the oracle had shown to the boy.
With a flash of movement, the head lashed out and grabbed the sister whole. She didn’t scream as it swallowed her, not bothering to sink its fangs into her flesh. It was an easy kill, and the monster didn’t want to waste its time while that last of the sacred people awaited his own fate.
The sting of the arrow was surprising when it hit, lodging halfway in the exposed flesh where, a long time ago, a scale had been pried off in some misadventure or another. The snake reeled back, as no other warrior had managed to penetrate its defenses. Ultimately, however, it was no more than the sting of a wasp to a human; irritating, but not fatal. The snake whipped back to the boy, covering its only weakness for further attack. It watched as the boy dropped his bow and fell to his knees, surrendering to his fate. Perhaps he muttered a silent prayer to his ancestors. Perhaps the shock of his failure had rendered him pliable. It was no matter, as with one final attack, the slaughter would be complete. The giant snaked reared above the boy.
And then, suddenly, jerked again. Another sting from where the arrow had lodged. A quick check showed that the arrow had sunk further into the flesh. As the snake watched, and as the young warrior smiled, the arrow sank completely into the snake’s flesh, its feathers vanishing.
Inside the great snake, the sister had grasped the arrow head where it had penetrated from her brother’s shot. She pulled it fully to her, inside the flesh tube of the snake’s gullet, and—with a strength and agility that belied her small stature—began to crawl deeper into the snake. The beast began to panic as the boy watched, attempting to vomit up the girl. Parts of its previous meals were expelled violently, most notably, a slew of severed heads that bound to the ground and rolled down the hill toward the water below.
Inside, the powerful muscles of its esophagus tried to push the girl back and, failing that, crush and grind her into nothing. She felt bones being broken. The air was being forced from her lungs as the constrictions narrowed the tunnel she was in. She used the arrow to anchor herself with each convulsion and had to shift as best she could as the remains of her family raced past her on the way out of the beast. Still onward, against the crushing pain and the increasing burning of the monster’s digestive fluids, she finally pushed into a large chamber. She hadn’t the time to understand how this massive space could exist inside the snake. It was as if an infinity stretched out around her. Clambering out of holes in the fleshy walls, giant parasitic worms snaked toward her. They pulsed and throbbed, promising to feast on her with maws of needle-sharp teeth. She pressed on, half submerged in bubbling, burning stomach acid, toward the center of the chamber. Even as her feet and legs burned away, she refused to scream until she pulled her ruined body onto a dais of flesh. There, in the center, was the soul of the monster, encased in a crystal sphere. Now she allowed herself to yell as she raised the arrow above her head. Just as the alien worms closed in on her, she brought it down. The crystal shattered, exploding around her, bathing her in fire and light.
In that last moment, as the beast’s death throes sent it tumbling down the hill, scraping the trees and vegetation with it, she witnessed a great truth of the universe. She saw the beginning of time, an explosion of matter and energy. Fragments of that energy that would eventually become stars raced from the nexus into infinity. Some pieces of the afterbirth of the universe, like the piece at the center of the crystal, solidified in the cold vacuum instead of becoming stars and planets. Those pieces, of which there were thousands, seeded the souls of strange, alien intelligences. She watched them trundle to an awkward and horrific life, taking familiar yet twisted shapes such as the giant serpent and prehistoric fish, as well as other things that she could not comprehend. The spark of her life was snuffed out, and in the end, she died in both wonder and terror.
The serpent’s corpse, such as it could be killed, sank to the bottom of the cold, glacial lake. The brother watched and mourned his sister. He mourned his village. But he had survived; the last of the sacred people, and he would carry on their legacy. Eventually, the Seneca people would flourish again, and the legend of Bare Hill would survive, even if the details were lost to time.
* * * *
“You cannot use that against me, practitioner, for I have already been defeated.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about, snake,” Dominic said, shaken from the visceral details of the vision. “Some of your brethren have been getting antsy over the past few centuries. When they start paying attention, ‘practitioners’ are usually the first on their radars. So, I’m arming myself against them, just in case.”
“It is a foolish decision, practitioner. For this insult, I will do worse than merely devour you.”
“Nah,” Dom relied, “I’ll be long gone before the binding wears off. And you…” he gestured to the lake, “Well, you’re not going anywhere. Not for a while, anyway.”
“My reach is longer than you think.”
“No doubt.” Dom downed the last of his beer, his cooler now empty. He climbed down out of the tree, careful not to let his light intoxication cause him to tumble out of the tree. It wouldn’t do to fall into the lake, now, giving himself to his new enemy and making all of this a pointless exercise. He reached solid ground and walked away from the lake, back toward his car.
“Practitioner,” the snake said, its voice already fading, “be warned. What you know will make you even more interesting to my ‘brethren.’” Dom stopped, listening without turning. “Even now, they know what you know. Tread lightly, or you will wish I had eaten you here.”
Dom merely nodded, let slip his mystical hold on the area, and within minutes, was already pulling away, heading back to the south. He would pass the gully where the Seneca supposedly were created and offer thanks to them for their insight. It wasn’t necessary, magically speaking, and it might not even be heard, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Grandma always said to thank those who help you. After that, back home to Atlanta. He had more work to do. Quite a bit, in fact, based on the serpent’s warning.
Things were getting ugly out there, and he intended to have every advantage—every weapon possible—at his disposal.