Jed continued to hike up the mysterious hill, growing more fatigued with every step. As he climbed, he wondered what he would find inside the roundhouse, what became of Nashper and Railnia, if he would ever see Iparel again, and mostly, if he would ever make it back home. Climbing further still, Jed could feel the depleted weight of his canteen dangling from his leather belt. He also felt the bouncing of the pack of seeds on his thighs, the raising-tree seeds he wrapped up in a napkin and tied to his belt. Jed bitterly regarded the seeds, ‘All that effort to get them and I will probably never be able to give them to Iparel.’ he thought. The nighttime air was cool and thick, and the light of the three moons was pouring down through the canopies of the trees. As Jed approached the plateau of the hill however, the air grew even thicker and it became harder for him to breathe. Also, the light of the moons was diminishing. Instead of a crisp light that penetrated through to the forest floor, it became a vague, hazy, shade that took no angles but instead floated shapelessly all around. Jed stopped and realized he had entered the foggy upper region of the hill. Stopping for some rest, Jed noticed that he no longer heard the eerie singing, just silence now. Jed pushed upward but not only could he no longer hear the singing, the fog became so thick that he could not see two feet in front of his own face. With arms stretched out in front of him to feel his surroundings, Jed attempted to stumble onward. Tripping over roots and rocks, nearly falling on his face, Jed grew frustrated. Then he walked right into a tree, his soft face smacked into the rough bark of a mighty tree. “Ahhhh!” Jed groaned in pain and frustration, and plopped down on the ground in defeat. “I don’t even know if I’m going the right way anymore.” he whispered softly to himself. He sat there for a time, weighing his options, ‘forward movement’ was the phrase that incessantly emerged in his thoughts, no matter how hard he tried to purge those words. Then in the silence, he heard the singing pick up again. It was faint but he was able to pick up the definite sounds as they pervaded the trees and floated on the fog. Jed stood up and faced uphill, still doubting his navigational skills. That was when he saw them. As he looked uphill into the dense fog that shrouded everything in the forest, he saw glimmers of light emerge in the haze. Dozens of flowing lights, moving, moving upward. They moved gracefully and fluidly and were effortlessly sliding up the hill. There were dozens of them. On the ground weaving easily through the shrubbery and foliage of the forest floor. Brilliant vines of light sleeking through the fog, dulled by it, but still easily visible. Jed followed them as they weaved all around him on the ground. Moving like cylindrical streams over the same roots and rocks that Jed was tripping over. Their light became a path for Jed to follow as they illuminated the forest floor even through the fog. They curved and swayed with unfailing phosphorous through all obstacles, even Jed’s own traipsing footsteps. They all gave off a soft yet radiant angel-blue light. Jed could see now that there were just as many of them moving through the trees as well. They provided an overhead light as they moved with the same, grace, fluidity, and brightness as the ones on the floor. The forest was alive with light. The ground was carpeted with vines of illumination, and the tree tops above were strewn with color like the trees of a beautiful garden lit up for the world to see. jed followed these vibrant creatures at a brisk pace, feeling the moisture of the fog crowd his lungs as he breathed it in. Then, very abruptly, Jed could see clearly all around him. He had climbed with the light-vines above the fog and now he stood on a flattened ground in front of the great roundhouse. There were still trees all around, standing in between him and the house, but he could now see them clearly at least. What was more was that Jed could now also see what had been guiding him up the hill. A massive brood of snakes that shone a brilliant blue light through translucent skins slithered all around him. In the trees, on the ground at his flanks, they were everywhere. Their light was even brighter out of the fog. Jed was frightened at first but saw that they were all just slithering unthreatened all around him, making all the surroundings visible. They slithered in the trees and through his legs so languidly that Jed was becoming entranced by the spectacle. He stood in awe and admiration as they danced between his legs to the angelic songs emanating from the rounshouse. But before Jed could lose himself in the serpents light-dance, he saw a great long snake slink down from one of the trees and ess his way to Jed. Jed was captivated by it, the largest, brightest, and most graceful of all the serpents. Jed was put at ease by their performance and no longer harbored and fear of them, so when the biggest one approached him, he was not afraid. Somehow, he felt akin to the serpents, like he knew them and was the same as them. On the ground, the bog snake winded its way to Jed’s feet, then it raised itself up. It was now looking down on Jed with more than half of its body still on the ground supporting him. Then as Jed gazed at it, a great collar extended all around its head and tapered downward into the midsection of its body. It was some kind of giant, vibrantly-lit, cobra. It’s collar mate it so bright that Jed had to shield his eyes just to look at it. At that point the cobra’s light dimmed until it was a small yet intense orb of light, centralized in the center of the snakes belly. The other snakes followed suit and dimmed themselves to a lower more manageable luminosity. Jed looked up at the cobra. It’s eyes were piercing and intense. The pupils were shaped like diamonds, and the iris’ were colored a very natural hazel. It’s skin was almost completely transparent if not for the swirling, ornate, designs on it that looked exactly like the designs on the barricade of the bridge, Nashper’s shell, and the shell of the moving earth from his dream. Jed was awestruck at the beauty of the serpent. Then, in a voice that sounded much like his own and the other boys from his hometown, the cobra spoke up. “Why have you come here?”
The voice was so normal. Every voice Jed had heard ever since he entered this impossibly fantastical forest had been strange and unlike any he had heard before. Nashper and Railnia both spoke as if they were using four voices at once, the crab cook gurgled with every word he spoke, even the pig whom he sat next to at the feast spoke with a dignity and eloquence unbecoming of swine. But this great snake spoke in a familiar, human voice. “I’m trying to find my way back home. I never chose to come here. The waters just swept me away from my home and brought me to this place. I’ve been through so much in this bizarre forest,” Jed said as he stripped a piece of bark off a nearby tree in an aggravated manner. The snakes still slid soothingly on their bellies all around him. “that I just want to go back home.” Jed realized he was venting to the cobra. He sighed helplessly and let his shoulders drop low.
The cobra stared at Jed, sensing his frustration. “I’m sure by now you know the rule of this place.” The cobra stated in a tone that was half inquiring.
In a low tedious tone, Jed replied “There only exists forward movement in this place.”
The cobra put on an almost human smile. “I can see you have been through a lot in your time here. I both pit and envy you.” He said.
“Envy me? Why would you envy me? I’ve been taken from my home against my will, almost killed, and now I have a hunger in my gut that I have never felt before and have no way of sating. On top of all that I have very little water left to sustain me.” Jed replied incredulously.
“Ah yes, the life-sustaining water from the well in the center of town.” The cobra calmly mused.
Jed was stunned. This was the first time he heard anyone in this forest that knew about his hometown. “How do you know that? Who are you? What is this place?” Jed fired off a series of dumbfounded questions.
“My name is Lashpat , but I can’t tell you the name of this place or the forest as a whole because I don’t know myself. I doubt if anyone does. But allow me to answer your first question as you have answered mine. I envy you because you still have choices ahead of you. I pity you because I know what you have been through, which leads me to answer your second question: I know about your water because I once was what you are.” The giant cobra Lashpat answered.
Jed stood silent and confused. “What do you mean by that?” Jed asked.
“I know your hometown, I know you were taken here against your will, I know your hunger, and though the details of mine and your journey surely differ, I know the hardships you must have encountered in this place. I know all of this because I was once a boy just like you, taken from the hometown and brought to this confusing, nonsensical forest for a reason that is still unclear to me.” Lashpat spoke with deep introspection. His voice was now more human than ever but his eyes trailed off to some place far away as he gave his speech.
Jed was amazed. “The boys that never returned,” he thought out loud as he looked at all the serpents swaying, now deep in some unknowable trance.
“This is us. We were all boys from the beloved hometown once, and we were all brought here against our will, lived here, suffered here, felt joy here, and became what you see before you now: A society of serpents. We all came at different times of course, one by one like you. I came first and was alone for many days. Then we were but a few. Now we are many but there isn’t one among us who does not wish to be back in the hometown.” As Lashpat said this, all the swirling snakes shone a little brighter and danced a little harder.
“What happened to you?” Jed ventured.
“We were all given a choice, as you will be given. I can not say what choices will be given to you as it seems everyone’s options vary, but I can tell you the choice we all made: we chose to stay here in this forest. Because we chose to stay, we were turned into serpents.” Lashpat answered.
“Why would you choose to stay in this place?” Jed couldn’t hide his somewhat condescending surprise.
“Because the alternatives we were given were just too perilous to face.” Lashpat, again with eyes fixed on a far-flung memory, answered.
“What was your alternative?” Jed was almost afraid to ask.
“To brave a vast, barren desert in search of the hometown with no companion…no guide.” Lashpat replied.
The word ‘companion’ jumped out at Jed. He knew what Lashpat was talking about as soon as he said it. “Those strange, singing, spirit creatures.” Jed concluded aloud.
Lashpat looked Jed in the eye gravely and said, “Now it is our job to lead boys like you to them.”
“They live in the roundhouse?” Jed asked.
Lashpat nodded his great hooded head.
“What will they do to me?” Jed asked.
“Impossible to say.” Lashpat replied.
“What did they do to you?” Jed inquired.
“They turned me into what I am today.” Lashpat somberly stated. A long silence passed in which all that could be heard was that slithering of sinewy serpent bodies and the faint siren song of the spirits within the great roundhouse. It was a chilling duet of sounds. Then Lashpat spoke up, “I must ask you a favor for myself and my brothers. It has been so long since we tasted the cool waters of the hometown, and even longer since we have slept. If you could find it in your heart to share some of the water in your canteen with us, we would be forever grateful.”
Jed thought hard about this. He didn’t have much water left and he didn’t know how much longer his journey would last. Still, he took pity on the serpents who were once just like him: unjustly taken from home to an unknown and frightening wilderness only to lose their human forms and cursed to the task of leading other boys to an uncertain fate. Jed raised his hand to Lashpat and the giant cobra lowered his head under the outstretched human hand and rubbed against the palm. Jed pet Lashpat’s head softly and affectionately, feeling the rough, perfectly symmetrical scales against his skin. “Of course, brother.” Jed granted and unscrewed his canteen and poured water on the cool grass of the forest floor. The snakes all lapped up a small amount of water, then with a dignified and grateful bow, Lashpat bent low and licked up a small pool of water. The snakes partook until there was nothing left. Jed now only had one gulp of water left in his canteen. “I think I have something that will help you sleep too.” Jed pulled the sack of raising-tree seeds from his belt and dropped most of the on the ground, leaving only two for himself in case he ever saw Iparel again. ‘I will probably never see her again anyway’ he thought to himself. All the snakes took a majestic blue seed into their jaws and bodies.
Lashpat raised his head back up to Jed and spoke, “Thank you brother, what is your name?”
“We will never forget this, Jed Ano, but now we must guide you to the entrance of the roundhouse.” Lashpat stated. Jed looked hard at the huge house, he saw no doors or gates. Then, the smaller snakes grew bright and moved toward the house. They slithered up the wall of the house and outlined the shape of a door on it. They held their positions and shone their lights so bright that Jed could barely look at them. Then Lashpat moved in front of the door framed out by snakes that use to be boys, jutted his magnificent cobra head forward, bore his immense fangs, and let out a violent hiss. This was the first time Lashpat even remotely sounded like a snake. With the hiss, the door made of snakes lurched open. There was weak light inside but not enough for Jed to see very far inside. Lashpat turned to Jed and spoke, “Your time is now brother Jed, be brave, sharp-witted, may all your perceptions be of the most discerning order.” Jed looked at Lashpat, afraid. “I’ll tell you this Jed Ano, whatever you lose in there, don’t lose yourself” Lashpat straightened his form, looked Jed in the eye, and with his stern, calm glance, gave Jed the courage to continue. “There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back.” Lashpat said. Then Jed stood up straight and marched through the door into the roundhouse. The snakes closed the door behind him, disbursed, and for the first time in hundreds of agonizingly long days, slept.