Long ago, before man dreamed of empire, the world was in chaos.
When the Dragon Gods fell, so too did the great cities of stone which their human servants had built. In the ruins that remained, beasts and spirits ran rampant, and men huddled in squalid settlements of mud, brick, and dried reed and called themselves kings.
In the lands of the Heavenly Peaks, humankind crouched in the tattered shadows of dying dragons and prayed for succor from their old masters. In the land of Ebon Rivers, the survivors hid in the earth where beasts feared to tread, but in the land of Thousand Lakes, there was nowhere to hide from the dominion of beasts and so men grew to resemble beasts themselves.
From north to south and from east to west of the Thousand Lakes, in all the rivers, valleys, and fetid marshes, there was only one lake of the thousand which knew peace. Lake Hei, the greatest lake in the land with depths beyond the knowledge of man, knew no war between beasts. All knew that to claim it was futile for Lake Hei was the domain of the White Serpent.
Daughter of the Mother of Still Waters and the Dragon God of Rain, the White Serpent was mightier than any base beast. Her whim was the storm, her gaze was fear, and her venom death. Her lashing coils could break cities as easily as ships.
However, the White Serpent was not wrathful by nature, and so, over the centuries, eight human cities came to grow on her shore, rising from mud-brick hovels to great edifices of stone and wood. To the White Serpent however, this was a distant happening. The beasts of the jungle and marsh feared to approach the shores of Lake Hei, and so long as the humans’ boats remained in the shallows, there was naught to fear from the White Serpent. Though some gave offerings to her in tribute, she gave no blessings in return. Gradually, the people of the eight cities ceased to give offerings and kept only to the old boundaries. The White Serpent lived for centuries in unchanging content among the deep waters.
One day, something new occurred. It was a bright day, devoid of rain, and she had taken to her favorite island. Once, it had been a mountainous crag rising from the lake’s center, but she had since smashed it flat, leaving only a rough platform barely rising above the waters for the White Serpent to sun herself on.
Today, when she tasted the air, she caught the scent of man, not drifting from their cities but rather out upon her waters. Curious, the spirit turned her gaze to the north and saw a little boat. On it was a single human, pushing his way through the water with an oar of driftwood. Bemused, she watched the man as he rowed his way to deeper water. She could not remember when last a human had been so foolish.
Rather than being angered however, she was amused. She wondered which would devour the man first: one of her lesser kin, or perhaps, one of the great rainbow carp that she dined upon. Yet as time ticked by, the little boat continued to cut a quiet path through the waters toward the center of the lake. The White Serpent saw the ripples of her younger kin’s passage in the water and the flash of multi-hued scales, and yet, none rose to devour the little boat. The man rowed on, and the beasts of the lake ignored him as if he were not there.
Feeling the first hint of annoyance, the White Serpent’s coils, walls of white scales, shifted atop one another as she dipped the very tip of her tail in the water and flicked it once. Immediately, the waters churned, and the wind began to blow. Soft white clouds overhead grew dark with rain and swelled to cover the sky. In moments, a great storm had brewed, and the placid surface of Lake Hei was broken by white crested waves, high enough to swamp a ship at sea.
And still the little boat sailed on, heedless of the danger. The boat cut through the waves, sailing on their crests even as howling winds tore strips of bark from its sides. But no matter how skilled the boatman, in the end, a little ship such as this could not withstand the storm. A mighty wave crashed down, and only scraps and driftwood bobbed to the surface. Satisfied, the White Serpent began to lower her head back to her coils.
She stopped when she saw the man still whole. Stripped of his boat, he swam instead, his course unadjusted. The currents of Lake Hei lashed him, but he swam on. The howling wind forced his head beneath the waters, and still, he swam on. The White Serpent’s irritation slowly faded as she watched him. It was such an absurdity that she could not remain angry at his intrusion.
That was not to say that she allowed the storm to fade, even as it became increasingly clear that the man was still swimming toward her island. For an hour, she watched the man approach her. It was only when his white-knuckled hand burst from the water, clinging to an outlying pillar of stone that she allowed the storm to fade. As he dragged himself from the churning waters, she studied him in detail for the first time. He was taller than most of his kind with long limbs and a thin body where most of them were squat and small.
His face was a curious thing. Humans, in as much as she paid them any mind at all, were typically difficult to tell apart. This one, though, was missing a portion of his right ear and had a face criss-crossed by scars. His face was clean-shaven, and short cropped hair clung wetly to his scalp. He wore little more than wet rags clinging to his lower body, but she supposed that this was mostly her fault. She watched as the man let out a rattling breath and seated himself on the stone protrusion beneath her gaze.
Humans were such tiny things, the White Serpent thought, peering down from atop her coils. The whole of his body would be less than a mouthful to her. Her tongue flicked out, meters long, and the wind of its passage sent his rags flapping as he leaned back to withstand the force.
“Why do you wish to die, little human?” she asked curiously for she could imagine no other reason that a human would approach her.
He craned his neck to look up at her. Each fold of her coils stood many times higher than his height, and the echo of her voice was like the crashing of the waves he had swam through. To her surprise, she saw no fear in his steady grey eyes. Indeed, she saw nothing but calm there, and the White Serpent grew faintly suspicious. His spirit was a dull and uninteresting thing, stale and dry as a dead leaf. But obviously, he hid something if he had survived her storm.
The human clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head deeply. “I do not seek death, although if you choose to deal it, I will accept it.”
Strange, thought the White Serpent. His kind typically clung to the mortal coil with the most tenaciousness. “If you seek not death, why do you stand before me in defiance of the pacts?”
“This humble fisherman is an ignorant foreigner from beyond your shores, O princess,” he replied, not even a faint tremble of concern in his voice. “I seek only audience with you, that I might beg a boon.”
It had been a very long time indeed since she had been titled in such a manner, the White Serpent thought. Her massive coils moved, churning up waves and winds as she extended her neck toward the seated human, casting him in the shadow of her swaying head, which dwarfed the whole of his body in size. “From where do you hail, fisherman?” the White Serpent asked.
“From the Skittering Fens far to the north, O princess,” replied the fisherman.
Humble fisherman indeed, the White Serpent thought. As if one who could make such a trip could be called such. She cared not for the petty realms of beasts, but that land was claimed by the Face-Eating God, a miserable parasite. Again, her tongue flicked out, and this time, its forked tip drew a bloody gash just under the man’s eye. He did not flinch. She peered at him with the eyes of spirit, and though she found a surprising strength for a human, there was naught of that creature’s sludge to be found.
“Why should I allow you to live, fisherman?” she asked.
Once again, the man bowed his head. “O princess, your deadliness is legend. This humble fisherman asks only to be allowed to observe you for a time. In exchange, this humble fisherman would serve your whims so long as this fisherman remained in your waters.”
What an odd creature this human was, the White Serpent thought. So presumptuous as to believe that he was of any use to her.
“Then hear your first task, fisherman,” the White Serpent said in a voice like steel sheathed in silk. She opened her mouth and fangs fit to impale a man from head to groin emerged. On their tips glistened a single droplet of clear venom so potent that the air itself smoked and melted around it. “Remain in your seat until the next morning. Should you make a sound, I shall devour you whole.”
The venom fell and splashed across the fisherman’s bared back. To his credit, he did not scream even as muscles suddenly strained with tension around the smoking red patch of skin. Foolish man, the White Serpent thought as she slid back into the waters, hundreds of meters of white scales slipping beneath the now calm lake. At least it would be entertaining to watch him try.
For now though, perchance a snack?
She would not be so impetuous the next time a human came to her, the White Serpent decided. The odd little creature had actually followed her instructions. Despite his veins burning red and inflamed beneath his skin, he had not made a single sound for the entire afternoon and night. When she rose from the waters with the morning sun and grudgingly called his task complete, he had thanked her for the opportunity.
She had sent him off to catch her the fattest, most juicy carp in the lake. He had dived into the near black waters at the center of the lake without complaint. The White Serpent found herself of mixed feelings in regards to the human’s success. She was annoyed that her privacy would continue to be intruded upon, but despite herself, she found the fisherman’s resolve impressive.
The White Serpent turned her gaze back to the water and set her thoughts aside. She sensed him rising through the waters even now. Peering through the dark water, her golden eyes came upon a comical sight. A glittering rainbow carp rose swiftly toward the surface, but its motion was wrong. Not forward nor backward, the beast rose sideways through the waters, its fins and its tail thrashing feebly against the force pushing it up, and its spirit spasmed similarly, grasping at the lake’s currents in futility.
It was, the White Serpent could admit, a worthy catch at fifteen meters from head to tail. She chuckled as her eyes met the beast’s own, and its spirit shrieked in terror. Beneath the fat fish was the fisherman. He looked the worse for the previous night’s wear, but his expression did not waver as he climbed up upon the rock where he had sat, his catch thrashing on the tip of his upraised spear.
The human’s fang was well placed, she noted with some amusement, piercing scale and spirit to puncture the beast’s core and steal its strength. The beast could do little but thrash and babble out worthless pleas for freedom from its captor. As if she would let such a delicious meal escape from before her eyes even if the fisherman released it.
In a flash, the White serpent opened her jaws, and her head snapped down. She swallowed the fisherman’s catch whole, savoring the beast’s final scream. A live meal was always the most satisfying.
“It was not the very largest, but your offering is satisfactory, fisherman,” she said regally, settling her head back atop her coils. “I suppose I will allow your request. For now.”
The man clapped a fist against his chest and bowed his head as he lowered the splintered remains of his spear, shorn in half but a moment ago. “I thank you for the opportunity, O princess,” he said, sounding serious and unafraid even now. Slowly, with a stiffness in his limbs that marked the aftereffects of her venom, he sat down upon the rock, looking up at her.
Bemused once again, the White Serpent stared back down at the little creature. Although she felt his blood and qi running cold under her gaze, he showed no outward signs of the terror which afflicted those who dared her presence. She observed him, and he stared back up at her, unmoving. There was a certain intensity to the fisherman’s gaze which the White Serpent could not place, but it still managed to begin annoying her.
“What is it you wish to gain, fisherman?” she asked bluntly.
“In every village I have passed through, the tales agree that you are the greatest and most deadly predator in all of the Thousand Lakes,” the man said, a flicker of emotion finally entering his stoic voice. “I wished to see with my own eyes the truth of these tales and see what I might learn.”
“I hope you do not expect me to perform tricks for your amusement, fisherman,” the White Serpent said. She had certainly not agreed to any tutelage like some foolish beasts.
“I ask only to observe,” the strange little man repeated.
She stared down at him for a moment longer. “... Do as you like then. The sun is high and I have eaten well. Do not pester me while I slumber.”
“As you command, O princess,” the fisherman agreed.
Such was the beginning of the agreement between the White Serpent and the humble fisherman. On many days, the White Serpent ignored the man entirely, swimming, hunting, and sleeping as she had in the days before. The only difference was that now, the fisherman trailed after her, quietly watching. On other days, she commanded him to hunt for her, and he did so, dutifully seeking out the prey she indicated even when it cost him flesh and blood.
On some days, she commanded the fisherman to perform other tasks for her amusement, calling on long distant memories of observing her father’s court from the outside. When she commanded the fisherman to compose poetry in her honor, his clumsy compositions and stilted deliveries amused her, and she took secret pleasure in his earnest praise. When she commanded him to clean barnacles and parasites from her scales, he did so with admirable alacrity and dexterity.
As days and weeks became months and years, she even deigned to converse with him on occasion, and if certain meditations on the nature of the world’s rains and waters were the topics on occasion, then what of it? If, in moments of boredom, the White Serpent offered a word or two of advice toward improving the fisherman’s little limb-waving rituals to capture a tiny fraction more of her inimitable lethality, then what of it?
Ten full years passed this way until one morning, the White Serpent rose from the abyssal depths of Lake Hei in the morning to find an unusual sight. The fisherman sat atop his rock, and next to him bobbed a little boat, carved from the bones of beasts she had deigned to allow him for his own meals and wrapped in the glittering scales from her favorite meals.
“What are you doing, fisherman?” the White Serpent asked, looming over him and his ship both.
“I am preparing to leave, O princess,” the fisherman replied calmly, scraping a length of driftwood flat with the side of his hand. “The time has come for me to move on. Let this humble fisherman thank you for your patience.”
“Why are you leaving, fisherman?” the White Serpent asked flatly, irritation causing her tail to flick, stirring up white-capped waves on the other side of the island.
“I must seek other inspirations in other lands,” the fisherman replied evenly, examining the newly carved oar.
“Is that so,” the White Serpent scoffed. “And just what do you expect to find?” she asked as clouds began to gather and rain began to fall.
“Perhaps nothing,” the fisherman admitted. “It is difficult to imagine that another might exceed the perfection of your venom or the beauty of your striking fangs, but I must seek such possibilities all the same.”
“Hmph. At least you acknowledge that it is a fool’s errand,” the White Serpent said.
Slowly, the fisherman looked up, regarding her with a furrowed brow. The scarred man reached up, pushing rain-soaked hair that had grown long in his time with the White Serpent from his face. “O princess, could it be that you do not wish for me to leave?”
“Obviously not,” the White Serpent rebutted imperiously. “You think too highly of yourself, fisherman.”
“I apologize for my impertinence,” the fisherman said, bowing his head once more. “Allow me to thank you once again for your magnanimity.”
And so it was that the fisherman left as he had come, rowing away to the lake’s western shore as the rain poured down. It had been an amusing diversion, the White Serpent supposed, but now it was done and life could return to normal.
... Perhaps she might even allow it to stop raining in a week or two.
In time, the White Serpent returned to the routine that had marked her life in the days before the fisherman’s stay, the unfocused frustration at the fisherman’s absence fading. Years once again passed by, blurring into one another.
Yet the White Serpent found that the peace of bygone days did not return. The humans on her shore were changing. Their cities were growing. It seemed that every decade brought more boats to her shallows and more noise to her shores. The humans began to on and off quarrel with one another, polluting her waters with the dead of their little wars and wrecks of ships. The clangor of their activities shattered the peace of her mornings and evenings.
Despite all this, the humans kept to the agreement that their ancestors had first made when their ancestors had arrived on her shores, and so the White Serpent merely grumbled. However, as the century which had begun with the fisherman’s departure closed, this changed. The city dwellers were having another of their intermittent wars, and two fleets had clashed. Through illusions, mists, and guile, the smaller fleet tricked their foes into sailing into the deep waters.
Sunning herself on her favorite island, the White Serpent had watched it happen, at first with incredulity, and then with rising fury. Even as the waters whirled, dragging the intruding fleet down like a hungry gullet, the White Serpent could hardly believe her senses. These creatures that she had so generously allowed to live on her shores had dared wield their agreement as a weapon, dared to treat her as a dumb obstacle, a reef on which to dash their foe’s boats. Before the last ship had even been dragged down, her tail flicked in the lake’s black waters, and the whole of Lake Hei roared and shook at the cataclysmic wave that came forth.
The fleet that directed the insult met the wave first and were reduced to splinters in an instant by the onrushing wall of water. However, when the wave crashed to shore, the White Serpent found herself shocked for the second time that day. From the cities rose eight masses of humans, dozens of little lights swarming around eight greater ones. At first she was unbothered, tasting the panic and terror that spread like miasma as the creatures faced their doom.
No, her shock came when in the minute before her wave could fall upon the shore, the eight groups came together and stopped it. She felt many of the little lights fade and die in the doing, but all the same, the crushing wave stopped, having hardly harmed the cities at all. The White Serpent was both displeased and mildly concerned. The wave had been no more than a momentary expression of anger, yet still, the humans had stopped it. What had she allowed to grow upon her shores?
She did not strike again. Not yet. Instead, she stared balefully at the eight cities, now abuzz with noise and activity. This was a problem she would have to contemplate. While she had no fear that the humans could slay her from what she had sensed, they might, in fact, have the strength to do her harm, and that was concerning.
So it was that the White Serpent was in an inauspicious mood indeed when a certain presence came once again to her shores. Indeed, when she sensed a little boat intruding upon her waters a mere few days after the incident, she very nearly responded to the intrusion with the full force of her power. Yet in the moment it took for her power to rise, a sense of familiarity stayed her fury. A century had passed, but to the White Serpent, solitary Princess of Still Waters, the presence of her one-time companion was not so easily forgotten.
The fisherman had changed. His hide was darkened by the sun and marked by even more scars, thick ridges of ill-repaired flesh running across his arms and chest. Streaks and speckles of silver marked his hair, improving his dull coloration. Instead of rags, he now wore a loose and roughspun tunic and shaded his eyes with a wide hat of woven straw.
Despite her ill mood, the White Serpent could not find it in herself to direct her anger at this human. For the moment, she even found herself pleased, forgetting her prior wrath. The humans of the cities had earned a brief reprieve while she dealt with something more interesting.
By the time his little boat bumped up against the stone he had first settled on, she had risen and placed herself upon the island to greet him. “Has your foolish quest ended then, fisherman?” she asked, a trifle smugly.
“It has, O princess,” the fisherman replied as he stepped onto the stone and bowed low. “In the end, there was only one place to which I could return.”
“Obviously,” the White Serpent preened. “Though I should chastise you for your foolishness. I suppose I may generously allow you to serve me once more.”
“No, O princess. I do not wish to renew our arrangement,” the man said calmly, not raising his head.
The White Serpent stared down at the fisherman from atop her coils and felt the sparks of wrath rekindled. “No? You would return here just to reject my kindness? Have you gone mad, fisherman?”
“If I am mad, I have always been so,” the fisherman replied, slowly straightening up. “O princess, I seek permission to court you, not to serve.”
The White Serpent’s thoughts stalled at the sheer absurdity of the human’s statement. “Your japes, poor as they were in the past, have sunk lower still in quality, fisherman,” she said flatly.
“I do not jape, O princess. There are none in all the world which can match your beauty. I wish to make myself your husband,” the fisherman said, removing his hat and bowing once again. The mad human’s voice was serious and unafraid.
“It is madness then,” the White Serpent scoffed, her anger dulled only by bafflement. “Foolish man, I am no thirsting dragon maiden, eager to squeeze my majesty into your kind’s pathetic frame to rut. It is only for your past service that I do not strike you down for such an insult. Apologize, and perhaps you may serve again.”
“I will not recant, O princess,” said the fisherman. “Your burning gaze and deadly venom entice more than any painted face. Your graceful coils are more alluring than any comely silhouette. I care not for the human frame, only for the beauty of your unrestrained self.”
The White Serpent was silent for a time. Some very small part of her found his words pleasing and not wholly abhorrent. This was the only reason she had not already struck him down. “You speak of my many virtues, fisherman, but you only reinforce your error. You call me princess, but it seems that you know not the meaning of that word. You are but a fisherman and offer me nothing. You reach far beyond yourself.”
“You speak truth, O princess,” the fisherman admitted. “This humble fisherman has little to offer, and yet… should you name a thing which this fisherman can offer as a price, this humble fisherman will give it to you. Please, if you doubt my worth, allow this humble fisherman to prove it to you.”
He really had become addled, the White Serpent thought grumpily. She could not do anything but kill him for this insult, especially after having so generously offered him an out not once but multiple times. Still, some part of her balked at devouring him. An idea came then, bringing two problems to one solution.
“Very well then,” she said haughtily. “The kings of the eight cities upon the shore have given me insult. Bring me their heads, and I shall at least consider your suit.”
They had been strong enough to deflect her wrath, strong enough that she intended to plan their demise rather than simply crush them. The fisherman too was strong. He would perhaps kill one or more, distracting the humans’ attentions and breaking up their sudden unity. After all, it was not as if the humans would suspect her of sending an assassin.
The fisherman raised his head and shaded his eyes, peering at the eastern shore with a contemplative look. “Very well, O princess. I will endeavor to complete the task quickly.”
The White Serpent silently scoffed as he took his leave. Fool. If he had simply come back to her and served, he could have lived well. The darkening storm clouds overhead marked a further deterioration of her mood.
The week that followed was marked by a great deal of noise, the White Serpent found. Although she could not fully sense the happenings in the cities, they were clearly in chaos. Her plan had at least worked in giving her time to prepare her own chastisement.
By the time the noise died down and descended into sullen silence, the clouds had been fully envenomed, and her qi had begun to soak into the groundwater, spreading beyond the shore of the lake. She was readying herself to unleash the torrential venomous rain that would be the first of the plagues visited upon the eight cities when she again felt something that baffled her.
Again, a little boat slid through her waters carrying a single man. It slipped out of the cities under the cover of morning mist and evaded patrolling boats with professional ease. The navigator of the boat was in ragged condition. Blood soaked his tunic and dripped from hastily bound wounds. His scalp was torn and bloody, and three fingers upon his left hand were gone. Yet it was the fisherman all the same. He clutched a crude three-pronged spear in his right hand, its wood soaked so deeply in blood that it had gone red, and at his feet was a lumpy sack stained a similar shade.
The White Serpent watched the boat come, the roiling clouds she had held in her grasp drifting away. She remained silent even as the fisherman climbed back upon his rock and dropped the sack at his feet. From her island, she could sense what lay within, the lingering power in dead flesh, the echoes of rulership that clung to the dripping blood.
“I have done as you asked, my princess,” said the fisherman in a rough and wet voice. There was blood in his lungs.
She did not chide him for his familiarity, but she did look at him with suspicion. “I will ask this again. Who are you, fisherman? The man who my eyes say standing before me could not have accomplished this.”
He let out a rattling breath, considering his answer. “I am Yao of the Skittering Fen where the Face Eater gathered the sons of men and left them in squalor and privation to strive against one another with only enticing visions and voices of her encouragement to drive them on and keep them from despair. I am Yao, who emerged from the pit and found my promised reward to be a bloated and indolent grub and so slew it and made its power my own,” he said, looking up at her. “... I am Yao, who sought the deadliest spirits in all the land, seeking the promises that had been made to me and who found, from the blood mad flowers in the West to the fallen dragons in the East, from the horrors of the Northern Sea to the warring gods of the South, none who made his heart beat as you do, my Princess of Still Waters.”
The White Serpent peered down at the fisherman and focused, and for a moment, she glimpsed what lay beyond the still lake of the fisherman’s spirit. She sighed. “Foolish man. Sit down and heal. You will be very busy in the coming days.”
He blinked slowly, even as he moved to follow her command. “What is your intention, my princess?” he asked, a note of cautious hope entering his flat voice.
“If you are going to court a princess, you will have to be a king,” she said haughtily. “Luckily for you, I find myself bored, and so I will help you with that.”
For the first time the fisherman laughed. “My gratitude, my princess.”
The White Serpent scoffed. “Enough of such flattery. My name is…”
What came after in those peaceful days before Yao took his crown, none save the Serpent and Fisherman could say.
--From an anthology of children's stories passed down in the Thousand Lakes province.