The thousand steps of the serpent path shimmered in the morning heat. It was customary to walk the path at dawn, before the sun cleared the tel, but when the summons came then customary was no longer the order of the day. When the summons came, you answered without hesitation.
She kicked off her sandals and closed her eyes, remembering the rules.You are standing on sacred ground. There were a thousand steps in the serpent path, and it was beyond customary to walk them barefoot. It was the law.
The first step burned as she laid her bare foot on the carved white stone, and she hurried to shift her weight to the next foot, and the next step, and then the next, until she was running the serpent path, every step a searing agony, her lungs burning along with her feet. She gasped for air, unable to catch her breath, but the idea of pausing, of standing on the hot stones for even a moment, was unbearable.
When the path ended, high on the tel, she barely noticed it. Stumbling on the sudden elevation of the temple threshold, she sprawled flat on her belly in the cool shade, panting, stripped of the energy to move.She could feel the sun beating down on the scorched soles of her feet, but after a thousand steps of pain it was barely worth the effort to draw them in.
After an infinity of time, she found that she had moved them; she huddled on her knees, sucking the coolness of the temple floor into her overheated body, pressing her cheek into the smoothly dressed stones. She didn’t even look up at the sound of the priests’ measured steps as they gathered in a semicircle around her.
“You have been summoned.” a voice intoned.
She kept her face down, not daring to look. “I have answered the summons.”
“The god angers,” a different priest murmured, and she closed her eyes, clinging to the temple stones as a chorus of agreement echoed softly around her. She could feel her heart fluttering against her chest, her breath growing suddenly short. “The god demands sacrifice.”
“I serve the god,” she managed, her head spinning.“I serve the will of the temple.”There was a crack in the stone. She wondered if it would suddenly grow large enough to swallow her, but it refused to move.Her hands were trembling.She could see blackness at the edge of her vision.
“Then you will serve as sacrifice.” There was no menace in the priest’s voice, but there was no regret either. “You have walked the serpent path.Now you will walk it to its end.”
A hand fell on her shoulder, lifted her. It was dark in the shade of the temple, but she could see the white gleam of the path continuing onward through the portico and out the other side, the cracked stone one of a dozen white steps that would carry her back out into the blinding sun. She had never known the path continued.
“I–” Her voice faltered.
“You have walked a thousand steps.You will walk a thousand more, and then you will be in the hands of the god.” She couldn’t see the priest’s face beneath the pale hood; she couldn’t see any of their faces. “You serve the will of the god?” It was barely a question.
“I serve the will of the god.” She had no other choice.
There were a dozen steps, cool and pale, and then her foot came down on the sunlit stone and fire lanced its way up her leg once again.She felt tears sting her face at the pain, but her body moved without thinking and she took a step, and then another, and then she was running once again, a thousand more steps of fire and sunlight, until there was nothing left of her but the fire of the serpent stones and the fire of the air in her lungs and the fire of the sun on her skin.
And then there was nothing beneath her feet, and nothing but the wind around her. She saw something falling, tumbling and bouncing down the edge of the tel, but the god was there, with her, within her, and she flew.