1. The friend scratching the wall
Roll, roll, roll.
The rolling ball came to a stop in front of a tree-covered door.
“I found it!”
The girl chasing the ball looked at the ball in her small hands and then at the door.
“There’s a door here?”
The handle of the door, which seemed not to have been opened for a long time, was covered in spiderwebs, and a rusty, old lock, long turned red, filled the handle.
“What kind of place is this?”
With curious eyes, the girl lightly knocked on the door.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Is there anyone inside?”
However, there was no answer.
“There’s a hole here.”
The girl discovered a broken hole underneath the old wooden door.
It was unclear whether the wood had decayed or if a mouse had chewed out the hole.
“Is there anyone inside?”
The girl lay down and put her face against the hole.
But the only sound that echoed in the empty space was her own voice.
That’s when it happened.
A sound of scratching the wall came from beyond the door.
This was undoubtedly the sound of scratching the wall.
“Who can’t come out from inside? Is anyone in there?”
The girl kept calling, but inside, there was only the sound of the wall being scratched.
“Should I open the door?”
Of course, the girl didn’t have a key.
But the door seemed so old that it felt like it would break with just a little push.
Breaking this door in the young girl’s mind seemed like nothing.
“Just wait a moment. I’ll open the door…”
As the girl was about to push the old wooden door with all her might, a maid who had hurriedly run over quickly removed the girl’s hand from the door.
The maid, who had rushed over, quickly pulled the girl’s hand away.
“There’s someone inside.”
“Princess, this door should never be opened.”
“I don’t know why, but you must not open this door.”
The maid hugged the child with both arms.
Then, as if there was something frightening behind the door, she shivered and quickly left the place.
“My ball! I didn’t bring my ball!”
“I’ll give you another ball, Your Highness.”
“My ball is right there!”
The child shouted, but the maid didn’t look back and left the place.
* * *
As the night grew dark, the surroundings became quiet.
Breaking the silence of the night, the sound of small footsteps echoed.
Carefully walking through the darkness was the girl from earlier.
Her name was Cheong-Ah.
She was the princess of Saloguk, born of the king’s first lover.
Now six years old, she received only love in the palace, having grown up without anything to fear.
She knew that no one within the palace would harm her.
In fact, it was already time to sleep, but she had sneaked out of her chamber without the nanny’s knowledge.
‘There it is, my ball.’
The ball lost during the day was still there.
That ball was made by Empress Yeon-ri, Cheong-Ah’s Empress mother who had passed away due to illness last year. At that time, Cheong-Ah had cried a lot.
Approaching the broken hole in the wooden door that she had seen during the day, Cheong-Ah, holding the ball, leaned down.
Listening closely, she heard no sound.
“Is it still there?”
Soon after, the sound of scratching the wall became audible.
“Why won’t you talk? Can’t you speak?”
The sound of scratching the wall continued from inside.
“If you’re inside, there’s nothing to eat. I brought something to eat.”
Cheong-Ah took a small rice ball from her embrace.
She had secretly set aside some rice from the evening meal, later molding it into a rice ball, and also brought some leftover snacks.
Wrapping the rice ball and snacks in a silk handkerchief, Cheong-Ah securely tied it and then slid it through the hole.
A sound of something rolling down echoed from below.
It was evident that right behind the wooden door was a steep staircase.
“Did you get it?”
Then, the sound of scratching the wall was heard.
It was clearly a sign of acknowledgment.
“I’ll bring more tomorrow.”
With the ball in her arms, Cheong-Ah quickly ran away.
She couldn’t be caught by the nanny; otherwise, there would be trouble, and she wouldn’t be able to come here again.
The nanny occasionally came to check if Cheong-Ah was sleeping well, so she had to return quickly.
* * *
“Have Princess been eating well these days?”
“Yeah, she’s been eating really well. Maybe it’s because she’s growing a lot?”
“That might be it. She used to leave snacks behind, but these days, she doesn’t leave a single one.”
“Thanks to that, we have nothing to eat.”
The maids, who were tidying up the princess’s clothes, chuckled.
But none of them had a displeased expression. The young princess received love from everyone in the palace, and to these maids, she was indeed an adorable presence.
The royal family of Saloguk was scarce through generations. The descendants were so rare that only one royal child was born in a generation, and sometimes, none were born.
Even if born, many did not survive past ten years old, and the royal family considered the birth of either a princess or a prince as a precious event.
Princess Cheong-Ah had no siblings. Two princes were born before her, but the first prince died just two months after birth, and the second prince did not live past his first birthday.
After that, several concubines had been appointed, but all their pregnancies ended in miscarriages, and the only child to be born and grow up safely was Cheong-Ah.
Because of this, even a minor illness of Cheong-Ah would cause a stir throughout the palace.
The current king was not of royal blood; he was from a noble family and ascended to the throne through marriage.
In the previous generation, since there was only one princess in the royal family, they brought in a noblewoman to marry and bear a princess before making her the Empress.
The princess was Cheong-Ah’s mother, and the king, Cheong-Ah’s father.
In the previous generation, there was only one Empress from the royal family, Cheong-Ah’s mother.
The royal court constantly advised the king to bring in more concubines to bear offspring and tried through concubines to increase the number of heirs, but the pregnancies were difficult, and even if they succeeded, safely giving birth was not an easy task.
“How wonderful it would be if the princess continued to grow up healthy like this.”
“If Empress Yeon-ri were still alive…”
“Princess followed Empress Yeon-ri so well…”
Yeon-ri was a concubine of the late king who passed away last year. After two miscarriages, she eventually left this world. In her lifetime, she received the king’s favor, especially for how she cared for Princess Cheong-Ah.
After the first miscarriage, perhaps Yeon-ri realized she might not bear another child. That’s why she cherished Princess Cheong-Ah, born to the Empress, as if she were her own.
“Is the princess asleep?”
“Yeah, I saw her lying down in bed and turned off the lights before coming out.”
“Really? Then let’s take a break too.”
The maids, who had finished organizing the clothes, stretched and yawned.
The night was already deep, and the palace was being engulfed in a quiet darkness.
‘Everyone must be asleep now.’
Recently, Cheong-Ah had a secret.
‘I wonder if the nanny is asleep too.’
Quietly descending from the bed, Cheong-Ah took out a handkerchief hidden under the bed.
Inside the handkerchief were snacks and a rice ball.
Not yet six years old, Cheong-Ah was mischievous and careful.
She checked that there was no one at the door of the chamber but did not exit through the door. Since the window wasn’t too high, she placed a chair, climbed over the window, and swiftly walked in the darkness.
Cheong-Ah’s destination was the backyard of an abandoned palace.
In the palace, there was an abandoned palace where no one lived.
It had been neglected for a long time, and the grass had grown up to Cheong-Ah’s waist. Until recently, Cheong-Ah didn’t even know such a place existed.
If a ball hadn’t rolled over by chance, she might not have known about this abandoned palace.
The abandoned palace was full of dust and cobwebs. The front and backyards were overgrown with grass, and behind the overgrown grass in the backyard was a small wooden door.
The wooden door had a rusty lock, and beneath it, there was a basement, a fact even young Cheong-Ah could guess.
“I’m here. Are you sleeping?”
Speaking into the broken gap of the wooden door, she heard a scratching sound as if in response.
That sound was Cheong-Ah’s secret.
“Are you hungry?”
Cheong-Ah had a secret friend.
This friend lived in the underground here, the ‘scratching friend.’
Why this friend was confined underground and why it couldn’t speak, Cheong-Ah didn’t know. But when she spoke to it, it responded by scratching the wall.
So, every night, Cheong-Ah brought food and threw it through the hole.
“Later, when you can talk, I’ll teach you a name. Okay?”
What Cheong-Ah was most curious about was the name of the friend living underground.
Cheong-Ah had no friends.
There were many concubines and maids who adored Cheong-Ah, but there were no friends of the same age.
‘Until you come of age, it’s advisable not to keep girls of similar age around you. Your energy might be taken away.’
Because Princess Cheong-Ah is so precious, and to ensure she grows up safely until adulthood, girls of the same age are strictly not allowed in the palace.
Cheong-Ah doesn’t understand the concept of having her energy taken away. She simply dislikes not having any friends. Due to the possibility of being bitten, Cheong-Ah cannot have dogs or cats as pets. It is said that after Cheong-Ah was born, all the bird cages in the palace were removed, and no one was allowed to raise birds.
Therefore, Cheong-Ah cherished this newfound secret friend. Even though it couldn’t speak and only scratched the wall, there was hope that one day, when she opened the door and went down, she could see her friend’s face.
“I’ll come again tomorrow.”
It was disappointing to leave, but being greedy might lead to being caught by the nanny. Cheong-Ah was young but clever, so she knew she had to return quickly.
Just after Cheong-Ah left, beyond the broken hole in the wood, a different sound, not the scratching of the wall, flowed through.
The sound was coming up through the dark passage, flowing through the broken door.
* * *
Finally, Cheong-Ah, holding a small hammer, took a deep breath.
‘Today’s the day.’
Finally, the long-awaited day had come.
‘They must all be asleep now.’
It was already around midnight.
The surroundings were quiet, and the maids who had been noisy during the day must have all fallen asleep. Even the nanny, who usually kept a vigilant eye, seemed to have aged lately, going to sleep early.
Cheong-Ah could now climb over the window without needing a chair because she had grown taller.
Cheong-Ah was now twelve years old. For six years, she had been walking this path every night, heading to the backyard of the abandoned palace. And today, she was determined to carry out the plan she had eagerly prepared—to break that darn wooden door and finally meet her long-time friend, the ‘scratching friend,’ who resided underground.
The path to the abandoned palace was originally overgrown with grass, but over six years, Cheong-Ah had been walking back and forth without a single day missed. In other words, she had made a clear path for herself.
The path was practically paved as Cheong-Ah had never skipped a single day in these six years. Of course, during this time, her underground friend had never spoken a single word to her.
“Hello. I’m here.”
Cheong-Ah whispered through the now seemingly small hole. Even though the hole was small, Cheong-Ah knew that her voice would resonate loudly inside.
“Today, I’m going down there myself.”
Cheong-Ah lifted the hammer.
At this point, it didn’t matter what was underground. Why? Because she had developed enough affection for whatever was down there over the six years.
In truth, Cheong-Ah secretly hoped there might be something like a big dog or a wolf underground. But she knew things wouldn’t always go as she wished.
Nevertheless, until she turned twelve, Cheong-Ah had grown up well. Until the age of six, she had some childhood illnesses, but after that, she hadn’t suffered from any common ailments.
For her safety, a grand feast had been held last month to celebrate Cheong-Ah turning twelve. However, no other child had been born besides Cheong-Ah.
If no prince was born by the time Cheong-Ah turned nineteen, she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and marry a suitable husband, inheriting the throne through that marriage.
While it would be best for a prince to be born before then, the likelihood of that happening now was nearly nonexistent.
Cheong-Ah muttered to herself as she lifted the hammer.
The night palace was extremely quiet. That’s why the sound of the hammer could spread far.
Therefore, Cheong-Ah carefully tapped the lock with the hammer.
‘The sound is too loud…’
But no matter how quietly she tried, the sound of tapping the rusty lock was too loud.
‘Just once more…’
Cheong-Ah struck the lock with the hammer again.
At that moment, the long-rusted and worn lock crumbled, releasing a shower of iron filings.
As the lock broke, Cheong-Ah quickly opened the door.
As expected, beyond the door was a stone staircase leading down.
Not only was it dark inside, but the stairs were also steep.
Without caution, one might stumble and fall.
Cheong-Ah lifted a torch.
To prevent any light from revealing her, she had covered the thick fabric around the torch.
The light from the small torch was faint.
But it was much better than complete darkness.
Holding the torch in one hand and gripping the wall with the other, Cheong-Ah carefully descended the stairs.
How far had she descended?
Cheong-Ah wrinkled her face at the humid air.
The floor was also damp and slippery.
‘I’ve descended all the way, but…’
Although she had descended all the stairs, there was nothing visible.
‘Where is it?’
“I’m here. I came.”
Cheong-Ah cautiously called out to her friend.
Then, from the right, the sound of scratching against the wall could be heard.
“Are you over there?”
Overjoyed, Cheong-Ah lifted the torch and walked carefully to the right.
She touched the moss-covered wall as she walked, and in front of Cheong-Ah’s eyes appeared an iron lattice.
‘Could they be trapped inside?’
Approaching closer, Cheong-Ah pressed her face against the bars.
“Are you in there?”
When Cheong-Ah called out again, the scratching sound on the wall stopped, and something large smoothly moved, causing a ripple in the darkness. Cheong-Ah witnessed the phenomenon of shimmering darkness for the first time.
‘It’s not darkness… it’s…’
However, soon she realized that what shimmered in front of her was not darkness but something massive. It was so large that it reached the ceiling. Cheong-Ah raised her torch higher.
When she pushed the raised torch into the bars, the inside of the bars became slightly brighter. Then, Cheong-Ah saw it.
Inside the bars was a giant, black snake, coiling itself. Its head reached the ceiling, and the entire inside of the bars was filled with the snake’s coiled body. Every time the tail of the snake moved, it produced the scratching sound on the wall that Cheong-Ah had been hearing for six years.
‘A snake in the wall…!’
She couldn’t have imagined a snake being here, especially one so large and frightening.
Cheong-Ah screamed, dropping her torch. As the snake illuminated its dark eyes and tilted its head toward the bars, Cheong-Ah quickly stepped back.
Terrified, Cheong-Ah screamed and retreated. The snake, with its dark eyes shining, tilted its head toward the bars, and Cheong-Ah quickly stepped back.
Panicking, Cheong-Ah screamed and fled. She couldn’t even pick up her fallen torch, running through the darkness, rushing up the stairs, stumbling a few times, tearing her skirt, and scraping her knees, but she ran without feeling the pain.
When she emerged from the underground, the nanny embraced Cheong-Ah.
“Princess! What happened!”
Wiping her tears and looking closely, she saw not only the nanny but also maids and soldiers who had come, probably alerted by the hammering sound.
“Th-there’s a snake below! A snake!”
Even after escaping, Cheong-Ah was still in shock as she cried out. The friend who scratched the wall turned out to be a snake, and not just any snake but a huge, terrifying one.
“Quick, block the door! Nail it securely! Hurry!”
The nanny shouted to the soldiers, and in her still frightened state, Cheong-Ah screamed to the nanny.
“There’s a snake underneath! A snake!”
If she had known that the friend who scratched the wall was a snake and such a large and frightening one, she would never have come here.
“Hurry, block the door! Secure it tightly! Quickly!”
* * *
“I was going to tell you when you grew up, but you went down there…”
Empress Dowager sighed heavily and began to speak.
She wasn’t particularly angry.
“That place is an ancient prison.”
Currently, Cheong-Ah was confronting the Empress Dowager.
The Emperor, hearing the news that she had gone down there, came to meet her.
Now that the surprise had subsided, Cheong-Ah still didn’t understand why a snake was in such a place.
“It’s a snake that can ruin the country.”
“How can a snake ruin a country?”
“That prison has been there since before this palace was built. We built this palace on top of that prison. It happened seven hundred years ago.”
“Seven hundred years… How can a snake live that long?”
“That’s because it’s not an ordinary snake. That snake is an immortal being.”
“When a snake, living for a long time, gains spiritual energy, it becomes indistinguishable from a deity. Before it became an immortal being, that snake lived for several hundred years. Our ancestors put it in that prison before it became an immortal. Then, to ensure it never escapes, they built the palace on top of it and have kept the snake confined ever since.”
“Why was it confined? If it’s a dangerous snake, why not kill it?”
“If the snake dies, the country will be ruined.”
“You’re saying a snake that can ruin the country. But if you kill the snake, the country will be ruined?”
Twelve-year-old Cheong-Ah couldn’t comprehend the content at all.
“Our founding ancestor, who established this country a very long time ago…”
Empress Dowager continued the story with a serious expression.
Even young Cheong-Ah could sense that this was a story without lies or exaggerations.
* * *
A long time ago, before the country of Saroguk existed on this land, our ancestor encountered a massive immortal snake.
Recognizing the spiritual energy of the snake, the ancestor knew that it would undoubtedly bring prosperity to the country, so they made a promise with the snake.
‘If you make my country prosperous, I will give you my daughter for marriage.’
The snake, desiring a human daughter, accepted the proposal. The ancestor, through the snake’s energy, succeeded in everything they did.
They gathered people, established a capital, and founded a country. Once a fairly plausible country was built, and an army was formed, the snake spoke to the ancestor.
‘Now, fulfill your promise. Give me your daughter.’
However, unwilling to give their daughter to the ominous snake, the ancestor lied cunningly to the snake.
‘My daughter is waiting there.’
Believing that the human daughter was waiting, the snake went underground but was trapped in a pre-prepared prison.
The iron bars of the prison were made by mixing snake blood, making it unbreakable for the snake. The snake was confined inside, and on top of it, a door was built, sealed with a lock, and then the royal palace was constructed.
This was done to suppress the snake’s energy with the human’s energy. Access for people was restricted.
‘If I am ever released, I will ruin your country. I will curse your descendants, and none of them will leave any offspring on this land.’
The snake spread the curse, and from then on, the curse began, causing the descendants after the ancestor to become rare.
Perhaps due to the curse, only a few descendants were born into the royal family over several hundred years, and with each generation, the lineage became even more scarce.
Since it had been seven hundred years since the snake was confined there, most people outside the royal family didn’t know about the snake imprisoned there.
The king would tell the next heir about the snake, and inheriting the throne meant taking on the responsibility of guarding the prison and keeping the snake confined. This was something Cheong-ah only learned for the first time.
“Never go down there again. If the snake is released, the country will perish,” the king repeatedly warned.
The king continued to emphasize, “That snake is a calamity that would ruin the country. It harbors resentment against us.”
‘The one who first broke the promise was our ancestor, but…’
Cheong-ah sat by the window, lost in thought.
The fear had subsided to some extent, but it hadn’t entirely disappeared. The shock and fear she felt when she saw the snake were indescribable.
Even after seven hundred years of confinement, what if the snake was that terrifying and enormous before it was trapped?
‘But who would want to marry a snake like that?’
Cheong-ah pondered on the window ledge. Breaking the promise was a wrong act, but the daughter who ended up marrying the snake because of her father’s promise was also pitiable.
‘I dislike the country too… Such things…’
If it were her, she would have undoubtedly run away. Hence, the snake’s desire to marry a human was the wicked aspect.
If it had demanded something else, the ancestor would probably not have complied.
‘Yes. Such a wicked snake should remain confined forever.’
Cheong-ah closed her eyes tightly. She had decided not to go to the abandoned palace again. She intended to forget what lay beneath completely.
She would live without caring about what might be in the underground prison, including the snake.
But of all places, she dropped the ball there.
She realized later that the ball had fallen from her arms as she dropped to the ground and ran away.
She had brought her most cherished ball to show it off, but later, she couldn’t find it anywhere.
It was undoubtedly dropped in that underground place.
‘There’s nothing I can do… It was an old ball…’
Although it was a ball made by Yeonri-bi, who used to care for her a lot, now there was nothing she could do.
She didn’t want to think about it, but the dark eyes of the snake kept coming to her mind, making her shiver.
‘I’ll forget it all.’
Cheong-ah climbed onto her bed and crawled under the blanket. She covered herself entirely with the blanket, closing her eyes.
That night, Cheong-ah had a nightmare about the snake.
It was a terrifying dream of the snake swallowing her whole.
Support for more