by Sean Hower
The end of a snake’s tail, as big around as Nikul’s leg and colored in alternating bands of dark red and green, slid along the ground. The body gradually became as large as Nikul’s chest and the colored bands faded into solid green. Small nubs appeared all along its length, like little arms that twisted and stretched to escape the scaly flesh.
Its face, partially hidden by foliage, was that of a dying man with sunken cat-eyes and translucent skin pulled tight across a spiny skull. Its mouth stretched into a smile too large for its head. Its jaw dangled as though it had been broken and only the skin kept it from falling away.
Terror blocked out Nikul’s pain and brought the world into focus. He tried to get to his feet, but his fear also held him to the ground.
“No need to hurry away,” the creature said. “Ah, guests from across the river!”
Nikul forced himself to follow the creature’s gaze. The three Kyuwai were transfixed just a few paces away.
“I’ve never had so many visitors at one time,” the creature said. “What to do with you all?” Its head began to rock from side to side and with a quick snap of its neck it spat. The liquid splashed against the Kyuwai and solidified into an amber wave that encased them.
“That should keep them until I can deal with you,” the creature said. It narrowed its eyes on Nikul.
“Great Spirit,” Nikul struggled to make his mouth form the words as he looked away from the creature. “Your power is great, I can see that. What could such a great being want with someone as insignificant as me?”
“I was going to eat you, but now that I have them I’ll have to devise some other use for you. What is your name, trespasser?”
“Nikul, of the Theehan people. A most unworthy young man.”
“What are you doing in my forest?”
“I was running from these three when I accidentally came into your forest, Great Spirit. Please forgive my impertinence. I wouldn’t have intruded if I had known this was your home.”
“But intrude you did,” the creature cackled. “You woke me up.”
“I offer all of my apologies, Great Spirit,” Nikul said. “I will never come into these woods again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will leave you to go back to sleep.”
“You’ll never leave these woods,” the creature said, coiling its body around Nikul, “so you make a weak promise.”
“Then you will kill me, Great Spirit?”
“I don’t know,” the creature said, annoyed. “I can never make up my mind in the morning. Perhaps you could amuse me in some way until I’m hungry enough to eat you.”
“I am a great entertainer,” Nikul said, embellishing his talents. “I have memorized many stories that I could tell you. I have perfect memory for such an unworthy wretch.”
“Stories bore me,” the creature said. It drew its gaunt face up to Nikul’s. “I have heard many and they all sound the same to me now. But you say you have perfect memory and that interests me. Tell me, what is it about your memory that is perfect?”
“I can memorize anything that is told to me or that I see. That’s why I’m a runner.”
“Yes, Great Spirit. I am a trusted messenger. I was sent to take word of the Kyuwai attack to our cousins, the Hammanu. Without their help, the Kyuwai will slaughter my people.”
The creature slithered around the Kyuwai men. The nubs along its torso crept out towards the blue-eyed man and broke him free. The creature opened its mouth impossibly wide and put the Kyuwai in. The amber material that encased the Kyuwai fizzled and melted away. The creature chomped down, popping off the Kyuwai’s head.
Another wave of nausea swept up from Nikul’s stomach. He’d seen men gored by aggressive bucks and even eviscerated by the big cats that prowled the foothills and mountains. Such things were just a part of life. There was something malicious about this though, taunting almost, and he couldn’t watch.
The creature was pleased and licked its lips when it finished its snack. “Slaughtered?” it said happily. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. I can’t remember when it was that I last saw an entire people exterminated.”
“Great Spirit,” Nikul said, searching for the strength to face the creature. “If violence is what you enjoy you’ll have more of it if you let me go.”
“How is that?”
“As I said Great Spirit, I’m to bring word to the Hammanu about the danger my people face.” Nikul chanced a glance at the creature and was encouraged to see that it had moved away from the Kyuwai and was slithering up the trunk of an oak. “If I succeed, the Hammanu will send warriors to our aid. There will be a big battle. Many people will die.” Grief swept through Nikul’s immediate fears. Visions of Kyuwai warriors charging into the village, slaughtering the men and then taking the women and children away, filled his thoughts. “It will be,” he forced back a sob, “a great entertainment.”
The creature was now wrapped around a low branch. “Look at me when you speak,” it sputtered.
Nikul tried to hide his sadness before looking at the creature.
It lowered itself down from the branch so that its face was level with Nikul’s. “But if you bring help, your village might not be destroyed. There will just be a battle and I’ve seen plenty of those.”
“I beg you to let me go, Great Spirit,” Nikul said. He regretted the panic that escaped with his word.
“Of course you do, but I don’t see how I benefit. If I let you go, your people might survive. If I keep you here, they will all die and I’ll have you to snack on while I watch.”
Nikul realized that he could not appeal to the creature’s empathy. He needed to try some other tactic. “Do you enjoy a gamble?”
The creature grinned even more. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’ll wager my freedom and safe passage out of the forest that I have a better memory than you.”
The creature let out a thick, guttural laugh. “And if you lose I can do with you as I please?”
Nikul stopped himself from thinking about the meaning of that and nodded.
Copyright © 2012 by Sean Hower