The Serpent This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

December 3, 2012
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The water is still colder than normal, still clinging to the tail of winter although the ice thawed months ago. As the waves lap at the shore, we wait. Sea foam clings to the rocky shore like clouds that forgot how to fly. Dawn hasn't found us yet – the sky still struggles to awaken from the dark slumber. We watch from our perches on the shore, the ones that keep us out of the sea and its Sea Beasts. Of course, there are all sorts of Beasts, both of the land and the sea. They are everywhere – in trees, under rocks, in the mountains, and in the sky – but the rocks guarded us from the ones in the sea.

We watch the ocean for them. Until the sun crests the horizon, the Serpents will be out, writhing in the shallow water, hoping something will come close so they can feed their young that nest in burrows under the water. I can see their spines break the dark water in the moonlight, glittering metallic silver and gold, slicing the water as easily as they would my skin.

Blake, the burliest of our tribe's small hunting group, always tells tales of seeing Serpents a hundred feet long coiling and gnashing in the surf when he was young. Though the largest I've seen was only twenty feet and no thicker than my thigh, I'm not brave enough to refute his claims. Blake is nearly thirty, an elder by our standards. It is possible that he had seen bigger beasts, before the Plague swept through, killing almost everything from plants to beasts to people like us. Blake, though not the biggest of our tribe of fifty, is the strongest. He's been a Hunter all his life and has wrestled with some of the worst of the Beasts and lived to tell of it. Still, he's most wary of the Serpents.

They say that the Serpents are the deadliest of all the Beasts except for Dragons, although no one has ever seen one and thus can't validate their existence. The Serpents prowl during the Dark Months, when the moon sits on the sun, only letting muted light through. They prey on the fish and birds who land on the rocks and wander down from the jungle for a drink or to fish. The Serpents catch their prey with powerful jaws filled with rows and rows of jagged teeth. Once caught, they squeeze it, wrapping their muscular bodies around the carcass so tight their entrails begin to burst out. Then, the other Serpents catch the scent of the blood and attack the killer. They'll fight viciously until there is a victor, or until both are dead.

Once or twice a Hunter has met his fate in the dark waters among the Serpents. Sometimes, they escape with all but a finger or limb intact, but mostly they are torn apart, leaving nothing behind but murky water.

But the Serpents are not always there. Sometimes, the water is safe for us, like when the sun peeks around the moon for an hour or so before hiding again, or during the Light Months when the moon is gone. The Serpents fear the sunlight, since it is their only predator. Rumor has it that if a foolish or immature Serpent is caught by the sunlight, he will catch fire, right there in the water. Even if he dives deep to escape the direct light, the fire will be not extinguished. He will burn like a dry twig. Blake says he's seen it happen. He wears a pair of Serpent teeth around his neck to prove it.

The villagers say he slayed those Serpents for their teeth, one for each of his wives who was dragged into the surf by Serpents. Blake doesn't talk much, so I don't know if that's the truth. The villagers revere him for it. They think he is godly. I think he needs to find cleverer wives.

“We'll move soon,” Blake says, pointing up to the moon. The eastern side glows more than the other sides, foreshadowing where the sun will peek. We don't have long, I suspect, since the moon is starting to move toward the highest part of the sky chasing the sun across the space.

Blake shifts his spear and sword holster. I notice a seam at his shoulder where the stitches are beginning to break.

“Your strap is frayed,” I say. He grunts and swats my hand away. Silly girl. He doesn't say that aloud, but I hear it anyway. Blake doesn't like me much, though I don't know why. Ever since the prophet Ismail announced that I would be a Hunter, he's shot dark looks at me. Before, he mostly ignored me, nudging me away so he could talk to my father in private. He really disliked me when Ismail gave the news. Girls shouldn't be Hunters, he explained to everyone. They are too weak and frail. They will faint at the first sight of blood.

I've never been squeamish about blood. When my father came home with bloodied knuckles or cuts on his arms, I healed them for him without flinching. My father was a Hunter too – the best after Blake, even though he was ten years older. But my father wasn't good enough in a scuffle with a Horned Beast. That boar tore him to shreds. I didn't even recognize his corpse. Blake, my father's dearest companion, kept an eye on me but never spoke to me again.

I wonder if he ignores me because of the rumors. My father was said to have been plotting my marriage to Blake. He valued Father's opinion, but he must have found something quite undesirable about me to disobey my father's wishes by marrying those other women. Maybe he blames me for their deaths. Our ten-year age difference is not unworldly, since many women in our tribe die sooner than the men and many were lost to the Plague years ago. My mother died during the Plague. I was three. I don't want to marry Blake. He is bitter and angry and dark. He's seen too much.

Now, Blake shifts on the rock. He moves from his flattened position to a crouch, still careful to keep his head below the point of the rock. The other four Hunters, young men from our village, copy his movements, watching the moon and sun like hawks. Blake's leg muscles are coiled like a lion's, ready to pounce. Today, he wants to kill a Serpent to take back to the village. In two days, the Light Months will be back, and nothing will be a greater symbol of a good year than the head of a Serpent on our table and its sweet and salty meat in our bellies.

I grip my spear until my knuckles turn white, but it feels big and awkward in my grasp. I touch the hilt of the dagger pinned against my side. I can use it expertly, and just its presence calms my nerves. I take a deep breath, trying to soothe the butterflies in my belly.

Blake raises one eyebrow, reminding me silently that I can sit this out if I am too afraid, and he won't tell anyone of my cowardice, even though they would understand. In defiance, I decide I will not sit out, even if I am afraid.

I narrow my eyes and clench my jaw. He huffs a bitter laugh and shakes his head. Silly girl.

The sun peeks a sliver of light from behind the moon. The water comes alive with movement as the Serpents begin to flee the sun's rays.

“Now!” Blake bellows as he surges over the top of the rock. He doesn't see the Serpent coiled in a small cave under the cluster of rocks we perch on. I don't see him either until Blake is plunging toward the water.

Aspen, an older Hunter, sees the Serpent and his hand shoots out to stop Blake as he screams a warning. His fingers wrap around Blake's holster, right above the frayed seam. Blake's weight is too much, and with a deadly pop, the seam snaps and Blake flails toward the water. Thrown off course, Blake thumps into the side of the cliff before tumbling like a rag doll the remaining ten feet.

The sun slinks back behind the moon, plunging the world in dark again. The Hunters hesitate, watching the water as Blake splashes. He bobs up once, then vanishes.

“Aren't you going to help him?” I scream at the fearful Hunters. They slouch.

“He's lost,” one named Rush ­answers.

“He's not!” I yell, both in fear and elation. “He's alive – we must help him!”

The others make no move to do anything. They gape at me as though I am the one who is mad. Seeing they are not going to help, I perch on the edge, ready to dive. In truth, Blake is the only family I have left – my mother and father in the grave, my brother lost to the jungle.

I plunge into the icy water, feeling the warmth of sun begin to glow on my back. The water hits me like a wall. The currents drag and pull at me though the water is only thigh deep.

I try to get my feet under me. ­Finally, I catch sight of Blake bobbing at the mouth of a cave. I can almost hear the hisses of the Serpents. I splash through the surf, using my spear to help keep me on my feet. I grab Blake's arm and drag his heavy weight toward me, keeping my eyes on the cave. I roll him onto his back and balance his weight against my chest. He's unconscious and has a grisly cut on his forehead. I hold his head and chest against me with one arm, my spear with the other.

The sunlight wavers. Something ­ripples in the water nearby. Before I can move, a triangular head bursts out of the water. The teeth graze my arm, as a spear suddenly pins him to the dense sea floor below. His beady eyes glare demonically at me as he squirms, slowly bleeding out. I glance up to see Aspen ordering the Hunters to give him another spear.

The sun is back. I scan the cliff for a way up. I'm not strong enough to carry Blake. Nearly fifty feet down the cliff, the wall of rock breaks to a small shore. If I can swim there, I can drag us up on the beach and save us both.

The sunlight flickers out again and the water comes alive all around me. Rows of teeth begin nipping at my legs and arms, some even leap to snag my hair. These are the small ones, barely three feet long and not much thicker than my arm. I snatch my dagger out of my belt. I cut them off Blake, then myself, as they cling like leeches and munch on our skin. Small pieces of Serpent bodies float in the water around me.

The sunlight returns. I abandon my task as a few distracted Serpents catch on fire as the sunlight touches them. I drag us through the shallow water toward the beach. I've made it halfway when the light fades again. Blake stirs.

“Wake up!” I scream. “Wake up, Blake. Help me!”

But he's not conscious enough to hear me. The tiny Serpents are back, snapping at my bleeding wounds. I ­divide my frantic time between beating off the small Serpents and dragging us closer to the beach. Suddenly, the Serpents disperse even though the sun has not returned. The water goes deadly calm; even the currents stand still. From the cliff top, the Hunters begin screaming.

The water ripples, nearly creating waves as the largest Serpent I have ever seen circles us. It must be a hundred feet long and three feet thick. It circles, its scales shimmering in the silver light.

Aspen hurls spears down, but the Serpent avoids them. I try to move us faster, but not fast enough to cause the Beast to strike. Sweat beads on my face, my heart hammers in my chest, and my legs cramp in fear.

Finally, a spear nicks the Serpent's side. However, it does not have the desired effect. Instead of retreating, the Serpent screams and rises from the water. His black scales tinted with hues of purple and green glitter in the light. His teeth, pale in his black face, drip with blood. His red eyes burn with anger and hunger. Here, we will die.

The Serpent surges forward, his teeth ready to tear us apart. I crouch in the water, pulling Blake closer to me. My hands cover my head, the dagger glinting in the light. Then something happens. As if in slow motion, the Serpent crashes down on us, one spear through his neck, one through his skull, and my dagger sticking out of his eye. My arm is shredded, bone
and muscle hanging loose, but I don't feel it.

Shakily, I drag myself and Blake away even more furiously. I throw us on the gritty sand, my heart pounding so violently that I am sure it will jump right out of me.

Turning to Blake, I realize his chest is still. I kneel beside him and begin feverishly beating on his chest, trying to knock the water from his lungs and the fear out of me. With a cough and spray of water, Blake lurches up and gags.

Blake catches his breath and slowly glances up at me. His eyes say it all.

Silly girl.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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