Chapter 29 – An Old Foe
The riverside mountains were far enough away to escape the brunt of the volcano’s destructive force. But the dark clouds that continued to cover the sky created a somber atmosphere in the refuge colonies, as if the sky was reflecting their own hearts.
Ash fell from the sky like gray snow, littering the ground. The once black rock took on a lighter gray tone as the porous holes were filled and covered. Many homes collapsed under the weight of the ash before the lizards learned they must keep the roofs clear. Young saplings suffocated and turned black in death. Coughing filled the air as much as the ash, particularly affecting the young, the old, and the weak. Even along the shore, the falling ash ruined more than its fair share of gills, causing the shore lizards to retreat deep beneath the waves and not resurface but for those with incomplete gills.
No sunlight appeared with the heavy clouds overhead, and the ashfall was too thick to see much of the dawn or dusk light. As depression and stress levels rose, arguments and fights filled the overpopulated colony. There wasn’t enough room, food was difficult to find, and the fresh water was tainted. Although they had been able to escape death from the fiery end that had awaited them in the forest, it still managed to find them here. The world was cruel to the living, always making them fight for survival.
The dawn did eventually return, but spirits remained low. The volcanic mountain had finally been sated, and the only sign that it was still alive was the thin plume of smoke that continued to leak from the caldera. From the peaks of the riverside mountain, the devastation was much more apparent. Between the refuge and the volcano, dark paths of black created a road of ruin from one mountain to the next. But there was hope. Some pieces far from the volcano had managed to stay out of reach, and those small bits of green, like an oasis in the desert, would surely provide shelter for other survivors. I was only sad that none of those survivors would be my lizards that had remained behind.
With a heavy heart, I turned away from the volcano to the ash-covered refuge of my lizards. They seemed beyond my ability to comfort. They had left everything they’d ever known, and now in this new place there seemed to be only death, broken homes, and ruined spirits. Even as they worked to repair the damage from the ash, their hearts were not in it. It was as if I looked upon a society utterly defeated.
They were weary. Their bodies were tired from the journey, and their hearts were tired from the losses. Even the promise of new life wasn’t to be, as several clutches that hatched among the ever persistent ash succombed quickly to its deadly clutches. I could not comfort them for I felt as devastated as they were, and my small light of hope from the forest could not fill the darkness that currently hung over them.
It was not something that could be fixed in a day. It took time to heal and clear away the ash. But as the ash ceased to fall, with each layer cleared away light began to return to the world. Each layer brushed away shed more light on their hearts, and though it took time, I did eventually see some happy and colorful shimmers return to their scales and feathers. They were not as vibrant as before the volcano, but even a small splash of color was uplifting. For this generation, the loss of home and family could not be overcome, but there would eventually be some happiness again. With most of the ash gone, the young hatchlings were finally able to breathe in their new home, and life seemed to start to return to their new refuge.
Seeds eventually began to sprout through the ground, no longer clogged with gray poison. The forest that slept through the disaster finally began to awaken as sounds of insects and small creatures filled the morning air. Curiosity was returning to the colonies as they started exploring their new home. The new young who only knew of life in the forest of refuge were the driving force behind the exploration. Hunting parties again sought out new food as they discovered prime places to stalk, and foragers found strange new plants with edible flowers and delicious fruits. The life that had once seemed as if it was about to fade was returning. The world was cruel to the living, but working together they could make it through.
The story of the volcano became a commonly recounted scalesong, singing of the prophets who had received the vision of flame, the great exodus across the river, and the angry clouds and fire that had rained from the faraway mountain. Much like the scalesong of the great calamity, it was a song of tragedy and death that must not be forgotten, but always at the end was the reminder of hope. They had lived to sing of the tragedies, and life was able to continue despite the world’s efforts to end it. They had been tested time and again, and they had survived together. That is what the song taught the young.
During a hunt for food, a young hunter had been humming the song on his scales as they waited for a scout to return with news on a passing herd of long-haired antelope-like animals. They were nimble creatures that lived in the riverside forest, and they were very quick. The hunting party had to ambush from multiple sides to be able to take one down, and relied on the intel of the scout to engage in a proper formation.
A partymate asked why the young hunter hummed such a sad song out here. His reply was that while it was a sad song, it filled him with the drive to be more than he was yesterday. Should his people ever find themselves in such a catastrophe again, he wanted to be strong enough to support everyone. His partymate thought deeply about the young hunter’s words, but didn’t get a chance to reply before the scout returned, bursting through the trees and bushes.
The hunting party expected a quick report, but instead found the small lizard out of breath, flaring with colors of danger. They tried to ask what caused her to be so out of sorts, but her replies were muddled in a mix of haste and fear. One message came across crystal clear, ‘Run!’ But her message was not quick enough, for it dropped through the trees above their heads, landing on one unfortunate member, the crush the bones and impact of weight resounding through the now silent forest.
I knew this beast. It had changed since I had last seen it, but the terror it inflicted upon my lizards remained. The great snake had grown on par with my lizards, making it a giant among the forest, yet still somehow able to hide amongst the trees unseen. The dark green and red mottled monster had a plethora of small horns facing backwards from the crown of its brow to the holes it had for ears. And this time when it unfurled its fangs to strike, a strange phenomenon occurred. In its mouth, flashes of sparks could be seen, but it wasn’t until it lashed out at a member of the stunned hunting party that I knew it for what it was.
Lightning. Its mouth was electrified, paralyzing the lizard it latched onto. Tossing the useless lizard aside, content to devour it later, it prepared for another strike. The shock of the giant predator was broken with a vocal call from the young hunter. For those that could see him, he shouted with his scales, calling the hunting party into an anti-predator formation. His spear was shaking as he faced the giant snake, but his fear of losing his hunting mates was greater than his fear of the great predator.
The lizards moved closer to each other to be able to cover for each member. Against a foe that could attack as quickly as this one, it was suicide to not stay together, lest they be picked off one by one. When the snake tried to strike again, it was faced with the points of several spears, causing it to recoil. It watched the lizards as they fell into formation, the small scout at the back with her own stone dagger. It seemed to rethink its plan of attack and started moving around the group. The lizards were mindful of its bobbing head, and only the scout thought to look behind. It was too late when she cried out as she saw the tail whip towards them, crashing into their group and breaking their formation.
It took the moment of panic to strike again, catching another lizards in its massive jaws. The hunting party was down to four members plus the scout. The scout kept an eye on the surroundings while the hunting party again regrouped. The more seasoned hunting party members could see from the snake’s eyes that it was old, but by no means feeble. No, this was a strong beast with much experience hunting prey both weak and strong. As the party and the snake came to a standstill, they began to quickly try and formulate a plan.
‘Run?’ ‘Too Dangerous.’ ‘Agreed, danger to the colony.’ ‘Kill it?’ ‘Agreed.’ How?’ Their scales flashed in rapid succession. To the snake, it was no more than an enticing and curious dance of lights. It again tried to surprise them with its tail, but the scout was ready and gave enough warning. The young hunter was able to turn in time to stab the tail before it could swipe their whole party again. The snake reacted to the pain, quickly retreating with its tail and putting more space between them. It didn’t back up out of fear though, it just gave itself more time to come up with its own plan of attack against clever prey.
The great snake sparked its mouth in warning, daring them to come closer. One member took the bait, dashing forward with a quick ‘Cover me’ flashed on his scales. The others tried to react in time, but the snake’s taunt had worked as it planned, and once the brave lizard got close enough, it flicked the brave hunter in the head with its tail from the side and snatched him up in his momentary daze.
The remaining lizards retreated back farther, hoping to stay out of reach. They were running out of members and running out of options. Surprisingly, it wasn’t one of the hunting party that came up with the next plan, but the scout. It was a difficult plan, but with the snake’s speed and power, they didn’t have much choice. After they all agreed on what needed to be done, the partymate that had spoken with the young hunter before the snake arrived dashed away into the forest.
The snake did not give chase, it was not so foolish. Down to two hunters and the small scout, the snake was sure to eat well this day. The snake again began to make a wide circle around the remaining party members. For the remaining lizards, they could only hope their runner would make it in time. To delay the snake, the two hunters would make feints and retreat, however the snake only fell for the false charge twice before it picked up on their game.
As the snake continued to slowly circle the party, they would also circle the snake to stay out of reach of its tail. The snake was very patient, it would not rush an assured meal, though the flashes on their scales did tempt it. While circling the delicious meal-to-be, the snake was very slowly closing the distance between them. If it could get within striking range, it may incur a few injuries, but it would be able to kill them all. Then its clever prey did something unexpected. One charged straight for it, with the other two not far behind, flashing in a brilliance of colors.
The Snake hesitated as the three charged in a line, all brandishing the points of their weapons. The young hunter ran at the front, fully prepared for what was to come. He held his spear close to his body and mentally prepared for his attack. The snake’s hesitation was only for an instant and it struck out at the young hunter in front. Long fangs penetrated his body as he was rapidly lifted away from the line, the snake retreating as it snagged its prey.
But the spear was held close to his body for a reason. As a spark was about to electrify the prey, the young hunter jabbed his spear into the roof of the great beast’s mouth. Even as the beast cried out in pain from its soft tissue being penetrated, the spark still activated, electrifying the lizard and the roof of its own mouth. The young hunter was thrown away as the snake writhed in agony. Too preoccupied with its own pain, it did not see as its doom descended from the tree above.
The runner had gone back into the trees and quickly climbed after he was out of eyesight and scrambled across branches to make it back to the hunting party. There he waited as the snake and group slowly circled each other, the hunters keeping the snake’s attention while periodically flashing to ask if the runner was in position. When he finally flashed back out of the snake’s line of vision, they only had to wait until the snake came under the runner’s tree before attacking to fully lock its attention on them. Then the runner used the snake’s own surprise tactic against it and dropped down with gravity as his ally, and struck the head of the snake beast.
The force of impact penetrated the spear deep into the snake’s flesh, beyond its intimidating scales, just behind the frightening horns. There was a distinct crunch felt and heard by the runner as the spear drove home. The runner was thrown as the great beast entered its death throes, desperately trying to live though it knew its end was imminent. It thrashed about and the scout and remaining hunter backed out of its reach. After a few moments, the snake limply tried to move until it could move no more. The eyes of the great beast, once blazing with a life long lived now looked cold and empty.
The hunter ran to the runner who had been thrown from a great height atop the snake, and was found to be badly injured, unable to move his legs. The scout went to the young hunter and found him already perished from blood loss by the massive fangs of the snake. His scales were singed from the electricity as the others had been, but his death was sure from the moment he volunteered to charge at the head of the line towards the snake. The bodies of the other dead littered the ground, too numerous for the hunter and small scout to take back on their own. Instead, they focused their efforts on bringing the runner back safely to the colony.
Before they left the scene, the runner wanted to see the young hunter one more time. Although the young hunter could no longer see, the runner told him in somber shimmers that he now understood why he had hummed such a sad song, and that his sacrifice had saved the colony from a monstrous foe. Truly, it was a small catastrophe averted.
Carrying the half-paralyzed runner on his back, the last hunter set off towards the colony, the scout moving to take the lead after she took in one last look of the scene of carnage. Four hunters had been killed and one paralyzed, but the beast was dead. It would not be able to terrorize the colonies as its ancestor had, and I was just as proud of them as I was heart-broken for their loss. Their bravery had saved the loss of countless lives, and the young hunter had fulfilled his desire to save his colony from disaster. I took their memories into me, and I could feel the memory of Starlight satisfied that the lizards could now overcome such a terrible foe. I was happy for them beyond what words could convey.
I was confident that my lizards could survive. They had lived through my selfish whims and all the terrors this world had to offer them and they had survived. Even if the whole world became their enemy, they would survive.