Snakes and Campers
by Chris Lewis Carter
After nearly twenty minutes of trudging through the Forgotten Forest in silence, Zerra plops down on a rotting log and says, “It’s official. We’re lost.”
“That’s impossible,” Drew says. He removes a crumpled sheet of paper from his bag and studies it intently. “I’ve mapped out this entire area. We just need to get back on course.”
Natious grunts. His steel blue eye scans their surroundings for any sign of danger. “And what does the map say, exactly?”
“It says that we’re lost,” Zerra replies.
Before Drew can respond, the trees part and two more centaurs join the group. Kaelan, lugging his overstuffed backpack, and Pointa, trying to prevent any branches from swatting his girlfriend, Kuru, a Kitsune who sits perched on his back.
“Come on, guys, arguing isn’t going to help,” she says, in her always-upbeat tone. “There’s got to be a Phoenix around here somewhere. We just need to stay positive.”
Pointa nods and brushes a stray leaf from his beard. “She’s right. Let’s just take a moment to regroup, then keep moving.”
Kaelan hobbles over to the log, his leg brace squeaking slightly with each step. “Do you think the other group we saw heading into the forest are Phoenix watching, too? I wonder if they’ve found one by now?”
“Those three?” Natious snorts. “Not a chance. They’ll be lucky if they make it back to camp at all.”
“Hey, everyone!” calls a voice from the treetops. The entire group looks up to see Anthea, a dryad with wild, cherry blossom hair, standing on a limb and pointing off in the distance. “I can see smoke. The forest, it’s on fire!”
“Fire?” Drew echoes. He rears up on his hind legs, punching the air with his front hooves, which are covered in a pair of mismatched argyle socks. “Is it close?”
“It will be if we don’t get a move on,” Anthea says.
“Okay, you all heard the plant lady.” Zerra springs to her feet. Her tail twitches nervously underneath her long coat. “We’re heading back to-”
A faint scream echoes throughout the clearing, then another. It’s louder the second time. More desperate.
Kaelan adjusts his goggles, as though trying to detect the source of the sound. “That way,” he says after a few moments. “It’s coming from over there.”
Anthea leaps to a higher branch to get a better view. “Which is exactly where the smoke is coming from.”
“Maybe it’s the other group,” Kuru shrieks. “We’ve got to do something!”
“What do you suggest, princess,” Natious snaps. “That we all charge headlong into a forest fire? Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget that we’ll be in the path of every vicious creature running away from that same fire.” He pulls an arrow from the quiver on his back and nocks it in his bow. “Does anyone else even have a weapon? A real one, I mean, not one of those foolish tiny blades we’ve been issued.”
Pointa sighs. “Though I wouldn’t have put it quite so harshly, the Cyclops is right, my love. The last thing I want is to put you in harm’s way.”
“Pointa, shame on you!” Kuru hops from his back and onto the forest floor. “Well, if you won’t come, I guess I’m going to go by myself.”
“No, not by yourself,” Kaelan says. He rummages around inside his backpack until he reveals a small, metal object. “I’ll come, too. This should be able to scare off any beasts we come across. It’s actually a modified myth army knife attachment. I invented it myself.”
“You invented a whistle,” Natious says. “Excellent. Between you both, you can save the day with noise and good intentions.”
“Count me in, too,” Anthea calls, then leaps from her branch and floats gracefully to the ground in a swirl of cherry blossom petals. “You’re going to need someone who’s at home in the forest.”
Zerra runs a hand through her short, red hair and groans. “Okay, for those of you keeping score, that’s three votes for helping, and three for getting the heck out of here. How about it, Drew? What does your map say to do in a situation like this?”
Drew sighs, then crumples up the map and stuffs it back into his bag. He pulls a wooden baseball bat with the words “Property of Camp Myth” painted down the side from a loop on his belt. “It says. . . that we should probably do something.” He smiles, as though his teeth might help to distract from the hesitation in his voice.
“Unbelievable.” Natious rolls his eye with a force that’s almost audible. “This is exactly why most Cyclopes prefer to stick with their own kind.”
“Well, no one is forcing you to come,” Kaelan says. “I’m sure we’ll manage just fine without you.”
“What, and miss watching you six get eaten by something with more teeth than brain cells?” he replies. “Not a chance.”
“Drew, behind you!” Pointa shouts, just in time for his fellow centaur to whip around and swing at the creature slithering straight for him.
It’s a Basilisk, a human-sized serpent that’s shingled with dull green scales from tail to snout. It’s far more agile than an average snake, however, due to its muscular arms and razor-sharp talons that allow the beast to grip the earth and propel itself forward with alarming speed.
It bares its fangs just as Drew’s baseball bat connects with its leathery skull. The impact sends the creature spiralling to the ground, where it lets out an angry hiss, then scrabbles off into the trees.
“They don’t want to hurt us, they’re only trying to escape the fire,” Kuru says, her hand cupped over her mouth to prevent from inhaling the smoke wafting through the forest.
“Really, because it sure feels like they’re trying to kill us,” Natious shouts, as he looses an arrow that catches another Basilisk in the shoulder.
“It appears that we’ve crossed paths with a pack of them,” Pointa says, shooing one away with a sharpened tree branch. “They don’t typically attack unless they feel threatened.”
“Gee, I wonder why they’d feel that way?” Zerra snaps. “Oh, maybe it’s the fire that’s torching their homes. You think that could be it?”
Anthea gestures at the Basilisk near Pointa and sweeps her hand in a downward motion, causing a vine to shoot from the tree above and wrap itself around the creature. It falls to the ground in a heap, hissing uncontrollably.
“Just be thankful we haven’t met the Den Queen,” she says, waving a cloud of smoke from her eyes. “Now, if you two are done bickering, perhaps you could keep a look out for the people we’re supposed to be saving,”
Kaelan gives a quick blast on his whistle. It doesn’t make a sound, but two more Basilisks scamper around him and dive for the treeline. “See, I told you it would work!” he says triumphantly.
There’s another scream, except this time it’s much sharper. A shrill cry of agony.
“Oh, I just heard them! Follow me,” Kuru chirps. She clambers onto Pointa’s back, but her boyfriend doesn’t budge. “That wasn’t one of our fellow campers, my love,” he says. “That sounded practically. . . avian.”
“A bird?” Kaelan says. “But why would it be hanging around here?”
All seven stare at each other – thirteen eyes wide with a moment of shared comprehension.
“We’ve been chasing a Phoenix this entire time!” Drew says. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a Polaroid camera. “We might not save a life out here, but we can at least earn our merit badge. Come on!”
The group pushes through a thicket and enters a new clearing with an enormous sycamore tree towering above the underbrush. On the opposite end of the clearing, flames dance amongst the branches and blacken the leaves with every scorching lick.
But there’s something even more traumatic laying at the base of the sycamore. It’s an orange-hued bird, about the size of an eagle, covered in blood and laying perfectly still. Both of its wings are stretched wide, as if frozen in a perpetual hug, although one is badly mangled.
“Is it. . . ” Kuru blinks back tears, then buries her face in the nape of Pointa’s neck.
“Yeah, it’s dead, princess,” Natious says. “It’s not ashing either, which means this one didn’t die of natural causes.” He readies his bow and slowly draws back on the string. “I thought the Phoenixes here at camp weren’t able to start fires.”
Zerra shakes her head. “They aren’t. Something definitely isn’t right here. We should go.”
“Just a second.” Drew raises his camera and snaps a photograph of the Phoenix. “Okay, all set.”
Anthea tilts her head to the side. “Really, Drew? Really?”
“What? Where does it say in the field guide that the bird has to be alive? I want my merit badge.” He takes a few steps back, and lines up another shot. “Just let me get one more of this tree with the fire in the background. It’ll be totally artistic.” He lowers the camera and points toward the sycamore branches. “Hey, there’s a nest up there!”
Sure enough, resting snugly between an elbow of limbs is a pile of rocks fused together in the shape of a bowl, with a small red bump laying in the middle.
“That’s an egg!” Kaelan announces. “We have to save it. Even though it’s a Phoenix, a chick won’t be able to survive the heat of a forest fire.”
“And how to you propose we transport it?” Zerra asks. “That shell is crazy-hot. It’ll be like carrying a live coal.”
“Hmmm, well, just give me a second.” Kaelan tosses his backpack on the ground and starts digging through the contents. “Ah-ha, perfect,” he says, holding up a pair of metal tongs with rubber grips. “I knew these would come in handy for something.”
“Do I need to give my really speech again?” Anthea says flatly. She grabs the tongs and scurries up the tree faster than an excited squirrel. “Okay little guy, you’re coming with me,” she says, carefully securing the egg. “There, that wasn’t so bad.”
As if on cue, an unbearably loud hiss envelopes the clearing like a crashing tidal wave.
“Um, Pointa?” Kuru whispers once the hissing subsides. “That’s not a regular Basilisk, is it?”
“No, my love, I don’t believe so,” he says. “It sounds more like a-”
“DEN QUEEN!” Natious bellows, as a monster ten times the size of the creatures they had encountered earlier bursts out of the fiery treeline and into the clearing. “Everybody, run!”
As Anthea leaps down from the tree and hustles the group back into the forest, Natious takes a few steps back and nocks another arrow in his bow. He desperately searches for a weak point, but the serpent is covered in thick coppery scales that his weapon could never hope to penetrate. That’s when he notices the pale, crown-shaped symbol on the creature’s forehead. It’s a marking that’s exclusive to the Den Queen of a Basilisk pack, but also an area free of the scaly armor.
He fires the arrow and it wedges deep into the crown, causing the oversized Basilisk to roar in fury. It hisses once more, then begins to charge.
“Great, now you’ve managed to make it angry,” Zerra calls, leaping over an uprooted tree.
“It was already angry!” Natious yells, as he catches up with the others. “Do we still have the egg?”
Behind them, the forest trembles from the Den Queen’s thunderous pursuit. It’s a symphony of snapped limbs and crushed branches.
“Right here,” Anthea says, bouncing from trunk to trunk like a rubber ball. “But we need a plan quick, or we’re all going to be scrambled!”
As they run past a lilac bush, Drew says, “Hey, I know this place. We’re near the ravine. Everyone, this way!”
They make a left turn and push on through the forest, until eventually the trees give way to the edge of a rocky cliff.
Anthea passes the tongs over to Kuru to free up both of her hands, then thrusts her arms out straight. Dozens of vines burst forth from the ground and twist their way across the ravine until they wrap tightly around the trees on the other side, forming a crude bridge.
“Go!” she orders. “I’ll stay here to keep it steady.”
“But Anthea,” Kuru says.
“I said go!”
Pointa nods, and the pair hurry across, followed by Drew, Zerra, Kaelan, and Natious. But just as Anthea takes her first step onto the bridge, the Den Queen lunges out of the trees, fangs bared.
“Run!” Kaelan shouts, as Anthea begins to double-time it across the vines. She manages to make it about half way across before the Den Queen decides to continue the chase. With a mighty leap, it lands on the bridge with such force that the vines on her side snap like pieces of string. With only one end properly secured, the vines swing across the ravine and slam Anthea and the Basilisk against the cliff face. The impact sounds severe, but they both manage to hold on.
Anthea attempts to climb, but instead only winces in pain. “My arm,” she shouts. “I can’t move it. I think it’s broken!”
The Den Queen, now with a firmer grip on the vines, claws itself a few feet closer.
“Make a chain,” Pointa instructs. “Centaurs, dig in here to brace for the weight!”
Pointa, Drew, and Kaelan line up to form the base, as Natious, Kuru, and Zerra link hands to feet and lower themselves over the side of the ravine. Zerra grabs Althea by her good arm and yells for the team to pull, just as the Den Queen finally closes the gap on its prey. Its slash misses by inches as the group hauls everyone back to solid ground.
“Release the vines,” Drew shouts, “it’s still coming!”
“I can’t.” Anthea replies, cradling her forearm. “Not without a working pair of these.”
The Den Queen hisses again, and claws further up the side of the ravine.
“Then how about we, oh, I don’t know, keep running?” Zerra suggests.
“No, I’ve got a better idea.” Kaelan motions for the egg. “Quick, hand it to me!”
Kuru hesitates for a moment, then passes him the tongs, and Kaelan lowers the phoenix egg toward the plants. The moment it makes contact, the intense heat from the egg chews through the vines as if they were made of jelly. The Den Queen is no more than a few feet from the top when the final vine snaps, and with one last, angry hiss, the Basilisk plummets out of sight.
They all take a moment to sit and catch their collective breath. After a minute or so, Natious says, “I have to admit, Centaur, that was quick thinking.”
Drew nods. “Yeah, really. I was going to suggest that we throw Natious at it, but your way was probably better.”
“Only a little, though,” Zerra adds, and they all laugh.
Overhead, dozens of Roc’s carrying gigantic containers of water are dumping their cargo to extinguish the forest fire.
“Looks like the camp is already on the job,” Anthea says. “If the other Dryads pull an all-nighter, this place will be back to normal before sunrise.”
“Perhaps,” Pointa says, “but that still doesn’t explain everything we’ve seen here today. Either that phoenix started the fire, or something else did, and neither of those options sound good to me. We should head back to camp and see if they have an explanation.”
“Good idea,” Drew says, waiving a Polaroid picture. “While we’re at it, we can cash this in for our merit badges. Hey, what do you guys think we should try to earn next?”
“How about Basilisk Taming?” Kuru says, and they all groan as they head back into the forest.
About the Author
Chris Lewis Carter is an award-winning screenwriter and author who has been featured in dozens of publications, ranging from high school Language Arts textbooks to Stoker-nominated fiction collections. His horror short film, House Hunting, was named an Official Selection at both the 2015 Hollyshorts and Sunscreen Film Festivals.
He lives in Newfoundland, Canada, with his wife, four cats, a stubborn Shar-Pei, and a lazy Greyhound.
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.