Ophi felt a root-like thing shove at his side. “Wakey, wakey, Ophi. I got another place to show you.”
Ophi’s eyes cracked open. “Uh?”
Semar beamed the biggest smile Ophi had seen on his face… which wasn’t very big. “Yeah, we’ve been in this creepy scrubland long enough to know the ins and outs.”
“Oh,” Ophi pulled his mucus-glued lips apart just to say one word.
Semar stretched toward Ophi’s face. “Yeah! Come on! Aquila’s waiting outside.”
The moment Semar said that, a quiet wave of cold washed over Ophi. That prompted Ophi to lift his head, snorting and coughing.
Semar tossed his head. “Great! See ya outside.”
Ophi glanced at the sand on the floor. I don’t understand what just came over me. Reminds me too much of the cold snap yesterday. Yeah, that might be it. I just don’t want to go outside. That last thought sent a smaller frost wave through his ribs. Well, maybe it will be warmer today.
Ophi inched toward the sandy tunnel and crawled up it, until he came lumbering out of the stony tent that roofed the tunnel. The sky was a bright white and the cold only nibbled on Ophi’s sides, the parts most shielded from the cold of the night before.
Aquila was directly in front of Ophi, with arms akimbo. “Can we go now?”
Ophi felt a pang of heat in his chest. The dragon noticed Semar’s wild smile, bursting with sharp teeth. “Okay, we’ll go.”
Semar shivered with his crazy smile in place and clambered onto Ophi, with Aquila hurrying after him. With a pull on the quills on the left side of Ophi’s head, they set off.
After a long time of monotonous bush crushing, a thought squeezed into Ophi’s conscious mind. “Wait. Aren’t we just going to the same forest we met? I mean, I can see the path I made a few days ago over there.”
Semar started to snake a root around one of the quills of Ophi’s right side. “Yes, it’s nearby, but we ain’t going there.”
Again, Aquila wedged herself under Ophi’s quills for the trip, and again, her slimy skin sent uncomfortable tingles throughout Ophi’s body. As a result, Ophi had to concentrate on Semar’s instructions. Meanwhile, the sky turned concrete gray. Everything about this made Ophi dread reaching the destination.
The birch forest came into sight, but Ophi skirted the forest edge until the birch trees grew taller and redder until they were mighty cedars.
Semar leaned over Ophi’s face. “Okay, there’s a wide gap between many of the trees in this forest.”
Ophi could see a space that allowed him to see a bleached tree hidden deep in the forest. “Oh! I see it.”
“Y’see? You have to go through those trees there, the ones grayer than the rest.”
Ophi heard Aquila’s growling. “Um, okay I get it.”
Semar asked, “Are you sure? You’re not moving an in-”
Something small but sharp bit into the delicate skin under Ophi’s mane. “Ow. Ow! I’m going, I’m going!” and Ophi threw himself into the forest, barraging through the soft ferns carpeting its floor. The larger bushes cracked under the firebrand’s bulk.
Semar grappled to the base of some of Ophi’s huge quills. “Woah! Hey! Slow down or we’ll miss it!”
Ophi could only see gray. “Well, get Aquila to stop biting me.”
The sharp thing clung onto Ophi’s skin, even with Semar pulling it off. The cuts hurt worse when the fangs were ripped out. Ophi’s neck immediately became sore.
Semar fumbled with a quill on Ophi’s right side. “Okay, now go there.”
Ophi glared at the clearing several feet away. “Uuhrrrgh.”
The clearing was a small valley or dip, lined with thin grass. Ophi felt a pull to his left and saw that the valley there deepened, lost its foliage and turned into a huge rift lined with teeth made of chalk.
Ophi knew he was far away from the canyon, but his heart raced anyway. “So, why did you guys bring me here?”
“Oh right,” Semar climbed off Ophi and clambered to a fern bush in front of Ophi. Now, with his voice almost a whisper, Semar explained, “You know how some creatures gather in herds? Some of them are so committed to their herd mentality that they won’t abandon each other even when they’re forced off a cliff.”
Ophi sat there for a moment. “H-have you done this before?”
Aquila slipped off Ophi. “Well duh! If we’re talking about this, we’ve obviously tried it before. We want you to drive a bunch of dumb animals to their deaths!”
Ophi sneered. Okay, smart aleck.
Semar looked away for a moment, and then turned back to Ophi. “Okay, sit there and lay low. I’mma go see if anything is lurking near the canyon. That’ll give us a good start.”
Ophi pressed himself against the ground. Semar swung himself up the cedar behind him, rattling the leaves.
Ophi noted just how loud the cedar branches were. Gee, I hope the creatures Semar has in mind aren’t good at hearing.
Semar swung down the larger branches and then the trunk, landing with a dull thud on a bare patch of ground. “I can see some image sheep from up there.”
Ophi pushed his tail into the dirt. “That’s great but how are we doing this?”
Aquila bent over, with her tired eyes boring into Ophi. “Ophi, it’s very simple. Scare them, drive them off a cliff, bring them here. Got that?”
Ophi pursed his lips. He looked at the sunny grassland ahead and saw a few white dots moving. He crept past Semar and Aquila, hearing the slight hissing of ferns under him. The orange serpent followed the trees edging the target.
Ophi kept an eye on the sheep near the white jaws of the canyon. Okay, I’ll line myself up so that I can surround the sheep and they’ll have no way to go.
Ophi could feel his heart thumping against his ribs. The sheep kept bobbing their heads up and down. Then, the one sheep keeping lookout dipped his head in the grass.
The dragon slipped out of the cedars and hissed, rushing down the grass and along the treeline. The sheep fled to the right and Ophi realized he left an opening there! The dragon stopped and threw his tail at them like a heavy, bulbous rope. He felt a few small warm spots hit his tail. The dragon let his tail crash onto the ground. The bleating echoing down the cliff was the only sound.
Ophi shook his head, Don’t be a hypocrite. You killed a few rangers, remember?
Bushes rustled behind Ophi. While Aquila trudged out with no word, Semar sprung out of his hiding place and said, “Great job, Ophi! Now let’s take our quarry and go home to celebrate.”
Ophi couldn’t stop thinking about it. He kept an uneasy frown on his face the whole time they skirted the canyon to find its most shallow point. From there, they slid down the bottom of the canyon. The jagged rocks under Ophi didn’t help. He kept thinking about all the times he saw art creatures getting maimed. Sure, the leaves he ate were often from art connectrees, but they always grew back. The animals he simply admired or frolicked with. He was no thief.
Ophi snorted. “Hey guys. Do you know if these things will come back?”
Semar turned to Ophi. “What?”
Ophi’s eyes darted to other areas. “I mean, since the branches of trees grow back like before, do the animals we butchered come back, too?”
Semar muttered, “Dunno.”
Ophi then noticed Aquila’s sharp wrinkles. He decided to keep quiet.
At first, Ophi just thought Aquila was high strung. She was always scowling. Not frowning. Scowling, to the point where her wrinkles could be spotted yards away. Then came the snapping. Aquila would be staring off into space one moment, and the next moment, the entire burrow rang with her yapping.
The strangest thing about Aquila’s behavior was that in one way or another, it ended with Aquila confronting Ophi and shouting at him until he went hunting. Once the prey was handed to Aquila, she would thank Ophi for his miserable day outside and Ophi would be lulled into a false sense of security.
Aquila herself was already a hassle. Every time Aquila glared at Ophi, he felt as though he was being stuffed with kindling. Alas, all he could do was stare at the floor and hope Aquila doesn’t go beyond yelling.
Then, much to Ophi’s dismay, Semar proved to be just as horrible. He would notice Aquila shaking with rage, and Ophi’s frantic gesturing with his tail. Semar would always take this to mean he should ask a stupid question. Even with Aquila screaming in his face, Semar would not show any sign of distress.
That ruined any chance of Ophi asking Semar for help. If he’s too stupid to realize he shouldn’t be talking to Aquila when she’s irritable, he must not know jack about anything.
Thus, Ophi fell into deeper despair. While Aquila was stuffing his entire body with anger, Semar tore out everything in his chest and head, leaving nothing inside but a sinking feeling. The dragon’s unhappy state was mirrored in the grayscale landscape just outside his cave.
The worst thing Aquila did was make her little schedule. She grew to be angry all the time, but later on, a week would pass without an event. During their conversations, Aquila would even smile.
During one such week, Ophi came back with a big image wolf in his jaws. The sky grew dark, meaning that Ophi couldn’t leave if he needed to for the next several hours. Seeing Aquila tending to the new glowshrooms, Ophi dropped his load and gave a smile. The slimy flower creature turned and walked over to the carcass.
Aquila scowled, with a knife in hand. “Nobody gets my order right!”
Ophi then jerked back. Semar slinked out of his room and proceeded to grin.
Ophi could only wish their words could kill him. An argument ensued, and it took what remained of Ophi’s will to keep quiet.
The whole time, Ophi remembered the last horrible thing Aquila did to him and that made it all the harder to not do anything. Ophi kept waiting for the screaming match to end, and just when Aquila yelled “Forget it!” He was hoping it would end right there.
Instead, Aquila turned, now twice as tall as she normally was and covered in toothed tendrils. She grabbed Ophi by the mane and tore into Ophi’s face, wracking her sharks’ teeth all over his brow. Aquila let go and whipped at the dragon until he slid into a tunnel.
Ophi immediately curled up into a ball, She didn’t mean it. I’m just overreacting.
Aquila screamed, “I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME, HELLSPAWN!”
Ophi fell silent, trying to ignore the throbbing gash in his face. Tomorrow, Ophi remembered. Aquila will be out tomorrow. I’ll tell Semar everything.
The next morning, Ophi felt something boiling in his throat. The thought of confronting Semar sickened him. But what should be first to greet him but Aquila herself. Ophi pulled his face taut so she couldn’t read it. She’s not going to win THIS time!
Ophi took a breath, looking Aquila in her pinprick pupils. “Aquila, I do not appreciate what you did to me last night.”
Aquila’s eyes sharpened. “Oh, is this about the food last night? You heard what I said, you don’t give a damn about me, and THAT’S why you get it wrong!”
Ophi squeezed his coils. “No, no, no! I try my best to get it right and you just keep accusing me!”
Aquila then crossed her arms. “Ohhhh Ophi. You don’t understand. If I really wanted to hurt your feelings, I would not have given you such simple instructions.”
Ophi tried to ignore it, but his guilt sealed his mouth shut.
Aquila continued, boring her eyes into his skull. “If anything, I’ve been putting up with you since the start. Your diet, your interests, your personality. Have you ever seen the expressions you make? You always look so damn threatening!”
Ophi couldn’t get himself to stop shaking. “Y-you cut up MY FACE!”
Then Aquila suddenly relaxed her entire body, putting on her full puppy-eyes. “Why are you saying such things? I don’t understand why you’re so afraid of me!”
And with a disgusting smile cut into her face, Aquila slinked away.
Ophi started weeping. The tears burned his scratches. Ophi then forced himself into slithering into Semar’s tunnel.
Semar was sitting on a pile of sand he made for himself. The tentacled creature turned and beamed a loose smile. “Ophi! It’s good to see you.”
Ophi froze up. Semar shifted his eyes a little, but no change in expression.
Ophi waited. Semar kept silent.
Ophi puffed up. “Can’t you see it, Semar?”
“The SCRATCHES. Your friend tore up my face!”
Semar cocked his head. “Ahhh so I wasn’t seeing it wrong.”
Ophi furrowed his brows. Where’s the reaction? Why isn’t he angry?
Semar finally read Ophi’s face. “Why do you look so upset?”
Pressure began to build up in Ophi’s chest. “Don’t you get it? Aquila HATES me. She’s always found a reason to keep shouting me down, and she’s finally crossed a line.”
Semar twirled some of his hair. “Mmhmm aaaaannnnd… how did you respond?”
Ophi glared at Semar. “How do you think I’m responding? I’ve been keeping silent, I’ve been staying out of her way–”
Semar’s smile spread farther than his face, showing needles. “That’s good. You have no right to say such horrible things about my friend. I don’t care how she hurts you. Face it, buddy. Without us, who will you have?”
Ophi was so disgusted. All this time, he thought Semar was just a fool. He wasn’t a fool. He was an enabler.
Semar smiled like steak knives lined his mouth. And he made his way toward Ophi, prompting Ophi to slither back. “Do you have any idea what my beloved Aquila went through? As children she was sick. Even with me by her side, she always lacked confidence. She’s picky and she even had an abuser! Why can’t you return the FAVOR?”
Ophi brewed with rage. “I HAVE! I GAVE UP MYSELF AND THAT’S NOT ENOUGH FOR HER AND FOR YOU! You want me to stay as a silent slave? SEW MY MOUTH SHUT!”
But then a huge, wet hand grabbed Ophi’s tail. In a moment, Ophi’s mouth clamped shut with regret. Semar gave the same crooked smile Aquila always used. Ophi was pulled out like a whip and thrown against the pale ground. When the snake’s vision cleared, his heart nearly stopped. The red, black and white mass then grabbed Ophi again, crushing him into the dirt.
Ophi choked out, “Wh.. What are you doing?”
Semar’s voice echoed somewhere. “Hey, don’t blame us for it.”
The tendrils squeezed Ophi to the point of cutting. “Stop! Stop! Please, don’t kill me!”
Out of the madness surrounding Ophi, a huge version of a calm smile formed itself from the red and white masses. Semar’s tired eyes were now red like sirens. “You think what Aquila did to you was suffering? You don’t know what suffering is.”
Ophi screamed, “No, no, no, n-” before he was cut off by a tendril which looked like a black tree trunk smashing on his head and yanking out his quills. It was nothing but burning agony. Again, Ophi screamed.
“This is what you get for being sensitive!” Two voices boomed before they kept tearing into Ophi. His spikes did nothing to defend against theirs. Completely defenseless, Ophi’s mind churned like battered mud. Everything became a ringing blur.
The next time Ophi could see anything again was when he was being dragged. The bushes around him appear to be frosted, but he still felt like he was on fire.
Semar’s voice rang as clear as day. “Now, heave!”
Ophi could only muster a weak cough. With a whoosh, Ophi was thrown through the cool wind and crashed on flat rock.
Ophi groaned. “Why? Why didn’t Semar believe me?”
Then Aquila’s shrill voice echoed down the cliff. “Help! Help! Help! This monster tried to attack me!”
Ophi heard a grunt. He thought he saw a chunk of land lift itself in front of him. Then the chunk snorted. Aquila’s shouts were waking up a pack of boars. Boars the size of Ophi’s head.
The boars rose up and surrounded the serpent, growling all the while.
“Greedy serpent,” the boars grunted, “Preying on smaller creatures like the monster you are.”
Ophi strained his neck. “No, no! You got it all wrong! SHE tossed me off the cliff!”
“You expect us to believe that, snake in the grass?” The boars pointed their tusks at Ophi.
Ophi couldn’t move. “Please, please! I didn’t hurt her! SHE and Semar lashed me!”
The boars around Ophi squealed and bristled their spikes and fur. Seeing this, Ophi screamed and was immediately swarmed by shrieking pigs.