Another commission piece from the “Skin Horse” Volume 4 Kickstarter campaign. Hope you enjoy, and, happy holidays!
* * *
It was a bright and cheery morning in the 14-Lower Ultraviolet Radiation Corridor in the subbasements of Annex One, the sort of day that would have been described as “sunny” if any of the myriad inhabitants of the basement ecosystems were familiar with, or had indeed ever seen, the wrathful day-star that ruled the terrible surface realms above. Tina the Basement Cobra slithered through her immaculate vinyl-encased kitchen, smiling a bit to herself as the unnerving violet glow of the radiation corridor warmed her face through the east-facing windows of her tiny cobra house. What a pleasant day, she thought, to herself, as she busily prepared food for her family.
Tina’s family consisted, in its entirety, of one other snake, her son Trevor. Trevor’s father was a degenerate basker who played no present role in the household, and while the original clutch of eggs that had produced Trevor also included approximately thirty-two other eggs, Tina had misplaced each and every one of them prior to their hatching. Tina was a rather poor mother, truth be told, but she made up for it (at least in her own mind) by doting over her one remaining un-misplaced child with a furious, if scatterbrained, intensity.
“Trevor!” she called up the stairs. “I fixed you a thawed rat specimen for breakfast! And lunch! And supper! And tomorrow’s breakfast! And tomorrow’s lunch! And tomorrow’s supper! And so on and so forth for the remainder of the week!” One of the fortunate things about being a snake, in Tina’s mind, was that she was freed from the burden of preparing daily meals; because, seriously, it is very difficult to wash dishes when you have no manipulative limbs. Also, sometimes Tina cheated and used paper.
“I don’t feel too good,” came her son’s voice from upstairs. “I think maybe I have to stay home from cobra school today.”
Tina clucked her forked tongue against the roof of her mouth and, with some difficulty, slithered upstairs. Not for the first time she wondered at her decision to install stairs in her home, and also her decision to place all major sleeping areas in the house atop them; but as always, she quickly dismissed any such concerns. Having stairs felt proper. Like the hairnet she always wore, it was not a thing to be long questioned.
Tina found her son huddled up in his bed, racecar-print comforter wadded all up under his chin. “What seems to be the problem?” she asked.
“My mouth is really sore,” replied Trevor. “I think I’ve got stomatitis.”
Once upon a time, a declaration of the terrible mouth-rot might have thrown Tina into a fit. She was naturally determined to not have her sole progeny taken down by a serious cobra illness. However, after the first eighteen trips to the snake doctor with nothing to show for it, Tina had grown a bit more wary of her son’s claims.
“Open up,” she commanded, slithering over to Trevor’s bedside.
“Glaaahgh,” said Trevor, doing so. “See how red my mouf is?”
“What I see,” said Tina, “is a little boy who got up in the middle of the night and drank a whole pitcher full of strawberry Kool-Aid in order to make his mouth look infected with a dreaded snake disease.”
Trevor hung his head, convicted and a little dismayed. The strawberry Kool-Aid had been difficult to come by. “Aw, Mom—” he began.
“Don’t you ‘Aw, Mom’ me, little mister!” scolded Tina. “I’ve kept you home from Mr. Nidhogg’s class too many times this year already. How will you ever learn how to hiss properly or to expand your neck-ribs to make a threat display if you never go to cobra school? I won’t have you turning out like your worthless father. Now get up and let me pick external mites off of you, and then you’re coming downstairs and having your meal for the next seven days.”
Trevor sighed and rolled himself out of bed, despair pinching at his belly. How could he explain to his mother, or nice Mr. Nidhogg, that he had no problem with—and in fact very much enjoyed—all his classes at cobra school? Trevor was very much looking forward to being a productive member of cobra society (unlike his layabout dad), and he recognized that a good education in cobra fundamentals was the only way for him to achieve that sort of success.
No, the problem wasn’t with cobra school as such. The problem was found on the way to cobra school.
The problem had a name. That name was “Gothmog the Destroyer.”
* * *
“C’mon, little cobra!” taunted Gothmog the Destroyer, squeezing Trevor mercilessly in his coils. “Let’s see what your momma packed you for lunch today!”
Trevor knew this game well, knew that Gothmog would never let go until he (metaphorically) said “uncle” and complied. Sighing heavily, the littler cobra opened his jaws, gave a heaving yawk, and brought up the thawed rat specimen from his gut, hardly even digested at all yet.
“Ew, thawed rat,” said Gothmog, rudely. “I guess it’ll do for now.” He released Trevor from his coils and clamped his jaws around the dead rat, swallowing it neatly over the course of a few seconds as Trevor scudded away to a nearby alley of boxes to catch his breath. Trevor, who hoped to become a herpetologist some day, knew that constriction was not at all a proper cobra-like way to behave. Now, if Gothmog had been a boa or something, yeah, sure, Trevor would be able to understand the constrictor behavior. He would still be a little upset at being forced to hork up his breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast again, lunch again (et cetera), but at least he could take small comfort in the fact that it was all biologically normal. Gothmog the Destroyer was just plain wrong, on any number of levels.
“It’s not nice to behave like that!” protested Trevor, once he had gotten his breath back. “You shouldn’t go around stealing and eating other snakelets’ meals!”
“Oh yeah?” said Gothmog, fishing a candy cigarette with some difficulty out of the breast pocket of his punkish leather jacket. “Who’s gonna stop me? They even got one of them big hairless apes from the surface world to come down here a while back, and the best he could do was get the Huge Enlightened Rat to tell my mom about me!”
Trevor bit his lip, being very careful not to inject himself with any of his deadly poisonous venom. (It had never been one hundred percent resolved in his mind whether or not he was actually immune to his own bite, and he was not eager to start pressing the question now.) The hairless surface-ape had said a lot of really intimidating but hopeful words about the Cycle of Bullying, and he had really hoped that appealing to a responsible adult—in the form of the Huge Enlightened Rat who wandered from basement settlement to basement settlement dispensing wisdom—would have been the end of the matter. Unfortunately, Gothmog’s mother (a particularly unpleasant little water cobra) turned out to be immune to wisdom, and had not responded to the rat’s revelations with any kind of correction to Gothmog’s behavior. The very next day, Gothmog was back out on what passed for the streets, terrorizing the other snakelets for their lunches and generally being a menace to the cobra school community.
“You better stop doing things like that!” cried Trevor. “If your mom won’t stop you, then I’ll… I’ll just find another responsible adult who will!”
“Like who?” sneered Gothmog. “You gonna run to your own momma? She can’t even keep track of her own egg-clutches!”
“I’ll tell Mister Nidhogg after class! Maybe he’ll leave his talking-box on after the bell rings and there’ll be time to tell him what you’re doing!”
“Listen, squirt,” said Gothmog, sucking one end of his cigarette down into a sharp little point. “You and I both know that even if Nidhogg leaves his box on, he’s way too nice to actually discipline anybody. He’s a wimp. Not like me, or like my big brother.”
Trevor’s heart sank. Gothmog was right. Mr. Nidhogg was the nicest single snake in the entire underground, and it was probably silly for him to hope that the teacher would slither in and disarm the burgeoning cobra-bully crisis single-handedly. For a number of reasons. “Well, then!” he squeaked. “I’ll just… I’ll just have to find a different really responsible adult!”
“So what, chump?” said Gothmog. “You gonna be a dirty little snitch?”
“You bet I am!” cried Trevor, rising up and spreading his hood just like Mr. Nidhogg always taught them to do. “I’m gonna snitch and snitch and snitch and totally snitch my way up the entire snitch ladder until I find someone who’ll stop you from stealing my lunch all the time! And I’m not even going to go class until I do!”
“Well, good luck with that, ya’ little twerp,” said Gothmog, lounging back into the box-alley.
Thus began Trevor’s journey.
* * *
Trevor started by borrowing a tablet computer from the community of little toy robots who also made their dwelling near the radiation corridor, and then hijacking a faint Internet signal from the offices belonging to the hairless surface-apes above. By carefully correlating information from Gothmog’s unpleasant Facebook page with data he obtained from a number of public records databases, Trevor was able to pinpoint the location of Gothmog the Destroyer’s house in a rather unpleasant area near the carnivorous mushroom beds. It really was a bad part of cobra town.
Looking about anxiously at all the ne’er-do-wells and loose cobras of the night that populated Gothmog’s neighborhood, Trevor slithered up to the ramshackle pile of cardboard. He could hear the muffled noise of a purloined MP3 player seeping out from within the depths of the cardboard house. Steeling his resolve, Trevor gave the cardboard front door a few feeble fwaps with the tip of his tail. He could hear the noise of slithering from within.
Eventually, a large and unfriendly-looking cobra came into view. He was wearing a stained white cotton sleeveless sleeve around his midsection under the neck, and he was dragging a twelve-ounce can of Old Milwaukee in his rear coils, no mean feat.
“Go away,” said the large and unfriendly-looking cobra. “We don’t donate to Snake Scouts.”
“Pardon me, sir,” said Trevor, who was always well-mannered, “but I’m not a Snake Scout. I’m here to talk to a responsible adult about Gothmog the Destroyer.”
“Yeah?” said the unpleasant cobra, belching slightly. “What’s that little dork done now?”
“First of all, I need to establish whether you are a responsible adult. Are you maybe Gothmog the Destroyer’s father?”
“No way,” said the unfriendly cobra. “I’m his big brother. You can call me Cobra Commander.”
Trevor thought about this for a moment. Certainly, he could see a big brother being a responsible enough adult to deal with Gothmog the Destroyer’s bad behavior. “Okay then, Cobra Commander,” said Trevor. “I’d like to report that Gothmog the Destroyer is hanging around on the way to school and ambushing snakelets on their way to school and making them vomit up their lunches.”
“Haw,” said Cobra Commander. “That’s pretty funny.”
“Funny!?” cried Trevor, who was himself feeling acute hunger pangs at this very moment as a direct result of Gothmog’s behavior. “It’s terrible and wrong!”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right,” said Cobra Commander.
“Yeah, I’m right!” said Trevor.
“That kid oughtta be picking fights with tough snakes. Not little runts like you. How’s he ever gonna grow up to be a big mean cobra like our stepdad Anacondor if all he does all day is beat up wimps? I tell ya’, when that snake gets home, I’m gonna give him a constricting he’ll never forget! He’ll be crying to his water cobra mommy!”
Trevor backed away slightly. This was a new facet to the Cycle of Bullying of which he had heretofore not conceived. Was it possible that Gothmog the Destroyer went around nastily constricting other snakes because he himself got regularly constricted on a daily basis? It was a disturbing thought, not in the least because it meant that now he had to find an adult who was responsible for both Gothmog the Destroyer and his mean older brother, Cobra Commander. “You mentioned you had a stepdad by the name of Anacondor,” he said. “Where can I find him?”
“Experimental abandoned underground swamp biome,” sniffed Cobra Commander, taking a swig of Old Milwaukee. “Couple levels down. Can’t miss it.”
“Whatever, kid,” said Cobra Commander. “Now scram and quit bugging me. I’m watching pirated .MP4’s of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo here.”
Trevor was more than happy to comply. He really hated Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
* * *
“Dumb stupid cobra kids!” snorted Anacondor, slithering languidly through the rotting vegetation of the experimental swamp biome as dying insects buzzed feebly overhead. “Why I ever agreed to let those two waste-of-space snakes into my life is beyond me. Their moms are all over me for snake alimony, too, did you know that?”
Trevor looked around at the moribund ecosystem surrounding him, through which he had slithered many miles in search of the giant green anaconda. The place had obviously been founded with the best of intentions, for some scientific function or another, but that had been before the funding had been cut and the entire site abandoned. Now, what life remained was clustered around the last remaining flickering and ill-maintained grow-lamps, and only time would tell how long it would be until those too fizzled out, plunging the experimental swamp into final deadly darkness.
“Sorry, I didn’t know that,” Trevor said, electing not to mention that he had additionally not even been aware that such a thing as “snake alimony” existed prior to this point.
“Ain’t no end of trouble, having spawn,” said Anacondor. “I wish I never adopted ’em.”
Trevor took a deep, shaky breath of the dank and foul air of the decommissioned subterranean hothouse. “You sound kind of bitter,” he said. “Do you think that maybe you might have taken it out on Gothmog the Destroyer and Cobra Commander by… bullying them when they were growing up?”
Anacondor fixed Trevor with a lazy eye. “If by ‘bullying’ you mean ‘putting the fear o’ Glycon into them little bastards by constricting ’em when they done wrong or looked at me funny,’ then by all means, sure. I bullied ’em. Just like my pappy Ouroboros taught me to do.”
Trevor opened his mouth, then shut it again. Despair began to claw at his adorable little cobra heart. Not only was he constantly failing to find a responsible adult, but also, every time he failed, he racked up yet another delinquent snake of some description who needed to be ratted out! Snitching was turning out to be a really hard and unrewarding career. “Okay okay okay,” Trevor said, mustering his resolve. “This… ‘Ouroboros’ that you mentioned.”
“Pappy lives down in Twelve-Mile Labyrinth,” grunted Anacondor. “Just keep going down. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you,” said Trevor, politely. Anacondor gave no more response than a noncommittal grunt.
Trevor left the big snake alone in his dying swamp. Somewhere in this basement there had to be a responsible adult to whom he could snitch. It was, Trevor figured, a mathematical certainty.
* * *
It turned out that Twelve-Mile Labyrinth did not consist of a single twelve-mile long path. The actual physical structure of the labyrinth was indeed twelve miles long, but it contained within itself a great many twisting passages, all alike, so that the actual distance one might be forced to travel was at least twice that. The corridors were dry and sandy and lit by an unseen source, a pleasant change from the decaying swampland above. The pleasantness of the change was somewhat mitigated by the thousands of deathtraps that riddled the labyrinth’s corridors: swinging blades, spiked pits, crushing walls, and any number of combinations thereof. The deadliness of the traps was mitigated by the fact that (a) they had been designed to kill hairless surface-apes and their deadly force would frequently be harmlessly expended upon a point many feet above a small cobra’s head and (b) they were over one hundred and fifty years old and the intervening years had not been kind to them. Originally designed during the American Civil War to defend the massive Confederate ammunition magazines that once occupied this site from Union assault, the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth stood as a whirling and decrepit monument to the grim madness that is the human mind at war.
A lesser cobra would have given up after the first salvo of machine-launched spinning knives, but Trevor was a plucky little snake, and his conviction that somewhere in this dreadful basement there was a responsible adult to whom he could snitch guided him along, beacon-like. For many miles, Trevor slithered the deadly corridors of the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth, hoping against hope as he rounded every bend that he would soon meet up with Ouroboros and be able to unload his burden upon the older snake. He would tell Ouroboros about his badly-behaved son and his equally badly-behaved grandchildren, Ouroboros would properly scold them for their misdeeds, and the Cycle of Bullying would finally end.
Trevor was so looking forward to meeting Ouroboros that he practically missed out on meeting him at all. When Anacondor had said that his father lived in the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth, Trevor had formed a picture in his head of eventually stumbling across a little snake lair somewhere in the depths of the maze, where he would sit down (so to speak) and have his little chat with the older snake. So strong was this picture in his mind that he momentarily overlooked the fact that certain of the dead-end corridors he came across did not terminate in walls of blank standstone; they ended instead in a floor-to-ceiling barrier of rough and craggy scales.
The first time one of the scaly walls moved, Trevor nearly jumped out of his own skin, which is a bit more literally possible with snakes than it is with many other animals (but not by much). With agonizing slowness, the wall undulated and shifted, revealing more and different expanses of trap-scarred snake-hide. With a start, Trevor realized that the dead-end corridors he had been encountering were not in fact dead-ends at all, but were instead intersections that had been completely occupied by the massive bulk of an immense serpent wending its way through the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth. Steeling himself against possible comeuppance, the little snake squared his jaw and began resolutely tapping at the section of the snake he saw before him, hoping to attract the great beast’s attention.
Glacially at first, but with increasing speed, the body of the great snake began to move; and in the fullness of time, the scaly wall shifted enough that a giant amber-hued eye was revealed. Its brille glittered unctuously at Trevor.
“WHO DISTURBS?” came a rumbling voice from the serpent-wall.
“Hi,” said Trevor, meekly. “Mister Ouroboros? You, um, don’t know me, but I go to cobra school with your grandson Gothmog the Destroyer, and—”
“I KNOW NOT OF THIS GRANDSON OF WHICH YOU SPEAK,” intoned Ouroboros.
“Oh,” said Trevor. “He’s the stepson of Anacondor, and—”
Deep, dry, papery laughter echoed throughout the corridors of the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth. “A WORTHLESS CHILD,” announced Ouroboros. “I CONSTRICTED HIM AND CONSTRICTED HIM OVER AND OVER AGAIN DURING HIS SNAKELETHOOD, TO NO AVAIL. THE WORDS OF MY OWN FATHER ARE SEEN TO BE TRUE: SOME BOYS ARE SIMPLY BEYOND THE HELP OF DISCIPLINE.”
Trevor let out a petulant little breath. “And who is your father, then?” he asked.
“HE IS CALLED ‘QUETZALCOATL,'” said Ouroboros. “HE IS THE FATHER OF MANY NATIONS OF SERPENTS. ONCE UPON A TIME, EVEN THE HAIRLESS APES OF THE SURFACE BOWED DOWN IN AWE AND FEAR AT HIS MAJESTY, AND COUNTLESS SACRIFICES WERE MADE—”
“Yes, I’m sure he was great,” said Trevor. “The point is, though, is he a responsible adult?”
“QUETZALCOATL WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR A GREAT MANY THINGS,” Ouroboros said. “HE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR FILLING THE WORLD WITH FEAR AND AWE, FOR THE DEATHS OF COUNTLESS THOUSANDS, FOR THE LAMENTATIONS OF THEIR MOTHERS AND WOMENFOLK AS THEY—”
“Okay, that sounds pretty good,” said Trevor, whose definition of “responsibility” was growing looser and more relaxed with each subsequent generation of Gothmog the Destroyer’s family. “I suppose he lives a few levels down and that I can’t miss him?”
“YES,” stated Ouroboros. “NOW GO AWAY, SNAKELET, AND LEAVE ME TO THE CONTEMPLATION OF MY OWN TAIL.”
Trevor was more than happy to go, even though it meant braving the many deathtraps of the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth once more. Ouroboros was clearly not a responsible adult of any kind. He mentally added the great serpent’s name to his mental list, and sojourned on.
* * *
Day after day, mile after mile, Trevor the cobra continued his hopeless quest to find a responsible adult to snitch to about all the gosh-darn bullying that was going on. He located the snake named Quetzalcoatl in an ancient and long-buried Mesoamerican-style temple and quickly dismissed him as yet another bully, just as much as any of his progeny had turned out to be. Great Ophion, Quetzalcoatl’s sire, had taken up residence in a set of gargantuan sea-caves beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he was also a bully. Father Set, who had spawned many snakes in addition to Great Ophion himself, dwelled in an venerable cathedral of quartz deep beneath the earth where he spent his days in eternal hunger, nibbling only at stale air and half-remembered dreams. His grasp of English had faded with age, but his bullying tendencies were nevertheless quite clear to Trevor, who had gotten really good at spotting them. Father Set’s great-grandfather, the mighty wyrm Jörmungandr, lived deep beneath the floor of Chesapeake Bay, and his exhalations could change the course of the tides themselves. Bully. Mother Nāgī, the flexing of whose ribs had been the ultimate cause of the 2011 Virginia Earthquake. Bully. Serpentor. Typhon. Sister Wadjet. He-Who-Slithers-In-Darkness. Bully, bully, bully, bully.
At last Trevor came to the secret subterranean nuclear testing caverns of Lost Peaks. There he found the grand patriarch of Gothmog the Destroyer’s family, the limbed serpent-dragon Manda, locked in his eternal struggle against the impossibly huge ankylosaur Anguirus. One million Trevors would easily fit inside either of the great Kaiju. Their thunderous melee caused bedrock seismographs worldwide to quiver noticeably, as if in fear.
Trevor slithered to the edge of a high ledge overlooking the battle. He cleared his throat, then took a deep breath.
“Excuse me!” he cried. “Mister Manda?”
The death-locked snake beast gazed balefully up at Trevor.
“I’m wondering if I can talk to you about Gothmog the Destroyer, his brother Cobra Commander, his stepdad Anacondor, his stepdad’s dad Ouroboros, and, well, quite a lot of other members of your family who all seem to be really big bullies to one another! I’m hoping that you might be a responsible adult who could help me put an end to the Cycle of Bullying!”
“SKREEEAAARRRAAAGGGHHH!” shrieked Manda, loosing a cone of irradiated fire-breath at the ceiling.
Trevor winced. “So… that’s a ‘no,’ then?”
“SKREEEAAARRRAAAGGGHHH!” shrieked Manda again, throwing himself back at Anguirus. His eternal foe had used the momentary distraction of Trevor’s appearance to reposition his wickedly-spiked shell to best thwart Manda’s advance, and any advantage Anguirus could gain might prove deadly to the great dragon. Manda could not afford any further distractions.
“Okay,” said Trevor, dismayedly adding Manda to his ever-growing list of snakes who needed to be snitched on. “Could you maybe tell me the name of your father, so I can talk to him?”
“SKREEEAAARRRAAAGGGHHH!” shrieked Manda, for the third time, but it was clear that his shriek was no longer in response to Trevor’s queries, but rather, a powerful blow from Anguirus’s mighty club-like tail. The epic struggle below raged on.
Dejected, Trevor slithered back out of the Lost Peaks testing site. The trail of snitching had gone cold. There was nothing left for him here.
He began his climb back to his subbasement home.
* * *
Trevor’s mom threw an absolute fit at his reappearance. It turned out that the fact that Trevor had not yet met the same fate as his thirty-two brothers and sisters had been something of a point of pride for Tina, and the thought of losing Trevor as well had stung her very deeply. Trevor was immediately grounded for his little stunt, with permission only to go to cobra school and immediately back every day, but Tina’s ire had softened slightly when Trevor revealed to her over dinner the reason behind his epic journey into the bowels of the earth.
“That’s just terrible,” said Tina. “You finish your thawed rat and then you and I are going to have a little talk with Mister Nidhogg about all this bullying going on.”
“Mister Nidhogg is way too nice to do anything about all this bullying,” said Trevor, finishing up his rat and moping a little.. “And besides, it’s after class-time. He always turns his little talk-box off.”
“Well, we won’t talk to him through his little communication device, then,” replied Tina. “We’ll just go down to see him in person. You better put on a jacket.”
And so the two snakes tunneled once again into the depths, following the wire-courses of the ancient electrical P.A. system through which Mr. Nidhogg addressed and taught his students. Downward, downward they traced the wires, following them from the cobra school all the way down past the decommissioned swamp biome, past the Twelve-Mile Labyrinth, past the temple of Quetzalcoatl, past the sea-caves, past the quartz cathedral of Father Set, past the undersea tunnels of Jörmungandr, past the lair of Mother Nāgī, the demesne of Typhon, and the shadowy halls of He-Who-Slithers-In-Darkness. There, deep beneath even the Lost Peaks testing site, where the battle between Manda and Anguirus raged ever on, they located the cobra school teachers’ lounge, mounted into the very roots of the world.
It was there they found Mr. Nidhogg, the largest snake in all of creation.
In ancient days, before Mr. Nidhogg had made his way to America by tunneling through the mantle of the earth, part of his bulk had rested beneath Scandinavia. It was in that frozen country that, once upon a time, he was spotted by a party of deep-delving Norsemen. The lives of these men were changed irrevocably in a single instant at the mere sight of him. Twelve had gone utterly mad in the attempt to process the sheer scope of the creature they saw before them. Three others had lived to tell the tale with their sanity more-or-less intact, but were plagued by nightmares every night of their lives that followed. And one had written a book of poetry about the experience. “Malice-Striker,” he was called, in that book. Gnawer at the Roots of the World Tree. Herald of Ragnarök, the day that all gods die. All this terror, and more, was ascribed to him.
Trevor knew him mostly from over the intercom by which he taught classes at the cobra school. Sure, he was aware that Mr. Nidhogg was a really big serpent, but he was so nice! What could someone like Mr. Nidhogg do about breaking the Cycle of Bullying?
Well, that didn’t stop Tina. She and Mr. Nidhogg had a long and serious talk about the bullying problem at cobra school. Mr. Nidhogg asked gentle questions about the problems that Trevor’d been having, and about everything that he had discovered about Gothmog the Destroyer’s problematic family during his first trip to the underground. He listened thoughtfully to Trevor’s answers, nodding occasionally to show that he was totally engaged in the conversation (causing massive coastal flooding every time.) And then, he bid the two snakes farewell, thanking them for their information and promising to get to the bottom of things.
That evening, a dream stole its way through the mind of every living snake on the planet Earth, and even the minds of some particularly sensitive hairless surface-apes. It was not a complex dream. There was little room for creative interpretation. All the dream consisted of was an impossibly deep, impossibly loud, impossibly close voice, stating words that had a tomb-like finality.
“Y’all,” said the impossible voice, “need to stop being such jerks to one another. Or I will personally destroy you.”
The bullying pretty much stopped after that.
* * *
Trevor was slithering home from school a few weeks later when he saw Gothmog the Destroyer, camped out near his usual box-alley. The cobra bully looked subdued. Having the largest of all snakes threatening to personally destroy you can really make a change in your demeanor.
“Hey, squirt,” said Gothmog. “I… guess I need to stop being such a jerk to you all the time, unless I want to get personally destroyed by the Malice-Striker, That Which Gnaws At The Roots. I suppose I should probably apologize too, to increase my chances of survival. So… yeah.” he shuffled his tail in the dust. “Sorry.”
“I forgive you,” said Trevor. He frowned at Gothmog concernedly. “Hey, you know, you look kinda skinny. I hope you’re not starving to death now that you can’t bully us snakelets into giving you our food.”
“Eh, it’s not that,” said Gothmog, dejectedly. “I can still catch plenty of food down here, it’s just… my mouth is a little sore. It makes me not feel like eating.”
Trevor frowned. “Open your mouth up,” he said. Gothmog complied, and Trevor gave the larger snake’s maw a good, thorough inspection.
“Yeah,” said Trevor. “That could be stomatitis.”
“The mouth-rot?” Gothmog’s voice quivered a little.
“Yup,” said Trevor. “I know all about stomatitis from all the times I’ve faked it to stay home from cobra school. And so does my mom, from all the times she’s tried to treat me for it.”
Gothmog hung his head and turned away. He muttered something inaudible.
“Sorry?” said Trevor, inclining his head to try and hear Gothmog better. It had always kind of disturbed him that he could hear at all, because all his herpetology textbooks had suggested this was an impossibility, but whatever. Trevor remained committed to biological accuracy, but even he had to admit that being deaf would make it a lot more difficult to have conversations and stuff.
“I said,” repeated Gothmog, a bit more loudly, “I wish I had a mom like yours. My water cobra mom doesn’t know anything about treating diseases or making me feel better when I get sick.”
Trevor smiled. “Well,” he said, “maybe… you could come home with me? My mom does a really good disinfecting mouth rinse. It might start to make you feel a little better.”
“I think,” said Gothmog the Destroyer, “maybe that’d be good.”
“C’mon, then,” said Trevor. “I’ll take you to meet my family.”
The two snakes slithered together toward the ultraviolet light of home.