Claude gripped his musket in a panic and hammered the trigger the moment the tip of its barrel was pointed in roughly the right direction. The cock snapped down but nothing happened. F*ck! He'd never lit the match before coming down!
But the gaping mouth vanished as his other hand pulled a nearby torch in front of him. His gaze steadied and he saw a large, long, black, tubular shape slither around in front of him. Brown mud blotches dotted its skin and one end rose to a large head where a forked tongue slapped the air.
F*cking hell... he knew treasure hunts never went well! His legs shivered uncontrollably, very nearly giving way under him entirely. He hated snakes the most of all the world's damned creatures. Snake meat was nice, and they apparently had certain… boosting properties, but those snakes were usually long dead! This thing was still alive and kicking, after a way of speaking!
Calm down… He had to stay calm. He couldn't let his fear overwhelm him if he had the slightest inclination to live through this. He wasn't dead yet, so he still had a chance. If he could keep the snake at bay for long enough to light the slow-match and fix it to the cock, he might yet make it out of this alive. He was a world away from being a crack shot, but he couldn't miss at this distance, especially not if he waited until the thing lunged at him.
His breathing was ragged more than heavy, and cold sweat drenched his clothes, but he felt neither. His eyes were soldered to the snake. His hands moved slowly, one to the slow-match fastened to the cock, the other brought his torch to the musket dangling in front of him.
His eyes had picked the snake out completely by now. It was as thick as a soup bowl and it was at least three metres long, though he couldn't be certain. It's mouth had a row of needle-like teeth on each jaw and two, glass-like translucent fangs that dripped with either saliva or venom, Leguna didn't know which. And he didn't know which he'd prefer. He definitely was not looking forward to being crushed in a vice if it was a constrictor, but he didn't much fancy the idea of dying slowly and excruciatingly painfully if it was venomous. And if it was the latter, he also didn't know what kind of venom it had. It might be a neurotoxin, in which case he'd hopefully die pretty quickly, or it might be a blood-clotting poison, in which case his death would be equally quickly, but far more painful. If it was a paralyzing poison, he would have to live through being eaten alive before finally dying of asphyxiation inside the snake. But worst of all, at least in his mind, would be for it to be a flesh-decomposing poison, the kind that slowly rotted away his flesh, turning it into mush.
All that said, now that he considered that the snake was only three metres long, he might actually prefer for it to be a constrictor. It would not be nice, and he would certainly break a few bones if it got a good grip on him, but it ought to be too short to get the kind of grip, and be able to exert the kind of power, that might kill him.
The two slowly closed in, then the slow match spluttered momentarily and glowed. His delight drew his eyes from the snake for a moment to gaze at the match and make sure it was indeed alight.
The shadow pounced in that instant.
The snake's entire length emerged from the mud and shot at him like an arrow.
Shit! Claude swung his torch at the snake to try and block it or knock it away. The snake couldn't avoid the torch, its entire length was already in the air, and slammed, mouth first, into it.
A shockwave shuddered through Claude's body and his arm buckled under the force, his torch sent flying. A pungent smell assaulted his nostrils as he felt a squelching mass coil itself around his waist, ascending towards his chest. He felt his body squash as a massive force pressed in on him wherever that slimed length touched his body. His knees gave way and he collapsed to the ground.
He had enough time to take a single breath before the snake attacked again. Luckily, his hands were still free and his right one clutched the gun furiously. He tried gripping the snake's body with his left hand, but it was more slippery than wet eel. He gave up quickly and instead reached for his knife, fastened to his belt, but the snake was crushing down on him so much that the blade was stuck in its sheath. The black head raised and that mouth opened again. He stared at the face for what seemed like a frozen eternity, then the mouth came down on his face.
Claude's instincts took over again and the gun came up much as the torch had. The snake again didn't flinch. He came at the gun down the barrel, however, and half of the barrel disappeared down its throat. It's mouth closed instinctively and it buried its fangs in the wooden shoe.
Claude immediately pulled back his index finger. The cock slammed down on the pad in a dead thud again, however. The slow-match hadn't taken properly and had gone out as he swung the gun in front of him.
Damnit! Why did he have to have such bad luck? The python writhed around the gun, jerking its head back and forth as it tried to dislodge its fangs. Claude clung onto the butt of the gun for all he was worth. He winced, however, as the snake's body tightened around him more and more as it writhed. He felt his innards being pressed against his diaphragm, which, in turn, crushed his lungs from below. His breaths were becoming progressively shallow and shallow and he felt another kind of darkness beginning to claw at the edges of his vision.
His sluggish eyes finally noticed the two torches still burning happily in the mud not far away. He gathered the last of his energy and hurled himself at them.
He landed between the two and his left hand clutched frantically in empty air and slimy mud for a few moments before it finally got hold of the torch. His right hand was only a few more tugs away from losing its grip on the gun's butt.
He didn't even think about slamming the burning end of the torch into the snake's body to chase it off, or at least make it let go of him. His mind, on the brink of complete shutdown, was locked, fixated, on getting the gun to fire. He couldn't light the slow-match, since the cock wasn't cocked anymore, so instead he slammed the torch into the cover plate, lifting it out of the way in the process, and lighting the priming charge underneath it.
The shot rang in the basement. The shockwave hit his ears and they rang. The shockwave struck the walls somewhere in the darkness and slammed into him a second time, then a third, then a forth. His ears rung and blood dripped out of one. The python fared much worse, however.
It exploded. Its throat disintegrated, it simply vanished and the rest of its body writhed for a few moments before it fell off him and writhed on the ground like a stabbed earthworm.
The snake's head was still stuck to his gun, it covered the front half of the barrel like a sleeve, and the head twitched and writhed around the barrel as life disappeared from its black, beady eyes.
Claude gasped the moment the rest of its body let go of him and collapsed to his feet where he wheezed intensely for nearly a minute. The darkness that had taken over nearly half his vision when he finally fired the gun, slowly receded into oblivion. He crawled over to the steps' base wall and pulled himself up by it.
His body suddenly felt heavy, heavier than it had ever felt in his entire life. And it hurt. God it hurt! Ever muscle fibre, every tendon, every vein and every nerve screamed at him furiously. He fought back the desire to just collapse and pass out, and felt his belt as he stumbled back to the loose tile.
One torch was still alight. He took hold of the base and yanked, but the torch didn't budge. The mud had been soft and obedient when he'd shoved it in there, but it felt now like the torch was buried in stone. He yanked on it again and the torch gave way some. A third yank freed it, but the torch felt a hundred times heavier than he remembered, and everything between the tips of his fingers and his shoulder blade shouted at him again.
He found a shrub that must have been washed into the basement nearby and shoved the torch into it, setting the rotten wood alight. He found the dead torches in the extra light. He cleaned off the worst of the mud and lit them again, found more shrubs and lit them as well.
The four fires burned smokily in the basement and he knew he didn't have long before the smoke would become another danger. For now, at least, the fires were worth more than the smoke they left.
He could finally see the basement's walls. They were about twenty metres from him in each direction. The entire four hundred square metres of the floor, save his small corner of it, was completely submerged under the mud.
For all the smoke the shrubs made, he was happy to have their light. He had no intention to fight another snake -- he was certain he would not survive a second one. The fire's light would reveal any such hidden assailants to him, not to mention it should hopefully convince any with half a mind to join in on the fun, to not act on those thought, at least for now.
He drew the knife he couldn't before and walked -- crawled -- to the finally unwrithing corpse. His paranoia had overtaken him. He was not going to leave the snake's head intact, lest it, by some horrible miracle, be still alive. There was also the matter of getting it off the gun. He doubted Borkal would appreciate getting a rotting snake's head on his gun when he returned it to him.
He ran the knife into the corner of the snake's mouth, and ripped it through, cutting off one end of the lower jaw. He repeated the process with the other corner, and the head and lower jaw fell off of the musket in two separate pieces.
He held the head portion down and drove the tip of his blade clean through its skull. Satisfied with his bloody work, he yanked the fangs still stuck in the aspen-wood shoe.
He turned his attention to the ruined slow-match. The torch had set its entire length on fire, and it was now just a black husk. He felt it carefully, and yanked it out once he felt it was cool enough to handle, replacing it with the only spare he had. He put the gun somewhere he could reach it quickly, not that he could use it as anything other than a club now, then returned to the hole in the ground.
He picked up the jade box, collected his torches and returned to his rope ladder. Satisfied he had everything, he clambered up the rope -- much slower now, and grunting in pain all the way.
He clambered up the rest of the stairs, tenderly, and collapsed on the ground right in front of entrance. Thanking whatever gods existed for the sunshine dancing on his face, he lay that way for nearly half an hour before he finally opened his eyes and sat up. He stared at the jade box he put on his lap now, and started fiddling with it, trying to open it.
He couldn't see anything like a lid or a hatch. It looked like a solid piece of jade. It took him a few more minutes to find an edge that felt the slightest bit loose. He pushed against it from several directions before finding one that did something. The edge slid aside and one entire side of the box slid away.
He found everything Landes had described inside the box. He saw three books, he flipped their covers open one by one and indeed two were diaries and the third was a notebook. He also saw the money pouch. There was nothing else; Landes really had been a pauper.
He stared at everything for a few more minutes before he slid the lid back into place, put it beside him, and fell back onto the ground, staring up at the sky as he took several deep, clean breaths.
He definitely didn't want his friends to find out about his little treasure, but there was no hiding what he'd just been through. What was he going to use as an excuse? They were all just sixteen years old, but they were sharp as knives.
That didn't mean their grades were any good, of course. A sharp mind was useless if it wasn't used, and they definitely made no use of their heads in school. They weren't dumb, but they were very uneducated. He wondered if they were hiding their subtle sense of inferiority at having such bad grades despite their relative intelligence by looking down on their hardworking fellow students. They certainly held their classmates in contempt.
Ugh…. Damnit! Why was it easier to fight a damn snake than coming up with a believable excuse for having done just that?