Smokey’s Task

If he hadn’t been sleeping on the edge of the pile Smokey wouldn’t have heard the slight sluffing carrying through the tunnels of the burrow system. He groaned and opened one pallid gray-blue eye, assuming that it was one of his pups, rousing from a dream. He sniffed and blinked in the darkness as he pinpointed the direction of the noise. It was echoing from the heartpassage, the center most tunnel in the burrow. He wriggled from underneath his littersister, Windy, and snuffled the pelts closest to him, his nose scrambling to make sense of the individual smells.

            His nostrils flared until they identified a milky sweet scent belonging to his four pups, the most recent editions to the Blazes. Core was curled around them in the middle of the pile of sleeping meer, bodies stacked against one another to conserve warmth. The sluffing continued, growing louder.

            Smokey pushed himself to his paws and padded toward the exit of the heartchamber, the main sleeping chamber of the burrow. A soft rotten stench reached through the pitch darkness, causing Smokey’s pelt to bristle. He had scented something similar before and guessed it belonged to a snake or small monitor lizard, though it was hard to be sure as scales did not hold in scents like fur did.

            He glanced over his shoulder, despite not being able to see a thing, and listened. Peaceful snores and shifting met his ears. The rest of his family were deep in slumber, enjoying the safety of being underground.

            Smokey squared his shoulders and poked his pointy muzzle out of the heartchamber and into the heartpassage beyond. The grating of scales through sand persisted, heading straight for his family. His muscles tensed with determination, and he lifted his tail high over his back. No intruder was going to put his family in danger, he’d make sure of it. Teeth bared, Smokey slipped into the heartpassage and padded up a gradual incline.

            The heartpassage eventually evened and the further he went from the heartchamber the colder the tunnel became. Soon the scraping halted, and Smokey stepped with caution, afraid he’d tread on the creature and earn a nasty bite. A puffing hiss warned him of the danger ahead and Smokey wavered. A snake, he thought, a snake is in the burrow.

            He shivered, whether from the cold or the panic he couldn’t tell. A snake was heading towards the heartchamber, where his pups slept. He couldn’t allow it to go any further. It was his duty to protect the family as the dominant male. It was about time he proved himself to Core anyway. Whether it was a cobra, whose venom could kill a meer with a single bite, or a constrictor, he must face it. He must drive it from the burrow, that was now his most important task. I will keep my pups safe!

            Whiskers juddering, brushing the sandy wall of the tunnel to guide him, Smokey started forward. The hissing grew more aggressive, and he sensed movement in the darkness as the snake retreated a pace. He heard its flickering tongue and scales grinding as its coils slid over one another. He sensed its hesitation to strike him and took the opertunity to attack first. Trusting his senses, Smokey jumped at the snake.

            One of his forepaws pressed a tapered tail to the soil while his jaws closed over the snake’s neck, just beneath its head. It writhed at the touch, its hiss transformed into a gurgle as Smokey tightened his grip, preparing to apply lethal pressure.

            Then he realized why he had so easily overtaken the snake, why the snake had tried to retreat, and why it fit so well in his jaws. Though the snake was strong, whipping and curling its corded body, it was small. Too small to be an adult. In fact, he thought it must not be more than a hatchling. No older than my own pups…

            Swallowing hard, Smokey realized that he couldn’t kill the creature. Yes, if it were venomous than it could grow to hunt them, but he couldn’t take the chance that it wasn’t. Even though it was an enemy of his family he could not force his jaws to close, his teeth to pierce. He couldn’t be so cruel to such a small creature. Lifting his paw off its tail and raising his snout, Smokey carried it in much the same way he would one of his own pups, up the heartpassage.

            When he emerged into the chilly, moonless night, he dropped the squirming snake. For a heartbeat it huddled in the sand, blinking at its surroundings. Smokey stepped back and peered at it in the starlight, narrowing his eyes to see what kind of snake it was.

            It had dark masks over its eyes with little, light thorn shaped colorations at the corners. The surface of its scales was rough and marked with red-brown half-moon patterns. The scales of its underside were much fairer than those on its back and there was a dark line of skin between its eyes. The venom glands puffed out its cheeks and emphasized the flatness of its head.

            Smokey took another pace back. It was a baby puff adder, and though it probably couldn’t kill him, the bite would still be painful.

            The small adder glanced about, diminutive, dark gaze glinting slightly in the seeping starlight. For a moment, the two animals locked eyes. Then the adder bobbed its head, flicked its red tongue, turned, and fled. Smokey watched it slither into the distance, disappearing into the night-shrouded desert, with a baffling expression down curving his lips.

            Had he just come to an understanding with a snake?

            He supposed that he had, and satisfaction filled him. With a nod of his own he padded back into the burrow. His task was complete, with a very strange but pleasing outcome, and he was ready to cuddle into the pile of his family and sleep. So, that’s what Smokey, worthy and proven dominant male of the Blazes, did.

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