Before The All-Dark

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I peered out from the Burrow at a world gone chill and dim. Skeletal trees guarded the flat sky. Both suns hung low on the horizon, even this near to midday. The above-ground stretched as far as my eyes could see, full of nothing but shadows and frost.

The all-dark was almost upon us.

Gathering my poor store of courage, I tested the air with my tongue and, finding no trace of danger, slithered from the pyramid's shelter and into the sparse wood.

The ground felt rough and icy against my belly scutes. Just the touch of it made me drowsy, as if a heavy blanket lay across my scales. But the dream had assured me we still had a handful of days before the all-dark and our long annual slumber.

"Better keep moving, Sookahr." Kwirk popped out of the stone archway, rubbing his paws together and looking around with the jerky, lightning fast movements of rodent-kind. My trusty little mouse flicked his whiskers, tugged down his rough vest, and then scurried ahead before I could even register his words.

"Yes. Ground is very cold." I unfurled my coils and moved despite the heaviness in my long body.

"Perhaps you shouldn't be out." Kwirk chittered. "There must be a suitable all-dark offering in the Burrow's stores."

"This year I need something special." Flicking just the tips of my tongue, I brushed past my faithful attendant. Kwirk was many things to me, but he couldn't understand the need that pressed me now. My offering to the Sage this year would carry the weight of my future. I needed to impress the god so that I might impress the world. A trinket bought from one of the Burrow's shops would not do. "Keep an eye open, Kwirk."

The breeze swirled between us, bringing a chill but not quite masking the mouse's mumbles. "Looking for what? Icicles? Hungry birds?"

I continued onward, but my head tilted up, high enough to fix my gaze on the unforgiving sky. Hungry birds. My scales rattled at the thought. Each gap in the branches looked suddenly large enough to admit an eagle.

"Stay under the trees."

"Yes. Obviously." Kwirk darted ahead, vanishing in the shadow of a tree and then appearing again as he bolted to the next, still muttering but managing a pace that would quickly leave me behind, alone and exposed.

Perhaps the stores were a good idea after all. I hissed and pressed forward, feeling the sluggishness drag at my every curve. I tasted the air again. It stung, prickled sensitive skin, and bit at the roof of my mouth, offering no secrets. No hint of what might lurk in the shadows where my mouse danced.

The creaking of dry branches vibrated against the sides of my head. The breeze increased, and what metabolism I'd left the burrow with began to shrink away. It was too late in the year to be about, and yet, the dream had whispered to me of a prize, a token worthy of the Sage's favor.

A favor I was determined to win.

My insides burned with it, with drive and a longing that had no outlet... yet. All I needed was one chance, an opportunity to prove myself. One shot at catching my teacher's attention, at showing my designs to someone that could actually appreciate them.

Someone who could appreciate me.

Slithering from one patch of fading sun to the other, my tongue barely flirted with the air. The wind shifted the branches, moving the shadows across the earth and bringing flashes of cold and almost warm. My tail brushed against dead leaves, adding a rustle and crunch to the snapping of twigs. The skymetal band around my midsection heated, a last-ditch hope against air that was too cold for serpents. A reminder that safety lay behind us. Ahead, something thumped against the earth.

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