A story written for Mallous Callous for a Secret Santa; Karen is Mallous Callous’ character
1 No Will Hunting
“I swear, I’m going to make sure you pay for this.”
“It’s a payday, my dear, a payday you’ll make for us.”
Karen glared up at Armando. He looked thin, but that was from how well he could blend with the shadows. She’d seen his muscles firsthand when he held her down. Karen glared at the woman sitting on her, pinning her to the floor along with the ropes binding her arms and legs. Nettie and Armando were the muscle, but they were entirely different otherwise. Karen assumed Nettie was an idiot. She laughed every time Karen tried to push her off.
“You won’t get anything,” Karen spat. “And tell this cretin to get off me!”
“Tisk, tisk. Armando, Nettie, can’t you two quiet her up?” asked their ringleader Alex, rummaging through Karen’s cabinets. “She’s so distracting.” Armando tied a strip of cloth over Karen’s mouth to silence her.
Once she had been a rising businesswoman building her place in the business world. Her place had crashed alongside her plane in a thunderstorm. All her plane was good for now was a treehouse shelter in the jungle. She had been stuck out there for months now, trying to contact anyone who could return her to civilization, using a radio on the fritz. It was just her luck she got in contact with a band of thieves.
And to think she almost hadn’t sent a message today—today’s rain had relaxed her so well she almost missed her schedule. She had secretaries back in New York to help her stay on track. Secretaries and business suits instead of animals and a leopard skin bikini.
She supposed she was glad she didn’t put on her old business suit for the meeting. It would’ve been ruined under this thick, thick-headed girl. Not that her two-piece outfit provided much protection, but she didn’t have much to work with out there.
Alex cackled, dumping several golden treasures on a table under their big nose. They always seemed to wobble, as if always slightly off-balance.
“Look what I found stashed in here!” Alex said. Karen grumbled—she’d found them first, delving into some old ruins to find them. Anyone with any scruples could have taken it as payment for a voyage, not just steal it.
“These are even better than Sweaty said!” said Nettie, pushing her curled hair out of her eyes for a better look.
“A regular treasure hunter, our business lady,” Armando said. “A treasured enterprise?”
“Don’t look so angry, chief,” Alex said, looking at Karen with a smirk. “You’re getting your ride out of here. For a price, of course, but I’m sure your company, or family, or somebody will be willing to pay it to get you back.”
Alex tossed a couple treasures to Armando to carry and told Nettie to carry Karen. As the big girl did so she stopped and stared at the space in front of her.
“Wait, didn’t Sweaty tell us to bring Karen to him?”
Alex shook their head. “Dear, sweet, naive Nettie.” They tossed one of the treasures in the air. “Sweymkal isn’t getting Karen, and he isn’t getting this treasure, either. He led us to this find, but the guide doesn’t share in the spoils. We’re doing the work, after all.”
Karen grumbled and shook against the binds. Sweymkal was a monster trapped in some old ruins Karen had entered, unable to leave the ruins for some reason. She’d nabbed his prize treasure when he tried to keep her down there. At least they weren’t going to bring her to him—he vowed revenge, mad villain style. No doubt he’d gone mad trapped down there.
The thieves headed down the treehouse to the forest floor and strolled through the foliage. Armando pulled out a crystal on a string around his neck.
“The best part is, we even got a gift from that beast, and we’re still betray . . . ing . . .” Karen watched Armando stare at the crystal, his eyes going blank and mouth dropping. Karen whined and struggled under the binds—she had a feeling she knew what was going to happen and didn’t like where it was going.
Alex looked back. “What’s up, Armando–” They screamed and stumbled, holding their head. The crystals hanging from all three of their necks glowed; Alex fell to the ground as Armando stumbled, breathing heavily. Nettie stopped walking, her face twisted. She looked around.
“What is that?” Nettie asked.
A still grew over the area as Armando and Alex grew quiet. Alex stood back up, their eyes glazed over.
“We must return the treasures and Karen to Sweymkal,” Alex spoke as if fed the words.
“Oh, okay,” Nettie said. The three changed direction and marched. “Why?”
Armando grabbed the crystal around Nettie’s neck and pushed it against her head. Nettie stiffened and intoned, “We must return the treasures and Karen to Sweaty.”
“Close enough,” Alex said. They marched on, Karen struggling to get out of the predicament.
2 Sinking Plan
The bounty hunters stared at a broken bridge over a gap.
“New bridge,” they all spoke together. Nettie placed Karen down at an open spot and they converged on a tree to work on cutting it down.
Karen rolled her eyes. At least they were quieter enthralled to Sweymkal. Less attentive, too—Karen smiled as she lifted her arms, having pulled apart the binds around her wrists while Nettie had carried her. All she had to do was remove her ankle binds and she could get the drop on them.
She moved to do so, and the ground blorped.
The ground fell apart under Karen and she sank into the muddy, gooey soil. Quicksand! Why does this always happen? Already the cold mud rose over her legs, clinging to her skin and holding her legs together stuck. One hand was caught under the muck, leaving just one she waved to grab solid ground or a vine, but she only caught air.
Karen pulled at the gag around her mouth. She needed to call for help. She didn’t want to deal with those three idiots and be taken to Sweymkal, but the quicksand was worse. She’d already sank to her hips and was completely immobile underneath, the wet, cold soil closing around her. She did not want to become some sort of quicksand mummy, but the gag was tied too tight. She yanked and pulled and yelled muffled but to no avail.
She saw something move out the corner of her eye and looked up. A long, red, scaly tail lowered from the tree below to her and hung like a vine. She shook her head and arm—she wasn’t going to let a snake take her away. Quicksand was bad enough.
“Look,” a high, thin voice said from the tree, “you can take my tail or you can sink in quicksand, but let me tell you, there’s only one of us that you can reason with.”
Karen looked down at the sinking mud. She groaned and lifted her hand to grab onto the tail.
“Okay, hold on!” The tail pulled Karen—well, nowhere. She didn’t lift at all. “Wait, let me get some leverage. Can you move your legs at all? That would help.” Karen mumbled and shook her head. “Wait, I can’t hear you. Let me—” The tail pulled the gag off Karen. “What was that?”
“My feet are bound by rope!” Karen said.
“Rope? Why are they—” The voice above stammered. “I wasn’t interrupting anything, was I?”
“You were interrupting a kidnapping, so hurry up before they come back!”
“Okay, calm down, I can do this.” The tail lifted, and she slid out of the muck and into the air, the quicksand sticking from her chest down. She breathed a sigh of relief, then sharply inhaled as the tail lifted her into the tree.
The tail held a firm grip on her arm, and once she was above the branches it set her down on one. A long, thin-faced snake with red and white splotches watched her.
“Are you okay?” the snake asked.
“Yes.” She thought it might be appropriate to thank the snake, but she wasn’t certain it was a selfless act yet. Especially as he still held her arm. “You can let go of me now.”
“Oh, no, safety first. Especially with your feet still bound. Do you need help?”
Karen shook her head with a scowl. She didn’t want the snake touching her anymore than he already did. Still, he didn’t seem to have any ill intentions yet—she’d expect him to try to sweet-talk her if he did. She removed the ropes from her feet and stood up.
“Let me introduce myself,” the snake said with a small bow. “My name is Persnakety.”
“Karen.” She peered through the foliage to the bounty hunters. They were about done knocking the tree down, it looked. They’d come looking for her soon.
“You know, interesting fact about quicksand,” Persnakety said, “you can’t actually sink all the way in it.”
“Fascinating,” Karen muttered. She didn’t want to let them get away with those treasures, either.
“Its danger lies in getting stuck and unable to escape for days.”
Maybe she could get those three stuck in the quicksand instead of her. That would be poetic justice—someone in quicksand besides her.
“Although I was able to lift you out quite easily, so I suspect it’s a substance other than quicksand. Possibly the old ruins are starting to cave in. I think the Golden Stardust Bird’s chamber is near here . . .”
Karen looked at him. “Golden Stardust Bird?” That got her attention.
“It was spoken of in old legends to be a comet that fell to Earth, and when it burned up in the atmosphere all that was left was a golden bird covered in stardust.” Persnakety shook his head and frowned at Karen’s grin. “Oh, but wait, it’s guarded by a dangerous beast!” He lifted his nose. “Quite unpleasant as well, I’ll have you know I thought they might want company once, but they—”
“A dangerous beast?” Karen asked. That just might work. “Sounds like there’s an entrance. Show me.”
“What? Um. Oh. Oh dear.”
3 Ruined Tail
Karen stepped through the dusty, muddy hall, the dust sticking to the cold mud still over her from the quicksand. The brick walls appeared to sag around her. It was dark, but Persnakety happened to have had a flashlight on hand—or, on tail. He had a whole bag of tools he carried around, in fact. Too bad he didn’t have any weapons.
He wasn’t so bad, for a snake. Kind of annoying and whiny, but Karen hoped he would be okay distracting those thieves.
“You see, this type of tree is no good for a bridge, it would be structurally unsound. You want to use this type of tree, over here,” Persnakety told the bounty hunters. “And simply knocking the tree over so it sits between the cliff edges is no good a technique, too unstable, you must have a flat surface.”
Well, Karen had herself to worry about. First, find the treasure. Avoid the beast until she did. Second, get the treasure. Third, lead the beast out. Fourth, toss the treasure to the bounty hunters. Let them deal with the beast. Once it was done with them she would escape with all her treasure back. Easy plan.
Dirt fell from the cracked ceiling. Easy plan as long as she could get out, anyway.
Karen entered a wide, circular chamber. At the center stood a pedestal, a golden bird sprinkled with the blues and greens of an aurora sitting on top. She saw no beast; she edged around the room but nothing hid behind the pedestal. There were a few open passages out of the chamber, and she heard some scraping or shifting sound. Something might be in there.
She ran to the pedestal and grabbed the bird. She wanted to be in and out so she had a clear exit.
The floor erupted, throwing her back, and a tail dark as lapis lazuli rose, circling the circular room and quickly as wide as Karen’s own body. She leapt over the tail to reach the exit, but it curled and nabbed her, wrapping her up before she could try to pull away.
“While they may be cheap adhesive material, it’s not a good idea to use slimes in your construction,” Persnakety told the bounty hunters. “Their adhesive properties do not sustain significant forces, and they stick much less readily once separated from the main entity, so harvesting slime from them leaves you with a wet substance that will do little more for your bridge than create a slippery surface for you to slide off to the chasm below.”
The tail slid around Karen, cold scales running along her skin. It squeezed her legs together, tight around her hips, and it held her arms down, leaving her immobile despite her struggle to push the tail away. The chamber rumbled as dust and stone crashed from above. As the dust cleared a blue snake big enough to swallow Karen in one gulp slithered towards her.
A snake. Of course it had to be a snake.
Karen shouted as the tail around her tightened, squeezing her arms against her body. It shook in the trembling chamber but kept its grip tight. The scales engulfed her skin as warm air wafted to her; the snake opened its mouth wide, pulling her towards it. She was just finger food to it, or possibly tail food. It would take seconds for it to swallow her whole.
“Now, you might think haunted wood is a poor choice of building material,” Persnakety said. “Many expect it to collapse from haunting, or grow animate and walk away. However, there are numerous ways for you to reduce the anger of haunted wood, and once it bonds with you it’s one of the sturdiest types of woods you can find. It’s easy to block people from crossing if need be by having the possessed wood stop them.”
A chunk of ceiling crashed into the snake’s head, smashing them to the floor. Wet mud and soil and silt collapsed into the chamber from above following crashing brick and stone from the falling ceiling. Karen stumbled back, the snake’s grip lost from being smashed.
Karen figured Persnakety was right. The ruins were collapsing. She wasn’t going to stick around to see. She grabbed the bird and ran out, the chamber filling with a wave of soil. Dust trickled from the hallway ceiling and a piece of the roof fell in. The hallway was collapsing too, but the way out was straight ahead.
The floor burst up before her and the snake emerged, hissing. Karen stumbled back, and when the dust cleared she saw the snake’s grinning eyes glowing.
“Incidentally enough, sugar plums are not actually plums at all,” Persnakety said. “They’re called plums because of their small size. They’re actually composed of hardened sugar.”
The hallway grew infinitely long as Karen lost herself in the snake’s eyes. The rumble of the ruins faded away as the snake’s hiss echoed in her head. She had to escape—she had to look away—but the pulsating rings in the snake’s eyes drew her forward. The sharp blue, black, and orange rings scrambled her thoughts with each new ring.
She forced her legs to move, each step backwards like pulling against a black hole with legs of noodles. The snake leaned forward, the colors stronger, tangling over her mind. Karen slipped on loose soil and fell back, the falling silt filling the chamber. It pushed her towards the snake, gliding her within reach of its maw.
Her thoughts tried to organize. There was only one way out. She focused on her hand and clenched it.
Closer . . .
Karen focused on her arm and hurled it forward, throwing sand into the snake’s eyes. The snake hissed and turned away, breaking its gaze on her, and she shook the hypnotic colors out of her head.
No time to clear all her senses up; she stumbled up and edged around the snake as it shook the dust from its eyes. It made one last lunge at Karen as she ran, but the ceiling collapsed behind her and blocked it. She emerged from the ruins back into the warm afternoon jungle.
She panted. Covered in dust, grime, mud, sand, and dirt, she at least made it out of the ruins with the golden bird.
The three bounty hunters dogpiled her, forcing her to the ground.
“Sweymkal will have his prey,” the three intoned.
Right. These jokers. That big blue snake was supposed to take care of them for her. What happened to Persnakety?
“I’m sorry!” the red snake said from the trees, holding his tail over his head. “I kept them busy as long as I could, but they threatened me!” He disappeared into the foliage. The coward.
Sweymkal it’ll have to be . . .
4 Sweating Under Pressure
Unimpressive from the outside. A big, rocky hill, that’s what it looked like. But look closer, past the fallen rocks, and an entrance, cracked bricks carved with symbols, and a dusty corridor leads to a dark cave, an outcrop overlooking a pool of searing-hot magma.
Around this outcrop coiled a tail of glowing blue scales, a flowing pattern that seemed to move along the tail, thicker than a human body. This flowing, twisting, sinewy tube grew into a strong torso of chiseled scale and muscle, the arms looking big enough to punch straight through rock.
This was Sweymkal.
He was drenched in sweat.
Sweymkal raised his arms with a boastful laugh. “You’ve returned! You’ve brought the treasures! You’ve brought her.”
Karen glared at the scaly being. Self-styled as a god, he claimed to be worshiped in ages past, but with the loss of worship came the loss of his pristine pool into a boiling lake of magma. She didn’t listen to the rest of what he said when she was there last and liberated the artifact from the ruins. She’d admit she never saw any creature like him, but that didn’t make him a god. He was probably only cursed to remain in this cave because he was too oversized to fit through the small opening out.
Armando and Nettie held Karen before the muscular snake being. Alex lifted the treasures, including the one Karen had recently found, to Sweymkal.
“And an extra, as well.” Sweymkal held the treasures in his tail and slid them onto a recess in the wall. “But the real treasure is this thief.” He turned to Karen with a grin and slithered to her, releasing his tail from the outcrop. He leaned into Karen’s face, chills radiating off him despite the heat of the cave. Karen cringed as Sweymkal brushed his tail over her, but like a splash of water the grime from the collapsed temple washed off her.
“I told you I would get you,” Sweymkal said with a scowl. “I told you I would destroy you.”
Karen turned her face as much as she could being held by the two bounty dopes. “I’m not afraid of you.” It was a lie, but she had always lied under pressure.
“Oh yes, you are,” Sweymkal said. Karen twitched as his cold tail slipped around her ankles and coiled over her legs. “Only someone stupid wouldn’t be afraid, and I know you’re not stupid. After all, I have enough strength to crush you twenty times over.”
“But you’re not going to.”
Sweymkal smirked. He slipped his tail up to Karen’s hips and squeezed. She winced, but he loosened.
“Right, you aren’t stupid. I’m not going to. In fact, I’m going to let these three fools escort you back home.”
Despite herself Karen glanced at the snake being. “What?”
“I have my treasure back,” Sweymkal said, leaning closer, “and you’re much more useful outside the jungle than here.”
She was more useful outside the jungle, that was true. Much more useful . . . Karen yelped and shut her eyes. Sweymkal’s eyes were shimmering in hues of red and blue rings.
“No! No way, I’m not doing that,” Karen said. She struggled against Sweymkal’s thick tail, but the muscles flexed, coiling her arms down and rising against her body tight. He squeezed and her eyes popped open, staring into his glimmering orbs.
“There’s no call for that,” Sweymkal said. “I’ll either pop your body or I’ll pop your brain, but you’re more useful with the latter.” Karen’s head already felt full of bubbles. Her vision swam; she tried to grab her thoughts but they seemed to boil away. She felt submerged in water, her sight hazy, Sweymkal’s cold coils sliding and rising, her direction lost.
She felt drawn to one direction in particular, though.
“Yessss,” Sweymkal hissed, “stare into my eyes and know your god. You worship me, a being of awesome power.” Karen pushed the thought out of her mind but it kept sliding back in. She was at his mercy, the mercy of a god, she must worship him to gain his favor.
No! He wasn’t a god, he was just some pumped-up monster! She resisted his spell, but her mind felt foggy, full of hot vapor, the red and blue rings searing away her thoughts. There was no way out, no way but to worship and seek his favor.
“Like I said, you’re going home.” Sweymkal held Karen’s face in his powerful, godly hands, strong and scaly yet so soft and gentle. “Return to your world, where you have power, and lead others back here to me. Send people to worship me again.”
Yes. That’s what she should do. Lead people to worship Sweymkal. His power rained on her mind, washing over her, drowning out her attempts to resist. Just . . . give . . .
“Hey! Er, I mean, excuse me.”
The lock Sweymkal held over Karen opened as he turned away from her.
“What?” Sweymkal asked. “Nobody should—hey, you pest! Put those back!”
Persnakety held the treasures brought to Sweymkal in his tail, his body poking out from a hole in the wall.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Persnakety said, moving his tail to the shelf, “I didn’t realize—whoops!” Persnakety dropped the treasures, and they tumbled down the cave walls towards the magma below.
“No!” Sweymkal roared. Karen spun as Sweymkal yanked his tail off her. He leapt to the cliff edge and gripped his tail around the outcrop until it cracked. He jumped after the treasures but they disappeared below.
“I-I’m sorry,” Persnakety said, retreating to the hole in the wall, “you startled—I mean, I don’t exactly—” He hurried away but Sweymkal leapt up and seized Persnakety’s neck in a hand as big as the weak snake’s head.
“I’m going to rip you head from tail, you sniveling fool!” Sweymkal shouted. Persnakety choked out a scream.
Karen blinked her senses back. Being thrown for a loop threw her largely out of Sweymkal’s spell, and the shouting snapped her back in full. That dorky snake came back, but Sweymkal was threatening him. Karen looked around the cave—the bounty hunters stood in their daze, Sweymkal rose high above the ground to hold Persnakety, his tail was around the outcrop—and the stone was cracked.
With all her strength Karen charged at Sweymkal and rammed his coils with her body.
She heard a crumbly crack.
“Huh?” Sweymkal looked back at Karen. “Oh, you’re awake. Do you really think you have the strength to—”
The outcrop broke. Sweymkal’s tail fell down the cliff, down to the magma below.
“What? No!” Sweymkal howled. He released Persnakety and he scrambled to grab the collapsing cliff edge. He grasped pebbles and fell with the crumbled, eroded stone, screaming until he plopped into the magma.
With a shriek, steam shot up and filled the cave. The magma rumbled as it hardened from the water deity’s power. The cave shook, cracked, and crumbled down.
“The cave is going to collapse!” Persnakety shouted. “Get out! I’ll meet you outside!”
Karen didn’t think twice. Persnakety found a way in, he’d find a way out. She ran past the woozy bounty hunters, who groaned as they awoke from losing connection to Sweymkal. They were too groggy to realize what was happening. Karen ran as brick and stone collapsed behind her. With a last jump she cleared the thin entrance and the cave collapsed.
Sweymkal’s temple was blocked off for good.
Karen looked at Persnakety as he slithered out of the wall. She didn’t like most predators, but it was hard to call Persnakety a predator.
“Thank you for your help.” She also didn’t thank people often, but she knew when it was called for.
“I couldn’t just leave you,” Persnakety said. “I wanted to make up for letting those three catch up to you.”
Karen looked away. “Yeah, that was on you. But we’re even now. It’s just too bad the treasure had to go.” It didn’t work for payment for those three crooks, but someone more honest might show up eventually.
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Persnakety reached inside a hole in the wall and pulled out the Golden Stardust Bird. Karen stared open-mouthed as Persnakety passed it to her.
Ways he could have saved the treasure rolled through her mind but none of them worked out. All she could ask was, “How?”
“Oh, I calculated all the underground tunnels throughout the forest out of scientific curiosity recently,” Persnakety said. “I just had to drop the treasures at the right angles and they dropped into holes further down in the cave. I’ll show you where the others will be.”
“Sure.” Karen looked at Persnakety with a scrunched face, gears turning in her mind. He was a shrewd planner for such a shrimpy noodle. She didn’t like snakes, but this one seemed more honest than most humans she’d met, and it seemed like he’d crumple up before he even tried to touch her.
“You know, I’ve been looking for a secretary . . .”
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