Spotting an opportunity, Victor slipped in almost unnoticed amid the raucous melee of fangs and wings. He reached cautiously over the table and found that the pythons, preoccupied with their avian assailants, made no attempt to repel his approach. Digging his hand into the churning demonic spaghetti, he took hold of a bloated snake he had seen dive below the surface, and dragged it free from the pile. A magpie jumped across the table and clamped its beak around his wrist like a giant pair of pliers. Victor grimaced and tried to pry his arm loose, refusing to release the snake, while the magpie held firm: three hammer blows from Victor’s fist, right in the bird’s eye, failed to elicit anything but a smug warble.
“Damn it,” he groaned. “Gimme the snake!”
The magpie closed its beak tighter, and with a small turn it sliced Victor’s arm like a tin can.
“Argh! You son-of-a—” Victor clenched his teeth. “A Furbank never quits,” he muttered as he thumped his fist on the rail. “A Furbank never quits!”
The battle raged. Squawks and hisses, plucked feathers and severed snake tails filled the air around Victor and the magpie. He looked into its merciless eyes. Sweat dripped from his temple. With a slow, grinding twist, the beak carved another short slice into his arm; his hand trembled and began to loosen its grip. As the serpent—stuffed with a swallowed billiard ball—wriggled inch by inch from Victor’s weakening fingers, another snake shot up from the hissing knot and looped itself twice around the magpie’s throat. The noose tightened, dragging its stunned victim down toward the pit; the magpie released Victor’s wrist and gave a desperate croak. With a wild lash of its claws it leapt and flapped into the air, with the scaly strangler in tow.
Victor renewed his grip on the engorged python and plucked it from the table. He held his wrist and examined the gashes on his forearm.
“Need a bandage on that. First things first though.”
He pinched the snake behind the head and carried it, swinging from his hand. Halfway to the door, a loud snap, and then another, reverberated across the room. Victor looked behind him to the far corner: a magpie had a long snake in its beak, and was whipping it with tremendous force against the tiled floor. The magpie stopped when it spotted Victor; the snake hung like a shoelace. The bird dropped the dead reptile and charged. Victor turned, swung his arm around and flung the snake, softball pitch style, across the room and out the door. The snake slapped and skidded over the floorboards in the hall.
A deafening crack shook the room; Victor’s ears rang. He turned around and saw, just a few feet behind him, a long streak of a thick, clear liquid splattered the floor. The charging magpie was gone.
“That’s it then,” he said with a smile. “Steal the eggs.” He looked at the table. “Four to go.”
He raced over, tore a long strip from the end of the bed sheet, and wrapped it around his wounded arm.
“That’ll have to do.”
Two magpies stood on the table, snapping and stabbing with their beaks; the other two were submerged in the bloody pit. Victor fished about in what was now mostly a stack of reptile corpses, but was unable to feel anything that resembled a five and a half ounce resin ball. One of the magpies gave a high pitched whistle and plunged its beak into the pile. It burrowed its head almost entirely before reappearing with a thrashing python in its beak. The python had a big round lump in its neck. Victor lunged over the table, grabbed a handful of the magpie’s primary feathers, and yanked them out. The bird shrieked, releasing the snake, and flapped back as best it could with a half-plucked wing. Victor snatched up the snake and bolted for the door; the magpie howled and swooped. Careering like a shot-down Spitfire, the crazed bird crashed into Victor’s knee and spilled to the floor ahead of him. It turned to attack with its beak, but the collision had knocked Victor off stride: he stumbled and fell forward, landing with his knee on the bird’s chest. It heaved a sickening groan as Victor unwittingly splintered its rib cage, and vomited blood as it watched him get up and carry the snake—and thereby the billiard ball—through the doorway into the hall.
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