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Natalie struggled to keep her hold on Damien as his sister, Mara, ran back toward the school. She scolded herself for getting cocky. That was one more person who was going to spread panic about her and the other hybrids.
Nothing she could do about it now. At least Mara was sa—
Damien’s head slammed back into her face, pronged horns cutting into her cheeks. Her grip loosened and he kicked out of her coils. The force of his hind hooves knocked the breath out of her lungs and she tumbled backward in a pile of arms and tail, gasping for breath.
She managed to gulp down a lungful of air and sit up in time to see Damien take off after Mara, sprinting on all fours at blinding speed.
Chest aching, Natalie sprang forward and gave chase.
During the weekend after taking down Skunk-bear, she had spent almost every waking hour either training with her new abilities or researching different animals. She wanted to be both mentally and physically prepared for anything other hybrids might throw at her. During this time, she had learned many things, one of those being the difference between being fast and being quick.
Snakes were not fast. At top speed, Natalie could barely slither faster than she could sprint. What gave snakes, and thus her, the illusion of speed was their reaction time, their quickness. While she couldn’t run at Olympic levels, she could change direction in a fraction of a second. That was great for navigating the twisted corridors of the abandoned sewer system. It was not so great however for chasing down a cheetah-antelope hybrid on a straight road.
Natalie was rapidly losing ground as Damien tore down the pavement after his sister. Mara had a decent head start, but she was a marathon runner, not a sprinter. She was made for endurance, not speed and if Natalie didn’t do something soon, Damien would catch her well before she made it to the school.
A crazy idea popped into her head. It wasn’t something snakes actually did in nature, but it was an old myth she had stumbled across in her research.
Natalie tucked herself forward into a roll and grabbed her own tail, coiling herself into a wheel shape. Using the momentum of her run, as well as her gymnastics training, she spun end over end down the street.
She couldn’t see where she was going at all, her vision turning into a blur of colors alternating between black asphalt and pinkish sunset sky. Luckily, the street was a straight shot forward.
It wasn’t until she collided into him at full speed that Natalie realized she had caught up to Damien. He let out a garbled yelp in surprise as they tumbled over each other in a jumbled mess down the street for at least another five yards before hitting a pothole and breaking apart.
Natalie had to wait for the world to stop spinning before she could stagger up onto her tail. By that time, Damien had regained his feet as well. He seemed to prefer going about on all fours now that he was a hybrid.
They were at the edge of where the road changed from houses to school buildings. The road itself ran between the school and the stadium. A banner advertising the last football game of the year was strung between two streetlights above them. The school really needed to take that down. The game it was advertising had already been played a month ago.
Damien snarled and raised his hackles. Natalie hissed and rose up tall on her tail. She knew now that this back and forth before a fight was instinctually engrained in each hybrid by their ark shards. In nature, few animals really wanted to get into an all out brawl, so they made themselves look big and powerful to intimidate their opponent into backing down. Unfortunately, human stubbornness was also still in their DNA, so a fight was inevitable.
A sudden, bright flash of light momentarily blinded Natalie. She spun to see that, while Mara had managed to slip out of sight, Thomas had once more decided to get close and photograph to the action.
Her heart skipped a beat, but she knew what was coming next.
Damien pounced toward Thomas and Natalie sprang to intercept.
They collided in mid-air and fell back to the street in another tangle of limbs. This time however, there was no confused rolling. This time it was a brawl.
Natalie slithered up and down Damien’s form, landing rapid fire punches where she could and trying to avoid his claws. She only partially succeeded. Damien bucked and thrashed, yowling as he tried to dislodge her. His talons raked across her scales, leaving long, shallow, stinging cuts. No more bright flashes came from Thomas’s camera, but she swore she could the loud, rapid-fire clicks of the lens shutter.
As she moved to wrap him up her coils again, he reared up, reached his arms over his head, and grabbed her by the shoulders. Natalie screamed as his claws sank deep into the skin beneath her scales. Her world flipped upside down as he tore her off and threw her across the street. Gravel burned where it slipped into her ripped shirt and skin.
Despite the pain, Natalie moved to sit up. Then something blocked the sun.
Her head snapped up to see that Damian had pounced high and was coming down straight for her. But there was something else she saw: the banner.
Here goes nothing. She thought.
As Damien dove down toward her, Natalie lay back on the ground and coiled her tail into a spring above herself. The cheetah-lope hybrid fell on top of her and swiped his claws at her face. He only cut a small nick into her cheek before she threw him back up into the air with her tail, aiming straight for the banner.
The force of Natalie’s launch was such that it did not throw send Damien into the banner, it sent him through it. The force of his body hitting the cheap plastic sign ripped it free of the strings holding it. The banner wrapped around Damien’s body and was carried up with his still ascending form.
Natalie watched, pushing herself up into a standing position, as her opponent careened through the air and crashed into the electric signboard next to the stadium. The signboard exploded a shower of crackling sparks as the scrolling screen shattered. Damien finally fell to the ground, breathing but otherwise unmoving.
A long sigh escaped Natalie’s lips and she bent over to catch her breath, resting her hands where her knees used to be. The cuts across her tail stung where they pressed against the ground. She did not look forward to slithering all the way back through the sewers. So much antibiotic cream was going to be used.
Suddenly Thomas was next to her with smartphone held sideways, clearly recording her. Her heart did a quick double beat and she flinched back.
“Excuse me, Naga!” Thomas said, sounding somewhere between an excited child and an on-site reporter. “What can you tell us about yourself and these strange creatures that have been spotted around the city? Where do you all come from? Who are the people that showed up at the sight of your first battle? Are you aliens or government experiments?”
Her heart sank. It hurt to hear herself and the other hybrids being referred to as something other than human. It hurt even worse hearing it come from Thomas. Perhaps they were not fully human anymore, but they had been once and they were still people deep down. Weren’t they?
What could she say? Certainly not the truth. The whole point of Daniel’s side of the mission was to keep hybrids a secret as long as possible to prevent widespread panic. She couldn’t let Daniel’s hard work go to waste and she could not put the others at risk. Sure, she fought them and beat them up, but only to stop their scared and angry rampaging. If the public at large found out…well, her animal research had taught her a lot about herd mentality. They would not stop at simply beating them up.
She met Thomas’s eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes. He was so sincere in his excitement to interview her. If he had requested this back when she was just a normal girl, she would have jumped at the chance to be alone with him. Now however…
“I’m sssorry,” she said, raising her hand and covering the phone’s camera lens. “I can’t tell you anything right now. What I can sssay iss that we are not sstrange creaturess, we’re human like you.”
“How?” Thomas asked, keeping his phone held up. “You don’t look human.”
That cut deep.
That phrase, “you don’t look human,” she had dreaded hearing it even before she had transformed into Naga, though perhaps using different words. What those words really meant were “You don’t look like me.” She imagined it was something lots of mixed race people feared hearing. Every time she had met family from either side, she worried she would hear it. Every day it had wriggled in the back of her mind, a constant reminder that she didn’t really fit in anywhere.
Natalie had ignored it for so long. Even after her change, she had managed to mostly keep it at bay. Now, she felt it slam into the cage she had built for it in her mind, bending the bars and snarling, demanding to be noticed. Her fingers twitched around Thomas’s phone, wanting to crush it but held back by the shame of how he would see her if she did.
“Exactly,” she managed to say. “We usssed to, but not anymore. That’sss why we have to ssstay sssecret.”
“But I could give you good publicity,” he pushed. “Make you seem more like people than monsters.”
She shook her head. “It would be you againssst hundredsss of louder voiccesss. Pleassse. Ssstop.”
They stood for a long moment, staring at each other. Natalie held Thomas’s gaze, though it filled her gut with butterflies. In all the movies she watched, a long gaze like this would be a magical thing, and in a way it did feel like that a bit. Unfortunately, it also felt like a scan of everything wrong with her.
Her eyes, changed to a terrible, disgusting yellow, burned under his gaze. The sensation spread out to the tiny pits beside her nostrils that let her see infrared, stung her freakishly forked tongue, and itched where scales had replaced skin. Her tail ached to split back into two legs. She wanted out of this body; this thing that made Thomas look at her like she wasn’t a person.
But she held his gaze all the same.
Finally, he nodded.
“Ok,” he said. “I’ll stop. I promise.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Pleassse, go home before you’re seen here.”
Thomas smiled, nodded, and walked off down the road. He looked back once before turning the corner and disappearing from view.
Natalie watched his heat signature until it grew too faint to follow. Then she turned to the bleachers.
“You can come out now, Daniel.”
Her partner in superheroics emerged from their original hiding spot. The two of them made their way over to Damien’s unconscious form.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked, smiling. He looked…tired? His face looked a little puffy. Had he been getting enough sleep?
“I’ve sseen you in my infrared ssight more than anyone elsse,” she said, smiling back. It wasn’t just that, of course. “Your heat ssignature iss very memorable.”
He blinked. “It is?”
“I mean, everyone’s is, but yours is easier to remember than others.”
“How did your end of the misssion go?” she asked, winking. “I bet it wass no trouble for a hacker like you.”
“Oh…y-yeah,” he said, breaking eye contact and fidgeting with his hands. She saw heat rise to his cheeks in infrared. He was so easily embarrassed. “N-no problem at all. Yeah. Went off without…without a hitch.”
“Great.” She bent over to check on Damian. She had to arc her body in an upside-down U shape now that she didn’t have knees she could squat with. He was still out cold, but nothing seemed broken as far as she could see. “You’ve got the communicator, right?”
He cursed and yanked out the device Mr. Ross had given them and flicked on the signal. They had made sure to report in to ISRD ahead of time that they would need an extraction team. Hopefully something a little more subtle than the helicopter.
While Daniel was handling that, Natalie flicked out her tongue. Instinctively it wagged up and down as she moved her head over Damien. She needed to get as much of his scent as possible before Omphalos carted him away. They still had to find out where he had taken his brother, Kaden.
A large, black van with tinted windows peeled up the street and came to a screeching halt within inches of them. The doors opened and out clambered the nameless ISRD grunts, faces hidden behind masks. Behind them Agent Bellerophon swaggered out like he was in a spy movie, Agent Medea scurrying to follow.
“An impressive display of collateral damage, Agent Lamia” Bellerophon sneered.
Natalie drew back her tongue as the grunts hoisted Damien onto a stretcher and carted him into the van. A mix of scent and taste hit her. Gym clothes freshly cut grass, fajita smoke, and asphalt amongst other things.
“It’sss Agent Naga,” she hissed, filing the smell-taste for later. “Unlesss we’re giving each other nicknamesss now, in which cassse hello Agent Bell-phone.”
“You do not have authority over your designation, Agent Lamia. It is decided on by the Council. They decide our names. You may give suggestions only.”
“Yeah, well I don’t want to be named after a child-eating monssster from Greek mythology, thanksss. I think I’ll ssstick with Naga.”
He scoffed. “Regardless, you have completed the mission, we will handle the target from here.”
Bellerophon raised an eyebrow. How did he manage to look down his nose at her when she was standing taller than him?
“We ssstopped Damian and sssaved, but we ssstill need to find Kaden,” she pointed out.
“No need,” Bellerophon said. “The boy is likely dead already. His brother probably ate him.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think ssso. You don’t kill sssomeone over a sibling rivalry. Daniel, tell him your theory.”
“It-it’s more of a hypothesis, really,” he stammered out, “but Mr. Ross…I mean Agent Orpheus and I believe that while multiple shards in one person clouds their higher reasoning, it shouldn’t override their core personality. Damien was always looking to beat his brother and sister in a race. I think he took Kaden—and was planning on taking Mara—somewhere else in order to race them at a place of his choosing.”
“That’s quite the stretch, Agent Pyrrha,” Bellerophon remarked.
“Caeneus,” Daniel muttered.
“Did you say something, Agent Pyrrha?” Bellerophon asked, leaning close, daring Daniel to challenge him.
Natalie’s gut boiled and she slithered up in front of Daniel. She bared her teeth at Bellerophon and rose another couple of inches on her tail.
“He ssssaid he chosssse the name Agent Caeneussss,” she hissed, barely holding her anger in check. They had only met two times, this being the second, and she already hated Bellerophon deeply.
“People like you and people like him don’t get to choose their names, Agent Lamia,” he said, disgustingly calm. “You need to be reminded of your place.”
Natalie had heard enough. She readied herself to lunge at Bellerophon, but just before she could, Agent Medea stepped between them. She rested a hand on each of them.
“I think,” she said hurriedly, “that what Agent Bellerophon meant by ‘people like you’ was ‘lower ranking agents.’ I’m sure it’s just a clerical error. Shouldn’t be a problem to clear up.”
Though Natalie couldn’t see her face, Medea seemed to be giving a very pointed look at Bellerophon. The two agents stared each other down for a good ten seconds before Bellerophon turned and walked back to the van. His posture was so stiff he might as well have a broom taped to his spine.
“I’m very sorry about him,” Medea said, turning back to face her and Daniel.
Natalie let out a long breath. It came out hissing like a steam engine. She still wanted to punch Bellerophon in the face, but that would have to wait. There were more important things to focus on.
“What’s you’re excuse for him this time?” Daniel grumbled. He seemed less angry and more…resigned.
Medea sighed. “I don’t really have one. He’s from a long line of agents, so he doesn’t really like any newcomers. He can be…kind of a jerk about it sometimes.”
Natalie could think of at least ten better words to describe what Bellerophon was, not all of them in English. She was glad she could still remember some of the curse Cantonese and Mandarin curse words her grandmother had taught her. Insulting someone without them knowing was always handy.
“Come on, Danny,” she said, turning to follow Damian’s trail. “We’ll find Kaden without that wang ba dan.”
“Wait!” Medea said. “I’ll help look.”
Natalie turned back to her. “Isssn’t that van your ride home?”
“Nah,” she said, signaling to whoever was driving. “I live in this city. I got other ways of getting around. Besides, if we do find Kaden, I can call in for someone other than Bellerophon. That was you guys don’t end up almost killing each other again.”
Natalie scoffed, but glanced over at Daniel to see if he was comfortable with Medea tagging along. He really did look tired. His eyes were a little puffy and red. Was he coming down with something? She was definitely going to make him take a nap when they got back to the secret lair. However, despite his apparent fatigue, he nodded in answer to the unspoken question.
“Alright,” she said. “You can come with.”
“Yay!” Medea smiled. “I promise not to get in the way.”
Natalie chuckled, then turned and stuck out her tongue as the van peeled away. If asked, she’d say it was only a coincidence that she happened to be sampling the air in the same direction as the retreating ISRD vehicle.
It did not take them long to find Damian’s hiding spot. Nearby the school was a road that crossed over one of those big concrete ditches that Natalie was never sure whether to call part of the sewer or not. Most of these that she had found had been diverted away from the abandoned pipes she called home now.
Whatever the ditch’s technical name was, it had been a long time since anyone had done any maintenance here. The concrete was a spiderweb of cracks with grass and shrubs growing defiantly up out of them. These provided excellent cover with the long shadows cast by the setting sun.
While Daniel and Medea climbed down the steep slope, carefully watching their footing so as not to trip, Natalie slither from one patch of shrubbery and shadow to the next. Her scales were the perfect color for camouflaging herself next to and behind the scraggly, sickly green plants. She could also move a lot faster than her two companions, since her whole lower half was made for sliding up and down sloped surfaces.
She followed Damian’s smell-taste all the way down to the bottom of the ditch and over to where it hit dirt, a tall circle of concrete boring into the earth. Peering in she saw…nothing.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She saw empty cans that had been torn apart and scattered across the ground, she saw claw marks etched into the sloping walls and she saw a pile of ratty clothes and blankets that had probably been Damian’s bed based on the taste-scent that wafted from it. But that was it. This little cave of his ended only a couple of yards in at a wall of fallen rocks.
At first Natalie thought the wall might have been cause by a cave in but looking closer at how the rocks were arranged it was clear. This wall had been built.
She closed her eyes and flared her infrared vision. Scanning the whole of the little room she found no sources of heat. Nothing indicating that anything other than fleas lived here now.
Natalie heard Daniel and Medea finally reach the mouth of the cave.
“There’s nobody here,” Daniel said quietly, his voice echoing against the concrete. “Was Bellerophon right? Did Damian kill him?”
Natalie opened her eyes and turned to see Medea kneeling.
“No,” the agent said, examining the ground carefully. “There’s no blood and no sign of a struggle. And since we’ve heard no reports of blood or bones being sighted around town, I doubt the boy was killed.”
“Ssso then,” Natalie said, “where isss he?”
Medea walked to the back of the cave and ran her hand along the wall of stones.
“This was built recently,” she said.
“How can you tell?” Natalie asked, slithering over to join her. She heard Daniel doing the same.
“There’s no grass growing between the rocks, and no cement or plaster used to seal them together. They’re too neatly stacked to have been a cave in and the city would have used actual brick and mortar, not stacked stones.” She turned to Natalie. “You can see in the infrared spectrum, right?”
“Good,” Medea said. “Try and see if there’s anything behind this wall.”
Natalie faced the wall and closed her eyes again. She flared her heat vision as much as she could, peering hard into the stone.
She opened her eyes and shook her head. “I can’t tell. Either the wall iss too thick or there’ss nothing in the tunnel behind it. All I ssee iss the dark and cold.”
Medea cursed and grabbed one of the rocks. “Let’s see if we can’t unbuild this thing.”
She pulled, but the rock didn’t budge. Daniel joined her and they both pulled. The stone shifted but they couldn’t seem to get a good grip. Finally, Natalie huffed and slipped her extra flexible fingers through the minute cracks in the wall and wrapped her hands around the rock. They all pulled and, with a loud grinding of stone on stone, managed to dislodge it from the wall.
The wall, for its part, seemed unfazed. A few pebbles dropped down, but nothing collapsed. Even worse, behind the rock they had just pulled out was another, even bigger rock.
The three of them pulled out bits and pieces of the wall for at least another hour before the fading light became to scarce for anyone but Natalie to see in.
They all stood, panting and sweaty and nowhere near done with even the first layer of wall.
“Can’t we call sssomeone to just blassst through thisss thing?” Natalie asked, wiping dirt off her hands.
Medea shook her head. “That would be way too loud. Even just bringing in basic demolition or digging equipment would bring too much attention and I’m way too low rank to even ask for something like that.”
“And there’s no way Bellerophon is going to give us the green light on that.” Daniel grumbled. “How did Damian even build this anyway?”
Natalie straightened and gazed up at the wall. Her nose twitched. She flicked out her tongue. Taste-smelling the air there was the expected scents and tastes of Damian, but underneath was something else. It was a very different mix of sensations.
“I don’t think he did,.”