Small update before the story begins. I’ll be heading out of the country soon on a trip to Israel for about two weeks. I can easily schedule the next two updates to post automatically, but I might not be able to do the same with Facebook and Twitter. So if everyone could please subscribe to this page or mark a reminder to check back here the next two Tuesdays that would be a big help!
Hope you all enjoy this next installment of The Mythic Naga!
“EVERYBODY ON THE GROUND!”
Two men dressed in black with ski masks over their faces burst into the small jewelry store. They both held assault rifles and had pistols holstered to their belts. One of the gunmen kept his rifle trained on the fifty-something-year-old man behind the counter while his partner pivoted his aim between the eight or so customers.
Said customers all screamed in fear before obediently throwing their hands up in the air and slowly lowering themselves to the plush carpet. The man behind the counter started to do the same.
“Not you,” the man pointing a rifle at him said. He shrugged off a backpack and tossed it onto the counter. “You fill this with everything you got. Do it in less than five minutes and I’ll try not to blow your head off.”
The old man trembled with fear as he obeyed the armed robber. He filled the backpack to the brim with gold, jewels, and cash in a record setting three minutes. Remarkable for his age and the number of keys he had to struggle with.
The customers watched, quivering and whimpering from the floor. Some of them cried quietly in fear while one or two brave ones reached for their phones. They had to move slowly as the second criminal was very vigilant.
Finally, the old man loaded the last necklace the backpack could possibly fit and slid it to the waiting gunman who quickly slung the heavy load over his shoulder.
“Much obliged,” he said, before pulling the trigger and shooting the old man in the stomach.
The robbers rushed out of the jewelry store as the old man collapsed to the ground. The one with the backpack full of jewels swung his gun in an arc to scare off pedestrians on the sidewalk, which worked spectacularly. The other gunman to his right confirmed that their getaway car was still where they’d left it before turning to scan for any coming police cars.
He screamed in terror.
Something human-sized and shaped but longer and green sailed through the air and tackled the robber. The thing knocked him to the ground with such force that his head smacked against the pavement, knocking him out instantly.
The man with the backpack made to turn around, but before he could, the thing that had tackled his partner wrapped his foot in an iron grip and pulled it out from under him.
Sirens blared from the jewelry store as the second gunman belly flopped to the ground, the wind knocked out of him by the weight on his back.
A third gunman emerged from the driver’s door of the getaway car and wildly unloaded his rifle at the thing that had just taken down his compatriots. Whatever it was dashed into a nearby alley to escape the gunfire. A second later, a trashcan sailed out of the small path between buildings.
The third criminal, being none too bright and in a state of severe panic, fired his gun into the soaring wastebasket. The trashcan, having only marginally more brains than your average politician, did not collapse in pain from the bullets and instead crashed into the man, spilling its unsavory contents all over his newly waxed car, the oiled leather seats inside, and, of course, the gunman himself.
Police arrived moments later to clean up.
Meanwhile, at Central City Central High School—one of the cities many suburbs—history class was just wrapping up. It was the last class of the day and the last class of the week for many of these students and all of them were eager to get home and promptly ignore most of their homework. There were only a couple of weeks left in school anyway, so they were eager to put their learning of the past firmly in the past. One of the student packed his bags a little slower than the rest today.
“Now remember, class,” Mr. Ross, the history teacher, said to the two-thirds of the class that hadn’t managed to escape his school board given territory, “just because your standardized tests are over doesn’t mean the school year is over. End of the semester projects are due next Friday.”
Daniel was pretty sure no one had listened to what Mr. Ross said. Nobody took his end of the year projects seriously. Before long, he and the teacher were the only ones left in the classroom.
Now or never, Daniel thought, walking up to the front desk. Natalie needs my help!
Daniel had always thought Mr. Ross the perfect picture of how a teacher was supposed to look, especially a history teacher. Short, slightly curly, salt and pepper hair, a neatly trimmed beard, blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, and a fatherly face combined to give him an excellent scholarly presence. His average height and solid build usually dressed in a tweed coat completed the look.
Of course, Mr. Ross did more than look the part of a kindly scholar. He was eager to help students struggling in his class and was always willing to lend a sympathetic ear to any personal troubles. He was practically the school’s vice-counselor. Daniel, who had been at his lowest entering high school, had found Mr. Ross to be a source of comfort and sage advice throughout freshman and sophomore year. Hopefully, he could help with this.
Mr. Ross looked up from the leather bag he’d been putting his lecture notes into.
“Daniel,” he smiled, storing away the last of his papers and straightening. “So sorry the meeting ran long yesterday. We never got a chance to talk about what you’ve found.”
“That’s ok, Mr. Ross,” Daniel said, fidgeting with a strap on his backpack. “I would have waited for you but something…uh…came up.”
“Completely understandable, my boy. But you’ve come to show me now, yes?”
“Um…kind of. See, the thing that came up yesterday was…something…happened to what I found.”
“Oh dear,” Mr. Ross’s eyes widened. “Is that what happened to the science lab windows? Did one of those ruffians who torment you so do that?”
“Yeah, they decided to play catch with what I found,” Daniel said, hanging his head.
Mr. Ross inhaled sharply through his nose and a flash of anger passed over his face.
“Those little…” the teacher took a deep breath to calm himself before saying anymore. He had tried to get many bullies busted for their behavior throughout his career at the school, but the principal seemed to fear the bullies’ parents more than what might happen to their victims. “From how you’re speaking, I assume they broke it.”
“Yes? Kind of?”
“Were you able to salvage any of it?”
“Um…Yes. Kind of.”
“You’re being incredibly vague, my boy. You are rarely this roundabout in our conversations.”
“Well, I not sure you’d believe me if I told you exactly what happened after it broke.”
Mr. Ross gaze turned suspicious, though it didn’t seem to Daniel that he was suspicious of him.
“Why don’t you tell me what it was you found before you tell me what happened to it.”
“Well,” Daniel began, swallowing nervously, “It looked at first like a big, clay basketball with drawings on it, but later I found it was a lot harder than clay. I couldn’t tell what it was made of.”
“Interesting,” Mr. Ross said, sitting behind his desk and lacing his fingers. “What sort of drawings were on it?”
“A bunch of different animals, but some of them couldn’t have existed in North America at the same time as the mounds I found the ball at.”
“Well, one of the drawings looked like a gorilla, another like an elephant, and another like a lion.”
Mr. Ross looked more serious than Daniel had ever seen. A dark shadow seemed to hover over him now and his next words sent shivers down Daniel’s spine.
“This is troubling.”
“H-have you seen something like that before Mr. Ross?” Daniel asked, hesitantly.
“I have. I’m not supposed to tell you about them, but you have trusted me with so much, the least I can do is return the trust. Not all at once, of course.”
Daniel had a sinking feeling he might have stumbled into something much bigger than he was expecting.
“Now,” Mr. Ross continued, “I surmise that the orb was thrown out the window, shattered, and then some students arrived, grabbed the pieces, and started acting strangely, thus explaining the number of absent students.”
“You are almost correct.”
“The ball did break, but it was kind of…explosive. Also, it blew up in the middle of a bunch of people hanging out under the window.”
Mr. Ross looked shocked and a little shaken.
“What happened to the shards and the students?” he asked, voice quaking.
“I only found one person and one shard of the ball still there. The others scattered when the artifact exploded. The girl I found had gotten the shard embedded into her chest when the ball exploded.”
“What!?” Mr. Ross shouted, standing suddenly. “Who was it? What happened to her?”
“It was…it was Natalie,” Daniel forced out.
Mr. Ross’s panic immediately cooled to sympathy. “Oh…my dear boy…”
“And I think,” Daniel hurried, cutting his teacher off, “that it’d be easier to show you what happened.”
“Of course! Let’s not delay,” Mr. Ross said, grabbing his bags and keys. “Come, quickly. I’ll drive. You can act as my navigator.”
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Why did I do that? I’m sssuch an idiot!”
Natalie slithered through the city’s sewer system at top speed. Admittedly that was about as fast as a stumbling jog. It was a strange feeling, sliding across the ground on what should have been her shins. Yet the movement came so naturally, that she was able to ignore the bizarre parallels between her old body and her current one.
“I could have jussst ssstayed hidden,” she growled to herself, “I could have jussst let the policcce handle it, but no. I had to get involved and reveal myssself in the middle of downtown.”
Even as she berated herself, she knew she couldn’t really have sat back and done nothing. As soon as she’d seen the heat from that old man’s blood through the walls with her infrared vision her mind was made up. If that ball thing was going to give her snake powers, then she might as well use them.
And yes, last night—while she had nothing else to do—she had learned that becoming half-snake wasn’t just an aesthetic change. Those blurry colors in her vision were her seeing into the infrared spectrum to basically read temperature. According to Daniel, some pit vipers could do that. It had been one of the more disorienting and unexpected piece of snake biology she’d inherited, laying right on top of her normal vision, like multi-colored sunglasses. Luckily, it was subtle enough for her to ignore most of the time.
She could also make quick, simple movements—like snatching a ball out of the air—much faster and her grip strength had also grown immensely. Her best guess was that she got the speed from striking snakes like cobras and the grip power from crushing snakes like pythons.
So basically, she wasn’t just one kind of snake, she was a bunch of different species all rolled into one. Maybe she was all of them at once, though she didn’t seem to have any fangs, which was weird. It was even weirder that she thought that was the weirdest part.
Natalie shook her head, blowing strands of ratty blonde hair out of her face. What was she thinking? She shouldn’t get used to this. She was a teenage cheerleader with hopes of becoming the head quarterback’s girlfriend and probably only defying her parents once she got into college. Once Daniel got ahold of the right people through Mr. Ross, they’d somehow be able to get her back to normal.
And what if they can’t? a nagging voice in the back of her mind said. Then what’s your plan? You didn’t even have a plan for college except to get there. Like this, you have an opportunity to do something that will really stand out.
“An opportunity?” she asked herself aloud. She didn’t care if anyone heard her. The sewer was not the place for keeping up appearances, especially not in her state. “I was ssstabbed in the chessst by an exssploding magical artifact. That’sss not an opportunity.”
It could be, if you let it. Besides, look how fast you let yourself go with no one to impress. And what did you do last night? You worked on figuring out how to use your new body better.
This was true. She hadn’t even put much thought into what she was doing, just immediately got to work figuring out what she could do. And with a millions more joints in her arms and spine, along with her training in gymnastics and cheerleading, she could do incredible feats of flexibility now with ease. She’d already started formulating some really crazy stuff.
“Ssstop it!” she shouted. “I’m not a sssnake! I’m human! Thisss isssn’t one of grandma’sss ssstoriesss! I’m ssstill me! I know who I am! Cause who else would know me better than me? Right? RIGHT?”
Nobody answered her in the sewers except her own echoes slowly fading into darkness.
The radio in Mr. Ross’s car crackled as it reported the news. Daniel normally never would have noticed or cared what the background noise was saying. But one story caught his attention.
“Strangely, all witnesses report something large and covered in scales attacking the robbers as they were leaving the jewelry store,” the reporter’s practiced tone of neutrality intoned, though Daniel caught a hint of disbelief in the man’s voice. “Some even describe the creature as having a human torso. No footage of the event or the creature has been released. Our specialists in the office believe that this and other sightings of unusually large animals that have been flooding in since last night are a symptom of mass hysteria and should not be treated seriously.”
Daniel’s heart quickened with growing alarm.
Natalie had left the sewer? And she stopped a robbery? And other victims of the exploding orb had been sighted?
This was simultaneously the scariest and coolest thing to ever happen. He hoped Natalie hadn’t been hurt and was ready to gush to her about how cool she was for stopping criminals. She was like a superhero now! And she already had a rogue’s gallery with the other students who had been hit by shards!
On the other hand, it was a little less cool when he thought about all the possible ramifications. What if they sent the government sent the army? How would the rest of the world react to suddenly having human-animal hybrids?
He glanced at Mr. Ross. The professor’s face was a mask of stern concentration, but his knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Daniel couldn’t tell if he was angry, scared, excited, or something altogether more complicated.
Natalie managed not to get lost slithering her way back towards the little camp Daniel had helped her set up. From the light of the lantern she’d left on spilling around the corner ahead, one more turn should bring her to it.
It was a nice set up considering the circumstances.
Apparently, Daniel’s foster parents were loaded but never home. He had managed to drag down a tent that had never been used and a queen-sized mattress. The mattress had taken a while to blow up since they couldn’t get an extension cord long enough to stretch down into the sewers for the motor, so they had to do it manually. The lantern was still there, but now it had several packs of backup batteries and sat on top of a cooler for food and clean water. A couple of lawn chairs gave that final homey (sort of) touch to the space.
Thinking about it, Daniel had been kinder to her than he had any right to be. He’d dragged her away from danger when the transformation started, he’d given her a place to stay while they tried to figure out what to do, and had risked punishment from his foster parents to bring her food and other necessities like a toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, and even a hairbrush.
Natalie had never been cruel to him, but she hadn’t been all that friendly either. In the struggle of the high school social ladder, she’d had little interaction with him beyond the single group assignment…in which he’d done most of the work. She’d never stood up for him, she’d never offered him a hand in friendship, she’d never even initiated a conversation with him.
Once she got her normal body back, she swore to be the best friend he’d ever had, because after all this he definitely had earned that much.
She was about slither around the corner when she heard the manhole cover lifting.
Looking up toward the noise, she focused on her infrared and saw through the cool bricks two human shaped blobs of heat. One she could already recognize as the heat signature of Daniel, but the other one was unfamiliar.
A germ of doubt wriggled in the back of her mind. Daniel had said he would bring Mr. Ross, but what if he’d been lying?
It was a silly thought and she knew it. But she decided she was probably better off safe than shot. So she waited around the corner, watching the two heat signatures and listening.
“I swear, my boy,” said a voice that definitely belonged to Mr. Ross, “if I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d think you were leading me to my death.”
“Sorry, Mr. Ross,” Daniel said as he and the professor descended the ladder into the sewers. “I know it isn’t the best secret lair, but I didn’t have anywhere else to hide her.”
“I do wish it could have been someplace more…sanitary.”
They both reached the bottom of the stairs.
“I must say,” Mr. Ross said, “you’ve made an admirable attempt at redecorating this little camp. But where is our guest of honor?”
“Natalie!” Daniel called out. His voice echoing fair into the sewers.
Her throat seized up. Natalie suddenly found it hard to breathe. She was about to reveal herself to someone on purpose. What if he screamed? What if he attacked her? She didn’t exactly look non-threatening. Fight or flight was going to kick in for anyone who saw her.
“I hope she isn’t lost,” Daniel said. “Natalie!”
She took a deep breath and peaked around the corner. The light was bright enough here to show her silhouette but not any details. So she kept her lower half behind the corner.
“I’m here,” she managed to squeak out.
They turned her way. Natalie was surprised by the rush of relief she felt at seeing two familiar faces.
“Are you alright, my dear?” Mr. Ross asked.
How the hell was she supposed to answer that?
“To be honest,” she said, “I’m not sure.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No. But I’m not…normal anymore.”
“We heard the news on the way here.”
Daniel turned to him in surprise. “You were listening to the radio?”
Mr. Ross nodded. “I was watching your reaction as well. So I suppose that mean you were the one to stop those criminals, Natalie?”
She nodded. “Yeah, that was me.”
“Thus I can conclude that the shards altered your appearance.”
Natalie shrunk a little further behind the corner. “It did.”
“Then please, my dear, step into the light and let me see you.”
Natalie hesitated. Then she slithered out into the light of the lantern. If he knew what to expect, there was less chance of him running away or attacking her.
“Incredible,” Mr. Ross breathed as he looked at her. His eyes grew so wide that they looked like they might pop out of his head at any moment. His jaw had gone completely slack.
Well, it’s better than fear. Still…
Her skin crawled under Mr. Ross’s analyzing gaze. He wasn’t creepy or anything, this was just one time she really didn’t want any attention. She looked away to avoid eye contact.
She flinched as she realized that her infrared vision was picking up a source of heat in the darkness. It was big and moving along the ledge on the other side of the ditch from where the three of them stood. The shape was difficult to tell since its movement kept undulating in a strange but familiar way. There was one thing for certain: it wasn’t human…not entirely.
“Natalie,” Daniel said. “What are you looking at?”
The heat signature stopped moving. Natalie squinted, trying to figure out what it was doing.
It answered her a second later by leaping across the ditch straight for Daniel.
“Danny!” she screamed, leaping forward and slamming into the thing with her shoulder like she’d seen the football players do.
The thing tumbled away several feet before rolling and righting itself. Now in the light of the lantern, they could properly see what it was.
Natalie’s mind couldn’t quite comprehend what it was she was looking at. It had a vaguely humanoid form, but it is too long torso was hunched and covered in sleek brown fur, bits of cloth clinging here and there. It’s head was halfway between a giant weasel and a human, but with strange antenna protrusions sticking out around the ears, three to a side. A tail swept back and forth across the ground behind it and a long, reddish fin stuck out the top just above the fur. In all, her brain finally decided that it looked as if someone had smashed together a human, a weasel, and an axolotl of all things.
With a shock she realized that this must be someone else from the gathering when the orb exploded. And from the high pitched snarl and razor sharp teeth glinting in the lantern light, they did not look happy to see her.
Natalie opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off when the creature sprang forward, its teeth and claws ready to rip her to shreds.
Heart leaping into her throat, she screamed and wildly threw a punch.
Her fist lashed out like a whip, connecting with solid face flesh and retracting so fast that her arm became little more than a blur. If she’d blinked, she wouldn’t have even known what she’d just done.
The creature yelp and staggered back, holding its snout, eyes wide with shock.
Natalie herself stared at her first. It stung from where it had hit her opponent but otherwise looked perfectly normal. Well, as normal as a fist covered in green snake scales could.
She looked back at the weasel-man-thing and a smirk crawled its way onto her face.
The creature did not like that.
It screeched like shredding metal and charged.
Natalie met the charge, rushing forward and throwing two more lightning fast punches.
It staggered away again, a small line of blood trickling from its lip. It roared a piercingly high challenge.
Instinctively, Natalie’s arms spread out and she rose higher on her tail. She opened her mouth and let out a ferocious hiss. The gums around two of her teeth tingled and something in her cheeks swelled.
A crack like miniature thunder split the air and the creature began to convulse wildly.
Natalie spun, her ears ringing from the noise. She blinked in astonishment. Mr. Ross was holding a strange pistol, pointed with expert ease at the weasel-human.
Said creature finally regained enough self-control to rip something out of its chest and tossed it to the ground.
It stood, staring at the three of them and panting heavily.
Finally, it backed away slowly before turning tail and loping into the dark depths of the abandoned sewers.
“That was awesome!” Daniel cheered, pumping his fists in the air. “You were like a superhero!”
“That wasss terrifying,” Natalie breathed, her voice quavering. It wasn’t just the fight that had her shaking. Her body had acted on its own and she didn’t like what it had been doing. “I am definitely not sssuperhero material, Danny.”
She watched the creature’s heat signature until that too vanished into the twisting tunnels. Then she bent over and picked up what the creature had torn from its chest. It looked like a D-sized, aerodynamic battery with two needle sharp points sticking out one end.
She looked back at Mr. Ross.
He lowered the gun and stowed it in a concealed holster under his tweed suit jacket.
“I suppose I best explain some things,” he said, seating himself on the cooler.
“Yesss,” Natalie said, “I think you should.”