Hey friends and fictional folk! This one’s going to be a bit shorter and maybe a bit light on action. We did just finish a pretty big reveal though. Luckily, every end is just a new beginning, so things will get interesting fast, I assure you. Hope you enjoy!
Natalie was no stranger to waking up in pain.
Having been a gymnast and then a cheerleader she was used to starting the day with sore muscles. She had even come to enjoy the feeling since it meant that all her hard work was paying off. Of course, after transforming in Naga, she had gotten all sorts of odd pains just from figuring out how to sleep in her new body and several nights sleeping on little more than a sleeping bag and concrete. And then there were the fights. While her body seemed tougher now that it was fused with snake DNA—and maybe healed a little faster—she still had plenty of scrapes and bruises to show for all her battles.
What she wasn’t used to was waking up with chest pain. At least, not since puberty’s first sucker-punch of a growth spurt. She’d gotten into the habit of sleeping on her back ever since her transformation. It was easier on new skeleton to be sprawled out, especially with the weight of her tail. Now however, as her dreams faded from memory, she was regretting that decision.
She groaned, it felt like someone was sitting on her chest. Slowly, she cracked open first one eye, then the other. Her lair was pitch dark. No surprise given it was underground. Even with her infrared vision she couldn’t see perfectly in the dark. Her heat sight still required what she was looking at to have heat in it. If it was too cold or perfectly room temperature, it didn’t register.
Groping around in the dark, she found the light switch next to her bed. She felt weirdly stiff today. Slapping the switch, she squinted against the suddenly bright room. The lights were industrial strength LED fixtures, meaning that instead of flickering on or filling the room with a warm yellow, they snapped to life with powerful white light that invaded every exposed crack and crevice. It was a major pain to wake up to. Speaking of waking up, she needed a glass of water. Her tongue felt thick and dry in her mouth.
Throwing off her blankets, she swung her tail out of bed…and collapsed to the floor as she tried to stand.
“Ooowww,” she groaned against the cold, cement floor.
What the hell was that?
Pushing herself up to a sitting position, she blinked away the last of her grogginess as her eyes finally adjusted to the light. She glanced over at a nearby mirror and froze.
Daniel was feeling great. Which was a surprise considering he had almost drowned to death last night. But after his heart-to-heart with Natalie, it was as if a massive weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Plus, today had been the last day of school. That was always a great day.
Granted, it was a little late to put the hacking plan into action, but he could at least mess with the archives. And if Thomas sent Carson and Paul after him there was a good chance Natalie would be nearby to bail him out. That or he could escape into the sewers. He trusted that she’d find him eventually.
Today however, there was another matter that they needed to deal with. Ahuizotl had left them the weird tongs-like artifact, which according to her still had two charges in them. Mr. Ross had managed to haggle with ISRD higher ups so that they could keep them and investigate the clue that Ahuizotl had left them with.
Daniel slipped into the alley behind his apartment building and stepped onto the manhole cover. Mr. Ross had stayed behind at school to gather some materials they might need while he had been sent ahead to fill in Natalie on the plan. The manhole cover, like many others in the city, had “Central City Waste and Sewage Department” engraved into its metal. Crouching, he pressed on the letters I-S-R-D in sequence, the hidden buttons lighting up as he did. With a finally glance around the alley to make sure nobody else was around, he set his right hand on the city seal set into the center of the metal disk. The camouflaged scanner hummed as it read his handprint. Then, with a hiss of released air, the manhole cover began its steady descent into Natalie’s lair.
He stood and stretched. The old binder he was using was a bit tight, but it would work until he could get a new one. It was a shame Natalie had to tear the other one, but he’d rather it get torn than he end up dead. Besides this one only bunched up if he bent over for too long, so it wasn’t too much of a hassle for the time being.
Oh! That reminds me.
He covered his eyes with a hand. Natalie might not really have any reason to wear clothes anymore due to her half-snake biology, but she had explained in no uncertain terms that she still didn’t want to be seen naked.
“Hey, Natalie,” he called as the manhole covered descended. “I’m coming down. You decent?”
“Yes! But keep your eyes closed,” she called back, her voice coming from somewhere to his right where the bathroom was. “I’ve got a surprise!”
What could she possibly have that could count as a surprise? Had she learned a new power? That didn’t seem likely, but she had explained how she had only just discovered her ability to glide last night. So maybe that was it.
At least she seemed to have mastered her hiss. She had been getting better at speaking without it, but it still slipped in when she wasn’t concentrating. He hadn’t heard even a hint of a lisp in her reply.
The manhole elevator reached the bottom with another release of air from its pneumatic press. It was a fascinating piece of engineering. He had spent hours looking over the printed blueprints he’d managed to find buried deep in the ISRD computer’s database.
Fools. They thought their encryption software was state of the art, but they hadn’t updated their systems in two year. With a little bit of VPN tracing and some help from the white hat forums, he’d found the weak point in their code and slipped through.
“Alright!” Natalie said, her voice coming from somewhere in front of him. “You can look now!”
Daniel lowered his hand and opened his eyes. His jaw dropped.
Before him was Natalie, but not the scaled Natalie that he’d been helping over the past couple of weeks. Standing on two legs, her arms spread wide in a “ta-da” stance, was human Natalie. She looked exactly like she had before the orb incident and her pink cheongsam, which had hung loose on her snake form, fit perfectly.
Daniel could feel heat rising to his cheeks. She looked beautiful in her cheongsam. The wide, excited smile on her face made her practically glow. Granted, he thought she looked great no matter what, but seeing her this happy made his heart do a quadruple backflip.
“I…you’re…” he sputtered. His tongue didn’t seem to be working, nor his higher brain functions for that matter. What could he possibly say anyway?
Her smile grew even wider.
“Yes!” she said. “I’m back to normal!”
With an excited, almost relieved laugh she scooped him up in a hug and spun him around. This, of course, only served to make his blush redder. She had no right to smell this good after living in a sewer for over a week.
“How did this happen?” he asked after she set him down.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I just woke up and I wasn’t a snake anymore. But I have been experimenting. Watch this.”
She held out her arm and furrowed her brow in concentration. Scales sprouted over her skin. The bend of her elbow loosened into a smooth curve, as did her knuckles and wrist. Nails disappeared and melded into the scales so that each finger ended in a point like a lizard’s tail.
“You can control the transformation,” he marveled.
“Yes! I don’t know if I can turn into a full snake yet. I was afraid that I might not be able to change back. But now I can at least walk around outside without having to hide.”
Daniel’s mind was running a mile a minute. This changed everything. But with that change came so many more questions. Why did her powers change now? Was it safe? What caused it? Did all hybrids develop this way? If so, was it a matter of time or state of mind?
“Well,” Mr. Ross said, his voice coming from above, “this is a surprise.”
Daniel looked up to see his teacher descending on the manhole-cover-elevator. His eyebrows were raised, but other than that he seemed unsurprised by Natalie being human with one snake arm.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” Mr. Ross continued, “but you might want to change into something more suited to the outdoors.”
“Why?” Natalie asked, transforming her arm back into a human one. “Are we going somewhere?”
“Yes. I suppose Daniel has not had a chance to explain this to you, but we think we have ascertained what Ahuizotl meant by her cryptic words.” Mr. Ross pulled out his car keys. “We are going back to where it all began.”
Daniel nodded. He had been turning Ahuizotl’s message over and over in his head. There was only one place she could have discovered the tongs according to the clues she had given them. The place where he had found the ark shard orb and unwittingly set everything into motion. It was time to return to the burial mounds.