Alight friends and fictional folk! Let’s get ready for the three chapter marathon! Here’s part one. Enjoy!
Natalie’s mind was slow to wake up and her muscles slower. Her memories of the fight with Ahuizotl were fragmented and hazy, like peering through a stained-glass window. She had a vague sense of being angry, scared, and calm all at once. There was something there about her prey escaping. Or was it a dangerous predator? And there was also something about…Danny!
Her eyes snapped open. She recognized the ceiling above as belonging to her lair in the city’s old sewers. The softness beneath her was her bed. Someone had gotten her back to into Central City. But was that someone Danny, Mr. Ross, or someone else? Had she hurt her friend and her teacher in the fight?
She eased herself up into a sitting position. Her muscles didn’t hurt, they weren’t sore. But it did feel like her limbs had been filled with cold molasses. As she forced herself to move, her body seemed to relax and her muscles remembered how to work. Her clothes hung in tatters over her green, scaly body.
Looking down where her legs should be, she saw that they were once again a single long tail. She tried to change back into a human. But nothing happened. It seemed she was back to being her old half-snake self.
She sighed and took stock of the lair. She was alone. Even her infrared sight revealed nobody else nearby. No Danny, no Mr. Ross. The lights were on though.
And so was her computer.
The sound was muted, but the carnage unfolding onscreen was no less horrifying. It showed Lake Levi, the sky above dark with night and its banks swarming with people in tactical gear frantically firing guns at what she could only described as a monster. A monster whose silhouette she had seen when rescuing Danny from one of its tentacles.
Patrick was a towering, vaguely humanoid beast. Only his upper half had emerged from the water so far, but even that was twice the height of the surrounding trees. While he had arms, a head, and a torso like any other human being, they were a patchwork of at least half a dozen different aquatic creatures. Red carapace covered his back, head, and shoulders like plate armor, and encased one pair of arms that ended in crab claws the size of sports cars.
Another pair of arms were covered in carapace as well, but this carapace was a garish rainbow of colors and the ends looked more like blunt mantis claws than pincers. A final third pair of arms looked like those of a massive orange starfish with a humanoid hand at the end of each. Every few seconds a tentacle as thick as a tree trunk would burst from the water to act as yet another appendage with which he tried to smash or grab the people firing at him before it sank back into the lake.
No less alien was his torso. Sleek and packed with hard muscles, it was colored with the dappled blue pattern of a whale shark, which Natalie supposed was where much of his size came from. In the center of his chest was a large, yellow eye. Easily as big as a man’s head. His own head was a terror in and of itself. Its shape was somewhere between the bloated cranium of an octopus and the armored face of a lobster. Two beady black eyes moved independently on stalks while antenna waved about angrily from his forehead. His mouth was a jagged mass of lobster and crab mandibles positioned around a huge squid’s beak.
Natalie had heard once that keeping the monster hidden in a horror movie was scarier because the audience would always imagine something more terrifying than the filmmakers could ever create. She never could have imagined something this nightmarish from the brief glimpses she caught of Patrick’s silhouette. Every instinct, both human and snake, was screaming at her to run and hide.
Hesitantly glancing down, she read the steadily growing numbers in the corner of the screen. Then at the clock on her nightstand. Her heart quickened its pace. This was a live feed from Levi Lake. Everything she was watching on the computer was happening right now.
She scanned the crowd of what she assumed were ISRD agents.
“Pleasse don’t be there,” she whispered. Praying for it to be true. “Pleasse don’t be there. Pleasse don’t be there.”
But there he was. Crouched behind a black van that had been knocked on its side was Danny. Mr. Ross was right beside him. Both were firing super-taser shots into Patrick, but having practically no effect on the colossal hybrid.
Natalie’s heart sank and her throat tightened. What were they doing? They couldn’t take that thing own with just super-tasers. She wasn’t even sure normal guns could bring Patrick down. Any wounds he sustained seemed to close up within a matter of seconds.
They couldn’t beat him. She couldn’t beat him. Not without resorting to more dangerous, and more lethal, firepower.
Natalie turned her eyes from the screen, unable to watch the carnage that was unfolding. She wouldn’t watch Mr. Ross die. She couldn’t watch Danny die.
Her gaze fell on something that had been set on the computer desk. She frowned and rose from the bed. Was that?
She slithered closer. Her movements shaky at first but soon regaining their natural rhythm.
It was the tongs. And on top of them, a note.
Natalie, it read. I’m going with Mr. Ross to fight Patrick. The ISRD is calling him Kraken. I don’t know if we’ll survive. I’m sorry I couldn’t pull out your shard. I wasn’t strong enough. I could only put it back in place. These tongs have one use left in them. Use it to pull out your shard if you want. I thought about using them to take out your shard, but that isn’t my place to decide. We may not survive our fight with Patrick/Kraken, so I wanted to leave you with a way to go back to your normal life. It was fun working as your sidekick. Tell your family I said “Hi.” Your friend, Daniel.
A tear fell onto the paper, smudging the words. Natalie realized she was crying.
She glanced at the tongs. Only one use left. Her heart ached to see her family again. Mom, dad, grandma. Her house seemed a world away. Her family a lifetime ago. When had she begun thinking of this life of slinking about sewers and fighting teens-turned-monsters as normal?
Even when she had gained the power to change between human and snake freely that morning, she hadn’t wanted to give up her superhero life completely. Sure, she had wanted to go home, sleep in her own room, her own bed. She still wanted all those things. But she had also wanted to keep working with Danny and Mr. Ross. To keep doing some good by keeping her fellow hybrids out of the public eye. For once it had felt like she had some control over her life. Which was strange considering how her old life had been torn from her.
She wanted desperately to go home, to hug her parents and grandma tight and never let go. Memories of her grandmother’s cooking sang to her. She even missed her dad’s corny jokes and arguing with her mom over curfew. Besides, what chance did she stand against a hybrid like Kraken?
Danny’s out there fighting, a little voice whispered in her head. And he’s not even a hybrid.
She swore. Why did he have to go and be all noble like that? Why was he out there when he knew he was probably going to die? He kept calling her a superhero, but really, she was just a coward with power. He was the real hero. One with a bad sense of self-preservation, but still more of one than she was.
And what of the other hybrids? There were still a few that they hadn’t found yet and they had no way of turning Jamie human again. What was the point of going on a mall crawl without a best friend there with you? She couldn’t just leave her and go back to her old life. There was no old life without Jamie.
Considering all that had happened, maybe there was no “old life” to return to. Everything had changed that day behind the school. Now that she knew about ark shards and alien spaceships, how could she go back home and pretend everything was the same as it had always been?
But then what was she supposed to do? Fight Patrick? There was no way. He was huge and a hundred times more powerful than any other hybrid she had faced before. She only had her snake shard, but he clearly had a lobster shard, a crab shard, a squid shard, an octopus shard, a starfish shard, a whale shark shard, and a…
Natalie frowned. Patrick was swinging about his crab and starfish arms with wild abandon but was keeping his third pair of arms tucked close to his body. Did…did he not know those were mantis shrimp claws? Did he not know what a mantis shrimp could do?
She glanced down at the tongs. She had been researching all sorts of animals to prepare for her fights. Mantis shrimps had been one of the first strange creatures she had run across. She knew what they could do. That gave her an advantage. An idea was wriggling its way to life in her head, like a vine sprouting from the soil. It was a crazy, dangerous, stupid idea.
But it just might work.
Also, it was the only one she had. So, it was either that or go back to being human, and she was not about to abandon Danny.
First, she needed a change of clothes. She needed to hurry, but she wasn’t going to fight in rags that barely covered her. Throwing on a black, sleeveless shirt and a skirt to match, she paused as she passed the pink cheongsam her grandma had given her.
It had felt so good to be able to properly fit in that dress. Even now, she longed to put it on. But now was not the time and she couldn’t risk damaging it. maybe she could where it again when she got back to the lair. If she got back to the lair.
Shaking those thoughts free from her mind, she grabbed the tongs and a roll of duct tape. She then strapped the tongs to the side of her tail with a few quick wraps of tape, about where her thigh would have been if she had legs. There, it would be in easy reach without getting in her way.
Finally, she called down the manhole elevator.
As she rode up, she coiled her tail like a spring beneath her. Fear and anticipation coursed through her like electricity. Her heart beat against her chest like some caged animal.
Hang on, Danny. I’m coming.
The manhole elevator reached the alleyway and Natalie shot straight up into the crisp night air. Grabbing the fire escape set against the nearby apartment building she began to climb. Using the fast-twitch muscles in her arms granted by the snake DNA, she practically flew up the side of the building.
Cresting the top of the fire escape, she curled into a wheel shape just as she had done when fighting Damian. She hit the top of the apartment building already spinning. Gravel sprayed in her wake as she roared across the roof.
Sensing more than seeing that she had reached the edge, Natalie used her tail to throw herself up and forward off the apartments. This sent her sailing over the street below in a high arc. At the top of the arc, she made her chest and underside of her tail go concave like she had when fighting Cockatrice. This turned her fall into a glide that carried her long enough to reach the next building on the far side of the street.
Again, she curled and rolled as she hit the roof. Again, she threw herself into the air and glided across the street until reaching the next building and doing it all over again. She repeated this process over and over, aimed directly toward Levi Park.
Traversing the city like this, leaping over streets and truly stretching the limits of her abilities. It felt incredible. She was a wave on the ocean, rising and falling in powerful surges. Each landing was a heavy impact. Gravel bit into her scales as she rolled. Her heart felt as if it might leap out of her chest every time she looked down on the streets so far below. But that all meant nothing to her. She was moving. She had purpose. She was alive with focused energy.
Natalie was rushing to save lives. Some of those lives she cared deeply for. Others, like Agent Bellerophon, she detested. Most of them she was completely neutral toward. But they were people. Living, breathing people. And she could help them.
For the first time in her life, she felt like the superhero Danny always claimed she could be.
On reaching her final glide, she saw that her path would take her into downtown. After this next apartment, all the buildings would be too tall for her to reach their rooves. It was time for a new strategy.
Angling her next jump, Natalie glided toward the nearest skyscraper and the window washing platform still hanging there. She almost didn’t make it, grabbing the edge with only her fingertips and hauling herself up onto it. Unfortunately, the mechanical winch required a key to operate. Seeing no other to get the thing working, she took hold of one of the thick, metal cords from which it dangled with both hands, wrapped her tail around it beneath her, and began to climb.
For at least a hundred feet, she climbed. One arm after the other. Tail pushing her up in rhythm to her heart.
Her muscles ached by the time she reached the top of the skyscraper, but adrenaline kept the pain dull for now. Pausing to catch her breath, she looked out over the city. From up here she could see almost everything, including Levi Park. And peeking above the trees at the edge of the lake, she could just make out the top of Patrick’s head.
Don’t worry, Danny, she thought. I’m coming.
Coiling her tail like a spring, she put everything she had into one final jump.