Hello friends and fictional folk! Yikes mcgikes! I almost missed posting this. Hopefully things die down a bit after the play I’m involved in.
Got rejected by another agent, that was fun. But hey, that just means I’m one step closer to finding the one for my book! Plus I’ve got some great beta readers helping me out.
In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy this next installment of The Mythic Naga!
“GREAT HUSTLE OUT THERE TODAY,” Coach Gordon bellowed. He wasn’t mad at the sprinters. He had just been a high school coach for so long that he didn’t seem to remember how to speak in anything other than a bellow. “I WANT TO SEE THAT SAME HUSTLE AT THE TRACK MEET NEXT WEEK.”
They all agreed to do that with varying levels of enthusiasm. It had been a long Sunday afternoon of pushing themselves to the limit and they were all ready to head home.
Kaden slipped his running shoes into his bag and slung it over his shoulder. He loved sprinting, but not enough to wear the same shoes all the way home. Other kids were calling their parents to come pick them up. He set off down the sidewalk. Home was close enough for him to reach just before dark.
There was a pang of jealousy watching his fellow athletes clamber into their cars and sink into the cushioned seats. He shrugged it off, hoisting his bag higher onto his shoulder. His parents weren’t going to just take off time from their jobs to pick him up. They had enough to worry about.
Kaden’s stomach rumbled as he passed Julio’s Mexican Food, illuminated a shade of orange in the sunset that reminded him of cheese. He couldn’t wait to get home and chow down on those leftover burritos.
As he crossed the street, he wondered if he should save one for Damien. He shook off the thought. Not only was his little brother missing, but he would never leave food for Kaden. Neither would Mara for that matter. He picked up the pace.
The sky was changing from orange to red as he neared the Mrs. Meekly’s corner. She didn’t really own the corner but her overgrown hedges sure did. One more turn and he would nearly be home.
The hedges rustled but Kaden did not hear them, his mind too focused on getting home. Yellow eyes burned in shadows cast by a bleeding sky.
Daniel was almost happy to go back to school. For one, the school year was almost over, which meant all the standardized testing was over, which meant the teachers could actually teach fun and interesting stuff.
For another, if he was fast, he could get to his locker before Carson and his twin brother Paul had time to “express their creativity” on his locker. That’s what the principal called it after he discovered that their parents were on the school board.
Everyone was against bullying until it was their own kids being called out it seemed.
Carson used to be his friend, his best friend. Back in middle school, Carson had even protected Daniel from bullies. That was, until the beginning of 8th grade. Things changed. Daniel changed.
No, not changed. Daniel had merely come to terms with who he was. Carson couldn’t. So he turned to “expressing his creativity” with his brother.
Such “expressions” included slurs, threats, scriptures from the Bible, and lots of suggestive imagery, all in bright, neon pink. Daniel used to like pink. Of course, he was in charge of cleaning it all up. If he didn’t he got in trouble, not the twins.
Last Thursday had been the worst yet, or maybe the best. That had been the day they had broken the orb of ark shards he had found.
That was the third and biggest reason Daniel was almost happy to be going back to school. After helping Natalie and Mr. Ross take down Skunk-bear, they had spent all weekend furnishing her “lair” with everything she would need to be a proper superhero. The ISRD had also sent some junior agents to help with renovations. With the spiffy new lair—which really needed some kind of cool new name—they were one step closer to making Natalie a real superhero.
The whole business with the hybrids was the greatest thing to ever happen to Daniel. Sure, he felt sorry for them and a little guilty, but the old mundane world was dead and gone, replaced with something much more exciting. Best of all, he was in the thick of it, helping a superhero from the sidelines. Nobody really knew what they were doing or that he was involved but that didn’t matter. Walking through the halls with the few kids here so early in the morning, he felt like an undercover agent. He felt genuinely important for once.
That euphoria lasted right up until he passed by the bin for the school newspaper, West Side Weekly. He froze.
Rushing back to the bin, he reached in and pulled out one of the papers. On the front page was the picture that had caught his attention and a dramatic, attention grabbing title set right over it.
Daniel’s eyes went wide.
Natalie had become very good at lurking since her transformation into a half-snake. Her new snake DNA probably didn’t have anything to do with it, but after all the biology research she’d been doing on her new computer—courtesy of ISRD—she wasn’t sure anymore. Regardless, lurking had become second nature to her, which was handy because that’s what she was doing right now.
In the narrow space between the high, wooden fences of two suburban houses, Natalie had squeezed her sinuous body into a spot where no one could see her. Through a hole in one of the fences, and with the help of her infrared vision, she was able to see into the yard of one of the houses. Her house to be exact.
It wasn’t all that remarkable a place really. Sure, it was two-storied, housed four people, and the backyard was actually big enough to set up a swing set in, but the brownish-blackish paint job made it blend into all the other houses in the neighborhood. Finding it while staying stealthy had almost gotten her lost. She was so used to taking the same route there and back that her brain had trouble visualizing where it actually was.
Luckily, she could always count on one thing to guide her to the right house. It was the one thing no other place in the suburbs had. Her grandma.
Sure, having an older relative living with you wasn’t all that unusual, but Natalie’s grandma wasn’t just any old lady. She was a tough and stubborn professor who fled China during the “red revolution” when all sort of religious stuff was destroyed by teenage who liked Mao a little too much. Being a teacher of religious studies, her grandmother had a huge target painted on her back since day one. Thankfully, she had gotten lucky and stowed away aboard a boat headed for America, snuck past customs, and eventually worked her way to full citizenship alongside grandpa, who died before Natalie had been born.
Living and surviving for so long had given her grandmother her fair share of quirks. One of which was that every day, while Natalie’s parents were out working, she set up her rocking chair outside under the shade of the patio. There she pulled out her latest book from the library or her yarn and knitting needles. Then she stayed there all day till the other adults came home. This would be fine if she wasn’t completely blind.
Reading books? Easy enough. There were plenty of books in braille at the library.
But knitting and staying outside all day? That seemed like she was just asking to get attacked or stab herself with no one to call the ambulance for her.
When she first started doing this mom and dad had argued fiercely that she needed to stay inside. She quickly shut them down by not only knitting a full scarf while they argued, but also by throwing the needles into the wall, the points piercing the plaster directly between two picture frames hanging on the wall. After that, there had been no more arguing. Not over that at least.
Natalie had been almost certain that she could find her house by looking for her grandmother and she had been right.
There she was, sitting in her old rocking chair and, based on the movements of her hand, knitting away with her needles. That did not help Natalie’s nerves.
She took a deep breath. If there was anyone who would understand, it would be grandma. Might as well get it over with and hopefully not get stabbed by projectile knitting needle.
Natalie silently slithered over the fence and slipped to the ground of the carefully manicure backyard. She froze as the grass beneath her rustled beneath her tail. Had her grandmother heard that?
Apparently not. She kept knitting.
A sigh escaped Natalie’s lips.
“Don’t think you can sneak up on this old lady.”
Natalie flinched at her grandmother’s words. Was she talking to her?
“Yes, you,” her grandmother snapped, still knitting. “Talk or leave. I’m busy.”
No doubt about it, she’d been heard.
“H-hi grandma,” she managed to say past a suddenly dry mouth.
“Natalie,” it wasn’t a question. “About time you got home. Come closer and tell me where you have been.”
She shifted her weight on her tail. “Um…I’d rather stay over here grandma…”
“Nonsense! You think I don’t know about what your mother’s been dealing with? There are no coincidences. You and other kids go missing and a day later there are a dozen calls to your mother about weird sightings. I am blind, granddaughter, not stupid.”
Natalie winced. She was supposed to be keeping hybrid activity on the down low yet already the conspiracy theorists and bigfoot hunters probably already had more information about this then they’d had for any other mystery.
She sighed and slithered over to the patio. “I’ve missed you granny. I’m ssorry I can’t sstay for long.”
“I have a big job to do. I…” She hesitated, then smirked and leaned in conspiratorially. “Can you keep a ssecret?”
A matching smirk stretched across her grandma’s lips. “Your mother still doesn’t know where the candy I give you is hidden. You tell me if I can keep a secret.”
Natalie giggled and straightened a little. “Well, I’ve got a big one for you, granny. I’m a sssuperhero now”
“Yeah. But…” her confidence wavered and sank. She hunched low next to her grandma. “I don’t know if I can do it granny. It’s a big job and I’m ss-ssscared. Half the time, I’m not ssure if I’m doing the right thing or ssaying the right words. I wish I could come home forever and leave it to other people, but I can’t. I’m not confident like you granny. What do I do?”
Her grandmother set down her knitting needles and looked up with unseeing eyes towards her. Natalie flinched as her elderly family member clutched her hands, but she didn’t seem bothered by the scales.
“Natalie Montague Wu,” she said, “Our family is a strong one and you are part of that family. You are afraid? Good. I would be worried if you weren’t. Do not be afraid of fear. Let it be your ally, but never your master. I was afraid when fleeing China, afraid of leaving and of staying. But I wanted to keep your grandfather safe more. Focus on that. It is a rare fear, a fear for others. Fear for self can hold us back if we are not careful, but fear for others pushes us beyond what we thought we could do.”
“It’sss not sssafe,” the words came unbidden to her lips, carved into her mind by her mother.
Granny scoffed. “Of course, it is not. Few things worth doing are. Your mother knows that for herself but does not understand that for you. We have talked of this, but Zhu Li has forgotten how to listen to her own mother.”
She liked that granny always called her mom by her Chinese name. Everyone else used the Americanized version: Julie. Even her badge read Julie Wu instead of Zhu Li Wu.
Natalie smiled. Coming to talk with her granny had been the right decision.
“Do you want to know my superhero name?” she asked.
“Of course. I need to know if the news is talking about you.”
She drew herself up and puffed out her chest, still keeping a firm grip on her granny’s hands. “Naga. My name is Naga.”
Granny nodded. “A good name. These Americans may fear snakes, but I am glad you have chosen a more noble name for yourself. I suppose you must leave now.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “I’m sorry, granny, but I need to stay hidden as much as I can.”
“Before you go. I have something for you. It was supposed to be your birthday present, but it came late and then you disappeared. So I give it to you now.”
Natalie started. She’d forgotten that her birthday had been last Monday. Friday was supposed to have been her sweet sixteen party. With everything that had happened, it must have slipped her mind.
Granny reached down beside her rocking chair and lifted a flat rectangular box, handing it to her. Natalie lifted the lid and gasped. Inside, nestled amongst the tissue paper, was the most beautiful, pink cheongsam.
The Asian dress was gleaming silk and satin. She couldn’t see how long it was because it was folded in the box, but it must have cost half a fortune based on the Chinese-based brand on the card in the box. Would it still fit now after the transformation? She hoped it would.
“Granny,” she breathed, “this…I can’t take this. It’ll get damaged. I—”
“Then don’t wear it to a fight, silly granddaughter. I won’t be able to tell if you’re wearing it. Get one of those superhero seamstresses to make you something like it if you want that as your super suit. For me, its enough to know you have it.”
Natalie embraced her grandmother. “Thank you, granny.”
“Make sure to hit them once for me.”
The eye scanner flashed and Natalie pulled away, blinking away afterimages. Turns out, those cool spy movie things weren’t quite real. Why Omphalos needed to blind her each time she wanted to get into her snake cave was still a mystery.
No, she hadn’t settled on that name for her lair yet. “The Nest” didn’t sound right and “Snake Cave” was just boring. Maybe that’s what she should research next.
The wall hissed and shifted, sinking back away from the surrounding bricks it had been camouflaged with and sliding away to allow her entrance. Inside, the lights flickered on as she slithered across the threshold.
The space was set up like a big studio apartment. Almost everything was in a single room—except for the bathroom—that took up about the same amount of space as a hotel suite. Each of the four corners were dedicated to various things: one for the bed, one for the kitchen, one for the computer, and one for storage shelves. In the middle, a ladder connected to the ceiling where a manhole cover was set. The small bathroom connected to the main room was a godsend, not only because it gave her an actual toilet, but because of the tail-friendly shower. Finally, she could be clean!
Making sure to close the door behind her, Natalie took off her shirt and slipped into the cheongsam. It hung kind of loose on her chest thanks to her new body, but the rest of it fit perfectly.
This was great. She swooshed up to the full-length wall mirror next to the storage shelves and posed. The dress was one of the mid-length cheongsams, not stretching down all the way to the feet, but not short enough to almost just be a shirt. The pink mixed surprisingly well with her green scales and the leaves on the dress’s illustration were the same color as she was.
For once, it didn’t hurt to look at her own face.
The hiss of a door opening reached her ears. This time however, it came from the manhole cover, the heavy iron circle flipping open.
Daniel nearly fell through the hole and slid down the ladder. He crashed onto the stone floor but popped back up instantly and spun around.
“Natalie!” he almost screamed. “We have a prob—woah.”
He stared at her. What was he looking at? Had she transformed again?
“N-nice dress,” he finally sputtered out.
“Thank you,” she said, twirling just because she could. “It’s called a cheongsam. My granny got it for me.”
“It looks great on you.” His face flushed and heat literally rose to his cheeks. He shook his head. “We have a problem!”
He held up a newspaper and pointed at the headline. “Look!”
As she read the words, her good mood melted away.
“Construction Site Combat: Strange Creatures Seen Fighting Downtown!”
Below the headline were distressingly clear pictures of her facing off against Skunk-bear.