Hey there friends and fictional folk! Now that I’ve got this series up on Wattpad and Tapas, I ask that you all create a free account at both places and subscribe to my story there. If I get enough subscribers, I can be part of the paid-by-advertisement program they both have. Worry not, I will still post here a day early but won’t be making posts about it on social media. Got to build those numbers up at the other places. So keep this our little secret okay?
“I’m home!” Julie Wu called into the house as she stepped inside. It had been a long morning at the police station and she was looking forward to spending her lunch away from the constant calls of strange sightings. At this point it was practically an epidemic. She didn’t know if it was the most elaborate prank in Central City’s history or some kind of mass hysteria brought on by climate change. Honestly, she didn’t care, she just wanted it to end.
Silence greeted her as she crossed the threshold. She sighed. That could only mean one thing…
Grabbing a bowl of leftover noodles, she stepped outside and sat in a lawn chair next to her mother.
“Hello, mom,” she muttered, slurping up a forkful of noodles.
Her mother’s walking cane smacked into her shin. Julie barely flinched. The old bird had remarkable aim for a blind woman.
“Is that any way to greet your mother,” her mom scolded, “and for goodness sake, use chopsticks when eating noodles.”
“It’s spaghetti, mom,” Julie said, taking another bite of her lunch.
“That’s no excuse, Zhu Li.”
Officer Julie rolled her eyes. Even now, her mother refused to use her Americanized name. That retirement home her husband, Romeo, had suggested they put her in was sounding more and more appealing by the day. Then again, she wasn’t sure if the staff would be able to handle that.
“Natalie came for a visit today,” the old woman suddenly said.
Julie froze. She turned to her mother. Had her last remaining parent finally gone senile?
The cane whacked into her shin again.
“Don’t look at me like,” her mother snapped. “I’m blind, not crazy.”
Julie winced and rubbed her leg. “Ma, Natalie is missing.”
“So she can’t just drop by for a visit.”
“Well, certainly not while you or your husband are around.”
What in the world did that mean? “Look Ma, I know you’ve got good hearing now, but maybe it was just someone imitating her.”
Her mother shook her head. “No. I know it was her.”
“Oh yeah? Then why isn’t she here right now?”
“She has an important job to do.”
Julie sighed, quietly to avoid her mother’s cane. Yep, definitely senile.
“Man. How is she still going?”
Natalie was crouched with Daniel underneath the bleachers, peeking through a gap in the seats. She watched Mara Swift as the next most likely person to be kidnapped by her brother casually kept jogging around the school’s running track, completing her twentieth lap with no signs of stopping. All the other runners had already stopped and gone home. Natalie couldn’t blame them. School was close to ending. Who wanted to keep working out when they could be preparing for summer vacation?
Apparently Mara did.
“Really good genes, I guess,” Daniel said. He wasn’t looking at the track, but rather what was on the other side of the road from the sports stands.
In a squat, windowless building was the closest thing their school had to a shack, the photo development complex. Despite it being a relatively small building compared to the rest of the school, it still boasted enough rooms to be the headquarters of both the photography club and the school newspaper. While Natalie had her target, Daniel’s target was in there.
Butterflies flapped nervously in her stomach. With Mr. Ross called away to a school meeting, she and Daniel were left to their own devices. They’d be working alone on separate parts of the mission.
It didn’t help that being on school grounds made her ache with a strange nostalgia. Natalie had never thought she would miss going to class, but there was that feeling drawing her toward the football field, begging her for cheerleading practice.
“You ready?” she asked, tugging on her fingerless gloves to make sure they were set tight. She had changed out of her cheongsam and into a tight, gray T-shirt. Pants weren’t necessary for her anymore and, while skirts were nice, they would give people something loose to grab. It was best she stick with clothes that fit snuggly during missions.
Daniel nodded. “I’ve got the code from Mr. Ross to get in memorized in case I lose the paper.” He hesitated and Natalie caught a hitch in his breath. It seemed he was trying to hide how nervous he really was. Just like her. “You ready?”
She took a deep breath. “Yes.”
Mara finally stopped on lap twenty-five, seeming barely winded. She stooped over her sports bag and pulled off the band keeping her hair up. Long, black locks spilled out of the undone ponytail as she slung the bag over her shoulder and made her way off the track.
“Go time,” Natalie whispered.
“Same for me,” Daniel replied.
She glanced over to see Thomas leave the photo building. Her heart did a quick skip, but she shook it off. They had a job to do. She reluctantly turned back to watching Mara.
“Aaand…break,” they said together.
Natalie felt Daniel split off toward the photo building at the same time she slithered off toward Mara.
She kept low so as not to be seen and slipped into the nearest shrub lining the sidewalk.
Slithering between patches of green, she kept track of Mara using her infrared vision. From shrubs to bushes and bushes to trees she matched her step. Turned out, having a tail for movement instead of feet made Natalie a lot quieter when she moved. Once, when Daniel had brought down food, she had accidentally freaked him out just by casually sidling up from behind because of how silent her scales made her.
Her heat sight caught movement up ahead.
A four-legged shape, the rough size and shape of a large cat, stalked up to the corner that Mara was walking towards. That street was a good two blocks from the traffic light and completely out of sight from the school. The place was perfect for an ambush. Even if the police were looking for Kaden, they would be investigating the street nearer to the house where one of the boy’s shoes had been found.
But that all meant that this hybrid, Damien presumably, was still smart enough to make plans. He wasn’t a raging beast like Skunk-bear had been. Natalie was going to have to fight someone that could plan and strategize like she could.
The shiver that thought sent down her spine nearly shook the tree she was perched in.
She slunk down the tree and into the bushes behind the heat signature. Creeping forward, she planned her assault. All she would have to do is wrap her body around his and squeeze the air out until he fell unconscious. With the element of surprise on her side, it would be a quick and quiet ambush. Mara would never even know they were there.
Natalie shuffled into position, coiled her tail under her body like a spring, and leapt.
Mara worried as she walked. She should have asked one of her friends to drive her home.
Yeah, right. She thought ruefully. Just admit to your friends that you’re scared of getting kidnapped. That’ll get loads of sympathy from them.
She shook herself. That was no way for an oldest kid to think. Whatever had happened to her brothers wouldn’t get her. Besides, the big street between their house and the school was just ahead. No one would do anything here in broad daylight.
The bushes next to her erupted with noise.
She stumbled back as the vigorous shaking of leaves and branches was drowned out by what sounded like two huge cats fighting. A moment later, something long and green came soaring out of the shrubberies.
Mara leapt aside as the thing crashed onto the pavement where she had just been standing and rolled several feet. Whatever it was used its tumble to slip up into…well she wouldn’t call it standing.
The things was easily twice as long as she was and covered in scales, some dull green others pale yellow. The top part of it was roughly human shaped, but much too flexible. The lower part, which took up about two-thirds of its entire size, was a massive trunk of a snake’s tail. The creature’s face was human enough, except for the yellow, slit-pupil eyes that glared at the bush it had just been thrown from. Blonde hair fell in stringy locks, the roots growing in black. It wore almost no clothing, just a gray t-shirt and a pair of fingerless gloves from which sprouted fingers that should not be bending that way.
Mara begged her legs to move, to run, but her body remained frozen as she felt her mind twist into knots, trying desperately to make sense of what she was seeing. She couldn’t even scream. She was too terrified.
Then the thing turned toward her.
Even though the glare cleared from the monster’s face, replaced with something like embarrassment, a deep, primal fear took hold of her insides and froze them solid. Suddenly she knew what a rabbit felt when it stared into the eyes of a predator before a chase. She hated the feeling. She hated this thing for giving her that feeling.
“Uh…hi,” the snake creature said. Its voice high and feminine.
Mara could only whimper.
Another thing burst from the bushes and this time Mara did scream. It was another monster, but this one completely different from the snake-thing.
This beast was on all fours, though there was something human about parts of its shape. Its front half was that of a snarling cheetah and its back half was some kind of antelope. Hooves and claws scraped the pavement as it landed. Two strange horns sprouted from the top of the cheetah-thing’s head, each ending in two prongs, one at the top and one lower down. A shock of messy black hair that looked uncomfortably familiar covered where the horns met the head and tattered scraps of their school’s athletic clothes hung on the thing’s body.
It growled at the snake-thing, stalking forward.
Mara tried to inch away, but the cheetah-antelope swung its head her way. She saw a look of recognition pass over its face. The snarl deepened, revealing more razor-sharp fangs, and the thing yowled.
For a terrible moment, Mara saw nothing but the cheetah-thing.
Then the snake-thing’s tail slammed into its face. The force of the impact sent the cheetah-lope tumbling to the ground.
The snake-thing charged darted forward, wrapping its body around the cheetah-lope quicker than Mara’s eyes could follow. It held on tight as the cheetah-lope yowled and thrashed against the binding hold.
Her eyes met the snake-thing’s again.
“Why are you ssstill here?” It hissed, grunting with exertion. “Run!”
Mara turned back toward the school and fled.
Daniel hurried over to the photography building as Natalie took off after Mara. He ran as fast as he could while staying stealthily crouched. Well…mostly stealthily.
Regardless, he scurried over to the door. Pulling out the slip of paper Mr. Ross had given him, he punched in the code. The door handle whirred and clicked. Testing the knob, Daniel found it unlocked. He slipped inside and quietly shut the door.
After a bit of fumbling and stubbing his toe on a heavy cardboard left lying near the entrance, Daniel found and flipped on the light switch. Fluorescent bulbs buzzed and flickered to life revealing a short, white tiled, white walled corridor with three doors: One at the far end and the other two facing each other on either side of the hall’s walls. The door on the far end had a red lightbulb over a sign that read “Dark Room.”
Daniel’s heart beat a little faster. He wished his brain wouldn’t immediately jump to every horror movie he had ever scene. This place was a slasher film waiting to happen.
Creeping halfway down the hall, he came to the other two doors. They also had signs on them, but much smaller and set to the side instead of overhead. The one on the right read “Photography Club.” It was to his left that he found the sign reading “School Newspaper.”
He tested the knob. It was unlocked.
This time, Daniel opened the door and flipped on the lights before going in.
The room was an absolute mess. Piles of old newspapers were stacked into almost every available space in the large, broom closet sized room. Where there were no newspapers, there was newspaper equipment. Heavy duty printers and thick paper lay next to a cart for catching finished papers. A thin path led straight to the single computer and its many memory banks, small tributary paths leading to cords for internet and access for the printer cart.
It was a hoarder’s heaven and made Daniel intensely uncomfortable. The towers of paper and boxes seemed ready to collapse and swallow him up any moment.
Shaking off the unease, he rushed over to the computer and booted it up. Every second of load time feeling like an eternity.
When it was finally done, he quickly pulled up the school’s website. Using a few backdoor programs, he managed to directly access the computer’s memory and code. After that, it took no time at all to put his trap in place.
The plan was simple. The new program would make it so that anytime someone wanted to post something onto the school website or print out a paper from this computer with the word Naga in it, this little bug would find it and jumble the text at the moment of publishing. As soon as the person pressed the Post or Print button, the text would switch to a portion of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet of equal length.
Daniel was just about to enter the last line of code when he heard the door slam shut behind him.
His heart leapt into his throat and he spun around to find the head editor, writer, and photographer of the newspaper club himself, Thomas Laville. He was standing in front of the now closed door to the club room, handle still on the knob. The look on his face was disturbingly calm.
Daniel tasted a shock of fear on his tongue as his brain registered the sheer size difference between the two of them. Thomas’s frame was much broader and packed with well defined muscles straining against the athletic polo shirt he wore. Daniel got winded going up the stairs to his foster parents’ flat too fast. If his heart wasn’t beating quickly before, it was now thudding in his ears.
“Hey there, Danny,” Thomas said conversationally, smiling as if he hadn’t just caught someone trespassing into his club room and tampering with what was essentially his computer. “Let’s talk.”