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Natalie glared at the brick wall in front of her. Another dead end.
She was tempted to punch it just to see if it was a false wall, but she had learned earlier that doing that while having enhanced fast twitch muscles was not a good idea. So instead she turned around and stalked back down the way she had come.
All day today and yesterday she had scoured the twisting maze of corridors that made up the abandoned sewer system she now called home. She had discovered many things: the sewers spread throughout almost the entire city, rats could get disturbingly huge, and people threw away some really weird things. What she had not discovered was the other side of that wall they had found after beating Damien. She was certain that another hybrid had built it, but she couldn’t figure out where the tunnel it blocked off ran to.
If her suspicions were right, that other hybrid had Kaden, Damien’s brother, held captive. Who knew what kind of state he was in. He could be near death, if not dead already.
And it would be all her fault.
Natalie tried to shake the thought from her head, but it crept in anyway. The whole reason she was risking her life was to save others. Whether that be saving hybrids from their self-destructive instincts or saving normal humans from rampaging hybrids, it didn’t matter. If she could not keep people safe, then what was the point of her doing any of this in the first place? People were counting on her, even if they did not know it.
She wondered if this was how her mother felt. Every day Julie Wu went out and patrolled the streets of Central City as a police officer, maintaining order and keeping people safe. Considering all the medals lining the wall of Natalie’s former home, her mother was very good at her job. Unfortunately, her job did not seem to leave when she got home.
“Never take risks. I take the risks so you don’t have to. Be glad you get to live a boring life.”
Her mom had never outright said that, but that was always the underlying message.
Even other kids at school had seemed to hammer that home.
“I don’t think you’re cut out for all the responsibility of being head cheerleader.”
“You better be careful. Start making good grades all the time and you’ll be living up to the stereotype of smart Asians.”
“Don’t chase after Thomas, girlfriend. You’ll never get his attention. Settle for one of the other hot guys instead, they’re more in your league.”
Becoming half-snake had given her an odd clarity about comments like these. It was like she had shed off the skin of her old life and could look at it from an outside perspective. From that perspective, she had realized she was tired of settling for the easy path, the boring path. She wanted to make her own path. Maybe it was a little arrogant, but she wanted to be a superhero because it was a path not already laid out in front of her. She was the first. She was going to prove she could take risks and succeed.
But Damien had been her second real mission as a superhero, and she had already messed up. She had to find Kaden. Otherwise she would be proving that everyone else had been right.
Plus, she did not want to think about being the reason for his death. That thought she buried deep down and didn’t dare face.
Natalie slithered around a corner and froze.
In the tunnel ahead of her, a shaft of light fell at an angle from a storm drain up above. Beyond that light, glinting in the shadows, was a pair of beady eyes.
Immediately, Natalie flicked out her tongue and flared the pits just behind her nostrils that detected heat.
As the thing’s heat signature and smell hit her senses, she realized that she knew who this was…sort of. Though the shape in her infrared sight was a little blobby, the smell-taste helped her recognize it as the first hybrid she met. It was the weasel-axolotl thing that had attacked her when Daniel had brought Mr. Ross down into the sewers for the first time.
She tensed, ready for another attack, but the hybrid merely watched her. It was difficult to read their expression from just their eyes, but they seemed to be…expecting something.
“Um,” she began hesitantly, “hi?”
They said nothing.
This was somehow really unnerving and really annoying at the same time.
“Who are you?” Natalie asked.
“I could have been you.”
Natalie flinched. The hybrid sounded almost exactly like her. There was no lisp to it, and the snout seemed to have lowered the pitch, but it was still disturbingly familiar. Yet she was certain she had never met this person.
Even more confusing was this hybrid’s answer to her question. Could have been her? How?
Whatever, she had her talking. Better not let this opportunity go to waste.
“What doess that mean?” Natalie asked.
“Everything you have could have been mine.”
Another confusing answer. She wished this girl would talk straight.
“That doessn’t make any ssenssse,” she huffed.
The hybrid girl did not answer for so long Natalie thought she might have gone back to giving her the silent treatment. Finally, she opened her mouth again, fangs glinting in the scant light.
“I hate you.”
Natalie shivered. She had said it so…uncaringly. There was no anger in that voice. It had been less like she was expressing her emotions and more like she was simply stating a fact. She might as well have said the sky was blue.
“Why?” Natalie breathed, her voice shrunk to a near whisper.
She shrugged. “I have to.”
“I don’t underssstand.”
The hybrid girl chuckled, a quiet chuffing noise like that of a dog.
“Of course, you don’t,” the girl said. “You don’t understand anything.”
“Then help me underssstand.”
The hybrid shook her head like a disappointed parent. “Did you never think to go back to where the orb was found? Or have you been too busy playing hero to care?”
Natalie opened her mouth to answer, then paused. She realized that this girl was right. They had all been too preoccupied with what was going on to even think about going back to where Danny found the ark shard orb. True, dealing rampaging hybrids was a pretty good reason to be distracted, but still…
“Big things are happening,” the hybrid said. “Much bigger than a few hormonal teenagers with too much power and not enough sanity. You should be paying attention. I’d hate to see you get yourself killed before I managed to catch up.”
The girl stepped forward into the light. She looked much like she had last time, a disjointed mix of human, weasel, and axolotl parts all smashed together and fused into a single being. Now however, plates of scrap metal covered her too long torso, strapped on with what remained of her tattered clothes. The armor was just as mismatched and jumbled together as she was, yet somehow it made little to no noise as she moved, easily undulating with a body almost as sinuous as Natalie’s.
“I hear you’ve named yourself Naga,” the girl said. “You’ve gone back to your roots. That’s good. It’s only fair you know that I’ve gone back to my own roots and chosen a name for myself.”
She languidly drew her body up to its full height, junkyard armor gleaming in the beam of light from the storm drain. Natalie felt an instinctual desire to coil up and slither under the nearest rock.
“I am Ahuizotl.”
And in one smooth motion, she was gone, disappearing back into the shadows until even her heat signature was gone and Natalie was left alone.
Not for the first time, she felt terribly small.
“Not a terribly helpful individual,” Mr. Ross remarked, “but she did provide us with some useful information.”
After her conversation with Ahuizotl, Natalie had slithered back to her as-of-yet-unnamed lair and collapsed into a nap. Despite her unease, she had simply been too tired to stave off sleep. She was woken up by Daniel and Mr. Ross arriving after school was over. Tomorrow was the last day before summer vacation, but they were both dedicated to academics. She had explained how her fruitless search for the wall builder had gone and then her conversation with Ahuizotl.
She was worried about Daniel. He had been weirdly quiet and tired looking lately. She hoped he wasn’t staying up late to help her. This was her problem, not his. She had caused enough problems for him just by existing. It was not easy for him to sneak that food out for her, she knew. She would have to have a talk with him alone later and make sure he was getting enough rest. But for now, they had other things they needed to focus on.
“How was any of what she said useful?” Natalie asked. “She barely talked and didn’t give us a single straightforward answer.”
“At first glance, that certainly appears to be the case,” Mr. Ross said, “but on a closer consideration, her words reveal much.”
“Well, to begin with, how did she know you decided to call yourself Naga?”
Natalie paused. How did she know that? Only one batch of Thomas’s newspapers had been printed before Daniel hacked the system to print gibberish. Had Ahuizotl managed to get her claws on one of those, or had she been spying on her fights with Skunk-bear and Damien?
“Secondly,” Mr. Ross continued, “she mentioned that big things are happening and hinted that she might have gone back to where Daniel discovered the ark orb and perhaps retrieved something else. I do not know if those two statements are linked, but they may be proof that some of the hybrids are beginning to work together.”
If that was the case, Natalie was going to start reconsidering her decision to become a superhero. Facing down one hybrid at a time was hard enough. She could maybe even handle fighting two. But if whole factions of hybrids were forming then she was well and truly in over her head.
And what else could Ahuizotl have found at the burial mounds? She had looked the same as when they first fought, so it couldn’t be another ark shard. But who was to say that ark shards were the only power-bestowing things on Earth?
“We need to go back to the burial moundsss,” she said. “We don’t have a way to figure out if or how hybridsss are teaming up, but we can at leasst check if Ahuizotl misssed anything or left any clues about what she found.”
“Agreed,” Mr. Ross said, turning to Daniel. “Daniel, my boy, do you remember where it was you found the orb?”
Daniel flinched. “Y-yeah, I remember. It was at the foot of the biggest mound. But…there’s something I’d like to say before we go.”
A blaring alarm rang out through the lair. The hybrid alarm!
Daniel had programmed an automatic search program into the computer that scanned the internet and city surveillance systems for signs of hybrid activity. Once enough evidence was compiled, it could give them an idea of where a hybrid was. That was the theory anyway. They hadn’t been able to test it and this was the first time it had gone off.
Natalie dashed over to the computer and typed in the password. A screen popped up showing a map of the city. Not one, but two spots were covered in a red circle.
“Two hybrid appearanccesss?” she said.
Daniel stepped up beside her and typed in a few commands on the keyboard. Two boxes displaying data appeared over the circles. Each one showed a combination of text, photos, and a percentage displayed in large letters.
“It’s unlikely they’re both real,” Daniel said, looking over the data. “The one near Lake Levi is only a 45 percent likelihood. The one near downtown on the other hand—”
“Ninety-seven percent is all but confirmed, my boy,” Mr. Ross interjected. “I think it’s clear which one we should focus our attention on.”
“Ssstill,” Natalie said, “We don’t want to take any chanccesss. Mr. Ross, you and Danny look into Lake Levi. I’ll handle downtown.”
“Are you sure?” Daniel asked.
“I’m ssure. If either of uss needss backup, we’ve got the communicatorsss.”
“A good plan,” Mr. Ross said, checking the magazine on his super taser.
“But first, what was it you wanted to say, Danny?” she asked.
Daniel glanced between her and Mr. Ross. He turned away, breaking eye contact.
“It’s nothing,” he said, his voice flat. “I’ll tell you later.”
She was going to press further when another photo popped up on the data screen for the downtown alert. Her heart skipped a beat.
“I think that alert just became one hundred percent,” Mr. Ross said.
In the picture was a scaly humanoid figure with white-feathered wings. Their talons were gripping a muscular boy with a camera and lifting him up into the air. That boy was Thomas.