Hey there friends and fictional folk! It looks like we’re losing a bit of steam, but I think this update is gonna change that. I’ve got a few surprises for you all and you best be prepared for thinks to start heating up! Keep spreading those links! We don’t want anyone to miss this!
Natalie sprang backward as powerful talons slammed onto the roof where she had been standing a moment ago.
The hybrid attacking her let out a distorted screech and flared their wings. This one had a vague humanoid shape, but with all the different animal parts mashed together it was difficult to see. A white-feathered chicken’s head sat atop a scaly body that sloped down to a long, whipping lizard’s tail. Strong wings and wicked sharp talons from a hawk gave an air of power to what otherwise might have been a rather scrawny hybrid.
Glancing over the chicken-hawk-lizard’s shoulder, Natalie wished she hadn’t decided to do this one alone.
Flapping huge, white wings was a second hybrid. This one was almost entirely human. Tall and broad-shouldered with ice blue eyes and dirty blond hair that hung to his shoulders, he wore a black t-shirt and dark jeans. Of course, no one would have mistaken him for a normal human. Beyond his massive wings, dark circles had formed around his eyes, looking like he had either tried to join a heavy metal band or had put on way too much liquid eyeliner. Plus, there were his feet. Webbed and clawed, they weren’t as big as lizard-chicken-hawk’s, but they were strong enough to hold Thomas, whom he was dangling over the lip of the skyscraper they were fighting on.
Natalie was breathing hard. She had chased these two all the way up here, climbing so many stairs, only to be attacked the moment she opened the door. She was glad Thomas had stopped struggling against his captor. There was no surviving a fall from this high up.
“Grab her, Cockatrice,” the white-winged teenager shouted. “We have the photographer, but she’s who the boss really wants.”
Well that answers a couple of questions, she thought. No doubt about it now. Her fellow hybrids were forming factions, and apparently one of the leaders wanted her. That made sense. She had taken down two other hybrids. That made her either a threat or an asset, depending on who this boss was. But why do they want Thomas?
“Cockatrice” didn’t give her a chance to ponder that line of thinking. The chicken-headed hybrid leaped forward, talons reaching out for her.
Natalie slipped sideways, dodging the blow. Spinning, she brought her tail around and slapped the tip into Cockatrice’s face. The impact cracked like a whip and made her tail tingle.
Her opponent staggered a step but regained their balance and flung out a wing.
Natalie didn’t know that being hit by feathers could hurt, but she found out quick as they smacked into her face. She blinked and spit out bits of fluff in time to see Cockatrice slam into her gut with a shoulder tackle. Air left her lungs and she gasped for breath as Cockatrice spread his wings and sprang into the sky.
She clung to him and sucked in a lungful of air. This was not a good place for her to be. Snakes were not well known for their powers of flight.
Not wanting to fall but not giving up on the fight, Natalie coiled her body around Cockatrice. Her tail wrapped up their talons and tail to prevent them fighting back. Then she twisted her arms around the base of her ride’s wings.
Cockatrice squawked and struggled, but Natalie had constrictor snake muscles. There was no way they were getting out of this hold.
Pulling on their wings, Natalie guided Cockatrice’s flight, turning them around in the air until they were headed straight for White-wings.
“Cockatrice!” he screeched. “What are you doing?”
Natalie wasn’t sure who screamed loudest when they collided.
Tumbling through the air in a tangle of limbs, her heart leaped into her throat as she glimpsed Thomas slip out of White-wing’s grip. Releasing Cockatrice, she dove.
For a terrible moment, she experienced total free fall. There was nothing but air and gravity as she grasped for Thomas. Then her fingers closed around his ankle and her tail lashed itself around a guard rail on the roof.
The sudden stop nearly yanked her arm out of its socket. She was sure her spine got stretched out a couple of inches. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something white and black tumbling through the air toward the ground.
Natalie swore. She prayed that she hadn’t just killed the hybrids by accident. Surely they could right themselves and fly away. Right?
Her stomach churned as she coiled more of her tail around the railing, reeling her and Thomas up like a fishing rod. It wasn’t the height that was bothering her. Well the height did bother her, but that wasn’t what was making her insides feel like they were being squeezed by a giant fist.
“Are you alright?” she asked, pulling Thomas onto the roof.
“Yeah,” he puffed, sitting down. He was pale and breathing heavily.
“Sssorry. The crash was all I could think of.”
He shook his head. “It’s cool. I just wish I hadn’t dropped my camera. Those were some great shots.”
And now she felt guilty about Thomas losing his camera too. Great.
It was for the best. The story would have gotten scrambled by Daniel’s program anyway. She wondered what he had wanted to tell her before they split up.
“You should go home,” she said, helping Thomas stand. His legs were shaking, but he looked strong enough to walk. “I need to find out where thossse two landed.”
“You think they’re alive?”
She looked over the city skyline. “I hope ssso.”
Natalie whipped her head back to him. There was genuine confusion in his eyes.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Why do you hope they’re alive?”
Natalie struggled to find the right words for a moment. She never thought she would have to explain this to someone.
“Becaussse they’re people,” she said. “They’re losst and ssscared and lashing out, but they’re people.”
“But they attacked me. They attacked you.”
“We don’t know why they attacked usss. What if they were blackmailed into it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t see much of a difference whether they wanted to or not. They attacked me, so you fought back. If they die, that’s their own fault.”
Natalie stared. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It didn’t fit with who she knew Thomas to be. Then again, did she really know who Thomas was? She had always admired him from afar. They had never even spoken to each other until that night she fought Skunk-bear.
She mentally shook herself. Maybe they hadn’t ever had a chance to talk before. All the cheerleaders talked about him and he had tons of friends on the football team. Someone that well liked couldn’t be a bad person. He was probably just in shock from the attack.
Still, the casual way he talked about people dying left her feeling uneasy.
“You work on the ssschool newsspaper,” she said. “You’re like a reporter. Isssn’t that what reportersss do? Look for the reasson why?”
“Sure, but I can’t get choked up over the death of people who wanted to hurt me. Can’t investigate a warzone if you cry at every enemy soldier who dies right? Besides, that’s how territory battles work right?”
“Yeah.” He winked. “Animals battle over territory, and you’ve marked me as yours, right?”
Natalie felt heat rising to her cheeks. Her mind buzzed like an angry hornet’s nest. There were too many emotions she was grappling with right now. Her crush winking at her was not helping with that, especially after saying stuff like that.
Where could she even begin to pick apart what he was saying to her? What could she say? Did he just imply that she had marked him as a mate? Had she? Didn’t she want that?
She opened her mouth to reply.
Then the ground disappeared beneath her tail.
Natalie screamed as she was yanked off the roof and up into the air. Strong claws held her, sharp talons piercing shirt and flesh. Warm blood leaked from stinging puncture wounds and her shoulders burned at having to hold up the rest of her body. The ground spun below spun. Vertigo squeezed her stomach.
She grabbed up at the legs holding her. Her arms coiled around scaly legs. She pulled up to relieve some of the weight from her shoulders.
A giant, upside down chicken head appeared in her line of sight. Cockatrice screeched at her. The sound was a twisted mix between a hawk’s call, a rooster’s crow, and a human scream.
Natalie’s old gymnastics training kicked in and she swung her hips like a pendulum. Remembering her exercises on the rings, she used her momentum to flip up and grab Cockatrice around the neck with her tail. He squawked, yanking back. She let him pull for a second before letting go of his legs. His head snapped up and she went with it, arcing through the air to land on his back.
Letting go of his neck, Natalie readied to grab Cockatrice’s wings again. That’s when he went vertical, flying straight up.
Natalie yelped, grabbing his tail before she could tumble off to her death.
She held on tight as she trailed like a flag, her own tail flapping in the passing air as they soared up into the clouds. Droplets of water pelted her scales and dark vapor made it impossible to see the ground below. The air was getting difficult to breathe.
They burst from the cloud cover into open air.
Natalie almost forgot she was fighting for her life. Stars glittered in the velvet darkness of the night sky like a million crystal shards. The clouds they had emerged from spread out all about her like an ocean, a sheen of silver cast upon them by the faint sliver of crescent moon above. For a glorious moment, she was lost to the splendor.
Then a giant hawk foot kicked her in the face.
She tried to hold on, but the water vapor from the clouds had left both her hand and Cockatrice’s tail slick with moisture. Her grip slipped and she was sent tumbling away by a gust from powerful wings.
The view she had been admiring became a kaleidoscope of black and silver. Wind roared and blood pounded in her ears. She tasted pure terror as every nightmare of falling, every urge to jump from a high place, came true. There was nowhere else but down and she was headed there faster with each thudding heartbeat.
Her spinning slowed, but her falling didn’t. The world settled back into solid images, but that only made it worse. She still couldn’t see the ground, but the clouds rushed up to meet. Natalie took what she feared might be her last breath and shut her eyes. She didn’t want to see where she was going to end up as smear on the sidewalk.
Then something happened.
She felt organs and bones shift. Her torso and tail curved inward, like a ball with too little air in it. Air filled the concave space, abruptly slowing her fall. Her head snapped forward from the change in momentum so hard it almost ripped off her neck. Running on instinct, her tail began to undulate as if it were trying to slither through the sky.
Natalie opened her eyes. She was still falling, but much slower. The air was no longer rushing past her, but gently caressing her face as she glided toward the clouds. Her heartbeat calmed and the sky regained some of its former glory that had been lost in the fall.
Her mind was still recovering from that tumble and it took her several seconds to start thinking coherent thoughts again. By then, she had drifted into the thick layer of clouds floating between her and the ground.
Gliding snakes! She realized. I have the body of a gliding snake!
Natalie had, of course, researched snakes from all over the globe during her free time. She knew that she had bits of cobra, constrictor, and viper DNA in her mixed-up body, but she had never suspected that she might have some gliding snake in her too.
A smile crawled onto her face and she burst out laughing. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in the air, maybe it was the shock of having just escaped death, maybe it was the thrill of flight that she felt in chest. Whatever it was, she laughed as she soared.
Flaring her heat pits, Natalie’s infrared vision pierced the clouds and caught the shape of Cockatrice gliding just ahead of her.
Got you now, she thought, smile growing into a smirk.
Natalie tucked her arms in to her sides and straightened out her wriggling tail. She kept the concave channel down her body but aimed herself down at an angle to intercept.
Air rushed past her as she dove, but this time it was her ally instead of her enemy. The city lights appeared like a tangle of Christmas bulbs below as she shot out of the clouds. Cockatrice also became clear in her normal vision and she sped down toward him like a missile.
He must have heard her because he turned his head. One wide chicken eye looked up and she saw it grow wider as she barreled into him.
They plummeted together, careening down toward the city below.
Cockatrice tried to kick her off again, but she was ready for that now. She wasted no time coiling herself around his body and taking control of his wings like she had before.
Their downward momentum was too great to stop, so she only spread Cockatrice’s wings enough to slow their descent and angle them toward Custard Park, the biggest patch of green within the city limits.
Cockatrice screamed as they crashed into a dense cluster of trees near the northeast edge of the park.
A cacophony of wood and foliage filled Natalie’s ears just as shadowed greens and browns filled her vision. She collided with branches and tumbled through the treetops. Reed thin limbs scratched her face and hands, while thicker boughs knocked her about like a pinball.
She hit solid ground with a thud that knocked all the air from her lungs.
Sweet, sweet mother Earth, she thought, wanting to kiss the dirt but her stomach aching too much for her to rise.
She lay there for a minute regaining her breath.
Once she did, she pushed herself up onto her tail and glanced around for Cockatrice. She found him a good couple of yards from where she had landed. He wasn’t moving, but a quick check of his pulse confirmed he wasn’t dead, just knocked out. Probably banged up pretty bad though. She should get him medical help.
Natalie tapped her earpiece and prayed it wasn’t broken.
“Hello?” Medea’s voice crackled.
Yes! she cheered in her mind.
“Hey, Medea,” Natalie croaked out. That fight had really done a number on her throat and lungs. “I need emergenccy pick up in Cusstard Park.”
“Are you alright?”
“For the mosst part. It’ss Cockatricce here who probably needss medical attention. He’ss not dead, but we fell a long way and I don’t want him to die from broken boness or internal bleeding.”
“Got it,” Medea said. Natalie could hear her tapping away at a keyboard on the other end. “Sit tight, Naga. We’re headed your way.”
A click in her ear signaled that the call was over.
Natalie stretched her arms up over her head and sighed. She was glad to be out in the fresh air without having to worry about being spotted. This would be a nice place to come back to when she had the time.
Something was rustling in the bushes behind her. It couldn’t be the wind, there wasn’t any.
Closing her eyes and flaring her heat pits, she turned around slowly, still pretending to stretch. Sure enough, there was someone or something in the bushes. It was too big to be an inner-city park animal, but most humans were not that comfortable on all fours. Most humans also didn’t have a tail.
Natalie groaned. Another hybrid? Seriously? She had just finished fighting two already tonight. Couldn’t she get at least an hour break before tussling with another one? Maybe a nap and a snack. A bag of nacho cheese flavored potato chips sounded really good right now.
She was going to try diplomacy first of course. But considering all her previous attempts, she didn’t have high hopes for talking things out.
She opened her eyes and lowered her arms.
“Alright,” she called, resigned to adding another couple of cuts and bruises to her collection, “come on out. I know you’re there.”
The rustling stopped as the figure froze. In fact, from what Natalie could see in her infrared vision, the hybrid was holding their breath, holding themselves as stiff as possible.
“Look,” Natalie huffed, turning the rest of her body to face the bush, “I can ssee your body heat. Pleasse don’t make me chasse after you. I jusst fell, like, a thousssand feet. It’ss been a very long night and I’m tired. Sso let’ss jusst talk. Ok?”
A moment passed. Then another.
The heat signature moved.
They stepped out of the bush with slow, hesitant movements. The first thing to come into sight was their face. Red fur covered a slender snout and framed intelligent green eyes. Triangular ears flicked back and forth on top of their canine head. Very few human features were recognizable from just the fox shaped face, except maybe a shorter snout and a bigger cranium.
Next came the body. Like the head, it was almost entirely vulpine. Slender and covered in vibrant orange-red hair except for the swathes of black covering the legs like socks. They wore a baggy, green t-shirt and black athletic shorts that weren’t as torn and tattered as most hybrid clothing. Were hybrids stealing clothes now?
I suppose that makes sense, Natalie thought. Not everyone is going to want to sneak about in the same clothes for a week. I sure don’t.
The hybrid was still walking on all fours as they approached, but Natalie saw that their front paws had longer, flexible joints like fingers. It was their back paws that were shaped more like a what a normal fox would have.
Last to emerge from the foliage was their tail. Big and fluffy, Natalie got an immediate urge wanted to pet it. She wanted to know if it was as soft as it looked. Ever since she was little, she had thought foxes were cute, and their tails were a big part of that. She had to do a double take when she saw the little bald spot on the end of the tail though. Her blood boiled at the thought of someone tearing out this poor hybrid’s hair. Then the bald spot flashed a weak, yellow-green light.
Natalie blinked and looked again. Sure enough, there it was again. A flicker of chartreuse light like a neon sign. They could illuminate the tip of their tail like a firefly.
Oh, that’s cool! I really hope I don’t have to fight this one.
The fox hybrid crept forward until they were fully out of the bush, but still about a yard from Natalie. Then they stood, balancing on their hind legs with ease.
“H-hi, Natalie,” the hybrid said.
Natalie’s jaw dropped. She knew that voice!
Her best friend nodded. Her posture was hunched and timid, but that smile was bright as ever. “Surprise.”