Fantastic Tales – Ch 6: “Faster Than The Serpent’s Teeth!”

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as narrated by Elizabeth “Ghost Step” Higgins

   Age is supposed to impart wisdom. If that were true I wouldn’t be perched atop a statue of the bird-god Garuda, waiting in a deserted museum to safeguard a collection of rare Cambodian relics. If I had developed any wisdom whatsoever in my fifty two years, I would be home, enjoying a nice hot chocolate and the stack of paperbacks that was threatening to collapse and bury my bed.

    If I did that though I would have to come into work again in the morning to discover that another one of our relics had been substituted overnight with another fake. For a woman of my age who was trying to get back into the workforce on the strength of a Museum Studies degree that was a few decades out of date it was generally a bad idea to be associated with anything as serious as a breach of security that caused the loss of not one, not two, but three priceless relics. So I sat on top of the statue and tried to think the most heroic thoughts that I could.

    Looking down at the remaining relics was a bit nerve wracking though. Each night so far a cloud of smoke had mysteriously appeared in the  exhibit hall despite the doors being locked and the security systems fully engaged. The smoke dissipated over the course of a few minutes and from the surveillance footage it looked like nothing had been changed. It wasn’t until we reviewed the collection in fine detail that we noticed the substitution of a fake relic for one of the real ones. A different relic each night, and not the most valuable relics at that.

    We’d been scheduled to have one of the Champions of Olympus standing guard to prevent a fourth theft, but with two of their members captured and still missing, our problem was demoted to being handled by the regular police.

    I’d met the officers that would be standing guard all night. The two of them seemed professional and competent but I’d overheard them talking in the break room. Neither expected to be able to stop the robberies and with a possible supernatural element involved they were convinced that the job would wind up being handed by one of the city’s mystical heroes anyways.

    I wasn’t a mystical hero, or even much of a hero at all. Technically I suppose I qualified as a mutant. Where most mutants developed their powers with the onset of puberty, I’d turned out to be a bit of a “late bloomer” when mine developed with the onset of menopause. It was like my body decided that if I wasn’t going to have kids anymore, it would be fine to risk getting shot up by super villains. Age and wisdom had kept me from acting on that crazy idea previously though.

    I’d never been one for violence and putting on a brightly colored costume was simply not on the table. I was more of a “fall” than a “summer” when it came to fashion anyways.

    If I was wise enough to not dress up like a hero though, I apparently wasn’t wise enough to avoid acting like one, which is how I managed to find myself atop Garuda’s head laying quietly as a church mouse.

    My plan, for as much as I had a plan, was simple. The moment the smoke showed up I was going to teleport to the floor, whirl around wildly and, when I hit someone or something, teleport him, her or it straight into the Powers holding cell at the nearest police station.

    It wasn’t the work of a brilliant mastermind, but the plan leveraged my ability to strike from surprise and I was pretty sure I could remember all three steps of it even when (not if) something went wrong.

    As time passed I began to wonder if the thief had gotten what they were looking with the third relic? I couldn’t afford to fall asleep but if the thief broke his pattern, or had given up, and I had to stay awake all night waiting for him I knew I would be useless at work the next day. I can’t pull all nighters the way I could thirty years ago.

    I was thinking of sick day excuses and deciding which would be acceptable coming from someone with my lack of tenure when the excitement started.

    Just like I’d seen on the security camera recordings, smoke began to billow up, covering everything in the room in less than two seconds. I knew other teleporters would have had problems with that. It seemed to be a common limitation that a teleporter needed to see where they were going for their power to trigger. The usual explanation was that it kept them safe and prevented accidents like teleporting into a wall.

    My power wasn’t limited like that though. I don’t know if I was luckier because I “blossomed” later or if I just teleported differently from the way other heroes did. In my case I didn’t need to worry about teleporting into a wall because I had a “sixth sense” that went along with my teleportation power. It let me “feel” my environment, both where I was standing and anywhere that I thought to try teleporting. The sense was sometimes a little fuzzy if I didn’t have a good handle on where I was thinking of going and in those cases I was careful and didn’t try teleporting at all.

    When the smoke appeared, I closed my eyes and reached out with my spatial sense. I’d assumed it would be enough to show me where the thief was. That was the first thing that went wrong with my plan.

    The smoke only lasted a short time so I’d assumed that the Thief would appear the moment it did. According to my spatial sense though, I was still alone in the room. On the chance that my metahuman sense was being deceived, I listened as hard as I could. All I could hear was the thunderous pounding of my heart though. Otherwise the room was silent.

    Right up until the moment when someone spoke that is.

    “You have to be the right one!” I heard a slightly sibilant voice whisper. At first I thought they were talking to me but then I caught the barest “glimpse” of them with my spatial awareness power. They felt human-ish and they were holding one of the relics, a three inch long serpent’s tooth that was carved with intricate images of warfare.

    The time for action was here at last. After waiting for hours, and crabbing about waiting for almost as long, it was time for me to leap down there and “catch the bad guy”. For some reason though I stayed on the top of the statue. Well, it wasn’t a mystery. I was scared. Scared stiff. There was a real bad guy below me. Someone who stole things and I thought I was going to be able to do something about him.

    Rationally I knew that it would take me less than a second to send him to the police station. All I had to do was touch him. The chance that he would even notice me, much less have time to hurt me, was tiny, almost zero.

    A weaker, or perhaps wiser, part of my mind pointed out that “almost zero” is very much not the same as “actually zero”. It might seem like a safe gamble but if I lost it, I was risking losing everything and that made it a hard risk to take.

    Hard but not impossible. I’m not that courageous, so instead I pitted my fears against each other. On the one hand was the fear that the thief might hurt or kill me, on the other was the fear that I would be fired for being a terrible caretaker for the pieces. They wouldn’t just fire me either, they would tell absolutely everyone what a failure I was. It wasn’t a reasonable fear, but that didn’t stop it from being a powerful one. I teleported to the ground right beside the thief and thrust my hands forward to banish him to the police cell.

    That was my second mistake.

    I’d assumed that a quick hit-and-run teleport was a foolproof strategy. To my credit, fool that I was, I did manage to execute the plan with more speed than I’d even imagined I might be able to. The problem I hadn’t counted on was how fast the thief could be. For some reason I’d been thinking of him as a normal human being, completely failing to consider that if he could appear from nowhere in a locked room and generate a huge cloud of smoke he might just possibly have other powers as well.

    I threw my hands forward in the direction I sensed his presence but he swirled out of the way of my touch like he was made of wind. I tried to follow him with my spatial sense, but it was difficult, probably because he really was made of wind.

    The relic that he was focused on stealing wasn’t made of wind (although it was starting to get a bit ‘blurry’ for lack of a better term). As he flew away it dropped from his nearly insubstantial grasp and into my outstretched hands. If he didn’t want to hurt me for trying to ambush him, I suspected he’d be willing to in order to get the object of his breaking and entering back.

    So I teleported away.

    It wasn’t a very heroic thing to do, but I was scared and it seemed sensible. What wasn’t at all sensible was what came next.

    “Please! Wait!” the thief yelled.

    I had teleported to the top of the Garuda statue, so I could still hear him. I was tempted to teleport to the police station myself, or maybe the Moon, but instead I paused to hear what he had to say.

    “Please! Don’t go! I need that relic for my children!” the thief said.

    I was scared but not so much that I couldn’t hear the pain in his voice. It could have been an act but if so he was a damn good actor.

    “What do you mean?” I called back from the top of the statue. He was far enough from me that I should have felt safe but I’d seen how quickly he could move, so I braced myself in case his flew up at me.

    Instead, as the smoke cleared away, I felt him assume a more solid form. When I’d said it felt like he was “human-ish” I’d been right. From the waist up he had the general proportions of a man. Two arms, one head, a slim but well muscled chest. It was from the waist down that things got interesting. Instead of legs he had a tail. A long serpent’s tale.

    He was looking up at me, echo-locating where I was from the sound of my voice, but then I saw his shoulders slump.

    “Don’t scream. I’m not a monster.” he said.

    “What do you mean?” I repeated. Between being scared and confused I couldn’t think of a better question to ask.

    “My name is Doctor George Ross. I know it doesn’t look like it but I was once as human as you. Umm, you are human aren’t you?” he asked.

    “I am.” I said and then thought to ask “Why were you stealing the Dagger of the Blue Naga?”

    “The Dagger? Oh you mean the tooth! I wasn’t stealing it. I was just…borrowing it.” he weaseled in the same way a young boy with his hand in a cookie jar might.

    “Like you borrowed the other relics?” I asked.

    “Yes. No.” he shook his head. “Ok, yes, I’m the one who took the other relics that went missing, but no, I haven’t stolen those either. They’ll all be returned. You weren’t even supposed to notice that they were missing!”

    “The fakes were very clever, but I had a terribly evil instructor for Materials Processing 304 in college, so spotting them wasn’t that hard.” I said, remembering the love/hate relationship I’d had with that class decades previously. Good old Professor Craig, may his tyrannical soul rot in the tenured hell of his choosing.

    “You have to believe me, I didn’t want to attract any attention to this, and I was going to bring all the relics back!” Doctor Ross, the snake man, said.

    “What did you need them so bad for?” I asked, believing him despite myself.

    “I need them to save a group of people that I love. Please they’re dying even now. I don’t have much time!”

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