A Slither of Hope

Jan 22 · 17 min read
“Akamas” by Sergey Kochkarev

Slowly crossing the big room in the cave where she had been living for far too long already Hebi took a careful look around again. She knew exactly what little possessions were scattered through the small room carved from stone inside the mountain where they had to hide at first. Two chairs, barely recognizable anymore after not being used for so long, the wood left to rot away just because she couldn’t bring herself to throw it away. The table at which they had been sitting every night talking about the future over a dry loaf of bread and a handful of apples. The mirror, their only possession worth anything, which they had loved to look at together to see their happy facing staring back at them. And the bed that had barely been big enough for the two of them snuggling.

Even after all this time she hadn’t changed the interior of this specific room. Everything was still the same as on the day that sorcerer decided to ruin their peaceful life together.

Of course, there was one addition to the things in this room that hadn’t been there on that morning. One thing that still sent shivers down her spine every time she forced herself to look at it. The thing that made her shed a tear even after all these years.

It was a statue. At least that is what it would have looked like to anyone but her. A grotesque statue depicting a young woman cowering in fear in the far corner of the room with an expression that was equal parts surprise and disgust. It still showed the moment when Aia had to see Hebi after that sorcerer had transformed her into the monstrosity that she now was. The decades had not softened Aia’s expression in any way. Hebi turned around and started focusing on what happened after she had transformed her lover into this grotesque stone statue.

— — — — —

She could only hear the laughing sorcerer standing in the entrance to the little room after what felt like an eternity of weeping. It made her blood boil. She tried to get him to transform Aia back. To transform herself back. To explain why he would ruin their happy little life. They had already secluded themselves from the nearby village after the villagers expressed their unwillingness to house two women loving each other.

“It’s funny, isn’t it? Turning you into such a monstrosity and making you kill your little heretic lover. I love days like these!”

He sounded as if it was the obvious thing to do to have some fun on a boring day. It was like someone talking about a game. His disgusting voice etched itself into her memory like acid burning through skin and bones, seeping into her brain. Hebi thought she would faint. It seemed impossible to breath being confronted with the situation. The malice in his voice, the pain from the transformation and seeing Aia like that.

Hebi forced herself to take a deep breath and relax her shoulders. The sorcerer obviously was very powerful. But like all powerful people he was also far too sure that his power was enough to deter anyone from harming him. He had never encountered a woman who had nothing to lose anymore.

“What shall I do with your ugly face now, lowly lizard monster, eh?”

Laughing he slowly came closer. The sorcerer continued to say something about selling her skin, chopping up her tail for soup and displaying her head on shows throughout the lands after shaving all the little snakes off. Hebi knew exactly how close he was. She knew that he let his guard down after seeing her weep for Aia on the floor and being ridiculed by him afterwards without fighting back. He did not expect anything to happen to him.

Her body was different. It felt weird to have a tail instead of legs. The snakes that were attached to her head instead of hair felt like worms crawling over her scalp. Her vision was a lot better than before, which only made it all the more traumatic to see all the details on Aia’s face. All these changes wouldn’t help her when trying to fight the sorcerer. All her life she had been a fighter, but now there were no weapons nearby. The sorcerer had destroyed her sword when she had charged at him after he entered their home and announced loud and clear that he would kill both of them. After that he started chanting. Hebi had tried to attack him with her bare hands, but an invisible shield made it impossible to land a blow. After a few seconds of his chanting the transformation had started. It was brutal.

At first she lost the feeling in her legs, which then started to fall off, only to be replaced by a long snake tail. It was a miracle that she had not died from blood loss. Her hair was falling out at the same time and instead the little snakes had buried through her skin as if they had been lying in wait for all her life to come out. Her whole body was burning. Especially her eyes.

But there were some changes that would be helpful now. The nails on Hebi’s finger had transformed into long claws, two of her teeth had become much longer and she could taste the venom dripping into her mouth, tasting like sour milk.

“It’s sad that I can’t turn you back for an hour or two to have some fun with your human body before I start rippi — -”

That was her cue.

He was right behind her when he said those words, which meant that she could easily trip him up with her long tail that had been laying limp behind her just a second ago. He obviously had not expected her to gain any control of her new body in such a short time judging by the confused look on his face as she turned around to face him. A little bit of his shield of magical energy was still active as he was not instantly turned into stone like Aia, but she could see the magic now and it was flowing away from other body parts towards his face. Towards his eyes where the magic had to shield the sorcerer from the horrible curse that he himself had placed on Hebi. A second later holes started to appear in the shield and she seized the opportunity to rake her claws across his abdomen as soon as it presented itself. The blood started to pour out and the confused look on the sorcerer’s face turned into fear as he realized that he underestimated his opponent and was now standing next to a magical beast that had every reason and means to kill him and nothing to lose.

He tried to chant a spell to attack her. The magic concentrating in his body was obviously meant to burn her to ash. Even though she had never once in her life seen a magic user before her new body instinctively knew how magic worked. Luckily the holes in the shield became bigger with the sorcerer’s fear growing stronger and his concentration further being channelled towards his magical attack. Hebi quickly pulled him close and buried her teeth deep into his throat, stopping the chanting and injecting her venom into his blood.

The sorcerer screamed in agony and tried desperately to push her away, but instead of letting him go she curled her tail around his lower body to prevent his legs from trashing around, while her hands held his weak arms in place. He could not move and she was injecting more venom with each passing second. All the while the little snakes did not sit idly on her head and decided to bite his face. Hebi could taste the blood from his throat in her own mouth and the blood from his nose, ears and eyes through the mouths of the little snakes.

For a couple seconds the screaming got louder and more desperate. Then he became noticeably weaker with each further moment passing. Soon he stopped moving entirely and the little snakes stopped eating little bits of his face. Hebi let the sorcerer fall to the ground. The body of the man who had just destroyed her life lay before her like a ragdoll that was thrown away by an angry child. His face looked as if he had been lying around in the streets for a few days and the rats had started to take an interest in him. Then she noticed the blood.

The blood was everywhere. The ground, the dead body and her own body, too, where covered in blood. She didn’t know that a single human could hold so much blood. Hebi started to feel dizzy and passed out on the floor, on top of the dead sorcerer and laying next to the statue that had been Aia this morning.

— — — — —

The memory was horrible. She still endured it as she did each time she needed strength to fight off someone who had decided to kill the monster living in the mountain. “Adventurers” they call themselves They go around killing everything in sight and thinking they are the heroes of the world that could never be wrong. Hebi had learned that the sorcerer had also called himself an “Adventurer”. It was a swordsman looking for his “Party Member” that had strayed from the planned path. When he appeared she hid in a dark corner. As her voice was still the same he didn’t suspect anything at first. He started to explore the cave while they were talking and told her his name and that he was a “Paladin” of some righteous god. The sorcerer he was looking for apparently was a “High Mage” serving the same god.

After some time he came across the little room painted with blood and adorned not only with the statue of Aia, but also with the destroyed body of the sorcerer. There was no way to get him to listen afterwards and it had been the same with every adventurer afterwards. Everyone told her how righteous they were, but no matter how the conversation had been going, the moment she revealed herself they all attacked her without a second thought. Mindless puppets dancing to the same inaudible tune all the time.

The ones coming this time would be same again. They were always the same.

Concentrating on the rage helped Hebi maintain her strength when she needed to fight. And she would continue to fight as long as Aia was still there. The chances were incredibly slim, but some adventurers talked before charging headfirst into battle as long as they did not see Hebi and they always had maps or sheets of paper with information from villages and towns throughout the country. She learned a lot through what these “Adventurers” would probably call “Loot”. It further enraged her that these monsters had managed to turn her into a puppet not unlike themselves, always fighting and killing everyone who entered her cave. All her life she had wanted to be herself and go her own way instead of following what others thought would be the way for her to go. Living in this cave together with Aia had been the only time she truly felt like she was in control of her life.

On her way out to the mirror room she petted Beth on the head. Beth was Hebi’s first and favourite pet Basilisk. Most creatures die when they look into Hebi’s eyes, but Beth did not. She had been a wolf before, but after looking into Hebi’s eyes Beth started to transform, too, though by far not as brutal as Hebi’s transformation had been. Beth had started to cough and her fur started to get thicker. The transformation took a whole night and in the end Beth looked the same as before from afar. From up close though you could see that her fur was not silky and dark brown as it had been before. Instead it looked and felt like small strands of black marble. Beth was far heavier than a bear and her teeth were incredibly strong. Strong enough in fact to crush stone, which was necessary for her to eat.

Normal food could not sustain Hebi and Beth anymore. Both of them had to eat stone. And both knew that stone from a humanoid race tasted a lot better than stone from the mountain. That made it difficult to keep Beth away from Aia at first, but Hebi soon managed to train Beth. After all Hebi was the only creature that could completely turn other creatures into stone in a matter of seconds. Beth could only very slowly turn others to stone. A look from Beth would only start a slow transformation that was only complete over the course of a couple days while a bite would turn the limbs into stone that had been bitten after a couple minutes. Hebi was a lot faster and more efficient if she needed to be and her venom could dissolve stone, which meant that occasionally Beth would get a soup made from dwarves that had been turned to stone. Beth loved dwarf stone soup. Hebi on the other hand always had trouble eating creatures that had been turned to stone. She preferred to eat stones from the mountain instead, even if it was not as tasty as stone from a creature. The knowledge that she had killed someone and was eating had kept her awake for more than just a couple nights throughout the years.

Beth was able to reproduce with normal wolves, though it was difficult and rare because she needed to complete the act before the important parts of the unfortunate male wolf turned completely to stone. So far Hebi was the alpha leader of a pack of five smaller Basilisks and Beth, who was larger than her sons and daughters. It seemed like they only grew very slowly, which aligned with Hebi completely stopping to age and Beth only aging very slowly. The curse kept her alive and the further from the original curse a creature was the weaker the effects were, which included this immortality that had been forced on her. Judging by what she had seen so far Hebi guessed that Beth would still be around for at least two or three centuries. It was nice to know that there were still living creatures depending on her and at the same time looking out for her. Creatures that she could share a meal with and that loved her despite her not being like others. The main reason for her to continue living remained Aia though. After all she had turned a wolf into a Basilisk at some point. If she continued maybe she could find a way to reverse the transformation. There was still a lot she did not know about her curse.

None of the “Adventurers” had something useful to say about lifting such a curse so far. The thought of giving up on living had crossed Hebi’s mind quite often in the past. A couple times she had also tried to end her life. Right after she awoke again, bathed in blood, she had looked into the mirror in her room. Somehow she had a feeling that she would get turned into stone, too, which made for a macabre way of being together with Aia in her mind at that time. But she could only see her deformed face and look at all the changes that had happened. Hebi had to throw up when she saw herself in that mirror and preferred not to look into this particular mirror when possible.

Another time she bit into her own hand to see how the venom would work on herself. The end result was that it hurt a lot, like holding your hand over a flame, and she had passed out, only to awake with a headache as if she had been drinking far too much alcohol.

The third time was when she provoked Beth into biting her. It had a similar result to the previous experiment, though she did not quite pass out and the headache was not so bad. The bite mark was like a rash though that still lingered around for a couple weeks. The curse seemed to not only get weaker if it was transferred to other creatures. Apparently it also slightly changed how it worked, which was another thing Hebi was thinking about when it came to ways to turn Aia back into how she was supposed to be.

“Adventurers” on the other hand were no option for her to lose her life. She would kill everyone who dared to enter her home, threaten Aia and her pack and have the audacity to call themselves righteous just because they had been lucky not to be turned into a monster by a crazy sorcerer running around and destroying people’s life to get through a boring day.

Hebi arrived at the mirror room. She was not the only one who though that a mirror would kill her. It did not have any effect on either herself nor on the Basilisks. This meant that she could collect all the different mirrors from adventurers invading her home and use them as a way to turn the invaders into a meal for her pack from a distance. There were hundreds of mirrors scattered throughout the room. The ceiling and walls were mostly covered and many big mirrors hung on strings from the ceiling or stood on small stone pedestals. It was a small labyrinth of mirrors, many of which changed the direction they were facing due to a steady stream of air flowing through the cave. In the last couple years no “Party” had managed to get through the mirror room.

Hebi whistled to command her Basilisks to take up their assigned position. The transformation altered the wolves ability to understand commands and their loyalty towards other races. Or maybe Hebi and the Basilisks were just similar enough to nearly being able to speak with each other. In any case, the Basilisks knew their role and position and hid behind mirrors at certain positions, waiting patiently for any Adventurers to pass by them. Then the Basiliks could bite them, hide behind the mirrors again and wait for the other pack members to attack. Opening their eyes was a death sentence for any Adventurer that was not magically adept and sufficiently prepared, which meant that it was normally enough to distract them a bit and force their eyes towards one of the mirrors in which they could see Hebi.

One of the Basilisks listened for a moment and then signalled that four creatures were coming towards the room. A standard size for an “Adventuring Party”. It was rare that some dared to enter with less people. Most of the time they called themselves “Villains” instead in such a case and tried to persuade Hebi to join their cause. They were not much different from “Adventurers” though and would attack the moment they realized that Hebi would not leave her cave to fight some kind of war as a minion for some “Dark Lord”.

“Come out ‘ere ya dirty little monster scumbag! We gunna kill ya dead, I swear by da great warriors!”

It was always the job of the “Berserker” to start the conversation. Next up would be one of the magically adept “Classes” as they liked to call it.

“Pssht Tog! You can’t scream and announce us in every dungeon!”

That was him. And another voice reached Hebi. Probably the one responsible for the healing. They were always timid and afraid for some reason. It had always struck Hebi as odd that people like that would be part of an “Adventuring Party”, running around, plundering and killing all the time while proclaiming that they had some noble quest to cleanse the world.

“Please be quiet! Maybe it can hear us! Maybe it can even understand us! It’s dangerous here, I can feel it. We should turn around and go away. This is not good. Really bad. Please~!”

Poor girl, Hebi thought to herself. Maybe she is bright enough to stay behind and run away once the rest starts turning into stone.

“We should sneak around the room to get her.”

Another keyword. “Rogues” would always try to “sneak”. The repetitiveness in the battle tactics of “Adventuring Partys” was unbearable. One would think that people whose only job and vocation was fighting would be able to learn from their predecessors at some point, but they repeated the same mistakes endlessly. At least “Villains” would try to fight differently each once they realized that they had to fight. A lot more variety. Though maybe that is just because they are rarer and only call themselves “Villains”. It might very well be possible that “Villains” also had “Classes”, but so far they had been too rare and focused on their final goal to make more detailed observations.

Let’s wait for the “Mage” or the “Priest” to get out the mirror and then I should get this over with. They won’t know anything useful for me. It’s been some time since I have seen such an average party. I bet the townsfolk told these poor souls that a mirror on a shield would be the only weapon capable of killing me again. Those people don’t care if they send others to their certain death. They just hope that I won’t come out when I have enough food. They haven’t changed a bit.

“Okay guys, let’s be cautious and go through there. Everyone is ready. Slowly advance while you look to the ground and listen for any signs of enemies.”

Hebi frowned. That’s weird… No mirror? And the shy “Priest” just ordered everyone to go. Something’s not right here…

The “Adventuring Party” started through the mirror labyrinth, but as expected the “Berserker” ignored everything that had been said and planned beforehand and instead tried to rush through the room with a loud war cry. As if that little bit of noise could stop the magic that would turn him into stone. Hebi quickly glanced into one of the mirrors and her image appeared everywhere in the room. A surprised sound escaped from the Berserker before he quickly turned to stone. The others did not stop though and continued on their way towards Hebi. All of them, except for the “Priest”. Apparently the whole “Party” had expected this to happen. The “Mage” and the “Rogue” started to split up and go through the room while the “Priest” ignored the mirrors and slowly walked towards the Berserker. She was not fazed the least bit by Hebi’s face staring at her from everywhere around her.

The Basilisks knew that this was the perfect moment. The “Party” had split up and the “Priest” was concentrating on the one that was already turned to stone. The youngest one attacked the “Rogue” and the oldest one jumped growling towards the “Mage” to startle him. Everything was going according to plan.

Then Hebi realized what had happened. She had been too sure that her plan was would not fail. She did not even consider the possibility that something could go wrong. Again she had been turned more into what she hated. An arrogant monster killing everyone without realizing that those were people standing in front of her. People who could plan ahead to survive a day longer in this harsh world. Hebi screamed for her pack to fall back, but it was too late to stop them.

The youngest Basilisk ignored the dagger that the “Rogue” had in his hand, which turned out to be a magical weapon being able to easily pierce through stone. Hebi realized that she had never seen Basilisk blood before. At the same time the oldest Basilisk remembered why it was a bad idea to jump at a magically adept creature without being sure that there was a hole in their defense that one could use to quickly end the fight. Sharp stone spikes sprouted from the ground trapping the Basilisk. His stone fur had saved him from certain death that would normally be the result of such a spell, but the “Mage” cast a new spell that turned compressed everything around the Basilisk until it completely shattered. Hebi’s scream grew louder as she realized that she was losing her only family. There was nothing she could do for the oldest anymore and the youngest needed help fast. Help that she had never had to give in such a form before, which meant that she needed time and luck even if she had the chance to start the treatment right now.

Then the “Priest” pointed her fingers at the “Berserker” and said a single word. Light engulfed the statue of the “Berserker” making it hard to see what was going on. The Basilisks lost their temper and ran towards the enemies closest to their position. Hebi tried to shout a warning again, but she could not stop watching the statue of the “Berserker”. The status that suddenly started to move again.

Hebi watched, here eyes widening, as the “Berserker” came back to life. Inside her chest she could feel a heavy weight falling off her heart as she realized that the day had really come. All this time she had waited to find a way to turn Aia back and now that way came to her directly. Tears welled up in her eyes as she tried to sort her thought and form some words that would make the “Priest” help her and the make the “Party” stop hurting her family.

The “Priest”… can turn the stone statues into creatures again…

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