Kate looked at the archway forming the entry to the tomb. The sandstone had worn smooth with time, but the relief was still easy enough to make out. The right side was made out of a long line of people, armored and armed, marching to a doorway. The left side depicted beasts of all kinds coming out of the doorway, fighting each other in a scene so chaotic, Kate had trouble figuring out where one beast ended and the other began. She didn’t have trouble with the beast at the end of the gruesome procession, though. It reminded her of a hydra, only it had multiple animal heads of different kinds.
“I see a lion there,” Curran said, pointing at the left side of the archway a little below eye-level. “I’ll feel right at home.”
“You would, but that’s not a lion,” Kate said.
Curran crossed his arms. “Kate, I know you’re the expert, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize a lion when I see one. It’s a lion.”
“Almost right, Your Huffiness,” Kate said. “It’s a lion’s head. A severed head."
“Ah,” Curran said, looking at the archway a little closer.
“Yup,” Kate said, popping the p.
“That means you’ll feel right at home,” Curran said, grinning at her.
Kate felt the usual flash of surprise at the warm feeling flooding her insides. It was nice to be loved simply as she was, and she still hadn’t gotten used to it. All the magic in the world, and the biggest miracle to her was that Curran still hadn’t made a run for it.
“What does it say on top?” Curran asked.
Kate read the Sumerian cuneiform again. Despite her fervent finger crossing, the meaning hadn’t changed. Just her luck. “It’s hard to translate, but it comes down to ‘Face the beast within to face the beast guarding the treasure of Hanpa.’”
“Ah. Any chance this Hanpa is a kind and benevolent being?” Curran asked.
Kate snorted. “He’s the Sumerian god of evil. Not a lot is known about him, except that he’s evil. The evilest of evil.” Unfortunately, the young man they were hired to rescue apparently hadn’t heeded the warning and had continued on his quest for treasure. If only people had some basic common sense, Kate’s life would be so much easier.
“Ready to slay some beasts, ass-kicker?”
Kate took her sword from it’s sheath, and waved at the archway. “After you, Your Majesty.”
Kate stepped through the magic.
The pain was excruciating. She’d had pain before, had fought through pain before, had fainted from pain before… All that pain had been sweet nothings compared to the pain that had taken over her body now. It pulled on her muscles, her joints, her bones. Every nerve in her body felt like it was being pulled out of her body.
She no longer had a body. No longer had a mind, a sense of self.
There was only pain.
She smelled the lion first. She had no idea how she knew what lions smelled like, but she recognized the scent anyway. She was burning with the desire to kill things, but it smelled like home, so, for now, she’d let it live. Her feet clicked when she turned, following her nose. She belatedly remembered she had eyes, but when she opened them, it was there.
She cocked her head. She was looking at a monster. A white, sabre-toothed lion with a heavy mane. It dwarfed her, its shoulders reaching far over her shoulders. Reaching higher than her tail.
Did she usually have a tail? It rose above her head, black and glossy, the sting looking satisfyingly pointy and sharp. She clicked her shears in pleasure.
The lion made some noise, so she looked at it again. It’s head morphed into something not quite lionesque, and suddenly she found she could understand it. “I like the new look,” it said. It pointed at her with it’s claw. She looked down, and found that she was bare-breasted, soft skin under her breasts turning into chitin-plates. Between her shears, she saw a sword lying on the dusty floor.
The sword made out of the bones of her grandmother.
When she looked up at Curran again, he was definitely throwing her the lion equivalent of a grin. “Poisonous and lethal,” he said. “Your true nature indeed.”
Kate swung her tail at him in reflex. She wouldn’t be able to use her sword without hands, but this body felt natural to her the same way the sword was an extension of herself. She’d fight with tail and claw instead. She’d enjoy it.
“We can’t kill any of the beasts we encounter,” Kate said. “They’re just people suffering from the curse.”
Curran nodded. “We kill the guardian, and get everyone else out.”
It was a simple plan, but those were often the best. Kate followed Curran into the darkness of the tomb.
The problem with cursed people was that curses tended to rob them of all common sense. All human sense in this case. Curran and Kate were jumped by various beasts, ranging from simply ferocious dogs and wolves, to snarling bears and tigers. There was even a raging horse, bleeding from its flanks, flesh between its teeth. Kate used her shears to club it down, unconscious. Curran had had to kill the bear in self-defense, though, the body transforming into that of a thirty-something woman, lying broken on the floor. Her arm flopped when Curran gently nudged it. Kate’s bloodlust raged. She’d kill this guardian, even if it killed her.
The guardian was in the next room, she could sense its movement through the vibrations of the floor. It must be massive to make her feel the movement like that. The smell of rot and decay drenched even the hallway. They’d have to be tactical about this.
“You distract the heads,” Kate said. “I’ll do the rest.” She ran inside, eight feet soundless on the sand.
The guardian was even larger than she'd imagined it, its six heads immediately focusing on her. She recognized a cat, a boar, a snake, some kind of wolf, something hawk-like, and a bull. All red-eyed, all baring their teeth at her. The moment the snakehead dove to bite at her, Kate ducked and Curran jumped and soared above her. He managed to land on top of one of the necks, grappling and clawing away.
Kate moved sideways, avoiding the giant claw that tried to hit her. For her plan to work, she'd have to get behind it, but currently it was still too aware of where she was. The wolf snarled and bit down at her, so she hit it on the side of its head with her shear. She liked clubbing things.
The creature roared, Curran sinking his sabre-teeth into the fat neck of the boar, blood spraying on the golden walls. Curran roared back, the boar head falling limp from his mouth. The remaining heads turned to him, so Kate took her chance.
She ducked down behind it and aimed her shears at the tendons of its hind legs. Its hide was thick, but her shears were sharp, so she managed to cut them eventually. The creature roared again, from three mouths now instead of six. It fell through its right leg first, then the left. Kate wasn't a good jumper in this form, but she still managed to scurry on top of its swaying back, making her way to the base of its necks. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Curran was on the floor, back against the wall, swiping at the snake and hawk heads. The beast couldn't move forward, but it still had Curran trapped in its current location.
Kate sank her tail into the neck of the monster, pumping poison as hard as she could. She stung it again, and again, and again, until the last scream of the beast died out, and it fell down.
Kate fell after it.
The pain was excruciating. She couldn't see, or hear, or think. She was nothing but pain. By the time she could think again, shake it off, whole body tender; she was back to her usual self, sans clothes, but covered in ichor and blood.
Curran, back to his human form as well, climbed on top of the beast, and wrapped her into his arms. His kiss tasted like sweat, blood, and joy.
"The teeth were fun," Curran said. " But I like you better like this after all."
Kate didn't have it in her anymore to elbow him for that. He kissed her again.
"Let's find our missing boy and go home," Curran mumbled against her lips.
Kate kissed him in agreement. Her magic felt like her magic again, her body was back to normal, and they both had survived. Guardian of the god of evil or not, today was a good day.