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Two-Headed Dragon 1:

The Other Way

They had been moving over the scrub, avoiding the roads, but it was best if the actual approach to town was by road, so they were cutting back to the main trade route. Kavya was doing the walking — it felt good, but she had a feeling she was digging herself deeper into debt, and didn't think she'd like Arushi calling that debt in.

Arushi did not, apparently, feel any compunction about taking over their eyes any time she wanted to see something. "Hm, that road's bigger, I think. In 3523 they were still rebuilding from the Cycle."

Kavya nodded. "That's kind of come and gone. There was a war in the '80s, and we've finished rebuilding from that."

"I've been away quite a while, then. I take it you live in Rauru?"

"Yeah. I… Listen." Kavya turned their body, as if rounding on someone. "I don't know that I can stop you, but I don't want to go around killing and eating everyone I know."

A terrifying moment of silence, and then Arushi giggled. "A parasite that endangers its host endangers its environment. Esho funi. We're all linked." She intertwined their fingers. "Besides, did you notice we're not hungry?"

It was a bit after noon, Kavya's last meal was lunch… yesterday. "…Not until you mentioned it, no."

"The way you killed that werewolf sealed the blood in." She sniffed and resumed walking, in silence until Kavya took over again. "We have about a month to find someone who deserves it, or four or five people who can spare a bit." She grinned. "A ways east of here, the courts were wonderfully decadent in the 3200s; show a little fang, show a little concern for their health, and the ladies and lords would line up to take a ride." She extended and ran her tongue along her fangs — their fangs.

Kavya would have to get used to the idea that her body had fangs now, as well as the weird sensation when extending them. This time, she stumbled.

"Sorry, m'dear. I was wondering if I still had them, I don't seem to have much of a tail this time." She tucked their thumb into the back of Kavya's — their? — shorts, and wiggled that human vestigial tail. "Not that it was useful."

After a moment, Kavya saw movement out of the corner of her eye and tried to glance at it — Arushi was faster, but looked at the same thing. It was a sand lizard, nine or ten feet from nose to tail, but it was just scratching and sunning.

"I'm fully Kavya Aditi Hazarika, by the way."

"Arushi Kasutovala."

"What's your usual, er, plan?"

"Well usually, I head to one of the nearby cities — wherever the culture is — and start a new life, shifted into an approximation of my original form." She shrugged. "You already have a life, so we'll presumably integrate my techniques into it?"

Kavya sighed. "And you're sharing with me out of the kindness of your heart?"

They walked in silence for a while. Well, Kavya did the walking.

"You see me as a monster on one hand, and a person on the other. I suspect you should also consider me with the hands reversed."

"…You're sharing with me out of the monstrosity of your heart?"

"Yes."

Kavya considered that this might be a distraction of some sort, but decided that was probably too paranoid. "I don't get it."

Arushi sighed, long and calming. "While I prefer to feed from the willing, I am fundamentally a predator. A stealthy predator, like a jaguar. But I stalk intelligent prey; there are a handful of species I can feed from, all of them name-givers. Thus I must be excellent in all parts of my approach. What's the one thing such a predator would need most, and need best?"

Kavya raised an eyebrow at the resulting image. "…Camouflage?"

"Exactly. And a jaguar's spots, while effective enough against intelligent prey, are less excellent camouflage…" With a flourish, she placed their right index finger on their nose. "…than being one of its prey."

"…So letting me live my life provides the perfect camouflage to strike from, and as an adventurer," she placed her left hand on the hilt of her sword, "I can even strike without breaking camouflage."

"Yup!" She waited for Kavya to loosen the arm before hugging herself, bunching up the blouse. "I have a certain fondness for luxuries, but in that our goals are roughly aligned. I am a dancer, rather than a warrior, but the disciplines are close enough you'd be fine with a little moonlighting if it brought in some good money, no?"

"Uh. Yeah. I was actually between quests…"

"Is Mido still the bustling metropolis it was? I do leave myself resources, a place to stay would be easy, and I can probably find some urban quests. Well, not right now, of course. Let's get you settled back in to your regular life this way, no?"

Kavya nodded numbly.

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, m'dear."

*	*	*

As they got onto the road a cluster of people, coming the opposite way, were getting a bit close. They both took that as a cue to keep silent. Kavya kept to the left, by custom despite her handedness.

One was clearly not human; large and covered in shaggy red fur. As they got closer Kavya was sure he was one of the feline taurs from the west. The other three were human, or at least appeared so. Behind them, a donkey pulled a small cart full of bundles.

Kavya hailed them, and exchanged small talk. Neither group had news.

At the town walls, Farhana and Kanchon were on guard. Kavya and Kanchon merely exchanged nods, but Farhana told her "Hey, your mom was looking for you this morning.".

Kavya ducked her head. "Yeah, I… I better go." She waved and hustled through the gate. With nothing pressing, she'd often hang out at the gate, because people left quests there — paying less than the people who boarded quests properly, but with no competition. Today, of course, she had other things to do.

*	*	*

Kavya's home was one of the lower-class mud-brick affairs, with a gap under the overhang for ventilation, but not connected to the floor above.

And at the moment, there were two pale men on the porch, talking to her parents.

One was the surviving thug from earlier, standing at ease, staring blankly into the distance. He wore the same stifling clothes as before, plus a collar, paler than his skin, with a round silver plate at the front.

The other was tall and scrawny, in a golden jacket and long pants, mostly tight but with fabric ridges emphasizing his masculine lines. A curling design was embroidered across the chest of the jacket, in actual gold thread. He was leaning up against the wall, gesticulating as he told some tale, eyes bright and full of danger. His face was as handsome as his build would support, moustache short and bushy, but his beard shaved clean.

Her parents were guarded, her mother in a low stance, her father leaning on his click mace as if it were just a cane and he needed it to stand, but they were nodding along with the story as if nothing were wrong. She could feel her sister and little brother listening from just behind the door.

As Kavya approached, the tall stranger noticed her first. When he paused, her mother turned and called out "Kavya! Are you alright?".

Kavya smiled and nodded, then returned wary attention to the stranger, approaching at a walk. "I'm fine. I was held up by a trio of thugs…" she gestured to the blank-faced one with her right hand, "including him."

The tall stranger bowed his head apologetically, but the expression came out more like apologizing that he was about to eat her. "Don't worry about him any more. So you are the one who… no longer has the Amulet?"

Kavya stood with her hands on her hips, which kept her left near her sword. "I bought it as a gift, for fifty ratna. I then gave it, of course."

He tossed her something bright, and she caught it by reflex. A silver ratna… solid silver, as she hefted it. Worth a hundred. "Be a dear and get it back, would you?"

"It's a day's travel each way —"

"Time, oh, that will do. Two days, then? I'll wait right here." He put one arm over the shoulders of her father, who practically recoiled. "Well, here in this town, at least." He glanced to her parents in turn, somehow jovial and dangerous at once, the spider inviting the fly to dinner. "I'm sure you missed lunch, get the children, wash up. My treat."

Kavya looked back and forth between her parents. This new guy's negotiations were… adequate, but still quite hostile. Why were they freely antagonizing everyone? As the saying goes, crow is expensive. "Yeah, two days."

"…Do you need food for the road, honey?"

"Nah, I'll just hunt something, Mom." Kavya patted her sword pommel. That might've been meant as an opportunity for distraction, but at least for now, Kavya was going to play along.

*	*	*

Kavya had accepted her backpack, at her father's insistence. While it was late in the day, Mido was a big city; she could arrive near midnight without issue.

Arushi hadn't done anything since they'd hit the road, but on the road out, she spoke. "What was that light-skinned man?"

Kavya shrugged. "In the northwest, they tend to be light-skinned. Beyond that, he might just be a slimy human."

Arushi shook their head. "He didn't smell human."

"I didn't smell anything out-of-place…"

"Hm. It's possible the… suffusion is actually incomplete."

"The what?"

"The part where I filter throughout your body, get into everything. I think I'm in everything, but it's possible there's more to it, and it just isn't a problem when the body is dead."

At a stinging in her nose, Kavya reached up to rub it. "Ow. Is that you?"

"Yes, sorry… doesn't seem to be a matter of completion, though." The pain subsided. "This is weird, like learning to do this the first time. Which it is, I guess. The initial… suffusion took five tries, each of which was quite painful."

"Is that what that was?"

"You were only conscious for the first one, but yes. Like your skin was on fire." Arushi shivered, throwing off their balance for a few steps. "Sorry."

"S'OK. If you do that in combat, it might be a problem, but we're both new to this."

Arushi nodded and yawned.

"…That was different. You're tired and I'm not?"

"Being dead is tiring, I'm usually much less active than this on my first day in a new body, and it's day. Here, sit on that rock for a sec." Arushi gestured with their right hand.

Kavya did so, feeling a bit silly waiting on a rock by the side of the road.

After a moment, there was a tinkling noise and blue sparkles swirled up from her toes, along her body, a refreshing tingle following them, coming to an end with a fluff of her cropped hair. "There. I use that to deal with physical fatigue when I have to, it might be enough for both of us. You go on, I'm going to catch some sleep, see if we can alternate schedules."

Kavya resumed walking, bothered by Arushi's presumption of plan, but not willing to give up more control over her own body in exchange. "I don't know if that's a good idea, may be noticeably unnatural…"

"Eh, I'll use my own appearance and names if I go out. In the long term, we'll work something out." Arushi started to yawn again, then managed to disentangle the reflex from their body. "Oh good, that works. Well, off to sleep…"

"Sweet dreams."

*	*	*

By sunset, Kavya had driven off a pack of quickclaws, a swoop, and two sand lizards. A herd of wooly roughcaps had crossed the road ahead of her, presumably migrating, ignoring her.