Rick woke to the familiar dull throb of a major hangover. Shit. Must have been a killer party to feel this bad. Actually, his whole body hurt – not just bumps and bruises, but a deep ache that seemed to radiate from his bones out. So it took a while for him to realize he was chained to a dungeon wall.
The first clue came when he tried to rub his eyes and discovered his arms were shackled behind him. As that realization shocked him fully awake, the rest came into focus. He was leaning against a rough stone wall, with hard-packed dirt underneath. The air was very hot, but dry, with an odd metallic odor that stung his nostrils slightly. Appropriately dim light made it hard to see very far, but everything seemed to bear out his first impression. Chains set in the wall, no windows, and a very solid-looking door with a small barred window. All that was needed to complete the picture was a dangling skeleton and some rats.
For a brief moment, he clung to the desperate hope this was all some sort of very intense dream. Despite the pain and the clarity of sensations, this couldn’t be real. After all, who the Hell would have a dungeon? Then bits of last night’s activities popped into focus, and his gut clenched. Not everyone at the club had been human – a cluster of scaled, dark monstrosities had obviously been getting special attention – were they the hosts or special guests? It didn’t matter. They were Naga – and though he’d never seen one before, Naga were reportedly just the sort to have a dungeon.
“Good evening, Mr. Davis.”
He jumped at the man’s voice, which came from somewhere above. A speaker? “Uh, hello?” Fear tightened his throat so much that his voice cracked, and he had to swallow before he could continue. “What did I do? Whatever it was, I’ll pay for any damages.”
“There are no damages, Mr. Davis. There is no need for distress. Your current situation is temporary, I assure you, and for your own protection.”
“Would you let me go, then?” Rick winced as his head throbbed again, the pain rolling down through his body. How could being chained to a wall protect him? “Please? I have to go to work in the morning. I just want to go home, take some aspirin, and sleep.”
“You work for us now, Mr. Davis. Don’t you remember?”
“What!?” Cringing, Rick instantly regretted the outburst as it exploded in his head. “I mean, there must be some mistake.”
“I certainly hope not, Mr. Davis. You asked to see some of our proprietary processes, secrets of the trade that only our most trusted employees have access to. You were granted your request only after you committed to full-time, exclusive employment with us. We take commitments very seriously. It would be in your best interests to do the same.”
“But…” Rick started to object, then realized that arguing with a Naga was likely to be hazardous to his health. Damn! What had he been shown? There were some odd creatures last night, some even stranger than the serpentine Naga themselves. And mixed in with the confused memories was his hand writing on something. “Uh, what kind of job?”
“A key position in our security force.”
He stared at the ceiling in bewilderment. “Security? I’m a stock clerk! What…” Agony pulsed through his head and flowed white-hot out to fingers and toes. The pain faded quickly, but he couldn’t stop shivering afterwards despite the intense heat of the chamber. “Oh, God. Something is really wrong.”
“You are undergoing indoctrination. As explained clearly to you last night, the position is quite unique. Breaking new ground for us in many ways.”
Indoctrination? What did was he talking about? Rick shook his head. “No, I mean, it hurts! I have a migraine or something. It’s real bad.”
“The discomfort is regrettable, but unavoidable. Actually, you appear to be in far less pain than expected.”
“Expected?” Rick shifted, tight clothing adding to his discomfort. Why was it so hot in here? He shook his head, trying to refocus thoughts. “You didn’t know?”
“This is a new, greatly accelerated process using an energy conversion for mass rather than simple organic transfer - quite exciting for us, really. You should be pleased to know that you were chosen as the first candidate. All previous employees have been required to spend days adjusting. You will be on the job almost immediately.”
“Adjusting?” He suddenly remembered the bizarre creatures from last night. Not all snakes, but part of the Naga group. Wolf things, and feline things, and some he couldn’t even identify. Shit! What had he gotten himself into? New pain distracted him again, milder and localized around his belly. Looking down, he blinked, and then stared open-mouthed at the bulging expanse of dark flesh and muscle straining the seams of his T-shirt and shorts. His body appeared to have doubled in size.
“You were hardly suited for security work. We explained that you would require extensive physical development and intellectual diversification. If you had objections, you should have declined employment.”
As he struggled to understand, the fire blossomed in his skull again. This time, he was able to follow the searing heat with his eyes, his body expanding with the pain to split clothing apart. Patches of chocolate-brown hair were scattered over skin that appeared thicker and darker, and his hands and feet were oddly distorted.
Shuddering through the aftermath, Rick’s fear was joined by sick horror. He was being changed into one of their monsters! Something furred, and built like a tank. The muscle and size might be OK, but what was wrong with his fingers? They were stiff, almost unmovable. The Naga wouldn’t take away his hands! How could he do work, hold weapons?
A thought flickered in his mind, only to become jumbled and lost. He tried again, concentrating hard. “What… are you… doing… to me?”
“Our business activities often require special security measures. You have been selected to be the first of a whole new approach, a visual deterrent to theft. You will protect our deliveries with your mere presence, and any foolish enough to try anything will find you even more fearsome than your appearance.”
Thoughts were too confused now to pick out any memory from last night, but surely he wouldn’t have agreed to… He grunted and tensed as another wave of pain hit, panting afterwards with eyes wide. It took a moment to realize he was free of the shackles. Either he had burst out of them, or they had been opened remotely to prevent any damage. He was free!
Lurching to his feet, Rick only managed to stumble a couple of steps before shifting balance threw him forward. He caught himself on numb fingertips, stuck in an odd, squatting position. A blurred protrusion blocked his downward view, forcing him to twist his head to see the elongated, fused lumps that had been his hands. Arms were incredibly thick and rounded, and completely covered with coffee-colored animal hide. What he could see of his legs showed the same pattern. Toes were blending into black lumps on elongated feet, and all of his joints had shifted position.
“The shift to quadruped is likely to be disorienting, Mr. Davis. We suggest you remain still.”
Rick tried to speak, but found he could only make a wheezing grunt that sounded vaguely horse-like. In any case, the warning was unneeded, for the next blast of the process paralyzed him. He felt his body swell out, and saw the muzzle extend further into his field of vision even as the walls seemed to shrink around him.
As the heat washed down what were now forelegs, he saw his hands reform into cloven hooves. At the same time, he felt a sensation of power and strength that was almost intoxicating despite the lingering pain. He was being turned into some sort of monster stallion or bull. An animal. What was fearsome about an animal? Rick struggled to collect his thoughts, which echoed curiously in his mind. If he could get away, find someone else. Maybe this could be reversed. He could play along, do what they asked until…
New agony exploded in his skull, only this time it seemed to literally blow his head apart. Stunned, he reared up as vision split, first four, then six different pictures bombarding his mind. In his last moments as a sentient being, Rick realized just how a horse could be fearsome, and also what the Naga had meant by intellectual diversification. Then those thoughts, and everything else that had been Richard Davis were lost in a swirl of confusion that settled into three distinct, but connected points of consciousness.
“Excellent. Cut the energy feed, then retrieve the beast and fit it with control collars. We’ll begin training immediately.”
The sounds meant little to the new equine hydra. It only knew it was someplace it didn’t like, it was hungry and thirsty… and it still had a splitting headache.