The world tumbled end over end as Isabel recoiled from the lightning blast. She could swear she’d felt her heart stop for a moment, and couldn’t comprehend why she was still alive. The bear’s claws scrabbled under her as she tried to push herself to her feet, but her muscles weren’t obeying her commands properly. It was like trying to communicate with them using a broken radio, cutting in and out so only partial orders were received and acknowledged.
“I said I don’t want to kill you,” Kali said. Her voice was smooth and patient. “I want you to stand aside, child. You are not capable of understanding what is going on.”
Isabel shifted back to a human, hoping the shock of transformation would get her system back in working order. It did not nothing to assuage the pain, but her muscles were responding better now. “We need the staff,” Isabel said. There was a pleading note in her voice, one born of desperation. “We need to save the world.”
Kali sighed. There seemed to be a note of legitimate sadness in the sound. “I know you want to. That’s why I cannot let you have it, child.”
“My name isn’t ‘child,’” Isabel said, forcing herself to her feet. “My name is Isabel. Remember it.” She lunged for Kali, shifting into a jaguar as she flew.
Her claws sunk into the near-impenetrable hide of a hippopotamus. Isabel rebounded off the enormous animal. Kali shifted her bulk to face Isabel and charged with a speed that shocked Isabel.
Isabel shifted in response, the skull of the hippo meeting the tusks of a wooly mammoth. Isabel bellowed through her trunk and wrapped it around Kali’s throat, pushing the goddess back with the mammoth’s immeasurable strength. Kali shifted in Isabel’s grasp, and the fangs of a Saber-Toothed Tiger sunk into Isabel’s trunk. The mammoth recognized its natural predator, and its fear joined Isabel’s own. Isabel shrunk rapidly, turning the bulk of a mammoth into the tiny form of a poison dart frog.
Kali tore her head away before neurotoxin powerful enough to kill an entire herd of elephants could coat Isabel’s skin, then transformed into a serpent. Isabel didn’t recognize the Erythrolamprus Epinephelus, the poison dart frog’s only natural predator, but the frog did and its primitive mind sent a surge of panic down Isabel’s spine. Before Kali could strike, Isabel shifted again.
The tiny snake’s fangs sunk into the much larger bulk of a cobra. Isabel flared her hood and lashed out at Kali with her fangs extended, only to have Kali wiggle away in the body of a mongoose. The mongoose turned on a dime and hissed before lunging for Isabel. At first, Isabel didn’t recognize the danger she was in – the cobra didn’t see the mongoose as a predator. Then Kali latched her jaws around part of Isabel’s body and began to thrash her about. The pain was immense.
Underneath Kali’s jaws, Isabel grew the armored skin of an armadillo. Kali tossed her aside with a flick of her head and then sprung towards Isabel, growing the immense fangs and claws of a bobcat with her leap. Isabel answered with the snapping jaws of an alligator. Kali bounded away, far too agile for Isabel to catch, then shifted into a tiger. Kali bellowed a challenging roar.
A momentary respite for both of them. Tigers and alligators had a number of options for killing each other, and neither of them had a clear victory here. I didn’t know gods could shift like this, Isabel thought.
Kali was toying with her. Giving her a chance to surrender. Fighting on Isabel’s level, when she could have just killed her with a thought.
Isabel vowed it would be the last mistake the goddess would make.
Isabel charged across the ground towards the tiger, shifting as she did. Kali pivoted the lion’s body to avoid Isabel’s pounce as she landed, her talons outstretched, in the space Kali had just vacated.
Twenty feet of Utahraptor whipped towards the lion. Isabel slashed with claws that had been used to hunt predators that defined the word megafauna. Kali answered with one of the deadliest set of claws in the modern world. Tiger and Utahraptor fought, slashing and biting. Isabel felt a surge of elation as she managed to skin her jaws in around Kali’s spine.
Then the spine grew under Isabel’s jaw. Grew so large it forced Isabel’s mouth apart. A full Titanosaur sprouted under Isabel’s mouth, far too large for even the Utahraptor. Isabel started shifting to the Tyrannosaurus again, but Kali wasn’t done. The moment Isabel’s jaws were out of Kali’s back the goddess shifted into a tiny sparrow and flitted away.
Isabel started to plummet towards the ground. In the process, she revolutionized paleontology by discovering the almost vestigial features of the Utahraptor were just enough to allow it to glide a short distance. She landed and turned to face Kali.
Kali was charging as an immense bulk of brown and white fur. The offspring of a polar bear and a grizzly bear, one of the most powerful predators alive – the grolar bear.
Isabel shrunk in response and turned her back on Kali. She could hear Kali’s claws scrabble along the floor as Isabel raised her tail and let loose.
Bears have some of the strongest sense of smell of any animal alive, exceeding even that of wolves and great cats. Isabel did not what to imagine what that sense of smell was reporting after getting a faceful of skunk musk.
Kali recoiled from the scent and shifted back to the form of a goddess. With a wave of her hand, she used some twist of reality to neutralize the smell. “Enough!” Kali bellowed. She brought down her hand, and Isabel was burning, she was on fire, her fur was turning into scales and then to feathers as she frantically tried to find some form capable of resisting divine fire. It was too hot for even the water bear to survive.
The heat stopped, and Isabel lay on the ground, smoke rising from her skin and hair. She coughed, and it was agony to move.
“Isabel,” Kali said, “I will remember that name. You’ve fought well. Now stop moving. I didn’t kill you. I won. Let that be enough.”
Isabel struggled to her feet. Every motion was agony. “No. No. Not like this. Not…like this.”
Kali closed the distance between them and struck Isabel in the stomach. Isabel felt the air rush from her stomach and collapsed. “Very well,” Kali said. “I will remember your name.”