Penetrating the premises had been easy enough. He dropped from the windowsill, rolling on the floor to attenuate the noise. He questioned again whether going in with that little info was even a good idea, but the coins Annie had promised were more than worth the risk. All he had to do was find the right flask.
Which, clearly, wasn't going to be located in this bedroom.
Big canopy bed, covered in pillows. Enormous curtains. Its owner was definitely in it right now, he had to be silent. He pulled two squares of cloth from his belt and wrapped them over his shoes, then slipped by to the door without even the slightest noise.
Wooden door, metal handle. Likely to be creaky. He uncorked a bottle of oil and covered the hinges with it, then slowly pulled the handle. The door opened without a sound. Great, that was a piece of cake.
He arrived in some sort of corridor overlooking some circular room below. Checking around, there were a couple doors to his right and left, but what he was looking for was most likely down there. Thankfully, the stairs were just ahead of him, following the curvature of the wall. Unfortunately, they were wooden... Wooden stairs were always the biggest threat to his "guaranteed-silent" burglary business. He could either take the risk of putting his foot on the wrong step, or he had to slide down on the rail and hope his clothes wouldn't squeak against the wood, which could happen depending on how well maintained the railing was. Taking a gamble, he sat down on the barrier and let himself glide along its path to the floor below, causing slight noise he hoped no one heard.
Ah, finally, solid and quiet stone flooring. An incredible relief. He looked around the main room, trying to get what its purpose was. It seemed like the mix of a living room, a kitchen and an alchemy lab. Long couches were disposed around a table near the entrance, chairs notable by their absence. Closer to the stairs were countertops and cupboards, with a cauldron right in the middle. This... didn't feel right. Everything looked wide and there was immense breathing space between the elements of the room, in a way that felt intentional. He didn’t want to assume why it was so exactly, but still, the uncommon disposition of this place started to get to him. He'd better be on his guard.
Right on the opposite side of the room was a cabinet with a glass front, containing many flasks of colorful liquids. He made his way to it - it was certain his objective was in there. The door wasn't apparently locked, and with a quick pull he managed to crack it open with as little noise as possible. He took a glance around him, made sure no one was coming... Good. He didn't hear any footsteps.
He started picking individual flasks, reading their labels. He was looking for something called a 'Lamia's Protection'.
He mentally sighed. He knew it was rare stuff, but didn't know how it was made, nor what it did. Mostly, his thoughts were gravitating towards the name of that concoction... There was no way Annie had put him on this job innocently. She knew of his interest in the snake-women.
Back when he was but an illiterate street-urchin, she'd gifted him a book on the non-human beings that populated the world when she took him into her guild. He didn't understand a word of it, but he'd still observed the illustrations every day until the book was so weary from use he had to part ways with it. And while he liked them all, none of them had made his eyes glint with curiosity and happiness quite like that of the lamiae. The way each of their individual scales had been meticulously transcribed in the drawings. Their intricate traditional clothing. There was something intriguing about their women-only species that... attracted him. He felt immense guilt for it, like he was projecting onto these women some manner of belief of perfection, or at least of exoticism. He assured himself that's not what it was - after all, he otherwise wouldn't be self-aware about it - but he knew how some people were. He couldn't pretend like he wasn't one of them... That's exactly what they themselves do. So he lumped himself with the objectifiers, because he couldn't see any other possible option.
Finally, he found what he was looking for just as his idle thoughts arrived at their conclusion. It was stashed behind a couple other potions. He pushed them aside with his hand, then reached for it... and felt completely immobilized.
He'd been distracted and forgot to check for magical traps. And he should've expected it too, alchemy and magic often came hand in hand. It was a complete rookie mistake.
Someone came up behind him and he felt a shock on the back of his head. But there had been no footsteps? he had just enough time to think before falling, knocked out.
He came to his senses some time later. He had a terrible headache, and he couldn't quite see nor hear clearly. All he managed to comprehend was that a handful of figures were speaking with one another... He managed to notice four distinct splashes of color in his vision. The speaking slowly became comprehensible, and he definitely heard some woman say "Oh look, he's waking up." The blurred people turned towards him, and he realised he had been awkwardly tied onto a couch.
"So, little burglar. What were you doing rummaging in our potion cabinet?" the green one said, approaching him - a different voice, another woman.
Of course, he knew the procedure. He was basically on the gallows already, and he was to keep his tongue shut. He blinked a few times to clear out his vision…
Was he... Was he dreaming? The people interrogating him... The people living here... He forgot his order for a single moment, stunned by the apparitions before him.
"You're all... lamiae?"
One of them, in red pajamas, rolled her eyes at his stating the obvious.
"Well if you don't mind," piped up another one with a horrible bed head and a blue lounge dress covered with little drawings of kittens, "We have exams tomorrow and I think I'm gonna go back to bed." She slithered back up the stairs and he heard a door slam closed.
He threw a look at the one that hadn't spoken yet, to know what he was up against. She seemed more preoccupied about rearranging the cabinet's contents back to their original position than by him. "Exams? What the hell is this place?" he asked.
The red girl sprung on his arms and threw him a menacing glance. "Okay, dude, here's something you don't seem to get: we're the ones asking the questions here. What were you looking for?"
He went back to his rehearsed silence and returned her look. Neither of them showed any sign of flinching.
After a couple moments of silence, she sighed in annoyance. "That's it, I'm casting a truth spell."
The one in green stopped her. "Oh no no no, let me do it. You would mess it up."
"Oh, for the love of Zeus, would it kill you to have faith in my abilities for once!?" she growled.
"Ariakleia, calm down! I do not mean you are a bad spellcaster, but you have not even seen this one in class yet! As your senior, the task should fall upon me."
Alchemist-witch lamiae in training. He realised he was doomed. Well, even worse than with the public execution stuff coming up, that is.
"And suddenly because it's an emergency situation it's back to Ariakleia! How many damn times have I had to tell you to call me Ari!?" Was he... Was he supposed to be here for this?
"Oh my, apologies. It slipped my mind in the hurry... Ari, you should let me cast the spell."
"Too late. Lost your vote when you used the wrong name. I'm doing it. Go sit in the kitchen, Athenodora." Ari crossed her arms.
"I sure hope you know what you are doing..." said the lamia in green before slithering behind the countertop. The last girl turned away from the now rearranged cabinet and joined her.
He knew if he wanted to get out and avoid a certain death by the hands of an executioner next morning, this was now his last chance. He slipped a blade out of his sleeve and started cutting away at the rope, making sure to pretend his attention was kept on the red lamia who seemed to be preparing a ritual, meticulously scribbling runes in the air, glowing characters left behind wherever her finger was going.
"Okay," she muttered, clapping her hands and jolting his attention fully onto her. "Let's do this!" She pushed her hands forward, and the words were launched at high speed towards the thief, twisting and morphing mid-air into a serpent-like configuration.
He sped up his rope cutting, hoping by any of the gods that dared to listen to have pity on him and let him go, but either his prayers fell on absent ears, or the gods had other plans for him this day. When the magical spell collided with him, the painful jolt it sent made him drop his blade out of reach.
The glow grew stronger even as the runes penetrated through his clothes, but the moment it connected with his skin, something felt wrong.
Now, he hadn't been hit by many spells in his life. Yet he was certain that something about this one seemed... faulty. The glow started to flicker, the words seemed to come apart, yet at the same time, it refused to simply disperse. The light climbed his torso little by little, then his neck, next his face, and finally as it reached his forehead, it wormed its way through his skull and the glow stopped. He felt different.
And from the way Ari looked at him, it seemed she knew she’d messed up her spell.
Ari gestured at her senior in frustration, her gaze drooping on the ground. "Don't. Say. Anything." She moved towards one of the couches behind his, threw herself on it, and started ruminating.
"What just happened?" he found himself asking despite having all the intention in the world to stay silent. "Why did I just ask that?"
"Good, looks like the spell worked nonetheless. Congratulations, Ari," Athenodora stated, slithering back towards the intruder. "Now, what were you looking for?"
"I was told to fetch something called a Lamia's Protection." Was this the effect of the spell!? "It's kinda funny actually, I love lamiae."
"WHAT." Ari flinched back up, looking at him with a disgusted glance.
"Wait, let's not get carried away -" Athenodora tried to butt in, but it was no use.
"What do you mean, 'you love lamiae'?" she asked, moving out of her couch to go back in front of him.
"Well, I don't mean it in a creepy way," he started, "but like... I really really love lamiae. I don't know why because everytime I tried to analyse my feelings I found myself getting uncomfortable and burying them again." ...What? Since when had he been doing that!? "Wow, I can't believe I'm only now aware of this."
The third of the lamiae perked up, and closed in as well.
"Uhh... What is happening?" Ari whispered to her senior, who seemed barely less confused than her.
"I... think you have made him unable to lie to anyone, as was intended… But somehow you made it include himself," Athenodora explained, showing perceptiveness.
"This feels freaky," he replied. "And I know freaky because that's what I've been believing I am for years." He paused, then groaned. He so wished he had one of his hands free so he could bury his face in it.
"You're not freaky," the up-to-now aloof lamia girl said with a fragile voice. The other two looked shocked for a moment. He assumed they were surprised at the fact she was speaking? Well, she did not look like a very talkative person, so maybe his intuition was right…
"Can we get back to the attempted thievery?" tentatively asked Athenodora, trying to swerve the conversation back to her waters.
Ari's mouth morphed into a mean smile. "I... kinda wanna hear him pour his heart out now."
"Ari, no," replied the more mature one.
"Let him speak," said the (assumedly) near-mute girl, with an expression he couldn't read.
Athenodora was taken aback, but eventually nodded, her eyes looking towards the ground. "Well, if you want to talk with him, Theophila..." She got herself in position to turn the couch back towards the table, so they could all sit down on the other ones and comfortably prepare for a long discussion.
"I cannot get over how gracious you all look, with your scales proudly on display," he unwillingly stated while he kept his eyes closed in shame. "I feel disgusting for saying that."
"Heh. As you should," Ari conceded, feeling ever not impressed.
"We need tea," Theophila stated as a non sequitur.
"It might be a bad idea... We will need to get back to sleep at some point," countered Athenodora.
"We need tea," Theophila repeated, turning her face towards her.
Athenodora sighed and got up, getting herself to the kitchen.
"So." Ari took the lead. "You like girls like us and you feel awful about it. That right?"
"Yeah," he answered, tilting his head further down. "Makes me feel like I don't see you all as people and instead only as some object of desire, which is all kinds of bad, and really I absolutely do see and respect you as individuals so maybe I'm just chastising myself over not actually understanding what's going on in my head." He gasped in surprise at his own revelation. "I'm telling myself I hate that spell but really, finally being forced to dig deep into my brain might just help." His expression shifted a couple times, utterly confused over what he himself was saying.
"Understanding oneself is hard," Theophila stated, hugging her tail.
"Eh," Ari shrugged. "Always knew who I was. Never doubted it. Didn't know it was so hard for some peeps."
"Good point," he started, dreading whatever it was he was about to say. "Never quite feel like I..." Every word in that sentence took more time than the last to come out of his mouth. "...am who I was supposed to be." ...Was that true? He realised he'd never had the introspection to phrase it like that, but it probably was. "I've never quite felt like the thieves' guild was meant to be where I ended up. It still beats everything that came before, and I'm grateful, and I'd call it home in a heartbeat, but still that's not where I'm supposed to belong."
"There is a thieves' guild in town?" questioned Athenodora as she came back with four cups of a deliciously hot beverage and a double-dozen biscuits in a plate.
"It'd be a sign of us being bad at our job if people knew about it. Which I guess makes me bad at my job right about now." He tried to wiggle his hands out to partake in the snacking, to no avail. However, Theophila noticed, got up, and brought his teacup to his lips with an unfortunate lack of gentleness. After taking a few sips, he had to lift his mouth away for her to understand he'd had enough for now, and she went back to her couch.
"Why were you tasked to steal that potion?" asked Athenodora, getting back to the original point of the spell.
"I genuinely do not know. Annie promised me money, so I just complied." He shrugged as best he could. "She probably should've told me this place contained lamiae though. She knows my fondness for them."
"Sending the thief that has an obsession with our kind specifically to this mission..." Athenodora muttered. The tip of her tail flicked against the ground as she was thinking. "Sounds like this is no coincidence. Who is this Annie?"
"She's the chief of the guild. The one that found me in the streets when I was a kid. Basically raised me as her own..." The spell didn't even force him to say that. His gratefulness was not something he ever felt the desire to hide.
"So what in our peeps is the thing that appeals to you, exactly?" piped up Ari, back on her desire to get to the bottom of this.
"Oh boy. Guess I don't have a choice but to know, now." He took a couple moments to ponder on his thoughts, though he didn't even know if that'd be necessary, what with the spell digging in his psyche for him. "I guess, beyond the physical traits, it'd be..." His eyes widened. "The fact you're all women?" He tried to parse the deeper implications, but he was distracted by the immediate consequences. "And I sound like a pervert that wants a harem of women all to himself now."
"Thanks for the mental image..." Ari said, rolling her eyes.
"Be kind. He's not bad," Theophila told her. None of them really got what she meant by that, but he felt comforted all the same. She turned her head back towards him. "Think more."
"Uuh..." He'd lost his train of thought. Maybe if he just let the spell talk for him again? "The problem with that is like, 'harem', there's this implication of possession, of one-sidedness? Ew. I don't want that. I want to love lamiae, sure, multiple ones, I'll admit, but for who they are, not for the 'exoticism' or in some sort of vain thirst for power. I want to be there for them... Even more than they'd be for me. I'd want to repay them for the favor they'd do of dating a broken boy like me..." Broken? But his pained years were in the past. And his time at the guild had healed the wounds. Why'd he still view himself as broken, then?
"That's..." Ari never finished that sentence, but her glances at the intruder became less aggressive.
"What makes you broken?" Theophila asked.
"No idea." He waited a moment, but nothing else came. Not even from the spell. Did that mean... Even the deepest parts of him did not know?
This didn't go unnoticed. Athenodora spoke kindly. "Looks like you are missing knowledge to know what it is you feel..." She stood up and started circling her couch in thought. "And with your mission... Tell me, do you know what a Lamia's Protection does?"
He shook his head. "I can't say I do. It's better off if we're not prepped on what we're stealing, so as to not entice us to keep it for ourselves. I'm guessing it has something to do with armor, considering the name?"
"The name is an intentional red herring," she explained. "The actual logic is that it grants its drinker a Lamia's natural protection, that is, her scales... permanently, through turning them into one of our kind."
"THAT'S A THING THAT CAN BE DONE!?" he immediately shouted in disbelief... Then heard someone banging on the floor from one of the rooms above. Whoops. Too loud.
"Wow. The teach didn't kid with her talk of people being unaware of the power of alchemy," Ari said with utter disappointment.
"By the Olympus, why did I exclaim myself so loudly," he asked himself. "Why am I that surprised by learning it is an option?"
"Continue thinking," demanded Theophila in a way that accidentally sounded like an order, as she got up from her seat and went to fetch something behind him.
"I... I can't believe it." He was shaking with... What was it? Excitement? Fear? Surprise? Anger? Happiness? "I... I want that to happen to me."
The girls kept silent.
"I want to be a lamia."
Another silence. Theophila went back to her seat, holding something in her hand.
"But... why? Is it... Is it the tail? The scales? The culture?"
"The fact we're all women?" continued Athenodora for him, referring to his earlier comment.
"Is... is that what that was? Is it that I want to be a woman?" He paused, an expression of terror on his face. "Oh no. Oh no no no, I need to take those words back, Pandora's box has been opened, I don’t want to know that… That I want to be a woman!" There and then, hearing her deepest thoughts admit it for her, it just... It just clicked. Of course all those years of not-quite-fetishizing lamiae pointed to this. It just made too much sense.
"And the pieces of the puzzle fall into place," Athenodora announced in a grandiose tone. "Only one last one needs to fit... Tell me, is this Annie you speak of a tall, muscular human woman with long blonde hair?"
"That description..." Ari whispered, as she started to put things together as well.
"Wait, you don't mean she..." The thief's eyes locked on Athenodora’s, realizing she was getting at something. "Yes. That's Annie."
"As well as the woman that paid us to make that potion," explained Ari with a wild smile, slapping her hand on her forehead in surprise. "That means she just orchestrated that whole thing, hahaha! Oh Athena, you've made a crazy one."
"She did say she would have it picked up by the person that needed it..." Athenodora shrugged half-triumphantly, happy to have solved the puzzle the woman had offered.
Theophila slithered out of her couch, and held out her hand towards the intruder - she was holding the potion she'd came for. "I believe this is meant to be yours."
"I should probably go back to my room at the guild before drinking this, but if I waited even a single moment longer I would just start shouting in pain," she said, before nonchalantly chugging the flask in a single go. It tasted like blueberries, if blueberries had been venomous.
"Alright then, let's move to a safe distance before it kicks in," said Athenodora, directing Theophila out of the way. Ari hadn't needed the reminder.
It didn't feel like much at first, just a slight tingle in her stomach. Her legs started to bulge, tearing away her pants in a painful experience. "Should've removed those first..." This realisation led to another. "Probably should sit down instead of risking falling like an idiot." And so she dropped down on her butt while she felt her shoes slip off her feet - or rather, her feet slip out of existence, becoming undulating tips. Goodbye toes and ankles.
The rest of her legs followed suit, smoothening, the varied bones inside becoming vertebrae. She tried to move them in curiosity, and they flailed about like whips. They started fusing from the pelvis, slowly pushing her underwear away as the seam climbed up to her tips, now becoming a single one.
Obviously, her legs weren't the only part of her that needed to change. But that didn't take as much time. It was like a snap of the fingers, and her upper-body just slimmed as her bones made an enormous clacking noise. Delayed pain hit her a couple instants after, she had to bite down on her lower lip to muffle her scream. "It's worth it... It's worth it..." she repeated to herself, as the aching mercifully faded away quickly.
Her chest puffed out and she was thankful to have kept her top on, even if it seemed like her breasts stopped at a modest size anyway.
Finally, she felt as if a thousand little scalpels pierced her tail and a couple parts of her upper body - her shoulders, the sides of her torso, a slight bit of her cheeks - with chirurgical precision which made no pain come with it, but there was still the sensation of having little hexagonal slices on her skin. The cut-off skin started peeling away, revealing scales whose colors could be described as greenish with a tint of yellow.
She ruffled the back of her hair, kinda disappointed it hadn't grown during her change. Guess that'll take a couple months.
On the bright side, it felt like the dumb spell of honesty had been lifted.
Once it was certain the change was finished, Theophila was the first to approach her. "What's your name?"
"Good question," she replied. She folded her tail as if she still had knees, the tip brushing against the floor as she was thinking. "Hmm... How about... Hermodora? Did I properly follow the naming conventions?"
"Just because you're a lamia doesn't mean you should feel forced to follow all of our stupid traditions," Ari replied.
"It's fine. It's what I want for myself."
Theophila grabbed onto Hermodora's arm, following it until she reached her torso, allowing herself to hug her new sister without asking.
"I do believe we still have a free room upstairs," explained Athenodora. "Now as to whether it will become your permanent dwelling... I guess you need to ask this Annie of yours what result exactly she was aiming for first."
"Oh, she's got a lot of explaining to do," she replied.
"Can that wait tomorrow though? We probably need to get back to bed," Ari pointed out. "Plus I think Theophila fell asleep already."
Hermodora looked down, observing Ari was right.