"Laurie, that still looks like a worm."
"Shut your mouth, Speaker, or I'm gonna shut it for you."
"I merely speak the truth." The person in the paint-stained hoodie shrugged, shoving their hands into their cargo pants. "It is you who shut your mind to the truth of things."
Laurie Kearney turned around, her red hair appearing to be literally aflame in the late afternoon sun. "I said, shut your mouth. Asshole." She placed the wooden carving of a dragon back in the bag so she could glare at her impertinent helper more imposingly.
Speaker, in the guise of a young blond woman with a violet tattoo covering their cheek, merely laughed. Laurie spit to the side before continuing on. Whatever sort of being her newfound helper actually was, they could certainly be a pain in the ass. But they had been kind enough to carry today's commission for her, so she could hardly complain. Besides, although she'd never admit it to them, her whittling skills were terrible enough that she was surprised this one even looked vaguely serpentine. At least she was using an Eastern dragon model, she'd have never been able to carve a Western one.
"Okay, you can keep talking, but only if you're kind enough to explain something to me." She continued to glare at them, blue eyes glittering like shards of ice.
Speaker, if that was really their name, smiled blandly. "Oh?"
"Why're you helping me out?" Laurie couldn't hide the edge of suspicion in her voice; if this person was planning to sabotage her work, she was going to teach them quite the lesson.
They paused, tapping their fingers against the side of the container. "I suppose it would be because I have never heard of such a… Hm, a dramatic transmutation before. I am interested in seeing how this would work."
She turned her head again, squinting at them. "You mean to say you didn't do any reading up on this at all?"
"I wanted to be surprised." They smiled that bland, half-smile again, and Laurie had to resist the urge to wipe that smug look off their face.
"Well, uh, buddy, prepare to be amazed." She gave them her best evil grin before turning her attention back to the path.
This was a familiar area to her, but usually she was carrying a heavy container with a heavy fish in it. This was one of the few times she'd been able to actually take a good look around on the way there. On the other hand, the shapeshifter doing the lifting for her was an unknown quantity. They were probably human, and probably from this dimension, but she'd only met them a few weeks ago in the Library. Their temperament, and intentions, were still unclear. But, if they were willing to keep fetching and carrying for her, she supposed she could live with them being an insufferable enigma.
The barely-visible forest path suddenly widened into a clearing, revealing a modestly sized pond with a small waterfall pouring into it. Laurie gestured to Speaker to place the container down, before walking around the pond. The plants seemed healthy, although that wasn't her area of expertise, and the tadpoles swimming about told her that there was plenty of life in the water. That was good, it meant that she'd be able to do this working as quickly as the carp permitted. She placed the wooden statuettes in their proper places, and pretended that they weren't obviously misshapen and asymmetrical. She just had to know what they were, after all.
There were ways to hasten the process of acclimating any fish to a pond, both magical and mundane, but Laurie preferred to do it the old-fashioned way. It was time-consuming, but it allowed her to check for even the most minute sign of trouble. The pond looked lively and healthy, but she was always paranoid about such things. There had been an event where a pond had been seriously fouled, and had she used shortcuts in acclimation, the carp would have died instantly. It was better to be safe than sorry, so she let herself take all the time this fish needed to acclimate to the new pond before beginning the ritual.
Finally, she released the fish into the pond. She watched it like a hawk as it swam around, snapping up tadpoles and familiarizing itself with all of the nooks and crannies. It would want to take its time to explore, so she finally tore her eyes away and began drawing the circle which would allow her to channel the energy into the statues, and from there into the water itself. She took her time, checking and rechecking until it was finally perfect.
Years of practice took over, and Laurie felt the magic flow through her, through the statues, through the waterfall which was the only barrier to the fish's ascension. This one seemed motivated to jump, whether because it sensed the magic flowing through the water, or due to some other impetus flowing through its veins. It circled the pond, once, twice, three times, building up momentum. And then, halfway through the fourth circuit, it turned sharply, speeding to the falls with all of its might.
And then it jumped, in a flash of orange scales and white fins. The magic caught it, and it hung suspended in the air for a brief moment. For those seconds, it looked like a glittering statue made of gold and gems. Laurie's breath always caught from the marvel of it all, despite having performed and perfected the ritual time and time again. To her, this was one of the most beautiful things she had ever been blessed to see. The magic knew what it had to do. The carp's body began to stretch, lengthening to become more serpentine. Its dorsal fin extended to cover the length of its back while its caudal fin receded into a tuft of white fur. The pectoral and pelvic fins stretched into short, white legs, as the other two fins vanished into its new body. The skull became more dragon-like, the jaws stretching out and growing dangerously sharp teeth.
Another head grew from the base of the newly-elongated neck. And then another, and another, teeth snapping as Laurie frantically attempted to cancel the spell. The carp, no, the dragon, thrashed about wildly as if it was in pain. It probably is, murmured a thought in the back of Laurie's head as she pulled her magic away from the water and the statues. The sooty dots on the dragon suddenly took on a new significance. A koi carp might have taken on that coloration, but in combination with the white fins, it was more typical of an amelanistic tench carp. The whiskers, though, were all koi. It hadn't occurred to her to question it, because most tench/koi hybrids died after hatching. The genes controlling the head and mouth development were different, and they-.
The genes controlling the head and mouth development were different. Fuck.
One of the vaguely draconic statues exploded in a shower of splinters. One by one, the other three followed, showering the pond in scraps of wood. A wild swing of the dragon's many heads sent a half-formed mouth snapping towards Laurie, deadly sharp teeth flashing in the sunlight. She felt something impact her, and a searing pain in her leg as she fell into the pond. Guided by some instinct, the protodragon ascended into the sky, darting away through the treetops and into the clouds.
"Your leg." The dripping wet person- no, Speaker tore off their hoodie, wrapping it around the mangled stump. "Does this happen often?"
Laurie tried to stare at them incredulously, but the effect was ruined by the tadpoles attempting to colonize her hair. "What do you think?"
"I was awed, I have to admit. I think I am going to continue accompanying you on these ventures." There was something in Speaker's voice that Laurie wasn't quite sure how to place.
"Lost a leg, gained an intern. I can live with that, I guess."
"Not until I get you assistance. May I leave the container here, or should I carry you in it?"
"…Shut your mouth." Laurie closed her eyes as the wave of pain and shock finally hit her.