Speaker turned into the alley with the calm purposefulness of a person that was clearly justified in whatever they were doing. The suit helped too, but they had found that body language was the key to getting along in a physical form. And going into a dark back alley meant that no one would notice whatever splash of purple their other forms might have. Speaker was very fond of purple, and less fond of sticking to a single form. Today they looked like a vaguely middle-eastern man with violet eyes. Next week they might look like someone else. But today they had a delivery to make, resting soundly in the grocery bag hanging from their arm, and it was critical that they not be stopped.
The door marked with the carp transforming into a dragon was a relic of the old fish store, but now it showed the way into Esena Sushi, and into the demiplane they were traveling to. Entering the plane was a simple matter. Insert the magic key, open the door, and close it once again. It wasn’t like they needed to use this particular door. Any door would have been sufficient to work the little magic needed to enter the demiplane linked to Laurie. But Speaker had a sense of humor which made them more than willing to go far out of their way just to use a door with a fish on it.
And as their eyes adjusted to the dim light of the first room, they noticed the first of the fish guarding this plane. It was a jet-black catfish, a meter long wall of muscle with three pairs of whiskers trailing along the floor. Its fins were clawed and abnormally muscular, and it had an extra pair to help it travel along the metal floor. Speaker knew this particular one well, and was well aware of the painful electric shock it could produce.
“Wattson, how have you been?” Speaker reached into the bag and pulled out a can of wet cat food. “I brought you your favorite treat!”
The catfish watched steadily as Speaker walked over to the pond in the center of the room, and dumped the cat food into the water. It waddled over, continuing to keep a close eye on them as it carefully tested the water with its barbels. Satisfied that this food was the fancy whitefish and tuna blend it loved so much, it flopped ungracefully into the water and began to eat. Speaker took their leave, heading through the next door before Wattson changed its mind.
In the course of their existence, Speaker had seen many creatures more powerful than any human. They'd watched twisted entities shape biological creatures into forms which most humans would cower away from, and beings worshipped as gods in return for the power they imbued into mortal forms. They'd eaten more than a few of them, even. In their educated opinion, Laurie Hicks could hold her own with the most profane of the beings that wove flesh like thread. What she lacked in sheer power, she made up for with connections and techniques that they suspected would have been lost on the "gods" that they'd met and consumed. It made it all the more peculiar that they appreciated her company, instead of seeing her as a threat. But no matter.
The next room appeared to be made of fish tanks instead of the metal tiles which covered the floor and walls. Colonies of loaches, from spiny loaches to weather loaches to the Pangio loaches, colonized each tank. Some of the tanks had sticky notes on them, locations where this colony or that colony would be sent upon payment. When telepathically linked to an owner they would be an effective, if loud, alarm system. But unlinked, they simply whispered out their thoughts to the other loaches. Speaker made their way through this room quickly. If they lingered, the loaches would only get louder with each echo of thoughts back to each other. It was enough to give anything a headache.
Laurie wouldn’t have been in the first two rooms, and it appeared that she wasn’t in the third one either. Speaker would just have to wait. They were a visitor here, and despite their own powers, Laurie was the ruler of this demiplane. They physically couldn’t enter the other rooms without her permission. They patted the side of the grocery bag in an attempt to soothe their delivery, and looked around.
This room also had an abundance of fish tanks, but none of them loaches. Softly glowing tetras flickered in one tank, scales flashing almost hypnotically. Another held photosynthetic corydoras catfish, another cichlids with scales which changed colors on a whim, a third an arowana with a cat’s intelligence and personality. Even more tanks held fish with changed forms, changed minds, or simply for use as decorations. One tank which caught their eye had an inky black moray eel, lazily fading from a solid form to a dark liquid which swirled in the water and back again.
Memory stirred within them. Another time, another place, in parallel space, they had seen something like that eel before. Too large to eat, too powerful to parasitize, and too dangerous to live near. She'd made them flee, even across dimensions, just to escape her hunger. Flee to here, where they had to stay linked with a physical form or risk dissolution. But there were an abundance of beings here, enough to eat and to feed upon until they grew powerful enough to return. They'd devour her, someday. But not today, and not while they had Laurie to work with.
A snarl unconsciously formed on their face as they watched the eel change forms. What a hideous, ugly, disgusting thing. It would be easy, so easy, to reach in there and destroy its life force for good. That was a good idea, just quickly destroy the creature before it could do anything more. They let their hand creep to the lip of the tank.
“Don’t even think about putting your hand in those tanks, Speaker.”
They turned around, bowing gallantly to the woman who had just limped in. She wasn’t supposed to have a physical form. Normally upon conclusion of the genius loci spell, she would have lost it in return for complete power over the demiplane. But a mistake had been made somewhere along the line, and while she still had a physical form, she lacked the omnipresence she would have gotten in exchange. And she still wasn't capable of leaving the plane, which Speaker considered to be a rather poor deal.
“Laurie, you look just as wonderful as ever.”
Laurie stared them down, finally crossing damp arms over a shirt soaked with tank water. “And you’re just as shameless. What do you want?”
“Companionship, a nice conversation, maybe a dinner da-,” Speaker held up their hands in surrender as she reached down to unfasten her prosthetic leg. “Sorry, sorry! But I did have a reason for coming here.” She rolled her eyes, and they thought once more about how her fiery red hair complemented her personality.
“Alright,” She grumbled, leaning against a doorframe. “What’re you here for, really? Don’t forget, I’ll smack you if you go back to that dating crap.”
They sighed, but wisely chose not to comment on the last sentence. “The circus was in town the other day. I picked up a new friend for your collection. I offered to buy the entire stock, but they were quite insistent that I play to win the fish.”
Laurie’s eyes blazed with indignation when she saw the goldfish they pulled from the bag. “They tattooed it! Those jack- Those jerks, you don’t do that to a fish!” She took the container from their hand, and limped to the trapdoor. “Come on, sweetheart. I’ll get you all set up in the hospital pond. You’ll be fixed up and put with friends in no time.”
Speaker smiled. It was an annoyance that she was immune to being eaten for the moment, but they never imagined that a human would grow on them like this. She was still prey, naturally, but prey that they didn't mind not being able to eat. It was more interesting to let her do what she would, after all.
“Laurie!” They pretended that they hadn’t been smiling slightly when she turned around. “Laurie, do you need anything from me? If the circus is still in town, I might stop in and win another fish.”
“Yeah,” They noticed that she was rolling her eyes again, and wondered what she was about to say next. “Can you tell my latest client that he’s a fucking moron?”
They made a quiet choking noise. “What?” Composing themselves, they tried not to stare at her in disbelief. “What did this client of yours do to deserve that?”
“Bichir? I think I have heard that somewhere…”
“They’re also called dragonfish.” She snorted as their face paled in realization. “Yup, this idiot wants a fire-breathing fish. With wings! Can you believe it?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Speaker sighed, reminded once again of how utterly stupid humans could be. “I assume you agreed to do this for them?”
She shook her head. “No, not yet. I’m trying to convince him that if he really needs a fish that’s a dragon, to go with a school of koi. Those have practically been bred to change into eastern dragons at this point. But I think he just wants to look cool.”
“So…” Speaker paused for a moment.
“Yeah, if you could go look and make sure that no one’s ever actually turned a bichir into a dragon like he wants, that would be great. It looks bad when I do something for an idiot that ends up with them burning their faces off, but it’ll look worse if he tries to do it himself and screws up.”
“Your every desire is my command,” They murmured, trying not to smile as she flipped them off. “I suppose I will be taking my leave, then. I will be back in a week to check up on the goldfish, maybe with a new friend if the circus is still here?”
Speaker bowed once again, and left. Their delivery ought to be in good hands with Laurie. She was harsh on anything that wasn’t one of her beloved fish, but they knew that she treated those fish like little lords of the water. They'd never thought that they would consider a human anything more than easy prey, much less respect one. But Laurie was something else, something worth respect and interest. They would understand her, someday. Maybe that would be enough to convince them that she was still prey.
Changing form, changing shape, even changing their mind, but never changing who they were, Speaker would grow stronger and more powerful. They would learn, and shift, until they could finally fulfill their goals at last. For now, it was best to be considered just a human shapeshifter, just someone who sought knowledge, nothing more. It was dangerous for people to know what sort of being they really were. Some humans might decide to worship them as a god, and gods gained all sorts of unwanted attention. Powerful attention, even. Besides, those humans might not take it well when they realized that the object of their worship was really just a cosmic lamprey. Humans were so fickle like that.
If they wanted to sneak back into the circus and grab another fish, they would need to hunt down some food to give them that energy. It would be easiest continue to lurk around the alleys. One never knew what they would find in there. A quick human would be enough to let them change their form, and maybe they could grab some more to bolster their stores. Then they could continue their work.