Juxxa readied his halberd-turned-baton as the Fey buzzed over him and the hundred or so guards on the sand. Where it had taken off, the bare wood of the arena floor was exposed. He could feel an unpleasant, queasy heat coming off their dull, coarse suits. Whatever it was, it had a greater effect on the Fey, who could now only fly a solid jump or two from the ground. Still, the thing was strong enough to hold his foe in its hand.
“Let me down! What are you?” Kimora said. “I have no part in this!”
Then the audience started screaming, as Kimora and the Fey became one. Like it was made of slime, the genderless being grew and crept over the heavy armor in caterpillar-like tendrils. Eyes and other features shifted like pebbles in a mound of raw clay. He didn’t have time to react before he was absorbed, turning the thing into a bizarre shape reminiscent of him, and then back to normal, as the suit of armor was defecated through its entire front. It clattered on the exposed wood like the remains of a seafood feast, though not an speck of flesh or moisture was apparent.
The Fey was completely fine, except for how it curled its limbs and huffed.
“You do not hurt my Chosen!”
The bizarre sky grew even darker as its wings became wider, still buzzing like a dragonfly but louder, and kicking up sand. As it hovered, it whipped one arm, turning it into a roping flesh coil. In an instant it yanked one soldier by the leg and the Fey swung him around in a gigantic arc, circling faster and faster before splashing him against the cliff at the audience level. Metal pelted the watchers and tens were painted in burgundy. Then the stampedes began.
The Fey’s arm sizzled and smoked as it returned to normal.
That metal burns it, Juxxa thought. Doesn’t matter. I can’t wield something like that. It damned near burns me as well. Could a metal that harms magical beings really exist?
“Volley!” Sallith’s voice thundered. They knew better than to hesitate. A ring of outermost soldiers fired crossbolts, presumably tipped with the strange metal. Several shots bubbled in the thing, making it shriek and spasm. However, all firing from a circle caused some missed shots to chip the stone steps of the audience level, piercing many of the bodies rushing and clogging every potential exit.
In either case, this is not my battle. The King took this bizarre step, most likely because of that bald-headed woman.
As he rushed through the crowd of armored men, holding only the remnants of his halberd, he reached the open portcullis and saw a group of figures in the shadows.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the middle elf said. All were clad in leather the color of their own snowy complexions, and the speaker’s cheekbones were permanently trapped in a delighted leer. “Don’t you want to see how this wretched city falls?”
Claudia was nearly deafened by focus as she jumped down flight after flight of steps. The screams and rumbling of a monster in the city’s arena were like drizzle on a rooftop as she trailed the outer wall. The markings were clear, she was in the third quarter. Then she followed the carvings for restricted personnel. That was the only logical place to search for holding cells.
“Mother!” Claudia shouted, as metal bars came into view. This section was part of the outer ring and sunken down about one floor into the ground. There were cells here, sized to carry beasts of single types all together. All were empty but for one, with a woman reaching beyond the nearest corner.
“Mother, hold on!” she made the jagged path to her cell. “I’m getting you out of here!” Not thinking, she rattled the door from every possible direction.
“Claudia, baby,” Daliah said, voice low and deep from the chest. “Do you remember the plan I told you about, back when I destroyed your father?”
She kept tugging, digging her feet against the bars and yanking.
“Honey, listen! The plan, do you remember?”
“Yes, I remember! But we’ll both flee! We’ll be safe. Where are the keys?”
“No time!” Daliah said. “You need the keys from the warden, honey, and it’s hopeless. You have to escape! Do this for me, please!”
“If I leave you, who knows what—”
“I don’t matter, Claudia! I’m just a caught mage.”
“I’m wanted now, too!”
“Whatever’s happening, there’s a panic. You can still get out.”
“No!” she moaned and bashed her head against the bars. “I can’t do it. I won’t.”
“What in the Seers?” a guttural voice said as a man armored from the waist down ran for her.
Claudia had never been so afraid in her life, where the only answer was to attack, maim, rip. It had all crashed because of Merrian. She had unknowingly been absorbed into a plan bigger than hers, and she’d had enough. Safety for her mother and herself would be attained, or she would die before she saw whatever fate was in store for Daliah.
The man had not expected a seemingly lightweight woman to sink her nails past his jerkin and into his chest. He screamed as darkness swarmed around him. Her hair was moving, tying itself around the back of his head until there was only a short tunnel to her face: somehow reshaping with a thin jawline and with enormous amber eyes, filled with black veins and devoid of iris. In the center were vertical pupils, jagged like a serrated blade. They were the eyes of a desert lizard.
“Get off!” He barreled an arm against her head and knocked her to the floor. Claudia scrambled upward, scratching bits of the soft sandstone floor with nails that should not have been so pointed and curled. There were lines of blood at his chest, but he was ready, sword drawn, and grabbed Daliah through the bars by her torn chemise.
He rose the blade slightly, angled to stab her mother’s throat like a loaded ballista. His goal was clear. Threaten the weak one, make Claudia give up.
Claudia threw out a hand, unsure even of whether to plead or to try and stop him. Instead, it felt like her palm was being stabbed, sending every drop of her blood in a jet from the wound. A flash of amethyst light revealed the consequence.
Clothes, sword, and all, the man stood in shock, completely transfigured into a tawny sculpture, along with much of the bars next to him. Daliah, unaffected, tore backward, breaking off several of his fingers.
With a choppy scream, Claudia grabbed the man’s head and pulled downward. The statue was softer than sandstone, just like her father had been. His head popped loose and his legs crumbled into powder. Her squeezing force turned his head into a few dirt clogs, dropping along the trailing dust and few remaining solid pieces.
Trembling, her mother made tentative, wet steps under the new hole in the bars, as the powder and loose chunks returned to flesh.
“Claudia…? Is that you…?”
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