Claudia tore herself loose from unfamiliar, cool sheets that glided over her skin. The feeling was wondrous, sensual, and clean. It smelled oddly pleasant beyond that, something leathery.
She was in a black, claustrophobic room with a bed fit for not quite two people and shoved into the corner of the dark, porous bricks. In her reflection at the vanity, she was in a slip, near transparent due to the thin, pink material. Her body was sore in scattered places, but no worse than that.
A lanky, robed figure leaned against the door, head bowed over. The pattern of gold filigrees on dark gray and black took her back to a day over a month ago.
Where have I seen those robes?
The mage snapped awake and rose to a better posture, chest out, and Claudia saw the curves of a bust. Then she studied the face, one she had only seen for a flash.
“You look like… no.”
“Yes. I’m the mage who put you to sleep when you broke into Sallith’s treasure room. My name is Brinne.” Some of her perfectly straight hair slipped from the confines of her hood. It was pure honey-blond, like that of the humans from southern Veminox, all the way on the other side of the continent.
Claudia sat up straight and inched away on the mattress, pressing her back to the cool and faintly moist rock. “Where am I?” Then a fragment of a memory came back to her. “Where’s my mother?”
“She is safe here, just like you,” Brinne said. “Welcome to my home; you are at Nimb Vard.”
“This is Nimb Vard?”
“Yes. You’ve been here almost a day.”
“How do you know me?”
“I am a friend of your mother; I am also the contact you were supposed to meet in case you needed to flee Mirek. Only, I have been observing, and knew you’d be captured. It all fit into that Merrian’s schemes too well, and we share a common enemy in her. I was looking for a chance to free you, but it seems you handled that yourself. After your… episode, I made my presence known. Daliah and I escaped with you unconscious.”
Claudia could remember reaching out to that jailer, and the intense pressure of something not quite physical, and not quite hers. Then she saw it again: his head coming off, breaking into clods, and then the puddle of what remained, a jagged stew of liquefied viscera, shredded armor, and crumbs of flesh. In the moment, she had thought she was seeing her father again.
She put a hand to her forehead, and that seemed to quell the images. “You know Merrian? She just let me go, like she wanted to see if I’d kill Sallith or go after my mother.”
“Strange. That woman does nothing impulsively, so I can only wonder why she’d do that.”
“You saw me, then?” Claudia asked. “Did I… cast a spell?”
“Indeed. You seem to have aptitude all the way to Vemmite.”
“The fifth rank of magic.”
“But I don’t understand. All of a sudden I can turn people to stone?”
“You likely heard some of this from Merrian,” Brinne said. “But I’ll make it simple. You are what happens when a mage and Ozarian breed. A shapeshifter. Sometimes, the child is a stillborn, but not in your case. And yes, shapeshifters can cast spells. But they tend to gain aptitude later than mages or Ozarians. You can use magic, but when you cast a spell, it morphs your body into something non-human. A monster.”
“But I’m normal now… right?” She ran a hand through her hair. It needed a wash, but was fine. In the moment, it had felt bizarrely light, as if it was being gently pulled by something.
“Yes. If you don’t use magic while transformed, you’ll return to normal. Daliah and I carried you to safety through a portal in the Mirek Palace.”
“You got both of us through the palace?”
“I am in a special position in the King’s service. The guards know not to bother me. It must have been half a day after entering Nimb Vard, and just like that, you returned to normal, in that bed. The most fascinating thing I’ve seen in a long time.”
Claudia looked around the room, but saw nothing familiar. The idea that she was over a hundred miles south of Mirek seemed unfathomable.
“Can I stop myself from transforming?”
“Of course. If you don’t want to unintentionally transform, just don’t cast spells. I’ll gladly teach you to control your powers. Oh, and you didn’t transform—not entirely. You came close, but your body and mind couldn’t take it. Likely due to your captivity.”
Claudia hugged her knees, reveling in the feeling of having control over her limbs.
“Were you tortured?”
“Ah, that would work. If I wanted to keep you from transforming, I would have worn your body down as much as possible, because the stress is massive. I’ve studied shapeshifter legends most of my life, but seeing someone change up close? Unimaginable.”
Not a caretaker by nature, this one, Claudia thought. “Does this have anything to do with my skin?”
“What do you mean?”
“It can’t break, or rip, or whatever. Not even…”
“Shapeshifters are said to retain some aspect of their monstrous form at all times. Seems that for you, it’s either durable or impenetrable skin.”
“So many of my bones were broken and dislocated,” Claudia mumbled. “Then, in hardly any time at all, I could move. I feel almost normal now.”
“That may be another factor. It’s said that shapeshifters have more advantages, as implied by the name. Your body can likely reshape itself to heal far faster than a human.”
Claudia looked up with no expression.
“Pardon. A normal human.”
The look persisted.
“Look, that’s all I’ve got. I can’t lie to you and say you’re normal. In some circles, you are further from humans than elves are.”
“I don’t understand why this is happening… did someone do something to me?”
“Like I said, it was always in your blood. Your intense emotions finally made you into a fitting vessel.”
“Emotions? I’ve always been emotional!”
“Really? As much as the past month? Driven out of your line of work, starved, caught invading the palace, doing all you can to reward the one man who saved you? I could go on.”
Claudia stared at her. Then she remembered the strange way her eyes changed from green to fiery orange when she was truly angered. It had been that way for as long as she could remember. Perhaps that was the tiny bit of transforming she could always do, before her true metamorphosis.
Regardless, if it could be made so that it would only happen at will, then it’s a simple matter of getting the training and never doing it again.
“Where is my mother, specifically?”
“The dining hall. I’ll let you dress, and we can get started.” Brinne opened the door and pointed to a bundled magenta peplos.
“Started with what?”
“We’ll explain what happened once everyone’s together.” Brinne stopped and peeked through. “Oh, and it’s not all that bad, you know. When it comes down to it, you have a gift.”
Over half of the Nimb Vard complex was underground, in cold, dank tunnels. Every floor seemed perpetually lined with just enough water to make Claudia’s bare feet splash, yet there was no rotting odor, no dips or flaws that led to puddles, and the stone was so porous that there was no chance of slipping.
In place of sunlight, every few paces the wall held a recessed orb the size of a melon, with a raging flame that revealed the light green tinge of the rock.
They reached an open area, with a much higher roof and huge oil lamps instead of the fire spheres, supporting a more delicate and natural decor. This must have been an honored guest dining room.
“Claudia!” a familiar man’s voice said. She rushed toward a dark-haired man falling out of his chair from all the way down the long table.
They slammed into a hug, and over Rat’s shoulder, she saw her mother running around the long table, beaming. “Momma, you’re safe, too?”
“She’s only been here as long as you,” Rat said. “The Fey transported me here. I was trying to find the best way back to Mirek, when all of a sudden you showed up. And, by the Seers, were you… different.” Rat was blushing as he remembered her transformed state. She could only imagine how disturbing she had looked.
“I heard about that,” Claudia said, separating and turning to her mother. She, too, wore magenta, but in sturdier robes that suited her better, although, never before had she seen her mother in such pristine clothing.
“I need to apologize,” Rat said, turning her gaze back to him. “I could have been braver, told you what Merrian was really like. What she’s done in the past. If I had just said it in your room… it’s like she knew I wouldn’t. That I’d come to her instead.”
I have something important to tell you about that, Claudia thought, startling him. He had already gotten used to not being around her busy, clear mind. Later.
“You told her what you told us, right?” Daliah said to Brinne. The blonde mage walked closer tentatively, as if she disliked bigger groups.
“I’ve gone over the essentials. It’s time to hear from him.”
“Him?” Claudia asked. Then a man cleared his throat, and she realized that Sallith was seated at the head of the table, his chin on his conjoined hands, and his three sons taking the side chairs closest to him. He was still in his black drake leather, with the ivory bow leaning on the table by his leg.
“Claudia,” Rat started, “don’t do anything rash. I know it might seem insane, but we should hear what he has to say.”
Sallith turned his eyes to the chairs past those of his sons, including the one Rat had tipped over in his haste to get to Claudia. She could barely contain the desire to grab for his bow, or dig her nails into his throat, as she trailed Rat to his seat. She sat next to him, and lay a hand over the dish and cutlery of the one next to her. Daliah’s hand touched hers, reassuring her daughter that she would be right next to her.
“Your two fighters,” Sallith said to Rat. “Kaj and Kimora. You would want to know, I presume, that Kaj died in battle against Juxxa.”
“Juxxa…oh, Headsplitter,” Rat said, looking to Claudia. “Poor man gave him hell, though, right?”
“I… I did see the battle,” Claudia said. “Or, most of it. Yes, he did.”
“Kaj got the far better fate than Kimora,” Sallith said. “He was consumed by the Fey.”
“Consumed?” Claudia asked. “As in eaten?”
“In order to understand, I will have to tell you something. In order for all of you to understand many things, I need to tell you about something that happened to me. When you hear this story, I think most of you, maybe even all, will find reason to sympathize with the decisions I’ve made.”
Brinne, Daliah, Rat, and the three boys were unaffected, until some of them noticed Claudia, whose face was a bust of serenity, while her hands gripped the table edges tight enough to make subtle cracks. It even looked like her nails were getting longer, stabbing into the thick, durable boards.
“I know you did not kill me when you had an opportunity,” the King said to her. “You have my thanks, I suppose. You fought against your greatest drive.”
“My greatest drive, then, was to save my mother. Now tell your story.”