Rat, Daliah, and the others waited in the lowest place connected to the colosseum: a hastily-dug oblong dirt cavern with two wooden beams, and a single narrow stairway allowing passage in or out. That, however, was blocked by a small metal portcullis, also hastily made with the innocuous skymetal. All but Sallith stayed as far away from the locked exit as possible, reducing the burn in their nose from proximity to the anti-magic, certainly Ven Quari creation.
They had only just started to calm down when Wisp and Claudia teleported inside, releasing not bubbles, but instead tiny, hectic millipedes that scrambled into whatever crevice they could be unseen, which in this case was nowhere.
“Claudia!” Rat and Daliah shouted, rushing to her from the far wall. Wisp held up a hand to them and Claudia hissed, but the otherworldly beast clarified.
“I just need to say a few things to her before I leave.” Wisp turned to Claudia. “Do not tell anyone what you saw or what we did. I doubt you could understand it enough to explain, but even so, do not try.”
“Are you really going to help Glaradalle?” Claudia asked, eyelids low. She somehow felt much more tired than before. “Are you going to purge Mirek?”
“Yes. There must be another Fey, so you might as well make peace with that fact, and forget anyone you knew in Mirek.”
“Oh.” She lay back, unsurprised.
“Goodbye for now, Claudia. And one more thing: do not, I repeat, do not let yourself change back into your human form until I return. Do you understand? You will absolutely die if you turn back into a human before the process is complete. If you die, I will personally ensure that Rat and Daliah perish in the most revolting way possible.”
“I will return in three days.” Wisp was gone and millipedes poured into existence where he last stood, although as a kindness, the prior ones instantly vanished.
“Did he hurt you?” Rat asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Claudia looked at him, then at her mother, two figures who would be terrified for her the more they knew.
She sighed and closed her eyes. “This was all a trick,” she said. “Wisp is on Glaradalle’s side. He only wanted to bloom my shapeshifter powers.”
“Claudia, what’s wrong? You’re scaring me.” Rat propped up her face with care. He nervously looked to Daliah. “That worthless impostor Thaumaturge must have done something.”
From across their large cell, by the packed boxes of rationed prisoner food, Brinne stepped forward.
“He can’t be an imposter,” Brinne said. “Wisp is the greatest magical human, the Archmage of all Thaumaturges. He can’t be a Ven Quari. You may believe Cloverra’s claim to this, but I will not.”
Before anyone else could reply, Daliah yanked the mage around from behind and punched her in the face hard enough to send her tumbling. “You were the first to trust the Fey when it first arrived in Nimb Vard, Brinne! And where was your faith in Wisp just now when he brought back my daughter, after doing who knows what? You were the furthest person from him in the room.”
“Let’s stay calm, please,” Cole said, breaking away from his father and brothers in their corner. “We have even less chance of getting out of this alive, let alone protecting Mirek, if we fall apart here.”
“I agree,” Sallith said, standing by his shortest boy. “Wisp, and his hospitality, was the foundation of our alliance. It says much if we maintain it without him.”
There was silence amid the muffled, distant screaming of more victims being fused into Cloverra up above. Everyone looked to Claudia, who kept her eyes shut but still felt their gaze.
She knew they needed to know what had happened to her, and what Wisp said. She even wanted to help, but the foreign ache under her ribcage was too great. Rest pulled her down from every joint, like a puppet tied to a sinking anchor.
Wisp appeared on the sands of the colosseum pit, and the fragile millipedes curled up in the brutal sun, even with an off-tan sky.
“Welcome, my glorious overseer,” Glaradalle said, kneeling and placing both palms in the sand. His other four elves followed suit. Cloverra watched behind them, hands pulling at each other and wings retracted. “The Fey revealed the truth to me as soon as it returned, per your instructions. Would you like a report on our progress, oh perfect one?”
“We have successfully converted nearly a twentieth of this city’s population in a matter of days. Every wealthy elite is gone, and we have proceeded into the greater mass of commoners. Everything is—”
“Where is your laxxar?”
“Er, right here, my lord.” Glaradalle snapped his fingers, and the rearmost elf brought the unlocked case. The leader opened it and cradled it in both hands.
“Ah, that is a fine specimen,” Wisp said, causing it to float up to his dark hood with an unspoken, flawless Vextrus spell. “May I ask how you came across it?”
“I believe his name was Tuft. Another incredible Ven Quari such as yourself who supplied it to us. It is meant to be broken when the task is complete, or if, perish the thought, we are not successful so that he can intervene.”
“Ah, Tuft. I know him well. He is one of my brothers. A liberal sort with laxxars, seeing as he gave you a second one.”
“Ah, you knew—”
“Of course I knew. We can hear from the darkness of space when a laxxar is wasted.”
“I’m afraid Tuft encouraged that one to be used, in case of difficulties,” Glaradalle said, motioning to his left. Standing a fair distance away, the pommel of his white maul stuck into the sand, was Reginald.
“It’s an honor, Ven,” the skymetal man said. Glaradalle knew better than to challenge his newfound informal tone. The metal human had actually walked on Ven Quari ships, and was reborn through them.
“Explain yourself,” Wisp said.
“I am an experiment by Tuft. I have always served, even as a human. I ensured that Claudia was not harmed too early, when Glaradalle tried the experiment with having her caught in the King’s treasure room. Now I am an enforcer, reborn in skymetal. I was chosen because I worship Latalla. I will do anything to see her restored.”
“The sight of a human built from skymetal is distasteful to the highest degree,” Wisp said, “but you seem loyal. I’d be lying if I said I understand Tuft’s methods.”
“You’ll find none more loyal,” Reginald said with a bow.
“You may not. Our world is very different from yours, and much is lost in translation into your wet, sloppy tongue-and-lip phonetics.”
“I apologize immensely.”
“Now then, you say that in several days you’ve converted only a twentieth of the population? That’s far too slow. There are too many variables that could complicate matters at this rate. I want the remaining population converted within the next three days.”
“That’s not possible!” Cloverra said. “I am exhausted as it is, my lord. Please, see reason!”
“Yet you have the energy to heal young girls with rank-six spells, and teleport to and from the city.”
Cloverra blocked its eyes with an arm and fell to its knees.
“You clearly need to be kept busy,” Wisp said. “Now then, I’ll be taking this laxxar.”
It vanished into the darkness of his hood, followed by sounds of piercing and funneled liquid. “I will be checking in on you every day, and I have reliable methods to contact my fellow Ven, Tuft included.”
“You honor me with the promise of more appearances,” Glaradalle said. “Anything you ask as recompense, name it, I beg you.”
“Leave the shapeshifter and those other captives alone. It is important that they are contained, but in no more distress than necessary. Claudia in particular. The shapeshifter is going through something very special.”