The cloaked Ven Quari ordered Cloverra to transport them all to the colosseum, but Claudia found everyone gone, and instead she was in an open dome-like cavern of perfectly smooth and shiny black rock.
Obsidian? And not bricks… she thought, scrambling up as she noticed a ring of bright-legged crimson millipedes hurrying away from her.
“Welcome to my retreat,” Wisp said, his buzzing voice sending shivers across her back, so direct it felt like her scars were being stroked. She twisted around and saw him there, towering from only one step away. She hadn’t looked up his hood before, and something kept that area totally occluded. “Welcome to the inside of the Obsidian Mountains. I used Vemmite magic, just like yours, to carve out this completely sealed interior. Like Cloverra, I have mastered all six ranks. I warped us here with Istel, just like the Fey.”
“You might as well get to the point of whatever you want, or whatever you’re going to do,” Claudia said. “Then I can decide whether to turn you into sandstone chunks.”
“Oh, Claudia…” Wisp held up an arm, and Claudia was hurled upward, slamming into the very top of the ceiling. She expected to fall back down, but instead was stuck there as if it were the new floor. “My powers may not be native, but I have been honing them for years.”
Claudia screamed as her chest winked open like eyelids and blood poured through her pink robes in thick lines. Her body closed once more, and the Ven Quari allowed her to fall. She tried to control her landing as best she could, slipping in her blood and slamming her head, to the chagrin of the snakes.
“Your skin may be indestructible,” Wisp said, “but all living matter obeys the commands of Istel. With rank six, I can change your hide so that your skin naturally opens up to bleed you out. I can cause extra skin folds to seal up your eyes. I can do many things the Fey can, and unlike Cloverra, I have spent years mastering the ways I can use it on others.”
“I don’t get it,” Claudia said, panting as she rose. “Cloverra said the Ven Quari want to understand magic. But you can use it?”
“I am the only one of my kind who can. I found a way. Since you’re intelligent, I’m sure you’ve figured out that it involves shapeshifters. That’s why I made you. Now, I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to learn from the Fey. It has knowledge of my fellow Vens that I’d like to know. So here’s what I’m willing to do, Claudia. I will guarantee the safety of you, your loved ones, and even a limited selection of others in Mirek if you so choose. All will be safe and untouched.”
“And in exchange?” Claudia asked, though the jurist side of her knew that this was entirely taking, not an exchange. She could barely stand the itching heat of this thing’s presence: the exact opposite of the unnerving yet stable coolness of Cloverra.
“In exchange, you will agree to do something for me. You will know what it is later, but you will agree now. You see, I require more laxxars, and laxxars come from shapeshifters. That is all I can tell you for now.”
“Tell me what creating these laxxar things entails.”
“You have listening problems, Claudia. Perhaps I shouldn’t have had you raised by your own parents.”
She gulped and tried to stand tall.
“Do as I ask, or Rat and Daliah die. You are a developed shapeshifer now. You are ready.”
Claudia realized that her entire life was designed by this creature before her. There should have been no more mystery to what was happening to her, with a single person to pin its origins onto, and yet Claudia felt less informed and even more powerless. Laughter clamored at her ribcage like a desperate prisoner.
Wisp cocked his hood. “Laughter?”
“My fear is vindicated, at least. I knew deep down this power was a curse. I can still be glad that for one whole day I actually thought it might not be.” Thank you, Rat.
“I have no idea what to tell you. You magic-born beings are fraught with pointless sorrows.”
“You’ll let me save other people in the city? Whoever I choose?”
“Actually, that boon is now canceled, for being stubborn. I must teach you to obey, after all.”
“…you have a deal,” Claudia said with a sigh. “Just save my mother, and Rat.”
Wisp nodded and reached upward with its cloaked arms, until the heavy material fell backward and exposed long, spined, roach-brown shafts that did not look like the hands of any species she had any knowledge about.
“I will partially undress you. Do not be alarmed.”
Those “hands”, or rather feelers, peeled back the thing’s hood, and Claudia, the woman who thought herself a fearsome monster, fell backward and stared at the ceiling of this inexplicably lit cavern inside a mountain.
“You have seen what no lower being may ever see. That is the signature of our agreement.” A Vextrus spell hovered her toward the now cloak-less, apparently winged deformity.
She wanted to scream out in defiance, demanding to know what was being done to her, but instead she kept looking away, face deadened, unable to even look at the thing as the bristles of its many limbs jabbed hard at her, testing the durability of her skin as it held her close enough to the thing’s torso that her insides burned.
Claudia’s mind drifted to polished, all-encompassing memories of her father, tipping her over the bed, peplos lowered, to trace thin cuts over the tender small of her back at the same places that they had healed before. She saw only the floor from where she lay with her head dangling over her bedding, terrified and confused. Here, there was familiarity and limitation. Claudia now knew what those memories were, and why her father was doing that to her. It was awful, but could now be explained and understood.