Brinne’s knuckle-sharpened knocks came early in the morning, but did not wake Claudia and Rat as intended.
“Alright, Claudia, are you ready?” she said. “The sooner we train you to control your transforming, the better.”
“It’s open,” Claudia said, in a slightly deeper, syrupy voice.
Brinne entered and froze, letting the door swing open. Claudia was barely recognizable in a bisected peplos, sitting on a chair against the wall, leaning back to where its front legs were up off the ground. Everything about this creature before her was subtly feminized to a greater degree, and she was covered in scales the hue of fresh pine straw. Her eyes, while orange, were otherwise normal, as if the reptilian pupils had been a part of her transition.
Atop her scalp, her frizzled locks were replaced with arm’s-length snakes of the same color as the scales, undulating slowly from their bases at her scalp. She was staring at one taloned hand, analyzing the textured hide and how it blended into her scales at the wrists.
Next to her, Rat lay on the bed shirtless, marveling with a grin.
“What did you do?” Brinne rushed for Rat, but Claudia’s snakes hissed all at once, bodies bent and ready to snap forward.
“He helped me transform,” Claudia said as the snakes relaxed. Her presence was unfathomable. Everything seemed a little bit more green, and though Brinne had no interest in women, there were twinges of desire that came just from looking upon her.
“So, your true form is similar to a gorgon,” Brinne said. “They’re believed to be extinct.”
“Beings with impenetrable skin, and snakes atop their heads. Your mother and father likely both had gorgon heritage in them, and it reunited in you to create a true shapeshifter. This… this tells me much. I believe you have the right kind of powers to defeat Cloverra.”
“Well then, let’s get to the training,” Claudia said. “Although, do you mind getting me a new peplos? I got a little dramatic with this one.”
“Fine.” Brinne pointed to Rat from the doorway. “You are staying behind if you aren’t ready when I get back.”
“We’re both bathed, rested, and ready. I’ll be dressed by the time you return.”
Brinne slammed the door, and Rat looked to her.
“What’s her problem?” he asked.
“She probably wanted to see my first transformation.” Claudia stood up. “Rat, this wasn’t just…”
“Hm?” The man seemed far calmer than he ever had before. Even in their most upbeat times together, he had always been a bit nervous, and yet in front of her monstrous form, he was truly relaxed.
“Were you just trying to help me transform?”
“You know the answer to that. But I did want to see your transformation. This…” he motioned up and down at her with both hands, like trying to summon up all the emotions toward a new discovery, “has drawn me to you from the start.”
“And you’re not… attracted to just this form, right?”
“You’re right. Well, I loved it. I really, really needed to feel something good. Especially out of this madness.”
“Me too.” He lurched up from the bed and slipped back into his trousers.
“I know you’re going to roll your eyes, but… what does this mean?”
He looked at her and smiled. “What do you think it means?”
“Please don’t do that.”
“We make a good team, you and I,” he said. “Two strange creatures with powers that could get us chased out of a village. You have raw power and I have superhuman perception. Turns out it also works in the bedroom.”
“So… when something works, keep doing it?”
“Maybe after training, though, before just coming back here, we could… walk together? Explore? Talk? If you’re interested…”
Rat laughed. “I would love that.”
She scratched a hand through her snakes, like fiddling with her hair, and weirdly found it just as natural. The serpents appreciated the strokes from their mother, contorting to help her get a good angle.
Pounding at the door shocked them both into the present moment again. Brinne shouted, “Peplos, here. Training, now.”
Rat and Claudia followed the blonde mage up a long stairway, and eventually into something like sunlight, but constantly shifting in color, like a rainbow.
“Welcome to the magical epicenter of Veminox.”
Towers with conical roofs in a disorderly mix of heights and sizes loomed all around them, and most of the larger towers had branches going horizontally to other smaller towers, like a forest of giant stone cacti. Cobblestone paths served as streets, forming a maze through lush indigo grass. Claudia looked all the way up, and it looked like they were in a gigantic dome painted like the sky.
This is amazing, she thought, as surprisingly strong wind moved around her snakes. It’s like my hair actually cools me down now. That might be the best thing about being a snake woman. Aside from somehow luring a handsome Rat into my nest…
Rat peeked at her for a second and smiled.
Other hooded figures kept their distance, but it was clear that they always walked alone. There were no visible groups sitting together at tables outside the tavern or standing together within the open paths.
“What is this grass?” Rat asked, leaning as he walked to run his fingers through its fat, knife-like blades.
“That is called luondo,” Brinne said. “It’s our main food source, but it only grows in reduced light. Our dome above wards much of the sun’s glare, and creates the right environment for it to thrive. Here we are.”
Ahead was an enormous rectangular pit of wood and rock, with scaffolding and stairs in each of the corners leading down, about as high as jumping from the audience seats in the coliseum to the fighting sands. It stretched ahead like an enormous trough dug into the city, with smaller towers lined all around its edge except for their side.
“What is that?” Claudia asked.
“One of our training grounds,” Brinne said. “Learning magic is dangerous. It has to take place outside, but it’s still best to contain it with walls. Normally, there are classes, but due to the circumstances, they’re delayed and we have the space to ourselves.”
“Oh,” Claudia took a groaning step on the sturdy, cherry-red lacquered wood steps leading down. She had never seen such an open space made to serve people, and now it was all reserved for her. She avoided being humble, as Brinne surely did not care what she thought of it. According to Wisp, capturing the Fey and questioning it was valuable enough to warrant this training.
It was a long way down, and Claudia spoke up just before they were at the bottom, now shown to be covered in the same kind of blue grass—luondo.
“Prevalent little plant.” The gorgon woman took a few steps, and it tickled her ankles.
“Eek!” she said, jumping back to the last wooden steps, causing Rat to back up into Brinne.
“Do you have a problem?” Brinne asked, the rhetorical angle of the question rather severe.
“I was raised in Gorung, I’m not used to grass! It feels strange!”
“It’s not going to bite,” Rat said, gently pushing-grabbing from her shoulders. She stopped and jumped at him, legs around his chest. He heaved and teetered this way and that. “Really, woman?”
“Have some empathy!” She looked down. “Are there any creatures in it?”
“Oh, Seers,” Brinne massaged her temples. “Vermin exist everywhere.”
“Pardon me, but I have to do this,” Rat said.
“Wait,” Claudia said, “what are you—no!”
Rat dropped onto his back and rolled, laughing. The fat blades were like gentle fuzzy hands stroking her scales, and she laughed as well, though more out of a forced response. They rolled a few more times, and the numerous clustered rustles began to feel more natural. Rat let go, laying on his belly with his head tilted up and resting on his hands.
“There. You’ve rolled in grass. Feel normal?”
“…you have earned your name today,” Claudia said, sitting up. “But yes.”
“Right.” He lurched up and pulled Claudia with him when she held up an arm.
“Take this seriously,” Brinne said. “I’m not doing this to be charitable to Mirek or Sallith.”
“That reminds me,” Claudia said, “who are you loyal to?”
“Wisp and Nimb Vard, of course,” Brinne said. “I was ordered to help Sallith. Making this mission a success, bringing the Fey into the custody of Nimb Vard, will bring me into the highest echelons of the Thaumaturges.”
“Fair enough. Shall we begin?” Claudia walked closer to the center of the sapphire field.
“Yes,” Brinne said, and far ahead of all three, one section of the wall began grinding downward, revealing a hulking figure with a moving, fan-like assortment of moving parts near the head. From so far away, it looked a bit like a giant azure version of Claudia.