Near the day’s end, while contemplating what Cole had said, Claudia had finally reverted back to normal. It was a quick and unceremonious thing, marked by her natural hair falling down over her shoulders all at once and seeing her natural desert-girl skin tone in the vanity. Soon after, Brinne arrived, her face shadowed by her hood, and made it irritatingly clear that Claudia had best not be transformed the next time she visited the training grounds.
“I have to know you can transform at will,” Brinne said. “That is essential to our plans. And so help me, you better get some sleep. You must rest your body if you want it to ever transform again.”
And so, despite some tender eagerness to repeat what had already happened once, the two bed-sharing anomalies had to focus on rest.
“Is this frustrating to you?” Rat asked all of a sudden as they lay in the dark. They made sure not to touch each other too closely, aside from one of her hands with his.
“What do you mean, good?”
“It’s nice that we feel the same way,” Rat said, turning slightly under the covers. “Though if I’m being honest, I rather like it when your hair isn’t able to tickle my nose.”
“You’d trade that for snakes, huh?”
“Every time. But your hair isn’t so bad, as far as hair goes.”
“You’re gonna make me prefer being in my gorgon form, aren’t you? I see how you operate!”
They laughed, and Rat wrapped his arms around her, just under her breasts like a man-strophion.
“Want to know something funny?” Rat asked.
“I’m fairly sure that’s the reason Merrian shaved her head. I once complained that being in bed with a long-haired woman inevitably tickled my nose and made me sneeze. By the time I had moved to Mirek, she had adopted her new look.”
“Pretty pathetic,” Claudia mumbled. “And for the record, I hope she’s still conscious inside the Fey and knows how we’re doing.”
Eventually, they both fell asleep, although they woke up in each other’s arms. Rat only sneezed in her face once.
Finally, it was the second day of training Claudia’s shapeshifter abilities. Both Claudia and Rat were well-rested and walking to where Brinne stood in the luondo field.
Brinne’s nose looked like a poorly-made candle, and the cuts along her cheek were so deep Claudia could see the edge of a tooth. The cut muscle would likely reduce her ability to emote even further.
“Thank you for arriving in your human form,” Brinne said. “This time, we need to see if you can transform at will—with no assistance, and without casting a spell. If you can do that, we’ll be in a much better position to mount a surprise attack.”
“I’m ready to try it now.”
Brinne nodded, and Rat stepped back a pace. Claudia remembered the feeling of her body changing. It was like suddenly falling for no reason, mixed with a vibration-filled pull on all of her extremities, yet noticed at the strands of her hair most of all.
When she focused on her hair, it helped, and she could feel it move, though looking at it directly took all her momentum toward transforming away. After a few long and awkward moments, Brinne shook her head.
“It’s all right, transforming without casting is possible, but difficult. It requires a subtlety you’ll likely gain as you transform more. Why don’t we have you cast a spell to transform, and we’ll get started with combat training?”
Claudia put her hand to the ground and transformed a long line of the luondo into brown stone. Some of the thinner leaves snapped at the tips, and Claudia felt everything she had been trying to re-create on her own, ten times over. She exhaled and opened her eyes. The snakes were back, watching and protecting.
“I have picked the right path in life, to be able to see this,” Brinne marveled. She waved to the other end of the pit, and the same section of the vast stone walls lifted, allowing the hecatonchir to walk toward the center of the field, this time with a large mace in each arm. Claudia started sweating, amazed she could still do so in this form.
Yes… I have more control now. I can do this!
Claudia nodded and grinned at Rat before sprinting through the grass.
From the start, Claudia discovered the hecatonchir’s essential weakness. Fitting for their name, The Hundred-Handed, they could not regenerate their legs. As soon as she transformed one long shin and foot into stone, its owner leaped backward carefully and waited for it to return to normal. Once it lost a foot and started throwing hammers that Claudia turned to soft rock, she was certain.
Rat and Brinne stood together at the other end of the sunken expanse of blue vegetation. Rat acted as if Brinne didn’t exist, nodding and raising a fist in triumph at every successful maneuver.
“I understand we’ve gotten to a poor start, you and I,” Brinne said. “For what it’s worth, I hope you can see the point to my methods.”
“Well, it was I who got her to transform…”
“And it was I who pushed her to master her powers this quickly.”
“Heh, fair enough.”
“Nonetheless, I don’t enjoy hurting others with magic. I apologize.”
“Oh, no worries. Claudia took care of it. Apparently her snakes have a venom that actually restores flesh. No scars, either.”
“What? Show me!”
Annoyed, Rat lifted his tunic. His hairless chest looked younger than ever at the once-burned patch, newly wiped clean of all the little nicks and scars he had earned in his lifetime.
“How is that possible? Second-rank spells can seal flesh and restore fractures, but no magic can remove scars. Except for… never mind.”
Rat wanted to say Istel, but knew it would compromise Cole’s generous briefing.
“I’m sure if you apologized to Claudia, you could get your face returned to normal.”
Brinne scoffed. “People always do that.”
“Assume that my beauty is a crucial possession. The Thaumaturges don’t exactly live a life of exhibitionism.”
Rat shrugged and went back to watching. He realized he felt secure enough in her abilities to momentarily take his eyes off Claudia, even in mild danger.
The battle concluded soon after, leaving Claudia untouched, and with the hecatonchir smashed from the legs and upward. Though it rattled Claudia a bit, she could understand the chilling, satisfied look on its face.
“Do not feel guilt,” Brinne said, as they walked back down into the underground levels. “Hecatonchirs breed incessantly and fight each other to the death fairly often.”
“Not exactly brilliant creatures, are they?” Claudia asked. “I suppose my human intelligence combined with these monstrous powers really is quite something.”
“Now you’re seeing it, and there’s so much more. I would like to test if we can extract your venom to make a healing draught, for one thing.”
“A life-saving potion? Now there’s the stuff of silly fantasies,” Rat said. “Still, if it existed, I could rebuild my fortune on something so precious.”
Then they flinched at an explosion of bubbles before them, revealing the Fey, holding a girl halfway to maturity.
“What is this?” Claudia said, as Brinne held up her glowing hands.
“I need your help!” Cloverra said. “Please! This girl needs to be turned to stone.”
“She is bleeding inside, and will die if her body isn’t halted! I can heal her, but not right now.”
“But why are you trying to save her?”
“If she lives,” Cloverra said with heavy emphasis on each word, “it will improve your chances of saving Mirek.”
Unsure of any reason not to, Claudia held out a hand and shone her violet radiance over the girl. When she desired to hurt someone, her petrification turned them into a soft brown rock like hard-packed dirt, easily shattered. This time, however, the girl’s body was turned to sparkling granite.
“Thank you,” Cloverra said, dropping down on the floor and giving its wings a rest.
“Well, don’t wait for our permission,” Rat said. “Please, explain.”
“This is Headsplitter’s daughter,” Cloverra said.
“He has a daughter?” Claudia asked.
“Indeed,” Brinne said. “Sallith captured her in order to force him to be his arena champion.”
So that’s how Sallith got him trapped in a hundred-match agreement, Claudia thought.
“But the elves wounded her terribly,” Cloverra said, sitting up and regrowing its wings. “Juxxa sealed her skin, but her insides are destroyed. He begged for my help, but I have been forced to birth dozens of Chosen every night, which drains me too much. Normally, I could cast an Istel spell and restore her insides, but I’ll need time. I have to go back and birth the next Chosen soon. If you can keep her like that until I return in the morning, I should have enough energy to come back here, restore her flesh, and teleport back to the colosseum before Glaradalle gets suspicious.”
“Surely you realize,” Rat said, “we are not making plans that benefit you. You still care about Mirek, regardless?”
“You plan to overwhelm and capture me as ransom against Glaradalle, yes? I’ll gladly pretend to be captured. We can discuss it when I return. I am on your side, trust me. Furthermore, having Juxxa on our side is necessary. This is a chance to win his loyalty.”
“Well, you were lured into this,” Brinne said, tapping her chin.
“Exactly! I just want this bloodshed to stop, whatever it takes!”
“But how long do I have to keep her in stone form?” Claudia asked.
“The rest of the evening and night. I will only have one other chance to get away in the hour before dawn. We can make plans and I’ll return with the girl. Believe me, the Elven Covenant has overstepped, and I want to stop them forever. But there are things you need to know. You will understand when I return.”
“I don’t know if I can keep this up for—” but before Claudia could finish, the Fey was gone in another bubble swarm.
“Well, then…” Rat mumbled, “that actually, really, just happened.”
“This is a wonderful development,” Brinne said, turning to the gorgon. “Not to mention, you’re good enough in combat for now. This is your next test.”
“What if I pass out?”
“Mages who cast too much at one time risk turning their bodies into dried husks. You, however, are a shapeshifter, and there is a regenerative cycle to the magic you create, as long as you aren’t pushing yourself ludicrously. The only thing holding you back is your mind.”
“So I could lose focus? Surely there’s another mage or Thaumaturge somewhere who knows Vemmite in case of that.”
“I think it’s best no one else knows about this, besides Wisp. Not to mention, the statue of this girl is unique to you. It’s risky for another mage to try and maintain it.”
Brinne waved and rushed down the hallway, past a fiery light orb. Rat shrugged and squatted to get a closer look at the stone girl’s face. “Hate to say it, but I think it’s best to do whatever’s safest for this girl. Juxxa’s rage would be a real threat to us, shapeshifter or no.”
“I’m already nervous,” Claudia whined.
“Just relax,” Rat said, moving behind her to massage her shoulders.
“What if I tried my snake venom?”
“I think we should stick to the plan. Having the Fey cooperate with us is a massive development in our favor. Let’s not risk it.”
“Do me a favor, then, and keep massaging. Massage the snakes, too. I get a lot of tension up there.”
Claudia cooed from the sensations of Rat pressing and stretching her many new muscles, but then he swore and moved his hand back.
“Damn it all, Claudia, they just bit me again!”
“I’m sorry! Where?”
“On the hand, obviously… wait, something’s different. I feel kind of good… like, my feet aren’t as sore as they just were. I didn’t realize it when you healed me the first time, but this venom is kind of pleasant.”
“I think they’re reacting to me being grateful that you’re here with me. I’m starting to think the venom can do whatever I want.”
“Oh… oh, goodness!” Rat said, walking around her and looking up at the ceiling. “A man who can read minds from afar, and a woman who can control minds and bodies from up close. This could be a pairing of legend.”
They stayed together and continued to banter as Claudia grew accustomed to the floaty, uneven feeling of keeping up a spell.