It was silent enough to notice the absence of wind as the gigantic creature stomped over the luondo and approached. It was over ten feet tall, hairless, and nude, like a living sapphire statue. Above all else, the creature stood out due to the twenty-plus arms Claudia watched with a newfound, predator's vision. Four were crossed, but a swarm of others, similar to the snakes coming from Claudia’s head, were organized in a fan of equally bulky limbs spreading out from the back and sides.
“What is that?” Claudia asked, snakes hissing.
“It is called a hecatonchir,” Brinne said. “Or, the hundred-handed. It is the monster that Headsplitter’s Ozarian bloodline originates from.”
“What’s it doing here?” Rat asked, his hand gripping the pommel of his sheathed dagger.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Fey is the world’s greatest monster. If you want to have a chance at defeating it, you’ll need to be experienced fighting some of the stronger ones. Defeat the hecatonchir. That’s your test.”
The thing had translucent skin, belying an azure far deeper than those of thyra eggs or even the luondo, the deepest blue Claudia had ever seen. Although that only pronounced the redness within its bulging white and black veins.
So this is my first time seeing a monster. Other than, I suppose, looking in the mirror.
“Not only are they one of the most intelligent monsters, capable of speech when taught, but they adore combat and are universally aggressive toward other monsters. This one has been trained from birth.”
“Brinne, you want me to fight to the death? I was expecting some actual teaching.”
Addressing the monster, Brinne pointed to Claudia. “Kill!”
The thing rushed at her, making vast strides with its powerful legs. A frontal kick nearly blasted her across the space, but she instinctually dodged, clawing the thing’s tender skin with a swipe.
Seers’ sake! Claudia thought as the hecatonchir jumped back, watching with a broad-jawed face, free of vocalizations or grimaces.
“You’re psychotic!” Rat shouted. “This is your mage training? She should be learning what spell ranks she can cast and learning to control them!”
“Mages learn that way,” Brinne said. “Ozarians, Thaumaturges, they all learn that way. But shapeshifters usually must be motivated to use the magic inside them.”
The thing approached once more. The sheer size and the arms folding inward made her roll back, but one hand grabbed her by the ankle. Just like that, she was tasting dirt and feeling her neck crack, surprisingly low and deep, at the top of her chest. The force of the thing slamming her into the ground caused the blood in her head and fingertips to pool there, making it seem like they’d explode.
Then it hung her in the air and squeezed, popping her ankle. The intense, focused sting of the fracture awoke her, and she blasted a foreign energy from her upside-down position, just like when she feared for her mother’s life, turning the hand grabbing her into soft stone that crumbled with a tug of her leg.
I’m in pain, but I’m not afraid. I won’t be.
Spitting out dirt, Claudia limped away while the thing analyzed its missing hand. The stump that remained turned back to flesh, causing a spurt of blood.
“She’s been tortured enough already!” Rat shouted from an ever-increasing distance. The hecatonchir did not like to wait for its opponent to act, and had been leading the fight further and further from the other two, and away from the supervision of its master, Brinne.
The biped creature cartwheeled with the grace of an acrobat, each limb forming a deep handprint under the crushed leaves, and ended with a brutal chop from seven or eight hands all at once. Fortunately, Claudia was getting the feel for casting Vemmite petrification spells. The fingers of each hand were left in the dirt, and once restored, the thing had a steady stream of blood from its missing digits along one side.
She realized that all the other times she had drawn a weapon, like her letter opener when Sallith had caught her months ago, she hadn’t been fighting. Not truly. This was her first fight to the death, with nothing held back, and none of her ever-thinking mind trained on nonviolent alternatives. She was focused only on her opponent and her slowly re-mending ankle. It was strangely clean and pleasant, like the central solace keeping her present and unafraid against a wall of shifting terror.
I can do this. Let’s go deeper.
Claudia reached into her feelings, then her sensations, and then something lower, a vast source inside her. She could not possibly describe it, and indeed there was no way someone could explain with words how to see that deeply into herself. This was the way to summon the urges that until now had been yanked by reflex.
She focused on the arms. Change to stone and crumble.
When the hecatonchir advanced once more, she showered three arms completely in amethyst light, leaving them gray and cracking off at the stumps.
“Is that all?” Claudia taunted the beast as the pain in her neck waned. Holy Seers, I did it! I used magic while being in control!
The hecatonchir stood straight and looked at the large chunk missing in its fan of arms. The stumps bulged at their severed ends, and formed balloons of film that wiggled as they grew. With a bloody splatter, the balloons gave way to completely restored extremities, fresh and wet wrists and fingers testing their normalcy.
Oh, wonderful. That explains the hundred-handed title.
It was clear who could recover faster, as the behemoth swung one side of its hands in a slap that she tried to petrify. Though it was her plan in the moment, this only caused several hand-shaped clubs of rock to crack against her side and send her tumbling, uprooting the luondo where she slid.
Claudia leaned and sidestepped to her feet. Her skin was unbreakable, but this didn’t stop it from hurting when it was struck so flatly. Before she could think of anything else, the thing had her grabbed and hanging in front of it, several hands holding each of her limbs in place.
No, no! How does it move so fast? How can it rush in at just the right time? Was it that confident? I thought I put up more fight than that—
Thoughts came loose and frayed to fibers. It squeezed and tugged, breaking apart her skeleton, and she was there again. Merrian was cranking the wheel of the rack.
Without her hands, she couldn’t cast. Grunting, she tried to look up at the thing’s face, judging its ashen, pupil-less eyes. Then, a flash of purple in her vision caused its head to tilt up in agony, as its head, torso, body, limbs, and onward turned into sandstone like being caught up in a wave. Soon she could wriggle her way into shattering off the arms that held her, but not much else.
For all her invincible skin, it only left her a bag of broken pieces. Relief dulled her inner wounds, but by now even her initial ankle wound had not completely healed.
Can’t move… but I can petrify with my gaze, too, it seems. Have to break it, before it changes back. Come on…
It was hopeless. Like a trampled serpent, she could not even raise her head to gaze into its eyes again. The thing began to step backward, shocked but secure, and then came the wet sounds of the severed parts ballooning and coming back.
“Enough!” Brinne shouted, her voice augmented by some kind of spell. There were only footfalls, the fastest accompanied by Rat’s shaking voice.
“Claudia!” He was kneeling next to her, hands on her back. “It’s gone now. Are you alright? Can I move you?”
“I… think so.”
“So, it seems you also have the ability to cast by locking eyes. That is a less-documented trait of gorgons,” Brinne said as Rat laid Claudia face-up, like setting a delicate tile. “We’ve made good progress assessing your abilities. I just wish I had more time—I’d like to not use methods like this.”
Despite what Brinne had done, Claudia smiled at Rat’s hands propping her head, and all the unpleasant sensations withered. But then she noticed smoke in the air. His shoulder and left pectoral had a furious burn mark under a hole in his tunic, the color of raw meat.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Oh, Brinne,” Rat said. “Don’t worry—”
Before she could even think about stopping herself, Claudia wrenched out of his grasp and rose as much as possible, whipping her broken arm and clawing Brinne’s face, scraping the facial bones. Stumbling backward, the mage lowered her hood and repeatedly wiped blood from her chin. Her nose was cut through, and her lips were missing so much flesh that the blood could not conceal it. Brinne did not scream or cry out, but then finally released a long, nauseous hum.
“You dare hurt him?” Claudia said.
“H-he was threatening me to stop-p the battle,” she wetly mumbled, shaking her head as Rat stood up and backed away. “Go ahead, disfigure me, remove my arms, it matters not as long as I live to see our objective completed.”
“You can’t be serious,” Rat whispered.
“Clearly you haven’t you heard the rumors of what’s under the cloak of a Thaumaturge. One way or the other, I’ll ascend, and that means shedding this worthlessly banal flesh. I will have the appearance worthy of my expanded power.” She turned around. “Now then, I need to check a mirror to heal these wounds, and you’ve surely had enough of me for one day. You should be healed enough to walk soon, if you concentrate. I’ll let Rat walk you back to your room. Or explore the city. Wisp gave you the freedom.”
Brinne left them there, both staring at her, and then at each other.
“’You dare hurt him?’ eh?”
Claudia laughed at his imitation. “I don’t want you all banged up.”
He lay down with her, and suddenly shifted away.
“What is it?”
“One of your snakes had its mouth open, fangs bared, and was looking at me,” Rat said, sat up and brushing his pant legs.
“Wait, let it do it,” she said. “I think it will help you. Reduce the pain or something. Something in me knows… it won’t hurt.”
“That doesn’t make me any less nervous about taking a snake bite!”
“You had the guts to toss me around in bed,” she said with a smirk. “Can you trust me on this?”
He looked at the bared fangs, and then her, slowly inching his way closer and laying back more. Then he lifted his shirt enough to cover up his face and eyes.
“I should have expected something like this, honestly,” Rat said. “I get intimate with a snake woman and then her snakes learn to love biting me. Perfect way of keeping us apart. Should be the story to a play or something.”
“You’re such a man, Rat. I don’t know anyone else who would say yes, in your position.”
“Just warn me when—by the skin of my ass!” he recoiled with two red dots appearing in the center of his burnt patch. But then they vanished, and outward from where the bite marks had been, the skin started breaking and crumbling. “Oh, Seers! Oh… wait.”
The old, dead flesh came off in chunks, like the dried, broken mud of a drought, and in less time than it had taken to remove his shirt, he had new, fresh skin in its place, flawless and slightly paler than the rest of him. The snake, whichever one it was among her twenty (they had counted), showed no further desire to bite.