Claudia had not brought him to her home just to have some pie. She had wanted to know his issues with Merrian. That was what kept Rat rushing along the stones in the road, his shadows appearing and then shortening away as he passed under each lantern.
When Rat returned to the atheneum, it was much quieter. Night had mellowed the shadows with the five moons and the more even light of stars, allowing a complex spread of lanterns to fight back shadows.
Rat found Merrian cleaning a cupboard in the teacher lounge, polishing the dust off a series of white porcelain figurines.
“Greetings, beau,” she said.
“Don’t call me that.”
“You’re visiting me after dark, without your new girl. Pardon me for assuming what you want.”
“New girl? You ask me to pardon you for an assumption right as you make another.”
“Much as I’d love to keep up this dance, I’m busy,” she said, setting down an obsidian child figurine. “Do you need something?”
“I had a few questions, if that’s alright.”
Silence passed, then from Merrian, “Yes, I’m listening, go on!”
“The first: do you know what kind of monster Headsplitter is related to?”
“Ah, an interesting question. I’ll have to ask some of my connections. But no, I do not.”
“I see,” he said. “Next, I was wondering if you could tell me the ranks of magic. I’d like an idea of what Headsplitter might use if he gets cornered.”
“You don’t know them?”
“I know some. Can you give me a rushed course?”
“You’re welcome to sit in with the children,” she said with a wicked smirk.
“Very amusing. So?”
“Mages call upon the rank they use, using the words to switch to different ranks as needed. There are some mages who do not need to speak the word clearly. Some not at all. This makes them far more dangerous, as there is no warning as to what kind of spell they can cast. I doubt Headsplitter’s skills are that great, however.”
So Kaj and Kimora will have warnings at least, if Headsplitter casts, he thought.
“The stronger the rank, the more draining it is to use. The first rank is Leftivacus. It creates heat, light, fire, and warmth. Its greatest spells can call forth lightning. Then we have rank two: Vextrus, which seals, binds, pulls, and draws together. They are both common among even basic-trained mages, so Headsplitter should also be able to use them.”
“I know of those. What else?”
“Rank three is Gurrendal. It produces darkness and cold. At its strongest, Gurrendal creates something called crystal ivory.”
“Ice that never melts. It’s used here, secretly, and in the base of the Colosseum to keep it unnaturally cool. Don’t go spreading that around, though.” Now that Merrian had stated it, Rat’s teeth were chattering as he stood here, cooled beyond comfort without the sun.
“And after Gurrendal?”
“Torrach. The fourth rank cuts, frees objects, and pushes things away. If we’re unlucky, Headsplitter’s skills reach this point. In the war, mages used Torrach to stop arrows with invisible shields.”
“And what’s beyond Torrach?”
“I’m not certain. You must understand, each rank is more difficult for a mage to achieve, and more tightly guarded from all but the Thaumaturges. Rank five surely exists, but they guard that knowledge. I don’t know if there are higher ranks.”
“Is there a rank that could turn someone to stone?”
“As I recall…there are stories of the Thaumaturge war that describe such a thing. Never permanently, but long enough to smash them before the target turns back. If I had to guess, I would say that rank five has such potential.”
What frightening power her mother has, Rat thought.
“Are you done, beau?”
“Don’t push me. Last question: in that lecture you gave, a girl asked what happens when an Ozarian and mage sire a child. I’d like to know.”
“Pure curiosity.” And the desperate need to know what I’m dealing with.
“Blood from two converse legacies: a monster grandmother and a monster grandfather. When they reunite, you get something… peculiar. They are called Shapeshifters.”
Rat had no guarantee that Claudia’s father had been an Ozarian, and he doubted he’d get confirmation from her.
“I’ll tell you this, Rat: if you know anyone who you suspect may be a Shapeshifter, you need to inform the royal attendants immediately.”
“I didn’t say I do.”
“I know, but that’s the severity of the danger.”
“Why is that?” Rat swallowed his pooling spit.
“Based on my readings, Shapeshifters are unpredictable. They defy all the rules of a common magic user, mage or Ozarian. Magical aptitude is supposed to blossom in the transition out of childhood. It’s supposed to require constant learning and practice to ascend the ranks. It’s supposed to cost the user’s vigor, wearing them down if they repeatedly cast spells without rest, especially at higher ranks. None of these facts are true for Shapeshifters.”
“So what is true about them?”
“The problem with that question is that they’re so rare, and the few stories of them so contradictory, that I couldn’t tell you. There is only one consistency: if their powers do blossom, and are nurtured, they will not stay in a ‘human’ form. The magic will change them into some kind of monster, hence the name. What kind all depends, most likely on the Shapeshifter’s parents and lineage.”
“Well, that’s all I was wondering,” he said, starting to turn away. “Thanks for the information, Merrian.”
I don’t think that’s what you’re really thankful for. She thought the words clearly, practically speaking them into his mind.
“Meaning?” he mumbled.
Rat, you’re standing in a giant wealth of knowledge, and there are other librarians. You could have asked for vague guidance on where to search in this place. Instead, you come to me and ask directly. Come to grips with your feelings, because I’m getting impatient.
Don’t humor her with a response, he thought, walking down with his dominant hand kept hanging loose and open, to resist squeezing it into a fist.
Claudia saw Rat’s shadowed form, athletic when viewed from below him, from her position at the base of the steps. He descended, going slower.
“Claudia? Did you follow me?”
“You can’t run away,” she said. “Five paces, that’s what you said. I can follow you from far enough away that you won’t hear my thoughts.”
“What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is that you’re afraid to do what you agreed to do: tell me your issues with Merrian. I honestly thought that showing you… what I showed you would help. Instead, you run away like a scared boy.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I tried being lighthearted about this, and then intimate. But the more you stay silent, the more you worry me. Speak.”
“It’s happening!” Merrian’s voice suddenly shouted from the top of the steps. Both Rat and Claudia turned to look at her. If they had looked in the opposite direction, to where Merrian was calling, Rat might have saved himself. “Do it now!”
It happened in less time than it took to gasp. Claudia turned and witnessed the rarest creature in all of her world’s known history floating up the steps, thanks to two silky, transparent wings—somewhere between those of a bat and butterfly.
It was a Fey, the legendary ancestors of the elves. She had only ever seen them illustrated in children’s storybooks, but it was unmistakable. Their bodies were nude, hairless, and featured no genitals, nipples, or other such features besides a charming smile.
“What the Seers—”
Her skin felt both hot and smothered in mint oil. Its presence overwhelmed Claudia in a way she didn’t understand. Once Rat had turned around as well, arms raising out of instinct, the creature hugged him.
There was a rush of tiny bubble-like disturbances all around Rat and the Fey, like the two had just fallen into water together. Then those bubbles disappeared, leaving no one but Claudia and Merrian, the latter of whom sighed with her full voice, as if this had been unavoidable.