Though Claudia and Rat talked for much of the night, soon her spell took up more of her mind and became a trance. Rat found a way of crouching on the perpetually moist floor of the Nimb Vard tunnels that prevented him from getting wet and without having to change position for several minutes, but rest was impossible. It was soon more of a challenge for his endurance than hers.
Brinne had taken her time to inform the others, delaying so that none of them would rush to Claudia. It was nearly time now, and Brinne gathered Daliah, Sallith, Pali, Maximus, and Cole. When they were all together, Rat was the first to speak.
“I’m losing my mind here. How much longer until Cloverra comes back?”
“The Fey said the final hour before dawn,” Brinne said. “It is now time.”
“I can’t believe we’re trusting the vermin that aids our enemy,” Sallith grumbled.
“If the Fey will work with us, then that is a far safer prospect for saving Mirek, father,” Pali said. “I understand your hatred of the thing, but we have a shapeshifter who could re-petrify and destroy this girl. That is good security against the Fey attacking or deceiving us somehow.”
That one is way too much like his father, Rat thought. “Shouldn’t Wisp be here?” he asked.
“Wisp is caught in another engagement,” Brinne said. “I will learn absolutely everything I can, now that it seems the Fey trusts us, to relay to him. For now, we wait.”
Soon enough, a swarm of bubbles brought the pale creature back, this time with bat-like, featherless wings that folded back to make room in the tunnels.
“You did it,” Cloverra gasped the words and fell to its knees in front of the stone girl. “Thank you, Claudia. Go ahead and rest.”
Claudia fell backward. Rat managed to catch her and then knelt with Cloverra, resting Claudia’s snake-covered head in his lap. The shapeshifter inhaled loudly through narrowed nostrils and widened her golden eyes.
“I’m alright,” Claudia told Rat as Daliah came to her other side. “I’m not tired. It just feels strange.”
They all watched in awe as the girl who had once been stone returned to normal, although just as immobile.
“I don’t have much time,” Cloverra said, melding its hands into Minah’s flesh like two different shades of putty. “I will tell you what you need to know.”
Everyone looked at each other, and Cloverra took that as its chance to begin.
“The first thing you should understand is that I am not from this world. I come from a place as distant as the stars.”
“What?” Brinne interjected, her hood falling down. Cloverra forced out a nod.
“Out there in the blackness you see after dark? Each of those lights is a sun, a sphere of flame. The planet we stand on, Veminox, is a giant sphere of earth, water, wind, and life, fed light by our sun. There are others. I came from such a world, although it was about half the size of Veminox. We called it Iliune.”
“We?” Claudia asked, transfixed on the imperceivable idea of another world.
“The other Fey. We were the only intelligent life on Iliune. But then the Ven Quari came, with technology I could not begin to explain. Before I understood the threat they posed, it was over. A war started and ended in a single day. Iliune was devastated, and there were only two of us left. We surrendered.”
“Why not fight to the death?” Maximus asked.
Cloverra smiled in a way that showed to everyone but Maximus how naive it thought he was. “Call it a quirk of living for more than eighty years on average, but you tend to want to keep living. I remember seeing Iliune from high above, as a prisoner on one of their vast ships. I had never been able to see it from so far, so completely. It was a smoking rock.”
“Let’s say I believe this,” Sallith said. “What motivated the Ven Quari to do this?”
“The Ven Quari are trying to understand magic. You may ask why, and there’s the worst part of it all. Because they don’t. That is all it takes for them to commit their genocides.”
“Wait,” Claudia said, regaining the strength to sit up alongside Rat. “Genocides? Plural?”
Cloverra closed its eyes and continued working. The ends of its arms broadened and split, like great trunks sinking their roots into the girl.
“There are countless planets in the great blackness, and some hold monsters: beings with abilities that seem like magic. It was a conundrum to them, this universal force that could be found in vastly distant places, always behaving the same way. My home, Iliune, was one of many magical worlds they had discovered, and each planet was similar enough that each creature from one magical world could survive on another. That is why they took Latalla and me across a distance so great we could never find Iliune again, and they dropped us on another planet that supported monster life. That is this planet: Veminox. It was originally populated with countless monster life forms from all across the great blackness. Those monsters, including myself, were the foundation for all life on this world.”
“This is insane,” Rat said. “You’re making it sound like we’re living in a giant zoo, or an unguarded prison.”
“That’s exactly what Veminox is,” Cloverra said. “Magic comes from different life forms, monsters and anything related to them. This is, as far as I know, the last world where monsters live, which means it is the last world where magic exists. The Ven Quari have contained that which they do not understand, to do with as they see fit.”
“I can relate,” Sallith said, encouraging harsh looks from everyone but Pali.
“The other Fey,” Claudia whispered. “You said it was called Latalla?”
Cloverra smiled fully, but faced no one. “We were one of the first pairs of beings left on Veminox, and the only ones with intelligence. Decades would pass, and on a world with far longer days than we were used to, before the Ven Quari returned with more captured subjects. Latalla was a lover of conversation, and variety. It needed new friends and new ideas. I put everything I had into keeping it happy, but it wasn’t enough.”
“Did you love Latalla?” Daliah asked.
“There is nothing I didn’t feel for Latalla, at one point or another.”
Sallith interjected, flicking his hand in a wave. “So these Ven Quari are observing this world in order to better understand magic?”
“Yes. They wanted a world full of every monster and magical phenomena they found, so they could study us freely, destroy us if it came to that, whatever they wished. But Latalla was as rebellious as it was lonely. It destroyed itself, despite my begging, so that the Fey were the one race they couldn’t breed.”
“Destroyed itself?” Brinne asked. “Ah, I believe this is where we get into elven lore.”
“Fey can harness the sixth rank of magic, Istel. Rank six creates life, teleports it, and reshapes living matter. But the greatest spell was what Latalla cast. It ripped itself apart into duos of other creatures derived from its traits, males and females to populate and thrive. All humans and elves are descended from the small sample that Latalla turned itself into. Elves received some of the Fey’s longevity, and humans received some of the Fey’s magical aptitude. Thus elves live for centuries and humans could breed with monsters, regaining the ability to use magic.”
“Are you… trying to not be alone?” Rat asked.
Cloverra lifted its head and tried to speak, but seemed unsure.
“The Chosen all have a connection to their Fey ancestor, and with enough of them, you can fuse them back and re-create Latalla. Am I right?”
Cloverra nodded in a rush. “Not exactly. But that is what the Elven Covenant believes. I don’t know if it would be Latalla, or even another Fey at all, but I hold out hope. I know the Chosen can be reunited into something. I feel it. The Ven Quari hate how magic works. They want explained, reproducible methods for everything. They believe they can deconstruct magic with enough knowledge and finally conquer it, like when a village uses a river’s endless flow to power a water wheel, only on an infinitely more abstract level. These beings consider traveling the endless black skies mundane. They seek endless progress toward more progress. That is the empty, sad life they hold so sacred. Ants are more important to you than we are to them.”
“Wait, hold on,” Cole started, stepping closer. “You said Latalla was lonely. Why didn’t you two mate in secret to create more Fey? Surely you could have tried to hide your offspring. Or why not just use simpler spells to create life? You said Istel can do that as well.”
Cloverra was finished with the girl, and withdrew its hands. The taut skin of the girl’s stomach let out a few light ripples, and then solidified. “She’s fine. We’ve done it. Juxxa should help us now.”
“Answer my son’s question,” Sallith said, arms crossed. “Why didn’t you mate with Latalla?”
“Because Latalla hated me!” Though finished, Cloverra did not move from its position. It reformed its wings into two halves of a fleshy coccoon with a tiny space for the head to stick out, hiding itself as it quivered inside. “I am too old to remember my own age. I was the leader of Iliune—respected elder of the Fey. At every step, I negotiated for peace, instead of fighting like the younger ones demanded. My refusal to accept the Ven Quari for the threat they were got our world destroyed, and Latalla’s closest companions murdered. Latalla would rather have destroyed itself and create more thinking beings, to replace what I threw away, and to abandon the agony it felt.”
The girl in the black stola, ripped at the belly, wheezed and stretched her legs before opening her eyes. She tried to get up, but her arms couldn’t muster the strength.
“Easy, you persistant Ozarian,” Cloverra said with a half-smile. “I’ll take you back to your father in a moment.”
“Uhmm.” The girl closed her eyes, listless.
“She will be fine. All she needs now is rest. I must go back and safely hide her in the city. Glaradalle will be looking for me, for another day of absorption.” The Fey curled within its wing cocoon and sighed sadly. “Then I can deliver her to her father later tonight. But before I leave, there is something you should know,” Cloverra said, looking at the shapeshifter. “Claudia, the Elven Covenant are the ones who drove your father to abuse you.”
No one spoke for several moments. Daliah and her daugher were calm at a glance, but Rat could only imagine what went on under the surface. Neither of them were releasing clear thoughts that his Chosen power could discern.
“Cloverra.” Rat’s voice smoldered. “You may be helping us, but I won’t stand by while you tastelessly expose her secrets.”
“It’s fine, Rat,” Claudia said in monotone before she turned to face the Fey. “What do you mean?”
“The Ven Quari desired a shapeshifter,” Cloverra said. “They visited Glaradalle, since he and his cult worshipped them after their cult’s founder had somehow learned the truth about their own creation. As you can imagine, when Glaradalle was visited by the very ‘gods’ he adored, he guaranteed results. He orchestrated the union of your mother and father… two parents with gorgon lineage… and I helped—I spied from afar and teleported back when I was needed, and ensured a relationship grew between them until a child was born.
Claudia and I are even more alike than I thought, Rat contemplated. We both share this otherworldly godparent.
“Glaradalle wanted to test you early. Intense emotion is the simplest way to awaken a shapeshifter. Glaradalle is a disgusting simpleton, and the things your father did… they were his demands. Your father did what he had to do in order to keep you alive—or so he thought. The Ven Quari would never accept your death. It would have likely resulted in the extermination of the entire elven race, as punishment—”
“Just stop talking! Just wait, please!” Claudia was on her feet without realizing it, and fell with both forearms to the slippery, porous wall. “You helped?”
“Yes. Even though the Ven Quari and myself both want another Fey, it’s for opposite reasons. I want to restore the Fey race, to right the Ven Quari’s wrongs. But the bastards want to study my kind in order to master them completely. Still, I had to alleviate suspicion, so I would sometimes aid the Elven Covenant. The Ven Quari wanted a shapeshifter, so I aided them in raising one. I was promised that after your birth, I was to be free of that obligation, but I still watched from afar every so often.” Cloverra nodded at nothing, or perhaps memories. “You are a wonderful mother and daughter.”
“I don’t understand this,” Claudia stammered. “My birth was orchestrated? Some kind of evil gods wanted me to be this way? For the love of all that’s decent, why?”
“I’m afraid revealing that would be too much,” Wisp’s voice echoed from behind her. It channeled down the tunnel and yet sounded as if it came from all directions, like the boom of Sallith’s voice from the colosseum platform.
“My lord!” Brinne said. “I thought you were occupied.”
“It… no!” Cloverra said, withdrawing its cocoon and sharpening its wings into skinless bone scythes. “No, no! It’s not you!”
“I’ve kept myself hidden from you for all this time,” Wisp said, “just so that you wouldn’t know.”
“He’s one of the Ven Quari!” Cloverra screamed.
Dots of pressure erupted all over each of them, and they all realized that with the wave of one cloaked arm, the Nimb Vard Archmage had warped the hallway so that each person was trapped by spears of unnaturally extended rock. None of them could move in any direction from their current spot without piercing a vital organ. Though Claudia was immune to piercing, she was still trapped.
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