A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

1.3 – Praereptor et daemonia {Kidnappers and Devils}

As soon as it became clear that no amount of struggling would help her escape the guard’s iron grip, Elena stopped fighting and started thinking.

It’s my body, it belongs to me and someone is taking it somewhere I don’t want to go, she thought, trying to activate her Storm. There was no sign of the tingling in her temples and fingertips, and she bit down in frustration on the hood and hair that had been stuffed in her mouth. Oh come on! You can help me turn on a shower but can’t help me save my own life? Help me. HELP ME! I know you can talk, at least tell me why you won’t help me!

Elena had never consciously made the connection between the voice in the shower and her Storm, but now in the midst of crisis she was certain of it. No tingle touched her skin, no frighteningly disconnected thoughts passed through her head, and Elena tried again to twist in the man’s strong grip. When that failed, she tried to think it through on her own, without the Storm’s help.

He’s not going to kill me, he could have done that in the first place if he wanted me dead, she tried to reassure herself, but the thought wasn’t exactly comforting. Slug’s plans to paralyse and torture her had convinced her that there were several things just as bad as someone who wanted to kill her, and the unknown was almost more frightening. I only just got here, I don’t have any enemies in the courts…

The man spun suddenly and pushed, and she could hear a door swing open. Through the fabric of the hood over her eyes, Elena could see the light change, and then the man was setting her down, yanking her arms back and prizing her hand open. She struggled halfheartedly, more to do something than for any hope that she could overpower him; she was not going to be hurt without a fight.

The man suddenly pressed a cold bar of metal into her right palm, and his crushing grip forced her hand closed around it. As soon as she felt its edge, Elena froze. It was hard to breathe, it was hard to move, and Elena could tell that the room was so dark it would be hard to see even without the hood, and the man was holding her grip around the blade of a knife.

“Good morning, Lucciano.” The voice came from somewhere in front of her, a woman’s voice, somewhere around Elena’s age, cold and calm and entirely without pity. “If you make a sound loud enough to attract attention, I will have my man slice through your right hand, then move on to your left if there’s the time. We can cut through enough muscle to ruin your hands without killing you, and you will be useless as a Stormtouched. Do you understand?”

At the thought of mangled useless stumps, Elena grew dizzy. She couldn’t…they were her hands, her hands, that the kidnappers were threatening. They were her livelihood and everything she dreamed of-

Focus. Actually think.

The voice in her head was stern, the voice she had pleaded with a few moments ago, and a shower of tingles spread over her temples. Elena took a deep breath of stuffy air and forced herself to think. Of course she wanted to avoid the blade, but her Storm told her how things worked, that wouldn’t change whether she had her hands or not. The thought was calming, and slowly, inch by inch, Elena could try to relax, and she nodded once in acknowledgement. No matter how bad it might hurt, they wouldn’t destroy her dreams.

“She nodded,” the guard reported.

“Good,” the woman said, “let her breathe, for pity’s sake.” The hood came off with a jerk, but the room was so dark that Elena wasn’t able to make out anything but a shape in front of her. “I have some questions for you.”

“I don’t know anything,” Elena spat hair out of her mouth, careful to speak quietly, intensely cognisant of the knife blade held in her hand, “I just got to the court, I don’t know anything about anything.”

“I’m not after information,” the woman said, “I’m more interested in you impression of certain things. Tell me, Lucciano, what makes a good King?”

“A…what?”

“A good King, a good ruler. What traits do you think make a good King.”

“I don’t…” Elena had never really considered the question before, and she struggled to put nebulous thoughts to words, “…someone who…who is wise?”

“Wisdom is such a vague answer. What else?”

“Someone who is fair…and kind.”

“What do you mean by ‘fair’?”

“I mean just. Someone who can look beyond themselves and make laws that help all of Italoza, or wherever they rule.”

“Very well, what else?”

“I’m sorry, I…I don’t know what you want,” Elena said.

“We’ll come back to that one. What traits do you think make a good friend?”

“I don’t understand,” Elena said hesitantly, “did you kidnap me to ask me riddles?”

“You don’t have to understand a question to answer it, Lucciano,” the woman’s already cold voice dropped a few degrees more, and Elena swallowed and tried to focus on the question.

“A good friend is someone who is there for you even when it’s not the popular option,” she said, her thoughts turning to Owl and Belloza, Frederica and Arta, “someone you can count on to have your back, someone you can ask for help with anything you might need.”

“Someone Stormtouched, of course,” the woman said.

“What? No, they don’t have to be Stormtouched to be a friend.”

“But you’re Stormtouched. All of your friends are Stormtouched. Wouldn’t you have trouble making friends with someone who didn’t share a trait so integral to who you are?”

“It’s just a coincidence that my friends are Stormtouched!” Elena protested, “I would still be friends with them if they were Mortalis, that doesn’t make a difference.”

“‘It doesn’t make a difference’,” the woman scoffed, “you’re trying to tell me there’s no difference between a Stormtouched and a Mortalis?”

“There isn’t! The king of Italoza himself is a Mortalis!” Elena said, realizing almost too late that she was starting to raise her voice.

“And you don’t think a Stormtouched king would make a better ruler?”

“Some of the best rulers of Italoza have been Mortalis! The prince of Milia is Mortalis, and he’s doing a wonderful job! Just because a Stormtouched is more powerful, it doesn’t mean they’re better than Mortalis, it doesn’t mean they get to ignore the laws-” Elena stopped abruptly. In the dark, held fast by a strong man and interrogated by a cold-voiced woman, she had said the first thing that came to her mind…but it was entirely different than the speech Lord Waldren had given her in the dream world, when she’d found them torturing Little One. What had he said? That the Twisted should govern themselves, that Mortalis rule was beneath them?

“That’s what you believe, is it?” the woman’s cold voice cut through Elena’s musing.

“I…Stormtouched or not, it doesn’t matter,” Elena repeated, “I would absolutely be friends with a Mortalis.”

“I’m very glad to hear that, Lucciano.” The woman took a step closer, skirts rustling in the quiet dark. Elena caught a scent of burning hair that lingered around the woman, and for some reason it made her stomach clench in fear. “I think you and I are going to be good friends.”

“I doubt it,” Elena whispered, “you kidnapped me.”

“No,” the woman chuckled, “some woman in a dark room kidnapped you. You won’t know me when we meet officially .”

Elena thought it unlikely that she’d ever forget the cold and measured voice or the smell of burning hair, but before she could speak the guard had lifted her again, and he was covering her eyes and spinning, spinning so fast and so suddenly that Elena didn’t know what was up or down, didn’t know which way she was facing, couldn’t catch her bearings.

When he set her down on the ground Elena slumped to the floor, trying not to throw up on the rug beneath her. She was vaguely aware of the shaft of light as the door opened, but the whole room bucked and spun so wildly that she knew by the time she left the pair would be long gone.

It was some kind of test, she realized, resting her head on the rug and closing her eyes until the room stopped spinning. But why were they testing me…and what would’ve happened if I hadn’t passed?

 

***

 

“You seem nervous,” Bello commented as he and Ele slipped into an empty room of the castle.

“I’m still not very used to this, that’s all,” Ele tried to sound just as casual as the large man, but he could already feel his heart pounding, “I’ve only ever changed clothes once or twice, and nothing this fancy.”

“We’ll be fine,” Bello assured him, “even that little Artifex Echo got her clothes alright.”

“Arta,” Ele said.

“I remember the first few times, it’s terrifying, but you’ll get used to it. Especially being in court, you’ll be changing quite a lot.”

“Great,” Ele grumbled.

“Ready?”

Without waiting for an answer, Bello folded his arms and crossed over, and Ele took a deep breath and followed him.

 

***

 

The specks of white and black across his vision always made it feel like he had something in his eyes. Ele blinked, and coughed even though there was nothing in his lungs. The ground was rough, black dirt and white stone, with tuft of ugly grey weeds sprouting here and there, but the white and black speckled fog was so thick that he could only see it for a few feet in any direction. Bello laid a heavy hand on Ele’s shoulder.

“Let’s get moving, we might get lucky.”

The pair ran, as fast as they could over the rocky, uneven rolling ground. Ele didn’t want to consider what would happen if he twisted his ankle on one of the nasty looking weeds. After long minutes of running his lungs began to ache, but he clenched his teeth and kept on without complaint.

“I haven’t seen a chest yet,” he panted.

“Haven’t come far enough,” Bello didn’t seem as winded as Ele, but he did shoot a concerned look over his shoulder, “you know how it is; always feels like longer than it has been.”

They continued in silence for another few minutes before they reached the first chest, a heavy oaken trunk half-buried in the dirt. Ele turned to head towards it, hope springing in his chest.

“Don’t bother,” Bello said, “we want court clothes, it’s not going to be the first chest we find.”

“But it might be,” Ele didn’t want to look weak in front of Bello, but he had to focus on not whimpering.

“Fine, check it out then,” Bello folded his arms, and Ele jumped at the chest. He forced his hands to stay stead as he undid the intricate latches that ringed the lid, seven in all. The black-and-white speckled fog swirled suddenly around them, kicked up by a wind he couldn’t feel, and Ele’s heart pounded. The final latch fell away, and he lifted the lid of the chest. Neatly folded in the bottom of the chest lay a wool-spun ragged ivory pants and a long vest, the type of clothes that an indentured servant might wear when working in the fields.

“Told you,” Bello said shortly.

“Why’d you let me waste time with this if you knew it wasn’t what we were looking for!” Ele cried.

“So you’ll listen to me when I say not to waste time on the next six or seven chests.”

“Six or seven?” Ele was close to panicking, “we can’t…we can’t stay here that long!”

“We’ve got no choice, Ele,” Bello said severely, “I said I’d help you through this, and that’s what I’m doing. Now get on your feet and let’s-”

A howl tore through the silent fog, a sound as if the shriek of the wind had been given consciousness, and used that consciousness to fuel unbridled hatred and rage. Despite himself, Ele yelled, stumbling backwards away from the chest.

“No more argument,” Bello extended a hand and helped Ele to his feet, “we move.”

“I’m sorry,” Ele flushed red as the pair broke into a run, faster now than they had before, “I just wasn’t expecting that noise.”

“No need to apologize,” Bello said grimly, “that’s what happens when prey hears a predator. Now save your breath.”

Ele saved his breath for the next several minutes, focusing on the ground as it appeared out of the fog a few feet in front of him. Every white stone was something he could trip on, every dead-looking shoot of weed or occasional stunted shrubbery was something that could twist his ankle. Whenever he began to dare to hope that they had outrun it, the shriek of the howl would tear through the fog behind them, closer than it had before. The sound of the howls was enough to turn his insides to jelly, but Ele grit his teeth and clenched his fists and continued on.

Ele didn’t bother taking notice of the second and third chests they passed, buried in the black dirt or lying tilted as if they’d been tossed there by giants. He did give the fourth and fifth chests longing looks, but Bello made no motion to stop at them, and he ran on. The stitch in his side hurt with every single step he took, but when the next howl came it was joined by another, melodic shrieking harmonizing hatred.

The sixth chest stuck out of the ground, its corner buried in the dirt. Ele glanced at Bello, but the large man just shook his head and kept on running, and Ele put his head down and kept on alongside him. A howl came from behind them, so close that Ele glanced over his shoulder to see if it was in sight yet.

“Heads up,” Bello said, “rain.”

They reached the seventh chest just as the rain started to fall, tiny sharp drops of black liquid that stung like fire wherever they hit Ele’s skin. He turned to head towards it, but Bello grabbed him by the sleeve and kept running.

“You said sixth or seventh!” Ele protested, his lungs burning, his skin aching every time one of the black droplets landed.

“One more,” Bello growled.

It was like torture, running through the rain with the howls behind them. Another two had joined the first, and now the symphony of shrieks barely paused. The eighth chest emerged from the fog, and Ele practically flung himself towards it. There were more latches on this one, many more, too many to count, but Ele began working on them as fast as he could. Bello reached down to pick up a large white rock, then paced around Ele and the chest in a tight circle, patrolling.

Ele’s hands shook, and they twitched whenever a raindrop landed and sizzled on his skin. Some of the latches were so complex they were like puzzles, little metal latches and levers that had to be combined and flicked and adjusted in just the right way before they sprang open.

Ele had unlatched the fifteenth when the first gale-devil appeared.

When he had first changed clothes with Nicci, the gale-devil had sprang from the fog in a pounce, but this one moved slowly, stalking in a wide circle that matched Bello’s pacing. It was almost worse than if it had pounced, as its small bouncing footsteps brought it closer and closer out of the fog a millimeter at a time. Ele’s already shaking hands and fast-beating heart sped even further at the sight of it.

The edges of its matted slick fur were the exact same color and shade as the fog, so it was hard to tell where the fog ended and the gale-devil began. Like all gale-devils, it didn’t walk, it bounced with both of its muscular legs, standing on its long toes like a cat. The sight of it jumping along in a tight circle might’ve been amusing if Ele hadn’t seen one of them close the distance of yards in a single bound, huge thin claws extended. From the waist up it would’ve passed as human if not for the slimy fur that covered it, from its chest to its arms to its face, blank except for pupil-less eyes. Though it was keeping its distance from Bello, Ele could tell the creature was watching him.

Chest,” Bello barked without turning, and Ele turned back to the latches on the chest in front of him. Each latch seemed designed to take as tortuously long as possible, and the metal was cold against his stinging hands. The gale-devil didn’t seem to mind Ele’s progress, even when it was joined by first one, then another, all three of them keeping their distance from the ring that Bello held.

“Just a few more,” Ele breathed, snapping another latch open. He was glancing up at Bello and the three gale-devils in front of him when one of them pounced. The creature’s huge legs carried up in a single leap, so high that he cleared Bello easily, landing between the Saggitari-Echo and Ele. It shrieked, the howl all the more terrifying for the fact that it had no mouth to scream it with, and Ele fell back, shaking so hard that his legs gave out.

“CHEST,” Bello bellowed, turning to swing the rock in a backhand that slammed into the gale-devil’s temple. The creature crumpled to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, and Ele scrambled back to the chest, scrambled to unlatch another latch.

Three more, just three more, he thought, trying to ignore the howls of the other two gale-devils, trying to ignore the gale-devil with a crushed head a few feet away. Just two more. Ele broke his fingernail on the latch, but ignored the pain and pulled it open. In front of him, the gale-devil twitched as the black rain clung to the dent in its head as it fell, slowly building it back up in a black mass. The gale-devil’s hand flexed, claws extended.

“It’s coming back,” he warned.

“Keeping an eye on it,” Bello said.

The last lock came undone, and Ele threw the chest open. A beautiful ivory doublet and vest, ivory and black breeches, and an ivory cap with a jaunty black feather lay folded in the bottom. Before he had a chance to reach inside, something landed on him.

There were four, Ele realized belatedly, in a detached sort of way as he was sent flying, sprawling on the cold black dirt, the fourth gale-devil on top of him. He was vaguely aware that the others had rushed Bello, who was fighting them off and shouting something, but Ele couldn’t quite focus on what. Without thinking he threw his weight into a twist, using the momentum of the creature to throw it off. The gale-devil’s claws clung to Ele’s shoulder, gauging a long, deep chunk of his arm out in a spray of blood as it was flung. Ele screamed, but the fear and adrenaline pushed him into action, and he launched himself back at the chest.

“I’ve got them!” he screamed at Bello, gathering the clothes in a wild scramble, “I’ve got them let’s go!”

 

***

 

He was on his hands and knees in the middle of an empty room of the palace, gasping and shaking, his new clothes held tight in a bundle. Bello reached down a hand a helped him up as Ele tried to calm his breathing.

“One of ‘em got you,” Bello remarked, nodding towards Ele’s shoulder. What had been a deep long gash was now only a long cut along his arm, but it still stung.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “And thank you. I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

“With fancy things like court clothes it makes sense to go in pairs or groups,” Bello nodded, taking the court clothes from Ele, “while you’re here I wouldn’t change clothes on your own without accompaniment. No shoes?”

“I can wear the same shoes, no one will notice and they sort of match,” Ele said, slipping his garzoni uniform off, careful not to let go of the shoes, “and don’t worry, I have no plans to change on my own.”

The clothes did look good on him, and now that he was no longer crossed over, Ele had to admit that it was worth the stinging cut along his arm.

“We’d better go back to the others,” Bello said, “it’d be a shame if we made them late to meet the prince.”

“All that effort and the mortals don’t even appreciate it,” Ele grumbled, but he followed Bello, adjusting his cap, “I wish I could be Elena, sitting in that room without a care.”

 

***

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

***

If only Ele knew that the only way to avoid gale-devils is to vote for Twisted Cogs on TWF

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19 responses

  1. Karltio

    Huh, that wasn’t what I was expecting.

    Like

    2015-05-31 at 4:14 pm

  2. Wait, why do they bother? Risking death just to change clothes? That seems silly.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-05-31 at 5:39 pm

    • Yeah, none of the real people know about this. All the echoes have to say is that they can’t change clothes, and bam, zero expectations or lethal encounters with bizarre reality twisting horrors.

      Like

      2015-05-31 at 5:51 pm

      • Cain12

        Outside of Stormtouched and echos from the middle of nowhere, it is probaly really old/common knowledge that they can change clothes, and the echos don’t seem to have the means of communicating long distance that is needed to organize such a widespread deception, as far as we know.

        Whole attached to another person thing limits any gatherings as well. Also since they for whatever reason can’t tell anyone the how, I guess they are stuck with the expectations of magicing up a matching dress for that social event that is oh so essential to their companion’s success and happiness in life.

        Is probaly also where they get any weapons and the like, can’t expect them to live without those just so others can live a somewhat easier life.

        Besides, what if they want to have pretty or even just different clothes? They can’t enjoy food, the sun on their skin, the wind in their hair, etc, why deny them yet another experience? Should they be damned to one outfit just because the fancy outfits are harder to get?

        Like

        2015-06-01 at 8:36 am

    • Well, one possible reason why some Stormtouched don’t have Echoes anymore is given. :/

      Like

      2015-06-01 at 12:43 pm

  3. Fhoenix

    Agreed, risking your life to change clothes does seem reckless. Of course this raises the question of “What other things can be found in the chests?”. Not to mention the “What the hell, there is a whole new world out there?!”

    Like

    2015-05-31 at 8:40 pm

  4. Jat

    He refers to the normal people as “mortals,” implying that Echoes are immortal. But we were already told that Little One’s Echo died. Perhaps she died violently in that alternate world?

    Like

    2015-06-01 at 12:20 am

    • Mortals is often used in fiction to refer to “lower” people, especially when the speakers have special powers. After all, why do you think the Stormtouched call others /Mortalis/?

      Like

      2015-06-01 at 2:29 pm

  5. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

    Ele and his fellow Echoes share a corporeal presence and an “astral” presence, while Elena and her fellow Stormtouched only share their physical (corporeal) world.
    From what we see of Elena’s Storm, it is an entity that she (and Ele, on occasion) can channel. Suspiciously, her relationship with Ele became more fraught just as she was getting in touch with the workings of her Storm. Which also coincided with Ele’s new clothes (hence, Elena’s mistrust).
    The clothing in the chests corresponds to societal roles–smart money says that Ele was in garzona’s clothing until he changed for the Courts, and the first chest contained clothing for a laborer, the lowest of social classes.

    So here’s a theory. Echoes aren’t just ghostly personalities, they’re like Phillip Pullman’s daemons: as gatekeepers, they represent and guard the powers unique to the Stormtouched. That’s why when Elena was building that rope-wheel at the beginning of the story, Ele could comment along with Elema’s Storm. But now, he seems to be shut out of Elena’s Storm awareness, because Elena’s taking charge of handling her own Storm. Now, with a change of clothes, he’ll no longer be a gatekeeper: he’ll be assuming a different role with different duties, just as Elena transitions from garzona to Court Stormtouched.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-06-01 at 2:51 am

    • There’s a couple of things that I don’t think match up to the story. We know that Carla has changed clothes for a date with Carlo, but I didn’t get the impression that her relationship with him changed in any way because of that. However, I really like your theory and I think you are onto something.

      Like

      2015-06-01 at 11:55 pm

  6. That was a genuine WTF chapter. Interesting and disturbing and leaving me entirely unclear where this is going. Well done!

    Like

    2015-06-01 at 4:36 am

  7. Kunama

    Makes me wonder about that pair who were in love with each other, but couldn’t physically touch. She seemed to go to some length for their dates. Whole new meaning to that now.

    Like

    2015-06-01 at 6:03 am

  8. Anonymous

    Hmm. I’d imagined that the Echoes had to perform a sacrifice, maybe fight against the gale-devils, in order to reform their clothes according to their own imaginations.

    This casts an entirely different light on it–someone is making these clothes and then locking them up in chests and leaving them. Why? Who? How?

    I can’t remember clearly, but I seem to recall the Echoes’ clothes being colour-coded as the non-Echoes’ were. That adds another layer of confusion.

    This whole setup, with the ‘cogs’ of which a few are twisted–there’s a mastermind (or minds) behind it, with incredible power, making these puppets dance.
    ‘How’ being less important, why and who….?

    Like

    2015-06-01 at 9:01 am

  9. Unmaker

    I am late to the party, so this probably won’t get noticed, but…

    The mysterious voice noted that ALL of Elena’s retinue were Stormtouched. Which includes Emerald. My bet is that they recognize an unfettered Rhetor, which means that Mysterious Voice has a major weapon against Emerald and a minor one against Elena.

    Like

    2015-06-04 at 5:25 pm

  10. @maddirosex, the attention and honor you pay your readers continues to astound me.

    Like

    2015-06-07 at 11:11 pm

  11. adrix89

    A random dungeon crawling game appears!

    >Change clothes.
    >Don’t change clothes.

    Like

    2015-10-01 at 5:50 am

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