A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

2.10 – Sanguis {Blood}

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Author forenote: From now until July 1st, I’m holding an event that will let you earn bonus Thursday chapters of Twisted Cogs for supporting Webfictions!

(The results of this event are in: Twisted Cogs will update twice in the first week of July!)

***

Elena reflected on the paradoxical difficulty of trying as hard as she could to not think about something. It was a paradox which had been plaguing her for most of the day, as the Quartermaster had walked her through her duties. None of them were particularly hard, simple things like serving meals and taking the dishes away, bringing papers too and from the councilmembers. The most difficult to learn was memorizing the subtle signals the council would use to indicate how visible she should be, depending on if they wanted the not-so-subtle malice of the Rhetors at their sides, obscured in the shadows, or hidden completely in the dark corners of the room.

The simpleness of the instruction left Elena free to dwell on the two things that had been in her mind ever since she had left the councilroom. The first was how to put her Storm to work on observing a woman whose Storm seemed to warp her observation away. The second was the nagging presence of the mask on the back of her mind.

It was becoming more and more of an issue the longer the day stretched on, and the more Elena tried to distract herself the more it intruded on every one of her senses.

Had she ever liked the smell of leather before it filled her nostrils without end? She couldn’t remember now, all she could think about was how much she hated it now. She’d had to yawn earlier, and all she’d accomplished was popped ears and a frustratingly deprived feeling, made worse by the fact that every time she thought of it she felt like she had to yawn again.

Fred and Ele had fallen in by Frederica and Elena’s side when they left, rather than the cat-and-mouse avoidance they’d been doing. Owl and Emerald met them at the back door of the castle, and the entire group followed Owl to the new place he’d found for them, all of them quiet in the silence of friends who had much to say but too many surrounding ears to speak.

Elena had hoped that once the day was over she would have the bustling city to distract her, but as she walked down the streets now she was reminded of how conspicuous she was as a Rhetor. The sole consolation was the knowledge that neither the lingering stares nor the too-fast avoiding of her gaze were actually directed at her, but at the mask.

Frederica’s hand was heavy on Elena’s shoulder, but what would seem to the outside world like a threatening gesture was the one little connection to stability that Elena had at the moment. It seemed like far too long before they reached the little house.

“The woman who owns the house will be happier the less she sees of us,” Owl broke the silence between them, leading them to the back stairs rather than to the front door, “I told her we’d probably only need the place for a week, I hope we won’t need longer than that.”

The two rooms were small, but they would do for a group of five, especially if they would only be staying there for a week. The details were lost on Elena, now that she was beyond the gaze of any of the Rimin citizens her hands flew to her face.

“It might be worth keeping an eye out for a new place to move to, just in case we can’t finish the job within a week,” Ele said, “we’ve gotten very lucky so far, but I don’t think- Elena?”

Elena knew, in the rational portion of her mind, that she couldn’t actually rip the mask off of her face. It was specifically designed to be impossible to remove, the final line of defense if a Rhetor managed to escape their Rhetorguard. The rational portion of her mind was also vaguely aware that it was was losing.

“Get the mask off of her,” Emerald said, but Frederica was already fumbling with the key around her neck, not fast enough, not nearly fast enough.

“Elena, calm down,” Ele couldn’t take her by the shoulders, but he bent down to look her in the face. Yanking on the mask only made it feel tighter, made her feel more trapped and claustrophobic, and Frederica was still moving too slowly. Elena could feel the metal scraping against the mask as her friend fumbled with the key.

What if it won’t come off? The thought struck her like a physical blow, what if the key got bent, and it’s trapped on my face forever, and this cold metal thing is going to be stuck on my face until I starve to death?

Her fingers were starting to hurt by the time Frederica unlocked the clasp with a click, and Elena flung the mask off of her face and into the corner with a noise like a wounded animal.

For a few moments the room was entirely quiet except for Elena’s ragged breaths. She flushed, aware that all of her friends were watching her with concern.

“I…I’m sorry,” she said as soon as she felt like she could talk again, “I’m okay, I just…I…”

“It’s like an itch,” Emerald said, “an itch in your being that you can’t scratch.”

It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but Elena nodded rather than speaking. After just a day’s worth of silence the cry had hurt her throat, and her voice sounded strange in her ears.

After a few more moments of silence, she gestured. “Owl, Emerald?”

“Once we left the castle it didn’t take much effort to become gainfully employed,” Owl said, “Emerald insisted on testing how far the anti-Rhetor effect went.”

“If people can stop my Storm, we need to know how far it goes,” Emerald said, a bit defensively.

“And as far as we can tell, anyone working in the castle is immune to Emeralds, ehm…’charms’,” Owl said, “we didn’t want to try anything too overt. We wound up getting jobs in the walls.”

In the walls?” Fred asked, stepping through the wall that divided the upper level. A few moments later Frederica entered through the door, no longer wearing the stiff Rhetorguard armor.

“The walls themselves are big and wide enough to house rooms,” Owl said, “mostly used for barracks and storage, but they needed cart drivers to ferry food and water from the castle out to the men on duty. Or at least, whether they needed them or not, that’s what we’re doing now. Emerald didn’t have to work hard to convince them to hire us.”

“It worked on my first try,” Emerald added, “so it’s not everyone in the city who can resist me, just castle workers.”

“We only discussed using your Storm to get people inside the castle, Emerald,” Elena furrowed her brow, “we didn’t talk about using it beyond that.” They wanted to go unnoticed, after all, to be considered as small a threat as possible, and Elena still wasn’t sure how how many methods the Guardhouse had for tracking down Rhetors.

“I know when to use my Storm and when not to,” Emerald brushed off Elena’s worry, “I have things well in hand.”

“I know you think you do, Emerald-” Elena began.

Emerald heaved a sigh, and told Elena that she didn’t have to worry about when Emerald chose to use her Storm or not.

“I know, but…” Elena trailed off, unable to shake the last bit of doubt,”…it’s not when, it’s more like…”

Emerald turned and addressed the room at large, repeating that none of them had to worry about how often she was using the Storm. She reminded them that she knew best when she should use her natural abilities and when to use her Storm.

“No one would tell you not to use your Storm, Emerald,” Owl said, annoyed, “Elena is just saying you should keep us all on the same page and let us know when you do, okay?”

“I just did, silly,” Emerald laughed.

“I meant…in the future, I guess,” Owl said, “just so that we can plan effectively.”

“And we are in place, right? The plan will come up?” Frederica said in the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Elena, you’re in the council, you saw Lucrezia?”

“I saw her, yes, but her Storm might be more troublesome than we expected,” Elena admitted, “I’ve been focused on her ever since we turned toward Rimi, and yet I barely paid her any attention when I was in that room. I think perhaps her Storm lets her blend into the background, even when she’s sitting on a throne under a stained glass picture of her.”

Elena thought back, and realized that even though she hadn’t paid attention to Lucrezia, she could remember the stained glass figure above Lucrezia’s throne. A pale, small woman, with thick brown curls and surprisingly plain face.

“That makes no sense, as a Storm,” Fred said, “it’s not Fabera, Lanista, Calaetor, Machinator, Artifex, Rhetor, Saggitara…”

“Technically speaking, there’s no Storm that lets her be a literal know-it-all,” Frederica said, “or let Waldren create dream worlds, or…whatever the others are. The Twisted are just weird.”

“Keeping that in mind, maybe we can work around it,” Owl said, “it probably won’t work, but at the very least you can make a mental note to pay attention to everything in the room, even the unimportant details. With any luck, one such unimportant detail would be her. Beyond that, maybe you can start trying to think of Lucrezia as your ruler?”

“My ruler?” Elena wrinkled her nose, “I might have a hard time with that.”

“Technically it’s the truth,” Owl pointed out, “you’re in Rimi, do as the Rimins do. Lucrezia is one of the rulers of Rimi, and just because we’re trying to kill her doesn’t change that. Try to get your Storm to see it the same way.”

“I’ll try,” Elena promised, “and I’ll try noting everything, too.”

“It’s only the first day,” Emerald said, “opportunities will present themselves.”

Elena glanced at the mask still laying in the corner, grinning up at her with its abstract silver design that looked like fangs.

She wished her opportunities didn’t involve putting it back on.

***

There were so many rooms in the Milian castle that she had never been in before, that Elena was sure she was just on the verge of getting lost, but she continued to run. The thick carpeting muffled her footsteps as she pelted headlong from darkened room to darkened room, and all around her the whispers tickled at her ears and along the nape of her neck.

Join us. Don’t you want to join us? Join us, Elena.

She didn’t want to join the whispers, but with every door she flung open she was just a little more sure that something horrible was waiting for her on the other side.

Elena came to a sudden stop, and the long candles around the room flickered to life, bathing the room in strange shadows. She could calm down, she could think about this rationally. The whispers were lurking just on the other side of the closed door in front of her, she knew that much. They were dangerous, and she shouldn’t join them, but she couldn’t remember why, and what’s more she knew that she’d soon forget that she shouldn’t join them.

The Twisted, she vaguely recalled, her friends were whispering to join them, but she shouldn’t, she absolutely shouldn’t, for some reason that escaped her. Elena looked sharply over her shoulder, and the twisting shadows that she knew had been reaching to clamp around her mouth were gone.

It didn’t matter, because now the shadows on the other side were reaching for her mouth, just out of her field of view. They were going to clamp down and lock her mouth shut, and she could escape them if she just-

Join us, Elena, join us?

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, between frying pan and fire, between strangling shadows and some unknown danger.

Elena grabbed a candlestick from the mantle, a heavy silver thing, and immediately felt better. She could run, yes, it was easier to run…but some angry, hard little feeling in her gut also wanted to stop running. Whichever caught her first, she was going to make them pay dearly for it before they dragged her away. She shoved the door open, but the shadows caught her from behind, and dark fingers clamped down on her mouth.

Would you like to join us?

***

“Yes! Yes, I’ll join you, just save me from these things! Save m-” Elena caught herself mid-scream, uselessly cursing her sleeping self for the mistake. Her breath came out in a cold fog in the Dream World mountaintop, and after her screaming the entire fog-covered world was utterly silent.

The silence lasted only a few instants before the crunch of footsteps over twigs and branches, distant but close enough to tell they were definitely moving in her direction.

Elena cursed again, but suddenly realized that she was still holding the silver candlestick.

Alright…alright, good to know. Elena ran her fingers over her chin and neck to make sure the cold black fingers weren’t still clamped around her mouth, I can arm myself.

It was still hard to see where the Storm creatures ended and where the fog began, but Elena didn’t need to see their edges to swing a candlestick at them. The silver connected with a crack that made her whole arm sting, but the Stormling went down with a satisfying crunch.

Elena brought her arm back and clipped the other one, but it had seen the fate of its comrade and lept back out of the way. It circled warily, just out of reach of the candlestick, taking a small step back whenever Elena let her grip slip down to give it longer reach.

The other Stormling might’ve thought it was approaching stealthily from the side, but Elena could hear the quiet little crunches beneath its feet. As soon as she gauged it close enough, she spun and brought the candlestick down with another resounding crack.

As soon as she felt solid fingers clasp around her shoulder and arm, Elena realized she’d made a mistake. However the Storm created these little dream creatures, he didn’t care about them. Of course he was willing to sacrifice one to let the others rush in and grab her.

The realization was too late, as she could barely wrench free from one when another half-tackled her, pinning her arms to her and almost lifting her off of the ground. The pair of them dragged her across the near-frozen ground, and no matter how Elena struggled she couldn’t break free enough to give more than a few ineffectual swings of the candlestick.

She couldn’t tell how far away they were from the clearing where the Twisted met, but Elena’s hopes for a long, dragged out trip across the forest were dashed as soon as she heard talking in the distance.

“…didn’t sound far away, but then she did run from them last time,” Marsillo’s distinctive voice carried through the quiet.

“Almost escaped last time,” Lucrezia’s voice turned Elena’s stomach, but also multiplied the fear, “if she does it again- ah, but I see that is no worry at all.”

“I’d typically say something snarky, like ‘nice of you to join us’ or ‘lovely evening for a walk’ or ‘fancy meeting you here’,” Marsillo’s voice was grave as the Stormlings dragged Elena to a large tree, each holding an arm far back enough that she was pulled against the trunk. The two Twisted were a few feet away, dressed in dark courtly clothes trimmed with furs.

Elena met Lucrezia’s eyes for a brief moment, but there was only anger there, no spark of recognition. The plain woman didn’t recognize her as the new Rhetor in her employ.

They’re all black furs, now, the thought randomly intruded into Elena’s mind, but now that she wasn’t as worried about Lucrezia, her gaze was locked on the curved blade in Marsillo’s hand. It was small, and looked almost like a talon, and he held it with the comfortable ease of familiarity as he approached her.

“That’s what I’d typically say, but I find it very hard to get into my normal spirited self about this whole thing,” he said.

“Sorry I don’t make it as fun as the others,” Elena snapped.

“Enough,” Marsillo sighed, “I hope you’ll believe that I have no desire to do this, Elena, but nor do I see that I have any choice unless you are uncharacteristically cooperative and communicative.”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Elena said.

Marsillo lifted the little curved blade and pressed it gently to her cheek. The cold of the metal alone was enough to make Elena gasp, and the proximity to sharp metal made her hold that breath.

“In the Dream World, certain aspects of this craft become easier for me and harder for you,” he said quietly, “I don’t have to start slowly, and I don’t have to worry about killing you. I’m asking this question once. Where are you, and who are you targeting next?”

Elena had to swallow twice before she could even form words. Images of Slug flashed in front of her, but this was infinitely worse, since she could go through this over and over, administered by people skilled at doing just that.

“Catch me if you can,” she whispered.

“As you wish, then,” Marsillo answered, and adjusted his grip on the knife.

***

“Elena!” Owl shook her awake roughly by both shoulders, and she came awake with the strangled tail-end of a scream.

“Elena, grati dei, I was awake and you weren’t, and we thought you were…are you…” Ele trailed off at the look on Elena’s face, lapsing into silence as she grabbed the blanket with trembling fingers and curled them into a ball, clutching them tight to her.

“The Twisted,” one of the girls whispered behind her, but Elena didn’t respond. Her breath came out in hiccups and gasps, and she was focused on making them steady again.

“I didn’t tell them anything,” she said after a few moments, “I didn’t…didn’t tell them…”

“We know, Elena,” Ele said quietly, “we know.”

Elena didn’t move from her spot on the bed for a long time, not even to brush the tears out of her eyes or arrange the tangled, sweat-covered blankets. The house had no windows, only slits along the walls typical of Rimi structures, so she didn’t know how late in the morning it was becoming until she heard Belloza and Frederica whispering by the door.

“Should we get her up? There’s not much tolerance for servants who show up late…”

“She knows what she needs to do, give her time to-“

“No more time,” Elena’s voice sounded hoarse, and her eyes stung, but she sat up in bed. “I’ll ready.”

“We can figure something out if you you’re-“

“No. I’m ready.” Elena said. The worry and fear that had been gnawing in her gut for months were gone, and there was something else in her now. She walked over to the corner and picked up the little mask she had thrown there the night before.

The fangs winked at her in the dim light as she raised it to her face. Her voice echoed in the mask a moment before she clamped it shut over her mouth again.

“The Twisted are going to bleed.”

***

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***

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10 responses

  1. Bart

    “We only discussed using your Storm to get people inside the castle, Emerald,” Elena furrowed her brow, “we didn’t talk about “.

    Typo?

    Like

    2016-06-28 at 5:16 am

    • Yep, fixed. Thanks for the catch!

      Like

      2016-06-28 at 6:07 am

      • *Gasp* Someone has taken my position as typo spotter!

        Like

        2016-06-28 at 7:56 am

        • Bart

          There’s plenty of room for more people — it’s not an exclusive position. And it’s far from being the first typo I’ve reported. :)

          Like

          2016-06-28 at 4:26 pm

  2. Shirube

    “The rational portion of her mind was also vaguely aware that it was was losing.”
    was was this a typo?

    Like

    2016-06-30 at 10:50 pm

  3. i hope elena realizes that the rhetor mask is now hers, and she can modify that shit!

    Like

    2016-07-29 at 2:53 pm

    • Bart

      Modify in which way?

      Also, catch up and post with the newest posts because otherwise… spoilers…

      Like

      2016-07-29 at 3:00 pm

      • she could put in a secret release mechanism, some hidden compartments with poison darts, or at least bend the metal into the perfect comfortable contour.

        Like

        2016-07-29 at 4:17 pm

        • Bart

          Maybe she has… I can neither confirm nor deny those rumors…

          Catch up so we can discuss events without leaving spoilers. :)

          Like

          2016-07-29 at 8:02 pm

  4. Welp. There goes the mindrape. God I hate mind control but I think that’s kinda the point here.

    Like

    2016-09-21 at 9:39 am

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