A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

6.02 – Contione {A Meeting}

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“Normally when I feel like I’m being watched, I assume it’s just paranoia and try to ignore the feeling,” Emerald said.

“I’m just the opposite,” Owl said, “normally when I feel like I’m being watched, I assume I’ve observed something that makes me nervous without realizing it, and I try to identify what spooked me.”

“Either way,” Emerald said, “it’s a new feeling to not just suspect, but to know we’re being watched.”

“New, yes,” Owl agreed, “I can’t really say that I like it.”

Although there was no one around to hear them, they spoke in hushed voices, voices befitting the mist that curled along the stones of the hard-packed ground. The sun had only just risen, and it would be some hours before the mist cleared. It made the walk from the city walls to the monastery feel as if they were walking on a flowing river of clouds.

“I’ve never felt like I was being watched,” Elena said, “but I don’t like it either.”

The group moved in silence for a little while longer.

“I wish we’d had more time to plan,” Frederica broke the silence.

“Would we have come up with anything better, even with more time?” Elena asked. “If we don’t meet them, they’ll kill the hostages. We don’t have a say in what the Eye does, so we can’t force them to back us up.”

“Maybe we could’ve, maybe not,” Frederica said, “but they’ve had time to prepare, and more resources.”

“It’s like the Milian Studio attacks on Studio DaRose,” Owl spoke up again, “especially since this long walk assures we don’t have the element of surprise.”

Elena felt her chin jut out stubbornly, but she didn’t say anything. Even if they believed it was a lost cause, her friends were here with her. They hadn’t been able to find her a warhammer, but Elena was armed with a quarterstaff. Frederica had said she prefered her own knives to any the merchants had, so Owl now carried the knife they’d bought her. Emerald wore a long thin sword at her belt.

Perhaps it wasn’t wise, and perhaps she’d been backed into a corner. Still, Elena held out hope. Her Storm was strong, and even though the Twisted knew what she and her friends were capable of, they didn’t know how their compatriots had died. They didn’t know that each of the other Twisted had underestimated her.

The monastery seemed so far away for the entirety of the walk out, but now that it was in front of her it had returned to its previous state of unimpressiveness. The ancient stones, cracked and crumbly, were a stark contrast to the modern and technological city they had just left. The morning air was still, without even a breeze to whistle the wind.

“We should be careful in our approach,” Owl said. “It’s safe out here, I think you should stay here while we check for traps or guards, Elena.”

“I don’t want you to risk yourselves for me,” Elena said, looking at the large oak door of the monastery and feeling very small.

“If the Twisted are going to be defeated, you’re the one to do it,” Frederica said. “We’re not losing you to an arrow trap on a threshold.”

“I’d go alone,” Fred said, “but I won’t trigger a trap meant for a Mortalis.”

“I can’t ask-” Elena began, but Frederica and Owl were already moving toward the door, followed by Emerald after a moment of hesitation. The sound of the door opening on old hinges broke through the morning’s silence and sent shivers down Elena’s spine, and then her friends slipped inside, and there was only silence.

“It’s possible that the place is empty,” Ele said, “maybe they only wanted to draw you in to the city, to know where you are.”

Elena shook her head. “They would’ve posted people on the city walls in wait for me,” she said, “besides, they knew I was nearby Venecchi when they made me the offer.”

Owl poked his head out from behind the door. “No guards, no traps,” he called, “but it is a little ominous.”

She didn’t need Owl to tell her how ominous it was, not with that yawning door in front of her. Even had the circumstances been different, there was something unsettling about the monastery, as if the old stones themselves were warning her away. Elena took a deep breath, focused on Owl rather than on the doorway around him, and followed him in.

It was dim inside, but much brighter than Elena had assumed it would be without windows. The morning sun filtered in through slits near the ceiling, and caught motes of dust kicked up by their movements. The building was taken up almost entirely by the empty chapel, a huge room that should’ve been filled with rows of seats, but instead was utterly empty but for four full length pictures, long cloths draped over each.

“You see what I mean about ominous,” Owl said quietly, but even the soft whisper seemed far too loud for the silent room.

Elena did see. The dark forms of the covered pictures were like oversized gravestones, and it didn’t escaper her attention that there was one for each of them. Each footstep echoed as she went further and further into the abandoned chapel, drawn by the mysterious forms.

She stood in front of the closest for a long time, not reaching out for the heavy canvas that covered it, but instead peering at the cloth as if she could see through it.

“If there’s a trap that the Twisted set for you here, this is it,” Ele said.

“Do you think I should leave them?” Elena asked.

Owl smirked. “When I first met you, you wouldn’t have asked, you’d already be pulling off the cloth.”

“Things have changed since we first me,” Elena said. “I’ve changed.”

The group waited for a few more moments, then Ele sighed and shrugged. “I don’t see how it can hurt.”

“Let me do it, just in case,” Frederica moved Elena out of the way of the picture, and pulled the cover from it.

The painting was of a handsome young man with tousled yellow hair and dark bags under his eyes. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but in the dim light Elena couldn’t put her finger on it. He had been lounging on a bench with a book dangling from one hand, but when the cover came off he looked up and blinked.

“Ah, hello there,” he said, dropping the book and leaning forward. “I don’t like to complain, but it was getting really boring under there. I don’t suppose-” He froze, looking past Frederica and Elena to where Owl and Emerald stood. Slowly, a smile broke out over his boyish face.

“Meryl,” he grinned, “god, you got so old.”

Emerald’s face was motionless, her arms crossed as if she had suddenly grown cold. “Ulric,” she said, “just as ugly as I remember.”

“Better ugly than an old crone,” Ulric chuckled, standing from his bench to move closer to the frame. “You don’t have your mask anymore, have they started going softer on Rhetors now?”

“Emerald, who is this?” Elena asked, her eyes locked on the painting. She didn’t really have to ask, she had already put the basics together. Master Coastering’s Storm had made him one of the more famous Artifexes in Italoza, and everyone knew what he could do. He painted the dead, and his paintings animated with all of the life and personality and memories of those deceased.

“This is my brother, Ulric,” Emerald said, the discomfort still plain from her body language, “he died a few years after I was given my mask.”

Perhaps coming to the same conclusion that Elena had, Owl and Frederica moved to the next painting and pulled off the cover, revealing a small girl who broke into a gap-toothed smile.

“Aunty Frederica!” the girl squealed. Owl moved on to the next, pulling the cover off to reveal a woman in silver armor, but Elena’s focus was on the final painting, still covered, waiting for her in the place where an altar should’ve been. As if drawn by a magical force, Elena approached the last covered painting.

“Allvero,” the silver-armored woman’s voice was loud and commanding enough that Elena could hear it even though she wasn’t paying attention, “you’ve grown into such a man, you look so like your father.”

“Ele, the Twisted did this, so they did this for a reason,” Elena murmured, “keep an eye out for me?”

“Of course,” Ele said. “If I were Coastering, I’d think this would be the perfect way to…”

He trailed off as Elena pulled the covering away from the painting, revealing the inside of a humble home and a woman with her back to the frame, looking out through the window.

She recognized the back of the hair and the bent of the shoulder, but even if she hadn’t, the dull feeling of foreboding told her who was behind the frame. She had been expecting her dead tormentor from the Studios, Slug, or Arturo and Arta. Even having braced herself, Elena wasn’t prepared for this.

“M…” Elena had to swallow and take another breath before she could finish the single tremulous word. “Mama?”

Joanna Lucciano turned in the painting, fixing Elena with a smile of mingled pity and sorrow.

“Oh, Elena,” her mother shook her head, “I’ve missed you so.”

“Mama you’re… I didn’t know… I didn’t… I warned you to leave, I warned you to run away,” Elena’s voice was surprisingly calm, but the whole monastery around her seemed to be spinning around itself.

“Now now, there there,” Joanna said, “dry up your tears my dear, you’re not the one who died, now are you? If anything I should be the one crying- but never mind, never mind, I can put on a brave face for my daughter. My daughter the Master craftswoman in the courts.”

Despite her mother’s pride and her directions not towards, Elena could barely see the painting for the tears welling up in her eyes. She had been so prepared for a trap that she hadn’t even considered another motive from the Twisted.

“They didn’t want to kill me, they wanted to break my spirit,” she whispered.

“Now don’t be dramatic, Elena,” her mother said with a beleaguered air, “you had to have suspected, what with all the trouble you brought down on your family. Now I’m not blaming you, of course, but really, this cannot be so much of a shock.”

Elena put out a hand to lean against the frame. It was too much, even after everything that had happened it was too much to take. Not only was the room spinning, but it felt as if she was spinning, fast enough that she thought she may fall over despite her grip on the frame. Snippets of her friends’ conversations with their paintings reached her ears and flitted away as she focused on not throwing up.

“-don’t know, sis, that seems like a big risk-”

“-didn’t know you could do that, Aunty Frederica-”

“-think it through, Allvero. Your enemies want you here, talking to us. Why?”

Elena turned back to her mother.

“Mama, I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen, I didn’t want any of this to happen, I was only trying to do the right thing.”

“I’m sure you were, my dear,” Joanna said kindly, “I know you meant well, no matter how it turned out.”

“And I…I…” Elena trailed off. What could she say? Nothing could make this right, nothing could make up for what she had done, and certainly no words spoken to a portrait that wasn’t even her mother…

Owl slammed his knife into the corner of the portrait, and the momentum of it almost knocked the painting over to the ground. Elena was so startled she almost screamed, but the fright was nothing next to her horror as the painting suddenly stilled, her mother frozen in the midst of a sad smile. In a heartbeat, the Artifex painting had gone from animated and living to utterly still.

“Owl, what have you done-” Elena began, but Owl was already dragging her by the sleeve, and she suddenly realized that the others were yelling as well, that Emerald was running, that Frederica was on her other side yanking her along with them.

The first rumble deep within the stones of the monastery struck when the group had almost reached the door, and it was enough to throw Elena off of her feet. She scrambled and stumbled, Owl and Frederica helping her regain her footing almost as soon as she had lost it. A glance behind her revealed that a section of the ceiling had fallen, crushing the picture of Joanna and a fair-sized chunk of the floor around it. Even as she watched, more sections fell, letting patches of morning sunlight and noise penetrate the dark quiet of the monastery.

The cacophony of falling stones made it too loud to hear her friends’ shouting, but Elena didn’t need them to tell her to get out. For a split second Elena wondered how long she would’ve stood there, had Owl not frozen the painting and pulled her out, but before the thought had fully formed, a dark shape blocked out her vision.

She had just enough time to identify the shape as the heavy door swinging wildly on its hinges before it connected with her head.

***

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***

I think the curse on the vote for Twisted Cogs link has worn off, but maybe give it another week, djinn are notoriously dirty and he might’ve gotten grease on the vote button

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One response

  1. Daemion

    Ouch.

    Rocks fall, everyone dies.

    Like

    2017-03-24 at 9:04 am

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