Mia Nellada took a bite of pheasant without tasting it, staring through the table, lost in thought. The hall was a good place for thinking, silent and still, somber and grim. At her companion’s request it had been decked out with all the trappings of comfort and opulence, but those trappings couldn’t hide the fact that it was a fancy tomb.
Master Coastering dug into his meal in the seat next to her, overcompensating for the somberness by tearing into the food on his plate.
“You’re worrying again,” he said, too-jovially, “I keep telling you, Little One, there’s nothing to be worried about. She doesn’t know where you are, she doesn’t know how to find you, and even if she does find you…” he trailed off, gesturing to the hall around them, as if the huge empty table was supposed to comfort her, as if the Lanisti and Saggitari scattered in the bare hall were supposed to leave her reassured.
Mia reached a frail hand to the pair of cups that stood by her plate, one silver, one gold. The simple act of reaching was painful, by now, as if the cold had finally leaked into her marrow and permeated everything.
“Believe it or not, Master Coastering, I’m not worried,” she said, “but if I was worried, your feeble attempt at comforting me wouldn’t be helping.”
For a moment an offended expression flickered across Master Coastering’s face, but he quickly hid it, leaning back and chuckling. He couldn’t afford to be offended, not when his vast network had been reduced to one frail, crotchety, dangerous woman.
“Really, Little One, that wit,” Coastering sighed. “Still, if you’re not worried, then I’ll endeavor not to be worried, you’re far wiser than I. I shall put the matter out of my mind.”
For the next hour or so, Mia thought but did not say. There was no use in being nasty to the man, not when their time drew so close to a close. The meal continued for several minutes in the uneasy and tense quiet which was now the norm.
“Do you rotate out your chamber servants?” Coastering broke the quiet suddenly. “I do, but maybe that’s only being paranoid? There were rumors that she somehow got into Lucrezia’s throne room by way of the servants, I don’t know if you’d heard…”
Mia fixed the man with a glare.
“…ah, yes, of course,” Master Coastering said sheepishly, “perhaps that is a bit much-”
At the far end of the hall, one of the high small windows shattered inward. The shards of glass caught the light cast by the many torches and lanterns spread out along the walls, and the effect was like a small waterfall caught by the sun for a moment.
Mia smiled at the pretty sight, while Master Coastering jumped to his feet and screamed.
“They’re here! Guards, mercenaries, get ready!” He shrieked, as if the Lanisti and Saggitari hadn’t already been on alert since the moment they arrived. Mia took another sip of water, and the simple action seemed to calm Coastering.
“You’re right, you’re right,” he said, although Mia hadn’t said a word, “archers, watch the windows. They can’t come through the doors, there’s a squadron of men and the finest locks on the continent between them and us, they’ll try the windows.”
The other five windows burst in unison, and a horde of small shapes flowed inside. A flock of bats flapped along the ceiling, hard to track against the one surface in the room that still flickered with shadows. Master Coastering watched them with horror, his head snapping back and forth, and when they began diving toward the lanterns at the far side of the room he shrieked again.
“Wood! They’re made out of wood, it’s Maple, they’re here, Little One they’re here! Shoot them!”
Mia sighed. A few of the Saggitari wasted an arrow or two in the direction of the tiny specks of flapping wood, but even the arrow that sank into a wing did little more but sent its target careening into a wall. The wooden bat who had been hit merely scrambled on the floor for a moment, snapped the arrow off against the wall, and leapt into the air again to join its brethren in slamming against torches and lanterns.
A few of the bats went up in flames, but the number and weight of them was enough to extinguish all of the light on one side of the hallway.
“Squadron…best men…greatest locks…” Master Coastering murmured in a constant stream under his breath, as the Lanisti and Saggitari between the wide table and the dark end of the hall began shuffling around, shifting their grips on their various weapons.
From the silence in the darkness at the end of the hall, the distinctive sound of a lock shifting open seemed very loud.
“You said they couldn’t get in,” Master Coastering hissed, “Little One you said they wouldn’t get in!”
“Nonsense,” Mia said calmly, “she killed the king of Italoza, Coastering, of course they were going to get in. I said I wasn’t worried.”
“We’ve conquered your estate,” Elena’s voice emerged from the darkness, more confident and much more cold than Mia remembered it. “By any interpretation, it now belongs to me. That means everything from the armory is mine. All of the weapons you’re using are-”
A Saggitara, guided by Elena’s voice, let loose an arrow into the darkness toward it. For a few moments, there was silence.
“-are mine,” Elena’s voice resumed, unperturbed.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Master Coastering stammered.
“It only has to make sense to her, for her Storm to work,” Mia said. “The rest of you, put your weapons down.”
“What?” Coastering shrieked.
“Leave them on the ground and they’ll let you leave in peace. I assume this is the case, Elena?”
“You might have given them messages to pass, or plans to enact,” the cold tone to Elena’s voice was even more pronounced.
“I give you my word I have not.” Mia was surprised that she had to say so, surprised that Elena didn’t assume the best on her own.
A silvery voice in the darkness suggested that the guards do as they were bid, drop the weapons and leave in peace, forgetting any orders Nellada or Coastering had given them.
“Thank you,” Mia said as one by one, the Lanisti and Saggitari let their weapons clatter to the floor, making their way into the darkness and presumably out of the estate as best they could.
“They’re lucky my friends were with me. I wouldn’t choose to be so merciful on my own.” Elena emerged from the darkness, the Saggitara’s arrow held loose in her hand. She was flanked by her Calaetor friend and by Porzia’s son. Mia let her eyes linger on Allvero’s features for a moment. It was a kindness, in a way, to see the features of an old friend in her final moments.
“I believe it,” Mia said quietly.
“Elena, Elena listen,” Master Coastering said softly, “I don’t suppose there’s a chance that that mercy could extend-”
Elena made a small motion with the arrow. A snap from the darkness like a whipcrack interrupted Coastering’s words, and a bolt blossomed from his stomach. Two more snaps in quick succession marked two more bolts, both in Master Coastering’s chest, and he slumped back down in the chair, lifeless.
“Are you going to beg for mercy as well?” Elena asked, setting the arrow down on the table in front of Mia.
“You should know me better. I don’t make a habit of wasting time on impossibilities. ” Mia reached for the gold cup, but Elena snatched it before she could, tossing the contents aside without looking at them. Mia met her gaze as the grin liquid bubbled and boiled on the ground. “I’m alive to answer questions, I take it.”
Allvero stepped forward and picked the gold cup off the ground, sniffing at it and then grimacing.
“Cicuta, water-hemlock,” he said. “It’s a hideous death, but it’s quick.”
Elena nodded, as if she was unsurprised. “Do you know how to free the Echoes?”
“If the Storm was lying to you about that, then no I don’t,” Mia replied.
“Do you know where any of the other Twisted are?”
Mia raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know there were more. I feel a little sorry for them, knowing they’ll come up against you without warning.”
“Don’t bother trying to make me feel guilty,” Elena said. “I don’t think it’s possible, anymore.”
“No…no, it would seem not,” Mia said, searching Elena’s face. It was the same face of the little girl who had left Milia, but there was something dark behind it. “It appears you’re far more informed than I am, Elena. I don’t believe I’m much use to you anymore. Do you have anything else to ask?”
“No,” Elena half-turned, then stopped, “yes, actually. Why? Taking me under your wing in Milia, the coup, the Stormhearts Rebellion, what was it all for? I don’t think I believe it was just for power.”
“It was for Italoza,” Mia said. “No, it’s true,” she added when Elena rolled her eyes, “Stormtouched, Mortalis, now Echoes…they’re too different, and as long as there are differences, people will tear each other apart over them. First Stormtouched will overthrow Mortalis, then Mortalis Stormtouched, as regularly as the tide until the end of time. As long as there is someone to manage that tide, to lead the inevitable rebellions and thus keep them in check, the damage could be mitigated. I served that role for some time, but I am old. If I wasn’t to die tonight, I doubt I’d see the new year. I had hoped for an heir I could train to take my place.”
“And you think I’m the one for the job,” Elena said wryly, “I’ll add ‘keeping Stormtouched and Mortalis from destroying one another’ to the list of impossible tasks I have building.”
Mia furrowed her brow. “I thought that once. Now…” she shook her head slowly, “…you’ve become a different person, child. Without the sweetness and empathy you had, I wouldn’t trust you as my heir.”
“The Storm said something similar,” Elena said, “said that I needed my soft edges chipped off to truly be a Queen. That she’d made me into a true Twisted. She was wrong, and it ended up being her defeat.”
“Wrong about what you had become, or wrong that you needed it to be Queen?” Mia asked. When Elena dropped her gaze, she nodded. It was as good as an admission, and more importantly it was an admission that would last in Elena’s head long after Mia’s death.
“It saved all of the Stormtouched in Italoza,” Elena said. “Maybe that was a trade worth making.”
“Maybe,” Mia said. “Maybe it was worth becoming Twisted, little Cog. Or maybe you would’ve done well to listen to children’s songs. Most children hear The Shadow’s Plaything, did you ever hear it as a girl?”
Her ancient voice was worn from so much talking, but Mia had a smile on her lips as she sang.
“My girl now heed my warning, if ye think to play with shadows,
My daughter heed my warning and be tempted not to stray,
My child, they promise riches and they promise love and power,
But those who play with shadows give their very souls away.”
Elena turned her back on the singing woman, and after a few moments her friends followed. The smile still played at the corner of Mia’s lips as she continued to sing. The girl Frederica and the boy Allvero had exchanged worried looks behind Elena’s back. They were worried about the new darkness in her too. Good. They would work all the harder to keep her in check, and perhaps the group as a whole would work well together.
“So meddle not with shadows, although shadows give thee power,” Mia sang, “meddle not with shadows, for the shadow takes its fee-”
Though she was expecting them, the bolts were so sudden that she barely felt them.
Elena mused as behind her the three bolts slammed into Little One with whipcrack snaps. The room fell into utter silence as the group slipped back into the near-pitch black. Elena could navigate the estate, her estate, with her eyes closed thanks to the steady stream of information, and the others followed her.
“How much of that was accurate, and how much of it was to get under our skin,” Ele asked, breaking the silence.
“A healthy mix of both,” Elena said. “But you don’t need to worry. I trust you, and I trust Frederica and Owl to reign me in if it’s warranted.”
“I think we were just snubbed,” Belloza said to Emerald, falling into step behind Elena.
“I’m hurt,” even in the darkness Emerald’s grin was apparent, “is our morality not good enough for you, Elena? I mean, if we decide to have some at some point?”
Despite the joking, Elena continued to brood as the group emerged into the moonlight in the grounds of the estate, while Ele hummed The Shadow’s Plaything under his breath.
“The last of the Italozan Twisted,” Frederica said, “and I can’t say I’m sorry. Perhaps it’s the assassination of the monarch, but I’d say we’ve worn out our welcome.”
“I had hoped that Little One would’ve been more helpful,” Owl frowned, “maybe with the Echoes, but at least in narrowing down the choice between Francas or Espana.”
“We’ll have to look to our leader for that choice. Where are we going, Elena?” Bello asked, his deep voice naturally quiet.
We’ll stop by Rimi and consult with the Eye, perhaps convince Ava to go with us,” Elena snuck a glance at Owl. He reached out and clasped her hand in his without saying a word, and Elena smiled.
“Meddle not with shadows, though the shadows give thee power,” Ele sang, as he, Elena, Frederica, Fred, Emerald, Bello and Belloza descended the grassy hill on which the estate sat. “Meddle not with shadows, for the shadow takes its fee…”
I should feel worse, fleeing Italoza with the hatred of the country at my back, Elena though idly, lacing her fingers with Owls. Knowing that the Storm has turned me into a Twisted cog…
“Meddle not with shadows, even though you think them playthings,” Ele sang, his tenor keeping the silence at bay. Elena glanced at her friends around her, no hint of doubt on their faces even though they would be fleeing with her. Maybe there are worse fates in life.
“…but whilst thee plays with shadows, shadows may too play with thee.”
End of Book 4
End of Twisted Cogs
The handle of the stormtouched gate was cold and smooth beneath Elena’s fingers. She wasn’t quite sure how long she had been standing there, staring at the way her hand clasped the handle. Although the gate was far far larger than she should be able to move, she could feel that only the slightest force would swing it open. She didn’t exert that slight force.
“Something…” Elena let the sentence drift off, carried away by the wind that whipped at her clothes but didn’t touch her skin. Her Storm fed her a constant flow of information about the Echoes around the world, so she knew the thing on the other side of the gate was telling her the truth. With her Storm and the crown, she was Queen of the Echoes, and all she had to do to save her people-
mine mine mine, pounded the voice in her head.
-was to open the gate and let them out.
It all made almost so much sense, and the desperate urge to take what was hers pounding in her head made her long to swing the gate open…but there was something she was missing, something important she was forgetting.
“What are you waiting for, Elena?” Her reflection asked gently, an amused smile on her face.
“Something,” Elena tried again, although her eyelids were heavy and it was hard to form words, “something I have to think through first, I think?”
“There’s nothing to think through, Elena,” the reflection said softly, stepping a little bit closer. “Everything that matters is right here in front of you, prickling in your head.”
“The only thing that matters is here?” Elena repeated dully. It did make a little sense.
“You were born for this, it’s yours,” the reflection said, her words in sync with the pounding voice in Elena’s head, “what do you have in the other world that is quite so yours?”
“I don’t have anything,” Elena said, “nothing in that other world is mine.”
Vaguely and from far off, people had been yelling at her for some time, but their voices were so indistinct and fuzzy that she hadn’t been paying much attention. Even when someone had grabbed her shoulders, far far away in that other world, Elena hadn’t given them much thought, focused on the mirror-smooth gate in front of her.
When Owl suddenly pulled her close and pressed his lips against hers, she noticed.
Elena sputtered, eyes wide, and stumbled back, but Owl kept his hands on her shoulders, keeping her from falling.
“You have Frederica who gave up three fingers to keep you safe,” Owl said. His voice still seemed far away, but in her shock Elena could at least hear it again. “You have Emerald who gave up guaranteed safety for guaranteed death for you. You have Belloza who was stabbed for you. You have me, who loves you.”
Elena blinked hard. Her vision which had been so clear a few moments ago started to spin again, the nauseating double-sight returning. Though she could still see the mirror-polished gate and her own confident, calm smile, Elena could also see Owl, his brow creased with worry. She could also see her friends around her.
“I do have you, don’t I?” she whispered. “I have all of you.”
Elena let go of the gate’s handle. “Where is Ele?” she asked.
Her reflection looked startled. “Ele…he’s standing right beside you.”
“I’m here, Elena,” Ele said, his voice far away, but Elena shook her head, meeting her reflection’s gaze.
“You said all of the Echoes are my subjects, you told me to look at them with my Storm,” she said, “if that’s true, why can’t I see Ele? Why can’t I see Fred, or Bello? Why can’t I see the Echoes whose whereabouts I can confirm?”
Elena’s reflection huffed a sigh and rolled her eyes. The expression made her look so much like her mother that Elena clenched her fists, anger making her mind a little clearer.
“Elena, you can’t expect to use the full extent of your knowledge as Queen of Echoes so soon. Knowledge of Ele and Fred and Bello is there in your head, you just have to give it time.”
Elena shook her head, “I don’t think so. I think the only time you told me the truth is when you said your power couldn’t wholly pass through this gate. Enough of it to influence me, to make me think my Storm was working. Not enough to show me the Echoes on this side.”
“Elena, whatever the Storm is saying, you know that it’s killed to try to accomplish its goal,” Ele said.
“Don’t give in to it,” Owl said.
“Elena,” the reflection said, and now that she was looking for it Elena could feel the press on her mind, in the same spots that prickled when her storm worked, “open the gate.”
“No.” Elena squared her shoulders. “Call me naive if you want. I trust my friends a whole lot more than I trust you.”
For a long moment, Elena stared at her reflection, both girls utterly still. Suddenly the reflection threw herself forward, slamming against the gate with so much force that the titanic structure shuddered. She slammed a fist against the mirrored surface, then again and again. The reflection screamed, a sound that didn’t sound even vaguely human, more like the sound of shrieking wind fueled by frustration and rage.
“You think this is over? You think this is a happy ending for you?” the reflection snarled, her face so twisted with anger that she barely resembled Elena any longer. “I wasn’t lying about hedging my bets. You’re about to be slaughtered, and all I have to do is wait for the next chosen one.”
“How long, Frederica?” Elena didn’t bother squinting through the double-vision to gauge.
“They’re starting to figure out how to fight the birds, sooner would be better than later,” Frederica replied.
“Even if you escape your fate now, you can’t reach every single Twisted in the world before one of them makes it here,” the reflection slumped against the gate, but her wild green eyes still burned, “do you think the next one will turn me down? What about the one after?”
“I don’t care,” Elena said simply. She reached out to clasp Owl’s hand in her own.
“You expect me to believe that?” taunted her reflection, “that you’ll leave the gate behind without a backward glance?”
“I don’t have to worry about a gate when it’s locked,” Elena said. She lifted her hand back to the gate, still clasped in Owl’s, “and I happen to know an excellent locksmith.”
The reflection stared at her for a moment. “That’s stupid,” she said finally, “that’s not how this works.”
“Owl, I need you to use your Storm to make a lock,” Elena ignored her reflection, “right here, as if you were working with your tools and materials, the best lock you’ve ever made. Can you do that for me?”
“I’m not sure I get it…” Owl said.
“Please,” Elena said, “trust me, and trust your Storm.”
Owl began awkwardly moving his hands, using Elena’s hand as a guide. Without being able to see the stormworld like Elena could, his hands passed through the gate a few times, and Elena couldn’t see any effects of his handiwork, but she stayed quiet as he went through the motions.
“Stop this, or I’ll strip the Storms out of both of your minds,” Elena’s reflection was focused on Owl’s hands. Elena didn’t bother relaying the message.
“Are you sure about this, Elena?” Owl glanced in the direction of the guards, then down at his hands again.
“Stop this, or I’ll take Ele from you,” Elena’s reflection hissed.
“Almost there,” Elena murmured.
“Elena, the guards are coming again,” Frederica warned.
“Elena, nothing is happeni-” Owl began.
The lock shot home around the gate with a thunderclap so loud it shook the ground. A heavy solid knot of metal, with long pieces branching out and fusing into the surface of the gate, the lock sat like a tree root growing into the gate itself. Around her, Ele, Emerald, Fred and Frederica exclaimed with surprise, and Owl jumped back as if his fingers had been burned.
“It’s done,” Elena said, and suddenly slumped to one side. Frederica was already there to support her weight, and Owl took her other arm. Together her friends half-supported, half-dragged her, presumably in the direction away from the guards, although all Elena could see was the murderous glare of her reflection in the locked gate.
The black and white speckles that whirled over the landscape around her slowly slipped away from her vision as Elena turned her attention back toward her surroundings. In her head, the line of ownership like a flight of stairs to the Gate slowly slipped away, leaving her with only a country’s worth of information in her brain.
Her temples pounded, each stab of pain making her vision blurry.
“To the monastery, we can make it before they catch up and maybe drop a pillar on them,” Frederica said.
“If we hide I can pick off a few more than two before they silence me, perhaps,” Emerald said.
The group changed course, but Elena was too busy trying to focus on small things to pay much attention, even to her impending doom. For some reason her mind kept wandering back to the now dead King, even though it was such a dangerous point to focus on. Too many expansive and wide swathes of information were connected to him, and it threatened to overwhelm her each time she did so.
The King had unsigned papers on his desk which would change economic policy to- Elena refocused.
The King left instructions for his right hand advisor, who was also his mistress, on how best to protect the Queen when he was gone- Elena refocused again, shaking her head.
The King had discouraged the use of the tunnels under Florenzia because even he didn’t know how far they stretched. Elena knew, of course, they stretched all the way to the outskirts of the city…
“Tunnels,” Elena slurred suddenly, “handle to the tunnels…”
“Is she okay?” Owl asked.
“Bad news, Elena,” Frederica pushed Elena over, snagging the crown off her head, “this is a coup, I’m the Queen of Italoza now.”
The second the weight of the crown left her head, Elena’s vision cleared, and the pounding in her temples was reduced to a dull throb as the choking information evaporated. She sat on the stone among the crumbled rubble, panting.
“Thank you,” she said.
“And abdicated,” Frederica tossed the crown to one side. “I may have had the shortest reign in all of Italoza, but I hope the history books will remember it as just.”
“The guards will catch up in a few moments,” Emerald said, “I doubt any of us will be remembered so fondly.”
“Tunnels!” Elena lept to her feet, trying to ignore the way the world wobbled as she did so, “there is a tunnel network running under Florenzia, and one of them comes out here! I saw the handle of the trapdoor as we were leaving but didn’t know what it was.”
By the time she reached the trapdoor, Owl was at her side, and the two of them hauled it open. The tunnel beyond was pitch black, but Elena breathed a sigh of relief.
“There’s a lock,” Owl noted quietly, as Emerald descended first, followed by Frederica. He climbed down at the same time as Fred, wincing as the ephemeral Echo moved through him. Elena and Ele slipped into the darkness together, as the scuff of heavy boots and the clank of armor and weapons sounded just outside.
She managed to close the trap door behind her silently, and the lock clicked quietly when Elena locked it. Carefully, rung by rung, she began to descend. It should have been terrifying, climbing in the pitch darkness toward an unknown destination. It should have been terrifying, knowing that the agents of the storm were still out there, just waiting for their opportunity. It should have been terrifying knowing that she had killed the king, and would be hunted for the rest of her life.
Maybe I’ve been terrified for so long that I’m just used to it, Elena thought.
In the pitch black, a voice whispered into Elena’s ear, familiar but strange at the same time.
“A Stormtouched’s art dies with its Stormtouched,” the voice whispered. “Allvero D’Arcangelo will die someday, and I’ll be waiting for the lock to fall.”
“Owl is going to live for a long, long time,” Elena whispered back into the darkness. “We’ve beaten you, Storm. And as many times as we have to, we’ll beat you again.”
Elena vaguely felt that her hands should have been trembling. Instead they were steady as she kept hold of the knife, letting the body of the King slip off of it and slump to the ground. Far off, halfway between the little group and Florenzia, the guards shouted and broke into a run for them.
She watched the approach detachedly, gauging how long it would take the guards to reach them while trying to focus on them through the blurry storm world that occupied half of her vision.
“Seems a shame,” Frederica said. “Extending our time with Fulvio’s death, only for it to come to this.”
The guards drew weapons as they charged, mostly swords, but a few spears mixed in. The sun glinted off of armor and blades. Elena pulled her gaze away from them to the ground where the King had fallen.
“I had hoped to have a little more time,” she said, picking the gold crown out of the dust where it had fallen, “I thought maybe my Storm could’ve hatched an escape plan if I fed it all the information of Italoza.”
“You’ve fainted from a studio’s worth of control, Elena,” Owl pointed out, “this could kill you.”
Ele shook his head. “She’s grown since then, and she’s had practice, ruling Milia.”
“Death by Storm is hardly worse than death by guard,” Elena said. “How long can you all hold them off?”
“I can take one of them, maybe two before they silence me,” Emerald said.
“Don’t count on me for more than one,” Owl replied grimly.
Frederica didn’t answer, instead stepping forward and loosening her cloak. For a moment the fabric hung off her shoulders, then with a burst of rattling and rustling the loose cloak practically exploded away from her. Dozens of tiny birds took flight from pockets up and down the cloak, their maple wings catching the colors of the sunrise as they flew toward the advancing guards.
“Frederica!” Elena exclaimed, the crown in her hands momentarily forgotten. The birds whirled in a tornado around the heads and faces of the guards, stopping their charge and forcing them to duck and swing at the dangerous pests instead.
“You’ve watched me carving ever since we set out,” Frederica said, “did you think I was doing it for amusement?” She pointed at the crown in Elena’s hands. “You have about ten minutes-”
One of the guards swept up with his spear, slicing one of the maple birds cleanly in half.
“Five minutes,” amended Frederica.
Elena lifted the crown and settled it on her head. It was lighter than she’d thought, and too large for her. Regardless, she lifted her chin and spoke.
“I, Elena Lucciano, having killed the King and taken the crown, am the Queen of Italoza.”
For a moment she felt the smallest of tingles along her palms and in her temples.
Then Elena saw everything.
Not too much, Elena pulled herself back the second she felt the wave of information begin to wash over her, and even then it was almost too late. Her vision blurred, darkness hovered around the corners of the world, but she focused in as far as she could, not caring what she thought about but forcing herself to think small.
A banker in Rimi was shaving the edges off of any florins he took in, melting down the metal and casting his own to make up for his losses, desperate to keep up with the new banking family who had just started business.
One of the small villages on the outskirts of Tusca had a Lord unaware that his son planned to assassinate him, not for his title but to punish the Lord’s friend the Duke, who had accidentally wounded that son’s friend in a hunting accident.
A young Verani girl had fallen in love with her closest friend, and was making plans to enroll in the nearby Studio in order to win his favor, not knowing that he carried a poem he had written her but was too anxious to share.
Elena shook her head. It was fine enough detail to stay conscious, but she had to shift her attention a little closer to herself. It was a difficult task when thinking about Florenzia threatened to envelope her in Florenzia, when there was enough pure and concentrated information lurking behind every stray thought to drag her into a dark abyss from which she could never claw her way out.
Under the city of Florenzia there lay a network of tunnels, so secret that they hadn’t been used since the Stormhearts Rebellion, a rebellion that Elena was trying desperately not to think of. The King had known about them, but wanted their use discouraged.
The city-states of Italoza were more strained than anyone knew. The Princes of each city could see their small portions of the fabric, but even the King hadn’t had the insight to see how many hundreds of small tears and weak points there were in the grand tapestry that was Italoza.
The King, the man who had been so frightened of taking the crown, was dead now, lying in the dust of what had used to be the fields where the monks had kept herbs back when the monastery was in good use. Now the monastery and its secrets were as dead as the King, who lay at the feet of the new Queen-
There, Elena latched on to herself, focusing on familiar information…then she paused.
The Queen of Italoza controlled all of Italoza, and that meant she controlled the Gate. A line of ownership snaked out from her like a long flight of stairs, and it led to a place beyond the bounds of the world on which she stood.
Elena had had her eyes clenched shut, trying to block out any source of information she could, but now she opened them.
A wind that she couldn’t feel whipped at her clothing, and whipped the flecks of white and black around her. The storm world that had been overlaid on her vision since the door hit her was now easy to see, much easier than the dim figures of her friends nearby.
“Elena? Is your Storm helping?” Emerald asked from far, far away. Elena just stared at the Gate in front of her.
It was awe-inspiring, even compared to the many cities she had seen. The walls around the Gate were a deep blue metal, as if ice had been forged into something unbreakable. The Gate itself was smooth, polished so bright that her reflection was crystal clear. Elena knew even without her Storm that the gate was all that separated the land of Echoes from the world she lived in.
She also knew that the Gate was hers, and hers alone. The only way to find it was to know every speck of information about Italoza, and who but her could do that?
“It was never intended to be theirs,” Elena realized aloud.
“It was a trick?” Owl asked, from a great distance.
“The Avatar of the Storm had to have known this,” Elena continued. It was as easy to ignore Owl’s voice as it was to ignore the rest of the information about Italoza. “He had to have known that no other Twisted could have gotten here.”
Mine, she whispered to herself, setting a gentle hand on the smooth polished surface. Her reflection was smiling at her, the reflected hand warm against her own.
“Elena, are you saying this was all a trick by the Storm?” Owl asked again.
Elena frowned at the intrusion. “It’s not a trick,” she said, “this gate was always meant for me.”
“Now, now, try not to be too egotistical, Elena,” Elena’s reflection in the mirrored shine said. Elena pulled her hand back as if burned, and her reflection kept her hand to the surface for a few moments before dropping her own. “You are one of a very small number, but there are others who could’ve owned this gate. I had to hedge my bets, spread your Storm to as many as I dared.”
Even in the circumstances, staring at herself through the mirror, a surge of possessive jealousy flushed through Elena. “You’re not the Storm,” she said, “I’ve met the Storm.”
“Elena, who-” Owl tried to interrupt, but Elena brushed him aside impatiently. If he continued to protest or interrupt, she didn’t hear him.
“You’ve met the result of me forcing myself through the threshold that separates our world’s, Elena,” Elena’s reflection clasped her hands behind her back and slowly paced, gazing thoughtfully up at the titanic gate between them. “A threshold I have never been able to overcome. As long as the gate stands, and as long as the gate is shut, nothing can ever pass through, not wholly, not really. My power passes the threshold and becomes a shallow copy, my will passes the threshold and becomes a stuttering half-witted shell, my children pass and turn to ephemeral wisps, echoes of the beings they are here.”
“You’ve given me this speech before,” Elena said, “your Avatar has. I’ve heard it before, you want me to open the gate, you want the Echoes to overwrite their Stormtouched, you wanted my mother and the Twisted to groom me into a tyrant. I’d tell you to ask your Avatar how well it worked, but I killed him.”
“Oh, Elena, don’t you see?” the reflection of Elena smiled, her green eyes twinkling, “what use do I have for a tyrant? The Twisted were never meant to turn you into a tyrant. They were meant to turn you into a Queen. And they have.”
“Just because I picked up a crown-”
“There is more to being a Queen than having a crown,” the reflection cut Elena off. “A Queen requires patience and empathy, but she also needs her soft edges chipped off, her shine dulled a little. You could never be a Queen if you didn’t know how it felt to hold responsibility for anothers’ life in your hands, but now…”
The reflection indicated Elena’s hands, and for a heartstopping moment Elena thought they would be literally blood-drenched when she looked down. Though they were clean, the reflection’s point was clear enough.
“The Echoes won’t be replacing their Stormtouched, Elena,” the reflection said softly. “Opening the gate will simply allow them to be released into your world. But they’re not of that world, and they’ll need an anchor. They’ll need a Queen. Someone too good and noble to allow thousands of Stormtouched to be erased, but someone with the determination and mettle to kill if that’s what it takes.”
Elena’s mouth was dry, and her heart pounded. Her double seemed utterly calm and collected, waiting still and silent for Elena to respond.
“You’re telling me that you sacrificed the Twisted to…to teach me to be crueler? You’re hardly making a good case for me to trust you,” she finally said.
“I knew that your naivete would keep you from making hard choices when need be,” her reflection replied evenly.
Elena shook her head. “No…no, I don’t buy it. You’re lying to me so that I’ll open the gate.”
“You know that I’m telling you the truth,” Elena’s reflection said, “because your Storm is telling you that all of the Echoes, in your world and in this, belong to you, their Queen.”
Elena blinked, and carefully expanded her attention.
Italoza belonged to the Queen of Italoza. She could map out its boundaries clearly in her head, could pinpoint the inch at which her knowledge and power stopped. There was something else, though, some separate flow of information. Beyond the borders of Italoza, the Echoes burned bright in her mind. Echoes in countries far far away. Echoes in places she had never even heard of, living lives so inconceivably strange that they seemed alien. There were Echoes beyond the gate, being hunted and slaughtered, then born again from the fog to be hunted once more.
The Queen of the Echoes’ subjects. Her subjects.
“You tricked me into killing the Twisted,” Elena protested. “You turned me into…into this person I am now.”
“I turned you into a Queen,” her reflection said, “one who I can entrust my children to.”
I’m the only one who can take care of them, Elena realized, with more certainty than she had ever felt before, my subjects. Mine.
Elena reached out and placed her hand on the polished metal of the gate again, and this time her reflection just watched.
“I don’t know if I can be their Queen,” she said, pausing. Far, far away, too far away to register, someone was shouting, someone was shaking her. “I don’t know if I can handle that responsibility.”
“Can you be satisfied with any other alternative?” her reflection said. “Can you go back to being a garzona, from what you are now? To being a Master?”
“No,” Elena admitted. Her hand, running along the smooth surface of the gate, bumped up against an outcropping. A smooth and polished handle, small, one that fit into the curves of her fingers as if it had been made for her. Hers.
“Then why not take what’s yours?” Asked her reflection, leaning forward toward the Gate.
Elena slipped her fingers around the small cold handle.
“Mine,” she murmured.
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“You’re seeing things. There’s no way the King is here.” Frederica’s voice was flat, but she shoved in her pockets and clenched her jaw.
“It’s not the King,” Elena said, “not really.”
“He’s wearing a crown,” Ele said.
“It’s the King’s body. A Mortalis body, susceptible to Fulvio’s Storm.” After so much hopelessness and fear over the past few months, Elena found herself strangely calm, now. “I don’t know why I didn’t expect this. It’s reckless, even for the Twisted, but they’re hardly afraid of being reckless, are they.”
The figure in the crown dismounted from his horse and was talking to the leader of the complement of twenty guards. The group was about halfway between the wrecked monastery and the walls of Florenzia, close enough that Elena could see the expression of solemn gravity on the King’s face as he turned and observed them.
“What do we do?” Owl asked. “I had my doubts about beating the Twisted before, but we can’t fight Fulvio, not when she’s holding the King hostage like that.”
Elena didn’t answer, she simply watched as the King broke off from his guards, leaving them behind in a tightly-formed cluster as he approached on his own. King Pellegrino walked with a long, confident stride, and he looked far less worried than the guards he left behind.
Of course, Fulvio knows exactly what we are and aren’t capable of, Elena thought, while the guards…who knows what stories they’ve been hearing over the past several weeks.
“Elena, we need a plan of action,” Ele pressed.
“I don’t know that we’ll be able to think of one in the next sixty seconds,” Elena said. She glanced behind her at the quarterstaff, shattered when she had killed the avatar of the Storm. “I’d feel better if I had a weapon, though.”
“We’ve sort of moved beyond the point where having weapons makes a lot of difference,” Owl grumbled, but he pressed his long knife into her hands. Elena only felt marginally better, given that the King carried a thin silver sword in one hand, but it was better than nothing.
The prickles in her fingers let her hold the knife just right, and for a moment Elena closed her eyes and took a deep breath, focusing only on the prickle of the Storm and the comfort of knowing her friends were around her.
“Do you remember when I first met the Twisted, and you tried to tell me you had the good of Italoza at heart?” Elena called out, opening her eyes. “You want to try convincing me of it again, using the King’s voice?”
King Pellegrino grinned, slowing as he approached the group. “You see, this is why I left the guards back there, where they couldn’t hear anything,” he said in a rich deep voice, “far fewer awkward questions that would need explaining. And I do love Italoza, Elena, that’s why I want to rule it. I can love the country without loving the Mortalis currently sitting its throne.”
“You haven’t thought this through, Fulvio,” Ele said. “You might be able to kill us here, but the second you skip to another Mortalis’ mind the King will make it his mission to hunt you down and make you pay for what you’ve done to him.”
“Oh dear,” King Pellegrino stopped, a few feet away from the assembled group. “However could I have missed that.”
“Fulvio can’t carry out the Storm’s plans unless she’s the ruler of Italoza, Ele,” Elena said, her eyes locked on the King’s. “She can’t do that if the King survives. I’d bet a thousand florins that she has connections set up already for the crown to fall into her lap, or that she plans on being inside whatever body is given the crown.”
“I really can’t lose in this scenario,” the King giggled, the action entirely at odds with his grave and aged face. “I don’t know if you’ve mused on how hard it is to get rid of a King, but I’ve really had the most difficult time of it. A spymaster by definition has spies, not guards or armies. I don’t have enough muscle to attempt a real coup. I’ve taken over the King for a few seconds here and there, hoping I could technically be the ruler for a short time without him noticing…but apparently that doesn’t count as ruling Italoza, I have to take the crown by force or be given it.”
“So you’re going to what, kill us? Or make us kill the King,” Owl said, “with half a city’s worth of witnesses swearing that it was the fugitives, not the spymaster, who made it happen.”
“Oh I don’t really care one way or the other,” King Pellegrino shrugged, “either you kill him here, or I kill you all and only later does the populous discover that the Rhetor implanted a suggestion that their King kill himself before she succumbed. I’d actually prefer the latter, if I’m being honest. If the King gets stabbed I’ll have to feel the pain until I can catch the eye of that captain of the guard back there.”
The tip of King Pellegrino’s sword flicked upward as he spoke, smiling again. “But you’re welcome to try for capture-by-guard rather than death-by-king. What with the trial and execution, you may buy yourself a whole handful of days more of living. Never let it be said that Fulvio Cordano is unfair to her inferiors.”
Elena lifted her knife, the strange calm permeating her.
“Elena, this is crazy, everyone is watching you from the Castle,” Owl said. “You run, we’ll hold Fulvio off.”
“I appreciate your offer, Owl,” Elena said quietly, “I appreciate you all, more than you’ll ever know. But those guards would catch me before I’d even lost sight of the city, and King Pellegrino would be just as dead. The only difference is Emerald’s Storm would be blamed.”
“It’s such a useful little Storm in that way,” King Pellegrino said.
Emerald had been silent, her arms crossed to hug herself, her lower lip caught between her teeth.
“It could be more useful,” she said suddenly, breaking the tense silence. She flinched when Frederica, Fred, Elena, Ele, Owl and King Pellegrino turned their attention to her, and her gaze dropped, but she continued. “Having a Rhetor on your side, it could be more useful to you than killing me.”
“Intriguing,” King Pellegrino raised an eyebrow. “And I’m just taking you on your word that you’re offering your service, and that this isn’t a trick, am I? Your friends don’t seem worried.”
“They’re not worried because I’ve been using my Storm on them since we first started travelling together,” Emerald still didn’t look up to meet anyone’s gaze, “they can’t not trust me.”
“Emerald?” Elena shook her head, trying to reconcile the conflicting pieces of information she knew to be true. Emerald had used her Storm on them…but at the same time, Elena knew Emerald wouldn’t harm her…
A vague memory of a snow-filled Milian street, long ago, nudged against her memory, but Elena couldn’t quite catch hold of it.
“If this were a trick, I’d just use my Storm on you,” Emerald said, “I’m a Rhetor, I could make you surrender.”
“No, you couldn’t. When I’m inhabiting a body, the Rhetor’s Storm doesn’t affect me since I’m not technically the one hearing it.” King Pellegrino said. He tilted his head thoughtfully, speculatively, “but it’s true that you didn’t know that, did you?”
Emerald shook her head. “Let me join you,” she said simply, “promise me safety from the Guardhouse and I’m yours.”
“Emerald, what are you talking about?” Owl said.
“It’s not…what…” Ele stammered, as if losing his train of thought each time he regained it. Elena’s head pounded again, her vision flickering between storm world and her own. They hadn’t discussed this plan, she didn’t know what trick Emerald was carrying out, she would be so frightened if she hadn’t known for certain that Emerald wouldn’t hurt her.
King Pellegrino held out his free hand, and Emerald stepped across the few foot gap between the two sides and took it, standing next to him.
“Poor Elena Lucciano, poor little Cog,” the King said softly, “from the moment we met to the moment you die, your simple-mindedness and naivete has been your downfall. I hope, when I drive you through, you’ll understand that.”
Elena shook her head a final time, then pushed all of the questions and doubt from her mind and raised her chin. “I’m not sorry for believing in my friends,” she said, “you won’t ever change that.”
“It wouldn’t cross my mind that I could,” the King said. “Pathetic.” He half-turned, speaking to Emerald but keeping his attention on Elena. “You didn’t even have to use your Storm on her. You could’ve stabbed her in the chest and she’d still have trusted you.”
Emerald flinched, as if the words were a physical blow.
“I…” she said, hesitant, “I really didn’t, did I?”
For a moment, the Rhetor paused, then she reached out for King Pellegrino. She wrapped her arms around his from behind, yanking back to wrench his shoulders. The King shouted and flipped the sword in his grip, bringing it down backwards to rake an angry slash across Emerald’s thigh. Emerald dropped, but she maintained her grip, and the weight of her brought King Pellegrino to his knees, the sword lodged too deep in the ground to move.
“Elena,” Emerald gasped, her face pale, “the King can’t see behind him.”
The impact of her words struck Elena and Fulvio at the same time, and the King struggled to free himself from Emerald’s grip as Owl and Frederica dashed forward to help the Rhetor. Between the three of them, they held the King firmly, unable to turn to catch the eye of the guards far behind him.
The only people in sight were Stormtouched, and Fulvio had nowhere to jump.
“You can’t,” King Pellegrino hissed through his teeth as Elena approached, “you said it yourself, you love this land too much to kill its ruler.”
“I do love this land,” Elena said sadly. “I love it too much to let you rule it.”
With a moment’s pause and a deep breath, Elena drove her knife into the King of Italoza’s heart.
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The heavy door drove Elena to her knees before bouncing off its other corner and careening into a pile of rubble to her left. After the impact, the noise of the building falling down around her suddenly dulled, as if the door had left a ball of wool in each ear. Her vision spun, and for a moment Elena wondered if she was going to pass out. A few weak motions brought her to her wobbly legs, but then she stumbled, lost her balance and tumbled to her stomach.
The floor had stopped rumbling, but every now and then the impact of another piece of the monastery toppling indicated that the danger wasn’t past. Elena grabbed a nearby handle sticking out of the floor and dragged herself to her feet again, this time closing her eyes. Without sight, her balance was a little better, and a three-fingered hand grabbed her own and helped her to her feet. Her whole body felt heavy, and she focused on her feet, forcing herself to put one in front of the other.
The light started to change as they left the monastery, Elena leaning heavily on Frederica’s shoulder. Her friend was silent, and pulled her forward with a stubborn steadfastness, just a little faster than Elena felt she could manage. Slowly the sound of falling rubble died away, but the Calaetor didn’t slow until the darkness of the indoors had given way entirely to the early morning sunlight outside.
“-difference of a few seconds,” Emerald was saying through the muffled haze. “Of all the Twisted, I didn’t think Coastering would come the closest to killing us.”
“Our own fault for walking into what we knew was a trap,” Fred said. Elena blinked, a motion that seemed to take far too long. The Echo’s voice wasn’t as muffled as Emerald’s. With great effort, Elena lifted her head and looked around.
The speckles of black and white stretched out as far as the eye could see, layered into and a part of the expanse of land that stretched between the monastery and Florenzia. Elena almost retched at the disorienting double-vision, her mind trying to reconcile the two images she saw clearly at the same time.
Her friends were looking at her, half-present in the swirls and whorls of fog that inhabited the world of dreams. Beside them, Ele and Fred were as crisp and clear as ever, present in both double-vision images.
“I’m okay,” she slurred, “I’m fine.”
“Let me see your head,” Owl helped support her other side, “I saw that door come down.”
“He didn’t kill us,” Emerald said, encouragingly, “they thought they’d finish us off here, this is a win for us.”
“My mother is dead,” Elena said dully. The little group grew silent as Owl carefully prodded the bruise on her head, and Elena looked out at the speckles of white and black and tried not to throw up.
“Dying too the progeny of myself they are,” a deep voice from just behind her should have been startling, but Elena had almost been expecting it. “Can not for them the sympathy of heart be yours?”
“I think you’re fine, for right now,” Owl said, carefully releasing her head. Elena was surprised to find that she liked his gentle fingers on her scalp, and was sad when he let her go.
What a silly thing to notice, given the circumstances, she thought, turning.
Even halfway between her old world and that of the Storm, the scene in front of her was clearer than her own friends. The Storm sat completely still at a very small table behind her. Behind him, the crumbling wreckage of the monastery still kicked up a cloud of dust, and the cloak that wrapped around the Avatar seemed to whip in the wind of it.
“Small, is the life of you,” the Storm said, “a leaf cannot a mountain move. With effort greatness is the survival of you…with impossible is the winning of you. Even now, final are the pieces whose moves are made. Pieces the greatest do the chessmasters move against you.”
“The Twisted have been telling me this whole time how impossible it is to defeat them,” Elena snarled, “I’d think you’d get tired of it.”
“Who are you talking to, Elena?” Owl asked from far away. Elena put a placating hand on his arm.
“I’m sure this is confusing to watch, but there’s someone here I need to talk to,” she said, before turning back to the Storm. “Do you think you can convince me off? Do you think killing my mother and dropping a building is going to make me curl up and cry? You’re not scaring me away from killing the Twisted, you’re just making me want it more.”
“This is the thinking of you, that killing of the Fulvio, the Coastering, the Mia, it is win-making?” The Storm had no features, but his voice held contempt.
“And you,” Elena said. “Don’t forget yourself.” She glanced around, the motion enough to make her stomach turn, and found the quarterstaff that one of her friends had pulled out of the rubble.
“Forgetting I am not,” the Storm said.
“No, you’re just overconfident,” Elena said thoughtfully. “I don’t think killing you here will kill you for good. But I do think that killing you will keep you from coming back for quite some time. Enough time for me to cut the rest of the Twisted off from each other. Enough time to finish them off.”
The Storm’s laugh was like hailstones falling on armor, clear enough that it pierced through Elena’s mental fog and made her head pound.
“Finishing, is the winning of you?” the Storm chuckled, “center of the world, is the thinking of you of Italoza?”
“You have other Twisted in other countries,” Elena said, “but you need rulers all over the world to open the gate between your world and this one.”
“Rulers of all is the wanting of me,” the Storm said. “Was the wanting. The needing of me, now changed is it. The needing of me now is one. Ruler one, crown one, it is the needing of me.”
Elena wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “I’ll stop you,” she said simply.
“Death will you be the stopping,” the Storm said. “But if not, other Twisted will the gate-opening perform. Twisted of Francas, or Twisted of Espana. Twisted of countries which you are of not-knowing, of Mericas and Nipon and Jawoyn. One, a gate single is all the needs of me, for the progeny to enter. Once entered are they, more will gates they open.”
“I’ll kill them too, if I have to,” Elena fired back, “any Twisted I can’t convince to join me instead. With you dead for a while, I’ll have plenty of time.”
“Floating leaf,” the Storm craned his head suddenly, looking over her shoulder, then slumped in his chair, as if even that action had completely exhausted him. “Plenty of time is not the having of you. Time is not the having of you at all.”
“Elena,” Frederica’s voice was still muffled, but her tone was sharp. Elena ignored it, lifting her quarterstaff in a two-handed grip. The Storm raised his head and met Elena’s gaze, and for a dizzying moment she looked into a million black-burning stars in a void of a thousand snowstorms.
Elena brought the quarterstaff down hard, shattering through the Storm and the chair and the table. The staff snapped in half before it connected with the ground, and Elena let go of the pieces to let them clatter across the ground. The pieces of the Storm’s body melted into the speckled black and white landscape, and Elena turned her back on them before they had even finished dispersing.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “that must’ve looked-”
Her friends weren’t paying her any attention, staring instead toward the city. Elena had to focus her gaze through the fuzz and haze, to see what was actually in the distance when she accounted for the fog and speckles that weren’t there.
The man was on horseback, and easily could’ve crossed the distance between them in the time it had taken for Elena to finish with the Storm. He was moving slower than he could’ve, however, so that the complement of guards on foot could keep up with him. They moved in a tight formation that spoke of years of practice moving as one, from the city toward the lonely pile of rubble.
“If they just wanted guards to kill us, the Twisted could’ve sent them in the first place, and not bothered with the monastery,” Emerald said, “what’s their game?”
“Maybe it has to do with spectacle,” Frederica pointed toward the walls, where rows of specks indicated they had an audience that stretched from one city wall to another.
“All of that for a demolished building and a handful of fugitives?” Owl clutched at his knife nervously.
A strange calm had come over Elena, one which didn’t mesh at all with the circumstances she had just realized surrounded them.
“They’re not watching because of the monastery,” she said, her eyes locked on the group. “They’re not even watching because of us.”
I should’ve realized earlier, when the Storm mentioned the chessmasters moving their greatest pieces.
“What is it, then?” Ele asked, “what’s so interesting that the whole city has to watch?”
Elena nodded to the figure on horseback, now close enough that the band on his head glinted in the sunlight.
“They’re watching the King of Italoza.”
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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.
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
The monastery was humble, small and unassuming. From the little window of her group’s room in the inn, high above the city, Elena had a clear view directly to it, on the outskirts of the city. In itself, it wouldn’t have been remarkable in one way or another. Being so close to Florenzia, however, so near to all of the capital city’s indulgence and opulence, the humility alone was remarkable.
Elena had travelled far since she was first blown away by Milia, her country-girl naivete making the small city seem huge and menacing. Even with all of her travelling and experience, even after seeing the grand towers of Rimi and the intricate layout of Venecchi, Florenzia was more overwhelming than anything else she had ever seen.
Florenzia was the heart of Italoza, the ruling city in the alliance of city-states that made up the country. It wasn’t as big as Rimi, or as urbane as Venecchi, but Florenzia was the lantern to which all of Italoza’s best artists and engineers were drawn, and it showed in a million small but impactful ways.
Little levers stood on pillars at the entry to their rooms, and when thrown they would light all of the lanterns in the room. While they could’ve taken stairs to their room, a clicking and whirring set of pulleys dragged a box from floor to floor, allowing people to cross the distance in the space of a few seconds. Elena could drag a finger across the glass of the window to turn the glass dark, casting the whole room into an artificial night.
Somehow, the wonders of the city of marvels failed to delight Elena. Though she could have dimmed the lights, she instead stared down at the monastery and tried to work around the pit in her stomach.
“Strange to think it’s going to end down there, isn’t it?” Ele said quietly, “this whole long mess.”
“I don’t think it’s going to end down there,” Elena answered, not taking her eyes from the small building. “I’m expecting to see either Coastering or Fulvio waiting for us, maybe not either but certainly not both.”
“It still might end, if we all walk into their trap and die,” Fred said from her right. Elena glanced at the Echo, usually so quiet and at Frederica’s side. As an Echo potentially dooming himself to remain incorporeal forever, Fred should have been more invested in matters than anyone, but he seemed as calm and clinical as his Stormtouched did, sitting in the corner and carving a little block of wood.
“Hopefully we won’t let that happen,” Elena said, “but if it does, the Eye will still be around to keep on fighting. With hostages in the hands of the Twisted, we don’t precisely have a choice.”
She snuck a look at Owl. The young man she had assumed was Tomas, a poor family-less garzoni, revealed to be the son of a courtier on the run from a Prince for most of his life. Despite what she had told him four days ago, part of her kept expecting her opinion of him to change. Each time she snuck a glance at him, she wondered if she would suddenly see Allvero D’arcangelo, a young man who she had no feelings for.
It hadn’t happened yet, and it was proving distracting for Elena, wondering if she would survive the next day or if she would die without telling him how she felt. Owl suddenly looked up from his book, catching her stare through his long curly hair, and he smiled at her encouragingly. Elena returned his smile, but turned away.
Focus, she told herself, no matter which way that conversation were to go, it would only make tomorrow more difficult.
“We should see about getting our hands on some weapons,” Owl broke the quiet in the room. “I’m not going to be much help, but Elena your Storm-assisted ability and Frederica’s skill with a knife might actually do well against whatever the Twisted are going to send to the monastery.”
“Should we risk being seen, going out into the street in search of weapons?” Emerald asked.
“We’ve already been seen,” Elena said without hesitation. “Fulvio and Coastering knew when we left Venecchi, they knew we were coming here. Even without Fulvio’s Storm, between the two of them they have enough influence that they could have put the guards on alert at every single gate. The Twisted know exactly where we are, and the fact that some plan hasn’t been enacted against us means they’re going to keep to their end of the bargain, at least as far as letting us get to the monastery tomorrow.”
“Weapons, then,” Owl said. “We don’t need to spend a lot of money on mine, I’ll be just as useless with a cheap sword as with an expensive one, but we should get a good knife for you, Frederica, and for Elena a hammer, if we can find one.”
“An’ a crossbow,” a weak voice came from the bed, and Elena spun around in delight.
“Belloza!” Elena rushed over to the plush bed where Belloza lay, closely followed by the two Echoes and three Stormtouched.
“This doesn’t feel like a Rimi bed,” Belloza mumbled, blinking her eyes and slowly rousing. “We got out of the city alright?”
“Well, you were stabbed, the wound became infected, and you almost died,” Owl said dryly, “so I don’t know I’d say ‘alright’.”
“We ran into the Eye near Venecchi, and Master Asclepius patched you up.We’re in Rimi, meeting the last two of the Twisted at an arranged time and place in exchange for hostages not being harmed,” Elena said, “Marsillo Del Farvero is dead.”
“Misericordia et in ignominiam,” Belloza swore, “he would’ve been a feather in my cap. When all this is over, can we tell people I was the one to kill him? It would help my reputation.”
“If you like,” Elena gave a small smile. The casual use of the phrase ‘when this is all over’ made her wonder afresh how likely it would be, the entire group surviving the next few days.
Belloza closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them. “What hostages do the Twisted have that are making you do something so stupid?”
“My sister,” Owl said, shifting uncomfortably, “I’m…I’m not Tomas, my name is Allvero, and my sister and I have been running from a Prince our entire lives.”
Belloza nodded, the corner of her mouth twitching. “I suspected all along,” she said, “it’s what I assume of all of my friends, really. Was there anything else I missed while I was asleep? Did it turn out that Emerald has actually been a ghost this whole time, and Elena’s mother is leading the Twisted?”
“Somehow I don’t see my mother being nasty enough to try to end the world,” Elena smiled.
“I’m not so sure,” Frederica said, her face serious, “I’ve met her…”
The others laughed, and for a brief moment the laughter lit up the dismal room. When it quieted, the atmosphere shifted along with it, replacing smiles with serious and grim intensity.
“When do we leave for the meeting?” Belloza asked.
“As soon as the sun rises we’ll head down to the monastery where we’re to meet,” Elena said, “but there’s no ‘we’, you’re not coming with us.”
“You can’t be serious,” Belloza said, “I’m a Sagittara, I’m your best fighter.”
“You can’t be serious if you think I’m letting my Stormtouched join in on this,” Bello rumbled from where he lay nudged up against one wall, “or do you forget I know exactly how weak you are and how much pain you’re in?”
“Belloza,” Elena said quietly, “the Eye is off preparing for a hostage rescue as we speak. We can’t let the Twisted shut us down completely here. Even if they succeed, we need to tell the world who did this and how. If things don’t go well for either group, you’ll be the only one who can tell the world what happened.”
“No,” Belloza said, “if things don’t go well, he’ll be the only one who knows what happened.” She gestured toward Bello. Although she grinned as she said it, none of the group laughed this time.
“It’s getting close to sundown,” Owl said, “we need to get those weapons.”
Elena estimated the weight of the purse she carried. They had picked up more money here and there, but a few weapons would be enough to chew through almost all they had left. She shook her head as she followed Owl through the door. It didn’t matter, if it gave them any sort of edge the next morning.
They would need all the edge they could get.
There is no evidence that a vengeful djinn’s curse still lingers around the link to vote for Twisted Cogs on TopWebFiction, but honestly I wouldn’t risk it if I were you