CWs: drug use (opiates), violence, body/eye horror, psychosis, manhandling of a disabled person (reasonable in context), self-harm, injury to hands
…but the wicked sorceror could find no purchase, for every blow he landed upon the princess’s form left her untouched. “What is this trickery?” he howled, unable to leave so much as a bruise upon her. And then at last he turned to look upon the man he’d taken for a servant, and the smoke that hissed from the incense burner, and found that every bruise and every blow had landed on him instead.
“Identify yourself,” demanded the sorceror. “For thou art no servant.”
“No,” Perceval admitted. “But even in a leper’s rags, I have more nobility than thee, and more claim to the glory that you have stolen…”The Ragged Knight, version by Charles Perresohn Janssen, 1863
The only warning Csindra got was the smell of something burning before the door burst open with a burst of eye-searing, bright light.
Csindra ducked her head, hoping she’d gotten her eyes away in time; the odjaken wasn’t so lucky, it seemed, with a rattling shriek. Rook…? She lifted her head, wincing as her next breath sent spores flooding uncomfortably down her throat. Did fly agaric spores affect the mind? She couldn’t remember.
The light started to clear, and the figure behind the door stepped forward, tossing aside the burnt candlewick leaf and already lighting another wrapped wick of leaf and twig as smoke surged up around his face. What of it there was, anyway; instead of the thin, ghostly boy she’d expected, two dark-glass eyes stared out at her from underneath a black cloth hood, set into the face of a bird-of-prey. The sable leather jutted out into a short, hooked beak, and only the jacket and skirt were familiar – the same inky colour against the spray of wildflowers and red-and-white that was crawling across the marble facade.
“Another of you?” the odjaken snarled, eyes still closed. Eyelids were only so much protection from that kind of glare, and she was visibly thrown off, two spots of colour appearing high on her cheekbones.
“You’re our killer, huh?” Rook replied, amusement audible even through the muffling of the mask. “I expected someone a little taller.”
The odjaken’s lip lifted a little at that. “And you’re another thaumatist.”
“Another?” Rook kept his voice still at that, even though it said plenty. They’d even asked Olive, hadn’t they? None of the dead Rivieres were thaumatists. Maybe she meant Csindra. But–
Csindra suddenly felt her heart flip in her chest. Nine bodies. That didn’t mean only nine murders.
The odjaken’s nose flared. “And what are you burning, little bird?”
Rook shrugged, the casual gestures looking all the more odd on the bird-headed form. “You want it? Catch.” And before he’d even finished speaking, he threw the smouldering wick at the odjaken — and a handful of powder into the air from his other hand.
Csindra put her face to the ground, arms over her head, as the lycopodium powder caught alight. She could feel the fire rushing overhead, a sudden and brief inferno that was gone almost as soon as it came. When she lifted her gaze carefully, just enough to try see what was happening, the smoke left behind — a mix of the lycopodium and whatever else Rook had been burning — was twisting and turning, convulsing in the familiar throes of thaumaturgy.
Rook twisted his hand around in another gesture, and the odjaken’s arms followed the movement, folding behind her and held by invisible restraints. “Who are you?”
“Let go of me!” The odjaken thrashed against the binding spell, her voice sounding younger, more frantic. “What are you doing?”
“I asked first.” Rook approached the odjaken, his goggles reflecting the afternoon light in a white gleam. “Under the authority of Her Lady Elessa’s National Security and Defense Division, I’m taking you into the custody of Regiment 214, Akelei Company, and placing you under arrest.”
“For what?” she snapped. She didn’t show much recognition of anything Rook had said, but that was fair enough. Most people still knew the 214th as the Dievelhunters.
“Suspicion of murder. Use of feral magic. Pissing me off. Really, I’ve got forty-eight hours to decide what to charge you with, so you pick.”
Csindra realized that the ivy had long since stilled; the odjaken’s attention was on Rook. Even better, she’d dropped Raivita after the binding spell. Still, she wasn’t going to move just yet — not until she figured out why the odjaken didn’t look nearly as concerned as her voice made it sound.
Rook took another step towards the odjaken, and Csindra caught a brief glimpse of his eyes through the goggles, the paleness making them easy to spot. He was scanning the odjaken. “Who are you?” he asked again.
The odjaken pouted, arms still bound. “None of your business, kalba.”
Rook was too close to her. Why on earth was he putting himself in danger? She was bound, but that meant nothing.
“Open your eyes,” Rook ordered.
She hadn’t been able to see, from where she was. The girl’s eyes were still closed? After all this time? Csindra wasn’t even sure the idea of her being blind was much comfort, with the speed she appeared to move.
But for the first time, the odjaken seemed thrown by the question. “My eyes?” Then she laughed. “I’d say over my dead body. How about over yours?”
The binding spell snapped in a flash of blue sparks, and Rook — barely — dodged the fist thrown at his face. Shit.
Csindra threw out her hand, and this time, Raivita came back to her without the odjaken interfering. “Hey, asshole!”
The odjaken barely seemed to acknowledge her, black hair coming undone as she struck at Rook — Rook, who wasn’t fighting back, who wasn’t doing anything but blocking the blows as they came, falling further and further backwards. Something cracked — Csindra thought it must be a stone or a twig, but then Rook fell down to one knee, and she realized in horror that the sound had come from him. Had he broken something? No, it would be visible if he had–
Then the girl turned towards Csindra, something in her changing. She had already looked wrong somehow, too thin, a jumble of pieces, not quite fitting together right — but now her neck was getting longer, the teeth barely visible between her lips lengthening. The nails on her hands were getting longer, too, turning into claws, talons, something birdlike.
Csindra backed away, gripping Raivita in both hands, trying not to be afraid. But she’d never —
“What’s the matter? Scared?” The voice that came out of the odjaken’s mouth was warped, too, the mutations of her teeth and tongue showing in her words. “You should be.”
More mushrooms, more vines —
Csindra lashed out with Raivita, but she could already tell it was too slow. The claws found her shoulder, raking deep into her skin, and with a kick in the back, she staggered forward. Pain. Pain is good. You can use that.
If she could just focus for a second —
Another kick, and when Csindra hit the ground this time, the flagstones had completely grown over with moss, tepid water leaking out from underneath them. The water stung when it touched her hands, and she got back to her feet, but not in time to avoid another hit that threw her back against the pillar. The blows were strong, that was the problem. The type of strong she kept not bracing for, because this girl was tiny, she was starving —
But when Csindra met her face again, six black eyes were staring back at her, and she couldn’t think of anything at all, anything except a few rattled lines from prayers she’d forgotten long ago. Monsters from the deep, she remembered those stories, monsters with too many eyes and teeth like needles — the poisoned ocean —
“Leave her alone!”
The voice cut through the dense humidity and the fog drowning out her own thoughts like a breath of fresh air, and in the split second she had, Csindra realized the odjaken’s own eyes were still closed, nestled below the six new ones. The other six turned to Rook, who had gotten back to his feet, even though he was still staggering a little — and the new spell-wick he was burning.
“Another pretty spell? How nice.”
Rook didn’t do any gestures with this one, just glared the odjaken in the eyes as the smoke twisted up and around Csindra. It caught the light and shimmered like a mirror — and when the odjaken’s taloned hand struck at Csindra again, it was Rook who staggered slightly. Csindra hadn’t even felt it—
He’d cast The Knight.
“No, you idiot,” Csindra whispered in horror. He was protecting her. She didn’t need his fucking protection — if anything, from the way he was standing, he needed hers. But when she threw herself forward, Rook’s voice snapped at her.
“Stay where you are, Sergeant.”
“How cute,” the odjaken mocked. “Protecting your girlfriend.”
“I’m pretty sick of that joke,” Rook replied, a strange new quality in his voice. “Sorry, but she’s not my type. Neither are you. Too many pointy bits.”
The odjaken raised her hand, then closed it into a fist; a moment later the water rose again, and Csindra moved away from the pillar, trying to escape it before it reached above her boots. It was dirty water, like it’d been piped in from a swamp or a sewer, but that didn’t explain why her palms could still feel the sting of it — Quickwater. She recognized it now, especially since she had the Elessan word for it in her head, not just whatever word they’d used at home–
Rook ignored it. And when the odjaken came at him again, claws slashing out, he threw himself backwards, gloved hands bracing against the stone before he sprang back at her feet first. His boots met her chest, and Csindra heard another crack, this time probably a rib or two from the odjaken — but her hand lashed out, grabbing his ankle and jerking him down with her. She was going for something specific, Csindra realized—
With a victorious shout, the odjaken tore the mask off his face, ripping it free of the hood, and Rook’s white hair fell free, eyes and mouth exposed to whatever else he decided to burn. But the odjaken froze. Csindra could see it too. Different faces, sure. Different hair. But they were just as ghostly-pale as each other, skin thin enough to show the veins underneath.
Rook was still for maybe half a second, not a moment longer. Long enough for Csindra to see something else, too — the way his pupils were pinpricks in his pale eyes, the flush on his cheekbones that was from more than just exertion. He was high. He’d taken something.
Half a second later, the air that had been humid and hot and sticky plunged into freezing cold.
Rook liked his job. When he’d started dealing with pain he wasn’t sure how to handle, the first thing he’d been worried about was being able to keep doing missions. That was the most important thing; it was why he wouldn’t tell anybody. The second anybody caught on that he was weak, he’d be dead or discharged within the week.
But much to his satisfaction, he’d found out that adrenaline made it easy. He could do everything that he could manage before, as long as he got the adrenaline pumping, and as long as he kept some helpers on hand. And now that the laudanum and everything else was surging through his veins, he was fine. He had it —
(who is she)
—handled. He had it handled.
(who is she)
And then his mask came off. He hadn’t even thought — but with nails as sharp as hers, it wasn’t so difficult, was it—?
(WHO IS SHE)
(can you hear them)
(I shall steal the breath from her lungs and the warmth from her bones and—)
(WHO IS SHE)
(—then we shall be free—)
I told you to be careful–
Everything had gotten so loud.
The temperature was going down. He barely noticed it, though, getting to his feet and watching the odjaken’s face change.
He pulled his knife free of the sheath tied to his leg, and the odjaken just snarled back, but the cold was affecting her. More than that; Rook could see her struggling to breathe. Funny. He could breathe fine.
(—strength of beasts and the teeth of hunters—)
“You’re like me,” she said from between panted breaths.
And he wasn’t sure who was actually speaking when he lifted the knife, twirling it in his hand — “There’s nobody like me.”
(ROOK YOU HAVE TO STOP)
Too late. He couldn’t hear them, and the knife slid along the side of the odjaken’s throat, crimson blood spilling down over her ghast-white skin before she pulled away, throwing herself into the air and her legs knocking Rook off balance again —
The ivy vines lashed at him, given a sudden burst of speed, but he managed to knock them aside, blade slicing through them faster than they could make themselves grow. He could feel the water stinging at him, now, too; he hadn’t felt it at first. But then he felt her hand in his hair, and he jerked backwards, back suddenly pressed against her front.
“Who made you?” she hissed.
No one, he wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out. He drove the knife backwards, but her hand closed around his fist, decay crawling up her skin in a tattoo of withered skin —
Easy enough. He slammed his other hand against hers, the claws that had grown without him noticing punching through her palm. The shriek of pain he got in response was worth it, even as he yanked the claw out and tried to ignore the punctures in his own hand. He’d gone right through. There was blood mixing into the water below them now, and he could use that, it was faster than Smokework —
Except something was faster still, and the water began to freeze over. The odjaken noticed, pulling herself out of the water and onto the thin ice before it trapped her — and threw another blow at him. Another — he was having a harder and harder time dodging, his eyesight getting fuzzy, limbs not responding as quickly as they were supposed to —
A little longer. Please.
Rook stopped in horror. No. No, no, whatever he let go of was — no, he wasn’t that far gone.
The next blow caught him square across the face, and as his head spun, he felt the throb in his nose that meant she’d either broken it or given it a pretty good bruising. Binding. I need to bind you, I need to know, I need to—
(KILL HER KILL HER KILL HER)
(THREAT THREAT THREAT)
“Until next time, pretty boy,” she snarled. Another bit of misdirection, he realized too late — before something sharp stabbed into his leg. He looked down, eyesight blurring in and out, and gazed almost idly at the spike pulling free of his thigh. Like a cactus spine, he thought, but larger, and wielded with intent by a vine it had no business being on.
The odjaken walked away from him. Rook tried to reach for his knife again, somewhere in the freezing water. “We’re not done—”
“Yes, we are,” she said over her shoulder. Then she was gone, and the world was trying to turn on him, and he couldn’t be mad about any of that, not now — not when the pain was finally, finally starting to lessen, and leaving only exhaustion in its wake.
(izhya, ethya, ongye, achye)
His vision flickered one last time, before giving up entirely.
The door was blocked. And Csindra knew what was coming. Not for sure, no — but she had an idea. She had listened, maybe not as closely as she should have, but she had listened–
Csindra steadied her grip, closed her eyes and smashed Raivita through the window. There was a scream from inside — she couldn’t blame Odette for the reaction, and she only made time to clear away some of the broken glass from the edges before diving through.
“What on earth—”
Csindra shook her head. “We gotta go. Now.”
Odette stared at her in fear. “But — Where?” She gripped the arms of her chair. Shit, no wonder she was scared. The wheelchair would move fine on the hardwood, but it couldn’t do stairs, really, and she couldn’t exactly move fast, either.
The temperature was still dropping.
Just leave her, Csindra tried to convince herself. Yeah, not happening. She leant over and hoisted Odette into her arms, one arm under her legs, the other steadying her back, and immediately fled up the carpeted stairs.
“Put me down! What’s going on?”
Csindra ignored her for the moment — she could only do one thing at a time right at the moment. She went to the farthest room away from where the fight was happening, shouldering it open with a flurry of papers from the other side. Someone’s study. There was a heavy oak desk in the middle, and she ducked down behind it, steadying Odette next to her. Far enough away from the epicenter, and up. “A’keni revatu nav’, ąkra shevatu kanav’.” she murmured. Hotter above, colder below.
Odette glared back at her, but couldn’t quite hide the fear. “What’s wrong? Tell me, now.”
“No time. Listen, Odette. You have to listen to me. Close your eyes. Cover your head. And do not open them.”
“What? Is this a game—?”
“I swear by Kesh’lashe herself.”
Odette clearly didn’t know who that was, but she nodded, shutting her eyes tight and putting her shawl over her head. Instinctively, Csindra reached out and pulled Odette close as the temperature continued to drop.
Drądązen shoi-nget-Odjon’nez kish nur’ne þar’n suba tashera.
Stories. Just stories. But still, with her eyes closed tight against the urge to look, Csindra found herself mouthing words in barely a whisper. “Nav-aléçatza, nav-aléçatza, nav-aléçatza…” Pass over us.
The temperature was still dropping. She couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers. The radio was on her belt, and she put her hand around it. She had to wait. If she didn’t, she was putting both her and Odette in danger.
And finally, the oppressive cold lifted. Csindra felt herself go almost dizzy with relief. She fumbled with the radio, but it slid out of her fingers, the cold making them stiff and numb. She opened her eyes, carefully, slowly; it was almost a normal temperature in here now, but her fingers —
Odette had hairpins in. With another silent apology that she’d maybe say out loud later, she pulled one of the pins from Odette’s hair. The woman whimpered, and Csindra quickly reassured her. “It’s me. You can open your eyes now – well, wait two seconds.”
Thank god for hairpins being sharp. Cause she still didn’t have a knife. She drove it into the fleshy part of her thigh with a stifled noise, and the fire leapt up near her fingers almost without her asking for it. Not on her palms, this time — when she thought of it, she had more control than that — but her fingers warmed up quickly.
Belatedly, she realized that Odette had not kept her eyes closed. Well, she’d worry about that later. She grabbed the radio. Channel…
She’d forgotten again.
“First for everyone, second for cops, third for Investigations…” she recited, but panic had driven it from her head.
“NatSec is four,” Odette said quickly.
Thank god. “Thank you,” she replied. She didn’t miss the fearful-but-curious gleam in Odette’s eyes; but for now, she just hoped she wasn’t too late.
Rook, you had better be alive. So I can kill you myself.
There is someone with you, down here in the cold. You are too deep in the darkness to hear him, to see him, to know he is there beyond the beating of his heart against yours, cold blood giving whatever heat it has to keep you alive. You will not let him die from it, even unconscious —
You have that power. Do you understand it, yet?
Your lips barely move in the cold, shaping words you do not know, a tongue you do not speak.
Pass over us.
And so you shall.
(Izhya, Ethya, Ongye, Achye.)
….Okay, fine, my Jewish is showing. But also there are plenty of stories of this kind. At the time I was writing this, actually, I’d just finished watching the incredible movie Finding Ohana which has a similar device in its folklore about not raising your head/looking up out of respect.
This is one of my absolute FAVOURITE chapters in the whole book, especially with how the extent of Rook’s problems starts showing. For the curious, ,there’s a big dose of supernatural involved, but plenty of it is also mental illness on its own – running theme in my work is how the two can collide, rather than just explaining away one with the other. The visuals for the odjaken here are very strongly influenced by the Doomspell trilogy by Cliff McNish – both the witches and the Griddas.
Song: She Is Young, She Is Beautiful, She Is Next by Alex Yarmak
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