Tales of Aranea: Of Sage and Mist

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Undying

But just as she realizes it, Cordax rings for the next course. Dystella arrives not twenty seconds later, followed again by her line of helpers. The large plates are exchanged for larger ones. These, however, are topped with different things. One holds a ham twice the thickness of Cora’s torso, surrounded by slices of bright yellow fruit Cora isn’t familiar with. Another holds three entire roast chickens. The other is a huge bowl filled with a ruby red liquid. A sauce?

Cordax stands and takes his three-pronged fork to the platters, surveying them. This must be how this portion of the dinner goes. Milo and Adam follow suit, so Cora does too. They select portions of meat, but no one touches the sauce.

The meat is delicious, moist and tender and bursting with flavour. This they eat in almost complete silence, except for the occasional comment from Master Cordax, picking away at the chickens and the ham until Cordax sighs and says, “Enough for now.”

Then the meat is taken away, and only the red liquid is left. Cora watches the servants carry out the platters still piled high, filled with sudden hatred for the rich and their wastefulness.

Cordax takes a seat. “Only the best in Bannerford,” he says with satisfaction.

The silence that suddenly takes the room over is almost painful. The tension created by the conversation before the main course still hangs heavy in the huge dining hall. Cordax heaves a long sigh, then stands.

“Would anyone like a tour of the Manor?”

Adam bolts to his feet. “No. We’re going.”

Cora stands slowly. “What?”

“We can’t stay here any longer,” he tells Cora, taking her arm. His hand is hot, but not enough to burn quite yet. Cora squirms in his grasp.

“Why do you treat her like that?” Milo questions, walking over and pulling Adam’s hand from Cora. “You have no respect for what she wants.”

“I care about her safety, and I don’t feel safe in this Manor anymore,” Adam says firmly.

Cora, mortified at the sudden turn of events, freezes to the spot, glancing from one angry Spruce sibling to the other.

“Did I say something wrong?” Cordax wonders.

“I’ll deal with you another time,” Adam retorts angrily. “Come, Coraleth.”

“She’ll go when she’s ready,” Milo insists.

“Adam, really, be sensible. No one is in any danger,” Cordax says, trying to be comforting. “Don’t pressure her to leave just because you feel you need to. You don’t want her abandoning you like Sybil did. She hated how controlling you were.”

That really ignites the flame. Adam whirls on him, stiff as an iron rod and burning hot enough to make his clothes smoke. Cora’s eyes fill with tears, and her head once again fills with question. Who did I agree to marry? Do I even know him?

“Milo, will you take Coraleth out of the room. I’d hate her to see Adam make a fool of himself,” Master Cordax says calmly.

Cora feels hands on her shoulders, but her feet don’t seem to move. “Let’s go, Adam,” she whimpers.

“I’ll kill you, Vladimir. I’ll rip you apart for what you’ve done tonight,” Adam seethes, stepping up to him.

“Tristus’ sword, Adam, calm yourself. You don’t want me to call my guards.”

“Call them. Have me dragged away, through the mud if you’d like. It’d be the fiftieth time this night.”

Cordax laughs. “Lovely. I’ll write that one down.”

“By Herus, I’ll—”

“Please, you can’t be believing in Herus. Not when you are what you are. Can’t you see it, Adam? Tonight was just a mirror that finally shows your true reflection. Shouldn’t that be what Coraleth always sees?”

Cora steps closer despite Milo’s grip on her shoulders. She sees Adam’s back, not his expression, and Master Cordax standing in front of him, quite smug about something.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Adam says solemnly.

“No?”

“Cordax,” Milo warns behind Cora.

“You asked me to help. I’m helping. Coraleth, do you care about this man?” Cordax wants to know.

Adam turns to her, and Cora looks into his bottomless eyes. “I love him,” she admits quietly.

Cordax sighs as if deeply disappointed. “Still? But why? He’s not a perfect specimen in the least.”

“Why are you asking me that? What is going on here?” Cora finally asks. “This whole night has been strange from the very beginning. Tell me what is happening.”

“Frankly, I just want to know why you’re wearing a ring on your little finger,” Cordax confesses.

Cora touches it, tracing the pattern she thought she’d long forgotten. She remembers what the ring signifies. She feels the word “Undying” against her skin as she twists it round and round. She thinks of the first time they met, of the moment on the cliff, of her weeks of obsessively thinking about him and his urges for her to try new things and new adventures. She thinks of their beginning relationship and it’s very rapid escalation.

Then the questions all mash together in her mind. The doubts and annoyances planted and thriving. The women he’s had in his life. His instability. His past. His current secrets so blatant but still so mysterious.

Somehow, when she looks at him, she just can’t help it. She loves him.

“I’m marrying him,” she says plainly.

Cordax rolls his eyes. “You know, you are beautiful. I’ll give you that. But you’re just as stupid as all the others.”

Suddenly, Cordax’s arm is around the front of Adam’s shoulders. There is a blade in his hand, held against Adam’s throat. The sight of it freezes everyone in the room.

“Guards, watch the doors,” Cordax calls out.

“Draven this isn’t the plan,” Milo says worriedly.

“What was the plan?” Cora demands, her voice trembling.

“To break you up of course,” Cordax replies.

“Why?” Cora’s voice cracks this time. Terrified tears squeeze from her eyes.

“Because he’s a monster!” Cordax roars. His voice isn’t soft and smooth anymore. It’s deep and hoarse and fills up the great room.

“No, he isn’t. Just stop! This is madness,” Cora begs, then she turns on Milo. “How could you?”

“This isn’t what I wanted. Cordax, forget it. Just let them go. I was wrong,” Milo pleads.

“I can’t go back. I’ve made a promise. You paid me. I must go through. And besides,” He pulls Adam tighter and presses the blade harder against his neck, “I’m having far too much fun to stop now.”

“Keep the money and let us go!” Cora reasons.

“She didn’t pay me with money,” Cordax says, then he calls out, “Dystella, bring up the new kitchen maid.”

The room fills with an iron silence, waiting. Then the doors open, and Cora’s mouth drops open.

“Yes, Master?” Rain says as she steps in, then sees Milo, Cora, and Adam, held in Cordax’s arm. “Wh--?”

“You gave them Rain?” Cora screeches, turning on Milo again, outraged.

“Not permanently. It’s just a job,” Milo tries to say, but Cora approaches her, hands clenched in fury. Milo steps back, arms raised. “I didn’t mean for it to turn out this way,” she whimpers.

“Now, ladies, please. Control yourselves,” Cordax reprimands. “I don’t want you spilling blood on my very expensive flooring.”

“What’s going on?” Rain squeaks. She tries to rush forward, but Dystella and another servant hold her back.

“Bring her closer,” Cordax tells Dystella, “but hold her tight.”

They obey and Rain trembles as she stands in front of the table, looking desperately around at her friends.

“Stop this, Cordax. Forget everything. Just let them go,” Milo says.

“It’s too late for that. I swore to you I’d break Coraleth from Adam Spruce, and that is precisely what I will do.”

“But this? This is monstrous! This isn’t what—”

“My dear,” Cordax interrupts, his voice soft, “it’s in my nature.”

Just then, Adam slips from beneath the blade and pushes it back against Cordax. The men struggle. The servants release Rain and rush to him. But it is too late. Cordax steps away from Adam with a blade hilt sticking out of his shoulder.

Adam rushes toward Cora, but Cordax yells, “Seize him!” The servants grab him tightly and hold him, struggling, against the ground.

“Coraleth, run!” Adam shouts.

“I’m not leaving you,” she tells him.

“Milo, get Coraleth out of here.”

“Don’t move, Milo,” Cordax orders firmly. Then he turns to the dining table. Rain turns her wide, terrified eyes to him, then rushes to the bowl of red liquid and tips it over the side of the table. It’s much thicker than Cora would have expected, splashing over the chairs and soaking the floor.

Cora has a sickening twist of her gut when she realizes what it must be.

Cordax shouts and seizes Rain around the throat. Her tiny mouth gapes in pain and terror and she reaches for his hand, clawing at it. Then her teary eyes move to Adam on the floor. Her lips move, and Cora blinks at the words she sees. Then she catches a wisp of smoke twirling from Cordax’s fingers.

“You’ve just lost your job,” Cordax growls, and slams her head down on the table.

Milo and Cora both scream as Rain’s limp body slithers to the floor, blood streaming from her hairline. Cordax lifts her almost effortlessly and rips the blade from his own shoulder. Cora steps forward and shouts,

“No, stop!”

He turns on her, face grey. A smoke-coloured liquid pours out of his wound, soaking his pristine white shirt. Is it a trick of the light, or does his face suddenly look more gaunt?

“Coraleth, no!” Adam shouts from the floor, still struggling.

“Would you like me to cut you open instead?” Cordax asks Coraleth in a gravelly voice.

Cora shivers. “Please don’t hurt her more.”

Cordax looks down at Rain, his hand still around her throat. “She has no pulse, stupid girl. She’s dead.”

Milo lets out an awful sound, somehow combining a screech with the word “No” and a gargling sob. Cora feels a wave run down her body, turning all her senses to ash. Not thinking, she reaches for Rain and Cordax hits her hard backward.

“Get away!” he roars, his voice not his own anymore.

When he turns to Cora again, his face is no longer beautiful, nor anywhere resembling it. It’s no longer a face at all. It’s a skull, almost black, with dull white orbs for eyes and horrifying rows of sharp teeth. In the middle of his forehead are three wide plates of bone protruding outward. One is chipped.

His hands reach back to Rain, but they are no longer hands. They are black bones stitched together with small strings of muscle. Cora steps backward in horror, her insides turned to water.

When Cordax turns back only a few seconds later, he is suddenly himself again, with skin and eyes and no more horns. There’s red on his lips that he nonchalantly wipes away.

“It seems I’ll have to kill all of you,” he muses, “for you have discovered Garnet Manor’s great secret.”

The servants themselves, even Dystella, release Adam and step away, staring at Cordax. Adam leaps to his feet.

“But first, let’s just make one more discovery,” Cordax says.

Then he’s rushing forward toward Adam. There’s a scramble of bodies as the servants move back and Milo struggles to get between them. Then Milo is pushed away, hard enough for her to hit the dining table and get the wind knocked out of her.

Cora moves to intervene, but then Cordax steps back as Adam staggers. Her eyes find the blade hilt, now in Adam’s chest.

“No!” she shouts, moving toward him. Cordax takes her arms from behind and holds her. She watches Adam’s eyes move to hers in his agony and she screams. Then he says,

“I’m sorry.”

He falls to his knees and bows his head. Cora struggles, but stops when she sees the hair on his head disappear, replaced instead with grey bone.

“No,” she whispers. “No. No.”

He looks up at her and she involuntarily steps back against Cordax. His once dark, fathomless eyes have been replaced with featureless orbs. His sharp teeth part to allow a moan that could have been “I’m sorry” if he could speak.

Then she feels Cordax move behind her, and turns. Milo has taken hold of Cordax, ripping his cloak. They struggle, and Cordax lands a good many punches on Milo’s face before Milo can even put her arms up. Cora can’t move. She’s stuck staring at them, with Adam still on his knees next to her.

How? How?

Cora can’t find strength to move, even when she sees Cordax strike Milo so hard she falls. Milo orchestrated this. It’s her fault they’re here. It’s her fault Rain’s dead. She looks at Rain, lying draped over a chair. The final movements of her lips had been directed to Adam. They had been “I love you, Adam.”

Why had she tipped over that bowl of blood? She forces herself to sort through the jumble of thoughts. Blood. Cordax drank Rain’s blood and transformed back, seemingly healed. Blood must heal them.

She blinks in realization, then finds her own body again and falls to her knees next to Adam. She lays a shaking hand over his grey cheekbone. It’s so cold it feels instantly hot to her. He looks up at her and she reaches for the blade in his chest. Slowly, she withdraws it, and he makes no move to stop her. He can’t. He must be dying.

The sounds of Milo and Cordax’s struggle still going on behind her, Cora runs the blade along the inside of her forearm, opening a thin gash that immediately starts to bleed. She holds her arm up to Adam’s sharp teeth and waits for them to tear into her arm. But they don’t. Instead, a long slender tongue appears between them and gently licks the gash.

Cora remembers the first time they sat like this, struggling to heal each other. In the woods, that day Adam came to Atherton to “hunt.” He later told her that he’d just come to see her. He couldn’t stop thinking about her either.

So much has happened since then. Cora can barely remember the person that had blushed at the sight of Adam’s muscled torso, or that had slapped his hand away when he offered to help and passed out in consequence. Every part of her feels different now. Change has not only taken place, it has taken everything.

When Adam’s eyes meet hers, they’re once again dark and warm, but now glistening.

“Why—?” he croaks.

Coraleth wriggles the ring from her pinky finger and turns the engraved side to him.

“‘Undying,’” she says shakily, and realizes she's crying.

A tear leaves his eye just before his eyes shift from hers to something behind her. Cora realizes the sounds of struggle have stopped and she turns around. She’d expected to see Milo lying bloody on the floor and Cordax coming toward them, giving them around five more seconds to live before he killed them. Instead, she sees Milo standing, bloody, with a dagger in each hand. Next to her, Dystella and another servant stand, each bearing a sword.

“We never knew,” Dystella says to Cora. Then her eyes move to Adam.

Cora settles herself in front of him. “You kill him, you kill me.”

“He’s an Asparri, a monster.”

Cora didn’t understand the first word, but she understood the second. “He isn’t a monster. The moment he becomes one, I’ll let you know.”

They reluctantly sheathe their swords. Dystella looks to Rain. “I’m sorry about your friend.”

Milo’s head turns and she rushes to Rain, picking her up gently, like she might snap in pieces if handled too carelessly. Minding the ugly, bloody marks in her neck, she cradles her.

“Oh Rain, I’m so sorry,” she sobs.

The room gets very still, the veil of death crowding the air like a putrid stench. Coraleth can’t find the strength to rise, so she just leans weakly on Adam. He holds her tight, smoothing her hair as she cries against him. Coraleth is then stricken with the desire that these arms be Papa’s, and desperate homesickness washes over her.

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