Chapter Ten: Shattered Masks
"Release me!" I screamed, forcing the words past Ashton's tightening grip. It came out as an unearthly growl. I felt an odd pulse in my heart and a strong gust of wind conjured itself between Ashton and I. By the wind's shier force, Ashton was shoved away from me. He let out a surprised yell as he staggered back and fell into a heap on the floor.
Once he was away from me, the pulse and wind disappeared, fading away like early morning fog.
Ashton began to laugh madly, his eyes wide in amused awe. His lips peeled away from his teeth in a gruesome display. His mouth was suddenly much too wide and his teeth appeared sharper than Christopher's. "You are marvelous, Isabel…simply marvelous." He said gleefully. He climbed to his feet slowly, the eerie, echoing laughter still ringing in the air.
As he righted himself, he brushed back his disheveled hair and grinned. I stared blankly at him, frozen in horror. "What are you?" I gasped breathlessly. Everything that was human about him was suddenly stripped away. His face was twisted and deformed. His eyes were now glowing a bright red, his mouth filled with sharks' teeth and long claws ripped through the tips of his white gloves.
"I am the embodiment of our family's power." He said. He passed his hand over his face and the mask of humanity was restored. His claws retreated into whole, new gloves, his teeth blunted and his eyes dulled back to their normal black. "The power you could possess, if you would only accept your potential. The magic is already there, inside of you darling, you need only welcome it."
"Your magic is evil! It's turned you into something inhuman!" I cried, backing further away from him until the backs of my knees were pressed against Christopher's bedpost.
Ashton gave a shuttering laugh. "I was never human to begin with, Child."
A cold shutter ran down my spine at his words. I suddenly felt like I was looking at the devil himself, rather than someone of real blood and bone. Perhaps he was just that.
Ashton stepped to the side, giving me a clear path to the door. "Go ahead downstairs, finish your task, but remember what I've said. You needn't be a helpless maiden, trapped in a tower. If you really wanted to, you could set yourself free."
"The price is far too high." I said, rushing past him.
As I rounded the corner to descend the stairs, I heard Ashton's voice behind me. "That's what they all say, but they give in eventually, once their backs are to the wall. You'll be mine someday, darling, whether you realize it or not, and you'll beg for the gifts I offer."
His voice was so near, I could feel the heat of his breath at the nape of my neck and the presence of a body close to mine. I turned around , to see if he was behind me, but saw nothing but open air. However, when I looked down, I saw scorch marks in the shape of footprints burned into the wood.
I ran down the flights of stairs, catching myself at the last landing to slow down to the shadows' slow moving pace. My heart was pounding so loudly, I was practically deaf with it ringing in my ears. Entering the dining room, I suppressed a cringe. Ashton sat at the opposite end of the table as his mother. His hair and clothes were tidy and neat. His meal was already halfway eaten. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn that the Ashton I had quarreled with had been a figment of my imagination. However, the bruising I felt forming on my throat was a testament to the truth. That was far too real. If anything, the one politely chatting at the dinner table, the one with his arm around his young wife's shoulders was the illusion.
Ashton's latest wife, Elizabeth, sat at his right hand. The girl was very pretty. She was dressed in a blush pink dress of the latest fashion. Fine lace ringed the low neckline. A satin ribbon with a pearl crested broach was tied around her slender throat. Her pretty, dark brown hair was done up high on her head with ringlets curling around her angular face. She sat quietly, listening to her husband and her mother-in-law chat. Christopher walked around the table, refilling everyone's glasses. Yet, she didn't seem to notice his frightening appearance. She stared at her nearly empty wine glass with glassed over eyes.
Skirting around the table, I went to join most of the other servants where they stood stoically along the wall, watching the dinner unfold.
"Ashton, you're looking well this evening." Said Rosalyn. Despite everything I already knew about her, Rosalyn's appearance surprised me. She looked just as young as her son's new bride. Her face was unblemished and her hair was curled into a youthful style. She was stunning in her extravagant gown of golden silk. The pale skin of her fingers and throat were ringed with jewels. Even the buttons of her dress were made of sparkling topaz and sapphire. "Where were you, anyway? Your wife was here before you." She eyed him knowingly as she took a sip of her wine.
"I was just looking around, Mother. You know how I like to explore." He answered, returning his mother's subtle glare. Their relationship seemed very peculiar, more like rivals than mother and son. By simply watching them for a few moments, one could feel Rosalyn's mixed feelings of affection for Ashton and her fear at what he was capable of just as well as Ashton's carefully buried loathing for her.
"Yes, I know. I recall never being able to keep you in one spot for very long when you were little. It was cute then, not so much now. I will remind you once again, that my study is off limits to you." Said Rosalyn.
"I had forgotten." Ashton smiled charmingly, "That ward of yours is very impressive, Mother. How long did it take you to come up with that one?"
Rosalyn sat her class down with a noticeable clatter. She swiftly put her trembling hands in her lap, before Ashton could comment on them. "So how long will this one last?" She asked, gesturing at Elizabeth. She couldn't change the topic fast enough.
"I'm uncertain." Ashton shrugged. "She's done very well so far. I'll be going on a business trip next week so we'll have to wait and see, won't we?"
"Don't forget to inform the coroner before you leave. The poor girl will be six feet under before the month is out, I would wager." Rosalyn laughed.
"Have a little faith." Ashton replied, squeezing Elizabeth's hand. His wife remained as still and lifeless as a porcelain doll.
"Ashton?" The girl blinked and touched her forehead with a wince. "I-I don't feel well." She said her voice an almost inaudible whisper. "That butler looks very strange, don't you think?" She asked, looking towards Christopher.
Ashton picked up a bottle of wine that was sitting in front of him and filled her glass. "Drink your wine, Elizabeth. It will make you feel better."
Elizabeth drank her wine greedily, gulping down full mouthfuls until it was once again empty. Setting down the drained glass, the fog reappeared in her eyes and she fell back into her silent stupor.
"I could have filled her glass for you, sir." Said Christopher with all the forced respect he could muster.
"It's alright. I brought our own wine. She likes it much better than that swill mother keeps around here." Ashton smirked, setting the bottle of wine to the side without refilling his own glass. "I'll have some more, though." He smiled, holding up his glass.
"I thought your mother's reserves were swill." Christopher said, biting back his disdain.
"It is, but if I drink the whole bottle, there'll be none left for Elizabeth. Pour the drink, boy. I'm starting to sober up."
Sighing softly to himself, Christopher filled the glass nearly to its brim. Ashton gave him a wolfish grin as he took a large swallow of the wine and made a pleased hum at the taste.
Christopher started to retreat to the wall, where I and the other servants were standing, but Rosalyn caught him by the sleeve as he passed her. "Don't stalk off just yet, Thorn. I'm in the mood for dancing." She smiled at him coyly.
His lion's lips fell from their simply exasperated frown into a thoroughly annoyed scowl. "Very well, Mistress." He answered in a mutter.
Obviously accustomed to his lack of enthusiasm, Rosalyn paid him no mind. She snapped her fingers at the shadows and I. The shadows snapped their heads up to attention at once. I quickly did the same, hoping that she didn't notice the hesitation. "Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor." She ordered.
Suddenly, fine instruments appeared. Half of the servants, went to their perspective instruments, some with violins or cellos, others took up the baby grand pianos that now cluttered the large dining room. The other half, myself included, took a step away from the wall. Beautiful song erupted from their placid masks in a variety of pitches, from the delicate soprano to the rumbling bass. Their song was so lovely, I dared not join them. I was afraid that my own voice would stand out as a stark contrast to theirs. Instead, I mimicked the slight movements of their hands and the motion of their heads as they sang an operatic ballad.
Tugging him around by the sleeve, Rosalyn led Christopher out to the open area of the dining room. They were followed a moment later by Ashton and Elisabeth. The two couples set into a slow waltz. Compared to Ashton's graceful steps, Elizabeth looked like a newborn filly, just getting used to her legs. She was slow to make the appropriate steps and when she did, she often stepped on Ashton's toes. She was stumbling around as if her limbs no longer worked her eyes misty in her catatonic state. She didn't speak at all, not even to apologize to her husband for crushing his toes for the sixth time since the dance began. When Ashton cried out in pain once again, I could hardly suppress a laugh.
Christopher, on the other hand, danced surprisingly well. He was not as graceful as Ashton, but he managed not to step on Rosalyn's feet. I'm sure he would have broken something if he had. "Your waltz has improved, Thorn. Have you been practicing?" I heard her ask him as they twirled past me.
"Not really, Madame." He answered, absently. He twirled them so that her back was to me. In that moment his eyes lifted to me and shifted towards a coat rack by the dining room doorway, where Ashton's coat and two women's cloaks were hanging.
Quietly, I stepped away from the other shadows and went to the cloaks to look for the book. My heart pounded loudly, all the while, as I tried to focus on the task at hand and not Christopher and Rosalyn's dance. On the rack were two cloaks. One was a dark salmon pink satin. The other was a pretty ivory one with white rabbit fur ringing the hood and bottom hem. I guessed that the ivory one was Rosalyn's as it was the most extravagant. The woman seemed to like nothing plain. Feeling the inside lining with the fingertips of my gloved hand, I found a small blue book hidden within a pocket.
"Have you given any more thought to my…proposition?" asked Rosalyn's sultry voice. I turned my head slightly to listen more closely. Even through the music, I could hear them fairly well.
Christopher's eyes drifted to the marble at his feet. "I have…given it more thought than I have in the past." He admitted. I swallowed hard. Sweat rolled down my face behind the mask.
"Really?" Rosalyn smiled victoriously. "Has your mortality been weighing heavily on you? I thought you said that you'd never give in to me, that your will was too strong for my magic, your resolve far greater."
"Things change." He said lowly, twirling her again.
"They certainly do. In a few months' time, you've begun singing an entirely different tune. What changed your mind?" Rosalyn prodded.
"I'm getting old, Rosalyn. I grow tired of our games. I want to be free of it, of you, if only for a few short years. If you were to give me that…a few years of freedom…I'd consider giving you what you want."
A terrible ache gripped me when I heard those words. I nearly gasped out load at the pain.
"Why? Do you wish to see your boyhood dreams come true?" Rosalyn laughed in cruel mockery. "You know it'll all come crashing down eventually, don't you? It would only be a dream. Eventually, you'll die and you'll belong to me once again." She glared towards the shadows that were still rapt in their music. "Only this time, you'll be nothing more than an obedient shadow. One that I will quickly grow bored of and ignore."
"That may be true, but at least I would have known what freedom feels like." Christopher's voice held great sadness. He met Rosalyn's gaze sheepishly, but once their eyes met, he didn't blink or look away. "Would you consider it?" I heard him ask and my own heart thudded into an abrupt silence.
"No!" I screamed, before I could catch myself. The scream ripped through the music, killing it instantly. The shadows stopped their playing, their instruments and voices fading away as the servants themselves melted into the shadows that danced along the dining room walls. The Crafts and Christopher stilled and gawked towards the servant that stood by the coat rack with a blue book clutched tightly in its hand. Christopher stared at me with horror, while Rosalyn's features twisted in rage.
"Imposter!" She screeched a blood curdling scream. She slashed her arm through the air. I felt a stinging pain on my face, as if she'd slapped me. My face jerked to the side and the mask fell away, shattering to a thousand pieces at my feet.
When I looked at her, the muscles beneath her face seemed to be shifting into a monster's snarl. A low roar escaped her throat as a spell spewed from her lips in a mumbled incantation. There was a terrible sound of shattering glass and splintering wood when the windows suddenly exploded, sending glass flying into the room. The ground beneath us shook violently, the earth screaming in protest against Rosalyn's terrible power.
I fell to the ground, covering my head in order to protect myself from the flying glass. This is how I will die. I thought miserably. What a fool I was to think that I could somehow save Christopher when he was already so close to giving up. He tried to make me believe that he was strong enough to resist Rosalyn's temptations, but I knew now that that was just another of his lies.
"Stop it, Rosalyn!" Christopher bellowed loudly over the roar and explosions. I looked up at his imposing form. He was crouched over me, shielding me from the flying debris. He was covered in cuts, his clothes were shredded and his fur was drenched in blood. "If you wish to kill anyone, it will have to be me!" He growled. "I will not let you harm her!" Perhaps he had been strong enough to resist her before…but that wasn't true anymore.
The rumbling stopped the sound falling into defining silence. The flying debris stopped in midair and clattered to the ground around us. Rosalyn erupted in laughter. "It was your doing?" She laughed. "You brought this girl here? Hid her beneath my nose? And here I thought you were a simpleton! I always thought you lacked a backbone. I'm actually pleased to see that I was wrong. It makes things far more interesting." She mumbled another spell and the debris that littered the floor picked itself up and flew back into its original place. In moments, the destruction was repaired, wiped clean from history. "My poor, dear Beast, did you think that she would help you? Did you think that she could break your spell, save you from the fate you chose?" She cackled haughtily, her tone drenched in venom.
"Please, don't harm him!" I said, dragging myself out of Christopher's protection. "He gave me a place to stay when I had nowhere else to go!"
"Isabel." Christopher protested beneath his breath. "Don't. I beg you. Let her do what she will with me."
I stood on my feet, putting myself between Christopher and the Crafts. "Please, Madame Craft, do not punish him for hiding me. He had his reasons for doing that." I pleaded, bowing my head.
Christopher tugged at my coat tails, pleading with me to run away and leave him to his punishment. He could no longer stand upright. His clawed hand gripped at his side. Blood poured through his fingers.
"I know why he hid you. I'm afraid that his motives may not have been as pure as you imagine." Rosalyn chuckled. "Remove your hood, let me look at you." She ordered.
I pulled the hood off and shook out my tangled, sweaty hair. I looked up at her with fearful eyes, my face now smeared with dark make up.
Her dark eyes widened in shock, but her lips tweaked upwards in one corner, the beginnings of a smirk. "You're Peter and Beatrix's daughter, aren't you? I'd remember those eyes anywhere. They're very much like your mother's."
"Yes." I nodded.
She glared at Christopher coldly. "So, not only have you been hiding a girl here, but she just so happens to be my great-niece as well? Really, Thorn, when did you get so rebellious?"
"I have always been so, you just failed to notice."
Rosalyn's eyes flashed red for a moment and Christopher crumpled onto the floor, seizing with pain. He let out a terrible cry, his teeth gnashing together.
"Stop!" I screamed, flinging myself over him, to shield him from Rosalyn's magic. "You're killing him!"
"Thorn has disobeyed me, greatly. He must be punished for his sins." Rosalyn said matter-of-factly. She continued to stare at him with her dead eyes and Christopher shook more violently with a scream of agony.
"Release him!" I yelled, giving her a glare of my own. For one moment, just one moment, please give me the power to protect him. I prayed. I cannot bear to lose another person that I care about. "Release him!" I screamed again with a high pitched voice that didn't sound at all like me. I pounded my fist against the ground and from the floor, sprung up tall plumes of fire. The flames rushed towards the Crafts and made a wall between them and Christopher and me. I hit the floor again and the wall grew higher, until the flames licked at the ceiling.
In my arms, Christopher's body relaxed and became limp. I nearly panicked, thinking he was dead, but I was quickly reassured at the sound of his ragged breathing. I had stopped her. I had saved him. I looked up in astonishment at the wall of flames. Though they filled the room from floor to ceiling, they lit nothing on fire. Nothing burned. There wasn't even any smoke. That power belonged to me? I wondered. It was amazing, chilling. If only I didn't know where that power came from, for even at that moment, I saw shadows lingering behind the wall of fire and their laughter finally reached my ears. They weren't fearful of my power. If anything, they were merely amused.
I held Christopher more tightly in my arms as Ashton stepped through the flames like he were merely passing through a waterfall. He stood before me, unscathed, his clothing barely singed. He grinned at me as if he'd just beaten me at a game. Rosalyn followed him and waved her hands as she entered, making the fire dissipate into nothingness.
"Can we keep her, Mother?" Asked Ashton teasingly. "I would so love to have a new pet."
"Don't play coy, my son. I'm sure that you were already aware of her presence." Rosalyn's tone was that of annoyance.
"I am saddened by your utter lack of trust in me." Ashton pouted, sticking out his lower lip childishly.
"Why else would she have tried to steal my book? You were the only one that knew about it and you're constantly trying to steal it. You put her up to it, I'm sure. I wouldn't be surprised if you asked her to break my mirror for you as well." She lifted her hand towards me and the book, which I'd dropped when I dove to cover Christopher, flew through the air until it was once again in her possession.
"It's good to see that your wit is still intact, despite your advanced age." Ashton said humorously, though his lips turned down into a deep scowl. He was not at all pleased that his plan had yielded little results.
"Leave now." Rosalyn ordered her son. Her voice was harsh and cold. "I will deal with your cousin and will see to it that she can no longer be used as your tool for my destruction. I tire of seeing your face. Go back to America with your dull little wife. I will see you at the mouse's funeral." She spat glancing distastefully at Elizabeth, who now lay on the marble floor, apparently having fainted sometime during our tantrums. "Until then, you are not to come near this place or me. If you disobey me, I assure you, I will know it."
Ashton bowed his head in acceptance of the order, his eyes burning with unsaid hatred. They might as well have turned that blood red shade that they had before. "As you wish, Mother, we'll leave." The woman's title came out as a hiss from his mouth. He nodded again towards me, smiling his serpent's grin. "It was a pleasure doing business with you, Miss Isabel. I look forward to our next meeting." With that, he retreated. He scooped up his wife, carrying her bridal style. His smile broadened at the horrified look on my own face as fire crept up from the soles of his feet, climbed up the fabric of his suit and engulfed him and his wife. When the fire dissipated, the two were nowhere to be seen.
"I swear, sometimes I think I should have never become a mother." Said Rosalyn as she stared towards where her son stood only a moment before. "It would have saved me a lot of aggravation to be sure. But then, if not for Ashton, I would not be the person I am, today. Heaven help me, I cannot help but love him, even if he does want me dead." She slowly shifted her head to look at me. "Were you going to do it? Kill me, I mean?"
I grit my teeth in anger, my fingers digging into the fabric of Christopher's jacket. "If I told you that the thought never crossed my mind, it would be a lie." I answered truthfully.
Rosalyn only smiled at me. "Why haven't you, then? When Ashton told you how you could kill me, why did you not do it right away? If you had, Christopher would not have been hurt."
"Maybe I should have." I hissed.
Rosalyn laughed loudly at me.
"However, I know that your power comes from the darkest place imaginable." I said, wiping angry tears from my eyes with the sleeve of my jacket. "I've seen what it's done to your son and what I suspect it has done to you. It's twisted you so badly that you're not even human anymore. That pretty face of yours is only a mask; one that can easily shatter."
Rosalyn's laughter died. Her face became stern, her eyes glittering as if the flames still burned around us. "Do not put me in the same league as my son. Ashton and I couldn't be any more different. We want very different things. We are very different things. Do not speak to me as if you are so much greater than I. You did use your powers, didn't you? You are no better than us."
"I only used them to save Christopher from you!" I cried.
Rosalyn's eyes narrowed to slits. "Is that supposed to make it better? You used magic that you, yourself believe comes from Hell, and yet you still called to it, used it for your own motives. Did you not enjoy it, the overwhelming power?" Her eyes raked over me, dug into my flesh and studied what she found within. She smiled as if finding something that she liked. "I believe you did. I know you did. That feeling is intoxicating. Eventually, you'll crave it more and more until you cannot live without it. You'll give anything to obtain more." She grinned a smile that mimicked her son's wicked sneer. "You will offer my spirit friend anything in the world: your wealth, your loved ones, your body and soul. And then you will become exactly like me."
"I will never be like you! I would never give that demon anything!" I screamed at her. What she said couldn't possibly be true. I wouldn't do something like that. My resolve was strong, my faith stronger. To give in to such demands would only ensure my soul's damnation. I would never become her…I would never allow myself to become so twisted.
"You say that now." She chuckled. She turned away from me and sauntered towards the stair case, her voluminous skirts trailing behind her like the train of an extravagant wedding gown. As her gloved hand came to rest on the hand rail she leered back over her shoulder at me. "But you will soon sing a different tune. Now that you have had a taste of what you could possess, you will not be able to resist his temptations. Her smile broadened and her eyes twinkled mischievously, "Be glad that you did not break my precious mirror. There is a reason why I keep it here and not at my current home. I'm not such a fool that I would not create fail-safes to ensure my own well-being."
Silently, she ascended the stairs and disappeared to the third floor. Once she was gone, the servants conjured themselves back into existence in their places along the walls. "Help me tend to him and get him into bed." I squeaked, my voice faltering. I was suddenly so exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to lie on the cold marble floor and sleep. Four servants picked Christopher up, two carrying his upper half, while the others carried his legs. Poor Christopher was still completely out of it. He was starting to come around, but his eyes were rolling around in his head, his lips moving as he mumbled my name over and over. "It's okay. I'm here, Christopher." I reassured him in a quiet voice. I frowned sadly at him. He was bleeding badly from wounds he'd suffered shielding me from flying debris during Rosalyn's temper tantrum. I hated her, hated her with a passion. One day, I promised myself, I would somehow find a way to free Christopher from her control so that she could never hurt him again. I would make her pay for what she had done to him…no matter how many bridges I would be forced to cross…and burn. And tonight, I was one step closer to making that promise a reality. I smiled as I pulled a folded piece of paper from my sleeve. I unfolded it in my hands. The edges were jaggedly torn and on the yellowed page were written a bizarre language of symbols and curving, circular runes. I had no idea what it said, but when I had touched this certain page of Rosalyn's spell book, it had burned my fingertips, as if the writing was written with a flame. Without having to know what was truly written, I knew I had exactly what I was looking for. Within my grasp was the key to both our freedoms.