Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes
See spoiler tags :#exhibitionism #humiliation
Shard of White Obsidian, the once-favoured daughter of the Lair-Mother, whom her countless victims had called a defiler, a despoiler, a demon, was intimately familiar with the art of cornering a prey. She had always enjoyed those moments of driving a victim into a trap from which there would be no escaping, while still allowing the allowing for the extended torture of waiting for the final blow to come, and leaving the false hope that perhaps it could be averted. It was a bliss to draw those moments out, to toy with those fully in her power, to watch them sink deeper and deeper into despair until finally they would beg for the tender caress of her rending claws.
It was a bitter consolation, then, to know that the man who had finally chased her into a corner of her own was not given to any of her cruelties and would do his best to resolve the matter quickly and decisively.
She hid in the rafters of the stinking warehouse, spider-still, her porcelain-like shell pressed into the slant of the roof, blank face trailing the motion of panicked vermin skittering through the rotting filth below. The din of fighting was getting close now; the gang she had hired, ashen-faced low-born brutes of the sort she'd once considered not worthy even of her contempt, was never going to hold against her enemy. But they were stupid enough to accept the promise of riches she dangled before them, irrelevant enough to not have heard about happened to her wealth. All they were ever going to do was to serve as bait, a way to lure the hero into her final ambush, for the one last stab at gutting him and regaining the Lair-Mother's favour.
"We surrender!" someone shouted, panic in their voice.
Shard could taste his fear; it made her mouth water. For once, the promise of violence tasted foul on her lips. If only she could stop her body from being primed for slaughter, from eagerly expecting the familiar rapture of killing, if only she could wish away the hope for pleasure which was not to come, if only she could tell her flesh what her mind knew: that this was not going to work. The cold certainly was a splinter in her thoughts, too painful to consider, and yet impossible to ignore. The ambush hadn't worked thrice before, back when she was at peak of her ability and the hero weak. To hope for better, then, was nothing but a delusion. But a delusion she clung to, consciously, painfully.
"She's inside!" one of her thugs cried. "Inside, I swear!"
"Go," another voice commanded, stern, but kind. Shard knew it well. "Run. I want to never see you again."
There was a pause, and muffled shuffling of feet. And then, the door from the front room opened, and a column of bright light cut into the warehouse's dark. Vermin flew in fear. Beneath her shell, Shard's muscles twisted, claws digging into the wood of the roof, steel wire about to unspool. She stared into the light, waiting for him to come, and quietly praying to all the gods of the depths that wouldn't.
It was a terrible thing to realize that she was afraid. Afraid, and thus weak.
Weak, and thus deserving of what was to follow.
"No," she uttered to herself, tensing for the one last struggle. "No."
She heard her own voice. It trembled, frail and taut. How many times has she heard those exact same words uttered into predatory dark? How many times has replied to them with a crippling cut? But her mouth was not hers to control, she couldn't help herself from repeating after them.
It can't end like that.
The hero entered into the filth carefully, but without concern. How different he looked from the first time she had seen him, sneering from behind a mask at the low-born's efforts to appear stately in court. He was there to plead with the city's patricians for the reprieve of his people, and she was there to ensure that it wouldn't be given. She thought him ungainly then, calloused hands and a simple, honest face. He was not the sort to survive among the mighty, he was not the sort to challenge the Lair-Mother's designs. A reputation for some minor achievement preceded him. He had beaten back some crime lord, averted some disaster. She remembered thinking him an enticing prey, entertaining the idea of seducing him to her side, or, failing that, to make an example out of him to all low-born scum daring to stand up to their betters. She remembered refusing to learn his name; it was beneath her notice. Never once had she considered that he was going to be the end of her.
The spear in his hand gave an easy, holy glow; wards against weakness and tokens of devotion marked his jacket. All the scars he had received from her over the years have faded, and left his face as beautiful as it was on the day their paths had first crossed. Or maybe more? He was mature now. Weathered, but unbroken.
"I know you're here, Shard," he announced into the dark ahead of him. "It's over."
Insults rushed to her mouth; bitter laughter to rebuke him. She bit on her tongue, sharp teeth holding back vile words. She had to stay hidden, she had to let him come closer, she had to get a drop. She had to fight back the knowledge that it was not going to be enough. She couldn't allow it. With all her strength, she focused on the hero, on his motion and words. There had to be an opening waiting for her.
He swept the room with his eyes; they moved past her hidden shape and saw nothing. He stepped deeper in, spear at the ready, looking away. Was he expecting her to hide in the piles of garbage? Was it what he thought he had her reduced to?
"I offered you surrender last time," he continued walking deeper in, spear-tip slicing through refuse, "I will do it again. But you are not walking away, Shard. You are not…"
He paused, frowned, leaned in as if having noticed something, presented his back to the roof and the monster in the rafters. Shard did not think; she acted.
"DIE!" she let off her hate in one shriek, lunging, claws slicing through the air.
There was a terrible sound, the shrill cry of metal shattering porcelain. Burning pain exploded in her chest as the golden blade pierced through her shell. He threw her body over his shoulder and onto the rotten ground, the weight of him driving the spear all the way through and pinning her down like a flailing insect.
"You really thought I didn't notice you lurk?" he asked with a warm smile, pressing down on the weapon in his hands; the shaft was now half-way buried in Shard's chest.
Even from the floor, she slashed at him, incoherent rage flying from her mouth; but he was too far for her claws to reach. They tore at the air in front of him, and he did not even blink.
"It's over, Shard," he repeated, and she knew he was right.
The pain was getting to her slowly, building up in the back of her mind, in the growing numbness of her body. The children of the Lair-Mother were hardly as fragile as mortals, but even for one such as her, the blow was fatal. It wouldn't be immediate though; it wouldn't even be quick.
She knew the play: cripple, and leave to slowly die. Enjoy the show of a life floating away. How many times had she inflicted that upon others? Was it really how she was going to end, too? An ugly laugh quit her mouth.
There really was justice in this broken world.
"I should have killed you... " she rasped, and for once abhorred the fact that the blank porcelain plate of her face couldn't convey all the hate she was feeling, and all the rage. "I should have killed you when I had the chance."
"Shard," he said, and if there was malice in his voice, she could not hear it. He kept her pinned still, and had eyes on her claws. "You could never have done that."
Once again, she swiped at him, her arm flailing in front of him. What else was she going to say?
"You are a parasite," he continued, "you feed on pain and misery. You couldn't have killed me, even when I lay defenseless before you, not without breaking me first. Not without making me admit you were right."
There were no words in the languages she knew to express the extent of her hate for him at that moment. She gargled incoherent fury, twisting herself around the pinion holding her down. He pressed onto it, the spear sinking deeper into the ground.
She let him live so that he could suffer more. She let him live so that one day he would beg her to end him. She let him live, because he was in her power and in the nature of the world there is the indisputable fact that the weak are to be devoured. She let him live, and now he was about to kill her.
She was wrong.
"I used to hate you," he whispered, "back when you were my enemy. But now…"
She thrashed. She felt her body strain; pain bloomed where the spear pierced her and spread like fire through her muscle. But she kept on thrashing, her limbs banging against the decayed floor, scattering damp garbage, throwing up puffs of stinking dust. It was not getting her any closer to striking him.
"...but now, I just pity you. A miserable end, to a miserable existence."
Miserable end. Her thoughts were a rancid stream now, shot through with ever-growing hurt, kept aloft only by the desperate refusal. She couldn't let him have that. She couldn't let him have the truth of her in the end. She was the once-favoured child of the Lair-Mother, she was going to take his head and be returned to her mother's graces. She was meant to be exalted above all, and feared by all, not to die in a rotten hovel, flailing pointlessly in inept rage at the inevitable. This was not supposed to be her!
She was afraid. She was in pain. Something swelled inside of her, like a parasitic larvae eating away at her mind before bursting out in all of its ugly splendour, and she couldn't not name that thing. The stream of insults died on her lips; drool mixed with blood pooled in the corner of her mouth, where the porcelain plate of her face retreated to reveal the flesh beneath. The only place on her that was open, and vulnerable.
Once only. Her hand touched where the spear broke through her. A dull, empty sound left her, repeating like a banging of a drum.
How terribly she didn't want to die like that.
"You're crying?" the hero asked, sounding so very surprised. So was she.
He leaned in, to make sure it was really what he was hearing. Or maybe it was just a reflex of a man unable to let hurt go unattended. In any case, it was also Shard's last chance. She swiped, once again. She couldn't reach for his face, or his throat, but he got close enough for the claws to rake in through his chest, shred the jacket and the flesh beneath. Holy wards burned with the stench of myrrah arresting the blow and the wound, but it was enough. A wave of pleasure shot through her at the feeling of his flesh parting, strong enough to dull the pain, if only for a second. With all her strength and rage, she twisted against the shaft holding her down, and felt it give, and crack. The spear broke, and before the agony of the wound she had given herself could catch up to her, she was already on her feet, and running, the red haze of the pain she had drawn from the hero propelling her forwards, out of the of the warhouse, past the front room where the blood-stains marked the fall of her hired hands, and away still, out into the streets and city's night.
She was bleeding, tar-like gore trailing from the gaping wound in her chest. High above, the moon shone silver-bright, and the stars gleamed mocking through the tangled roofs of the city's slums. Has it ever been that cold? She couldn't remember. Her feet stomped heavily on the dirt; she was sprinting, as far from the hero as she could get, no direction other than away.
The city was a blur, a monstrous amalgamation of corroded metal, rotten wood, cracked stone. It rose around her tower-high, tiny lights burning in the windows of stacked houses, doors shut to her. Shut, shut, shut - the slum stayed on guard, and knew her for what she was. The stuccatto of shutters closing and bars dropping behind doors followed her dash. How long until they would see how wounded she was, and thought themselves brave enough to take on a devil?
There were people around her screaming and shouting and all she could do was run and hope that there was still enough life left in her shell to carry her forwards. There were escape routes she could take, secret passages leading into the bowels of the earth and the domains of the Lair-Mother; it would be so easy to step into shadows and sink into the great below. But those ways were forbidden to her. Defeated once more, she would be wise to die before returning into her mother's embrace. She would be wise to die before her siblings got to her.
Was it not what she deserved? When she wore the Lair-Mother's splendour, she would teach them the burden of weakness; it was a great honour among her kin to be the implement of their mother's lessons on the price for inadequacy and weakness?
How many below still remembered, and been sharpening their claws for her return?
The ground under her feet grew hard; cobble, not dirt. She left the slum, and entered the city proper. Alchemical lights around her dimmed out the stars; it was going to be such a struggle to clean her blood from the white pavement.
She was going to die here? Her tongue dropped from mouth, a long slab of pointed meat, tasting at the air, grasping for some kind of a reprieve. And there it was! A whiff of healing magic, its unmistakable artificial tang. A healer worked nearby.
Shard's body burned. Strangely, without heat. She could feel the air rush into her shell, brush through the gaping wound the spear left. The world closed in on itself, into a flurry of white and black, and that single thread leading her through the city, towards that taste, towards that one, blasted hope.
She didn't want to die.
There was a door in her way, and she smashed into it and against it; wood turned to splinter, steel gave in under her claws. She fell into a room thick with the smell of sorcery, stumbling over her own legs, her muscles ice and fire in their last. In a case on the wall, there were phials arranged in a display, shining bright in the dark. She grasped at them as her legs gave up on her, and she clattered to the floor, the sound of breaking glassware accompanying her down.
There was no more strength left in her. Colour drained off the world. All was heavy, all was quiet. But someone's feet stomped above. Was it he, finally come to deliver the final blow?
No, the hero couldn't have gotten to her that fast. It couldn't be him. It had to be the healer, it had to be the hope. She opened her mouth to demand help, to threaten to rip them open like butcher-like if they did not immediately attend to her, to offer them endless riches of the world if they did, riches that haven't existed in years.
But her mouth couldn't make a sound; there was a void building up at the bottom of Shard to pull her in and finally swallow her, and it was the bitter, bitter knowledge that it was her fault, and her mistake, that was going to carry her into this quiet nothing.
And there was also a hand grasping at the back of her head and pulling it up, and someone's voice, coming from very close, but also from miles away, demanding that she stay. There was a different kind of warmth spreading through her body, and the unmistakable awful taste of restorative potion on her lips, and after that, sleep.