Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

26. The Work

by gargulec

Tags: #cw:gore #D/s #dom:female #pov:bottom #pov:top #sub:female #bondage #fantasy #sadomasochism
See spoiler tags : #exhibitionism #humiliation

26. The Work

And after everything, joy.

There was a moment—so wonderfully extended, so sweetly reluctant to end—when the world ceased to matter. Ifi held Shard's hand in her own, and felt the warmth of her flesh sink into the blood-stained porcelain. So what that Shard lay shattered, that her body was more scabbed wounds than complete shell? So what that Ifi wasn't even sure if she could unfasten the below-spawn from the torture table without having her fall apart in her hands like a broken dish? So what that the stench of ugly death filled the cellar, rising from the mire of bile and ankle deep blood? It all felt small, insignificant, and transient compared to that which was to last: them, together.

Perhaps it was the lingering poison, not yet fully neutralized. Ifi had bound death to her fear, and served to all who sampled it; it stood to reason, then, that the antidote would have to kill fear as well. But however much sense the lyricism of alchemy made, the reason seemed easier to pinpoint: times like this, it was easy to imagine that things would, eventually, work out.

"Don't worry," Ifi promised, "I'll put you back together."

Already, her mind was racing to the workshop, to the potentials of the Noble Art, to questions of how; because it was possible to put Shard back together. It had to be possible; to think otherwise was to violate the sanctity of this moment, and of those fingers so tightly woven together. But faith alone could not move a body out of a killing room, let alone carry it over to the sanctuary of an alchemist's workshop.

That called for the help of others.

"Did you come here to finish me?" Shard asked suddenly.

For the first time in minutes, or maybe hours, Ifi looked away from the broken and bloodied body of her love, and saw Villis descend into the cellar, girded for battle. In his hand, there was a killing spear; from his wrist swayed a striking charm, glowing pale yellow with the power contained inside. When he stepped inside, he carried himself like a coiled spring, ready in all directions, awaiting an ambush. Then, his feet sank into the mess of porcelain, bile, and steel that littered the floor, and the tension left him, replaced by a strange kind of sadness.

"No," he replied in a voice that bore the mark of stunned disbelief. "Only to help."

"Then help," Ifi demanded, pointing at the table. "We need to get her out of here."

He bound the striking charm securely around his forearm; he propped the spear against the wall, and carefully stepped through the swamp of death, and towards Ifi and Shard. The torture devices the below-spawn used were familiar to his hands; quickly, he guided Ifi through how to dislodge the flat of the table from its mooring, while still keeping Shard securely bound to it. As he worked, he kept glancing at his enemy's free hand, searching for a hint of an extended claw. But, of course, there were none.

Before they left the torture chamber, Ifi wrapped the bowl with pieces of Shard in a shred of cloth. Villis followed her gestures with strange, quiet curiosity, but asked no questions. Instead, he gave commands; told the alchemist how to grip the table securely, and when her legs buckled under the strain, he made sure to shoulder the bulk of the weight on the way up from the cellar, and into the streets. Only once they were securely in the carriage, the table held fast by the draft golem did Ifi think to ask about how Villis knew to come.

"I was worried the demons were going to try to get to you," he explained with a small shrug. "So I made sure to leave look-outs by their den. I came as quickly as I could."

On any other day, Ifi would begrudge him from withholding from her where Shard was being tortured, back in the High City. But now, another question burned its way through her thoughts.

"But why come at all?" she asked, watching the ramshackle streets of the Lower City roll past the carriage.

"You keep asking me that question," he muttered, unsure. "And I am wondering the same thing about you."

When they passed the Middle City limits and reached Ifi's shop, he helped her carry Shard inside, and clear the room in the laboratory of the tabletop. The below-spawn herself seemed to lapse back into some kind of unconsciousness, which Ifi quickly deepened with an extra dose of slowmilk, just to keep the pain away. The bowl with the shards landed on a nearby bench; Villis looked for a chair, and sat himself down.

"Why are you staying?" Ifi asked, lining up a series of wakefulness tonics for use. There would no sleeping in the coming night, and little on the nights to come.

"Because once Alisa realizes what you have done, she will send someone to deal with you."


The elixir rolled down her throat with the familiar, galvanic taste. Cold, unpleasant energy spread through her, thinning exhaustion into a light cloud she could stride through. Shard slept nearby, her body a sore ruin that required a repair, and Ifi would provide. Only how? For a moment, she waited, head rested on folded hands, thoughts trying to conjure up some restorative recipe that would undo the damage. Obviously, there was none: she could not grow a new shell for Shard, not transplant her into one, even if she had somehow acquired it. All that remained was to somehow piece her back together.

With a piece of damp cloth, she started to clean the broken-off shards, their sharp edges never far from slicing her hands open. Bowl after bowl of dirty-black water went down the drain as the pristine white pile grew. There were so many pieces, chipped and cracked; but some of them fit together, holding onto the impression of their old integrity, just waiting for something to knit them together again.

Villis raised an eyebrow when she abruptly left the laboratory, only to return moments later, holding in her hands a small volume bound in red leather. There, in that little book, in an obnoxiously opaque poem, hid the lesson on how to make tangible the essence of attraction, which holds souls together and makes their love pure. Which, in other words, could mean a kind of glue.

The Descent into the Depths of Solitude, and the Triumphant Return Into the Light of Truth. Surrounded by the remains of her lover, and convinced somewhere deep inside that she could be reassembled, Ifi found in herself a new, fresh appreciation for what this title suggested. She had already probed those depths, and made for herself a home in them. Now was the time to leave, and ascend. Maybe she was too quick to dismiss her teachers' insistence on the desire of matter towards perfection.

"How much time do you think I have?" she asked Villis, making sure she had enough ingredients prepared for a simple saturnine tree.

"You will have enough," he promised. "And not more."

He was right. In the morning, dour-faced men with iron-bound cudgels and glass badges marking them the rulers of life and death banged at Ifi's door. The alchemist did not budge from her seat, watching with familiar wonder as flakes of gold spiraled down from the branches of the saturnine tree, settling at the bottom of the flask. Villis, however, went out to meet them; they left after the conversation, carrying with them a small message to be delivered to Master Glassmaker's own hands.

With a glass full of gold powder, Ifi continued to read and reread the poem, to find in it clues for how to render the essence of attraction tangible. Long unused dictionaries of allusions and reference books for allegories surrounded her, and an ever growing mound of quickly scribbled notes. So many of the reagents to be used were horrible poisons: vitriol of phosphorus, quicksilver salts, bitter water; the trick in the creation of the elixir of love was to find the perfect balance between them, so that they would neuter each other and leave only their beatific properties. But what Ifi was attempting didn't have to be so careful, as she was to bind them all together in the panacea of liquid gold, and hope that the thickened paste would serve to sanctify the power of attraction.

Midway through the day, the whizz of distillation rigs woke Shard up from her sleep; Ifi gave her water and restorative potions, and a numbing salve onto the open wounds. For all her damage suffered, the below-spawn held onto life and lucidity strongly; her kind was not easy to put down.

"You have to strike the heart," Villis explained from over the book he was thumbing, "or the brain. Or, I suppose, feed them horrible poison. That was a brilliant idea, by the way. It may yet save your life."

Even caught up in her work as she was, Ifi still had to admit some pride at hearing that. But other tasks lie ahead of her: a paste to taste and mix, and then a love to reassemble. She focused on it, potion after potion sharpening her thoughts until it felt like her mind was a stack of needles pointing outwards; such was clarity. Around her, Shard and Villis conversed, in low voices talking about the past, and the future, and how things could have gone otherwise. It was a bitter and unpleasant conversation, and Ifi was lucky to miss most out it.

"Don't you ever try sorry to me," Villis would exclaim, his voice falling into a register brittle like glass. "You do not have the right. You never will."

Bolted to the table, Shard protested, and defended herself, and then stopped. The conversation returned to a lower intensity, though it grew slow and sluggish, letting the alchemist concentrate more. With a small stick, she applied some of her gold paste onto the edges of two pieces of shell. It filled the gaps; as she squeezed the shards together, some of the paste rose up, hardening quickly to a low ridge joining the pieces together hard and fast. All that was left needing to be done was to file the excess and polish the shell. Ifi counted the shards remaining, and imagined just how many days would take.

No matter.

Some of the elixirs she took deadened the ugliest emotions, and left only mute focus. In its cold light, the whole task took on the shape of a puzzle; and the parts of her that could never stop loving admired the chance to grow so familiar with the topography of Shard. Ifi measured the body, found where the plates had gotten snapped, and made sure that there was a fit between the shell still holding to the flesh, and the pieces she was working with. Then, in the morning after the second night, she smeared the underside of a small shard with a healing salve, and checked if it would stick to Shard. When it clicked in place, and stayed there even as Ifi withdrew her hands, Shard whimpered in careful vulnerability.

"You are really putting me back together," she said, reaching towards the restored part of her.

Ifi brushed her hand away.

"Don't touch, or I'll bolt it back down," she said, a small part of her wondering about how it would feel to be bolted down by Shard. That the thought wafted around her mind at all was a good sign.

At some point, she slept, or maybe just collapsed; Villis woke her up, bringing her a steaming mug of coffee, and demanding that she ate before she was to disappear into the laboratory again. Outside, it was a late afternoon, the sky painted in smudges of pastel blue and pink. Downstairs, Shard writhed impatiently on the table; Ifi rushed to see if the glue was still holding. It was; a golden ridge marked her success, as hard as the shell it was joining. Relieved, the alchemist returned to the puzzle arrayed on her workbench, and the battery of potions meant to let her keep her mind primed on the task at hand.

"How long do you think it will take?" Shard asked.

"Don't rush me," she replied harshly, but not unkindly.

Her work was too precise to accommodate a conversation, anyway, leaving no room for it. Every step was a new challenge. Sometimes, parts of Shard were missing, or lost to chipping and powdering. But the paste Ifi had created filled in the gaps well, spreading into small golden pools where it reached those voids. Under the alchemist's hands, Shard's shoulder slowly emerged back as a complete shape, now branded with a sparkling web. Ifi set it back on the below-spawn later that night, finding a new metal fastener to make sure it stayed attached correctly. Even through the glimmering haze of elixirs keeping her afloat and conscious, the act of adding to her lover's bondage put a smile on her face. Gently, she slapped Shard's face, before returning to the porcelain puzzle.

"Hey," the below-spawn snorted. "I'll remember that!"

There was something in those words that made it all worth it, and more. Ifi let herself lean back in her chair and stretch, uplifted by pride, and something more.

"I'm counting on it," she laughed, returning to work.

Around the time of the next morning, much of Shard was reassembled, large porcelain plates splattered with gold and waiting to be mounted back onto the flesh. Ifi weighed one of them in hand; she had never stopped to think much about it before, but as it rested in her palm, she considered how it was possible that something this rigid and hard could yield itself to the easy grace with which Shard moved. Shouldn't it be more like plate armor, bulky and unwieldy? More importantly, was whatever magic that gave this its flexibility going to return, or would Shard remain forever crippled by a fundamentally alien body grafted onto her flesh? Ifi couldn't allow herself to worry, lest she risked losing focus, but it was difficult not to wonder, or not to rush forward with testing. No, she had to put her faith in the craft, and in the art, in alchemy's grand promise. She had to hold to the meaning of what she was doing.

As the morning gave way to another lovely afternoon, Villis returned to the laboratory from his watch-post on the shop's main floor. He approached Ifi's bench, and for a time observed her put together a plate that would cover Shard's stomach. A chunk of it was nowhere to be found; he recognized it readily.

"I should have aimed higher," he mused. "But it was never meant to be a killing blow."

With an inarticulate groan, Shard voiced her protest; Villis shrugged it off, following the work of Ifi's hands with rapt attention. For the alchemist, it was the trickiest part; no longer joining parts together, but building one anew, out of alchemical gold and mysterious poisons. Strip by strip, she applied layers of the glue, slowly shaping it into an extension of the plates around it. It was a laborious process, even by the standards of her whole task, and yet pleasing in excess of mere restoration. It meant something more, and though the details, the specific names or proper analogies could find no purchase in Ifi's addled mind, she recognized the significance just by the galvanic charge it seemed to hold under her touch. She battled through a temptation to impress some mark of her, a name or a sigil, into the golden mass, but how garish would that be? No, no matter what, Shard's body would remain forever marked not by the wounds it had suffered, but by the hand that built it back up.

"I will need your help again," she announced to Villis, readying herself for the final reassembly.

He had rough hands, used to violence more than care; or so Ifi assumed, until she saw the tenderness with which he held onto the shards of Shard and the measured pressure he put onto them as the alchemist set them back into the openings of the below-spawn's body. It should not be a surprise to her, she thought. He was a glassworker before he was a hero. Maybe it even pleased him more to work again with porcelain than to make his life matter with violence.

"How does it look?" Shard asked, straining to get a look at the reworking of her body; but the metal band kept her head away, and Ifi refused to give her a mirror.

"How does it feel?" she asked back.


"Then have patience."

Completion appeared so tantalizingly close. Ifi took a step back, surveying a white body marked by a network of golden ridges; for the first time, no hint of flesh showed, no crack, no opening. She reached to the bolts fastening Shard down, then withdrew her hand. She, too, had to have patience; now was the time to wait for the attraction to solidify, and then for the work that still remained to be done.

"One more night," she made a promise, a wave of exhaustion threatening to drag her to the bottom of sleep. "And remember, no touching."

Upstairs, in the kitchen, Villis seated her at the table. From what little supplies remained in the alchemist's cupboard, he made a shockingly hearty stew, and served it to her, steaming hot. Eating was a struggle; the poisons that kept Ifi upright straining the body in dangerous ways. But she did eat, and she did feel better at the end. Once the bowl was empty, she crashed, the unspoken "why are you doing all of this" retained on her lips.

She never got around to asking it. In the morning, Villis was gone, having left a note warning that he would be back by evening, and likely with difficult company. The implication went over the alchemist’s head, for something else, and ar more important, held all of her attention. She found one last bottle of liquid wakefulness sequestered away, downed it, and rushed back to Shard.

A steel file, a roll of sandpaper, a metal brush, a sponge and a bottle of polish; the last step might have seemed mundane compared to the fine magic of transmutation and restoration. Ifi knew better. She set the strongest glowing charm into a socket above Shard's table, moved a chair next to it and ran her fingers across the rough, ridged surface of the below-spawn's restored body. Then, she touched the file to the hardened glue, and ground down and to the side. A crystal-fine whine bounced off the laboratory's walls.

"Ifi?" Shard asked at the surprising touch.

"Shh," the alchemist whispered. "It will take a while."

The labour progressed so very slowly. First, she filed the glue, then she sanded what remained, and only made it perfectly flush with the gradual work of the brush. But her hands were on Shard all time, her warmth soon fully seeped into her, the porcelain body yielding to her perfecting touch. The glue—the elixir—the work—had done more than just set. As its excess was scrubbed away, it revealed perfectly thin golden lines, shining with greedy, needy light. In places, the gold spread and pooled, painting a new geography of Shard, no longer immaculate, but mottled, marked, tried and true. If Ifi had harboured any doubts as to the efficacy of her alchemy, they dispersed without a trace. Or maybe not on account of beauty, but only the sheer pleasure of that touch, of being allowed to hold the body so close and so tender, to work it until it gained a mirror sheen.

Shard's free hand reached for Ifi, and Ifi leaned into it, letting it brush her skin and drink her warmth. Rhythmically, she polished the remade shell, imagining what this hand could do to her—but some other day. So she fastened it again, to make sure it did not interrupt the finishing touches too much. Shard grumbled in protest, but did not resist; words that were in her mouth melted down until all that was leaving was a low, undulating purr, in tune with the motions of Ifi's hands.

And then, all of a sudden, there was nothing more left to file, to sand, to polish. Shard lay on the table, gleaming like a freshly-cut gem, the golden warp spread over her shining with a light that was not entirely reflected. Reluctant to release something that marvelous from her hold, the alchemist nonetheless moved to undo the bindings, finally releasing the below-spawn from her bondage.

"Can you stand?" she asked in a voice that surprised her with its firmness.

She helped Shard up, watching her struggle to keep her balance, but only for a moment. Soon enough, everything was back as it used to be. The glue held; the plates did not snap or bend. They joined to the flesh below, growing from it their necessary properties, indistinguishable from those gained in the vats of the Lair-Mother's kingdom; or perhaps better than that. What could compare, after all, with love and mastery?

"How do you feel?" she demanded to know.

"I don't know," Shard hushed.

"Then keep your eyes down."

Two stairwells separated them from the mirror in the bathroom above, and the conclusion of this work. They walked up slowly, savouring every step of a life returned and of a hope fulfilled. Ifi held Shard's wrist tightly and possessively, like she had always wanted to be held, and guided her towards a better life, like she had always wanted to be guided. But she had to also acknowledge a kind of a defeat; all her life, she had refused the dream of alchemy as anything but a tool, scoffing at those seeing it as a path to a better life. But perhaps she had spent too much time thinking of the High City buffoons and their bad poetry, and not enough of the basic truth of what transmutation could accomplish.

Shard's feet clicked against the tiled floor of the bathroom; Ifi put the light charms on, and breathed.

"Look up," she ordered, pointing the below-spawn at the mirror.

Her love obliged. She raised her head and stared directly into her new reflection, splayed with gold. Her fingers touched the shining trail that began by the neck, and followed it all the way down to the golden pool that filled what a killing spear had once broken open. She trembled, and Ifi only held tighter.

"It is perfect."

And so it was, and so was the work completed, and so was the change affected upon the world, indelible and undeniable.

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