Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes
3. Rock Bottom
See spoiler tags :#exhibitionism #humiliation
It was deceitfully difficult to crack through the shells that shrouded the flesh of the Lair-Mother's spawn. They appeared fragile, like fine porcelain that the slightest strike could shatter, and yet swords would bend on it. It meant that breaking her sibling was hard work, one that Shard of White Obsidian couldn't accomplish alone.
She had to work in a pair instead, another sibling of hers guiding the chisel for her to bring the sledge-hammer on, and watch the familiar spider-web of cracks open across the body below. She knew the blows that landed well by black blood welling in those fault lines of a body laboriously shattered, and she recognized the progress of her task by the familiar bursts of pleasure as the unfortunate failure screamed and wailed under the hammer.
"Me-rcy," it begged in a hoarse, pathetic voice, "mer-"
The chisel was in place; Shard brought the hammer down and turned its words into a modulated wail. Something finally broke, a crack across its stomach spreading all the way to the groin, a part of the porcelain plate peeling, dangled to the side, held to the flesh beneath only by slivers red of sinew. Steaming blood gushed to the stone floor, draining towards the pit ahead.
Shard shuddered; a quiet moan died between her lips.
Yet, the work was far from complete. The spawn of the Lair-Mother didn't die easily; they clung to life with fierce tenacity, even when they shouldn't want to, even when they were brought to the pit at the bottom of the world to there be shattered, and cast off to the slow agony of the putrefying flesh below, even when there was nothing more left to them than the chisel and the hammer.
It made the lessons all the more memorable.
"To ask for mercy," the Lair-Mother preached, red cloth draped over her tall frame, exposed mouth twisted into a cruel smile, "is to name yourself weak."
Shard's pair put the chisel up, to another crack slowly opening by the right shoulder. The plate there seemed sturdy still, and wouldn't be done away in a single blow.
"No…" the failure still, somehow had it in it to cry, "please…"
Shard raised the hammer, trying her best to not to think the name of her sibling on the floor.
"And weakness, as all things," her mother and patron continued her sermon, "is bound to its consequences."
It wasn't meant for her ears; no, the words were a gift to their family, assembled in the spiraling galleries above, looking down at the execution, and mouth of the pit. Against the black stone of the depths, they cut eerie figures, white, featureless, unadorned. In the world above, they would cloth themselves, and paint themselves, and make themselves unique. They would take on names and histories - but here, in their home, there was no room for such pretense. In the end, they were all the Lair-Mother's spawn, and that was all that they were.
Still, there was a lesson here meant for Shard alone, and she had every reason to try to make herself an apt student. The hammer swung, punching the chisel into the crack, the glassy sound of a shell snapping ringing a clear note. Shard's pair corrected the position, and gave her a nod.
This time, she really put her back into it. The sledge arced through the dark, and when it hit, the sound was a wet crack. The plate snapped cleanly, clattering to the side, briefling baring the red flesh beneath, before blood rushed all over it. Her failed sibling screamed again.
It was a thin sound, at the verge of snapping, and yet rising high, echoing off the galleries and all the way up through the secret passages and into the world above. It got into Shard, running down her spine as a warm jolt, before exploding in her stomach, swelling the joy to each note of hurt.
The hammer almost slipped from her hands; she struggled not to recoil. It felt so good, and she didn't want it. More than anything, she didn't want it. Not from those blows. Not from this pain. But her want meant nothing to what seized her. The sermon was to nourish others. For her, it was the lesson of the hammer, and the reminder that she could never be anything else than what she really was.
Above her, the Lair-Mother stared down, as inscrutable as ever. They had all learned to read her moods and desires from the tiniest shifts in her stance, from the slightest alterations in her tone. But not here, not among all of her progeny. There would be no gesture to indicate if she approved of how Shard handled herself. All that was left to her was to try to acquit herself well under her mother's tutelage, and render her lessons in the flesh of those who didn't.
So she tried her best to remember the moment, to etch her fear into memory, to let it burn into the matter of her soul so that every night she would be reminded of the consequences of failure, so that in her final moments she wouldn't show weakness.
With each blow of the hammer, she punched the memory deeper into her self. With each wave of pleasure undoing her grief, she sealed it in. Into the fading wails she spoke a promise that she would never, never, never become like that thing at her feet, that thing whose name she would not think again.
Even peeled from most of its shell, once-white plates hanging at odd angles from the damp mass of bleeding flesh, the failed sibling still held onto to life. It kept on moving its mouth without making a sound, trying to utter some pleas for mercy, or for an ending. But there was still time left for it; maybe an hour, maybe a day. All of her assembled family could watch its naked chest continue heaving even as Shard and her pair lifted the carcass off the ground, and tossed it down into the pit, with all the other refuse of Lair-Mother's scheme.
It made a wet, breaking sound when it hit the bottom, almost like a muffled cry. Shard made herself remember it would be the last time she would ever hear her failed sibling's voice. She couldn't allow herself to forget.
Although there were no more blows to strike, the pleasure clung to the inside of Shard's shell, sticky-sweet. It gave the world around her a golden tint, it left a delectable taste on her tongue. She could scrub her shell clean of blood-stains, she could become pristine as snow, and it would still remain, soot buried into her flesh. That, too, she promised herself to not ever forget.
Her pair knelt, knee sinking into a black pool of blood, the chisel rested in cupped hands, an offering to their mother. Shard followed suit, arms extended, waiting for the Lair-Mother to take the instrument of execution from her hands.
There were things growing inside of Shard, feelings like parasitic larvae eating at the body from the inside. She didn't want them. She didn't want to think of the chisel, and of the hammer. She didn't want to think of the shards of carapace floating in the blood at her knee. She didn't want to think of the body in the pit. She didn't want to think of her siblings, above and below. And, unlike the pleasure, she could resist those thoughts and squash them one by one, like killing flies between your fingers.
So she did. Prostrated before her mother, staring into a pool of blood she had shed, she made sure to kill every single one of those ideas, because they were what brought others into the pit, and she would never follow them there.
She would be better than that.
Many porcelain feet skittered; the sermon was over, the lesson taught. The family dispersed to its warrens and tasks. Finally, she felt a weight lifted from her hands. The Lair-Mother accepted the tribute.
When she looked up, the galleries were emptied; even her pair had left. Only the Lair-Mother herself stayed, finally granting Shard the audience she had so desperately needed.
"Well done, child," she said. She sat at the edge of the pit, legs dangled over the precipice, ever so often glancing into its depths. The very thought of doing the same twisted something weak in Shard, so she didn't; she averted her eyes. "Very well done."
For once, her mother was not hiding her feelings. The pride in her voice seemed genuine, as genuine as anything she had ever said.
"I seek only to please you," Shard replied, still bowing.
"We both know it is a lie," the Lair-Mother shrugged, but without scorn, then adjusted the coil of red fabric around her shoulder. She was so similar to her progeny; sometimes Shard wondered if stripped off her vestments, she would be recognizable as different from them at all. But maybe even then she would still tower, just because she could stare down at her work, and Shard could not. And that is why it was Shard who knelt.
"You," the Lair-Mother continued, voice treacherously tender, "only want to survive. Which may be a weakness."
Suddenly, every muscle in Shard's body was tense. But she couldn't make a move. She couldn't betray herself. Not after what she had just done.
"But then again, maybe not," her mother mused. She turned away from the pit, and reached out to where the execution took place. Her claws sifted through the pool of blood, picking a white shrapnel of a broken body from it. She held it between two fingers for a moment, "If, of course, you can pay the survival's price."
She tossed the bit away, down into the pit. It made a wet splash. Shard struggled not to recoil - and succeeded. Her mother's eyeless gaze weighed down on her, in silence. Was she trying to discern the truth of Shard? Discover all those ugly things hiding beneath the shell? A new kind of hate buzzed in her soul, fresh, warm, entirely turned inwards.
There was so much in her that she had to kill, if she was to survive. But she could do that.
"But I think can ," the Lair-Mother declared, voice almost amused. "I think you really can."
Shard slid from the familiar dream to the unexpected feeling of being still alive.
Her consciousness was fragmented and fragile; she drifted around wakefulness for a time, suspended in the numbness of a body subjected to too much restorative sorcery too quickly. It was an odd sort of discomfort, like being ever so slightly too cold, like feeling a bit sluggish. If only she could put herself in motion, it would quickly fade into the back of her mind, but for now all she could was languish in it, feeling it seep into her thoughts, spread across her body, become her in entirety.
There were flashes of more concrete awareness, brief at first. An alchemical lamp burning above her head: an unpleasant artificial light. The sound of a furnace and the thick smell of burnt herbs. Bursts of movement above her; someone's hand on her body. Those images were each a mosaic stone that Shard couldn't quite puzzle together into a full picture, but at least meant that not only was she still alive, but there was also someone tending to her.
As she inched her way close to waking, she found herself suspended amidst thick strands of fear braiding around her thoughts. She had not left many in the world that would care to save her, or at least not for the sake of her good. But there were faces she expected to see, and so dreaded the moment the sleep would finally break. But at some point, it had to.
"You can stop asking for your mother, she's not here."
The words were a bait, she expected, and yet her consciousness latched onto them and let them reel her out of the blurry shoals of her dreams, and then into the light.
The first thing she felt was a pang of relief that the concerned face above her was an unfamiliar one.
It belonged to a woman freshly out of the bloom of her youth. It was all sharp angles and straight lines, small, pointed chin, cheeks slightly sunken, lips thin enough to show only as two pink lines on a pale skin. The word Shard would use to describe her was feline, if not for her freshly shaven scalp, and absent brows. Still, she reminded her of a stray cat of some kind, or maybe of a reptile. A thick, leather coat reached all the way to her neck, mottled with singe marks. Shard turned her head to the side, already knowing what she should expect to see.
Sure enough, the rest of the room she was in was taken by a tangle of pipes and glass branching off the central, red-hot furnace. A large alembic sat on the fire, filled with dandelion-yellow bubbling liquid; Shard followed the curls of the condensator it was connected to all the way to a smaller flask, where something dark-red collected, one drip at a time. The air had weight here, its taste pungent sour on Shard's tongue.
An alchemist then. She remembered the mad dash through the night; so that was who saved her?
"You're moving?" the woman asked. "Are you awake?"
She frowned, fingers extended towards Shard's head, stopping just short of touching her. The Lair-Mother's child went still, and the woman stepped back, still frowning. She crouched by Shard's side, and twiddled with something; Shard followed her movement and saw thick coils of cattle chain wrapped around her waist and hands, running to a bolt in the floor. How didn't she feel it before, that metal weight? She was too numb still, too absent.
And still, her hands curled unbidden, the edges of her claws touching the inside of her palm, scratching out a quiet, sharp note. Who was even that woman to keep her chained like a slave, to treat her body like some prize?
The alchemist still didn't realize Shard was fully awake. She finished checking the restraints, those paltry bindings she hoped to keep Shard down with, and yet remained within the reach of her claws. How easy would it be to sink them into her stomach and gut her in one fluid motion...
Would there be a point to it?
"If you think," she rasped, "that those chains will hold me, human, you better…"
"You are awake!" the woman yelped, jumping back before smiling. "Finally! And no, I saw what you did to my door, below-spawn. That's why I have also dosed you with…" she picked up a phial half-filled with a milky fluid "...this."
Shard stopped, her head turned towards the bottle. Was that why she felt so slow? Had she really been subdued by some no-name alchemist? An ugly feeling swelled in her throat.
"I doubt you could make two steps without falling over," the woman continued. "Let alone swing with those nasty claws of yours."
Shard said nothing.
"So, let's start again," the woman continued smiling. She turned around and grabbed a stool from one of the work-benches, perching herself on it, looking down onto Shard. "I am Ifigenia Juno. People call me Ifi. I am an alchemist. Four days ago, you barged into my shop in the middle of the night, made a terrible mess out of it, and almost bled out in the middle of the floor. But I," her smile pursed to a thin and rather sharp line, "saved your life. At a great personal expense."
The alchemist was slightly built, her bulky leather overalls almost swallowing her whole. If Shard could stand, she would tower at least a head over her. If she could move, she probably wouldn't even need her claws to tear her limb from limb.
She tried to close her hand over the chain-link; the steel should be so easy to snap, to cut through. But her fingers felt like wood, like dead stone, barely moving to the demands of her will.
The woman who snared her watched with curiosity and a hint of fear. She wasn't sure of her own actions, it seemed. It didn't matter. Ifigenia: it wasn't a name Shard could recognize. Certainly not one of the patrician alchemists that she used to frequent, back in the good days.
"You bound me," Shard replied. "You drugged me. You expect gratitude?"
Ifi shook her head.
"My apologies about that, really," she sounded sincere. "But you can't be too safe. There are stories about your kind, you know? You below-spawn don't have the best reputation."
Below-spawn: it wasn't a term that Shard heard often. There were different, more respectful names by which patricians would call the Lair-Mother's many children, and the low-borns tended to simply shriek "demon". This alchemist belonged to neither. She was born to the middle-heights, to herds of obedient governed. Of all the creatures in the world that could have mastered Shard, she fell into the hands of a nobody. Of not even an enemy. Of a sheep.
She relaxed, and allowed her hands to open. A year ago high masters of the city would press piles of jewels across to her to beg her to rid them of that meddling hero. A year ago the little son of the Master Glassmaker was her cup-bearer, and the sweet daughter of the First Architect washed her feet just so that her mother would be allowed an audience. She drank their humiliation like they drank the spoils of Lair-Mother's help.
Now, a craftswoman could walk up to her, pour poison into her mouth, and watch her foam the last of her life away, and there would be no one to witness, or even to cheer.
If only she could just shred her, and wipe this failure from her with Ifi's lifeblood. If only she could win.
Laboriously, she raised her hand and touched the place on her chest where the spear pierced through the shell; the opening was still there, its edges jagged and sharp. She could no longer feel the wound below, but when she touched the tip of the claw to the exposed flesh, a painful jolt shot through her entire body. It was still there, restored and so very tender. With a quiet sigh, she let her hand slump over the wound, covering it up. She didn't want Ifi to stare at it.
She didn't want to see it herself.
"What do you want from me, then?" she asked, still dreaming of skinning this bitch alive and swimming in her screams.
It would be so…
The world seemed flat and the future empty. There was something wrong with her; the sedative, probably, dulling her mind.
"Well, to tell me how you feel, for start," Ifi shrugged. "I don't know how my medicine works on creatures like you. It did mend the flesh, but this… porcelain skin? It doesn't seem to be growing back. Should I be concerned?"
"Why do you want to know?" she snapped back, perhaps a bit too angrily. How much she hated that she had to consider not antagonizing this nothing.
"I want to know if you are going to die because of it."
"No. And it can't be fixed."
It wasn't the full truth. There were places where Shard could have her shell mended and restored, crafty artificers able to make good as new. All toiling under the Lair-Mother, in the depths below. But there was no returning there for her. Not like that. Maybe not ever.
"I'm sorry to hear," again, she somehow managed to sound genuine. "But at least you'll live, right? So, the other thing I want from you is…." she paused. "Answers, I suppose. Why was there some low-born thug trying to kill you? Was it a botched robbery?"
If Shard could blink, she would; her jaw went a little bit slack. Villis found her here, and didn't take her life? How?
"Why didn't he…" she started, so very confused all of the sudden. "Why am I still alive?"
"Well," Ifi, folding her arms on her chest. "I am not in the habit of letting some two-bit criminals murder my patients just because they say they are some kind of a 'monster'."
She wasn't even trying to hold her pride. She smiled triumphantly at Shard, and for several minutes, the child of the Lair-Mother went completely mute. The hero tracked her down, and the only reason he didn't finish their long dance here and there was an intervention by some nobody who thought him a robber?
A woman who apparently couldn't tell the hero of the Low City from a thug out to bash a few coins out of an unlucky craftsman was the reason why Shard yet lived?
Shard could no longer hold it in anymore. Her laugh, the terrible, dry sound of bones clattering to the floor, mirthless and sad, crawled out of her mouth, drawing fragile echoes from the tangled alchemical glass.
There was failure, and then there was this.
"You have no idea," she said finally, in a small, disbelieving voice. The sense of unreality was so very slow to fade. "None at all."
"Yes, hence me asking," Ifi replied, annoyed. "Was he a robber, or was this some political thing?"
Before there was time to respond, an acrid smell filled the air. Ifi uttered a quiet "shit" and jumped up from her stool, dashing into the forest of her workshop.
"Just a moment!" she yelped, frantically adjusting something at the furnace. Shard could see her behind glass, a distorted shape jumping from one bench to another, hands darting towards the row of tin boxes, banging through them, then sprinkling the right ingredient into some kind of a vat. The liquid inside bubbled loudly, throwing up puffs of colored smoke. At least the stench gave way to a just as potent, but less unpleasant spearmint smell.
Shard hung her head back. Stupid Villis and his bleeding heart, unable to go through another human. This is where his principles brought her. If he had the decency of viciousness, she would be at least spared from this comedy. And, probably, presently dying a terrible and not wholly undeserved death, but that was an entire thing entirely. Still, it meant that once again, he failed to put her down, and once again, she had a chance. Of course not in a straight fight, and probably not even in an ambush, not wounded as she was. But he had to be vulnerable; men who lived like him were nothing but weak spots.
She glanced at Ifi, still hard at work at stirring her latest batch. As cunning as this woman was - and Shard had to give her at least some of that - she seemed altogether clueless, and like all common craftsmen, likely prone to greed. There was a plan, there, to be had, a way to use her.
She would only spill her guts later, once she had outlived her utility.
"You are right," she said once the alchemist returned, trying to keep her words smooth and honeyed; the old voice didn't come easily to her lips, but she didn't fully forget it. "It was a matter of politics. The man chasing me is an enemy of the High Masters, and I am their most trusted servant."
This was true, for the most part. In some sense. Or in full, if the last month or two were to be ignored. But judging by how Ifi's eyes lit up at the mention of the patricians' best, she didn't know that. Shard suppressed the smile. Sedated as she was, she could still tell when her hooks were getting in.
"He promised he would be back in a week," Ifi remembered, clearly expectant.
"He is a threat to the city, a brute and a thug," this, Shard didn't believe. Not any more, at least, as much as she still hated Villis.
"Yeah," Ifi nodded.
"For those who stop him," Ifi continued, "there are vast rewards. Wealth, and more. They would be known all the way in the tallest towers as the great heroes of the city, and no door would be closed to them. High Masters themselves would receive them as a saviour."
"Are you suggesting that…"
"Yes," Shard reeled the prey back in, the frustration of defeat dispersing like yesterday's nightmare. She could still win. She could still be restored to favour. Debasing herself before some nobody was barely a price for that. "If you help, you will get your heart's desire. I will make sure of that personally."
Ifi's face was bright now, eyes shining with the sort of hunger Shard recognized well. And something else, familiar too, even if she didn't recognize it immediately.
The alchemist went quiet for a moment, looking away from Shard. When she turned to her again, her cheeks were flushed red.
"Is it true that you enjoy the pain of others?" she asked, a strange kind of desperation dripping from her voice.