CHAPTER 2 – LOST IT TO TRYING
~SOUNDTRACK: Kaleo – Save yourself~
Charles was the youngest and only son in a family in which he was surrounded by sisters. Mary and Elizabeth, the twins, were only a year older than him. Cathy was next, and the eldest, Ember, had always been a rather abstract presence in their midst. She'd always been the one to look after them from a distance, but for the past 700 years, the four of them had been pretty much on their own.
Even now, within the circus, the four of them had each other's back. It was a ruthless place. You don't make friends inside the circus, for everyone is an enemy even though you share the same pain. You do not know who would sell whom if only to save their own asses. Family was the only thing they had that no one could take from them.
Tonight, Charles performed as he always did. His show was always quite mesmerizing, even though Cathy was still the breathtaking aesthetic master. But he could hold his own. His number ended the show as it always did and he left the ring under a waterfall of applause and cheering. It brought him no satisfaction. Those people cheered for a caged monster, for undermining of the strong ones if only for the illusion of safety. Humans were odd like that. They liked to put beasts behind bars and praise themselves for not being eaten.
Well, Charles had had the past 160 years to get used to that. He and his sisters had been with the circus for quite a while and never minded the sickness and the judgement of the audience anymore. But tonight, he didn't feel quite like himself. He was having a hard time pinpointing the exact reason why. But it had been more difficult than usual to focus on doing his little simple tricks.
He wondered if it was because of the girl – Clarissa. He couldn't deny having her here, seeing her after so much goddamn time brought many unpleasant memories. They hadn't parted on best terms. But then again, when they'd parted, he'd been 8 and she'd been pretty much dead. Or so Ember had told him. But he supposed he shouldn't be too surprised. For the past 700 years, he'd seen things he wouldn't have fathomed were possible. A witch that was supposed to be dead and wasn't, in fact, dead was actually no big deal.
But he didn't understand why it sat with him for so long. It had been days since he'd watched Reed taser the girl and drag her back to the torture room. He supposed what bothered him wasn't that she was in the same place as him, and as all the Wicked that got captured by the circus, was here to stay. It bothered him that it bothered him. That he felt bad for her. That he kept thinking about her in that room, getting tortured until she would finally break and they could Mark her. And she didn't seem like the kind who broke easily. He'd been around for long enough to know what the Keepers did to creatures who didn't comply.
Whatever, Charles shook his head. It was none of his business. Perhaps the twins were right and perhaps he had to start telling himself the witch had it coming. His family can't have been the only one she'd hurt since he'd last seen her. He had to put Clarissa out of his head and to chase away this unwanted empathy. He had to focus on his performance. By that and by that only he may stand a chance of getting out of this hell hole someday, along with his whole family.
Buried deep within thought, he didn't even realize when he turned around a corner and came face to face with Reed.
"Oh," Reed mumbled absent-mindedly. "Charlie. Didn't even see you there, boy." Charles kept his mouth shut and his lips pursed in a tight line. He hated being called Charlie. He wondered what sound Reed's bones would've made if he started breaking them one by one. But he stayed silent and remembered his policy. Nice and quiet, good performances, maybe getting out one day.
He noticed Reed's clothes and both arms were covered in something that looked like blood, only darker. It surely smelled rusty like blood and stained like it, but the color seemed wrong. And besides, there was another stench aside from the normal smell, like rot, like mold and dust. And it occurred to him it must've been Clarissa's blood. Black and spoilt. He guessed that's what centuries of malevolence and black, evil magic did to one's body and soul.
"Been busy, I see," he made himself comment before he could stop the words from getting out.
Reed's lips curled into a wide, satisfied smile. "Ah, yes. New witch, and a stubborn one." He chuckled, shaking his head like he was talking about a pair of misplaced socks. "I've been cutting her for days and she's still steady. But she'll break. They all do." He winked at Charles and he almost shuddered remembering his own deal of torture. They all do break indeed. "Do me a favor, Charlie. Go clean up in that filthy basement. I'm going out for a snack and I'll be back at it in no time, but it got dirty, you know what I mean? Be a good boy and keep an eye on her, will you?"
Reed patted him on the shoulder like he wasn't a merciless Keeper and like Charles wasn't one of the monsters he was in charge of. Then Reed walked away, leaving Charles wondering how he always ended up in this kind of situations, doing the exact thing he loathed doing.
~SOUNDTRACK: Halsey – Gasoline~
She didn't know for how long she screamed. It was like she passed out over and over again and, each time she woke up, her voice died out just a little bit more.
They cut through her and beat her up and broke her then put her back together just to break her over and over again.
And every time, Clarissa smiled.
Fools. She wanted to spit in their faces. She wanted to make that black blood they drained out of her rise and choke them. Whatever torture they came up with, she'd had worse at some point. But then again, humans had never been particularly creative, especially when it came to wickedness. Come to think about it, that's what set them apart from the Wicked. Humans just didn't have it in them to be capable of doing truly evil things. Inside of them, there was always this battle between good and bad, between light and dark that even the worst of them couldn't shut down. The worst kind of humans couldn't compare to the nicest of the Wicked.
That was how Clarissa made herself get by. She told herself she'd had worse because she was just that stubborn. She knew they wanted her to break, whoever they were. They needed her weak, so they tried to break her body hoping her magic would follow.
But her magic was a bottomless well. Had it been so easy to drain it, she would have done it ages ago. She'd called upon death to come claim her many times before and it had never answered. So instead of trying to drain her powers, she kept feeding them. Like a famished animal you keep tossing meat to in the hopes it won't end up eating you.
Another blade pierced through her shoulder. Clarissa screamed in pain, her voice coming out as more of a wild howl rather than a girl's yells. The human laughed at her pain as if he took great pleasure in it. He probably did.
"You're a tough one, I'll give you that," he got close to her face, and Clarissa smelled his foul breath and heard the grin in his voice. "But I enjoy a challenge. You see, I can do this for weeks, pretty little bitch witch. You'll eventually run out of black mud to bleed."
Clarissa yelped in pain as he tugged at her chains, but she couldn't tell if from hysterics or pure stubbornness, her grunts soon turned into low chuckles, and eventually into loud obnoxious laughter.
"I'd like to see you try," she hissed at him. "Stab me, cut me into tiny pieces, bleed me out a thousand times, tear me apart as much as you like. You cannot kill what is already long dead. And when I get up from this table, after you'll have long tired of trying to break me, I will show you how it's done. You shall beg for mercy."
She took a deep breath, enjoying the way her eyes filled with the dark smoke of black magic humming still in her veins. They could take everything from her. That was a game she knew all too well. Many times she'd found herself with less than nothing. But they could not take the parts of herself that were one with the magic that had bred them, forged them. They could not take the darkness.
She heard the man laugh. "Keep telling that to yourself."
And he plunged the blade into her one more time.
~SOUNDTRACK: Halsey ft. Cashmere Cat– Hopeless~
She was sleeping when Charles walked inside the basement. Although maybe 'sleeping' wasn't a good term for it. Passed out, most likely. He allowed himself exactly three seconds to look at her before getting to work. Then he closed his eyes, shook his head and minded his own business.
He wiped the black blood from the floors. He remembered the dry blood in her fresh wounds. He cleaned Reed's torture weapons thoroughly. He remembered the shapes they'd left in her flesh. He shoved all the dirty rags he'd used in a bucket and willed himself to walk away without looking back. He remembered the gashes those chains had left on her wrists, probably from how hard she'd tugged on them.
He let the bucket drop from his hands and let out a long sigh, running his hands over his face. Why couldn't he just mind his goddamn business and stay out of shady situations? Did he really have to complicate his existence to such extent every time? He wanted to walk away. Badly. He wanted to remember that the witch called Clarissa had doomed his family to a dark life that they hadn't been able to outrun even so many centuries later. Clarissa had taken so much from them. Everything from Ember. Out of all the Wicked creatures, Clarissa was the wickedest one, outranked perhaps by demons only.
He turned around. She was pale as a ghost, her skin covered in a thin sheet of cold sweat. Her black hair was sprawled by her side and her eyelids were half-open, letting the white of her eye be seen as if she were in some sort of a trance. Her lips were parted and her breath was shallow. She was shaking and it occurred to Charles it was so bloody cold in this basement.
She didn't look particularly wicked right now.
He moved to her side, knowing he would live to regret this. Perhaps she'd break her restrains and jump straight at his neck, killing him to escape. Or worse. The twins would find out he'd helped her. And truth be told, he preferred to die at Clarissa's hand rather than facing his sisters' rage.
He approached her slowly, as one would a skittish cat. Though that was absurd, he told himself. She was passed out. From up close, he noticed some more details about her. He decided this black hair offered a better contrast against her olive skin than the red he remembered. Her cheekbones were sharp and her long lashes fluttered every now and then. Looking as helpless and vulnerable as she did now, Charles decided she was pretty.
Too bad she's evil, the voice of reason rang in his head, sounding oddly like Lizzie.
He took a clean rag from the bucket and started wiping the dry blood from her body. He started with her forehead, then moved to the deep cuts in her shoulders, down her arms, on her stomach and gently patted the friction burns from her wrists. It wasn't hard to ease the guilt of helping one who was supposed to be his enemy as long as he treated her not as a century-old feud, but as a fellow supernatural being in need of tending.
He was so wrapped up in caring for her wounds that Charles didn't even notice Clarissa was awake until he moved to clean one of the gashes on her forehead that had started bleeding again. And he found her eyes wide open, looking at him curiously. He loosened a sharp breath. He couldn't help but wonder if she recognized him, too. And what would she even do? Apologize for trying to kill him 700 years ago? He somehow doubted it. Thank him for taking care of her? She didn't seem like the kind of person to display too much gratitude either.
"Am I dead yet?" was the first thing she said, her voice hoarse. Charles was taken aback by how hopeful she almost sounded. Like she was genuinely hoping the answer would be yes.
"No," he said simply. "But they sure make you wish you were, don't they?"
To his surprise, she actually managed a small smile. "Of course I'm not," she struggled to get the words out. "You don't look like the kind of thing they'd send for me if I died."
Charles swallowed hard. He didn't know how to respond to that. "I'm Charles," he said eventually, cringing internally. He didn't know why he'd said that. Maybe he wanted her to remember him, at least a little bit. Maybe he wanted to let her know she wasn't alone in this hell hole. Or maybe he wanted to make her feel even worse. To emphasize the idea that if she ever died, she'd be going to a place far worse than this one.
But that wasn't it, he thought as her black eyes searched his. Funny. He could've sworn that, in all of his memories, her eyes were blue.
"Clarissa," she whispered, her eyes drifting close once again. Charles's lips curled into half a smile as he patted her forehead with the wet rag again. She sighed in content.
"I know," he replied before he could help himself, but she was already asleep again. He chuckled softly. He was sure she wasn't even gonna remember he'd been here. So he leaned forward and took in a deep breath before whispering to her, "Stop fighting. There's no point. I know you're all too powerful and you want to slaughter them all. We all did. But they'll still break you. They always break you. So have mercy on yourself. Give in." He tossed the black rag soaked in her blood in the bucket with the rest of them and finally moved away from the table, feeling his shoulders a little lighter than when he'd walked in. "And don't worry," he whispered over his shoulder. "You owe me nothing."
Clarissa listened closely until his footsteps faded away completely, then she finally opened her eyes. Every word he'd said to her played in her head in an endless loop until she drifted back into oblivion. And even when his words made no sense anymore, the questions lingered.
What point was there?
Why did it still matter?
What was she still holding on to?
Perhaps the boy had been more right than he could know. She no longer had a purpose. The power she was still holding on to no longer served her. Her wits had come too little, too late. So she could have mercy on herself. For once, and this once only, she could afford to give up.
She'd lost count of all the times when she'd fallen into the darkness.
~SOUNDTRACK: Royal Deluxe – Dangerous~
When Clarissa woke up for good, the fogginess was more or less gone. Well, her head still felt bad, but better than before. She couldn't decide if the boy – Charles – had been real or a figment of her imagination, a dream. She decided he couldn't have truly been here, cleaning up her wounds and delivering pep talks. She doubted there were people like that in this damned place.
She opened her eyes, groaning loudly and allowing them to adapt to the bright light. When she could finally see a little clearer, she noticed a silhouette standing by her side. Her body tensed instantly against her will, thinking it must have been her personal torturer. But it couldn't have been. That guy wouldn't have waited patiently for her to wake up. He would've woken her up gently by cutting off her fingers. Or maybe her toes. She needed her fingers for doing magic and she figured he had no need for a crippled witch.
The next thought was that maybe the boy hadn't been a vision after all. And maybe he'd come back. But no, that couldn't be either, because the person next to her was much shorter and slimmer, like a more feminine silhouette. Clarissa frowned, squinting in an attempt to see who it was.
"Oh, good, you're up," a soft, high-pitched voice squealed in delight.
So Clarissa had been right to assume it was a girl. Before she could ask her who she was or what she was doing here, she was abruptly cut off by a knife being plunged straight through the middle of her palm. Clarissa let out a piercing scream.
"You don't remember me, do you?" the girl cheered. "Of course you don't. Silly me. My name is Elizabeth, but I bet that doesn't ring any bells, does it?"
She grabbed the hilt of the knife and dug the blade even deeper into flesh, making Clarissa see red with pain. She didn't know what the girl had laced the blade with, but she clearly knew what she was doing. It wasn't her first rodeo. Because as bad as torture had been so far, none of it had put her in such indescribable pain as this knife did. The girl knew her way around herbs. Clarissa howled and howled until she was out of breath and she could practically feel the girl's – Elizabeth's – satisfaction pouring out of her with every ounce of pain she put Clarissa through.
"But I know you," she eventually said, her eyes growing darker and her voice dropping lower. "And I swear to you, Clarissa. Every second of horror you put us through, every beat that my family's hearts have wasted racing in fear you'd hurt us, I will return them all. This circus is vicious. But we are far worse. And we're the ones you should be afraid of."
Leaving it at that, the Elizabeth pulled the knife out, making Clarissa gasp in relief that the pain is gone. The girl was gone without another word. Clarissa had never been more confused. She couldn't tell friend from foe, but it was clear she had both around this circus and she hadn't even had to be conscious for it.
Lizzie stepped out of the basement, rolling the knife around her finger, where Mary waited for her making sure no one was coming. They smirked at each other like the accomplices they were.
"How'd it go?" Mary asked impatiently.
"Not bad at all," Lizzie tucked the knife away as they sneaked out of the corridor before Reed busted them out.
"It's not fair," Mary complained. "You always get the fun parts. I'm starting to think you're rigging the coin tosses."
Lizzie chuckled. "Stop making a fuss about it. You'll get your turn. The bitch isn't going anywhere. There'll be plenty of occasions to get our revenge. And I have some pretty fun ideas. She'll beg us to hand her back to Reed for torture."