“Some of our jewels are light this month. Have you noticed any problems during their examinations? We should hate for them to be unwell.”
“Nothing of the sort, Demetrius. I imagine that the newer ones simply need time to adjust; you know how stress can affect the cycle.”
“Ah, of course.” Spindly fingers grasped one of the crooked, haphazardly sewn toy horses lined up on the table, pulling it forward before pressing a pair of scissors to one of the seams. “Be so kind as to remind them that they can ask for anything. Whatever the need, we will strive to fulfill it; we want our jewels to be comfortable after all.”
Yes… as comfortable as a marionette suspended by chains over a gilded stage.
My smile twitched in time with the snip, snip, snip of the scissors, watching their blades slide through the worn cotton. They curved around a thick patch of dark red, its shape a mockery of where a saddle would be. The other horses had similar blotches, matching those on the creature’s own patchwork robe.
“And what about you, friend?”
Its face was closer now, although what hovered before me was an insult to the word. More like a shuddering mass of eyes and teeth bobbing on the end of a long, goose-like neck; its skin peppered with sores and flaky scabs. A clump of teeth in the middle had contorted, which I know to be their way of smiling.
I hate seeing them smile.
“I’m not due for a couple more days, but there have some phantom pains, so everything seems to be in working order.” Demetrius’s head bobbed up and down, the neck just out of strangling range. If it had any bones, I would happily twist that long neck until they snapped. “Is there anything else you need… friend?” I asked, the word acid on my tongue. “Only I do have an examination due to begin soon.”
“Of course, of course!” Another horse was pulled forward. “Do go ahead, we must attend to our jewels every need after all.”
Every need that lines up with yours.
“Then I shall speak to you later… friend.” I inclined my head and turned away from the toy mutilation.
My hand had barely grazed the door handle when Demetrius spoke again “We hope you know how much we appreciate all of your hard work.” Bile started to rise in my throat, but I still turned back to hear the rest of its words. “True your early days were a little… rough, and many of us were hesitant to trust you with such responsibility, yet you have proven yourself time and again.” Its voice dripped with honey-drenched venom; why must there be such sincerity in those words? “Dearest Aquamarine, you have truly become one of our most precious treasures.”
Just keep smiling and leave.
The parasite will die… but not yet.
I finally closed the door behind me, taking a moment to glance up and down the corridor.
Empty, as to be expected at this time of day. But I didn’t want to risk Demetrius hearing me, so I rounded the corner, putting some distance between me and my friend. Soon I stopped in between two paintings; one a medieval court scene, the other a Victorian family portrait. Still there was nobody around, and this should be far enough away that I won’t draw attention. Perfect, time to take a few deep breaths.
In… and out.
In… and out.
Then I punched the wall.
Oh dear, I didn’t think I was strong enough to leave a crack. And the skin of my knuckles has broken. Damn. At least it hasn’t stained the wall, and I have spare bandages in my office. As for the smell… well, what’s one more drop of blood in this place?
With another deep breath, I began walking.
Demetrius picked it for me, likely because it sounds similar to my real name, Marina. That was a few months ago, and now most of the vermin refer to me by that name. Either that or friend. Both options disgust me, I hate the intimacy… the endearment behind their use. But more than that, I hate how they act liked I’ve earned it.
No one else is referred to by name. At least, no other human is. The creatures have given themselves names in our language, though the range is ridiculous; Theodore in one room and Anubis in another. But even then, they mostly refer to each other as friend. The other captives use their own names to speak to each other, but to the creatures they’re just… jewels.
Precious little stones of all shapes and sizes, there to be kept safe and polished for as long as they give rubies.
Something caught the corner of my eye, and I turned to see my reflection in one of the large windows, blackened by the night outside. Rough white dress, worn and stained in places, with a wobbly red cross sewn on the front. Black hair pulled tight, hidden under a white scarf. Grey eyes open that little bit too wide, exaggerated further by the dark circles beneath them. And of course, the permanent smile on my cracked lips.
A parody of a nurse and a friendly face here to make things easier… that’s what I need to be.
Just a little longer.
I can break character when they’re all out.
I touched the corner of my smile, feeling how hard the tension had made the muscles in my cheeks. Julia once asked how I could cope with the pain of smiling all the time, but at this stage it hurts more not to smile. My face has been moulded to fit the mask. I imagine it will vanish once everyone has been saved.
No… it will vanish after I’ve torn those abominations to shreds.
Hehe. Time to get back to work.
This mansion must have been nice at one point. A beautiful, classy, elegant place where the aristocracy would gather; wining, dining and dancing the night away. But now the carpets beneath my feet are worn, and the walls are adorned with a mishmash of art from all different periods and cultures. That’s what they’ve done over the years; they picked up bits and bobs from humanity, keeping what they liked and jamming it together like the ill-fitting pieces of a puzzle. The effect is uncanny, even more so when you mix humans into their twisted little world.
Speaking of which, “Good morning Gina, Sam.”
The two women looked startled, not having noticed me coming down the hall; it seems my knack for silent travel is as strong as ever. They both gave a hesitant ‘hello’, Gina even attempting a smile. Sam only looked away, not quite quick enough to hide the flicker of anger in her eyes. As we passed, I heard a hushed whisper pass between them, too quiet to make out all but one word.
When did I start paying such close attention to other people’s feelings? Or what they think of me?
I never used to. And it wasn’t out of arrogance or selfishness, at least I don’t think it was, but the emotions of others just never factored in before. I lived my life; everybody else was just set dressing. Even when I was first brought here, I spent more time trying to kill those parasites and run away than I did getting to know my fellow captives. From that to what I have become now, it’s no wonder they don’t like me.
But they still trust me.
They trust me enough to be alone with them.
They trust me to examine them.
They trust me because despite all I’ve done… I’m not one of those creatures.
And that trust is all I need.
The door to what was now considered my office stood slightly ajar. Clearly, Evie didn’t want to wait outside, but that’s no problem.
There was an odd sense of comfort as I entered the dingy room.
A flick of the light switch illuminated several shapes along the walls. A large wooden desk, alongside shelves and cupboards packed tight with books, sheets of paper, and various medical apparatus. As a matter of principle, I tried not to let things pile up on the floor, resulting in every available surface being filled to bursting point. It still smelled of must no matter how often I cleaned it, and the pictures only did so much to cover up the scratch marks, but it had become the one part of this hellhole I felt remotely comfortable in. Not as overly decorated as the bedrooms nor as dank as the dungeons. I still don’t feel at home here, and I hope I never do, but at least it doesn’t make me want to slit my throat.
Evie was sat in a green armchair in front of my desk. Her dark skin had a sickly pallor to it, and she was noticeably thinner than when she first arrived, but even so she made the effort to stand and smile when she noticed me entering.
“Hi Marina. S-sorry to just let myself in but the door was unlocked-”
“It’s fine Evie, it’s fine. You know you’re welcome anytime.” I indicated for her to sit down again, closing the door behind me and walking over. “So… how are you feeling?”
She seemed to be having trouble keeping eye contact with me but managed to answer “A bit sluggish and nauseous. I have been throwing up quite a bit which is why they… made me come here.” Her head snapped up, eyes widening with the look of a child who had just sworn in front of a teacher. “N-not that I have an issue with being here! And I d-definitely appreciate you seeing me but-”
“You don’t have to apologise, Evie.” I placed a hand on the back of the chair, close to her shoulder without touching it. She still flinched, immediately looking guilty as she did so. “They’re very paranoid about our health and they don’t understand enough to trust our judgment; hence why I’m here. Have you ever had this with your period before?”
Evie nodded. “More than once, though never three months in a row. It isn’t just when I’m on the rag either. And I have felt… discomfort down there, you know? It isn’t like… what happened to your hand?”
I followed her gaze down to my knuckles, the blood having already dried into a crusty scab.
“Just a little accident. Anyway, that discomfort probably isn’t anything serious, maybe you’ve had trouble adjusting to the food here.” She wouldn’t be the first; liver and spinach aren’t exactly a standard diet for most people. “But if you’d like I can have a look and see if I can find anything. Ok?” Evie nodded again, though eyes kept going back to my hand. “Alright, if you just want to lie down on the table.”
I indicated an examination table to her left. Well, I call it an examination table. It’s really just a narrow desk with a cloth over the top and some cushions for comfort, but it serves the same purpose well enough. Evie didn’t look too convinced though, glancing between it and the door.
“Um… it is just going to be you, right? I-I mean… they’re not… they won’t…”
Poor girl, she really is struggling here. All of them are of course, but some find it much harder to cope with than others. I’m glad she’s the first to be saved; at least she won’t have to deal with this for long.
Hmm, there’s that caring about others thing again. Must be becoming a habit.
I turned to the desk, pushing a few pages of notes aside before picking up a small bead on a string, holding it up to her and saying “You may have seen one of these on some of the other doors. They use it to indicate that they don’t want to be disturbed.” I opened the door and tied the string onto the outside handle, then closed and locked it. “Better?”
“… yeah. Yeah, that’s a lot better, thanks Marina.”
Evie pulled herself onto the table, turning to sit upright as she waited for further instructions. There was a dark stain on her skirt, a result of them not allowing us to use any products, but she didn’t seem bothered by it. Once she had settled, I walked around to the other side of the desk. There’s no sense risking infection for a moment of temper, so I rummaged around for a bandage, wrapping it around my hand and pulling an old pair of gloves over the top. Satisfied, I quickly glanced over the items I would be needing.
A large jug and two glasses, the jug containing a transparent liquid.
A tray full of shiny medical instruments, ranging from basic care to invasive surgery.
And a set of biological charts, one of which I pulled forward to remind myself where to start.
“You found something here… didn’t you?”
Well now, this is interesting. I didn’t think any of them knew what I was doing here, especially when I’ve been so careful about hiding it. Not that I think they’ll tell on me, far from it, but I’ve intentionally kept quiet while I figure out all the kinks. The plan to save them is far from perfect; there’s a risk they could misunderstand my intentions.
“What do you mean ‘found something’?”
I didn’t need to look to know how nervous she was, but to her credit, she pushed on and answered me, her voice audibly cracking as she did so.
“I mean… t-that is… Look, I know I haven’t been here very long, but I heard from the others about what happened to you. Before you… before you started doing this. Y-you were just one of us before, and you fought back! Everyone knows the stories! Like how you tried attacking them…”
Snapping my knife as I uselessly hacked at those walking piles of cartilage.
“… a-and how you managed to get further away from the mansion than anyone else…”
Barely able to breathe with my legs skewered by thorns from that godforsaken hedge maze.
“… and even when you were brought back you still resisted!”
Chained and gagging on a tube while they forced water, soup and whatever else they could down my throat.
“Some of the older ones actually thought you’d get away… but then you changed. You became this. You started working with them.” She hesitated before continuing “Some of the others think it’s a kind of stockholm syndrome, or that you just did it to save your own skin, but the rest… they thought you knew something we didn’t. That you were just playing along with them because you had found something that could help us.”
In other words, ‘please tell me you’re not really on their side after everything you’ve been through’.
My fingernails continued tapping on the desk as I thought, knowing that if I turned around now, I would see that hopeful glint in her eye. It didn’t show up very often, the others tended to look at me with one of three expressions: hatred, disgust… or pity. But hope sometimes snuck its way in there, just in those brief seconds. She’s right of course, this is exactly what I’m doing, and she’s the only one to ever broach the subject. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to share what I’ve found… she’s the first to be saved, after all, understanding how would surely give her peace of mind for the others.
“Hehe… hehehe… hehehehehehe-”
Oops. “Did I laugh out loud?” There was no reply, but I knew the answer was yes. “Sorry. I spend a lot of time in my own mind; sometimes things slip out. But in response to your question… yes, I did find something.”
There was a rattle behind me, and I looked to see Evie gripping the edge of the table with whitened knuckles, her eyes wide and sparkling while her chest visibly rose and fell with excitement. Bless her heart; she’s trying so hard to stay calm. But it feels nice to see her light up like that.
… I think.
Everyone always describes the feeling of doing something for others as a warm sensation deep inside, but I’ve never had that. This is more like a spark of static across my brain. Hmm, maybe some people experience it differently. Either way, I know I’m doing the right thing.
“It’s not pleasant information,” I warned, moving the tray closer to her before doing the same with the jug and one of the glasses. “and it may not be what you want to hear.”
“Th-that’s fine! I just… if you know something, I want to know too. Please Marina.”
“Alright then Evie, I’ll tell you want I know. Sit up straight, I’ll give you a look over while we’re talking.” She obliged, sitting upright while I selected a thin stick off the tray and asked, “Have the others told you about the incident yet?”
Her eyebrows creased with effort. “Is that when the creatures let in a male doctor but some of the girls sealed him in a room all night an-”
“No no. That was an incident but not the incident. Open your mouth.” I pushed her tongue down examine the back of her throat. “No swelling, good. A few of the others know that something bad happened, but for a long time the details were lost; or more specifically, kept secret. Most of them I had to piece together myself from what evidence I found. The creatures have deliberately kept it quiet.” I took the stick out, pausing a moment before adding “They didn’t want to alarm us.” Her eyes widened, and a faint squeak escaped between her lips. “Do you want me to stop?”
She didn’t move for a moment, glancing between me and the door.
Then shook her head.
“Ok.” I felt her forehead, testing for signs of a fever. “You know that there are nine of them here currently? Well, there used to be ten. Actually, there used to be more than that but for our purposes, there were ten, the tenth calling itself Albion.”
Evie snorted, biting her lip in a bid to stop herself from giggling. “Albion?”
“Yes, another example of their marvellous choice of names. You want a drink?” She nodded, watching as I poured out some of the liquid from the jug into the glass. I watched as well, pleased to see nothing had gathered in the bottom of the jug. I was worried it wouldn’t dissolve completely; this solution is still quite new and I’m not confident I have the dosage right. But that’s why it needs to be tested, so I passed her the glass. “As I said most of this has been pieced together, mostly using what’s in this room, but from what I’ve been able to find Albion was interested in… learning about living creatures, and how they worked. Because of that, they started studying surgery, and eventually wanted to test what they’d learned.”
“Wait, what? Are you telling me one of those things started cutting people up?!”
“No no, they weren’t allowed to. Instead, they started on animals.”
“Ugh.” She cringed, lowering the glass just as she had been about to take a sip. “That’s not much bet… started?”
“Yes.” I turned away to consult one of my diagrams, tracing a few lines with the tip of my nail. “For a while that’s all there was to it, just dissecting animals in an attempt to figure out what makes us all tick. I don’t know exactly how long that went on for, but things started to change when they got hold of a newspaper… from 1888.” There was a sharp intake of breath behind me; Evie must have guessed where I’m going. “In the paper was an article about the murder of Catherine Eddows. It seems Albion paid specific attention to what was removed from her body, which gave them the impression that they could do the same thing… as an alternate method to get our blood.”
“… a… an alt-…”
“They believed that a finite amount of blood is stored in the uterus, and little by little it gets released every month. By harvesting it directly, they reasoned it wouldn’t be necessary to keep us here for so long. Unfortunately, they didn’t understand that the blood and tissue are constantly getting replenished. Now, I haven’t been able to confirm exactly what happened, as none of them will talk to me about it, but it seems that one day Albion was compelled to… test out this method. Ironically, they lost about five women in the carnage and-”
My words were interrupted by a violent heaving sound, followed by a splat and a crash. I turned to see Evie doubled over, arms clutched over her stomach as vomit was chugged out, only taking breaks to gasp and cough before starting to heave again. Most of it had fallen onto the floor, shards of broken glass mixed in where she had dropped the glass. That seemed like a bit of a waste, but I couldn’t blame the poor thing, walking over and rubbing her back to help her along.
“Easy now, easy. Just let it out.”
Her eyes were already red as tears leaked out, snot starting to drip down her nose. She gripped my arm for support, heaving a few more times until my dress was decorated with a thin trail of vomit. I shushed and rubbed, letting her keep hold of me as the last few dregs dribbled out. At last, she seemed to be done, her head rocking forward to rest against me while she croaked “Agck… ugh… I’m… ugk… I’m sorry Marina…”
“There there, don’t be silly. Better out here than inside making you feel bad.”
There were a few more minutes of dry heaving and choked sobs before Evie was calm enough to lift her head. Her shaking fingers still dug into my arm, and I must admit it is strange having someone cling to me like this. I’ve never been particularly good with physical affection. Perhaps that was another mistake, another way that thinking only of myself has hampered my efforts.
And why it’s so important that I save the others first.
Evie nodded, giving a small sniff before looking down at the mess of vomit and broken glass on the floor. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine. Let me get you another drink.” Lucky I remembered to keep an extra glass handy, what’s left in the jug should still be enough. I held the glass up to her lips, keeping hold of it while she drank as her hands were still trembling. “Slowly. You don’t want to throw up again.” Evie nodded, taking a smaller sip and swallowing. “That’s better. I’m sorry I upset you.”
“N-no it’s fine. You warned me and I said to go ahead anyway. I guess… I-I guess I got my hopes up a bit. I thought that you had found something to help.” She drank again, leaning back slightly. “Suppose that was stupid of me. Stupid to… to think we could actually… sorry.” She apologised, wiping her eyes as fresh tears started to bloom. Another swig, only a few drops remaining. Good. “I must be a right state. D-do you mind if I lie down? All this silly crying is making my head swim.”
“Go ahead, get comfortable.”
I took the glass from her and moved back to the desk, setting it down before taking another look at the diagrams. Seems the time has come, and now that Evie is a bit more settled, I can start the real work. Besides which, some good news will lift her spirits.
“You weren’t wrong.”
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
“About finding something to help.” My fingers moved to the tray, lingering over each instrument in turn. After a few seconds, I selected a single scalpel, examining the edge of the blade before adding “While their reasoning for doing it was flawed, and their method… inelegant, Albion had a point.”
Funny, by all rights I should be nervous about this. It has taken months of worming my way into the creature’s circle of trust, finding all the equipment and medicines I’ll need not only to keep up the charade but also to enact the final plan. And this is only the first step of many, I have much work to do before all of them can be saved. Every inch of me should be trembling… yet I feel more at ease now than I have in a long time.
I wish I could say the same for poor Evie. Her eyes bulged like a fish from where she lay, staring fixedly at the scalpel in my hand.
“Don’t worry, it’s in good condition. I’ve been keeping all of the tools well-maintained and fully sanitized for as long as I’ve had access to them. Admittedly it took a while, nobody really cleaned up after Albion’s massacre, so there were some tough old stains to deal with. Now, hehe… you’ve probably already guessed that I have no training as a surgeon. I know enough about basic health care from my mum, she was a nurse you see, but what I’m going to do here is the fruit of many hours spent studying medical texts. A few of them are a little out of date, but I think I’ve got the principle down. I promise I will do everything in my power to minimize the damage. And once I’ve had a bit of practise the results will be much more efficient, don’t you agree?”
My words elicited a squeak from Evie as she tried to sit up…try being the operative word.
I raised the glass in front of her face, idly swirling the small remnant of liquid around as her head fell back onto the cushion.
“Looks like you didn’t need the full amount for it to become effective. That’s useful to know, I want to make sure I keep any future doses only to what is necessary for the procedure. Oh no Evie, please don’t strain yourself.” Her arms were visibly tensing, and I placed a reassuring hand on hers to try and help her relax. “You’re going to be paralysed for a little while longer; forcing your muscles now could cause long-term damage.”
My warning went unheeded as she began trembling, fighting against the stiffness that overtook her limbs. Her lips parted slightly but even then, she couldn’t get out much more than a faint squeak. Impressive how quickly it acts, and I didn’t realise it would restrict her vocal cords so much; that’s useful, can’t have anybody overhearing after all.
“You should be going numb soon, I mixed in a few painkillers. Personally, I would have preferred to put you under completely, but the only sedative I found that could do the trick is the one Emily nearly choked on. Remember? Her throat swelled up like a toad, it took a whole week before she could breathe normally again. And even with smaller doses that swelling still occurs; they know to look for that. I won’t be able to save any of you if they know what I’m doing.”
There was a slight twitch in her cheek, but it appeared Evie had lost complete control of her body. I waited a few moments. There was always the chance that the effects were temporary, but the longer I watched the plainer it became that she was not going anywhere. Now to start the tricky bit. I moved one of the cushions so it rested under her knees, keeping her legs slightly elevated. Then I lifted the hem of her skirt, pulling it all the way up to expose her belly. Tears were streaming down her frozen cheek as her eyes followed the scalpel now hovering over her flesh.
“I know this seems harsh, Evie, but it’s the only way I’ll be able to save you all.”
The first incision is the most important, and it must be done in the right place.
“Fighting them doesn’t work.”
I can’t let her down.
“Running away doesn’t work.”
I can’t let any of them down.”
Ah… hehehe, here it is.
“… this will work.”
I let the tip of the scalpel press lightly against her skin… and for the first time in months, my smile felt genuine.
“They won’t want us… if we can’t bleed.”
Also available on itch.io – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/the-first-jewel-to-be-saved
This is an idea I’ve been playing with for a long time now. The original idea was for a longer story (which I may still do, though I’m rethinking what perspective it would be written from) but for now I just wanted to get it out there in some form. Plus out of all the characters I’ve ever created, Marina is easily one of my favourites and I really wanted to do something with her.
Also writing it has reminded me how much I love writing horror from the perspective of a killer/monster (take from that what you will). I used to do it all the time (like with this short story https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2020/10/03/to-be-old-and-wise-you-must-first-be-young-and-stupid/ ) but somewhere along the line I stopped and I don’t really know why. I definitely think I write better like that, it just flows more naturallly (again, read from that what you will) but let me know if you’d be interested in more stories like that.
As always let me know what you think.