Last week for LJ Idol, the remaining writers were challenged to write three (count 'em, three!) pieces on three different prompts. We then read and ranked each others' entries from best to worst. This week, based on those rankings, each contestant had to revise their lowest-ranked piece and resubmit it for judgment. As my Grip
entry was ranked lowest last week, that is the piece that I have revised.
Again, this entry is a continuation of my Bats in the Belfry
story. Instead of rewriting my original piece, I decided to add in the perspective of my thief-turned-mutation along with Calli's story. I hope it's more enjoyable than the first version (and that the change in tense... works), and that you like what you read :)
For many long nights, I am nothing but darkness. My body twists and burns, and no matter how I beat my limbs against the stone that surrounded me, no matter how I scream, no one comes to set me free. I know nothing but pain. I can remember nothing but pain. Whatever I am, I have no past, no present, no future but the pain.
And then the man in the white coat comes to see me, and I remember for a brief moment between screams that I have seen him before.
"Everything is coming along nicely, I see," he says, making a mark on a sheaf of papers in his hand. I moan in response.
"Don't be so negative. Didn't I tell you it wouldn't be forever? We're very close now. Soon, you will fly."Fly.
Yes, I would like that. My wings twitch with anticipation at the thought of it. Even against the waves of pain that wash continually over me, this urge beats strong in my heart.
When the man in the white coat returns, the pain is almost completely gone. I can't be sure how long it's been, but all that is left of the agony I felt is a dull ache and itch in my joints. The man in the white coat eyes me approvingly.
"How are you feeling?"
I hadn't realized that I couldn't speak until I tried. This hurts, but not in my body - not like the other pain. It is almost like the world sways sickeningly around me for a moment.
"Oh, I'm sorry about that," the man says. "I shouldn't have asked. Don't look so glum, though; there's really nothing all that wonderful about speaking. People like me - like you used to be - we speak because it's one of the only weapons we have. You don't need it."
I suppose that's true. Strength flows through my body like a current. I can stand like the man in the white coat, but where his body is soft and weak and small, mine is tall and rippling with muscle. My wings, when not bunched tight against my back, are powerful enough to break bones and are as tough as leather. I stretch them a little, in question.
"Yes," the man says thoughtfully. "Yes, I think it's time to fly."
I follow him placidly up a curling stair, my claws clacking against the stone. All I can think of is what it will be like to fly, to finally open my wings fully in the cool black air of night. The thought consumes me.
When we reach the top, there is nothing but a round room and a window. Beyond the window are the stars, the sky, and the wind that smells of meat and blood and night-blooming flowers. I start toward it immediately, my heart singing.
"Stop," says the man in the white coat. I don't want to stop, but I do. I can't keep myself from obeying.
"Before you go, let's set a few... ground rules." The man circles so that he is facing me, his eyes boring into mine. I lower my head shamefully - what have I done to make him look at me this way?
"I created you," he said. "I made you strong. Don't ever forget that. You must obey whatever I say."
I already know this - why is he telling me this? I have no choice but to obey him. I wouldn't dare, wouldn't even want
to do otherwise.
"I built you to protect us. To protect this city." He sweeps one arm grandly out around him, but there is nothing but the dark round room. "When you search for meat, you will not do it within the white walls. Do you understand?" He must see that I do, even though I cannot speak, because he nods and continues. "If anyone approaches these walls in order to do harm, I will call you back here and you will protect us. Until that time, you are free."
He holds me within his gaze for a moment more, and then smiles. "Are you ready to fly now?"
From the first moment that I drop into the air, from that first second of weightlessness, I feel a joy that I have never known before. I can't remember what I was before the wings and the claws, but I know that I have never felt anything like this before. I call out ecstatically into the night and wheel higher and higher, buoyed up by warm drafts and the brilliant electricity of freedom that runs through me. Free!
Sixteen is not a good age for monsters – but then, what is?
Calli sometimes thought about that, usually when she was cleaning and oiling her guns. She found the routine of the work comforting, and had become so used to it that she could let her mind wander as her hands played over the dull metal. She tried not to make it a pity-party kind of thought. Today, in fact, she had almost convinced herself that sixteen actually wasn’t so bad as monsters went – she was young, at least, and had a lot of energy. And she was quick; she was the fastest runner of all the Scouts, and almost always the first to spot her targets. She was just talking herself silently through the finer points of her argument when the alarm above her head began to howl.
Fluidly, effortlessly, she slid a loaded magazine into her favorite semi-automatic pistol and holstered it at her hip. Static crackled over the walkie at her belt.
”Perimeter breach, northwest entrance.” It was Layne’s voice; she recognized his languorous Southern drawl. Nobody else in Undertown had an accent like that.
Most of the South had been purged after the attacks on the Houston settlement five years ago, and Layne himself had only barely escaped a dozen deaths to make it to safe haven. He talked about it sometimes, though never in detail, and the empty look in his eyes cut into Calli's heart like a shard of glass. He always insisted on sitting a nightly watch, even when it wasn't his turn, and as the Perimeter Guard was always short on volunteers they decided not to press the issue.
And now there was a breach. Calli wondered briefly if Layne was afraid as she raced down the stone corridors that led from the armory to the nearest firing platform, her boots thudding and her heart leaping around somewhere in her gut like a landed fish. She had seen a perimeter breach only twice before in her time with the Scouts, and the thought still terrified her. She could only imagine how it affected Layne, with all the things that he had seen.
She reached the platform ladder just ahead of Vin Dzerga, who had entered the Scouts at the same time she had. His eyes were bulging and his lips were set in a thin white line. He looked scared to death, and she knew from his eyes that she looked the same way. But she didn't have time to frighten herself anymore. With a sudden wrench of decision she grabbed at the metal rungs of the ladder and began to pull herself up.
The ladder ascended twenty feet to the stone ceiling, where the rock narrowed around it into a small, dimly-lit tube. From there it was another twenty feet before a sudden blossoming into open air and a little round hatch that led to the platform itself, a metal cage that clung like a bat against the side of the mountain.
Only the Guards and Scouts left the safety of the mountain to look out on the wasteland that the upper world had become. It was better that way. Most of the people in Undertown never saw beyond the stone walls that their ancestors had carved out of the mountain's belly, and most of them were perfectly happy that way. There were monsters above, after all - the world was thick with them.
It has been many days and nights since I have eaten, and the hunger in my belly is sharp. Time is a difficult thing for me to grasp, but even I can tell that it has been too long since the taste of blood filled my mouth. The moon has risen many times since I was driven away from the low city after feeding on the boy with the light-colored hair. The bullet wound in my leg still aches, but it is healing.
Since then, I have not eaten.
There are animals in these mountains, many different kinds. When I see them, I think that I could take them easily and feed on their flesh. But my mouth doesn't water at the sight of these dumb beasts and their empty eyes. It is not them that I want.
So when I come upon the cages on the sides of the mountain, and when the bright moon glows against the faces of the humans that cluster inside them, I know that this is the place that I am meant to stop. There are no white walls here, just brown stone and metal. These humans are mine to take.
Calli could still remember how scared she'd been the first time she had crawled up the ladder to the firing platform. It had been night (her eyes were still undergoing the gradual adjustments to light necessary to be outside during the daytime hours), and the vastness of the sky and the world that spread out around her had driven her to her knees. And then there were the monsters - the things that ancient humans had created that had risen up and nearly wiped them out. That was the scariest thing of all.
Now she couldn't imagine never seeing the night sky again, though admittedly the circumstances that led her to the firing platform tonight weren't ideal for stargazing. She unclipped the walkie from her belt as Vin clambered out onto the platform behind her.
"Scouts in position at Firing Platform G."
"Affirmative, Calli," Layne said. Funny how his voice could still make her heart skip a beat when it was already pounding so hard. "Keep those sharp eyes of yours peeled. Bogey came by air."
From her position on the mountainside she could see the Perimeter - a high stone wall that ringed the base of the mountain and guarded the ancient roads that still wound faintly up to its peak. Try as she might, though, she couldn't see the Guards that she knew were stationed there - they were too far away.
"Did he say by air?" There was a note of panic in Vin's voice. She nodded as calmly as she could, but she couldn't stop the thought from entering her head. What am I doing here? She was only sixteen. Maybe she had been wrong about it being a good time for monsters, after all. There was no good time for monsters.
But she'd always wanted to be a Scout, and she had known that days like this would come. Sure, most breaches came by ground, but she knew that some of the beasts could fly - she'd trained for that. And besides, not many of them were capable of getting through the metal cage that protected them. She held her gun at the ready, her eyes glinting from shadow to shadow.
"Do you think it already hit those cities to the west?" Vin asked, his own gun drawn and his head rotating slowly from side to side.
He was talking about the two cities on the western side of the mountain range - the ones that would have nothing to do with Undertown or anyone else. Layne always snorted derisively when anyone mentioned them. "The castle in the sky and the slum in the dirt," he called them. He had been there once, before he found Undertown. There were two cities, a white one at the top of the mountain and a dirty brown one at the bottom. Calli couldn't imagine why people would want to separate themselves like that, but Layne hadn't known.
"I don't know," she said. "I hope not." For no matter how nonsensical those people were, she would never wish one of the monsters upon them.
There was a sudden echo of gunfire from their left, and the shrieking sound of tearing metal. Vin started violently, almost dropping his gun. Calli wheeled toward the sound.
"Firing Platform F," she whispered. It was only a hundred yards away from them, but they were separated from it by huge, craggy rocks. Calli's heart was hammering so fast now that all the beats seemed to blur together into a heavy hum. There was a screech of tearing metal and a blood-curdling scream, and this time she nearly dropped her gun, too.
The metal comes away easily in my claws. I am almost surprised at how little effort it takes. There is a young man inside the cage, and he shrieks with terror as his metal walls crash against the rocks below. He raises his weapon and fires at me, though his shot is far too wide to strike me. I open him easily and he sags to the floor with my mouth and claws already digging into his belly.
I can hear other humans, smell their fear in the air. The two I am feeding on are still covered in flesh, but I know that the others will come to drive me away soon. Shouldn't I kill them all? Shouldn't I be able to eat in peace? I spread my wings. With blood still running in warm streams down my jaws, I leap into the air.
"Platform F!" The walkie sputtered frantically. "Report, Platform F! Report! Are you there?" Calli knew that they weren't.
There was a banging sound behind her, and she turned just in time to see Vin yanking open the platform hatch. "Vin!" she shrieked. "Where are you going?"
"I can't, Calli," he cried miserably. "I just can't. Come on!"
But she had already turned away. She could hear the huge wings pounding against the night air, and she could see the shadow descending. The hatch slammed shut behind her.
It was almost humanoid in shape, apart from the wings and the huge hands and feet tipped with claws. Muscle seemed to burst from every surface of it - it was twisted by its own horrifying strength. There was a horrible crashing sound as its taloned feet hit the cage and began to pull the metal away.
Calli looked up into the creature's eyes as the metal screamed in her ears. The eyes, it seemed, had not been changed. They were wide and blue and full of sadness. Layne's eyes were blue, too, and she thought about how she had never kissed him - never, in all the hundreds of times she had wanted to.
And then she lifted the gun, her knuckles white with the strain of her knotted hands, and pulled the trigger.