applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] sky full of birds)
Water comes down the walls, dripdripdrip, and I know it is daylight overhead and the ice is melting. I wish I could see the sky all white with sun, and the ice fields glittering as they weep under that bright eye. Instead all I see are the bleak walls of my prison, and I hear the water dripping to remind me that the days are getting warmer and longer in the world that has forgotten me.

I have been here for five years, ever since the Tests when I was thirteen. Before then I pretended to be ignorant and it worked, because I am a good actress and my mother taught me well. But you can't fool the Tests, because the Tests are machines that look right inside your head and see what's crawling around in there. I know how difficult it is to trick machines - I know this because machines are my specialty, and the reason that I'm here.

Two days after the Tests the men in suits came knocking at our apartment door. We were waiting for them. My mother was crying in loud, gusting sobs, but I didn't cry at all. I was too afraid to cry. I felt as though my heart had turned to a lump of snow inside my chest.

"Why are you weeping, Mrs. Kahale? You should be proud. Your daughter is very intelligent - the highest score we've ever seen in this region on the Mechanics Test. This is an opportunity she is being given, not a punishment..."

But my mother kept crying, because she knew that was a lie. The men dressed up their pretty words in soothing voices, but no matter what they said about "serving the country" or "the best and the brightest," my mother knew that she would never see me again and that was that.

That day the men took me and my suitcase and put us both on a plane. The windows of the plane were black, so I had no idea where they were taking me. I was alone, apart from some new men in suits that looked just like the old ones, and I sat in silence and felt my heart of snow melt into icy water and drain away.

When I was taken off the plane that first day I saw my only glimpse of the place where I live - an endless stretch of ice and sky - before I was taken underground. Since then I have not seen the world above me, not once in five years. All I see are blanks walls and fluorescent lights, tools and computer screens. Even the air I breathe is artificial and unsatisfying.

Now I only know the difference between day and night by the water on the walls. "This is a government institution," they say, "everything is under control," but they can't seem to keep the water out. When the water streams down the walls we know the sun is up, and because we aren't supposed to know it we feel a tiny spark of happiness. It is proof that they can't control everything.

We build machines here, of course. All of the people in this place, apart from the men in suits (there are always the men in suits) and the guards, are Mechanics. The Tests found us and plucked us out of our lives and sent us here to "serve the country" by building its machines, and this is what we do every single day. Some people build computers, some people build vehicles, some people build the instruments of war. Some people even build more of the machines that give the Tests, though I'm sure this is very hard for them. I am building something different - something new. I am building the automatons.

Really, they are not called automatons. They are called "personal service systems." I call them automatons because my mother read me a book when I was little that used that word. They are the most beautiful things I have seen since the sky and the sun, and even though I hate this place I can't find it in myself to hate what I have built here.

The automatons do many different things. One I built for cleaning, one for construction, one for security. I even built one for companionship. That one was very popular with the men in suits. I built it just like a real person, and they told me that an Artist (these are also Tested for) would design it a synthetic skin and no one would ever know that it wasn't just another human being.

"No one except the person who paid for it," I replied, and the men in suits laughed.

The companionship automaton is the best thing I have done, because it afforded me some freedom inside my prison. The men in suits must be making quite a bit of money off it. Now I am allowed to tinker all I want once I have finished my daily assignments, in hopes that I will come up with something equally brilliant and expensive.

So now I am allowed to build machines just for myself, under the guise of "working out" something new and exciting for the men in suits. At first I decided to build myself a pet, but the five years have fuzzed my memory a little so my cat does not look entirely like a cat. She is beautiful, though, and I have named her Mirabelle. She sits on the edge of my table right now, mewing contentedly at me with her little metal voice.

"Hush, Mirabelle," I say, just like she is a real cat, and tap her on the end of her nose. I am glad she's here with me, but I am working very hard right now and need to focus. My newest project is almost finished. The men in suits are beside themselves about it.

"Is it a battle service system?" they ask me, their eyes gleaming. "All those arms!"

"All in good time," I say mysteriously, with a tiny knowing smile on my face.

I tighten the last wire and close the central console. The lights come on inside the little passenger bay, and a cool woman's voice says, "Persephone on line." Persephone is another name from the book my mother used to read me. I thought it was fitting.

I climb into the passenger bay with Mirabelle just as the first men come through my workroom door.

"You finished it!" There are smiles on every face as I close the hatch behind me. Mirabelle curls up around my feet as I buckle my harness.

"Three potential targets," says Persephone. "Engage?"

"Ignore," I reply. "Take us to the surface."

"Yes, Lani." It is good to hear my name. I smile as Persephone's metal legs unfurl and push us off the floor.

Looks of delight are fading from the men's faces now as Persephone rises above them. I can see the confusion in their eyes from behind the thick glass windows of the bay. I push a button on the console.

"Please move out of the way, gentlemen. We are coming through."

Persephone begins to move, her metal joints smooth as human bones. Two of the men flee back out into the corridor, but the last is flung aside by one of Persephone's arms as it reaches to tear through the wall. I am pleased to see that there is no trouble on that account - we pass through the wall as if it was paper.

There is a lot of noise in the corridor now, alarms mostly. A few guards run toward us with their guns, but Persephone's protective systems engage before they can even raise the weapons to fire. It's unfortunate that the men in suits did not think to staff this compound with my security automatons - they are much sturdier. But I suppose that would have been too trusting.

Persephone's guidance systems locate the exit easily. She is very smart - smarter even than I am. Her arms make short work of the metal door, even as the men in suits scream and run before us, milling around her many legs. I almost feel sorry for them, but my heart is beating furiously at the thought of seeing the sun again, the open sky. Heat is flooding back into my chest after five years of cold emptiness.

The last of the metal is torn away. The sound of machine guns echoes around me, but I am untouchable, unstoppable. I am leaning forward, my mouth open in a laugh, as the light comes streaming down across my face.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([romeo + juliet] dagger)
This story is a companion piece to my entry on the topic Bats in the Belfry, though it isn't necessary to read that entry to enjoy this one (I hope!).

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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.

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.

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. 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.

"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.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] run away)
When I tell people that I grew up Pentecostal, there are a few reactions that I typically get. There is always at least one joker who thinks he's going to be the first person ever to ask me if I’ve handled snakes (I haven’t). Some people have no idea what I’m talking about. Others have vaguely heard of Pentecostals, but don't know much about them. The most common reaction, though, is a semi-disgusted, semi-terrified stare, as if I’m going to break out into tongues or start rolling on the floor in paroxysms of religious fervor any second. If the final reaction would have been yours, don’t worry – I am no longer Pentecostal and I don't take it personally.

Truthfully, I didn’t even realize there was anything weird about being Pentecostal for a long time. I think I was probably eleven before the full significance of my difference started to come clear to me. Before that, sure, I had noticed that I was the only little girl at school who didn’t wear pants, or jewelry, or have my hair cut. Apart from that, though, I was still a fairly normal kid, and other kids accepted me (albeit in the role of elementary-aged brainiac).

Even at eleven, when I began to feel the shame of wearing super-modest, handmade clothes and never having the right haircut (because I’d never had a haircut), most of my life was still palatable to me. My limited world was all I had ever known, and I didn’t think to look outside it. Attending three to five church services a week wasn’t strange to me, just necessarily tedious. Seeing people dance in church aisles and weep openly while the pastor preached wasn’t scary; just a typical Sunday night. And speaking in tongues wasn't eccentric – it was salvation.

I “spoke in tongues” for the first time when I was eight years old. I remember being held up at the church altar, dozens of hands on my back and shoulders and head, a hundred voices in my ear telling me to keep praying, keep repenting. What did I have to repent for, anyway? Not waiting my turn for the swings at recess? But I remember feeling so proud when everyone congratulated me on being saved. It would take another decade to admit that I had only muttered gibberish up there at the altar that night – because I didn’t want to let everyone down, and because I was terrified of Hell.

I was sixteen when I began to really question my faith. The tiny world I had inhabited for so long was suddenly blossoming into a fantastic realm crowded with people of all stripes – most of them, according to my church, among the legions of the damned. My friends were good people, I knew that. Why should they be condemned to Hell (still my greatest fear, eight years later) for things they couldn’t help, like loving someone of the same gender? Or for insignificant trespasses (like swearing, wearing short skirts, or putting on makeup) that had no bearing on who they were?

I didn’t understand, and so I asked. I asked religious teachers, church elders, veterans of a thousand Bible studies. And none of them – not a single one – could really explain to me why. Not that they didn’t try, of course, but nothing they said ever made the least bit of sense.

In undergrad I learned the dictionary definition of “circular logic,” but by that time I was already well aware of its tactical use in a real-world argument.

“It’s true because it’s in the Bible.”
“How do you know that the Bible is true?”
“Because the Bible says so.”

These people were supposed to be Bible scholars, and that’s the best they could come up with? I was not impressed.

Still, I heard worse during my years of questioning. I heard that all feminists were lesbians (a barb directed at me by a Sunday School teacher when I self-identified as the former – though by that time I had realized that there was nothing wrong with being a lesbian, which took any sting out of his would-be “insult”). I was told repeatedly to “hate the sin, not the sinner,” a phrase that I loathe to this day. I was chastised for speaking out against the concept that thinking about committing a sin was just as bad as actually doing it – though admittedly, part of that may be because I stood up in front of the youth group and asked that if that was so, did that mean I should go ahead and murder my little sister, as the thought had crossed my mind more than a few times?

My breaking point came during a Bible study one Thursday night. I was barely eighteen, and barely hanging on to the tattered remnants of my religion – once the defining factor of my life. Two years of questions hadn’t turned up any answers for me. At best, I had found willful ignorance. At worst, I uncovered homophobia, misogyny, racism, and a resistance to openmindedness so strong that Jesus’ own words couldn’t convince these people to love someone they considered a sinner.

That night we studied the creation story. There was plenty of stuff about Eden, of course, and the seven days of God’s creation. Never one to keep my mouth shut, I decided to hit them with a theory that I had heard recently (and that I have since discovered is fairly common in certain theological circles) – that Earth was not created in a mere seven days, but over eons, and that God worked with science (practically a dirty word in the Pentecostal church I attended) and set evolution in motion.

I should have known better. Not only was the idea dismissed (after being laughed at), but I was told that I was committing a sin by even entertaining it as an option. The Bible study leader was aghast. And me? I’d had enough.

I don’t know why this relatively minor occurrence was what pushed me over the edge, but it is what I will always remember as being the moment that I stopped being Pentecostal. For two years, I clung to the beliefs I had grown up with as they grew increasingly slippery, but on that night I realized I didn’t want them anymore. It just wasn’t in me to suck it up and accept a place in that closed, intolerant world. It was Bibles all the way down, and for me that just wasn’t – and isn’t – enough.

I still believe there’s something out there. Whether it’s God or something else, I couldn’t say. I feel weird even giving it a name. And I’d really feel weird – downright wrong, in fact – if I were to judge other people on its behalf.

Nowadays, if I judge someone or something, it’s all on me. If I make the wrong decision or think the wrong thing, it's my fault. I’m the one who has to own up to it. On the one hand, this is pretty scary. It means that I don’t have anyone else to blame for my mistakes. On the other, I feel freer now than I ever have.

I don't hate Pentecostals, or even Pentecostalism as a denomination. Most Pentecostals are decent people just trying to make their way in the world, like I am - like we all are. I can't stand the judgment and I can't stand the proselytizing, but I'm sure there are plenty of things about me that Pentecostals can't stand, either. It's not about what you can't stand, though - it's about what you stand on. And while the ground sometimes feels shakier now that I've left the comforting closet of my former faith, overall I've found that I much prefer walking on the outside.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] courtly love)
I saw her face in the stone before my chisel ever formed her features. Every curve and angle of her was as clear to me in that unmolded hunk of ivory as the day that I perfected the last delicate touches – the fine fan of her eyelashes, the hidden smile at the corner of her lips, the fragile musculature of her neck. Even before I began to shape her under my hands I dreamed of her, always her, with her luxurious mane of curls and the sensual flare of her pale white hips.

And so I built her, carefully, perfectly. I pulled her from the stone. And though her skin was hard and cold she did not seem so to me. To my eyes, my touch, she glowed. When I touched her hands I felt the barest warmth, as though life pulsed just millimeters beneath the ivory. Even her eyes seemed alight with passion, and her face held all the secrets and seductions of women.

I admit it, I desired her. I burned for her as I have never burned for a living woman. Everything about her was perfectly suited to me – and why not? I did create her, after all. When human women pursued me, I turned them away with harsh words and disgust and watched their faces crumble without the slightest guilt or regret. My heart belonged to the beautiful white being that I had so cunningly brought forth, even if she did not – could not – love me back.

But I was so lonely. I spent hours staring into her exquisite pale face, my heart ragged and torn with need and deprivation. It wasn't the mindless mania that grips some men in the absence of physical intimacy, but something more profound - it was only her that I wanted. A warm body was not enough if it was not her body, and I knew her shape so intimately that darkness did not hide the dissimilarities between her perfection and even its nearest human incarnations.

When I felt that I could bear no more, I fell to my knees before the only one who could grant me my dearest wish. Sacrifices I burnt in Her name, only the purest and best, for my darling was both of these things. Hours I prayed, my knees dull with pain and my eyes streaming with tears. And every night, I returned home to see her still standing upon her plinth, flawless and insensate.

The last night, I prayed so hard I thought that I might collapse. I poured out all my heart before the Goddess' sacrificial fire, twisted with grief that I might never press my darling beauty close and feel her heart beat next to mine. When I left the temple I knew that if my prayers were not received this night, that I would end my life - for what was life, if I could not spend it beside the one I loved so dearly? Nothing but a pantomime, an empty puppet-show, devoid of meaning.

So intent was I upon my plans that when I entered my home I did not immediately notice the lack of light that signified the absence of my beautiful lady upon her pedestal. The ethereal glow of her white skin did not immediately arrest my gaze upon entering the room, for she was not standing in her usual place. It was empty and shadowed, dark with the loss of her. But I did not understand what it meant; I knew only that she was gone. It was only when she touched me, her hands warm and gentle and soft - oh! How soft! That I fell against her, trembling and weeping with an ecstasy I have never known before or since.

I was exquisitely happy. The first months passed as though in a matter of hours, and much of what I remember are the little things - her hand passing over my chisel with reverence, the spark of her eyes when she discovered some new tool or object of beauty, and the knowing smile upon her lips as I lay her down upon the pillows of our bedchamber. She was everything I had dreamed of, beautiful and passionate and quick to learn, and she seemed so delighted with all the world had to offer that at first I barely noticed that there was, in fact, something that she lacked.

For in Her capriciousness the Goddess had given me all I desired - everything but a voice for the woman I loved more than life itself. My darling had no tongue, no way with which to speak.

The months flowed on and though I loved her singularly, I could see my angel struggling with the silence imposed upon her. She could do anything she liked... everything but speak or sing or whisper. It bore down heavily upon her, and she began to withdraw into herself, dissatisfied. I tried to explain to her that I did not care whether she and I could converse; I knew her face so well that even the slightest animation spoke volumes to me. My words had no effect, however, and she grew bleaker by the day.

Now I realize that it was only a matter of time before her desolation turned to anger and that anger turned on me, but when I first felt the flashing ire of her gaze I felt stung to the core. How could she look at me like that, with such fury, when I had brought her out of a cold and empty world into my own? How could she look at me like that when I loved her so completely? I hoped that her anger would fade in time, but it only seemed to grow - she did not like to be near me, much of the day, and when we made love her face was fierce and her eyes filled with revulsion. As I could not stop my heart from beating, though, so I could not stop myself from loving her. I wept at her feet and begged her forgiveness, but she stared at me with loathing. I feared that she would leave me, so I did not let her out of my sight - when I left the house, I locked her in my bedchamber. I could not bear the thought of being without her.

So when I awoke that night and found her sitting astride me, looking down, my heart soared with hope. My flesh called out to hers and stirred to meet her, but she pushed my hands away when I reached out to take her in my arms. She was strong, and though I struggled her grip was as immovable as stone.

"Why are you doing this?" I cried, wriggling desperately beneath her. "Don't you know that I love you? I would give you anything - anything!"

And this time when she smiled, there was nothing secretive in the curve of her lips.

"No, no," I whispered as she prised my lips apart with her cold, hard fingers. She did not respond. Even if she could have spoken, there was nothing more to say. She forced my teeth apart and reached into my mouth, grasping for my tongue. I thrashed and twisted, but I could not get away.

When she ripped out my tongue, I remember that she smiled - the bright, glowing smile I remembered from those first days. Then the blood and pain filled my mouth and I was shrieking inarticulately, clutching at my face as she silently left the room.

I understand now that she lacked more than just a tongue. That was the Goddess' cruel joke at my expense, a way of showing me that no love is perfect. It was the soul that I forgot when I crafted her. Everything else I wrote upon her face, intelligence and passion and boldness, but I did not build a soul into her features.

So now as I set my chisel to the uncarved block of ivory before me, I think of where her soul might reside. I can still see her just as clearly as if she was standing here in front of me - her luxurious wealth of curls and the sensual flare of her pale white hips, her seductive smile and high, full breasts. But where shall I put her soul? In the corner of her mouth, perhaps, or in the arch of her brow? I will find the place, it will come to me as I shape her from the stone.

This time, she will love me back...


Pygmalion and Galatea, Jean-Léon Gérôme
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([hp] thestral)
I can’t imagine Highfield without the Night Tower. It has stood sentinel above the city for as long as I can remember, a single black candle atop an otherwise beautiful birthday cake of tiered marble buildings, immaculate stepped gardens, and tall white colonnades. I’ve looked at it every day of my life, even when I didn’t want to. In my line of work, it’s good to be reminded of the dark side of this soft city.

I’m not from Highfield myself. I live down the mountain in Lowfield, closer to the valley floor. In Lowfield, you can still look out and see the rusting tanks below, the tattered remnants of flags, and the occasional pale glint of sun on bone. In Highfield all you see are bright swathes of wildflowers and long grasses rippling like water in the wind. Small wonder it’s so easy to take from them, blind as they are.

But even from Lowfield I can see the Night Tower, sticking up over the top of that sugar-sculpted city like a charred fingerbone. It sends a chill through my contempt. The Highfielders might be plump and pampered, but beneath those indolent smiles and weak chins they can hurt like the rest of us – like the best of us, if the rumors are true.

Re-Education, Rehabilitation, and Release - those are the letters wrought into the iron gates that ring the Night Tower. We can all guess what “re-education” means – we’ve heard its meaning in the screams that tear through the midnight sky above the tower. “Rehabilitation” is a mystery to me. As for “release,” well. Let’s just say that of the company I keep, a high percentage make their way into the Night Tower sooner or later, and I’ve never known a single one of them to be released. There are whispers, and more than whispers, that the words refer to a different kind of release. That I can believe.

And still I leave my little room every night after dark, to make my way to Highfield and the treasures that lie behind its polished walls.

The buildings in Lowfield are small and squat, hewn from rough mountain stone. Some say they’re nearly invisible against the mountain face. The city was built for protection, not prosperity, and it shows in every bullet-scarred wall. This is where humanity fled when their mutated creations rose up against them, where they made their miraculous last stand. The barricades still stand on the mountain road, tall and strong and bristling with razor wire and machine guns, keeping us safe from the creatures that roam the broken world below.

Highfield came later, when people began to think themselves too good for rock huts and cold mountain nights. Nothing would do but for them to live in smooth-walled palaces and take the air along immaculate gravel streets – nothing would do but the white city, perched against the edge of the mountain like a roosting dove. Of course, not everyone could belong to such a place. Only the best, the finest, the richest would do. And so one city became two, the high and the low, and many of the rejected turned to crime to survive.

As for me, thievery is my legacy. The family business, you could say. This is common enough in Lowfield. For every farmer scratching out a meager living between the rocks, for every goatherd or seamstress or leatherworker, there are at least two thieves. Of course, there are other options – there is always a need for soldiers and hunters, for one thing, to guard our walls and barricades or to search the world below for much-needed game. Then there is heavy labor and mining, for those who are sturdy enough for the strain and dull enough to bear it. But why risk death at the hands of monsters? Why drive oneself into an early grave by hauling rocks or swinging a pickaxe? No, thieving is the best choice, if you’ve got the head and the hands for it. Lucky for me, I have both.

If you don't - if you get caught - it's the Tower for you. The Tower, and who knows what else.

Just after nightfall, nearly every night, I make my way up to Highfield. I don’t use the road, of course – there isn’t any traffic after dark, by order of the high city, and obviously it wouldn’t do to be stopped by the guards at the gate. There is a little path through the trees on the ledge above the road, and I know it so well that I can travel it even in the darkest night without misplacing a single step. It's called "the Thieves' Walk," and it's been used for years by people for whom a quiet entry into Highfield is a necessity.

Where the Walk meets the walls of Highfield, the ground slopes upward sharply. The trees grow close to the marble here, masking the sharp ascent of the forest floor. Lowfielders made this, the hill of dirt that leads to the top of the wall, piling it up bit by bit until they could climb over. I can't imagine how long it took them, but I thank them silently every night as I slip up that incline.

From the point where the ground touches the wall, it's only a ten-foot climb up and over into Highfield. Easy enough to manage if you're small and agile. My fingers automatically find handholds and I scurry to the top, dropping over onto the convenient roof of a marble building on the other side.

Marble! Even if I threw myself down as hard as I could, they'd never hear me through that mass of rock. I'm down on the street in a twinkling, pressed into the cool shadows like I don't exist at all.

Some people will tell you that they have all kinds of daring adventures while thieving - that they spend every night running from the guards, dodging household attendants, and narrowly avoiding the Night Tower due only to their quick wits and quicker feet. This is ridiculous. Stealing from the Highfielders couldn't be simpler. Their houses are so big that you can slip through a window and wander through the halls for hours without seeing another soul, taking things at will. Of course, there are times when the best things require a little extra skill to obtain, but any good thief will tell you that often it isn't worth the risk. Why put your neck on the line for a jewel on a chain when a nice bit of silverware will fetch a handsome price - and will be quicker to sell, to boot?

Still, sometimes I can't help but try for something bigger than the usual haul of household goods. When the weather gets warmer, the temptation to do something dangerous gets stronger and stronger. So tonight, when the first breath of summer is tickling my nose with scents of rose from the Highfield gardens, I'm looking for something glittery to soothe the rushing of my blood.

The first house I come to is enormous - and occupied. I creep along the halls like a ghost, avoiding the household guards as easily as if they were blindfolded. Still, I don't enter the cavernous bedroom, where surely all the best jewels and precious keepsakes are kept. It feels too much like walking into a dead end, and I'm not sure even I can make a clean escape. The second house is the same.

It's the third when I hit the jackpot - it's obviously home to people with expensive tastes, if the rich velvet drapes and elaborate furniture are to be believed, but no one appears to be at home. At some dinner party, no doubt. That doesn't matter. All that matters is that only the barest collection of guards remains to watch the place, and all I have to do is find the gems and dash away into the night.

The bedroom lies at the end of a wide hall with elaborate carved walls - scenes of fantastic creatures cavorting through a stone forest. It unsettles me a little. Unicorns, griffins, manticores - are these so different from the mutations that drove us up into these mountains in the first place? You wouldn't see pictures like that on the walls in Lowfield, not when some of our hunters and soldiers never return from the world below, killed or maimed or eaten by creatures that someone, at some point, thought were "fantastic."

The room itself is so high-ceilinged that every sound seems to echo, from the minute rasp of my boots on the floor to the soft sighs of my breathing. More and more I regret doing this, but I've come too far to give up now. There's a monstrous wooden table with a mirror atop it - I look nervous and drawn in the glass. But I can see the beautiful silver box, and I can't turn away for the window just yet. I know, I just know, that inside that box, cushioned on red velvet, are enough gems and precious metals to feed me for months. So I reach out my fingers, run them gently across the lid, and open it with eager eyes.

The alarm shrieks through the room so loudly that I shriek myself, dropping the lid of the silver box like it's burned my fingers. I turn, but not fast enough - the door locks automatically with an echoing boom, and bars slam up from hidden niches in the windowsill. I run to the window anyway, my fingers desperately searching for a way out. There's nothing. I can hear footsteps ringing on the marble outside the door, and the muffled shouts of voices through the wail of the alarm.

"No," I whisper as the doors are flung open. "No," as the dart enters my neck. "No," as I fall to the floor, boneless and blind.

When I awake, I'm in a room that's perfectly white, and lit so brightly that I cry out and cover my eyes. It takes me a long time to get used to the light. When I am finally able to open my eyes again, I see that I'm lying on a table, strapped down by my wrists and ankles. I am naked, and my flesh crawls with goosebumps. The room is circular, and there are no windows.

"Good morning," a voice says conversationally. "Or should I say, good night. We do most of our work here at night."

The voice belongs to a terribly thin man with jutting facial bones and a thick shock of blonde hair. He is wearing a white coat, and spectacles that blaze in the bright lights.

"Where am I?" I ask weakly, my own voice trembling.

He smiles sympathetically. "You know where you are." He holds up a shining syringe. "I'm afraid this going to be very unpleasant for you. Hang in there - it isn't forever."

"Release," I whisper, horror-struck.

"That's right."

The needle stings as it enters my arm, and when he pushes the plunger a white-hot sensation streams through my veins. I cry out again, tears burning in my eyes. The room seems to move around me, the white light twisting into monsters and phantasms of terrible brightness.

"Did you really think you would never be caught?" The voice cuts through the visions and I cling to it, though his words terrify me almost as much as the things I am seeing - imagining? I don't know anymore.

"You people." The voice is disappointed now. "You can never stick to the little things. No - you must have gems and jewelry. What would you do with these? Make enough money to come up here yourself, become one of us? I'm afraid not. There is no place for you in Highfield. Well - not as you are, anyway."

The white light is fading, replaced by a gradual greying and then blackness. Shadows seem to leap out at me, creatures of an even deeper darkness. Creatures from the world below. Creatures men made, the unnatural mixtures of blood and flesh that rose up and destroyed them. A canine face with piggish red eyes in a giant, hulking body that bristles with hair and claws. A woman with lizard scales and slitted cat eyes that glow green and vicious. An enormous bird with two heads on sinuous snakelike necks, with teeth as sharp as a lion's in its curving beaks.

"Terrible, aren't they? And yet beautiful, in their own way. The people who made them undoubtedly had great dreams for them. But they didn't know what we know. They couldn't control what they had made."

I whimper on the table, twisting and turning to get away from the monsters. The voice laughs.

"That's what we do here, you see. We fix the mistakes of the past. It's all well and good to create beautiful things, but they need beautiful minds as well. Otherwise they are just... well, monsters."

I don't understand this, I can't make sense of it. All I know is that the creatures are all around me, growling and snapping and tearing at me. Pain lights up every nerve in my body. I feel as though even my bones are twisting inside me.

"We made some mistakes at first, of course. That's just how science works. But we're getting very close now, yes. It's all about controlling the mind. If you give a creature claws and teeth but don't control the mind, well, it's only a matter of time before those claws and teeth find you." Another laugh. "That won't happen here, not anymore."

I wrench up off the table, tearing through the straps at my wrists. I can see the man in the white coat looking up at me. But why should this matter to me? I'm in so much pain. The bones in my back are bending me forward, the muscles bunching atop my shoulders. I scream as the wings extend out of my shoulder blades; I scream and scream and scream.

"Shh," the man says softly. "It won't be long now, and I will set you free. Wouldn't you like that?"

I would. I would like that. To feel the night air against my skin, to soar above the valley below, seeking meat.

"You will protect us," the man says. "You will keep us safe. Those Lowfielders, with their walls and patrols - what use is that? You could fly over their walls. You could destroy their patrols."

I could, I know it. Long claws have replaced my fingers, muscles wrap around my bones in a thick mass. And the wings...

I want to protect. I want to serve. I want to fly.

"Soon," the man promises, and his voice is sweet as the night wind. "Soon I will release you."
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([funny] zombies seeking brains)
They hide in the houses every time. Predictable, but I'm not looking for an adventure, here, so it doesn't really bother me. Some of the others like "the thrill of the hunt" too much to appreciate a leisurely day in the suburbs. Me, I take the easy pickings where I can get them. Those folks with shotguns and baseball bats aren't my cup of tea, not at all.

The first house I come to is a sweet little affair, the kind of thing I used to want. Two stories, blue siding with white trim, and a big wraparound porch with a swing. Looks just like the houses I used to see in movies, sitting on top of a hill with miles of wheat fields all around. I think it was wheat, anyway - what do I know about farming? This house isn't surrounded by any kind of fields; just a long, flat stretch of sidewalk, a couple of overgrown rose bushes, and rows and rows of houses that look almost exactly like it.

Still nice, though.

I push open the front door with my foot, and can immediately tell that someone's been living here. The floor is clear of dust, and there's a bowl of apples on the coffee table that haven't even started to dry up. I wonder how they managed to get ahold of apples - our people are usually keeping an eye on the supermarkets. Anyway, apples that were in a supermarket would be rotted and reeking by now. It's not like there's any new produce coming in.

It actually makes me feel kind of bad, seeing those apples on the table. Whoever's holing up here isn't even smart enough to hide the obvious signs of habitation. They must be really clueless - and I'm really going to ruin their day. Still, it's not like they aren't asking for it. How they've survived even this long is a mystery to me.

The rest of the house is more of the same. I even come across a glass of soda, still frosty with condensation and with little bubbles fizzing around the ice cubes. I wonder briefly how they've been making ice. Seeing it almost makes me miss the taste of soda.

I find them in the basement, of course - a group of three, two men and a woman. Not related, which is something of a relief. I hate bringing in families. Depressing. I raise my gun, though I don't poke it at them aggressively or anything.

"You're going to have to come with me," I say, in a kind but firm voice. Shouting at them doesn't help - poor things are scared enough anyway. This group must not be very bright, though (not that I hadn't already figured that out), because they just kind of gape at me.

"Come on then," I repeat, giving my gun a little jerk toward the stairs. "Let's go."

Still nothing. Like talking to a trio of department store mannequins. I look at them more closely - maybe there's something wrong with them. I mean, it doesn't really matter, not where they're going, but I don't like dealing with the unstable ones. Those are the types that can go completely berserk on you. One second everything's coming along pleasantly, then BAM! You get a knife through the eye.

That's how I lost mine, in fact; though it wasn't a knife, just a shard of glass. A good thing, too. I can live without an eyeball, but my brain is all that's keeping me ticking, and a knife through the eye could quickly put an end to that.

This is getting old. I glare at them in exasperation. "What are you, a bunch of zombies? Let's see some sign of life!" I can't help it; I laugh at my little joke.

"Fuck you." It's one of the men and boy, if looks could kill. That's a joke in itself, if looks could kill, and I almost laugh again. Things might be getting hostile here, though, so I try to play it straight.

"I don't think you want to," I say. "And anyway, there's no call for that kind of language. I'm just doing my job."

"Your job?" The woman now. Great. If there's one thing I hate about a bad attitude, it's that it always seems to be catching. "It's your job to kill us?"

"Well, not exactly. It's my job to pick you up and take you back to Camp Five. What happens to you after that, I don't know. Above my pay grade, you could say." I do know what happens to them, of course, but talking about it here isn't going to help matters. The quiet man and the woman might actually live for awhile - there's always room in the livestock camps - though the hostile one will have to go.

I gesture with my gun again. "So, let's go. My team is waiting for me outside."

"You're a monster," the woman whispers, her blue eyes welling with tears.

My mouth twists into a frown. "I'm not a monster. I'm just making do with the hand I was dealt."

"You're a monster," says the first man. "An experiment gone wrong. You shouldn't even exist. You're an abomination."

The rest of my team would laugh this off - we've all heard it so many times. For me, though, it still stings. I mean, it's not as though I wanted to be this way. I did my running and fighting back at the beginning, just like everyone else. When I got the bite, I even considered killing myself before I became one of them. I couldn't do it, though. In the end, I considered myself lucky that all I got was a bite. Nearly everyone else was devoured outright. At least now I have some kind of life - or afterlife, as the case may be.

It's not as bad as the movies made it out to be, not really. There isn't all the rotting and the streaming entrails and blood everywhere. Science took care of that, way back at the beginning, with the real experiments. Life after death, immortality, yadda yadda yadda. Bring back a corpse, keep it from rotting, get it thinking and moving - and ta-da! Instant superhuman. I'm sure they would've made a mint off the technology, if it hadn't all gone wrong.

Though of course it did all go wrong, as anybody with a lick of sense could've told you it would.

That part was pretty much like the movies - the outbreak, people running wild in the streets, death everywhere. Now it's much better. We're organized. There's a system, even a government. Why the Breathers are so smug, running and hiding and desperate as they are, I couldn't say.

"I may be an abomination, but I'm also the one with the gun," I snap back at him, annoyed. "Now let's go before I have to use it." This time I do poke it at them, and my face must say that I mean business because they shrink back and finally comply.

When we come out into the street, I can see that I'm the last to arrive. Malinda, Jeff, and Ollie have already got four or five Breathers between them and are loading them up into the truck. Lyn is on point, squinting up and down the street with her gun at the ready.

"Wow," says Malinda, eyeing my little collection. "Three! And all in good shape, too. Nice work, Ben."

"Thanks." That makes me feel a bit better. Malinda is one of the better looking women in Camp Five, and even though there would be no point in making a move on her (apparently the scientist bigwigs who started all this didn't see any point in keeping all the equipment running), it's still nice to get a compliment from a pretty woman.

I've nearly forgotten the Breathers' insults and am hustling them toward the truck when the first bullet whizzes past my head, nicking off my left ear. I can't feel it, of course, but the fact that it's so close to my skull really freaks me out. I whirl around, disoriented, and see the rosebushes in front of the blue house bristling with gun barrels.

"Fuck!" Malinda shrieks, just before a bullet slams into her forehead. She drops like a stone, the wound a black and bloodless crater.

"Run!" Jeff is nearly to the cab of the truck, his body already riddled with smoking holes, when he goes down. His fingers are still clasped around the door handle. Lyn makes it to the end of the block, but no farther. Ollie I can't see - maybe he's gotten away, though I don't know how. Me, I haven't even moved.

I don't know what to do. I can't think - can't react. My gun is up, but I can't seem to fire it. The shots seem to be coming from everywhere. For the first time, I really do feel like a zombie - slow and mindless.

"Who has the gun now?" The voice comes from my right or I wouldn't hear it. It's smug, so smug, and it hurts, like it always does. The only hurt I can feel anymore.

I swear I see the bullet as it comes for me, the one to put an end to it all. I wish I could say that I feel relief, but I don't. The last thing I feel is desperate.

Desperate to live.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] twilight)
It was morning, barely first light, and gray and damp as a drowned mouse. Rain had fallen steadily for the last week, slicking the forest floor in dark mud and sodden leaves that clung to the bottoms of Mara’s boots in a thick layer. The world smelled of earth and rain and decay, and the first chill fingers of autumn threaded through the humid air. Perfect conditions for a morning hunt, had it not been for the unnatural quiet that draped itself over the wood. There was no birdsong, none of the little rustles and snaps of animals moving through the trees – it seemed to Mara that she couldn’t even hear the soft sound of her own breathing in the weighted air.

If hunting were her only concern, perhaps the soundless wood might not have unsettled her so deeply. Today, though, Mara was tracking much bigger quarry than deer or rabbit, and the lack of the usual forest sounds set her skin to tingling. For all she knew, she might be the prey of some other hunter, moving silent as the shadows behind her.

A light, misting rain began to fall, and Mara shuddered under her woolen cloak. Desperately she longed to give the bird call that would bring one of the other scouts to her aid, to tell someone else of the creeping dread that had settled in the pit of her stomach, but she didn’t dare. If her fears were well-founded, such a thing would bring the creatures on her so quickly that by the time any scout arrived, whatever was left of her would have no tales to tell.

That thought made her queasy. She could still remember the bright slash of blood across the new-frosted ground two mornings ago, when the little village of Pondbridge had been awakened by a scream. She had been dreaming of her father, gone these past five months, when the sound had ripped through her sleep like a knife. Without even thinking about it, she had roused from her bed, wrapped her father’s old hunting cloak about her shoulders, and raced after the crowd.

By the time the first runners had reached him, Allyn Thomas had no hope of surviving. His throat had been torn open, and what little life he had left was emptying in thick pulses onto the frozen ground. Many of the villagers retched to see such savagery, but Mara had only stared, transfixed by the crimson spill of blood.

Allyn had come to the little village only a few months before, gaunt with hunger and plagued by dark memories. He was not an old man - in fact, he claimed to be only a few years older than Mara herself, and she barely fifteen - but the fear he carried around with him had aged him decades. Already his dark hair glinted with threads of silver, and his face was waxy and lined. His voice was soft and wheedling, and his fingers plucked nervously at whatever was at hand.

And he was always whispering, telling his stories of monsters that did not die. Every night he would come to the tavern and seat himself next to some wary patron, filling his ears with creatures of darkness - creatures that poisoned the blood of living men and feasted on the flesh of innocents so that they could live forever. The stories frightened many of the smaller children, so much so that Allyn had been subjected to a rather stern talking-to by old John Farn, who was the king's man in Pondbridge. Still he spun his tales, if not in the tavern then in the streets and the smallmarket, muttering urgently to any who might venture near.

Mara herself had not been frighted by his stories. She felt sorry for the poor man more than anything, trapped as he was in the nightmarish world of his own mind. She had seen men so turned before, after some horrible tragedy befell them, and she knew that Allyn Thomas must have suffered greatly to imagine such monstrosities. Unfortunately, Allyn must have had a sense for her sympathy, as he often sought her out when no other was willing to listen to his macabre fantasies. She had heard more than her fair share of blood and death and evil, and had soon learned to loathe the sight of his emaciated face and dark, wounded eyes.

His death had changed everything, of course. Allyn Thomas had died in the center of town, far from the roaming creatures of the wood. The wound in his neck might well have come from a wolf if not for that, that and the marks on his arms. The circular bruises formed a clear pattern – finger marks, dug so deeply into the flesh that they left black and purple stains on Allyn’s white flesh.

"Who could've done this to him?" John Farn had wondered, looking around at the small cluster of villagers. Mara had looked herself, gazing fearfully into the faces of the people around her - people she had known all her short life. Had one of these murdered poor, mad Allyn Thomas? She couldn’t imagine it.

“It wasn’t none of us," the brewer said, his face pale but firmly set. "Look at those bruises. Look at his neck. No blade did this. The man's throat was ripped open by bare hands.”

“No one came into the village since last evenfall,” said little Terrence Whelk, who had stood sentry on the village wall. “Not by the gate, anyhow. I swear it.”

“It would take a monstrous strong man to tear out a throat,” declared the brewer more forcefully. “And what cause do any of us have to kill the madman? I won’t say I haven’t thought of giving him a good rap between the eyes when he goes on about his monsters, but he was harmless enough.”

The thought seemed to come on them all at once.

"Do you really think..." It was the inkeeper's wife that spoke first, her fingers pressed tightly to her mouth.

"No," John Farn shook his head vigorously. "Absolutely not."

The rest just stared down at the body, eyes wide with fear.

"Why not?" Someone called from the back. "He was always going on about them monsters; maybe they found him after all."

Mara felt sick. She had disliked Allyn Thomas, with his tall tales and his haunted looks. Could it have been that he was really telling the truth? Were there really creatures that lived forever, that could not be slain - creatures that could scale a thirty-foot wall of timber and tear our a man's throat with their bare hands?

In the end, John Farn had agreed to set a heavier guard on the walls and to send scouting parties out into the surrounding forest. Nearly all the men of the village volunteered, and a fair few women even scaled the walls to keep the watch. Mara had hoped to be one of these, knowing that she would never sleep for knowing that the dark creatures Allyn Thomas had told her so much about might be climbing the walls around her, dropping down into the village on clawed, silent feet. Unfortunately, there were to be other plans made for her.

When Mara's father had been around, he had been the best hunter in the village. Often he had brought Mara along on the mornings when he ranged out into the wood, and had taught her to read the forest with a hunter's eyes. She could climb a tree as well as any squirrel, and knew all of the little animal sounds that indicated game. She could move silently through the carpet of dead leaves and twigs that forever covered the ground beneath the trees. Her feet were so soft that she had even been able to steal up on her own father, quiet as a forest cat, and throw her arms around his waist before he saw her.

After her father's disappearance, Mara had used her skills to help keep her family in table. Her mother took on work as a washerwoman, but Mara's knowledge of the plants and animals in the forest was valuable enough to earn them good coin if the right person needed it. When the dyer needed certain flowers or berries, often Mara was the only person who could find them. The herbalist also availed himself of her help, for he was an elderly man who could not range far from the wall in search of his medicinal plants. Even the furrier had come to her once or twice, whenever he desired the pelt of a rare or elusive animal. Though Mara did not hunt herself, she knew the forest so well that she was aware of where animals of all sorts denned themselves, and would part with the knowledge if the pay were enough.

She had never suspected that she might one day be called upon to search out monsters in the wood, though, and for the first time, the place frightened her. The trees were so tall and sturdy that each seemed to conceal one of Allyn Thomas's nightmarish beasts in its skeleton fingers, and the shadows seemed deeper and longer than they ever had before. The forest was altogether transformed, from a sun-dappled wonderland that teemed with life to a forbidding haunted wood of the like that surrounded the castles of damned kings in fairy tales.

And now she was alone, her skin crawling with eyes, little more than a fatherless girl shivering in a cloak that was too big for her. She wished her father was here, more than anything, but she was past believing that he would return for her. He had gone out on one of his long-ranging trips, seeking game that only inhabited the darkest reaches of the wood, and never returned. She remembered him laughing at the last, waving and winking in the early morning sunlight as he made out along the road on his borrowed horse. He had always come back, always, and she had never suspected that this would be the last time he smiled at her. The wound of his disappearance festered in her heart, and she never spoke of him, though her thoughts were never far away from that smile.

The rain was coming heavier now, and the feeling of being watched grew with every step. Mara could bear it no longer. Let them shout at her, she couldn't stay a moment longer. The decision spurred her to action, and she whirled around to run back to the little village, her father's cloak shedding icy beads of water in a widening arc. Her foot was raised to take the first running step home when she saw the man.

He was dressed all in grey, and seemed to shimmer in the rain. His hair was so blond it was almost colorless, but his eyes were dark and glinting. They were fixed on her. She staggered back, disoriented, and nearly fell into the wet mulch of leaves at her feet. The grey man did not move at all.

The signal, her mind shrieked at her, the bird call. But she didn't make a sound. She only stared, her heart bouncing against her ribs and her fingers trembling.

"You should not be so far from home, little one," the grey man said, and his voice cut through the air like a whip, though it was barely more than a whisper. "The forest is not a place for little maids to go wandering." He looked at her as though expecting some rejoinder, but she could not speak. "But I think you are more than wandering, are you not? You are seeking something - someone."

Surely this man was not - could not be one of the creatures... the thought made Mara weak with terror. She had expected some fabulous demon with razor claws and batwings, not this soft-voiced man in grey. And yet he frightened her all the more for his humanness, that and his eyes like black water.

"Yes," she whispered, amazed at the sound of her voice.

The man in grey moved toward her then, his feet as soundless as hers. Mara backed away, but still she did not run, though she longed to. She was locked to the black of his gaze.

"Creatures of eternal darkness," the man continued. "Men who do not die."

"Yes."

The man stepped closer, closer, and this time she did not back away. There was no fleeing from this man. There was no escape from his dark eyes. She was almost relieved to understand that, to know that there was nothing she could do. The grey man reached out and touched her cheek with his fingertips, brushing away a lock of hair that curled gently in the rain. She was surprised to feel the warmth in his touch.

"Go home, child. We have no quarrel with you or with the men of your village."

"But Allyn..."

"His debts are not yours to pay, little one. The Thomases will be long in answering for their crimes against us, and he is but one of them. He is gone from this place, and so soon shall we be. You have nothing to fear."

Mara was confused; her head was spinning with questions that she was too afraid to ask, and her knees were still weak with horror. "Nothing... to fear."

"Not so long as there are no Thomases in your midst." The grey man smiled, and it was a dangerous thing to behold. "I will leave you now, little one. Hurry home. The beasts of the wood do not like the scent of me, but when I am gone they will return." And in a twinkling he was gone, fading into the rain like a wraith. Mara took heel like a frighted deer, running all the way back to Pondbridge with her heart in her throat.

----------

It was two quiet weeks later when the man on horseback appeared, tall and proud as an oak. He spoke with a lord's voice and wore leather and velvet, his cloak fastened with a bloody ruby the size of a chicken's egg. He stroked this as he shouted out his greeting to the men on the gate, plucking at the facets with nervous fingers.

"I am Verne Thomas, and I come with tidings of blood and death. Open your gates! We must prepare for the coming of darkness - it is hard on my heels and slavering for blood. Where is my brother? I hear he is among you. Open your gates!"










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This week is yet another intersection, this time a threesome! My partners are [livejournal.com profile] amenquohi and [livejournal.com profile] vaguelyclear, and we combined our efforts to write a vampire saga! My story covers the past, [livejournal.com profile] amenquohi's the present, and [livejournal.com profile] vaguelyclear's the future. Please read and enjoy (and if you enjoy, vote for us)!
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] warrior girl)
When the silk merchant's daughter was chosen as the annual dragon sacrifice, everyone in town breathed a secret sigh of relief. Sure, she was nice to look at - more than nice, to hear it told (furtively, and only when the tellers were positive that she wasn't around) - but absolutely, painfully problematic in every other conceivable way. Polite citizens might purse their lips and call her things like "feisty" and "challenging," but just about everyone else had a wide array of far more colorful language for her.

In the end, polite or not, everyone was pretty grateful that she had been the one chosen to die, rather than any of the other possible candidates - all of whom were lovely (if not quite as lovely as she) and infinitely easier to deal with.

The merchant's daughter, to her credit, bore up remarkably well when her name was selected. She simply nodded, her regal, fine-featured face a mask of cool aplomb. This was disappointing to more than one of the townspeople at the Lottery; many had hoped to see her tough facade finally fall, revealing the vulnerable creature underneath. The other candidates, though - the nine most beautiful maidens in the town of Verdelon, apart from the silk merchant's daughter - couldn't hide their exhilaration. Each of them, in her heart of hearts, would have been terribly offended if the merchant's daughter was allowed to live while she was forced to die.

The merchant's daughter just didn't have it in her to be a lady, that was the problem. The Head Councilwoman was very particular about ladylike qualities, and her say was final in Verdelon - for everyone but the silk merchant's daughter, it seemed. While the other women of Verdelon took femininity to soaring heights, the merchant's daughter insisted on swearing, fighting, and insulting any man who so much as let his eyes linger on her shapely form. It was humiliating, and not at all the way that proper girls were raised.

When she turned sixteen, everyone was hoping that she would be the one chosen as the dragon sacrifice - not only to save the other beautiful young women, all of whom were appropriately humble, submissive, and sweet, but also because most people were all too ready to be shot of her. Even her own father, it was suspected, would be glad to see her go. She embarrassed every man she came across with her defiant ways, but it was certain that her father suffered this more than anyone else. Nobody would ever have the guts to actually marry her, and so her father would have bear the shame of her until he died - unless fate intervened.

Dragon sacrifice had been the way of life in Verdelon for years and years, ever since the first settlers had come to the green hills above the Old City. They were enchanted by the place, which was lush with plant life and teeming with game, and immediately began to build there. Unfortunately, it transpired that the ruins of the City were inhabited by a dragon, a cruel and ancient beast whose fury could only be sated by firm young flesh (preferably that of a beautiful young maiden). In the early days, the dragon raided the settlement continually, and the people feared that they would have to leave their new home.

It was the Head Councilwoman at the time that came up with the idea. She approached the dragon, docile as a lamb and appropriately humble, and made him a deal. If he promised to stop raiding the settlement, every year the people would choose from the ten most beautiful maidens of marrying age and send him a sacrifice. This way he needn't worry about wiping out his favorite food, and the people of the settlement could live in relative peace. The dragon, who could hunt well enough to live comfortably off the animals that now roamed the ruins in droves (but loved the taste of pretty young maidens more than anything else), agreed. He was not a particularly bright dragon, but he was very terrifying, so the Head Councilwoman didn't push her luck by asking for more. The people called the place Verdelon, and began to make it home.

So it happened that every year on the first of spring, the ten most beautiful maidens between the ages of sixteen and twenty were placed in a Lottery. Their names were written on scraps of paper and swirled around in a magnificent blown-glass bowl. The Head Councilwoman would dip her fingers into the bowl and pull out the name of the woman who was fated to die. This was usually a very tragic affair, because nobody really wanted to see a beautiful woman gobbled up by a vicious dragon, but that was how things had to be. The sacrifices never fought their fate - they hadn't been raised to question such things. They were ladies to the very end, gracious and modest and absolutely delicious.

After the sacrifice was chosen, she was outfitted in a gorgeous gown and sent down into the ruins. The people of Verdelon stood at the edge of the hills and watched her, glittering in the sunlight, as she made her way to her doom. They waved for hours and sang songs for her, so that her last memories of home would be good ones. For awhile after, they would tell complimentary stories about her and comfort her family, but soon enough she would be forgotten. All of the sacrifices seemed to blur together, really - sweet, modest girls as they were. Achingly beautiful, of course, but not particularly memorable apart from that.

Until the silk merchant's daughter, of course. She seemed determined to break the rules up to the very moment of her death. For one thing, she refused to wear a gown. Instead she demanded a tunic and a pair of trousers - trousers, on a woman! It would have been laughable, if the merchant's daughter had not been so terrifying. As it was, she dealt the tailor a clout so powerful that eventually he agreed to make her the trousers, if only to keep her from beating him to death.

"What does it matter, anyway?" he complained bitterly to the Head Councilwoman, when she called him out on this break of protocol. "She'll be dead in a few days. Let her wear the damned pants. She'll stick me with my own pins if I try to put her in a dress, she said so herself!" And everyone knew it was true.

She also demanded to be given a weapon. This really took the people aback. No sacrifice had ever asked for a weapon, They were meant to go peacefully and nobly to their deaths - not to fight back! But again, it was allowed. "Oh, let her take a weapon," the Head Councilwoman said dismissively, twisting the heavy gold rings on her fingers. "The dragon will snap her up in one bite. She'll never get a chance to use it." And so it was that the merchant's daughter was given a small silver blade.

When it came time to send the merchant's daughter into the city, the people gathered as usual to watch her walk to her death. Unlike past sacrifices, however, she didn't weep or hug her family and friends goodbye. Instead she stared at everyone in turn, her blue eyes flashing and imperious. "I'll be back," she said, and started off down the hill without a backward glance.

The people laughed nervously. A few tried to joke about what the merchant's daughter had said, but they were half-hearted attempts and not very funny. Nobody waved at her. Nobody even watched her enter the City. They hurried back to their houses, locked the doors, and shuttered the windows, sure that the merchant's daughter's disrespectful attitude would bring the dragon's fury down upon them all.

The silk merchant's daughter never did turn back to look at the hills. She knew nobody would be there - she wasn't stupid. She knew all too well what the people of Verdelon thought of her. She didn't give a damn. They were useless people, locked into a moronic deal with a dusty old monster and insistent on never changing - never progressing - at all. Just because she didn't consider it a wonderful compliment when a boy pinched her on the ass, just because she didn't like to flounce around like a princess in a fairytale, just because she didn't follow the rules set down by that awful, condescending old High Councilwoman, everyone hated her. Well, all right then, she could deal with that.

As she drew close to the City, she couldn't help but stare in awe. Nobody ever came down here apart from the yearly sacrifice, so she had never gotten a close look at the Old City. It was centuries old and falling apart, of course, but still there were enormous towers of metal and glass that spiraled up into the afternoon sky, so high she imagined that they skimmed the clouds. Strange and fabulous objects littered the streets. She would have liked to keep looking, to explore the place for hours, but the sun was beginning to set and the dragon would come for her soon. She pulled her small silver knife and waited for him on a wide boulevard, a cool breeze trailing her red hair behind her like a banner.

She didn't have to wait long. The dragon emerged from between two of the broken buildings, his scales glimmering like jewels in the warm glow of the sun.

"Hello, pretty one," he said in a deep and terrible voice.

"Hello, dragon," she replied.

"You are the most beautiful sacrifice I have had in a very long time," he said, his curved golden claws scraping on the ground as he came closer toward her. He licked his lips with a long, pointed red tongue. "I used to be a man, you know. A long time ago, people changed me into something else. If I was still a man, I would take you right now."

Rude, the merchant's daughter thought irritably. "What an inappropriate thing to say to me," she said.

The dragon laughed. "I'm going to eat you up, pretty one. Why does it matter?"

"Men are all the same," she said despairingly, "even when they're not men anymore."

"True enough," the dragon agreed. "What's that in your hand there?"

"This?" The merchant's daughter waved the little silver knife so that it caught the orange-pink rays of the setting sun. "This is a present for you."

"A present?" The dragon had to think about this for awhile. "Nobody's ever brought me a present before."

"You'll soon see I'm different from the others," the merchant's daughter promised. "Now come here so I can give you your present."

"I like you, pretty one," the dragon said, silently deciding to tell the High Councilwoman that all the sacrifices should bring him presents from here on out. He couldn't really see what the girl had - it was very small - but it glinted and sparkled most fetchingly. The dragon liked things that sparkled. "All right. I am going to get my present, and then I am going to eat you."

The dragon slithered closer and closer, and the merchant's daughter tightened her grip on the silver knife. The dragon came so close that his great green eye was only inches from her. "So what did you bring me?" He asked eagerly.

The merchant's daughter threw the knife. It pierced the dragon right through the middle of his eye, shattering the green mirror of his gaze. The dragon shrieked and raged and writhed, banging his scaly body against the ground.

"You bitch!" he screamed, pawing at the blade in his eye. "You've blinded it!"

But the merchant's daughter was already running, running to retrieve the knife from where it had fallen. The dragon's giant feet battered the ground around her, but she dodged them easily in her comfortable trousers. She scooped up the knife and dashed back out in front of the dragon's awful mouth.

"I'm going to tear you apart!" the dragon shrieked at her. He opened his mouth - wide enough that she could walk right into it. His curved white teeth shone with gobbets of saliva. The merchant's daughter flung her knife into the wet crimson maw with all her strength.

The dragon gagged. The knife had buried itself in the back of his throat. He tried to shake it free, but only succeeded in tearing a large gash in his soft esophagus. He retched and coughed, but it was no good. The knife just kept slipping down his throat, slicing and nicking him every moment. It was tearing him up from the inside out.

"You've done it now," the dragon said weakly, showering the merchant's daughter in a spray of dark blood. "I'm going to eat up your whole town for this."

"We'll see," the merchant's daughter said with a smirk, and she left him there to die.

---

When the High Councilwoman's servant came to fetch the blown-glass bowl from the town square, he had a definite spring in his step. It had been hours since the merchant's daughter had headed off down the hill and night was beginning to fall. She must have been eaten up by now, and so much the better for him. He still remembered with horror how she had reacted to his suggestion, just a few weeks ago, that the two of them go off somewhere so he could teach her what it meant to be a real woman. In fact, he could still feel the echo of her kick in his nether regions.

Well, now she was dead and gone and nobody would ever know how she'd embarrassed him. In a fit of lightheartedness, he tossed the bowl from hand to hand, the slips of paper fluttering like butterflies inside it. Unfortunately, the servant had never been great shakes at sports, and on his second toss the bowl slipped from his fingers and shattered on the ground. He groaned with horror, thinking of the impending lecture he would get from the High Councilwoman.

Reaching down to collect the shards, he noticed something strange. The writing on two of the slips of paper looked oddly similar. With growing unease, he collected all the Lottery slips and turned them over in his hands. Each, in the clear, bold handwriting of the silk merchant's daughter, bore exactly the same name.





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This week was yet another intersection challenge, and this time my partner is [livejournal.com profile] pixie117, which I'm super excited about. She's a brilliant writer and a great competitor, so it's nice to have her on my team this week :) Her entry (which is awesome and goes along with this piece) is HERE. Read and vote for us this week, if you have it in your hearts - our vote totals will be combined, so we'll either be IN or OUT together. And I'll be honest, I'm not ready to say Auf Wiedersehen just yet!
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] sultry)
We realized right off that the girl was going to be a hard nut to crack. Usually it's easy - slap 'em around a little bit and they'll tell you anything you want to know. Knocks them out of the shock. Usually it doesn't take more than once, just one little pop on the cheek, and they're moaning and clutching their faces and pouring the whole sad story out at your feet.

But this girl was different, right from the start. For one thing, she was as hard and lean as any of the Army guys, all muscle and bone. And she didn't look down at her feet like the other detainees always do. She stared us right in the face, with her jaw set and her hands resting at her sides, like she was going to pull a knife any second. It was a little freaky, I don't mind telling you, even though we'd checked her for weapons before bringing her in (and you know how Raimey is - he probably checked her three or four times, jerking himself off the whole time). She didn't answer any questions, either, just glared at us with those crazy gray eyes of hers. When the lights hit them it was like there wasn't any color there at all, just white on white with a little black dot in the middle, stuck right on you. I can still see them, just like she's here in front of me, sitting where you are.

Well, the Cap got sick of the button-lips routine, and gave us the go ahead for a little rough stuff. It was mostly Porter that did it - he likes that kind of thing, but he doesn't do it too hard (like some of the other guys, who'd have her spitting teeth). Still, I did her a bit myself, just a couple of smacks. Let me tell you, she wasn't like any other woman I've ever done it to. She didn't make any noise, no noise at all, and she'd just ratchet her head around to face front again every time you popped her one. It was freaky, like I said, especially with the blood and all.

I still can't believe she offed those guys. Four guys! Army, too. And her only about five foot three. They found the whole pile of them out at Supply Depot 6, and her just sitting there, covered in blood, calm as you please. Like she was waiting to catch a bus or something. They'd been beaten to death, looked like, but I can't figure how she did it on all her own. I don't know how anybody could take out four Army without any weapons.

Cap figures she's got an accomplice somewhere, one of those asshole fringe types always making racket about the End of the World. That's why we did the rough stuff, to figure out where this other whackjob was so we could take him out. Usually those weirdo types are pretty peaceful - annoying as fuck, but it's not like they're gonna swing at you - but sometimes the real crazy ones can get violent. Something about being so close to the Brains just sets some people off. That's what the Cap thinks happened; one of those weirdos got too close to the Brains, and they set him off on the crazy stuff. He got the girl roped into it (you know how those conspiracy cult guys are, all those women around), and wham bam, four dead guys.

But let me tell you something, I don't think there is an accomplice. Something about the way that girl looked at me, I think she did it herself.

At first I thought that she might be one of them, the Brains. Army says they've got them all locked up, snug as a bug in those bunkers, but I don't see why one of them couldn't have flown under the radar. I'm thinking that the girl is a Brain, and she told those guys to beat each other to death, sweet as you please, in that voice they use. Remember that? In training? I can still remember what that Brain said to me, right inside my head - "Jump, Walter. Jump. Jump." And I did it, too, jumped clean off the rail of that catwalk. I was only lucky that it wasn't that high.

We all did what they said, didn't we? You did it, too, I can tell by your face. That was the point of the training, Cap said, to show us what we were up against if they should ever get loose. We can't fight them, not with what they can do. And the Army says they've got it under control, but those fuckers are something serious. I don't see how they can think that guns and a bunker could keep them out. If the Army can't stop them, what are we supposed to do? No little militia outfit is going to stop those things.

That's why we're all here, because of them. They started popping up out of nowhere, messing with people's heads, and the whole world went to shit. People blowing themselves up, blowing each other up, blowing whole countries up! And the Army just can't let it go, thinks those things can be fixed to work for us. Rewired to tell all the terrorists to shove grenades up their asses and we'll be in the clear - the ol' US of A, on top again. Well, I don't think so. If you ask me, all the Brains should be exterminated. Just wiped out, every last one. I remember what that thing sounded like, inside my head. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

Why are you looking at me like that, anyway? You know what I'm saying is true. I had a life before those things showed up, a real life. I was a banker, just a regular Joe, and it was great. It was fucking great and I didn't even see it. One day there I was, going to work and drinking lattes and eating McDonald's and the whole bit, and the next there are the headlines about these psychic motherfuckers getting into people's heads and making them do stuff - crazy stuff. People dying all over the place, suicides and shootings and bombings and who knows what else.

Now we're all stuck here, what's left of us, in these shitty Army compounds, doing whatever shitty jobs they assign us. Fucking militia! I'd never fired a gun in my life until I got here. All because of those fucking Brains! It drives me crazy! Sometimes I don't know what I'm even doing anymore. I just feel like I'm going nuts.

I'll tell you what I'd like to do that girl, I'd like to kill her myself. I can even see how I'd do it. I'd put my hands around her neck first, and then I'd shake her, I'd shake her so hard her teeth would rattle together, and then I'd throw her down on the floor and hit her, again and again. I'd beat her like those guys were beat, until the blood spewed out of her. All over the floor and all over me and all over everything! And I'd just keep on hitting her, even when she'd gone all limp and soft, because of what she did - what they all did! Fuck her, fuck the Brains, fuck it all!



Hey... hey, man... what are you doing? What are you doing down there? You all right, man? What the fuck... are you okay?

Oh, God. Oh, God, what did I do?





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This week's Idol prompt contained an intersection challenge! This round, all of the remaining contestants will be working with a partner. My partner is [livejournal.com profile] supremegoddess1, who wrote a companion piece to this one. Her entry is HERE, and it is absolutely amazing. Our vote totals will be tallied together this week, so do read and give us any love you can spare :)
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] messy updo)
Exhibit X: The First American Werewolf in Captivity!

She could see the sign over the tops of the trees, emblazoned in red letters that looked like dripping blood. Beneath the words, her face. It wasn’t a face she recognized, but it was hers all the same. She felt it inside her, twitching under the muscles in her cheeks and lips and jaws.

The enclosure was circular and open, like an amphitheater, ringed on three quarters of its circumference by a thick wall of transparent plastic. It was made up to look like a piney woods, all mossy boulders and little gullies and bristly, transplanted trees that struggled to live in the foreign soil. And there were the faces, always the faces, shimmering like phantasms against the plastic barrier, staring at her wherever she turned.

Her name was Hazel, though nobody called her that anymore. The name emblazoned on the plaque in front of her enclosure was Lupe, though most people didn’t call her that, either. She was the freak, the monster, the wolf girl, nothing more. She had been in the zoo for two years.

Every day she was awakened at seven o’ clock, an hour before the zoo opened. They used a cattle prod to shove her out of the back of the enclosure, where she slept in a plain, dark room on dirty blankets. They fed her - mostly raw beef and things that she couldn’t even name, animal parts, pink and shining in the pale morning light. She refused to eat these, though she had learned to choke down the beef. Sometimes she thought about refusing it all until she shriveled up and disappeared, but she knew they’d never let her die. They’d shove tubes down her throat and force her if she didn’t do it herself. She was the star attraction, after all.

In the beginning she had tried to talk to them. She tried to tell them that this was wrong, that she was human, at least most of the time. Some of them had even talked back at first. Then, slowly, the talk dried up. Their eyes changed. She wasn’t Hazel anymore, or even Lupe. She was just another animal, dangerous and dirty and stupid. Her own voice dwindled and died away until it was little more than a whisper.

Sometimes she tried to talk to the people who came to see her, too, though she knew they couldn’t hear her through the plastic. She found the ones with pity in their eyes and whispered, “Help me, please,” her slim brown fingers pressed against the barrier like a prayer. But they only lowered their eyes and walked away, and the rest crowded in with their cameras and hungry smiles while a zoo employee crowed over the noise, “It’s your lucky day, folks! Lupe is usually shy – she must see something she likes out there! I’d keep your daughter close, ma’am, she might smell like lunch!”

She still combed her hair with her fingers, though it was filthy and thick with grease, and washed herself with her drinking water every night. It seemed futile, but she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t give up what little was left to her of Hazel, who had once been a pretty girl. She still felt like Hazel, in some deep quiet part of her mind, though the other thing was there, too, snarling around in the darkness like a half-remembered nightmare.

When spring began to melt into summer, she realized that she was nearly nineteen years old. If she thought about it hard enough, she could still imagine a white frosted cake crowned with a tiara of flame, the kind she’d had before the thing happened and she had changed. Her mother had always baked Hazel’s birthday cake herself. “They never get the icing right,” she said of supermarket bakeries.

Hazel hadn’t seen her mother in three years, since she had signed her over like an unwanted pet. The memory still burned in her gut like acid.

In the third week of May, men began erecting high metal bleachers around the enclosure. She knew, then, that the full moon wasn’t far away. She could already feel it humming through her nerves, at the roots of her teeth.

The zoo celebrated the full moon each month by opening the gates after sunset. At moonrise, a crowd gathered around her like shadows, mounting the bleachers eagerly in search of the best seat. Stadium lighting slammed on around her, moths swirling through the fluorescent beams like spinning constellations, and she began to change. It was always painful, the creak and snap of bone, the tearing skin, the sudden stretch of tendon and muscle. But worst of all was the shame, hot and thick like the saliva that filled her mouth, like the scent of blood in her nose.

When she changed she wasn’t Hazel. She wasn’t anybody. She didn’t remember, afterward, only dreamed of it, and the dreams left her shattered and shaking. She buried the bones with tears in her eyes, the shreds and shards of animals they released into the enclosure with her when she was not herself. In her dreams, she heard the delightful squealing of the crowd, felt the juicy burst of flesh under her teeth.

When she saw the men building the bleachers, her stomach twisted. She couldn’t bear the thought of being their monster again, of killing and running and snarling and howling for them. She retreated behind the trees and ignored the sounds of disappointment from the faces behind the glass. The part of her that was still Hazel whispered her plans, but nobody was listening.

The next morning, she awoke before the cattle prod entered her pen. She lay in the cool darkness, tingling from her fingertips to her toes, and waited. It wouldn’t be long.

At seven o’ clock, a small panel opened at the back of the room. A muscle twitched in her flank as she watched. The prod slid inside, and behind it she could see the face of the man that held it. He peered into the gloom, trying to find her with his weak, watery eyes.

The movement flowed through her like liquid silver. She sprang to her feet and reached out suddenly, her fingers closing on the plastic shaft of the prod, behind the crackling end. The man did not expect this; she had always been docile, sluggish and cringing. She jerked him forward, the muscles in her arm contracting. She heard the soft clunk of his head hitting the exterior wall, and felt the sudden slackening of the prod. Flinging it away, she dashed at the panel. It was small but so was she, half-starved as she was. Her hips banged against the rough stone as she came through, but she didn’t feel anything but the man’s skin under her hands. Her teeth closed on his throat before he could scream, and she tore it out with a single jerk of her head. Blood gushed into her mouth, and just for a moment she savored it, before the part of her that was Hazel flooded back and pushed the body away.

She stripped the corpse and zipped the jumpsuit around herself. It was far too big, puddling around her wrists and ankles, and there was a wet bloodstain at the shoulder, but it would have to do for now. The man she shoved into her pen, twisting and breaking the body to make it fit. She couldn’t do anything about the blood on the floor but hope that it would be a few minutes before anyone found it.

The narrow corridor behind her pen opened up on the far side of the tiger enclosure. She was at the very heart of the zoo, surrounded by winding paths and habitats and cages. Her nostrils flared. She smelled the zoo employees moving around her, the animals, the grease from the food carts. The part of her that was not Hazel could see it all like a map, laid out in a pattern of heat and scent.

It was easy enough to avoid the zoo employees at first, though the blood on the jumpsuit unsettled the animals. She spotted an abandoned merchandise cart in front of the reptile house and stole a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, undressing right there to pull them on. As she left the cart, an alarm began to shriek – they had noticed she was missing. Her loping run carried her over the dirt paths so fast she barely felt the ground under her feet. She could sense people running around her, toward her, and heard their frantic shouting. The animals growled and whickered and whined.

The perimeter wall loomed in front of her, but it was decorative and low. She almost laughed as she vaulted over it. She landed in a crouch on the other side. Behind the wall, she could still hear the faint shouts of zoo employees. They didn’t realize she was outside. They didn’t realize she was free. She began to run again, her stride eating up the sparse grass. She didn’t look back.


“The popular Exhibit X attraction at the Westport Zoo closed last Friday, after the escape of ‘Lupe,’ the first American werewolf in captivity,” a television chattered over the counter. “Authorities are currently searching the surrounding areas for the werewolf, but have no comment as to the whereabouts of this dangerous beast. The full moon rose last night…” A photograph flashed onto the screen – a crouching girl with filthy, matted hair and flashing eyes. She was clothed in only strips of blanket.

“Scary, ain’t it?” The man behind the counter shook his head. “Hope they catch the damn thing.” He turned toward the girl with the shining blonde hair, who was perched across from him on a red vinyl stool. She wore a floaty summer dress that was just a little too big for her and speckled with small flecks of mud. He thought she must be a gardener, what with the mud and the tan. Her thick-lashed brown eyes were fixed on the television. “So what’ll it be, hon?”

“The breakfast platter, please,” she whispered, barely audible over the television. “Extra sausage and bacon.”

“Speak up, hon,” he chuckled, silently deciding to add a couple of pancakes to the girl’s plate, on the house. She looked a bit underfed. “Pretty girl like you shouldn’t ought to be shy.”
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] messy updo)
Exhibit X: The First American Werewolf in Captivity!

She could see the sign over the tops of the trees, emblazoned in red letters that looked like dripping blood. Beneath the words, her face. It wasn’t a face she recognized, but it was hers all the same. She felt it inside her, twitching under the muscles in her cheeks and lips and jaws.

The enclosure was circular and open, like an amphitheater, ringed on three quarters of its circumference by a thick wall of transparent plastic. It was made up to look like a piney woods, all mossy boulders and little gullies and bristly, transplanted trees that struggled to live in the foreign soil. And there were the faces, always the faces, shimmering like phantasms against the plastic barrier, staring at her wherever she turned.

Her name was Hazel, though nobody called her that anymore. The name emblazoned on the plaque in front of her enclosure was Lupe, though most people didn’t call her that, either. She was the freak, the monster, the wolf girl, nothing more. She had been in the zoo for two years.

Every day she was awakened at seven o’ clock, an hour before the zoo opened. They used a cattle prod to shove her out of the back of the enclosure, where she slept in a plain, dark room on dirty blankets. They fed her - mostly raw beef and things that she couldn’t even name, animal parts, pink and shining in the pale morning light. She refused to eat these, though she had learned to choke down the beef. Sometimes she thought about refusing it all until she shriveled up and disappeared, but she knew they’d never let her die. They’d shove tubes down her throat and force her if she didn’t do it herself. She was the star attraction, after all.

In the beginning she had tried to talk to them. She tried to tell them that this was wrong, that she was human, at least most of the time. Some of them had even talked back at first. Then, slowly, the talk dried up. Their eyes changed. She wasn’t Hazel anymore, or even Lupe. She was just another animal, dangerous and dirty and stupid. Her own voice dwindled and died away until it was little more than a whisper.

Sometimes she tried to talk to the people who came to see her, too, though she knew they couldn’t hear her through the plastic. She found the ones with pity in their eyes and whispered, “Help me, please,” her slim brown fingers pressed against the barrier like a prayer. But they only lowered their eyes and walked away, and the rest crowded in with their cameras and hungry smiles while a zoo employee crowed over the noise, “It’s your lucky day, folks! Lupe is usually shy – she must see something she likes out there! I’d keep your daughter close, ma’am, she might smell like lunch!”

She still combed her hair with her fingers, though it was filthy and thick with grease, and washed herself with her drinking water every night. It seemed futile, but she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t give up what little was left to her of Hazel, who had once been a pretty girl. She still felt like Hazel, in some deep quiet part of her mind, though the other thing was there, too, snarling around in the darkness like a half-remembered nightmare.

When spring began to melt into summer, she realized that she was nearly nineteen years old. If she thought about it hard enough, she could still imagine a white frosted cake crowned with a tiara of flame, the kind she’d had before the thing happened and she had changed. Her mother had always baked Hazel’s birthday cake herself. “They never get the icing right,” she said of supermarket bakeries.

Hazel hadn’t seen her mother in three years, since she had signed her over like an unwanted pet. The memory still burned in her gut like acid.

In the third week of May, men began erecting high metal bleachers around the enclosure. She knew, then, that the full moon wasn’t far away. She could already feel it humming through her nerves, at the roots of her teeth.

The zoo celebrated the full moon each month by opening the gates after sunset. At moonrise, a crowd gathered around her like shadows, mounting the bleachers eagerly in search of the best seat. Stadium lighting slammed on around her, moths swirling through the fluorescent beams like spinning constellations, and she began to change. It was always painful, the creak and snap of bone, the tearing skin, the sudden stretch of tendon and muscle. But worst of all was the shame, hot and thick like the saliva that filled her mouth, like the scent of blood in her nose.

When she changed she wasn’t Hazel. She wasn’t anybody. She didn’t remember, afterward, only dreamed of it, and the dreams left her shattered and shaking. She buried the bones with tears in her eyes, the shreds and shards of animals they released into the enclosure with her when she was not herself. In her dreams, she heard the delightful squealing of the crowd, felt the juicy burst of flesh under her teeth.

When she saw the men building the bleachers, her stomach twisted. She couldn’t bear the thought of being their monster again, of killing and running and snarling and howling for them. She retreated behind the trees and ignored the sounds of disappointment from the faces behind the glass. The part of her that was still Hazel whispered her plans, but nobody was listening.

The next morning, she awoke before the cattle prod entered her pen. She lay in the cool darkness, tingling from her fingertips to her toes, and waited. It wouldn’t be long.

At seven o’ clock, a small panel opened at the back of the room. A muscle twitched in her flank as she watched. The prod slid inside, and behind it she could see the face of the man that held it. He peered into the gloom, trying to find her with his weak, watery eyes.

The movement flowed through her like liquid silver. She sprang to her feet and reached out suddenly, her fingers closing on the plastic shaft of the prod, behind the crackling end. The man did not expect this; she had always been docile, sluggish and cringing. She jerked him forward, the muscles in her arm contracting. She heard the soft clunk of his head hitting the exterior wall, and felt the sudden slackening of the prod. Flinging it away, she dashed at the panel. It was small but so was she, half-starved as she was. Her hips banged against the rough stone as she came through, but she didn’t feel anything but the man’s skin under her hands. Her teeth closed on his throat before he could scream, and she tore it out with a single jerk of her head. Blood gushed into her mouth, and just for a moment she savored it, before the part of her that was Hazel flooded back and pushed the body away.

She stripped the corpse and zipped the jumpsuit around herself. It was far too big, puddling around her wrists and ankles, and there was a wet bloodstain at the shoulder, but it would have to do for now. The man she shoved into her pen, twisting and breaking the body to make it fit. She couldn’t do anything about the blood on the floor but hope that it would be a few minutes before anyone found it.

The narrow corridor behind her pen opened up on the far side of the tiger enclosure. She was at the very heart of the zoo, surrounded by winding paths and habitats and cages. Her nostrils flared. She smelled the zoo employees moving around her, the animals, the grease from the food carts. The part of her that was not Hazel could see it all like a map, laid out in a pattern of heat and scent.

It was easy enough to avoid the zoo employees at first, though the blood on the jumpsuit unsettled the animals. She spotted an abandoned merchandise cart in front of the reptile house and stole a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, undressing right there to pull them on. As she left the cart, an alarm began to shriek – they had noticed she was missing. Her loping run carried her over the dirt paths so fast she barely felt the ground under her feet. She could sense people running around her, toward her, and heard their frantic shouting. The animals growled and whickered and whined.

The perimeter wall loomed in front of her, but it was decorative and low. She almost laughed as she vaulted over it. She landed in a crouch on the other side. Behind the wall, she could still hear the faint shouts of zoo employees. They didn’t realize she was outside. They didn’t realize she was free. She began to run again, her stride eating up the sparse grass. She didn’t look back.


“The popular Exhibit X attraction at the Westport Zoo closed last Friday, after the escape of ‘Lupe,’ the first American werewolf in captivity,” a television chattered over the counter. “Authorities are currently searching the surrounding areas for the werewolf, but have no comment as to the whereabouts of this dangerous beast. The full moon rose last night…” A photograph flashed onto the screen – a crouching girl with filthy, matted hair and flashing eyes. She was clothed in only strips of blanket.

“Scary, ain’t it?” The man behind the counter shook his head. “Hope they catch the damn thing.” He turned toward the girl with the shining blonde hair, who was perched across from him on a red vinyl stool. She wore a floaty summer dress that was just a little too big for her and speckled with small flecks of mud. He thought she must be a gardener, what with the mud and the tan. Her thick-lashed brown eyes were fixed on the television. “So what’ll it be, hon?”

“The breakfast platter, please,” she whispered, barely audible over the television. “Extra sausage and bacon.”

“Speak up, hon,” he chuckled, silently deciding to add a couple of pancakes to the girl’s plate, on the house. She looked a bit underfed. “Pretty girl like you shouldn’t ought to be shy.”
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] butterfly mask)
The corpse was discovered just before daybreak, draped across the lush green grass like a sleeping angel. There was some confusion surrounding the time that the body actually appeared on the lawn, for it lay immediately adjacent to a house that had been hosting a large and raucous party for several hours prior to (and during, and even slightly after) the gruesome discovery. Many people admitted to having seen the girl on the grass throughout the course of the night, but had figured her a happy casualty of the bacchanalia and gone on their way.

None of these witnesses could pin down an exact time to seeing her (and it was suspected, if not spoken aloud, that some of them were simply caught up in the excitement of the thing and weren't entirely truthful in their accounts), and so the discovery was attributed to a member of the band, who had wandered out at around five fifteen in the morning and attempted to wake her. It was at this point that he noticed that she didn't have a pulse.

The news quickly circulated. Before long, a knot of people were clustered around the pale figure, breathless with fear and a kind of morbid excitement.

“I’ve never seen a dead body before,” said a girl in a thrilling whisper. She wore shredded green tights and held her thin, nicotine-stained fingers to her mouth.

“You’ve never been a funeral?” someone else inquired.

“That doesn’t count,” the girl said decisively. “It isn’t the same.”

A bobbing wave went through the group as everyone nodded. Most had leaned over the powdered, preserved corpses of distant relatives in pillow-lined boxes, their noses full of the cloying scent of funeral wreaths. This was different – more dignified, somehow. Each person in the cluster felt a certain respect for the dead girl at their feet. She brought mortality to them in a way dead grandparents and great-aunts never had, and each of them seemed to momentarily felt the cold flurry of its wings. Several began speaking at once in an attempt to break the dark spell.

"Does anybody know who she is?"

"I thought I saw her with you on the front porch, isn't that right?"

"Did she come with anyone else?"

All of these questions were answered in the negative. Nobody knew her. No one had sat with her on the front porch. Certainly nobody had come in with her. She seemed to have materialized out of thin air, a fairy-tale princess transported to them by the magic of her last breath.

“Should we call the police?” someone asked tentatively. There was a general murmur of assent, though no one moved to carry out the deed. All of them remained fixed, their eyes on the body that gleamed faintly in the grass. It was as though they feared she might fade into the dewy morning like a phantom if they turned their eyes away.

Finally, a shiver of movement broke the concentration. A young man in a battered straw fedora pulled his cell phone from his pocket and determinedly dialed it. He looked off over the rooftops and young, shivering suburban trees, as though determined not to meet the vigilant eyes of his fellows. He didn't move away, though; he couldn't resist the charm of such a captive audience.

The call was brief and relatively uninteresting. The best part was when the young man said, "We've found a dead body," in a tone that he obviously intended to be nonchalant, but came out as though he imagined himself as some kind of hard-bitten TV detective. One of the girls at the back of the group tittered nervously.

When it was all over, the young man turned to the rest of them, and they gathered in around him with expressions that were somehow both curious and conspiratorial. "They're on their way," he said. This time he got the tone right, but his eager face belied his enthusiasm.

There was a sudden swell of talk, like a breaking wave, and then silence again. Eyes full of meaning sought each other in the crowd, then turned to the body, then flicked away again. The moment of reverent focus was gone, but the fascination remained. Some people stepped gingerly closer, and the bravest knelt to get a better look.

"She's pretty," a girl with a blonde mohawk said. And she was. She wore a short, lacy party dress, the color of champagne bubbles. She had long, honey colored hair and a delicate face. On one of her fingers, she wore a ring shaped like a butterfly.

This was all people could remember, when later asked. They had stared and stared and stared at her, but could only ever faintly remember what she looked like. It was like trying to remember a dream, and scraps of it seemed to be continually floating away from them.

The ambulance and police cars arrived ten minutes later. Statements were given, reports written, and the staccato lightning of camera flashes flickered over the grass as the first blades of daylight sliced across the sky. Then, almost ceremoniously, like an honor guard, they placed the body on a stretcher and bore it grimly away. The partygoers watched with hungry eyes until the last of the taillights turned the corner and rushed away.

No one ever figured out who she was. No one ever claimed her. She faded quickly into a story to interest dates or relatives, a macabre token of the speaker's worldliness and wild ways. They talked about her romantically, dramatically, hanging meaning and wonder and mystery on the fragile shell of their memories. They built her up like an idol of mist, powerful and vague. She was the smoke that curled from their cigarettes, the tension that hung between their words, the pale-blue moment just before the summer sun breaks across the morning sky. Almost solid, almost someone, but not quite.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] butterfly mask)
The corpse was discovered just before daybreak, draped across the lush green grass like a sleeping angel. There was some confusion surrounding the time that the body actually appeared on the lawn, for it lay immediately adjacent to a house that had been hosting a large and raucous party for several hours prior to (and during, and even slightly after) the gruesome discovery. Many people admitted to having seen the girl on the grass throughout the course of the night, but had figured her a happy casualty of the bacchanalia and gone on their way.

None of these witnesses could pin down an exact time to seeing her (and it was suspected, if not spoken aloud, that some of them were simply caught up in the excitement of the thing and weren't entirely truthful in their accounts), and so the discovery was attributed to a member of the band, who had wandered out at around five fifteen in the morning and attempted to wake her. It was at this point that he noticed that she didn't have a pulse.

The news quickly circulated. Before long, a knot of people were clustered around the pale figure, breathless with fear and a kind of morbid excitement.

“I’ve never seen a dead body before,” said a girl in a thrilling whisper. She wore shredded green tights and held her thin, nicotine-stained fingers to her mouth.

“You’ve never been a funeral?” someone else inquired.

“That doesn’t count,” the girl said decisively. “It isn’t the same.”

A bobbing wave went through the group as everyone nodded. Most had leaned over the powdered, preserved corpses of distant relatives in pillow-lined boxes, their noses full of the cloying scent of funeral wreaths. This was different – more dignified, somehow. Each person in the cluster felt a certain respect for the dead girl at their feet. She brought mortality to them in a way dead grandparents and great-aunts never had, and each of them seemed to momentarily felt the cold flurry of its wings. Several began speaking at once in an attempt to break the dark spell.

"Does anybody know who she is?"

"I thought I saw her with you on the front porch, isn't that right?"

"Did she come with anyone else?"

All of these questions were answered in the negative. Nobody knew her. No one had sat with her on the front porch. Certainly nobody had come in with her. She seemed to have materialized out of thin air, a fairy-tale princess transported to them by the magic of her last breath.

“Should we call the police?” someone asked tentatively. There was a general murmur of assent, though no one moved to carry out the deed. All of them remained fixed, their eyes on the body that gleamed faintly in the grass. It was as though they feared she might fade into the dewy morning like a phantom if they turned their eyes away.

Finally, a shiver of movement broke the concentration. A young man in a battered straw fedora pulled his cell phone from his pocket and determinedly dialed it. He looked off over the rooftops and young, shivering suburban trees, as though determined not to meet the vigilant eyes of his fellows. He didn't move away, though; he couldn't resist the charm of such a captive audience.

The call was brief and relatively uninteresting. The best part was when the young man said, "We've found a dead body," in a tone that he obviously intended to be nonchalant, but came out as though he imagined himself as some kind of hard-bitten TV detective. One of the girls at the back of the group tittered nervously.

When it was all over, the young man turned to the rest of them, and they gathered in around him with expressions that were somehow both curious and conspiratorial. "They're on their way," he said. This time he got the tone right, but his eager face belied his enthusiasm.

There was a sudden swell of talk, like a breaking wave, and then silence again. Eyes full of meaning sought each other in the crowd, then turned to the body, then flicked away again. The moment of reverent focus was gone, but the fascination remained. Some people stepped gingerly closer, and the bravest knelt to get a better look.

"She's pretty," a girl with a blonde mohawk said. And she was. She wore a short, lacy party dress, the color of champagne bubbles. She had long, honey colored hair and a delicate face. On one of her fingers, she wore a ring shaped like a butterfly.

This was all people could remember, when later asked. They had stared and stared and stared at her, but could only ever faintly remember what she looked like. It was like trying to remember a dream, and scraps of it seemed to be continually floating away from them.

The ambulance and police cars arrived ten minutes later. Statements were given, reports written, and the staccato lightning of camera flashes flickered over the grass as the first blades of daylight sliced across the sky. Then, almost ceremoniously, like an honor guard, they placed the body on a stretcher and bore it grimly away. The partygoers watched with hungry eyes until the last of the taillights turned the corner and rushed away.

No one ever figured out who she was. No one ever claimed her. She faded quickly into a story to interest dates or relatives, a macabre token of the speaker's worldliness and wild ways. They talked about her romantically, dramatically, hanging meaning and wonder and mystery on the fragile shell of their memories. They built her up like an idol of mist, powerful and vague. She was the smoke that curled from their cigarettes, the tension that hung between their words, the pale-blue moment just before the summer sun breaks across the morning sky. Almost solid, almost someone, but not quite.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] my kingdom on the waves)
One hour after dark. Tucked into a dark corner, a man in a black coat watched people drift down the narrow junction of streets across from Stayman's Pharmacy and the crumbling old cinemaplex, its lights still blinking to advertise a two-year-old nudie flick. He'd been to see it himself, six months ago, because even a shitty old theater showing shitty old movies was better than nothing. The sound hadn't worked well, and there were sections of the film that were entirely unwatchable due to tears and burns in the celluloid, but it was an all right way to pass an evening. Better than this, anyway.

None of the people passing him were right for what he wanted. He could tell at a glance - he'd been doing this a long time. Nearly all of them had Tik parts, and cheap ones at that. The ones that didn't were too old or too haggard. His clients had paid him well to get what they wanted: fresh, young, and one hundred percent human.

Of course, people like that, they just assumed that the streets were packed with that kind of stock, like they had been in the old days. It was some kind of romantic notion that'd started going around in the rich parts of town years ago. They'd even made films about it, though those were the kinds of films that only showed in the richie cinemas uptown, and he had never seen one. Still, he got the gist. Always a poor couple, deeply in love, living out their brief lives in a passionate whirl of emotion. Eventually finding meaning in each other, shunning Cybernetik parts, and dying young but whole in each other's arms. So on and so forth, blah blah blah.

It was stupid, and deep down they had to know it wasn't real. It was just something to entertain them. The poor sections of town weren't romantic, and they certainly weren't full of young, able-bodied humans living out their short but meaningful and happy lives together. If anything, there were probably more Cybernetiks among the poor than the wealthy. Richies, at least, could pay someone to obtain human parts if they needed a little fixer-upper. Someone like him.

He himself had Tik parts, though he didn't like to advertise that. His work had afforded him enough cash to get decent ones, and they weren't as immediately obvious as the cheap stuff. His left eye was all Tik, replaced three years ago, and most of the bones and tendons in his left arm were as well. He'd been in a car accident, and that seemed the only way to go if he didn't want to be permanently disabled.

He hadn't wanted to do it - like everyone else, before he'd needed them he'd planned never to get Cybernetiks. Like everyone else, he hadn't wanted to be less than human.

He'd realized after he'd gotten them, though, that everyone did it. They said they never would, but everyone did in the end. Nobody really wanted to weaken, to decay. Nobody wanted to die. But nobody wanted to admit that they were cheating it, either. It was that romance thing again. There was nothing romantic about replacing your body parts with machines when they got damaged or wore out. It was more romantic to think about grabbing on to the short time you had and making the most of it. But nobody really did that, not anymore. They just pretended.

And the richies, well. They cheated in their own way, to avoid the stigma. This way they were all human, all the time, and could look down their noses at the Tiks. It was just one more thing to feel superior about.

He sighed. It was nearly eight o' clock now. Curfew was at ten, and his apartment was on the other side of town. Traffic being what it was, it'd take him nearly an hour to get back to his place. If he didn't spot someone soon, he was giving it up as a bad job. He'd go back out on the weekend, when there were more people around and the curfew was extended an hour. The richies could wait.

Then he spotted her. She just drifted down the street in front of him, turning down Pier Avenue without the slightest glance around her. She wore a navy blue dress that was at least one size too big for her, and a ragged tan overcoat with a small collection of pins and buttons around the collar that winked in the streetlights. She was obviously underfed, but pretty nonetheless - he could make out her fine features in the dimness. She had long, sweeping black hair that fell down her back like dark water. And, best of all, she was completely human.

It wasn't always easy to tell if they were all human, but he had developed a knack for it. Of course, Tiks in this part of town were usually pretty obvious, with maker's marks stamped on them or visible joints or frayed prosthetic skin. Even if the Tiks were only on the inside, organs or bones or muscles, people just moved differently. He could spot them a mile off. This girl, though. She was one hundred percent.

When she had gotten a few yards ahead of him, the man in the black coat pushed off the wall and began to follow her. He was careful to keep his footsteps silent, but the girl never so much as turned her head. She was obviously the kind of girl who had been coddled, in the limited way that people around here could coddle a person. No doubt everyone in this neighborhood knew her, the pretty girl with the long black hair, and treated her like their own little pauper-princess. Nobody'd ever think to lay a hand on her.

When she didn't turn up at home that night, the alarm would be raised quickly. People would turn out in droves, sacrificing what little sleep they usually got to call her name in the streets. It wouldn't matter, though, by that time. He would already be gone, and so would she.

The buildings on either side of the street melted away suddenly, revealing the riverfront. It was as decrepit as everything else; the bank of the river was strewn with trash, and the air stank. It was muggier down here, as though the fetid water of the river pressed down against the eyes and skin. The man in black hung back in the mouth of street, watching the wraithlike figure of the girl moving between the streetlights. What was she doing down here? Meeting some lover?

Many of the streetlights along the river had gone out, and the girl seemed to blink in and out of existence entirely as she moved through these swathes of darkness. He realized that she was heading toward a large, run-down building overlooking the river - a defunct ferry station. Without the slightest hesitation, she entered the darkened building. He himself paused for a moment before following her inside; it was rare for him to go so far before taking out a target, and he would have to find a place to stash the girl while he went back for his car. Moving around so much could attract attention. His eyes flicked over to the blank-eyed windows of the buildings across the street. All were dark, and his Tik eye did not pick out any shadows against the glass.

The girl was too good to leave behind. He had never taken a target in such good shape. Drawing a deep, silent breath, he walked through one of the empty doorways into the station.

He paused just inside the door, his eyes swiveling back and forth over the broken-down interior, trying to locate the girl. Rubbish was piled up nearly to the ceiling in some places, mostly parts of old vehicles and other scrap metal, and it took him a moment to spot her. She was moving slowly between the pillars of junk, as if browsing. Perhaps she was looking for something in particular, something she'd hidden here. The idea appealed to him. Even he was romantic, in his way. He moved quickly towards her, drawing a small bottle of chemicals and a rag out of the inside pocket of his black coat.

The shock, when it came, was so unexpected that he kept moving for several steps without realizing that he was falling. His knees hit the floor, and the bottle of chemicals rolled out of his limp hand and rang out against the concrete floor. He tried to look around to see what had happened, but another electric charge coursed through his body. His left arm seized up, and his left eye seemed to vibrate in its socket, bright points of light bursting inside it. His chin slid toward his chest, and he would have fallen on his face if a large hand had not clamped down on his shoulder, keeping him upright.

When he looked up, the girl was standing right in front of him. She was just as pretty as he had thought, with sharp, aristocratic features and fathomless black eyes. She seemed to be looking him over - not as though she was curious about who he was or where he had come from, though. More as if she was evaluating him. Taking stock.

"Tik?" She asked someone behind him.

"Some parts on the left side," came the reply. The voice that belonged to the hand on his shoulder was male.

"Organs?"

"Don't think so."

The girl knelt and began to prod him with long, bony fingers. "No," she said. "He's got most of those, at least."

"Would be better if he didn't have any Tiks," the male voice said.

She shook her head, her black hair swaying hypnotically around her face. "We can sell those, too. They won't go for as much, but there are still buyers. Anyway, where do you find someone without Tiks down here?"

She got to her feet. "Well," she said, her voice rich with amusement. The man looked up at her, though pain shot through his body with the movement. "Thought you'd stumbled on a prize, didn't you? You wouldn't be the first."

He didn't answer - there wasn't time. He felt the jab of a needle in his neck, and the vision in his right eye immediately began to blur, as if he was looking at the scene from underwater. His Tik eye, however, stayed open and focused on the girl in the navy blue dress. She looked down at him, smiled, and closed his eyelids with a gentle hand.

And then he was gone, washed away.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] my kingdom on the waves)
One hour after dark. Tucked into a dark corner, a man in a black coat watched people drift down the narrow junction of streets across from Stayman's Pharmacy and the crumbling old cinemaplex, its lights still blinking to advertise a two-year-old nudie flick. He'd been to see it himself, six months ago, because even a shitty old theater showing shitty old movies was better than nothing. The sound hadn't worked well, and there were sections of the film that were entirely unwatchable due to tears and burns in the celluloid, but it was an all right way to pass an evening. Better than this, anyway.

None of the people passing him were right for what he wanted. He could tell at a glance - he'd been doing this a long time. Nearly all of them had Tik parts, and cheap ones at that. The ones that didn't were too old or too haggard. His clients had paid him well to get what they wanted: fresh, young, and one hundred percent human.

Of course, people like that, they just assumed that the streets were packed with that kind of stock, like they had been in the old days. It was some kind of romantic notion that'd started going around in the rich parts of town years ago. They'd even made films about it, though those were the kinds of films that only showed in the richie cinemas uptown, and he had never seen one. Still, he got the gist. Always a poor couple, deeply in love, living out their brief lives in a passionate whirl of emotion. Eventually finding meaning in each other, shunning Cybernetik parts, and dying young but whole in each other's arms. So on and so forth, blah blah blah.

It was stupid, and deep down they had to know it wasn't real. It was just something to entertain them. The poor sections of town weren't romantic, and they certainly weren't full of young, able-bodied humans living out their short but meaningful and happy lives together. If anything, there were probably more Cybernetiks among the poor than the wealthy. Richies, at least, could pay someone to obtain human parts if they needed a little fixer-upper. Someone like him.

He himself had Tik parts, though he didn't like to advertise that. His work had afforded him enough cash to get decent ones, and they weren't as immediately obvious as the cheap stuff. His left eye was all Tik, replaced three years ago, and most of the bones and tendons in his left arm were as well. He'd been in a car accident, and that seemed the only way to go if he didn't want to be permanently disabled.

He hadn't wanted to do it - like everyone else, before he'd needed them he'd planned never to get Cybernetiks. Like everyone else, he hadn't wanted to be less than human.

He'd realized after he'd gotten them, though, that everyone did it. They said they never would, but everyone did in the end. Nobody really wanted to weaken, to decay. Nobody wanted to die. But nobody wanted to admit that they were cheating it, either. It was that romance thing again. There was nothing romantic about replacing your body parts with machines when they got damaged or wore out. It was more romantic to think about grabbing on to the short time you had and making the most of it. But nobody really did that, not anymore. They just pretended.

And the richies, well. They cheated in their own way, to avoid the stigma. This way they were all human, all the time, and could look down their noses at the Tiks. It was just one more thing to feel superior about.

He sighed. It was nearly eight o' clock now. Curfew was at ten, and his apartment was on the other side of town. Traffic being what it was, it'd take him nearly an hour to get back to his place. If he didn't spot someone soon, he was giving it up as a bad job. He'd go back out on the weekend, when there were more people around and the curfew was extended an hour. The richies could wait.

Then he spotted her. She just drifted down the street in front of him, turning down Pier Avenue without the slightest glance around her. She wore a navy blue dress that was at least one size too big for her, and a ragged tan overcoat with a small collection of pins and buttons around the collar that winked in the streetlights. She was obviously underfed, but pretty nonetheless - he could make out her fine features in the dimness. She had long, sweeping black hair that fell down her back like dark water. And, best of all, she was completely human.

It wasn't always easy to tell if they were all human, but he had developed a knack for it. Of course, Tiks in this part of town were usually pretty obvious, with maker's marks stamped on them or visible joints or frayed prosthetic skin. Even if the Tiks were only on the inside, organs or bones or muscles, people just moved differently. He could spot them a mile off. This girl, though. She was one hundred percent.

When she had gotten a few yards ahead of him, the man in the black coat pushed off the wall and began to follow her. He was careful to keep his footsteps silent, but the girl never so much as turned her head. She was obviously the kind of girl who had been coddled, in the limited way that people around here could coddle a person. No doubt everyone in this neighborhood knew her, the pretty girl with the long black hair, and treated her like their own little pauper-princess. Nobody'd ever think to lay a hand on her.

When she didn't turn up at home that night, the alarm would be raised quickly. People would turn out in droves, sacrificing what little sleep they usually got to call her name in the streets. It wouldn't matter, though, by that time. He would already be gone, and so would she.

The buildings on either side of the street melted away suddenly, revealing the riverfront. It was as decrepit as everything else; the bank of the river was strewn with trash, and the air stank. It was muggier down here, as though the fetid water of the river pressed down against the eyes and skin. The man in black hung back in the mouth of street, watching the wraithlike figure of the girl moving between the streetlights. What was she doing down here? Meeting some lover?

Many of the streetlights along the river had gone out, and the girl seemed to blink in and out of existence entirely as she moved through these swathes of darkness. He realized that she was heading toward a large, run-down building overlooking the river - a defunct ferry station. Without the slightest hesitation, she entered the darkened building. He himself paused for a moment before following her inside; it was rare for him to go so far before taking out a target, and he would have to find a place to stash the girl while he went back for his car. Moving around so much could attract attention. His eyes flicked over to the blank-eyed windows of the buildings across the street. All were dark, and his Tik eye did not pick out any shadows against the glass.

The girl was too good to leave behind. He had never taken a target in such good shape. Drawing a deep, silent breath, he walked through one of the empty doorways into the station.

He paused just inside the door, his eyes swiveling back and forth over the broken-down interior, trying to locate the girl. Rubbish was piled up nearly to the ceiling in some places, mostly parts of old vehicles and other scrap metal, and it took him a moment to spot her. She was moving slowly between the pillars of junk, as if browsing. Perhaps she was looking for something in particular, something she'd hidden here. The idea appealed to him. Even he was romantic, in his way. He moved quickly towards her, drawing a small bottle of chemicals and a rag out of the inside pocket of his black coat.

The shock, when it came, was so unexpected that he kept moving for several steps without realizing that he was falling. His knees hit the floor, and the bottle of chemicals rolled out of his limp hand and rang out against the concrete floor. He tried to look around to see what had happened, but another electric charge coursed through his body. His left arm seized up, and his left eye seemed to vibrate in its socket, bright points of light bursting inside it. His chin slid toward his chest, and he would have fallen on his face if a large hand had not clamped down on his shoulder, keeping him upright.

When he looked up, the girl was standing right in front of him. She was just as pretty as he had thought, with sharp, aristocratic features and fathomless black eyes. She seemed to be looking him over - not as though she was curious about who he was or where he had come from, though. More as if she was evaluating him. Taking stock.

"Tik?" She asked someone behind him.

"Some parts on the left side," came the reply. The voice that belonged to the hand on his shoulder was male.

"Organs?"

"Don't think so."

The girl knelt and began to prod him with long, bony fingers. "No," she said. "He's got most of those, at least."

"Would be better if he didn't have any Tiks," the male voice said.

She shook her head, her black hair swaying hypnotically around her face. "We can sell those, too. They won't go for as much, but there are still buyers. Anyway, where do you find someone without Tiks down here?"

She got to her feet. "Well," she said, her voice rich with amusement. The man looked up at her, though pain shot through his body with the movement. "Thought you'd stumbled on a prize, didn't you? You wouldn't be the first."

He didn't answer - there wasn't time. He felt the jab of a needle in his neck, and the vision in his right eye immediately began to blur, as if he was looking at the scene from underwater. His Tik eye, however, stayed open and focused on the girl in the navy blue dress. She looked down at him, smiled, and closed his eyelids with a gentle hand.

And then he was gone, washed away.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([animal] wolf cub)
Even after the world caught fire and the rivers and lakes burned away, the temple at the edge of the sea stood sentinel over black waves. It was built of stone that had been scoured white by salty wind, and was unornamented apart from the stone wolf’s head that rose on a spire forty feet in the air. The spire had been there long before the wolf’s head, bare and sharp as a fang, though records of that time had been purged from the temple’s library. The bold black letters bearing the former name of the place had been covered over with white paint. Even if the words had been visible, they would have had no meaning now. The world had grown and withered and changed, and the old ways had been forgotten.

Lue liked to watch the sea, sitting on the lip of a rocky overhang with her robes and black hair snapping in the chill wind. It was only when she looked out on the water that she felt alive – a miniscule heart beating red and rich and vibrant in a colorless world. Whenever she could, she slipped out of the dormitory and stared out at the waves, dreaming of boats and kites and sea monsters that would bear her away from this cold, rocky hill. Lately she even crept out of the temple during prayers, the headache that pounded down on her in the smoky, fragrant building dissolving at the first rush of sea air.

They were praying now; she could hear the murmuring of voices coming through the wind in low, musical bursts. She didn’t fear being caught, really – most of the other devotees were so enraptured during prayer that they wouldn’t notice if she cartwheeled out of the building. It wasn’t likely that anyone had noticed her edging out of the door while all heads were bowed, silent as a wraith in her bare feet.

She had never felt the same euphoria that seemed to grip the others during prayer. The temple left her cold, even with all of its lush trappings – the heavy black velvet curtains, the carefully painted scenes of running wolves… even the minutely crafted silver statue of the wolf god himself, with its sparkling golden eyes, did not move her to gasps of wonder like it did the others. Sometimes Lue wondered if anything apart from the sea could move her heart. A curious way, she thought, for the living receptacle of a god to feel.

For Lue, it was said, was god-touched. She had been chosen by the wolf god before she had even been born, and marked with his sign – golden eyes, like his. Old Bett, the grey woman that ran the tiny women's dormitory, told her that her mother had brought her to the temple the day the sign was clear, tears dripping from her chin.

“She were only a simple woman,” Bett said, “and rightly god-fearing. She knew the temple was the only place you’d be properly cared for, so she gave you your name – all she had to give, the poor thing – and handed you over to Master Lycus himself.”

Master Lycus was the religious leader at the temple, a tall, broad-shouldered man with an imperious manner and eyes and hair the color of lead. He was as close to a father figure as Lue could remember having – a distant father, perhaps, but a father all the same. He was Lue’s primary teacher, as he did not trust the others to instruct her properly in the ways of the order. As she grew older, Lue understood that this controlling aspect of his character was born out of true devotion to the wolf god rather than an overbearing personality, but she still chafed at it. She chafed at everything about temple life. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t asked for golden eyes, and just because she happened to have them didn’t mean that her entire life should be signed away to a god she didn’t even believe in.

It had taken a long time for her to decide that she didn’t believe in the wolf god, but once she came to that conclusion there was no undoing it. The thought was like a knot in her belly. Everything in her life led in and out of it. She just didn’t understand how anyone could be happy in this life – cloistered in a miserable huddle of rocks, praying for hours to a god who never seemed to listen and certainly never replied.

A sudden lash of rain struck her face. Lue knew she should go inside; the rain would make it obvious that she had left during prayers, and the devotees would be upset with her for putting her health at risk. She was their treasure, and they treated her like a piece of sea glass rather than a girl of fifteen summers. When she stood, though, she walked along the cliff-edge rather than back toward the temple. She couldn’t bear the thought of going back there, into the musky, incense-wreathed room and the garbled roar of prayer.

The rain was falling in sheets now, coursing through her hair and into her clothes, soaking her to the bone. It clouded her vision, and she imagined a bridge of water shimmering in the air, leading her up over the ocean and into another world.

And then she heard the scream.

Lue whipped around like a rapier. Even through the downpour, she could see a thick column of smoke rising from the roof of the temple, and a flashing tongue of flame. For a moment she froze, indecisive, and then tore toward the building, her wet robes flapping heavily around her.

Just before she reached the door, it slammed open, and Master Lycus staggered out. Behind him, she could hear jeering laughter and screaming, twisted together in a horrible, cacophonous melody.

“Lue,” Master Lycus gasped, and he threw out one of his large, calloused hands to push her aside. “Get away!”

“Where do you think you’re going, old man?” The sound of booted feet, and raucous calling from a dozen male voices. Master Lycus looked at her desperately, and the fear in his normally impassable face spurred her to action. Quick as a flash, she slipped around the edge of the temple, blood hammering in her ears.

She knew she should run for the dormitory, at least, or find a place to hide, but there seemed to be an invisible chain linking her to Master Lycus. She could not see him, but she could hear him, his strong voice rising above the pounding of the rain.

“Stop! We are people of peace, dedicated only to service of our god. Do not harm us!”

More laughter. The sound went through Lue like a spear, setting her heart afire.

“We don’t like your god, old man. He’s a pretender, like you, and needs to be stamped out. We worship another god – the only god. We are here in his service.” The voice was harsh with anger and pride.

Master Lycus murmured something that Lue did not catch, and the harsh-voiced man snorted derisively. Lue felt a sob rise in her throat, and she bit her lips to keep it in. “Stop your begging. We are here in the name of righteousness, and the pleadings of devils do not move us. Now get on your knees. Joshua!” Lue assumed he was calling to one of his comrades. She listened closely, tears burning her eyes, but Master Lycus said nothing else. Instead there was the sound of metal, the cold, sibilant hiss of it, and a whistling like the wind. A ragged cry, and then only the sound of rain. The door to the temple slammed.

For a moment, Lue remained where she was, shuddering with fear. Then she tore herself from the wall and ran back around to the front of the temple. What she saw there drove her to her knees.

Master Lycus’s body lay on the cold ground in front of the temple. Blood pumped from the open maw of his neck, flooding into the sparse winter grass. His head was gone. Retching and shaking violently, Lue vomited onto the ground in front of her. The world shimmered, blackened, and refocused. All thought had abandoned her. She could imagine nothing further than Master Lycus’s broken body and the smell of bile in her nose.

And then, from within the temple, the screams began again. It was almost as though they were being torn from her own throat, ripped from the darkest place inside her. Others were dying – being slain, mutilated, and maybe even worse – and here she was, cowering helplessly in the rain. A sudden burst of energy arced through her body like a bolt of lightning, and she leapt to her feet with a howl. She moved faster than she thought possible, with strength she did not recognize as her own. When she threw open the door, it seemed to her that she ripped it from its hinges and threw it in splinters behind her. All the hair on her body stood on end, and she felt her lips draw back into a savage roar.

Eyes glinted at her from inside the darkened temple, and she smelled smoke and blood and fear. There was no laughing now. In seconds she picked them out – men in crude leather armor, with a white sigil of two crossed lines across their chests. They gaped at her. Beyond them she could see the shapes of bodies on the floor.

For an infinite moment, they did not move. And then, suddenly, the white flash of a reaching hand and a glint of steel. Rage burst from her throat in a guttural growl, and she tore down the center aisle, her vision flooded with golden light and the taste of blood in her mouth.



Afterward, she could remember nothing but a handful of images - the open mouth of one of the men, his scream vibrating on the air; the snapping of a bone under her hands; the warm wash of blood over her tongue. When at last she came back to herself, she was kneeling on the floor of the temple, ringed in leather-clad corpses. She did not see them. Before her was the statue of the wolf god, his golden eyes picking her out of the darkness like burning coals. He drew her gaze like a magnet, and the air between them shimmered with power. She saw the smile between his teeth, the love and pride in his glinting eyes.

She burned the bodies of the devotees, piling incense on the fire. Master Lycus's head she removed from the pike on which it had been impaled, and she stroked the lead-colored hair before she consigned it to the flames. The men in armor she flung over the edge of the cliff, watching their bodies shatter on the rocks below. Her strength no longer surprised her - she could feel the wolf god in every stretch of her muscles, in every beat of her heart. His power was hers now, vicious and terrible and beautiful.

The statue she placed in a nook on the cliff face. She imagined him watching the sea, his brilliant gaze piercing through the darkest of sea storms.

When she left the temple, she did not look back. She carried only the merest provisions, but she did not worry about that. The wolf god would provide. Already she could scent blood and bone on the air, and the heartbeats of hundreds of creatures thrummed in her ears. Her loping steps seemed to carry her miles in an instant, the world an array of color and taste and sound around her. And under it all, the golden touch of the wolf god flowed like ichor in her veins. Where he led, she would follow. She would feast on the flesh of his enemies. She would see them broken under her hands.

As daylight slashed the purple sky with gold and palest blue, Lue stopped and sniffed the air. Her black hair lay matted against her back. Her eyes glimmered. Her lips, darkest red, drew back into a hungry smile.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([animal] wolf cub)
Even after the world caught fire and the rivers and lakes burned away, the temple at the edge of the sea stood sentinel over black waves. It was built of stone that had been scoured white by salty wind, and was unornamented apart from the stone wolf’s head that rose on a spire forty feet in the air. The spire had been there long before the wolf’s head, bare and sharp as a fang, though records of that time had been purged from the temple’s library. The bold black letters bearing the former name of the place had been covered over with white paint. Even if the words had been visible, they would have had no meaning now. The world had grown and withered and changed, and the old ways had been forgotten.

Lue liked to watch the sea, sitting on the lip of a rocky overhang with her robes and black hair snapping in the chill wind. It was only when she looked out on the water that she felt alive – a miniscule heart beating red and rich and vibrant in a colorless world. Whenever she could, she slipped out of the dormitory and stared out at the waves, dreaming of boats and kites and sea monsters that would bear her away from this cold, rocky hill. Lately she even crept out of the temple during prayers, the headache that pounded down on her in the smoky, fragrant building dissolving at the first rush of sea air.

They were praying now; she could hear the murmuring of voices coming through the wind in low, musical bursts. She didn’t fear being caught, really – most of the other devotees were so enraptured during prayer that they wouldn’t notice if she cartwheeled out of the building. It wasn’t likely that anyone had noticed her edging out of the door while all heads were bowed, silent as a wraith in her bare feet.

She had never felt the same euphoria that seemed to grip the others during prayer. The temple left her cold, even with all of its lush trappings – the heavy black velvet curtains, the carefully painted scenes of running wolves… even the minutely crafted silver statue of the wolf god himself, with its sparkling golden eyes, did not move her to gasps of wonder like it did the others. Sometimes Lue wondered if anything apart from the sea could move her heart. A curious way, she thought, for the living receptacle of a god to feel.

For Lue, it was said, was god-touched. She had been chosen by the wolf god before she had even been born, and marked with his sign – golden eyes, like his. Old Bett, the grey woman that ran the tiny women's dormitory, told her that her mother had brought her to the temple the day the sign was clear, tears dripping from her chin.

“She were only a simple woman,” Bett said, “and rightly god-fearing. She knew the temple was the only place you’d be properly cared for, so she gave you your name – all she had to give, the poor thing – and handed you over to Master Lycus himself.”

Master Lycus was the religious leader at the temple, a tall, broad-shouldered man with an imperious manner and eyes and hair the color of lead. He was as close to a father figure as Lue could remember having – a distant father, perhaps, but a father all the same. He was Lue’s primary teacher, as he did not trust the others to instruct her properly in the ways of the order. As she grew older, Lue understood that this controlling aspect of his character was born out of true devotion to the wolf god rather than an overbearing personality, but she still chafed at it. She chafed at everything about temple life. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t asked for golden eyes, and just because she happened to have them didn’t mean that her entire life should be signed away to a god she didn’t even believe in.

It had taken a long time for her to decide that she didn’t believe in the wolf god, but once she came to that conclusion there was no undoing it. The thought was like a knot in her belly. Everything in her life led in and out of it. She just didn’t understand how anyone could be happy in this life – cloistered in a miserable huddle of rocks, praying for hours to a god who never seemed to listen and certainly never replied.

A sudden lash of rain struck her face. Lue knew she should go inside; the rain would make it obvious that she had left during prayers, and the devotees would be upset with her for putting her health at risk. She was their treasure, and they treated her like a piece of sea glass rather than a girl of fifteen summers. When she stood, though, she walked along the cliff-edge rather than back toward the temple. She couldn’t bear the thought of going back there, into the musky, incense-wreathed room and the garbled roar of prayer.

The rain was falling in sheets now, coursing through her hair and into her clothes, soaking her to the bone. It clouded her vision, and she imagined a bridge of water shimmering in the air, leading her up over the ocean and into another world.

And then she heard the scream.

Lue whipped around like a rapier. Even through the downpour, she could see a thick column of smoke rising from the roof of the temple, and a flashing tongue of flame. For a moment she froze, indecisive, and then tore toward the building, her wet robes flapping heavily around her.

Just before she reached the door, it slammed open, and Master Lycus staggered out. Behind him, she could hear jeering laughter and screaming, twisted together in a horrible, cacophonous melody.

“Lue,” Master Lycus gasped, and he threw out one of his large, calloused hands to push her aside. “Get away!”

“Where do you think you’re going, old man?” The sound of booted feet, and raucous calling from a dozen male voices. Master Lycus looked at her desperately, and the fear in his normally impassable face spurred her to action. Quick as a flash, she slipped around the edge of the temple, blood hammering in her ears.

She knew she should run for the dormitory, at least, or find a place to hide, but there seemed to be an invisible chain linking her to Master Lycus. She could not see him, but she could hear him, his strong voice rising above the pounding of the rain.

“Stop! We are people of peace, dedicated only to service of our god. Do not harm us!”

More laughter. The sound went through Lue like a spear, setting her heart afire.

“We don’t like your god, old man. He’s a pretender, like you, and needs to be stamped out. We worship another god – the only god. We are here in his service.” The voice was harsh with anger and pride.

Master Lycus murmured something that Lue did not catch, and the harsh-voiced man snorted derisively. Lue felt a sob rise in her throat, and she bit her lips to keep it in. “Stop your begging. We are here in the name of righteousness, and the pleadings of devils do not move us. Now get on your knees. Joshua!” Lue assumed he was calling to one of his comrades. She listened closely, tears burning her eyes, but Master Lycus said nothing else. Instead there was the sound of metal, the cold, sibilant hiss of it, and a whistling like the wind. A ragged cry, and then only the sound of rain. The door to the temple slammed.

For a moment, Lue remained where she was, shuddering with fear. Then she tore herself from the wall and ran back around to the front of the temple. What she saw there drove her to her knees.

Master Lycus’s body lay on the cold ground in front of the temple. Blood pumped from the open maw of his neck, flooding into the sparse winter grass. His head was gone. Retching and shaking violently, Lue vomited onto the ground in front of her. The world shimmered, blackened, and refocused. All thought had abandoned her. She could imagine nothing further than Master Lycus’s broken body and the smell of bile in her nose.

And then, from within the temple, the screams began again. It was almost as though they were being torn from her own throat, ripped from the darkest place inside her. Others were dying – being slain, mutilated, and maybe even worse – and here she was, cowering helplessly in the rain. A sudden burst of energy arced through her body like a bolt of lightning, and she leapt to her feet with a howl. She moved faster than she thought possible, with strength she did not recognize as her own. When she threw open the door, it seemed to her that she ripped it from its hinges and threw it in splinters behind her. All the hair on her body stood on end, and she felt her lips draw back into a savage roar.

Eyes glinted at her from inside the darkened temple, and she smelled smoke and blood and fear. There was no laughing now. In seconds she picked them out – men in crude leather armor, with a white sigil of two crossed lines across their chests. They gaped at her. Beyond them she could see the shapes of bodies on the floor.

For an infinite moment, they did not move. And then, suddenly, the white flash of a reaching hand and a glint of steel. Rage burst from her throat in a guttural growl, and she tore down the center aisle, her vision flooded with golden light and the taste of blood in her mouth.



Afterward, she could remember nothing but a handful of images - the open mouth of one of the men, his scream vibrating on the air; the snapping of a bone under her hands; the warm wash of blood over her tongue. When at last she came back to herself, she was kneeling on the floor of the temple, ringed in leather-clad corpses. She did not see them. Before her was the statue of the wolf god, his golden eyes picking her out of the darkness like burning coals. He drew her gaze like a magnet, and the air between them shimmered with power. She saw the smile between his teeth, the love and pride in his glinting eyes.

She burned the bodies of the devotees, piling incense on the fire. Master Lycus's head she removed from the pike on which it had been impaled, and she stroked the lead-colored hair before she consigned it to the flames. The men in armor she flung over the edge of the cliff, watching their bodies shatter on the rocks below. Her strength no longer surprised her - she could feel the wolf god in every stretch of her muscles, in every beat of her heart. His power was hers now, vicious and terrible and beautiful.

The statue she placed in a nook on the cliff face. She imagined him watching the sea, his brilliant gaze piercing through the darkest of sea storms.

When she left the temple, she did not look back. She carried only the merest provisions, but she did not worry about that. The wolf god would provide. Already she could scent blood and bone on the air, and the heartbeats of hundreds of creatures thrummed in her ears. Her loping steps seemed to carry her miles in an instant, the world an array of color and taste and sound around her. And under it all, the golden touch of the wolf god flowed like ichor in her veins. Where he led, she would follow. She would feast on the flesh of his enemies. She would see them broken under her hands.

As daylight slashed the purple sky with gold and palest blue, Lue stopped and sniffed the air. Her black hair lay matted against her back. Her eyes glimmered. Her lips, darkest red, drew back into a hungry smile.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] world below)
The Hanikwa County Friends of Jesus Pentecostal Sanctuary midweek services begin every Wednesday night at seven thirty on the dot. Hardy Quitman, the faithful choir director and only church member permitted to touch the platform's groaning old piano (a gift from the pastor's grandmother, a terrifying and particular woman of ninety-eight) slams into a double-time rendition of "Heaven's Jubilee," Tallulah Sloan outfitting the chorus with as many trills as humanly possible and Sister Lillie Jolene Anderson shouting hallelujahs on the front row. The routine is comfortable for the church congregation, a meager collection of fifty-four souls (not counting Sister Maggie Rooney's libertine niece, who only comes because Sister Maggie won't allow her to live at the house if she doesn't and who makes eyes at all the men during altar call), and as the minute hand slides toward seven thirty-five, their eyes turn expectantly to the platform door, from which the pastor will soon emerge.

At seven forty-one, there is a distinct shift in the praise-singing. Brother Hilburn is the source of the Sanctuary's oil-smooth punctuality, insistent on beginning precisely on time and never so much as a minute late to the pulpit. Though his singing abilities rank slightly below those of Laronda Mullins, whose off-key warbling can be heard from one side of the room to the other, the faithful have always taken comfort in his dedication to the praise service. Carrying on without him sets them reeling and before long, "I Have A Friend In Jesus" has taken on a distinctly sour note.

At seven forty-five, assistant pastor Sullivan Rockshell takes the pulpit, his usually immaculate pompadour sinking like a collapsed cake. Obediently the congregation turn in their Bibles to Acts 2:38, but their eyes shoot messages over the gilt-edge pages and Truetta Gibson can be heard hissing whispers near the back wall. Before Hardy Quitman begins to plunk out the trembling notes that signal ending prayers, at least fifteen theories have been formulated, spread, and rebutted by the church family, and there is an edge of panic in the air. Rodrick Swindal makes a valiant effort at tongues and interpretation to get everyone back on track, but his heart just isn't in it. Even Sister Lillie Jolene is quiet, her watery eyes sharp and nervous.

Church ends early that night, for the first time in a decade. The congregation return home, their hearts cold and unfulfilled.

At eight thirty-six, Terry Hilburn boards a nonstop flight to Miami. His white panama hat and brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirt draw a few stares, but he ignores them all with a smile. In his mind, he is already sitting on a beach chair on the deck of his new condo, a sweating bottle of Bud in his hand and some sweet little thing in a black bikini beside him. It has taken him ten years - ten years of tithes, offerings, garage sales and church fundraisers - to afford his dream, and now the time has come. Can they really say he is unfaithful, just because he sees God in tequila sunsets and barely-there beachwear, rather than in a book or a song or a crumbling church building? He doesn't think so.

"Please fasten your seatbelts."

Terry Hilburn winks at the blonde stewardess, buckles his seatbelt, and closes his eyes. Ten years, three Christian children, six affairs, and fifty-five church members (he does count Maggie Rooney's niece, and he'd do a lot more with her if he ever got the chance) in his way, but already those memories are fading. As the jet engines roar him into a blackening sky and a new life, Terry Hilburn hums a few bars of song.

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
when I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I'll fly away
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] world below)
The Hanikwa County Friends of Jesus Pentecostal Sanctuary midweek services begin every Wednesday night at seven thirty on the dot. Hardy Quitman, the faithful choir director and only church member permitted to touch the platform's groaning old piano (a gift from the pastor's grandmother, a terrifying and particular woman of ninety-eight) slams into a double-time rendition of "Heaven's Jubilee," Tallulah Sloan outfitting the chorus with as many trills as humanly possible and Sister Lillie Jolene Anderson shouting hallelujahs on the front row. The routine is comfortable for the church congregation, a meager collection of fifty-four souls (not counting Sister Maggie Rooney's libertine niece, who only comes because Sister Maggie won't allow her to live at the house if she doesn't and who makes eyes at all the men during altar call), and as the minute hand slides toward seven thirty-five, their eyes turn expectantly to the platform door, from which the pastor will soon emerge.

At seven forty-one, there is a distinct shift in the praise-singing. Brother Hilburn is the source of the Sanctuary's oil-smooth punctuality, insistent on beginning precisely on time and never so much as a minute late to the pulpit. Though his singing abilities rank slightly below those of Laronda Mullins, whose off-key warbling can be heard from one side of the room to the other, the faithful have always taken comfort in his dedication to the praise service. Carrying on without him sets them reeling and before long, "I Have A Friend In Jesus" has taken on a distinctly sour note.

At seven forty-five, assistant pastor Sullivan Rockshell takes the pulpit, his usually immaculate pompadour sinking like a collapsed cake. Obediently the congregation turn in their Bibles to Acts 2:38, but their eyes shoot messages over the gilt-edge pages and Truetta Gibson can be heard hissing whispers near the back wall. Before Hardy Quitman begins to plunk out the trembling notes that signal ending prayers, at least fifteen theories have been formulated, spread, and rebutted by the church family, and there is an edge of panic in the air. Rodrick Swindal makes a valiant effort at tongues and interpretation to get everyone back on track, but his heart just isn't in it. Even Sister Lillie Jolene is quiet, her watery eyes sharp and nervous.

Church ends early that night, for the first time in a decade. The congregation return home, their hearts cold and unfulfilled.

At eight thirty-six, Terry Hilburn boards a nonstop flight to Miami. His white panama hat and brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirt draw a few stares, but he ignores them all with a smile. In his mind, he is already sitting on a beach chair on the deck of his new condo, a sweating bottle of Bud in his hand and some sweet little thing in a black bikini beside him. It has taken him ten years - ten years of tithes, offerings, garage sales and church fundraisers - to afford his dream, and now the time has come. Can they really say he is unfaithful, just because he sees God in tequila sunsets and barely-there beachwear, rather than in a book or a song or a crumbling church building? He doesn't think so.

"Please fasten your seatbelts."

Terry Hilburn winks at the blonde stewardess, buckles his seatbelt, and closes his eyes. Ten years, three Christian children, six affairs, and fifty-five church members (he does count Maggie Rooney's niece, and he'd do a lot more with her if he ever got the chance) in his way, but already those memories are fading. As the jet engines roar him into a blackening sky and a new life, Terry Hilburn hums a few bars of song.

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
when I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I'll fly away
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] lost)
The sky has been dark for five days. It is a greenish-gray mass of roiling cloud, sparking with light and shaking the rocks with its deep voice. Sometimes it sends a dust-laced wind ripping across the broken ground, and sometimes the air is thick and heavy and wet. The people wrap cloths around their mouths to keep out the dust and shade their eyes with their hands, looking hopefully upwards. Maybe praying, if they remember how.

And still the rain does not fall.

On the fifth day, Maritza crouches on top of the truck cab and watches, the rubber soles of her boots squeaking on the metal as she shifts her weight. In her left hand she balances her cracked plastic bowl, plucking small pieces of dried meat from it with her right. As she chews, she regards the storm. Down inside the rig, her mother is singing in a language she doesn't know, her soft voice rolling in and out of the wind like a secret call. Maritza wonders if she is singing to the rain, asking it to come down.

The storm is so big it is almost beyond her, a blanket of living darkness wrapped around the dry, ugly world. She wonders if it has been sent to help them, to soothe the thirst as the Olders believe, or if it has come to tear them apart. She doesn't know if she cares which. All she wants is the shattering, the opening, the fall.

"Hey girl, get down offa there!" It is the driver, his scarred face jutting up at her like a fist. "Get your goddamned dirty feet offa my truck!"

The truck is grimed with dust and dirt and Maritza's boots are clean, but she complies. She hates the driver, but has felt his anger across her back too many times to defy him. She is only thirteen and small, made bird-boned with lack of food. He is a big man and he always takes the best for himself. It does not take much for him to leave scars of his own.

She supposes the driver is probably her father, just as he is probably the father of the other children who ride in their rig - some older and thin like her, others small and swell-bellied, with drooping eyes and white tongues. She hates him anyway. Hates his cracked-toothed smile, his meaty hands, and the way the women in their rig cower before him, like being near him is the most loathsome thing in their lives besides dying. Unfortunately for them, dying is their only other choice.

Maritza's mother is still singing when she climbs into the rig. The driver starts the engine, and around them she can hear the roar of the caravan coming to life. Most of the others drive rigs like theirs, but some are in smaller trucks with tarps and tents stretched over their beds, and some even follow on motorbikes, their possessions strapped precariously behind them. There are so few of them now, only fifty in all.

The women in the rig stretch a large patched cloth over the open back of the compartment to keep out the dust, and the weak daylight filters through the fabric in a dozen colors. Around her Maritza can make out the rumpled pallets and nailed-down chairs and meager, broken belongings of the rest of her "family," and she curls her lip and sits as near the back as her mother will let her. The place stinks of sweat and mold and bad breath, and Maritza hates it. Sometimes she dreams of running away, of leaping from the back of the rig like a falling star, bounding off into the endless stretch of land and sky.

Then her mother smiles at her in the semi-darkness, and she knows she never will.

Her mother's name is Gisela, and even in such places as this, she is beautiful. The stark lines of her face are proud and regal, like the princesses from the stories she tells the children, but her eyes are brown and soft. They are always softest when she looks at Maritza, when she murmurs, "mija" and strokes her hair. And Maritza loves her, her and no one else, though she has never understood what it means to love or why she feels this way. All she knows is that her mother is the scope of her world, the compass around which she turns. She would never leave her mother.

Gisela says, "We will be there soon, mija. The great river." For this is where they are going, a river that Gisela remembers from when she was a girl. There they will drink and make a new life, a new world.

All the other rivers they have passed have dried, but Gisela knows that this one is still flowing. "It was the river of my new life once," she says, her brown eyes implacable, "and it will be again. I know it."

And so they followed her into the driest wastes, the broken lands, and constant as a star she has led them. And now, she says, soon.

Barely any time at all has passed when the truck rumbles to a stop. Behind them, Maritza can hear cries of confusion as the other vehicles do the same, pillars of dust rising into the air around them. The door of the cab slams, and Maritza can sense the driver stomping toward them, his anger a pillar all its own, even if she can't hear his boots on the dirt.

The cloth covering is ripped away. The children shriek, if they are not too weak, and the women turn empty eyes toward his twisted face.

"Where the fuck," he says, breathing through his nose, "are we?" This last is almost a guttural scream, and his large hand thrusts out and wraps around her mother's wrist. Gisela does not cry out as she is dragged from the truck. Maritza leaps after her, a wild burst of fury shooting from her belly to her fingertips.

"We've been driving through this hell for weeks!" The driver is shaking Maritza's mother, his teeth bared like an animal's. Around them, the caravan watches, not one of them bold enough to intervene. They know it is like this in the driver's rig - perhaps it is the same in their own. They will not stop it. They never do.

"When are we going to get there!" Spit flies from his mouth and flecks Gisela's face. Maritza realizes that the driver has been into the bottle he keeps in his cab, that his mouth is dry and his head buzzing. He is thirsty and stupid and mean, and he will hit her mother, in front of everyone, and no one will tell him not to.

With a scream of her own, a storm-sound ripped from within the darkest place of her, she is on him. Her small fingers dig into his hair, pulling it back, her teeth find purchase on his forearm. Again and again her boots kick against his flesh, and lights burn white-hot and blinding in her eyes. The driver yelps and shakes her - once, twice, and she is off him, the taste of blood in her mouth. When his fist slams against her head, she drops like a stone.

The world is slanted and swirling. Gisela moves through it, her dark hair flying, a star in her hand. It slashes up, buries itself in the driver's neck. Then there is blood, a great gout of it. It stains Gisela's dress, but she does not step away. She holds her head up, a vengeful princess - a queen. They all stare back at her.

Maritza feels her hands pulling upwards, lifting her. As they pass, the women pull the fabric up over the open mouth of the rig, and Maritza cannot see their eyes. Gisela opens the door to the cab, and pushes Maritza into the seat. There is a moment of nothing, a flash of darkness, and then the engine comes to life. Her mother's fingers stroke her hair, and the world begins to move.

"We will be there soon, mija," she says, and Maritza knows her thin hands guide the wheel. She hears the others following, falling into a ragged line behind. And then, faintly at first, the sound of water on the roof.

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How About Them Apples?

June 2015

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