applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([game of thrones] dany blue)
She woke to bells ringing. Far off, at the top of High Hill, skinny church boys were pulling on the ropes, the sound rolling down from the crown of the city into every sleeping ear. It was not yet dawn.

Katina went immediately to the window. Against the bruised sky the processional torches stood out like stars, a glittering constellation around the foot of High Hill Cathedral. As she watched, first one light then another separated from the glowing knot and began the slow march down from the peak of the hill, like beads sliding down a string.

“Katina! Are you up?” Her mother’s voice, sleep-fogged, on the other side of the door.

“I’m up.”

“Dress quickly so that I have time to do your hair.”

The pale blue dress hung from a hook in the wardrobe. Katina ran her fingers over the light fabric and lace trim. In a secret corner of her heart, she was excited to wear the dress. She imagined walking through the streets in her bare feet, hem skating the pavestones, flowers woven into her hair. It was her first year to wear blue. At sixteen, she was no longer a child, so the old white dress that had been stretched and added to until it was patched and ragged was put away forever.

The dress fit perfectly, fluttering around her like a breath of wind. The dress fit close in the bodice, accentuating the curves that had begun to rise from her slender shape. Even her mother couldn’t resist reaching out to feel the soft cloth between her fingers, though her mouth did not curve into a smile.

“You look beautiful, Katina.” But her eyes were dark and sad. She wound flowers into Katina’s black hair, heavy blue blooms that tugged at the intricate whorls she crafted so carefully.

Almost as soon as she had finished, bells rang again. These were deeper than the waking bells, rich and dark and full of meaning.

“Come, Katina,” her mother said, pulling on a black veil that matched her somber dress. They went out into the street.

Around them flowed a river of people dressed in all the colors of sky and sea. White, palest blue, true blue, navy, indigo, black, each according to age and status. Most women wore flowers in their hair though some wore ribbons, and Katina knew that once they reached the palazzo they would see the richer women bedecked with jewels and precious metals.

Most people were silent as they walked, though some of the children chattered or cried and there was always the wind-rustle of whispering in the crowd. Katina was quiet until she felt the pressure of another hand on hers.

“Eloise!” Eloise was her best friend: tiny, blond, and bold. Her dress was a confection of airy ruffles and her blue eyes seemed to glow. Katina lowered her voice. “You look amazing!”

“So do you,” Eloise said in a voice that was not quite a whisper. “That blue looks perfect against your skin. D’you think some of the boys from our class will see us?” She was struck with a sudden gale of giggles – not unusual, in her case. “I know it’s awful, but I really hope they do! I don’t think I’ve ever looked this good in my life!”

Katina shushed her friend. Eloise never took anything seriously, and the insistent piping of her voice was sure to draw the attention of Katina’s mother. Katina doubted she’d be amused by Eloise’s irreverence.

They didn’t speak again, but held hands all the way to the palazzo. Katina wondered if her friend’s heart was beating as rapidly as her own.

Katina’s home wasn’t far from the palazzo, but the crowd was thick and many people had already arrived. Eloise gave her a quick hug and dashed off to stand with her parents, leaving Katina with her mother. Not for the first time, Katina wished that she had the kind of mother she could confide in – someone she could tell about her conflicting feelings of fear and excitement. Her mother would never understand. Her mouth was a thin, tight line under her veil, and she clasped her hands so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

The palazzo was enormous and the crowd even more so, but it wasn’t long before everyone had found a place. It seemed only the space of a few moments before the priests filed out onto the raised platform at the front of the square. Silence fell like a stone; even the smallest child felt his breath stolen away.

The priests wore robes of rich, saturated purple and their necks were draped with gleaming silver chains. Each wore a heavy hood that drowned his features in shadow. Only the hands were visible – surprisingly young hands, all unblemished by age or scar. They formed a semicircle with a gap in the middle and stood with their heads bowed.

Then came the High Priest, in robes of deepest black. Even his hands were covered by soft black gloves, leaving him completely shrouded in darkness. He moved to fill the empty space at the front of the platform. Every person in the press seemed to be drawn onto their tiptoes, connected to him by an invisible, unbreakable thread. There was no rustling of fabric or shuffling of feet – only silence, thick with meaning, until he began to speak.

“Children of Sanctuary,” he said in a booming, resonant voice that carried to even the farthest ears, “I welcome you in the name of the Lord God, who is our shelter in times of trouble.”

There was an outbreak of pious muttering at this pronouncement, which the High Priest seemed to have expected. He paused magnanimously. When he spoke again, the voices immediately ceased.

“I am confident that I need not remind you why we join together on this, the first day of summer, but lest the absence of words leads us to forgetting, I will speak briefly of our meaning here.” Even though everyone in the palazzo, from the oldest to the youngest, knew why they had gathered, they all listened silently with their eyes wide and attentive.

“Many generations ago, our ancestors came here fleeing the horrors of war. The very earth and sky had been rent by man’s violent machinations, but while many had turned away their eyes from God’s light, some yet hungered for peace. In God’s name they built Sanctuary, our beautiful city. They wished only for harmony and brotherhood, and to make an end of war and pain.”

The High Priest’s tone turned somber. “Sadly, those whose hearts burned already with the flames of Hell were too caught up evil’s grasp to allow even this one haven of peace and fellowship. They surrounded the walls of Sanctuary, vowing to slake their thirst on blood and tears. The people despaired, fearing that the city would be destroyed.”

Katina risked a quick glance around the palazzo. Nearly everyone in the crowd was staring at the High Priest, their expressions rapt. But only a few yards away, Eloise caught her eye, grinned, and winked. Katina turned her head away quickly, hoping no one else had seen.

“The priests of the city gathered on the High Hill, then crowned only by grass and wildflowers, and begged God upon their knees for mercy and redemption. For seven days and nights they prayed constantly, never eating, surviving only on water.”

Katina felt herself leaning forward. She knew what was coming – had heard this story every year since she could remember – but it still moved her, even now. Even despite her own growing fear.

“On the eighth day, at sunrise, one of the priests rose from his knees. ‘Brothers,’ he cried. ‘I have heard God’s voice in the deep, and I know how we may be saved.’ The other priests rejoiced, and they moved through the city, calling out the news to the people they passed. Soon every man, woman, and child was following the priest who had heard God’s voice as he moved toward the city wall, his face alight with rapture and joy.

“When he reached the wall, he climbed to the place just above the gate and looked down on the evil horde massed below. ‘Brothers,’ he cried again, for though they were the enemy, they had indeed once been brothers to those holy men and women who lived in Sanctuary. ‘Will you not cease your war-mongering? Will you not leave this place?’ And the horde answered, ‘No!’ And they laughed at the holy brother and threw filth at him, though he did not flinch away. ‘We have no riches to loot,’ the priest called down. ‘Or food enough to feed such a host.’ ‘It is not riches or food we want,’ replied the horde.
‘Blood is what calls us. Death is all we want.’ And the priest looked grave and sad, but he had known all along that this is what the evil army would say. ‘Then I come down to you, my brothers,’ he said. ‘And give you what you desire.’

“The priest climbed down from the gate and spoke to the gathering of God’s people one last time. ‘I heard my name in God’s voice,’ he said, and his voice was full of light. ‘I go in God’s name, and God shall save us all.’ And before the people could understand his meaning, he opened the gate and slipped out.”

Here the High Priest bowed his head, and Katina felt herself doing the same. “The horde fell upon the priest like vermin and tore him to pieces. But even with his last breath he prayed for their salvation, and when the deed was done they felt ashamed. God’s arrows pierced their hearts, and they left Sanctuary in disgrace.”

The crowd drew a shuddery breath. For now was the moment they had waited for – the moment they most feared.

“Evil has not left us entirely,” the High Priest said grimly. “Every year, on the first day of summer – the day of the holy man’s sacrifice – darkness gathers at our gates and bays for blood. Every year the emissaries of Hell require a sacrament of blood and tears so that we may live in peace.”

Katina could feel her hands begin to shake.

“Every year, the priests gather on the High Hill and pray for seven days and seven nights. On the eighth day at sunrise, God’s voice sounds in our ears to tell us who shall be the avatar of our salvation for the year to come.”

Now Katina felt her entire body trembling. She had been safe as a child – God never required the sacrifice of an innocent. Now she was a woman, wearing her first blue dress. The color of the sky, of Heaven, of healing and mercy. Her lips began to move, and silently she prayed.

“God has spoken through us,” the High Priest said. The priests around him linked hands, reaching out at last to touch the night-black gloves. “He has chosen.”

Silence. Tears welled in Katina’s eyes. Around her, the crowd stopped breathing, stopped moving, stopped praying.

“Eloise Marvall.”

There was a shriek. Eloise’s mother stood with her hands over her mouth, her face white as bone. Eloise’s father fell to his knees, trembling. Katina felt her mother grip her hand, but it felt as though her body was far away from the rest of her. Eloise? No, no, not Eloise.

“No!” Eloise shouted. Her face, usually alight with fun and laughter, was wild, almost bestial. “No! I won’t go! It’s not right! It’s not –“ She spun on her heel, tried to run. Hands reached out from every angle, holding her in place.

“Eloise,” said the High Priest, his deep voice carrying over the tumult. “God has spoken. You will keep us safe.”

“I don’t want to!” Eloise screamed. “No!” But the hands pushed, pulled, dragged her forward. Her eyes were wide, the beauty of the blue lost in terror. “No, please!”

When she reached the foot of the platform, the priests reached out and grabbed her wrists. Those hands, so young and smooth, held her in a grip of iron. “Noooo!” Eloise screamed. Her voice had grown ragged, but she continued to struggle. “This is wrong! This is evil!

Katina tasted bile. She wanted to scream, too. She wanted to run forward, grab her friend, tear her away from the priests’ horrible, grasping hands. But she did not move. She did not scream. She felt sick. She felt as though her heart had shattered and sent razor-sharp splinters into every nerve of her body.

And deep down, in the secret place of her heart, she felt relief.

It had to happen. Though she ground her teeth to think of Eloise turned out of the city gates into the world beyond – the world that had been ravaged by war, populated by the descendants of evil men, their souls mutated until they barely resembled the humans they had once been – it was the only way. It was God’s way.

So when they dragged Eloise, screaming and weeping, her hands twisting in the priests’ impossible hold, Katina stood still and watched. God’s ways were unchangeable. He had kept them safe for generations, hundreds of years. Who was Eloise to question the way things had always been done? Who was she to question Him?
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([walking dead] atlanta)
This. Is. Bullshit.

First they foist these so-called "11th hour recruits" on us in the barracks - no warning whatsoever - and now we're expected to deal with them in training as well? I get that things have been going kind of pear-shaped lately, but surely we haven't come to this!

Military training ain't no fun and games; that's a fact. I know they make out in those old films like it was a bitch then, but that's nothing compared to the current setup. Today, for example, we've been dropped off in the middle of what used to be some rinky dink one-stoplight town in Bum Fuck, Egypt - and they didn't tell us 'til we got here that we'd be up against live targets out there.

Well, not live. You know what I mean.

Either way, here we are, locked and loaded and thinking we're in for another "shoot the wooden outline depicting a bad guy" session and we're hit with the knowledge that this time, the fuckers can come after us, too! With those so-called "recruits" sitting right there like it ain't no thing!

Listen, the military might be A-OK with that kind of blood on their hands, but I'm sure as hell not. Yeah, there'll be spotters and snipers and bigwigs out there keeping an eye on us, but I've heard about this kind of training. At least one recruit dies every time. Some of the guys say the bigwigs let it happen, to teach us that you can't underestimate the enemy or some crap like that. No matter how you slice it, I know - I just know - that it's going to be one of those cute little 11th hours that takes a dirt nap today. And I just don't know if I can watch.

We come off the convoy and line up in the hot June sunshine, ten-hut, etc. Get the rundown on the place. It ain't much (most people assume that Army grunts are dumb as a box of hair so they keep things short and to the point), but it'll do for a tense afternoon. We're to clear out the little town before us - leave no bogeys walking. Lots of saluting and we're off to the races.

I decide early in the game that I'm going to shadow a particular 11th hour; cover them, you know. Watch their back. I choose Anderson, an impetuous redhead I'd noticed during training.

"Hey, Anderson," I call as I approach. "What d'you say we hit this thing together?"

Anderson responds with a slightly-curled lip and a shift in weight. Of course, these types are eager to prove themselves - probably not crazy about sharing any potential glory by teaming up. Still, it's the right thing to do. That's got to be obvious.

"Fine. But don't crowd me."

We jog off into the worn maze of streets. It's amazing how quickly nature creeps back in after humanity has left. It's only been about five years since the outbreak, but already trees are starting to grow through windows and weeds have choked all but the hardiest of sidewalks. I take the lead on Anderson, but turn to check back frequently.

There is a sudden tattoo of gunfire in the near distance (everything in this town is the "near distance") and Anderson flinches at the sound. What can you expect? Some people just aren't cut out for combat duty.

"Watch it." Anderson nods at the split-levels we're passing. "The noise'll draw them out."

Typically paranoid. The gunfire wasn't that close, but here's Anderson with gun at the ready, eyes strafing the street for any signs of deadheads.

"You gotta calm down," I say. "You don't want to show the guys in charge that you're jumpy."

"Jumpy?" Anderson snorts.

"Yeah, jumpy. The idea is to be alert, not flinching out of your skin every time you hear a gun go off."

Anderson glares contemptuously at me then resumes the periscope-head maneuver, gun up.

"Listen," I say. "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, but it is what it is. You know better than anyone that you can't be jumping around like you've got a bee up your skirt every time you hear someone shoot a --"

"Watch out!"

I don't even see it coming. A hand grabs me by the collar and drags me backwards, throwing me off my feet.

"Aaargh!" I find myself on my back, staring up at the wasted face of what used to be a Taco Bell worker. Shreds of purple uniform hang off the emaciated body - he's even still got part of the hat. His eyes are all scratched up, marble-blind, but he doesn't need to see me to get a nice big bite. My gun clatters to the ground, and I feel a warm jet of urine hit the inside of my leg.

The gun report is so loud that my teeth clack together. The grip on my neck is gone, and I feel the press of warm, human fingers on my wrist.

"Get up, you asshole!" I open my eyes. Anderson is standing over me, a few strands of red hair dangling down toward my face. "There'll be more."

She hauls me to my feet. The Taco Bell worker, now practically headless, remains on the ground. "Next time, keep your fucking eyes open!" She hisses, "Or I'll tell everyone you had your ass saved by a girl!"
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] all lit up)
Loosely based on this story: Bald suspect wanted for stealing Rogaine from NY pharmacy.


“It isn’t you,” she said, chewing her lip guiltily as his heart reeled from the sudden sucker punch.

“I… you…” he mumbled, trying to keep the room from spinning away under his feet. Though he (thankfully) couldn’t see his face at this particular moment, he could only imagine it as wearing an expression similar to a terror-stricken antelope just as the lion’s jaws clamped down on its back end – the sag-mouthed horror and white-rolling eyes.

“Don’t be like that,” she said, with the old petulant pout that made him weak. The room pitched dangerously with that quirk of her lips, and he momentarily wondered if he would pass out cold on the middle of the braided rug. “Don't be dramatic. I just said it isn’t you!”

“Well, who else is it, then?” The question came out as more of a shout, heavily tinged with desperation. It echoed sickeningly in his ears.

“It isn’t like that,” she said with a leftwards-shifting glance that meant it definitely was. “It’s just… you know we’ve been growing apart. The old spark hasn’t been there lately.”

He knew no such thing and told her so. The spark was as bright as ever, in his opinion, maybe even brighter and more vigorous than it had been when they first met. He begged, he pleaded, he tried to use logic. She’d made up her mind, though, and that was that. She packed a few bags while he sat in the bathroom pretending not to cry, and then left without saying another word to him.

Headed to her new boyfriend’s place, no doubt. The thought made him sick.

He stayed home from work for three days, and in that time the thought of her mysterious new romance grew larger and larger in his mind. By the end of the third day, his obsession had yielded into something even more unsettling - a plan of action. He would find this new boyfriend, figure out what made him so damned special, and find a way to bring him down.

After his first day back at work (the majority of which he spent pretending that he was still slightly sick with the flu to keep his coworkers at bay), he drove over to the 24-hour-clinic where she worked. He parked his car in an inconspicuous spot from which he had a clear view of the employee exit and slunk down in his seat to keep watch.

He didn't have to wait long. His entire world may have been upended, but she still kept to her usual schedule. At a few minutes after six, she bounced out of the clinic in her powder pink scrubs and heavy coat, her white sneakers gleaming in the winter afternoon gloom.

If he had expected her to look distraught... upset... even mildly put out, he was sorely disappointed. She fairly bounded across the asphalt, her face carefully made up and glowing. In a single nauseating instant he realized that her friend Julie would not be the one picking her up today, as usual - she would instead be quickly entering the proximity of his nemesis and he had not fully prepared himself for the sight.

It was too late. Before he could avert his eyes, she reached out and popped open the door of a spotless silver SUV. Inside, the silhouette of a man leaned over to greet her, kiss her... but his eyes were not focused on the point where their lips met, no! Would that it were so. Instead he stared in horror as the difference that set his replacement apart was clearly limned by the light of the setting sun. Of course! How could he have missed it?

In stark shadow, ablaze along its luxurious rills and ridges, was an abundant head of hair.

He sat back, utterly deflated. Almost unconsciously, his hand crept to his skull, as if tentatively hoping for something other than the cold hard reality that had faced him in the mirror every day for the past seven years. His hand met nothing but smooth, hairless skin.

So acute was his horror that he didn't even watch them as they drove away. He only slumped in his car in horror, his eyes staring off into some alternate past where he had never lost his hair. She had always asked him to do something about it, always worried that it made him look older and less masculine. He had just laughed off her concerns. What a fool he'd been!

Suddenly he sat up, his hands slapping down on the steering wheel in resolution. He hadn't done anything about it then, but he could do something about it now. They had seven years of history - what if he suddenly reappeared in her life with a full head of hair? Surely she couldn't ignore his willingness to change for her or his obvious dedication to making her happy. This new guy and his shiny SUV wouldn't stand a chance. He wrenched the keys in the ignition and slammed the car into drive, roaring out of the parking lot.

When he reached the pharmacy, it wasn't too busy - just a few grandmas doing their evening shopping and some kids checking out the candy selection. He walked purposefully back to the hair care section, determined not to be embarrassed. So he would buy something to supplement hair growth - what was wrong with that? Plenty of men did it!

It was only upon reaching the aisle and the rows of glinting Rogaine boxes with their lush-headed models that he discovered the flaw in his plan. Each box - each tiny, nearly insignificant box - cost a staggering fifty dollars. And he knew, egg-headed as he was, he would need far more than one box.

For a moment he stood in anguish. What could he do? Money had been tight - would continue to be tight - since she had left. His job as a grocery clerk would barely bring in enough money to cover rent and a small number of groceries. He certainly couldn't afford multiple fifty-dollar boxes of Rogaine.

But he loved her. His desperation to get her back surrounded him at all times, making his heart hammer in his chest and his tongue go dry at the thought of her.

He had to have it. He had to have the Rogaine.

As stealthily as he could, he made a circuit of the store. When the cashier wasn't looking, he pulled a small, beat-up looking gift bag from its hook and slid it into the front part of his jacket. As he made his way back to the hair care aisle, he tore off the price tag. With many glances in every direction, he carefully pulled three boxes of Rogaine from the shelf and deposited them in the gift bag. He felt almost sick with anxiety, but no one said anything to him.

As nonchalantly as possible, he made his way to the exit. He carried the gift bag as if he had had it all along, dangling unnoticed from his right hand. As he hit the threshold of the store, he heard someone call out.

"Sir! You have to pay for that!"

Panic exploded in his lungs and he moved out of instinct alone, sprinting into the parking lot with his keys at the ready. Behind him he could hear the small tumult of the cashier's shouting, but it already seemed so far away. He ripped open the door of his car, threw the bag into the passenger seat, leapt in and fired up the engine. As he peeled out of the lot, he saw the cashier running back inside the store, but it hardly even fazed him. He was doing what he had to do.

When he reached the apartment, he was so worn out that he dropped the bag on the rug and collapsed on the couch. The day's stress had taken its toll, and he quickly dropped into a fitful doze.

He awoke three hours later to the sound of his phone ringing. Her ringtone.

"Yes??"

She was laughing so hard she could barely restrain herself. "Tommy, did you..." she briefly lost control, "did you go to the pharmacy today?"

His heart sank like a stone.

"It's just.... there's this video on the news, of a man stealing from the pharmacy... stealing...." she collapsed into laughter again. "And I was just thinking - he looks a lot like you."

Without speaking, he hung up the phone.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] narcissist)
The young man sat motionless, his dull blue eyes fixed on the window opposite the couch on which he slouched, his muscles lax, like a puppet with its strings cut. His stillness was offset by the continual bustling of a young blond woman who fidgeted around the apartment in tight domestic circles. Each time she passed near him she would reach out to flutter her pale fingers against his still form – brushing back a curl or straightening an invisible wrinkle out of his sweater. The young man remained perfectly static under these ministrations, not even an eyelash flickering in response.

“Soon, my dear,” she said, in a soft voice suffused with love. “So soon.” She gave his sweater a final corrective tweak, stood back to admire her handiwork, then slid her bag over her shoulder and left the apartment.

Out on the street, her gentle smile soon flattened into a tight-lipped line. The sounds of the city seemed to pluck at each nerve in turn - each honking horn or echoing shout translated into a flinch or scowl. It was hard for her to remember that she had once loved this city, had once basked in the life of it. Now she curled away from it like a leaf in flame, seeking the quiet shadows of her apartment and the soft, nearly imperceptible breaths of the still young man.

But there was work to be done, and despite the city's apparent harshness, she could still find what she needed if she looked hard enough.

The park often yielded the best results, so she turned her feet in that direction. So close now... today would be the day, if the park didn't let her down. The thought sent a happy little tremor down her spine.

When she reached the park gates, the mid-afternoon sunshine was streaming orange-gold, dappling the path between the trees with pleasant, warm light. She could hear children laughing, and the sound tugged at the corners of her mouth. Once she had been afraid that she would never have children. Now she knew it was only a matter of time.

It didn't take long to find him. Only a few hundred feet into the park was a sharply-dressed couple - her in a teal wrap dress and cream-colored trench and him in a soft brown blazer and cranberry scarf - strolling along with their arms wrapped firmly around each other. As she approached, they laughed at some private joke, their cheeks and eyes glowing. The man pressed a hand against her lower back.

When she was nearly upon them, the young blond woman stumbled. A sharp cry rang out over the quiet path, and the couple turned with concern in their eyes. The man stepped forward quickly, catching her bare wrist in his hand and steadying her before she hit the ground.

"Are you all right?" He asked. His wife (she could feel the cool metal of his ring on her wrist) stepped forward to see what was the matter.

Beneath his fingers, her pulse beat quicker. Flesh to flesh they touched, skin to skin. He could not guess that in her skin lived secrets - ways of drawing forth. He could not guess that the cold shiver that rushed through his blood at that moment to the place where his fingers met her thin wrist was a taking - no! A giving, however unintended. Her thin lips curved upwards.

"Oh yes, yes," she said, gently disentangling her arm. "I'm all right." She could feel him wrapped around her, the buzz of him tingling the hairs on her arms and neck. For his part he looked confused, unsure. But how could he tell? How could he know that part of him was gone, twinkling away in one simple little touch?

She rushed away, back to the little apartment, her purse bouncing against her hip as she almost skipped over the pavement. It would be done today! Today she would end her loneliness.

She barely heard the door close behind her as she ran toward the couch. There he was - the same as he had been for months - motionless, silent, empty-eyed. As she knelt before him on the rug, she allowed herself to briefly remember him as he had been. She remembered his smile, his sparkling blue eyes, his voice raised in anger. She remembered the contempt on his face as he stood in the door that day, telling her it would be the last time she saw him.

Slowly, she shook her head, casting the last image away. He would be hers again now, but only the good parts. He hadn't known what she could do that day - any day. He had never known about the heritage she'd hidden, the power of her people. For centuries they had kept such things secret, most denying the magic that shivered under their skin.

On that day, she could no longer ignore it. She would use it to have the one thing she wanted. The one thing she had ever wanted. Could that be so wrong? Didn't she deserve it?

So she had reached out and touched him - grabbed his arm as he turned away from her in disgust. She felt it - felt him - flowing into her like a summer breeze, hot with anger. And then he had collapsed, his eyes vacant, nothing but the husk that had once held all he had been and could be.

And she had gone out into the city, gathering all the things she knew she'd need. Kindness from an old man who gave her a rose. Patience from the father of four at the zoo. Humor from a college student laughing amongst his friends. Many more. Each had yielded up part of himself to her touch, never knowing what it was they gave. Each part she pressed into the shell that waited back at her apartment, passed into him with a kiss.

And today was the last piece. She closed her eyes briefly, pulling the image of the man from the park to the front of her mind. One more calming breath, and she leaned forward to press her lips against his. A moment of white light, a slight charge to lift her hair.

She opened her eyes.

He was looking at her, blinking slowly. His blue eyes sparkled in the light from the window.

"Hey, hon," he said. "Was I asleep?"

"Just for a little while," she replied.

He smiled at her. "I must have dreamed of you. I knew that when I opened my eyes you'd be the first thing I'd see."

Her heart fluttered. "Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?"

"Sure." He stood and stretched. "Let's go to that little place on Elm that you like so much. I'm buying." He kissed her on the forehead. "I'm so lucky to have you, hon."

As they left the apartment, he put his hand against the small of her back. She smiled and curled her arm around his waist. Love could not be bought. It could not be sold. But it could, sometimes, be built. She had built this love herself, piece by piece, and she could feel the strength of it in his gaze. This time, everything would be all right. This time, she had all she needed.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([reading] old books)
Clay, twigs, and a drop of blood. Ancient, eldritch words. Spells pressed into the loam, each fingerprinted whorl transformed into a vein of power. A buzz in the air, a tingle along the boy's down-soft cheek. An awakening.

"Hello," said the golem, sitting up on the desk.

"Hello," said Kyle, his fingers shaking. It had worked.

The golem blinked. In the imprints Kyle had made for its eyes, tiny blue fires seemed to glow. "Where are we?"

"My room."

The golem nodded. "Naturally. And what is your name, Master?"

Kyle was afraid, there was no doubt of it, but a hot thrill went through him to hear the golem call him that. "Kyle."

"And what is mine?"

"You don't have one already?"

The golem was up and walking, exploring Kyle's notebooks and pencils. It sat down on a worn-shapeless pink eraser and regarded Kyle with the blue flames that were its eyes. "I suppose I've had several, but I don't remember them. Each new Master must name me in his or her turn. For each new shape, a new name."

Kyle wondered who the golem served before, and when. A boy like him? Driven by desperation and fear and perhaps under those things, loneliness and longing? The man who had spoken to him as he wept behind the library, the man who had given him the book?

"Hero," he said. The golem nodded again.

"It will do. And why have you summoned me, Master?"

Kyle did not know how to tell about the boys and the bruises. The shouted slaps and the whispered cuts that were even worse. The fights his parents didn't think he heard, the way the girls at school laughed when he passed by. He didn't know how to explain about sixth grade or disappointed teachers or eating lunch behind the dumpsters because there was no one to sit with.

He thought for a long time but Hero said nothing, only watched. He sat so still that he might be only clay and dirt, pebbles and sticks again.

"To protect me," he whispered, and felt the shame of tears behind his eyes. He wondered if Hero knew tears, understood them. "To be my friend."

"Friendship is protection," Hero said.

"I've never had a friend, not a real one."

"I am as real as sticks and stones," said Hero, standing. "And now you have me."
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] twilight)
It shouldn’t have happened. That’s all anyone could say afterward, as if that absolved them of their part. As far as Neda could tell, it should indeed have happened – in fact, it should have happened much sooner than it did.

Try telling that to them, though. They were secretly pleased to carry the burden of survival – to shake their heads wearily and sigh that the sins of others had brought them to this place. Every once in awhile there was an article in the paper about it, over which everyone could nod sorrowfully and say, “Those poor people. It shouldn’t have happened,” all the while implying that they should have known better.

They didn’t want to share the fault because they’d feel too guilty about it, Neda knew. Guilty that they’d survived, could read the paper and think about what had happened to everyone else. It was easier to think that the others had brought it on themselves somehow, and easier still to disguise that traitorous thought with pity. She understood, but it frustrated her - she felt guilty all the time. Sometimes it seemed as though all the guilt they’d pushed out of their hearts had landed squarely in hers, a heavy black malignancy that festered there and made her chest ache.

So unlike everyone else, she avoided people. She couldn’t bear to join them in the constant cycle of reassurance, the carefully crafted untruthing, so she ventured out into silent streets rather than face their smiles and the gentle pressing of their hands. Out and out, past the crumbling fringe houses – right up to the edge of the glass. Every day she went, tracing her finger along the cool edge and looking out into the world that was.

Until one day she saw it.

The tiny silver spidering, barely an inch.

The crack.

The Glass House was meant to withstand anything. It was the only reason any of them were alive when the rest of the world was dead. A completely self-sustaining ecosystem - five square miles enclosed in glass. A small town, farmland, and pens for livestock. Purified air circulated under the glass while ash drifted down beyond. The world outside sickened and died, but inside the Glass House people lived life as usual.

Neda had lived in the House her whole life. It was an experiment, her parents said. To see if the House was a viable solution in case of nuclear war. Nobody expected it to last. People shifted in and out – mostly out – as Neda grew up, but her parents were steadfast. “There isn’t enough data,” they said. “Not yet. We have to stay.”

When Neda was thirteen, the rumors began. War. Nukes. Fallout. More people began arriving at the House, some of them with carloads of possessions and extended relations. Some of those who had left years before returned, shamefaced. Eventually, they had to close the doors. “There’s no more room,” the townspeople said. Her parents shook their heads, angry.

“There are houses on the edge of town,” her father said. “They’re run down, but we could make them livable.”

“They’re scared,” her mother replied. “They’re scared there won’t be enough food to go around.”

Neda offered to share her bedroom – she would even sleep on the floor. Inwardly, she entertained the thought of a sister. Almost all of her friends had moved away and she was lonely. She would sleep on the floor if she only had someone to talk to. But though her parents smiled at her, no sister ever arrived.

And then came the day that everyone had feared – the one everyone said would never happen. The day the sky itself burned. The airtight seal on the door was activated and everyone gathered at the edge of the glass, their hands pressed over their mouths in horror.

On the outside, people gathered, too. They screamed and beat their fists against the glass. They held their children in the air, begging, weeping. Some had faces contorted with anger and they raged unheard, their clawed hands tearing at the sky and their eyes dark with hate and fear.

Eventually, they left. Their faces had grown blank. Their arms hung limp at their sides. Stumbling, they faded into the distance, their diminishing figures fogged by falling ash. Many of the townspeople had drifted away by then, but Neda stood until the last defeated figure disappeared. She was fourteen.

It had been two years since that day. The population of the Glass House was fifteen hundred people – maybe the last fifteen hundred people left anywhere – and Neda couldn’t stand any of them. Her parents chalked it up to typical teenage angst, but Neda couldn’t imagine anything less typical than her situation. She was sixteen years old and the world had ended. There was nowhere else to go, no one else to meet. No more choices.

So she rebelled in the only way she could, by hiding away from everyone. By facing the world outside, while so many others hid at the center of town and kept their eyes averted from the waste beyond the glass. She often imagined what the world would be like out there, silent and gray and empty. She fantasized about exploring it, rooting through the rubble of the old cities and discovering treasures no one else would ever see. It both frightened and excited her.

And then she found the crack. It started on the other side; the dead side. When she tried to touch it, the glass felt as smooth and flawless as ever. She wondered what could have possibly caused it. Her heart beat faster the more she stared. She couldn’t imagine such a tiny flaw having any noticeable effect, but it captivated her.

Every day she returned to the crack, her fingers rubbing over the smooth glass of her side. It was her secret place, where all of the flaws and the faults of the Glass House could be distilled into one tiny fracture in the glass.

And with time, she noticed that it was changing. Growing. Bit by bit, almost too imperceptibly to notice, the crack was lengthening.

Neda knew she should tell someone, but some strange darkness in her seemed to rise up and stop her mouth every time she planned it. Nothing good could come of it. Either everyone would be terrified or they would insist that there was nothing to worry about, and in either case the importance of it would be ruined. So she kept her secret and continued to visit the crack every day, each time afraid and interested to see how it had grown.

After six months, the crack was nearly five inches in length. It seemed to be deepening as well, reaching spindle fingers toward her. Every day her uneasiness grew, but every night she kept her silence at the dinner table and everyone carried on as usual.

And then someone spotted the Outsider.

They had all settled down to eat dinner when there was a frenzied knocking on the door. Neda’s father leapt up to answer. It was Gary Kellman, who was two years older than Neda and had once asked her to a dance when she was eleven and the kids still went to school.

“There’s someone out there!” He was gasping, his fingers clutching a stitch in his side. “On the other side!”

There hadn’t been anyone seen Outside for over almost two years. Without speaking, Neda and her parents followed Gary down the street, toward the edge of town.

“Ella spotted him,” Gary said as they rushed along. “When she was out checking the sheep.”

Others were being roused out of their homes now, and there was a steady stream of people hurrying toward the glass wall. Who could say what urged them? Perhaps only the chance to see a stranger’s face, after so much time with only each other.

At the glass they fanned out, searching the twilight haze. And then Neda saw him, fuzzy in the glare of the lights from the House. While the others stayed back, a good five feet from the glass, she felt herself walking forward, approaching the phantom in the world that was dead.

He was thin – impossibly thin – and his skin was bone-white where it wasn’t broken by bloody sores. Maybe he had survived by holing up in a cave somewhere and thought it was finally safe to come out. Maybe he was just looking for something to eat. His clothes were so rotten that they were nearly nonexistent, and his fingers looked as though he had been chewing on them.

When he opened his mouth, what teeth he had left were weakly anchored in gums that ran with blood and pus. He had no strength to beat against the glass – he only spoke, with his eyes trained unerringly on Neda’s, unaware that she couldn’t hear a word he said. His eyes were as blue as the sky had once been, bright and beautiful in that ruined face.

The man stopped speaking. Perhaps he had known all along that she couldn’t hear him, but couldn’t stop himself from speaking to another human face. He did not look hopeful, or defeated, or angry – only sorrowful. He knew that they would not let him in.

Neda lifted her hand and pressed it to the glass. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, not feeling the tears that ran down her cheeks. He put his hand up against the glass on the other side of hers and smiled sadly, then turned and hobbled painfully away. Behind her, the people of the Glass House stood silently until he disappeared.

“Poor man,” someone murmured. “How did he manage for so long?”

“Underground, probably,” came another voice.

“Well, why didn’t he stay there?”

“They don’t know.” A quivering note of sympathy. “They don’t know, these poor fools. He probably thought it was safe.”

“It’s too bad. It’s just too bad. If only there had been more places like this. If only people had listened.”

And there it was again. Those poor people and it shouldn’t have happened. The dark tumor of guilt that had grown up around Neda’s heart throbbed painfully, angrily. When she spoke, they didn’t hear her at first, but as she quietly repeated the words voice after voice fell still in the wake of them.

“There’s a crack in the wall.”

Until there was nothing but her voice in the falling darkness. And when she turned to go, one by one they followed her, a silent entourage to the source of her doomsaying. And as she walked, Neda knew what they were thinking.

It can’t be true. It shouldn’t have happened. It was all they knew, those poor people. And she pitied them as she led them to see the instrument of their fate.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] i'm so pretty)
The girl sat demurely side-saddle, her russet hair dusted with twinkling droplets of morning mist. Her dress was a rich, midnight-blue velvet, its daring cut only minimally disguised by a spray of airy lace over the bosom. Flanked on both sides by the young men that made up the volunteer escort from Miller’s Pond, she cut quite a striking figure. And that, thought Barlow, was almost certainly the point.

The girl was on her way to be married to some minor lord in Everton, a market town some twenty miles from Miller’s Pond. Barlow had only cursory knowledge of the lord – a fat, ostentatious man he’d often seen on market days – but he pitied the girl nonetheless. The lord was at least twice her age, and was rumored to be utterly ridiculous in both manner and lifestyle. Still, he was certainly wealthy, and Barlow had known many girls who would rather face marriage to a fat old blowhard than abject poverty. He wondered if this girl was such a case.

Even if she hadn’t been blessed with wealth, the girl had more than her fair share of beauty. Barlow could see why the lord would eschew a horse-faced noble bride for this common maid. Her hair was a crimson glory, her eyes the lively blue of a summer sky, and the dress she wore did little to obscure her lush figure. Her “honor guard” could barely keep their eyes off her, each boy’s gaze flicking to her in turn as they rode through the morning sunlight. Even Barlow himself had been stirred at the sight of her, though he was even older than the fat lord of Everton, and had a dear wife of thirty years besides.

Her looks explained the escort, almost as much as her future husband’s wealth. The road to Everton wasn’t particularly dangerous, being frequently traveled and patrolled, but the prospect of easy coin and a full day in the company of such a beauty was enough to lure several of the village’s young men to agree to conduct her there. A fat purse had arrived from Everton yesterday, only a few hours before the girl, with ample payment for a large number of men to escort the blushing bride to her waiting beloved. Barlow himself was supposedly along to keep the boys in check. Here in the brilliant sunshine, its golden light limning the vision before him, he couldn’t say he minded.

After a few more moments of relative quiet, Barlow spurred his horse forward to ride abreast of the girl. The man to her left had been trying to engage her in conversation, though his voice died in his throat as Barlow approached. The dull flush in his cheeks spoke more to his intentions than his words did, as Barlow assumed that no man, however young and foolish, would attempt to woo a noble’s intended in the middle of a mountain road.

“My lady,” he said respectfully, for though the girl was not a lady yet, she would be soon enough, “how does our pace suit you? Would you like a rest?”

“The pace suits me well enough, sir,” the girl replied, her voice surprisingly bold. She met his gaze steadily. Barlow was slightly taken aback – he had expected a blushing peasant maid. “There is no need to rest. I wish to join my husband as quickly as possible.”

“Of course,” Barlow inclined his head. “I am somewhat familiar with your intended, my lady. A great man.” As soon as the words escaped his lips, Barlow could not fathom why he had said them.

She laughed. “Great in girth, you mean.” Barlow stared. “I am somewhat familiar with my intended as well, sir.”

“If you’ll pardon my saying so, my lady, your impression seems less than favorable.”

“I’ll pardon it. Why not? I fear I’ll be pardoning a great many things before long.” The girl’s eyes twinkled. “Surely you did not assume that I marry for anything as silly as love, sir?”

Barlow flushed. “I make it a rule to assume as little as possible, my lady.” A lie, but even the young lady’s surprising frankness was not enough to inspire harsh honesty in a man such as Barlow. He had spent most of his considerable life in service to one rich man or another, and he couldn’t shake the rigid code of conduct that he was accustomed to.

“How virtuous of you,” she replied, tucking a red curl behind her ear. “As you will not engage me, I will answer for you. Of course you did not assume I married Lord Emmell for love. He is more than twice my age, fat, and a fool. Unlike many younger, thinner, brighter men, however, he can provide me with a comfortable life. I’ll be dressed in silks and brocades, dined with the finest delicacies, and will spend my nights in a featherbed. What do I mind that I’ll have to share it all with a laughingstock like Emmell? Better than starving in a dark hovel with a handsome man.”

Taken aback, Barlow could do no more than shake his head. “I can’t believe you’re taking this so lightly, my lady.”

She shrugged. “What else is there to do?”

There was little to say after that. Barlow hung back, letting the girl ride past him. She didn’t look back – their conversation seemed not to have fazed her at all. Barlow, on the other hand, was quite flabbergasted. He had never met a girl who cared so little about her marriage. Of course, he had suspected that she was marrying the man for money, but he certainly hadn’t expected her to be so candid about it. She was perfectly stoic about the entire thing; even amused!

Still in a daze, Barlow followed the company around a bend in the road and nearly steered his horse into the one ahead of him. The entire group had come to a complete and sudden stop.

“What-“ He didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before he saw the glint of steel before them on the road. Standing immediately in front of the girl’s elegant white horse was a large band of outlaws, each bristling with a knife, sword, or bow.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” said the man at the fore, a disreputable-looking fellow with stringy brown hair and a patchy scruff of beard. He held a long, finely-edged sword. “I hope you’ll forgive us for interrupting your stroll.”

Barlow pushed forward, easily shunting the terrified boys of Miller’s Pond aside. None had so much as raised a weapon, though most of what they carried was sadly worn anyway – more for show than anything else.

He stopped beside the red-headed girl. Regardless of what happened, he would do his job and protect her. “What do you want?” he asked, drawing his own blade.

“The usual,” said the outlaw with an airy shrug. “All the coin you carry, and anything else valuable besides.”

Barlow kept his sword raised. The amount of money they carried was indeed considerable, as Lord Emmell had sent no small sum to make sure his bride was safely conveyed to Everton. Still, nothing had been said of the girl - though she might fall under the outlaws' interpretation of "anything else valuable." Brigands such as these were known to carry off women just as soon as jewels or gold, and Barlow was determined not to let that happen.

He was just considering his options as far as fighting the ragged crew when a slim white hand reached out and pushed his sword aside.

"Put up your weapon, sir," the red-headed girl said, her voice as steady as it had been all along. "You'll only make things more difficult for yourself."

Nudging her horse gently, the girl trotted forward until she was practically nose-to-nose with the bearded ruffian. "Lash them to the trees," she ordered in a clear, calm voice. "And gently. They're only village boys, and surely none of them is fool enough to fight us." She looked sternly back at Barlow as she said this.

"My lady..." he began, uncertain.

"There's no more need for that, sir," she said with a smile. "I'm not a lady today, and I won't be tomorrow - or ever, if I have my way. I'm just a common thief. Now if you'll hand over that coin my dear sweet husband sent?"

The men moved forward, gesturing with their weapons for the boys from Miller's Pond to dismount. The boys quickly complied, many stumbling in their haste to avoid the sharp points of blades and arrowheads. Each handed over his leather pouch of coins. Barlow was the last, still staring at the red-headed girl.

"Why?" he asked. "Why not marry the lord if it's money you want? You could have so much more than this!" He tossed his own pouch toward her. She caught it one-handed, its contents jingling.

"I'm not the marrying type," she said. "Besides, there are other roads to ride. And," she added with a grin, "other fat old lords who will pay handsomely for the safe conduct of an innocent young bride."
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([autumn] leaves in the wind)
The air bristled with the crisp tang of autumn. The prince drew deep draughts of it through his aquiline nose, and his mustache quivered slightly. His attendants stood breathlessly in wait as he stood surveying the lawn, until at last he nodded and they rushed away like so many startled mice. Only one servant remained, a grizzled old man with white hair and eyes like a winter sky.

“Autumn is a fine time to dine outdoors, Ilie,” the prince said suddenly, his eyes fixed on the lawn.

“Yes, Your Highness,” the old man replied. “A fine time, indeed.” His own eyes were cast far from the property, reaching for the wooded horizon.

“My wife finds the air too brisk this time of year,” the prince continued, as if he had not even heard. “She prefers to eat in that dark, musty hall of mine. A miserable place. But I have always been a man of the outdoors.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“There is nothing quite so satisfying as devouring a meal one has killed oneself.” The prince’s mustache twitched. “And, of course, the smell of blood in the air adds a certain ambiance.”

“I heard that the stag was fearsome large, Your Highness,” Ilie said deferentially. His eyes were now downcast, tracing bootprints in the mud.

“Yes indeed, a great beast. I slew him with an arrow to the eye,” the prince said. “He was a noble creature, worthy of a quick death. Would that I could say the same of men.”

There was a sudden flurry of movement as the prince’s attendants materialized on the lawn, carrying a table and ornate chair among them. The table was covered with a white linen cloth, which flapped in the cool air like a gull's wing, and the chair was carved to resemble the curled form of a dragon. Behind these men came a caravan of servants in rust-colored livery, bearing a number of covered plates and jugs of beaten silver. As they approached, all lowered their eyes. Within moments they had set an elegant table. Ilie himself drew back the dragon chair for the prince.

One of the prince's attendants withdrew the cover from a large plate, revealing a venison steak that steamed in the autumn air. Another stepped forward to pour the prince's wine. Ilie remained behind the prince's right shoulder, and the other attendants spread in a line behind him. Most, he knew, stared toward the woods at the edge of the prince's grounds, or at the earth like he did. The younger ones let their eyes be drawn upward to the strange forest that surrounded them. He could hear the disturbed exhalations of their breath, their nervous fidgeting. He hoped for their sake that the prince could not.

A scream rent the air - a thin, tired, hopeless sound. Ilie knew it well. It was the sound of a man who has given up the last hope of living, a man who must now face intolerable pain with the complete understanding that it will only end in death. He also knew without looking that the young attendants behind him were staring, horrified, at the source of the sound and that the prince, in his dragon chair, was smiling.

"You see, Ilie," the prince said, without turning around, "there is no flesh as sweet as that of a noble enemy. Were I to meet a man as noble as the stag I killed today, I would roast and eat his flesh, and I have no doubt that it would be the finest meal I would ever consume."

The prince paused for a moment to chew a slice of venison.

"But the flesh of men is befouled with sin and cowardice," he continued. "It is not worthy of consumption. Instead it should be mortified and punished for its weakness."

"Yes, Your Highness," Ilie said. What else was there to say?

The prince nodded and returned to his meat. One of the young attendants gagged as the stench of loosened bowels filled the air. The prince seemed not to notice. He stared out at his kingdom, methodically placing each slice of steak into his mouth as if he could focus on nothing but the quality of the meal.

Around them, the spikes of raw wood reached toward the grey autumn sky. All bore dark stains of old blood, though many were slick with fresh viscera. At various points on those fresh-anointed spikes hung men, impaled in the air. Some moaned fitfully, but many had lost the ability. Still more were dead. The spikes had protruded through the mouths of the corpses. The man who had screamed was the latest of the prince's offenders. He might last for days yet.

Ilie kept his eyes well-trained on the horizon or on the ground before him. He had learned years ago not to stare at the bodies of the damned. The prince smiled his enigmatic smile, and reveled in his meat and wine.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([funny] kill zombies)
Stuart Sanderson approached life with a healthy sense of apathy. It was, in his opinion, the best way to get through the daily grind. The news was always going on about some crisis or another, but Stuart found that none of it really affected his life much, so he just didn’t bother thinking about it. As long as he carried on doing what he always did, the crisis would fade or become so common-place that people just got used to it and quit complaining all the time. Why get worked up?

In fact, Stuart wouldn’t have bothered with the news at all if it weren’t for Kelley Ronson, the morning anchor for KNEWS-6. Kelley had big news anchor hair in seamless bottle blonde, green eyes lashed with thick black spikes, and a perfectly straight set of blazing white teeth. She also possessed the most soothing voice that Stuart had ever heard. No matter how bad the news, Kelley delivered it with a velvet voice and a smile. Stuart felt she was a kindred spirit, and he never missed her morning reports.

One Tuesday, late in March, that all changed.

Stuart woke at 6 AM as usual – just enough time to get showered and dressed before Kelley’s report at 6:30. He made himself a cup of coffee and settled in on the couch just as the theme music played and Kelley’s face appeared. Immediately he could tell that something was off. Her usual sunny smile was tighter than usual, and it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Her fingers trembled on the wide news desk.

“Some disturbing reports of rioting downtown today,” she said, her voice a pale shadow of its former glory. “Participants are said to be excessively violent, and have viciously attacked several members of law enforcement. There have been many reports of casualties. Representatives from the police department have stated that they may soon have to resort to the use of deadly force to contain the crowd, which appears to be growing at a rapid rate.” As Kelley drew a shaky breath, images began flashing on the screen – a massive crowd, arms outstretched, chasing down a smattering of fleeing police officers.

Stuart snorted in disgust and flicked off the television set. He didn’t often get upset about things, but Kelley’s departure from routine felt like a personal betrayal. Plus, all this nonsense about rioting. If people could get worked up over famines in Africa, they were sure to blow their tops over something so close to home. He would never hear the end of it.

The foul mood hung over him like a shroud as he packed up his briefcase and headed out to the office. Everything seemed perfectly designed to drive him up the wall. Traffic was out of control – it seemed like everyone in the city was on the road. Several people were walking or running along the side of the street, some dragging children or suitcases, and many weeping openly. Stuart felt almost sick with contempt. People were so easily taken in by the news. So there was rioting downtown – so what? It didn’t have anything to do with these people. Why did they have to wander into his day and cause such a scene? By the time Stuart finally reached his office, he was over an hour late and the beginnings of a headache were drumming against his temples.

At that point, it seemed that providence finally decided to step in. Stuart stepped off the elevator onto his floor and saw only Neil, the receptionist, and Perla Ramos at their desks. While he found it pathetic that his coworkers would be so taken in by the current hysteria as to miss work, he couldn’t help but be pleased that he wouldn’t be forced to endure their constant bleating on the subject.

Just as he was settling in at his desk, Neil shuffled in to his cubicle. He seemed unusually twitchy. His pale eyes flicked constantly over the entire office, which Stuart found extremely disconcerting - as well as annoying.

"Did you hear the news?" Neil asked, his fingers bunching convulsively into fists. Inwardly, Stuart groaned.

"Something about riots. It'll pass. Always does."

"I don't know, man..." Neil's eyes did another jerky dance across the field of cubicles. "I saw some of those protestors on my way in. They didn't look right. They looked... sick."

"Probably why they're protesting. Medicare or something." Stuart was tired of this conversation. Couldn't Neil see that?

"I don't think so..."

"Anyway, Neil, I've got some work to do. I'm sure it's no big deal. Don't worry about it." And with that he turned back to his desk and began deliberately riffling papers and fishing for things in his briefcase. He was aware that Neil was still standing behind him, but after a few more awkward seconds, he turned and left.

"Finally," Stuart whispered under his breath. Faintly, he heard a sound across the room like a woman crying. He turned on the radio at his desk and set the station to one that played particularly mellow jazz.

Stuart worked continuously until 5 o' clock. The building was so peaceful and quiet, and he felt more productive than he had in years. At lunch he hs noticed that both Neil and Perla were gone, but he didn't miss them. Sighing with contentment, he hit "send" on one last email, gathered up his things, and went down to the parking lot.

He had nearly reached his car when he heard the moaning. Turning, he saw a ragged-looking man approaching him with arms outstretched. He immediately pegged the man as one of the shiftless protestors - he looked like the hippie type, with his dirty clothes and matted hair. He also looked, as Neil had mentioned, sick.

Stuart fumbled with his keys. "Leave me alone. I don't have anything to do with your protest."

The man responded with a fetid moan. Stuart wrinkled his nose. "Listen, I don't know what you're trying to prove, but I'm the last person you're ever going to prove it to. So..."

He had just managed to push the "unlock" button on his keychain when the man struck. He lunged at Stuart and grabbed a handful of his shirt, moaning all the while. Stuart yelped and scrabbled weakly against the man's grip, though he was rather disoriented as the stink was even more palpable up close. His attacker wasn't exactly graceful - he lumbered around heavily with his filthy hands grappling at Stuart's fresh-pressed button-down - but Stuart had never been grabbed by a violent hippie before and was quite flabbergasted as to what he should do.

The man solved that problem for him by grabbing Stuart's flailing right arm and biting down on his wrist. Stuart howled, shrieked, and finally became proactive. He wrenched his arm away from the man and gave him a mighty shove backwards. With a bemused groan, the hippie toppled over onto the asphalt.

Stuart didn't wait around to see what would happen next. He ripped open the car door, leapt into the driver's seat, and tore out of the parking lot, headed for home.

As he raced back toward his apartment, Stuart began gradually to calm down. His foot eased slightly off the gas (not that it mattered - there didn't appear to be a car in sight). So he had been attacked by one of those protestors. From what little he had unfortunately gleaned about the goings-on around town, that didn't seem to be a special occurrence. He was lucky enough that it had only been one. He supposed the moaning and the carrying on had just been part of the act. Something about the mindlessness of corporate America, no doubt.

He looked down at his wrist. The bite was really fairly minor. It had only broken the skin in one place, and even then there was only the smallest trickle of blood. The man had looked sick, but obviously he didn't frequently come into contact with soap and water, whereas Stuart showered twice a day. A good hot shower and some antiseptic would be just the thing to take care of that bite.

When Stuart really thought about it, he found he wasn't in the least concerned. When he reached his apartment, he made himself a grilled cheese sandwich, watched a DVD, and went to bed.

On Wednesday, Stuart Sanderson was feeling slightly under the weather. Still, he dutifully woke at 6 AM, showered, dressed, and made himself a cup of coffee. He looked thoughtfully at the TV before deciding not to turn to KNEWS-6. He still felt somewhat hurt by Kelley's behavior the day before, and after yesterday's events he felt certain that there would be even more morbid news today.

The roads were still clear when Stuart headed to work. There were a few stalled-out vehicles along the side of the road, but everything else seemed to be running smoothly. When he reached the office, it was completely empty. Stuart didn't mind. It seemed that people had taken this protesting business entirely too seriously, and had gone out of town to wait it out. He could only imagine how much work they'd have to catch up on when they got back from their ridiculous little impromptu vacations. The thought made him chuckle.

His jazz station seemed to be down - when he turned on the radio, he heard only static. The internet was still up, so he sent a few more emails before settling down to work on a spreadsheet. He hadn't received any emails since yesterday, which was odd, but overall he found he didn't mind. Nobody ever seemed to say much of use over the office email anyway.

Around noon, he coughed up a bit of blood. He thought briefly about going to the hospital, but shook it off. It was nothing. He didn't want to be categorized with the hordes of people that were undoubtedly storming the place over all this rioting business - he could wait it out.

At two-thirty, he noticed that his vision was getting a little blurry. Too much time staring at the computer screen, he thought ruefully, getting up to wash his face in the bathroom.

At four-thirty, he slumped over onto his desk, his head spinning and his vision darkening. Shouldn't have had that last cup of coffee, he thought briefly before passing out.

At four-forty-five, Stuart Sanderson expired at his desk.

At five o' clock, Stuart sat back up. He moved his head slowly from side to side, as if looking for anyone else in the office. He moaned, not unhappily. Slowly, deliberately, he began to push buttons on his keyboard.

Six months later, one of the newly-formed Rebuild and Recover teams swept through Stuart's building. Two men in body armor with an automatic rifles in their hands found Stuart still sitting at his desk, pushing blindly at the keys. His eyes had rotted and his flesh was in tatters. His jaw hung open. The smell coming off of him was eye-wateringly pungent.

"Poor sucker doesn't even know he's dead," laughed the first man.

"Some things never change," said the second. He raised his gun.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] dark lady)
Her fair hair gleamed in the moonlight, so blond it was almost silver. When she walked, the tapping of her high heeled boots and the swish of her coat seemed a quiet, nocturnal music. Her dark eyes were fixed ahead of her, her stride sure-footed and confident. She was not a stranger to the night, this neon-lit nymph, and the knowledge of it read in every line of her slim, statuesque body.

He fell in love with her immediately, just as he had done a hundred times before with a hundred different women. Her straight back, her fashionable coat, the way her pale, tapered fingers curved around her satin clutch – all sent the familiar tingling rush into his blood. Almost unconsciously, he dropped his cigarette and ground it underfoot, pushing away from the brick-walled club in which he had been loitering for the past two hours, his gaze sliding unarrested from one short skirt to another. What a waste of time that had been – he should have known even before entering the place that he’d never find someone interesting there. It had just been so long…

The staccato clicking of her heels increased in tempo - she had sensed him approaching. He was quiet, his steps barely registering above the nighttime din of partygoers, but women had a kind of intuition about being followed. Still, she did not turn to look; her silvery hair swung behind her like a silken pendulum as her pace quickened. If he was going to speak to her, he knew now was the time - if he waited any longer she would think he was a pervert, the kind of person who followed beautiful women home from nightclubs and stared between the cracks in their curtains as they kicked off their heels and stripped off their dresses.

So he hurried up to walk beside her, keeping a respectable distance between them as he matched her stride. When she glanced over, the planes of her face tense in the semidarkness, he flashed her a quick, shy smile, the kind he knew from experience helped set a woman at ease.

"I'm sorry to charge toward you in the dark like this, but I hope you'll let me walk with you to the end of this street. There are some rough men around here tonight, and I'm afraid they'll harass a woman walking alone."

She looked at him suspiciously, her eyebrows drawing together. She veered farther away from him. He raised his hands in mock surrender.

"Of course, you can always tell me to take off - I won't be offended! But I promise I won't come any closer to you than I am right now. I just want to keep you company until you reach the end of this street. The main thoroughfare is well-lit, and I'll feel better if I know you've reached it safely."

Now a hint of amusement came into her pale, lovely face. A thrill went through him at the change he had wrought in her with his words alone. He imagined her face flickering through an array of expressions - a laugh, a tender smile, her mouth open and moaning in the throes of passion.

When she spoke, her voice was cool, but a ripple of laughter seemed to lurk beneath the words. "And how many other women have you assisted tonight? Have you accompanied untold scores of women down this dark little street, or have you let them all venture into danger until you had me in your sights?"

He shrugged and let his face fall sheepishly. "Truthfully? You're the first."

"And why is that?"

"You want honesty, I can tell - you're that sort of woman. Honestly, I couldn't resist you."

She remained silent, her dark eyes fixed on him and her eyebrows quirked. She wanted to hear more. She couldn't help herself.

"It's just... well, don't think I'm a creep, but you're extraordinarily beautiful."

When she smiled - the slow, indulgent smile that meant she secretly exulted in a stranger's notice - he knew he had her. He looked down again, a practiced blush spreading over his features. "I'm sorry," he added. "I shouldn't have said anything. I've had a little bit to drink and it's made me braver than I ought to be."

"It's all right," she said, smiling her knowing little smile. She edged closer. "I kind of like it."

They were nearing the end of the shadowy little street. The lights of the main drag sparkled ahead. He took a deep breath, and turned toward her with his most engaging smile. "How about if we walk together just a little bit longer?"

Her teeth glinted in the darkness as she returned his grin. "I'd like that."

----------

Dawn broke cold over the sleeping city. Frost glittered in the gutters and at the corners of windows. Lovers snuggled closer together under the blankets, taking comfort in each other's warmth. And in one apartment, the smell of blood clung to the walls and windows like a suit of skin.

A long knife sat on the draining board, beside it a cleaver. The counters had been scrubbed clean, but in the deep well of the sink a single drop of blood shone against the stainless steel. In the refrigerator, slabs of paper-wrapped meet were stacked with careful precision beside a staring head, its eyes fixed interminably on the mustard in the shelf on the door.

In the breakfast nook, a cup of coffee added its bitter scent to the scene. Yawning languorously, she settled into the chair before it, drinking in the sight of the dawn-lit city beyond the window. She settled a plate of sizzling bacon on the table beside the mug, a smile coming unbidden to her lips at the sight of the meat. It was always better fresh.

As she lifted the first morsel to her teeth, she played back the events of the night before. It was always the same with men like that - the little games, the lies. She hadn't intended on taking anyone that night, not until he had approached her. It had been a long day and she was tired, ready to slip into bed and wake to the usual chewy pork sausage in the morning... And then there he was, smiling that disingenuous smile, and the anger at his presumption had risen in her like a monster from the deep.

They were all the same. Just the same old shit, every day.

But the meat was tender, and her tastes were sated. For now. Until another man approached her on a darkened street, lied to her, put himself willingly into her hands.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] nobody puts her in the corner)
We need to talk. The sentiment hung between them like stale cigarette smoke, though neither spoke the words aloud. That heavy silence - the kind that always seems to hover between people right before a fight - was the reigning attribute of their marriage. Gwen liked to imagine all those words, the ones nobody said, floating around their heads in cartoon thought bubbles, crowding the air and occasionally glancing off of someone's temple, but otherwise studiously ignored.

She first became aware of the cartoon-thought-bubble we need to talk when Charlie started banging around the coffee cups in the kitchenette. It was 9:47 PM, watery yellow light seeping through the blinds and a dog barking somewhere down the street. Charlie'd just got off his shift at OK's Pizza, and the smell of pepperoni and burnt cheese clung to him like a greasy shadow. Anger clung to him, too - the slow, sludgy, why-me anger that Gwen hated so much.

When she couldn't bear another rattle-clunk of ceramic on the peeling vinyl countertop, she unstuck her tongue and pushed out the words.

"What's wrong, then?"

He looked up at her, his eyes narrow and black in the weak light, his curling hair greenish. For a moment she wished she could draw back the poison of her words - the exasperation of them - and make them sound like they would've six months ago, before they were married. Before they lived in a shitty double-wide and ate shitty pizza leftovers most every night, before she'd lost the baby, before they'd learned to hate each other. Then he deliberately thunked down the pink-polka-dotted mug the other cashiers had given her on her last day at the Piggly Wiggly, and anger flared like hot breath on her neck. It made her tongue loose, the words flashing from her lips like sparks.

"Can you stop doing that for one fucking second?"

Thunk.

"You're an asshole, you know that?"

Thunk.

She threw up her hands. She wanted to hit him. She wanted to throw a mug in his face and break his teeth. Instead she spun on her heel and stormed back toward the TV, Wheel of Fortune flickering brightly on the fake wood paneled wall.

"Was she mine?"

She stopped. The words flowed through her, tingling hot and cold at the same time. She turned. "What?"

"You know." Charlie was in the same place, his eyes still grim and black, his skin waxy. "Was she mine?"

"You -- You --"

"I know you were fucking that fatass deli manager," he said, his voice climbing two octaves in quick succession. "Ty told me."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" But her voice was higher, too, and with every double-thump of her heart she felt the words bouncing off her head - he knows, he knows, he knows.

It had been July, the month before she came up pregnant and Charlie'd bought her a ring from Sears with all his college savings. She'd been with Charlie for seven months, just long enough to get bored of the Red Box movie nights and the smell of pizza on his skin. Her nerves were tight and jangling, begging for release. Sam worked in the deli department, and he'd always looked at her with those mean little eyes of his - looked at her so that she could feel his thick fingers on her, in her, even before the first time she'd followed him into the walk-in freezer.

She thought it would only be once. The wrongness of it had appealed to her, but just for a minute. How could anyone want that more than once - back pressed up against cold metal shelving, polyester pants around her ankles, sour breath on her neck? She'd go back to Charlie, go back to her life. It would be easy.

But it happened again, again, again - in the freezer, her car, his mother's apartment. And then the stick had two lines instead of one, and she had a ring on her finger and a date set for October.

When she miscarried, she felt destroyed and reborn all at once. The baby would have loved her, she knew, and it killed her to have lost that. But what if she had been born with Sam's squinty eyes instead of Charlie's curly hair? What if she had slid from between Gwen's thighs with a confession stamped on her face - one that Gwen never planned to make? Who would take care of her then?

And there it was, the tiny pinprick of relief that she carried in her chest that had rotted her from the inside out every day since.

Now Charlie was staring at her, his eyes full of hurt and anger and maybe even hate, the words ballooning up between them like cumulus clouds. There were so many things she could say --

"It was nothing."

"She was yours."

"I love you."

But she didn't. She never would, not even to save herself. And when she walked out of the double-wide that night with the Sears engagement ring in her pocket and Charlie's hidden pizza savings in her purse, the words that she hadn't said followed her like a balloon on a string, darkening her face with its shadow.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] kiss mark)
Well, I did get eliminated tonight in LJ Idol.

I was pretty broken up about it for the first little bit, but I am feeling much better now. This is pretty consistent with how I handle competitive losses - because I'm such a competitive person and so ambitious about the things I love, I tend to feel REALLY awful if I don't perform up to my standards and reach the goals I set for myself. In the case of Idol, I decided pretty early on that I was going to gun for Top 10. I knew that it was a long shot and that I would have to work hard to make it happen, but I am the kind of person who always shoots for the tough target. Usually it works out reasonably well for me because it means I don't give up, and this competition is really no exception. I made it all the way to the top 14, and that's not too shabby.

So I am disappointed that I didn't make my goal, but I did do pretty well all things considered, and I have to be glad for that.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the last several months. You guys have saved my keister more than once, and I will never forget how so many of my friends went to bat for me. This competition has meant so much to me, because it's given me the confidence to write and, more importantly, share my fiction. That was a big step for me, and you guys have all been so wonderful through the whole thing.

I really do love to write, guys. I've loved it since I wrote my first story in the third grade (about a baby seal trapped on an island, lol) and my teacher told me that she thought I had what it takes to become a great writer. Since then, that's been my dream. Never faltered. I might do other things in the interim, but I won't give up on someday being able to write professionally. This competition has made me believe in that dream again, and that's been the best part of it all.

And now I've got to get back to writing about my actual life on my LJ... don't get excited, flist, you remember how boring that was!



(And thank you so much to the people who commented on my last post! I hope to respond to those comments at some point, but whenever I look at them my eyes get all leaky again. Thank you so much, it means more than I can say :))
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] fierceness)
Here I am, just minding my own business, when BAM! A man shows up on a cloud in the middle of my backyard, with a message and a linen tunic just as clean as a bleached bone (very difficult to achieve in this town, judging by all the smudges and stains I see on a daily basis, so you could imagine that it flabbergasted me a bit), to say nothing of the lights and the booming voice and I don't know what all. Gave me the fright of my life, I'll tell you what. And that's before I could make heads or tails of what he was actually saying.

Naturally I agreed with everything he did say, because honey, if there is one thing I will not do it is argue with an angel. I can't imagine that it would take all that much effort on his part to reduce me to a cinder if I decided to get smart, and anyway I do actually pay attention when God has something to tell me, no matter in what frightening matter He chooses to say it. I suppose that may be why it's me telling you this story instead of some other backcountry girl.

Anyway, that's how I turned up pregnant, so don't you listen to those rumors going around about my loose morals and whatnot. Though if I'm honest (and I certainly try to be) I'll admit that if you gave me this same story straight from your mouth I'd probably think it was a bunch of bull. It's pretty humbling, I admit it. Most people just give me a bit of the old raised eyebrow routine, like I've possibly been into the wine jar (though how could I, honestly, with me in the family way?). Even Joseph had his doubts before God decided to send him a dream so as to set things straight - and thank goodness, too, because I can't possibly imagine what I might have done if he didn't believe me.

We've been engaged for a while, after all, and if he decided to pitch me I doubt I could get another man interested. Not that the whole carrying-the-child-of-God thing isn't terribly interesting to most folk, provided they believe it, but as I have explained to you previously most of them don't. So it's a good thing Joseph is the God-fearing type or I'd've been out on my rapidly-expanding rear end before you could say boo, having absolutely no end of trash talk said about me.

As it is, I haven't been out much since I started getting bigger. I just can't abide all that staring and whispering, even if it is about the fact that I am a vessel for Holiness (though it likely isn't, unfortunately). In fact, before this trip I am fairly certain I hadn't left the house in a month. Joseph came by to visit, of course, and to see how I was coming along, but I do believe the whole thing made him nervous. Though that may be partially due to the fact that I was absolutely swept away by a surge of hormones not too long ago and nearly threw a zucchini at his head when he suggested that I was looking "bigger than ever" (HIS words).

But of course the law knows no sympathy for a poor pregnant girl out in the absolute ends of the earth (aka Nazareth), so Joseph and I have had to hoof it all the way out here to Bethlehem for a census. Imagine! I just don't know what those Roman emperors get up to, coming up with a thing like that. Let's see their wives ride a poor swaybacked donkey all the way from the middle of nowhere to Bethlehem, see how they like it!

But I do go on. You see that I'm making Joseph very nervous - he doesn't like it when I talk this way. Well, if I can't say it when I'm pregnant I can't imagine when else I'll get the chance. And anyway it's all kinds of unpleasant to ride a donkey in this state, and I can't imagine that doing so has improved my mood. I won't get into details, but I will just have you know that my bottom is a state to behold. And that's nothing to how it feels! Goodness but I'm not sure if I'll ever recover.

So we can't honestly be expected to stay out in the stable! Can you imagine? Me just about to pop, out there with the manure and the donkey and I don't know what all? It's not that I'm asking you to kick anyone out, I'm just saying that surely you can find it in your heart to find a poor pregnant girl an indoors room where she might possibly have her baby. I promise you that I won't make the slightest mess at all and your other guests won't have to worry about me wailing and carrying on. This is the son of God I've got here, after all, and if I'm not due an easy labor for that I just don't know who is.

Oh, yes, I certainly do believe it! I can't believe you even have to ask, with all I've been through. The whole thing was pretty terrifying at first, I don't mind telling you, but after awhile I could just tell, you know? I mean, it's not as though I've been pregnant before, but I just know this is a bigger deal than the usual. I can feel it down to the tips of my toes. Almost like I'm inside a little cloud of light all my own. It honestly just blows me away most of the time!

So you see that I'm telling the truth - how can you expect me to give birth to the son of God himself out in a pile of hay with a bunch of animals watching me?

Well, sir, I suppose we all get what's coming to us in the end. I got the son of God, so I can't imagine what you might get. No, that's not a threat, and stop pushing me, Joseph! I can manage just fine on my oh... oh!

Oh goodness, I think this is it! Lord save me from whatever might be crawling around in that hay, because I think your son is on his way into it!
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] tattooed girl)
Last week for LJ Idol, the remaining writers were challenged to write three (count 'em, three!) pieces on three different prompts. We then read and ranked each others' entries from best to worst. This week, based on those rankings, each contestant had to revise their lowest-ranked piece and resubmit it for judgment. As my Grip entry was ranked lowest last week, that is the piece that I have revised.

Again, this entry is a continuation of my Bats in the Belfry story. Instead of rewriting my original piece, I decided to add in the perspective of my thief-turned-mutation along with Calli's story. I hope it's more enjoyable than the first version (and that the change in tense... works), and that you like what you read :)

-------------------------

For many long nights, I am nothing but darkness. My body twists and burns, and no matter how I beat my limbs against the stone that surrounded me, no matter how I scream, no one comes to set me free. I know nothing but pain. I can remember nothing but pain. Whatever I am, I have no past, no present, no future but the pain.

And then the man in the white coat comes to see me, and I remember for a brief moment between screams that I have seen him before.

"Everything is coming along nicely, I see," he says, making a mark on a sheaf of papers in his hand. I moan in response.

"Don't be so negative. Didn't I tell you it wouldn't be forever? We're very close now. Soon, you will fly."

Fly. Yes, I would like that. My wings twitch with anticipation at the thought of it. Even against the waves of pain that wash continually over me, this urge beats strong in my heart.

When the man in the white coat returns, the pain is almost completely gone. I can't be sure how long it's been, but all that is left of the agony I felt is a dull ache and itch in my joints. The man in the white coat eyes me approvingly.

"How are you feeling?"

I hadn't realized that I couldn't speak until I tried. This hurts, but not in my body - not like the other pain. It is almost like the world sways sickeningly around me for a moment.

"Oh, I'm sorry about that," the man says. "I shouldn't have asked. Don't look so glum, though; there's really nothing all that wonderful about speaking. People like me - like you used to be - we speak because it's one of the only weapons we have. You don't need it."

I suppose that's true. Strength flows through my body like a current. I can stand like the man in the white coat, but where his body is soft and weak and small, mine is tall and rippling with muscle. My wings, when not bunched tight against my back, are powerful enough to break bones and are as tough as leather. I stretch them a little, in question.

"Yes," the man says thoughtfully. "Yes, I think it's time to fly."

I follow him placidly up a curling stair, my claws clacking against the stone. All I can think of is what it will be like to fly, to finally open my wings fully in the cool black air of night. The thought consumes me.

When we reach the top, there is nothing but a round room and a window. Beyond the window are the stars, the sky, and the wind that smells of meat and blood and night-blooming flowers. I start toward it immediately, my heart singing.

"Stop," says the man in the white coat. I don't want to stop, but I do. I can't keep myself from obeying.

"Before you go, let's set a few... ground rules." The man circles so that he is facing me, his eyes boring into mine. I lower my head shamefully - what have I done to make him look at me this way?

"I created you," he said. "I made you strong. Don't ever forget that. You must obey whatever I say."

I already know this - why is he telling me this? I have no choice but to obey him. I wouldn't dare, wouldn't even want to do otherwise.

"I built you to protect us. To protect this city." He sweeps one arm grandly out around him, but there is nothing but the dark round room. "When you search for meat, you will not do it within the white walls. Do you understand?" He must see that I do, even though I cannot speak, because he nods and continues. "If anyone approaches these walls in order to do harm, I will call you back here and you will protect us. Until that time, you are free."

He holds me within his gaze for a moment more, and then smiles. "Are you ready to fly now?"

From the first moment that I drop into the air, from that first second of weightlessness, I feel a joy that I have never known before. I can't remember what I was before the wings and the claws, but I know that I have never felt anything like this before. I call out ecstatically into the night and wheel higher and higher, buoyed up by warm drafts and the brilliant electricity of freedom that runs through me. Free!

---

Sixteen is not a good age for monsters – but then, what is?

Calli sometimes thought about that, usually when she was cleaning and oiling her guns. She found the routine of the work comforting, and had become so used to it that she could let her mind wander as her hands played over the dull metal. She tried not to make it a pity-party kind of thought. Today, in fact, she had almost convinced herself that sixteen actually wasn’t so bad as monsters went – she was young, at least, and had a lot of energy. And she was quick; she was the fastest runner of all the Scouts, and almost always the first to spot her targets. She was just talking herself silently through the finer points of her argument when the alarm above her head began to howl.

Fluidly, effortlessly, she slid a loaded magazine into her favorite semi-automatic pistol and holstered it at her hip. Static crackled over the walkie at her belt.

”Perimeter breach, northwest entrance.” It was Layne’s voice; she recognized his languorous Southern drawl. Nobody else in Undertown had an accent like that.

Most of the South had been purged after the attacks on the Houston settlement five years ago, and Layne himself had only barely escaped a dozen deaths to make it to safe haven. He talked about it sometimes, though never in detail, and the empty look in his eyes cut into Calli's heart like a shard of glass. He always insisted on sitting a nightly watch, even when it wasn't his turn, and as the Perimeter Guard was always short on volunteers they decided not to press the issue.

And now there was a breach. Calli wondered briefly if Layne was afraid as she raced down the stone corridors that led from the armory to the nearest firing platform, her boots thudding and her heart leaping around somewhere in her gut like a landed fish. She had seen a perimeter breach only twice before in her time with the Scouts, and the thought still terrified her. She could only imagine how it affected Layne, with all the things that he had seen.

She reached the platform ladder just ahead of Vin Dzerga, who had entered the Scouts at the same time she had. His eyes were bulging and his lips were set in a thin white line. He looked scared to death, and she knew from his eyes that she looked the same way. But she didn't have time to frighten herself anymore. With a sudden wrench of decision she grabbed at the metal rungs of the ladder and began to pull herself up.

The ladder ascended twenty feet to the stone ceiling, where the rock narrowed around it into a small, dimly-lit tube. From there it was another twenty feet before a sudden blossoming into open air and a little round hatch that led to the platform itself, a metal cage that clung like a bat against the side of the mountain.

Only the Guards and Scouts left the safety of the mountain to look out on the wasteland that the upper world had become. It was better that way. Most of the people in Undertown never saw beyond the stone walls that their ancestors had carved out of the mountain's belly, and most of them were perfectly happy that way. There were monsters above, after all - the world was thick with them.

---

It has been many days and nights since I have eaten, and the hunger in my belly is sharp. Time is a difficult thing for me to grasp, but even I can tell that it has been too long since the taste of blood filled my mouth. The moon has risen many times since I was driven away from the low city after feeding on the boy with the light-colored hair. The bullet wound in my leg still aches, but it is healing.

Since then, I have not eaten.

There are animals in these mountains, many different kinds. When I see them, I think that I could take them easily and feed on their flesh. But my mouth doesn't water at the sight of these dumb beasts and their empty eyes. It is not them that I want.

So when I come upon the cages on the sides of the mountain, and when the bright moon glows against the faces of the humans that cluster inside them, I know that this is the place that I am meant to stop. There are no white walls here, just brown stone and metal. These humans are mine to take.

---

Calli could still remember how scared she'd been the first time she had crawled up the ladder to the firing platform. It had been night (her eyes were still undergoing the gradual adjustments to light necessary to be outside during the daytime hours), and the vastness of the sky and the world that spread out around her had driven her to her knees. And then there were the monsters - the things that ancient humans had created that had risen up and nearly wiped them out. That was the scariest thing of all.

Now she couldn't imagine never seeing the night sky again, though admittedly the circumstances that led her to the firing platform tonight weren't ideal for stargazing. She unclipped the walkie from her belt as Vin clambered out onto the platform behind her.

"Scouts in position at Firing Platform G."

"Affirmative, Calli," Layne said. Funny how his voice could still make her heart skip a beat when it was already pounding so hard. "Keep those sharp eyes of yours peeled. Bogey came by air."

From her position on the mountainside she could see the Perimeter - a high stone wall that ringed the base of the mountain and guarded the ancient roads that still wound faintly up to its peak. Try as she might, though, she couldn't see the Guards that she knew were stationed there - they were too far away.

"Did he say by air?" There was a note of panic in Vin's voice. She nodded as calmly as she could, but she couldn't stop the thought from entering her head. What am I doing here? She was only sixteen. Maybe she had been wrong about it being a good time for monsters, after all. There was no good time for monsters.

But she'd always wanted to be a Scout, and she had known that days like this would come. Sure, most breaches came by ground, but she knew that some of the beasts could fly - she'd trained for that. And besides, not many of them were capable of getting through the metal cage that protected them. She held her gun at the ready, her eyes glinting from shadow to shadow.

"Do you think it already hit those cities to the west?" Vin asked, his own gun drawn and his head rotating slowly from side to side.

He was talking about the two cities on the western side of the mountain range - the ones that would have nothing to do with Undertown or anyone else. Layne always snorted derisively when anyone mentioned them. "The castle in the sky and the slum in the dirt," he called them. He had been there once, before he found Undertown. There were two cities, a white one at the top of the mountain and a dirty brown one at the bottom. Calli couldn't imagine why people would want to separate themselves like that, but Layne hadn't known.

"I don't know," she said. "I hope not." For no matter how nonsensical those people were, she would never wish one of the monsters upon them.

There was a sudden echo of gunfire from their left, and the shrieking sound of tearing metal. Vin started violently, almost dropping his gun. Calli wheeled toward the sound.

"Firing Platform F," she whispered. It was only a hundred yards away from them, but they were separated from it by huge, craggy rocks. Calli's heart was hammering so fast now that all the beats seemed to blur together into a heavy hum. There was a screech of tearing metal and a blood-curdling scream, and this time she nearly dropped her gun, too.

---

The metal comes away easily in my claws. I am almost surprised at how little effort it takes. There is a young man inside the cage, and he shrieks with terror as his metal walls crash against the rocks below. He raises his weapon and fires at me, though his shot is far too wide to strike me. I open him easily and he sags to the floor with my mouth and claws already digging into his belly.

I can hear other humans, smell their fear in the air. The two I am feeding on are still covered in flesh, but I know that the others will come to drive me away soon. Shouldn't I kill them all? Shouldn't I be able to eat in peace? I spread my wings. With blood still running in warm streams down my jaws, I leap into the air.

---

"Platform F!" The walkie sputtered frantically. "Report, Platform F! Report! Are you there?" Calli knew that they weren't.

There was a banging sound behind her, and she turned just in time to see Vin yanking open the platform hatch. "Vin!" she shrieked. "Where are you going?"

"I can't, Calli," he cried miserably. "I just can't. Come on!"

But she had already turned away. She could hear the huge wings pounding against the night air, and she could see the shadow descending. The hatch slammed shut behind her.

It was almost humanoid in shape, apart from the wings and the huge hands and feet tipped with claws. Muscle seemed to burst from every surface of it - it was twisted by its own horrifying strength. There was a horrible crashing sound as its taloned feet hit the cage and began to pull the metal away.

Calli looked up into the creature's eyes as the metal screamed in her ears. The eyes, it seemed, had not been changed. They were wide and blue and full of sadness. Layne's eyes were blue, too, and she thought about how she had never kissed him - never, in all the hundreds of times she had wanted to.

And then she lifted the gun, her knuckles white with the strain of her knotted hands, and pulled the trigger.
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 ([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!"










---

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)!

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applespice: it is a sparkly fairy (Default)
How About Them Apples?

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