This story is by Alice Griffin and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s dark. Cozy. Warm. Comfortable.
Black all around and then a spark, like a lightning strike, a flash of light and confusion.
Where am I?
Where is my body?
Another flash, a white coat, coldness. A thumping sound.
I blink and I’m in a lab. There is machinery everywhere. It all seems to connect to a peculiar looking machine, right at the center. Energy crackling around it, in the middle there is a blue glow coming from an oval window. A cage.
Not a cage.
A shriek, something is moving inside. Me.
I cringe as a zing of electricity courses through me. I’m trapped, metal walls everywhere, only a small window to the outside. There’s a face on the other side. Black eyes that seem to consume the light.
There is a high-pitched noise. A scream, then silence. And then it burns, a feeling of wrongness, of emptiness, fills me.
I’m floating again. Was I floating before?
I open my eyes. I don’t have eyes.
I see blue—the sky. There are no walls anywhere. There is nothing.
Just the blue of the sky and the green of the forest.
Where am I?
I feel heavy.
I push myself up, or at least I try—my hand slips. Faze through. And I hit the floor harshly. It hurts, my head pulsates, it feels wrong.
I need something, my chest aches. I feel dizzy.
Breathe. I inhale sharply, one, two, three times before I exhale. It feels weird.
I push myself up, this time I stand, but I stumble. It’s heavy, too heavy. Why is it heavy? Trapped.
I put my hands right in front of me and look at them; they look fine, not fine. There is something wrong. They look human.
I turn around, but there is nothing, just more vegetation, and rubble. I take a step, then another.
It’s familiar. It’s new.
My foot hits something, and I stumble again, I stop myself with my hand on a tree, but then my hand is no longer touching the tree. I clench my eyes close and …
… I’m not falling anymore. My face hits nothing, as I open my eyes I see that my hand is glowing, my entire body is glowing. I did not hit the tree because there is no longer a tree.
I don’t understand. What is this?
I blink my hands have stopped glowing. I pull my eyes away to look toward whatever I stumbled with. It’s a mask, an old broken mask on the floor. My eyes glaze and I’m no longer in the forest I’m looking through that small window again, someone is wearing the mask, I’m screaming. Whatever they are doing with the levers, with the buttons, it hurts. I feel like I’m being pulled apart.
I beg them to stop. I scream at them to stop, to please listen.
My energy is no longer the pure white it once was, each pain cycle stains it a deeper blue.
They don’t talk. They just write on their little notebooks and continue to play with their machines. They don’t look at me, at us. They just observe.
There are other screams, I can almost feel their pain echoing in my mind. They are so young, eons younger than me. I’m not alone. I should wish I were, but I’m happy I’m not. It’s a horrible thought that I keep locked inside. I wouldn’t be able to bear the torture and the silence.
I blink, the mask in my hands now, and I’m panting. I’m outside again, I’m not caged, but I still feel trapped. I drop the helmet as understanding filters in, stumbling back. I look at my shaking hands, human hands.
My eyes dart around all over the place, looking for any kind of reflective surface. Something glistens in the ground, and my hand snaps towards it, a piece of glass, familiar glass. The thing I see staring back is a familiar face with dark eyes.
I’m Zhar’ løk.
Why am I human? Why?
I see that face again, always a face without a mask. Smiles and lack of pain. A feeling of safety shared between all every time he appears.
His face was lacking the smile the last time he visited. Clenched jaw and eyes that kept blinking and darting around. He starts to fidget with the machine, the is a jittery feeling spreading through my being. He had never done that before.
There is a hissing sound, but there are no screams, I see the pinkish glow of the youngest one dart through the open door. We tell them to wait, but they are gone before our message even reached them.
Another hiss, but my focus is not on the door; it’s on him as he turns towards my controls.
I see his mouth move to say something.
Sorry. I don’t understand, and he does something, and then it hurts, and I feel hot again, I don’t understand. There is a sudden tightness inside of me, a sharp pain.
I don’t pay attention to the flashing lights or when the human movements falter. I only know it’s worse. I feel white blinding pain, and my world is reduced to one thing.
I want out.
I need to be out.
My essence turns turbulent, and I smash on the window over and over again. My energy no longer contained but lashing out in random bursts. I’m starting to feel numb, but then the window cracks.
It’s enough, and I’m leaking out, but its too slow, so I push and I feel myself expand and expand and it doesn’t hurt anymore. It feels right, I’m free. Everything I touch is broken. I feel so much stronger. No cage can hold me, but then something tugs at my core; I feel myself being pulled back.
And then there’s silence.
I blink repeatedly, and I’m back in the forest, my hand sting from holding the glass too tight. I’m trying to breathe, but I can’t get enough oxygen.
I don’t know how long it has been since then, all I know is that I’m far away from home, trapped in a human form.
I let out a whimper and hug my knees to my chest. The voice, the human’s voice in my head now oddly silent.
It’s dark. Uncomfortable. Cold.
I can smell the stale air and hear the echoing plunk of dripping water. It was harder to get there in this human vessel, but I finally made it. In a few moments, I would finally be home. Be me again, instead of this…
I walk the path my mind knows, and soon I’m in front of the gate. Usually, the glow of the open breach would illuminate every stone and crevice, now in the darkness, it looks even more imposing.
I shake my head, forcing my limbs to relax. There is nothing to worry about, this will work. The gate will open. I will leave.
I put my hand on the panel, my tongue darts out to lick my lips, and I focus. I close my eyes, I feel the energy flow through my arm into my hand.
I wait and wait, but nothing is happening. I slowly open my eyes and see my glowing hand on the panel, blue energy flowing calmly. But nothing else, the gears don’t turn. The gate remains standing there, dark, ominous.
I feel a drop of cold sweat rolling down my neck; there is a sour taste on my mouth. My breath comes quickly, but I shake my head and try to force more energy through my hand. Maybe it hasn’t been enough.
My whole arm is tingling, and I hear a hissing sound. My eyes snap open, but the gate is still closed. The energy is no longer blue, it’s a pulsating purple, and the hissing sound is nothing more than the scorching of the stones it touches.
The energy fizzles out coldness spread through my body.
I sway, and my hold on the panel tightens painfully. It should have work; why didn’t it work. My eyes turn to the gate, but all I see is the nebulous white of home, of a thousand minds working as one. There is blood rushing through my ears.
I clench my jaw and narrow my eyes.
I let go of the panel and push my shoulder back, drawing myself up to my full heigh. My gaze focused on the darkness in front.
There is a way to open the gate, and I will find it, time is no consequence. My lips pull up in a sardonic smirk as, human form or not, I’m still a Zhar’løk, and human life force is enough to sustain me for however long I need.
I look at the gate again.