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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Bird

The Gatekeeper

August jumped down from the ladder and landed with a thud. “All done.” She said dusting her hands together before taking off her goggles. The old man gave her a sidelong look and inspected his contraption. It was supposed to fly. It never would. She’d been able to get the broken wing to move but she doubted he’d be able to make it do anything more than that. She slipped her leather jacket over her grease stained overalls as he inspected it.

“I guess that’s fine,” he grunted.

“The payment?” She was done with this selfish pig, August just wanted to get her parts and get out.

“Take what you desire,” he waved a dismissive hand at her walking out of the room, she rolled her eyes. Asshole. August collected her tools and the parts she needed plus a few extra for him being a jerk. She stepped outside quickly raising her bandanna over her mouth and nose. August hurried down the street in the direction of home. Smog hung in the air and clogged her vision, but she made every turn like clockwork. She winced as her right leg stumbled from the familiar pinching sensation. Almost home. There was a dull ache in her thigh by the time she pushed through the door.

“Augustine is that you?” August sighed as her mother’s voice floated through the house.

“Yes, I’ll be in the workshop,” she said disappearing quickly into a room. Dumping her tools, she half limped over to the bench to sit at the stool there. She took a deep breath before wiggling out of her jeans. Now without the denim muffling it, her leg let out a low clinking sound. She pulled out all manner of things stuck between her cogs. Once she was satisfied she searched through her collection. Hopefully these gear parts would stop the constant aching. The mechanical leg came up to just above her knee and there was a red ring where metal met flesh. She rubbed the skin absentmindedly to alleviate the pain as she worked. August moved her leg back and forth. The mobility seemed good and it didn’t hurt. Yet.

“Augustine,” her mother’s voice was frantic. August tried not to sigh as she pulled the jeans back on. If it was another spider she was going to be annoyed.

“What is it?” She slid her favourite wrench into her back pocket and left the workshop. August stopped mid step as her mother’s face came into view. She had wide eyes and red flushed cheeks.

“Byron’s gone.”

August’s leg almost gave out. “What? When?”

“Martin just got back and said that he ran off.”

“Martin, are you serious? You let your drunk boyfriend lose my brother!” She shook her head; this was a new low. Her mother gave her a sheepish smile. “Where were they when By disappeared?” August stormed angrily towards the door.

“East side on eleventh street,” she replied. “I’ll check around here in case he’s trying to make it home but got lost.”

“Don’t bother,” August said through her teeth. “I know where he went. Also,” she turned from the front door. “Tell Martin, go to hell!” She left before her mother got too defensive. The smoke rushed into her lungs and she coughed violently before pulling her bandana up. She was running despite the pain that shot through her leg. Skidding around corners she headed straight for the east side. Figures materialized out of the smog and she slid around them unstably. She reached eleventh and pounded down the street.

The fog wasn’t as heavy here, it thinned the further she ran. August slid to a halt as she reached the end of the street. It was a T intersection. One lead back into the heart of the city while the other lead out of it. An old street sign pointed out of the city. It swung in the breeze making a creak. She stepped down the road. “Byron,” she yelled.

Curse Martin for bringing Byron here and curse Byron for being obsessed with the world outside the city. People always went missing here; it was why no one left, no one except her brother apparently. The further August walked the faster she got, the smog was thin enough to pull the bandanna back down around her neck. “Byron,” her voice was starting to hurt and the sun was setting. Damn, it was not good to be out here at night. “Byron,” her shouts were getting more frantic. Something loomed out from the side of the road, she approached slowly and carefully. She straightened in surprise. It was a tree. Large and green and natural. Her eyes widened, she’d never seen one with her own eyes. There were more behind it, they were everywhere. Suddenly she felt very out of place, as if she’d stepped into a different world. One that didn’t want her here. She kept walking timidly down the road. The trees became denser and the air felt different. It felt cleaner. But she couldn’t see any air cleansers anywhere. Weird.

August shook her head, no distractions. She opened her mouth to shout again when she heard a sound. A crunch. Her entire body froze. It wasn’t Byron, he was too light and the thing making noise was heavy. The crunches came closer, it was walking. Walking straight towards her. She scrambled backwards and her back hit something hard. The solid object was the trunk of a tree, a branch stuck out next to her head, she wrapped her hands around it and pulled herself up. All her muscles screamed in protest and the branch bit into her hands. She kicked out her legs to try and propel herself up. As soon as she’d pulled herself up, she stretched up to grab hold of the next one. The distance was shorter and more manageable this time. She didn’t reach for a third branch. Instead she held her breath. The thing was there.

August crouched low on the branch. The creature was as tall as her waist and almost twice as wide. It had mottled skin reminding her of the scaled bags rich ladies always carried. Four long spikes protruded from a triangular head and a long tail swayed back and forth as it walked. The tail looked muscular and had a large hammer shape on its end. Six legs each with three claws held the creature upright and moonlight glinted off its pointed teeth as it moved its head. Large elliptical eyes searched the surroundings for movement. August squeezed her eyes shut and tried to steady her breathing. There were some shuffling sounds, crunching then silence. She opened one eye, it was gone, the beast hadn’t found her, she slouched in relief against the trunk of the tree.

August hadn’t plucked up the courage to move yet. She was too worried about the beast returning. She was beginning to convince herself to climb down when the crunching returned. The sounds of the beast drew closer and closer. It passed underneath her tree and her hand flung to her mouth to cover her gasp. There was Byron, breathing but unconscious. The monster had him clutched in its tail, pressed right against the hammer. He looked so small and fragile in the moonlight. August lowered herself slowly down to the ground and crept after it keeping as quiet as possible. She had no plan, the only thought in her head was getting to Byron.

A clang rang out through the trees, the sound of metal on metal. The beast looked around suspiciously before something fell from the tree top and landed on the back of the beast. August stopped in shock, there was a person on its back. The beast let out a guttural roar of protest as it dropped Bryon to use its tail on the attacker. That spurred her into action, she leapt forward but not fast enough as Byron crashed hard against the ground. He groaned slightly and blinked blearily she pulled him into her arms as he woke.

The person jumped off the beast and gestured for them to follow. There was no time to argue, it was turning towards them. August gripped Byron tightly and ran. There was a crashing sound behind them as it pursued. The person in front of them sprinted straight towards a rock wall and ducked into a crevice. It was a tight fit but once they squeezed in it opened into a small cave. August put the now awake Byron on the ground away from the entrance and checked him over for any injuries. Once she was sure that he wasn’t hurt she turned to the person they’d followed. A young man with dark hair and a soft face smiled back at them. Not like the grease monkeys that she was used to seeing on the streets.

“Well that was exciting, wasn’t it?” he said giving her a goofy smile. She rolled her eyes, an adrenaline junkie. “Lucky I got to you in time.”

“I had it handled,” she said and pulled out the wrench to lay it beside her as she lowered herself into a sitting position.

“No, you didn’t, that monster was heading back to its den to eat the kid, so I’d say you were not handling it.” She didn’t answer instead focusing on rolling up her jean leg.

“I’m Walter by the way,” he said leaning back on the wall. He jumped in surprise as the cogs in her leg appeared. “What the hell?” She ignored him. Some of the gears were sticking, it made her wince but without her other tools there wasn’t much that she could do. Byron crouched beside her, his big wide eyes staring intently,

“Is it hurting again?”

“No, of course not buddy. I’m just checking on it.” She quickly fiddled with the gears before she covered her leg again. Walter still had wide eyes and his mouth hanging half open. “I got in an accident three years ago and now I have a metal leg, get over it.” He nodded and shut his mouth, but his eyes wouldn’t leave the now covered leg. August picked up her wrench and pushed herself off the ground, ignoring the pinching from her leg. There was a colossal bang, which made them all jump backwards. It was the beast, it had slammed against the side of the rock wall. She pulled Bryon close to her, “That’s not good.”

“No it’s fine, he can’t get to us in here.” One short clawed arm reached into the crevice and all three of them stepped away from it. The claw moved back and forth catching only air before it withdrew. “What did I tell you, we are-” then the scratching started, the beast was clawing at the rock. She looked over at Walter, he returned an uneasy look. Rock dust and debris fell to the ground. It was slow but if the beast persisted it would get to them eventually. She mouthed at Walter, ‘Do something.’ He shrugged at her. God, he was annoying. Her eyes scanned the cave they were in, rocks and a few sticks but that was about it. There were no other exits.

August leaned down and picked up a large rock in her hand. She pushed Byron behind her and inched forward. When she was as close as she dared to get to the entrance she pulled her arm back and threw the rock. It sailed clean over the beast’s head and out into the night. “You missed,” Walter hissed. “He was right there, how could you miss.”

“I didn’t miss,” she waved an annoyed hand at him. The rock landed with a crash somewhere off in the forest. The beast stopped and cocked its head to the side. Behind her, Walter gasped in understanding. For a moment she thought the beast wasn’t going to leave.

It looked back at her through the crevice with calculating eyes before it slunk off into the trees. She waited a beat to make sure it was gone. “We have to go. Now!” She said urgently reaching for her brother. They left the cave and ran.

“Follow me,” Walter said. She was glad at least one of them knew where they were going. Her right thigh was throbbing, but she ignored it. Bryon was starting to slow, his body getting tired, she grabbed his hand to pull him along. He was still dragging behind.

There was a crash behind them and the thud of heavy feet hitting the ground. Walter turned to look back, he scooped up Byron and kept running. August heard her heart as it pounded in her ears and everything in her body was screamed, but she pushed herself further. They could make it out of this. They broke out of the trees and skidded out onto the road. Fearing road, they’d made it back. Now they just had to follow it to the city, they would be safe there; hopefully. She pumped her arms and legs. Walter was faster than her, even holding Byron. Not too much further, she could see the thick smog getting closer.

August knew the feeling a second before it happened, the same cold loss of control every time. All the gears in her legs froze, she was able to take a few more lunging steps before she crashed to the ground. “August!” Byron yelled. Walter spun and looked at her wide eyed, he made to step towards her.

“Get my brother back to the city,” she yelled in desperation. He gulped but nodded at her and Byron screamed in protest. She let out a breath of relief as they disappeared into the smog ahead. The relief didn’t last; behind her, deep ragged breaths hit the back of her neck. Slowly she turned to look up at the beast, its wide cruel eyes looked down at her and its multitudes of sharpened teeth smiled menacingly. She took in a shuddering breath as it clamped its mouth down on her leg, her right leg. At least she couldn’t feel it but running away was now out of the picture. It dragged her over to a near by tree and slammed her against the trunk. She screamed in surprise and swear she felt something crunch. The side of her body throbbed from the bruise forming across it. She held her breath and lay as still as possible, playing dead as it inspected her. Satisfied it began pulling her towards the den, she let out a sigh of relief.

August’s breathing was ragged as she was pulled deeper into the trees. She had one chance to get out of this, one chance, she better not mess it up. Her hand reached back slowly to grip the wrench in her pocket and held it tightly. As they neared a large cave opening her body tensed. Inside the cave the beast rose up to its full height. She rolled quickly to the side just as its head snapped down to the place she had just been. It snorted in anger as August pushed herself up onto her knees. It swung towards her and roared in pain as she struck it in the eye with her wrench. The beast lashed out and she threw up her arm, the cut was shallow but still stung. August forced herself to stand. All her weight pushed down on her unsteady left leg.

“Come on,” she said aggressively swinging the wrench as she spoke. The beast looked at her, one eye shut and the other narrowed. It moved fast. Her brain was having trouble keeping up. Duck right, now left, avoid the claws and watch the tail. Her movements were becoming clumsy, she was barely holding on. All she needed was one opening before she collapsed. One chance.

Then she saw it. The beast crouched low and the tail drew back ready to strike. August leapt to the side as the tail came down and sound echoed around the cave. Before the beast could turn she jammed the end of the wrench around one of its head spikes and twisted. There was a crunch as it broke off, the beast yowled in pain. She grabbed the spike and plunged it deep into the neck of the beast; its whole body tensed. August fell back and scrambled away from the creature. It swayed a few times as if it was drunk and crashed to the floor.

She let her head fall back against the rock. Deep breaths. It was over now. Her leg was sore, and blood dripped down her arm. She used the bandanna around her neck to stop the bleeding. Next problem. One look at her leg and she knew it was useless. She needed parts and tools if she was going to fix this. There was nothing more she could do for that, she’d just have to grit her teeth and bare it. To her left there was a large bone, white and picked clean. She stared at it for a moment considering. It wouldn’t be too bad, plus she couldn’t’ hop the entire way back to city.

Soon August was ready to leave. Makeshift crutch, check, retrieved wrench, check, secured bandanna, check. A guttural roar filled her ears. It sent shivers down her spine and dread to the pit of her stomach. Her head snapped to the beast, it lay on the ground where she had left it. Still and motionless. Yet that sound was too familiar. It was coming from somewhere deeper in the cave and against her better judgement she headed towards it. The light was dim here, it reminded her of the smoke in the city. The tunnel stretched on with never ending darkness crushing from both directions, until finally it opened into a wide expanse. Light filtered in through an opening in the rocks above. It bathed the cavern in a new morning’s orange light.

August couldn’t take in the magnitude of beauty before her. She couldn’t appreciate the lush green ecosystem down here. It was suddenly all too much, and she ran, half limping back down the tunnel. She swept past the corpse of the beast and out into the trees. With the light now returned she saw a glimpse of the road through the foliage and she ran for it, Fearing road, then where? She didn’t know. Just away from here. No vehicles came down the road, no soul did either as she frantically ran. She coughed as she entered the smoke covered city but continued despite it. Further away. She needed to cross seas to get away from this.

“August? August is that you?” The voice loomed out of the smog. It came from a very worried Walter standing on the corner of eleventh. “Is that a bone?” he said incredulously as she came closer.

“I had to get away, and my leg was useless, and everything was hurting then I was just running the sun was out but it didn’t help and I don’t know what to do-”

“Woah, slow down there. Let’s just get you to a doctor who can help with your arm.” He nodded at the blood-soaked bandanna.

“No, you don’t understand,” she cried out and fell. He leapt forward and caught her before she hit the pavement. Her hold on consciousness was wearing thin. If she was going to say it, she had to say it now before she passed out. “We have to get away from here, everybody does. We are all in danger, there are more of those creatures, a whole army of them in a huge cavern and I think that I just killed their gatekeeper.”

First published Otherwise Engaged A Literature and Arts Journal in Volume 11 Part II

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