To die is to be human
“You just had to go and kill yourself, didn’t you Cressa?” She muttered, staring at the plot of recently upturned earth.
Blythe pulled the leather strap across her chest, readjusting the hand-crafted machete on her back so now it rested just over her shoulder and when the universe didn’t give her an answer, she let out a snort and sat down on the ground next to her best friends grave. Then, reaching into the pocket of her sleeveless jacket, she pulled out a bottle. Swinging it around she let the fiery-colored liquid swish inside the glass pleasantly while letting out a long, tired sigh.
“You said you always wanted to get wasted…” Blythe looked up to the golden sky of smoke-like clouds, “Guess you had to go and do it without me now, didn’t you? Really classy, filterhead.”
“Hey! I agreed to follow you out to the grave sight! Not to babysit your rust while you get wasted!”
Putting the bottle down, Blythe tilted her head to meet her brother’s eyes. He was older and it was evident in the way he acted, but even at age eighteen, he still had some baby fat on his cheeks. Anymore and Blythe would have looked like the older one.
“I’m not here to get wasted. I’m here to place a rock, take a drink or two and then go sleep for the rest of the day.”
Allin let out a disapproving snort, “Alright. And after you sleep for the rest of the day what are you going to do? Are you going to give up on working like crazy-lady Pola? Or are you going to get plastered drunk like Cressa did?”
“Cressa only did it once.” Blythe reminded him.
“Yeah. And it killed her. So why are you going to do it to me now? Are you going to leave me behind and make me bury you and put a stone next to your body?”
“I never said I was gonna do it.”
“No! But you’ve been acting like it! You’re moping around and you’re scaring the bullets out of Mom and Dad! You’re scaring the bullets out of me! Sludge! You’re even scaring Tylina who said that this kind of stuff was normal! This isn’t you, Blythe!”
Blythe pursed her lips, looking away to nowhere in particular. When her eyes finally rested on something, she found that it was a reflection from a dust-coated glass window that was for the majority, still intact. Her indigo blue eyes looked back at her and told her she probably needed sleep. And food. And emotional support. And better mental health. Then her eyes focused on the car frame the window was in.
“I never said I was gonna do it. I’m not a coward. Despite what you think, apparently.” Blythe looked back, meeting her brother’s eyes with a hot glare.
Don’t you dare cry now, Blythe Stargazer. If you cry you can forget about dinner because babies don’t get adult dinners in the Forge.
Allin backed off, clearly not persuaded. “Fine. Fine. Do whatever you want. I’m going to head back to camp. Remember go straight, this whole sector is blocked off by walls so you’ll get stuck if you don’t.”
“I’m not an idiot, Allinadi.”
“Yeah. I know you’re not. That’s why you scare me.” He huffed, turning his back to her.
Blythe watched in silence as her brother and his rifle disappeared off into the distance. He carried that thing like it was a child. Maybe in his mind, it was. Who knew? Picking the bottle back up again, Blythe gently tapped it onto her friend’s grave before letting out a quiet sigh.
“Drink up, right? For better that we die today than live to die tomorrow,” Blythe uncorked it and took a swig. The liquid burned the back of her throat as it went down, similar to how she imagined drinking power-cells would feel. Sputtering, she put the bottle down and then looked at her friend’s grave with distaste, “How you managed to get seven of these down…” She shook her head.
And then the tears came.
Rolling down her cheek they were silent but continuously flowing. She stared off into the distance, giving her herself one second for a weak moment before wiping the evidence away with the back of her arm.
“Alright, filterhead. You win this one, you died first. Drink up.” Blythe whispered before pouring the remainder of the drink onto Cressa’s grave.
The red-ish dirt grew a shade darker as it soaked in the liquid and for a moment Blythe just breathed. Even if it wasn’t real, she could imagine Cressa’s voice yelling at her, telling her to pull her head back up; that just because she wasn’t strong enough, didn’t mean Blythe wasn’t. Reaching into her other pocket, Blythe pulled out a flat gray stone, holding it in the palm of her hand.
“From the ground we are given and to the ground we must give… Cressa Longrider, I give you my memory so that you may never be forgotten…” Blythe paused, sucking in a shaky breath before adding a quiet, “goodnight my friend.” Placing the stone on the ground, she dug a small hole next to it and then placed the stone in before covering it back up with the soil she misplaced.
Now that it was over, she half-expected her parents to jump out from behind the frame of a car and tell her that they were going on a supply run and that they needed her now. But they didn’t. She half expected Allin to show up with a gun swung smugly over his shoulder and Tylina scolding him for not being more careful with it. But they didn’t. She even expected Royul, the annoying kid that followed her around like a puppy since as long as she could remember, to pop up and start talking about how Cressa would be happy and how death wasn’t so bad. But even he didn’t.
“I’m wanting Royul to show up…?” Blythe asked in disbelief, “That’s it. No more tears for today.” She forced a smile, getting to her feet.
She took a final moment to look at her friend's grave which she was sure would be indistinguishable from the rest of the world around her in but only a few weeks. And then she looked away. Scanning the road in front of her that would eventually wind its way to the camp, she half expected Allin to be sitting on a piece of rubble broken off from a building with a dull look in his eyes as if asking if she was done yet. But instead, much to her surprise, the road was devoid of any signs of life. Chucking the empty bottle out into the open road, the sound of glass shattering into a thousand tiny little pieces filled her with a growing rage.
I can't believe he left here on my own.
She knew where the camp was by heart and it would only take her twenty minutes to get there from where she walked but still; he left her behind? In a place like this? Granted, it might be true that everywhere tended to look like this, it wasn't fair. He could've at least waited a minute or two and then they would have been able to return together.
Marching around a spot of caved-in ground, she got a whiff of the black-ish sludge-like goop that puddled in it and unconsciously pulled her hands up to cover her nose when she heard a soft rustling from behind her. Turning around, she eyed the empty street and fallen buildings and frowned.
Her eyes investigated the scenery before her, searching for a figure or a man but finding none. Deciding to call out again, Blythe cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, "Allin?! This isn’t funny! I’m so not in the mood for your games today!"
Echoes duly rang back at her before eventually drifting off into silence and the soft, steady breathing of her own body. Shaking her head, Blythe began to turn around when a slight movement caused her to pause. Turning back, she searched the landscape once more before her eyes rested on something she hadn't noticed before. It was still landscape but something about it was... wrong. It was like someone had taken a picture of it and then decided to make a small part of it three-dimensional while leaving the rest as two-dimensional.
Tilting her head and walking forward, part of the landscape grew closer faster while the rest remained a decent amount away. Blythe stopped and looked around her to make sure that it wasn't just her eyes playing tricks on her when the landscape moved. Yellow dots appeared in the supernatural spot and the coloring slowly began to fade to a dark brown. Gradually looking forward, Blythe found herself unable to move as she was looking face-to-face with what she could only guess was the Anma.
Her father had once told her that the Anma was the devil made manifest, brought to a world of wicked, thieving children, and sent to punish them by devouring their organs and stealing their eyes. Of course, she hadn't believed him. She was eight. But now she couldn't see it any other way.
The form in front of her reminded her of an old man, crouched over with bat-like wings, and bull-like face but with dark yellow eyes. And then it vanished.
The first instinct was to run.
Adrenaline mixed with pure panic and untainted fear forced its way through her body, releasing every muscle from its locked position and pushing her to flee. So she ran, and she ran like she never had before. Blood drummed louder in her own head than her feet bouncing off the ground, narrowly dodging potholes and scraps of metal that stuck out of the ground like the fingers of the forgotten, ready to pull her right down with them. Behind her, the sound of wings lashed through the air, cutting it with a steady beating that grew closer and closer.
Making a break for the closest toppled building, Blythe narrowly slid into a crevice, her hands and chest brushing against concrete pillars. Outside wings flapped and the creature landed, blocking out the only light source. Now moving through the darkness, Blythe stumbled into an open space. She stood for a moment, letting her eyes adjust and looked back to find an eye staring down at her from the other side. Then creature roared in frustration, taking off again. It hadn't even tried to enter and maybe it wasn't even smart enough to try but she wasn’t going to argue with it. Glancing around her surroundings and Blythe adjusted the strap on her chest nervously and began to plan her exit route.
The safest plan of action required her to move through this building and others, making her way to the Forger camp without ever leaving the overhead protection it afforded. But how long could she do that? There wasn't even a guarantee she could get through this one. Blythe sat down, taking a moment to collect herself before getting back up and making a break for a mound of crushed material. The building had individual floors which seemed to have crumbled, making large piles of metal, stone, and who-knew-else-what. For the most part, the mounds blocked any outside access but they required her to climb for an extended period of time.
Grabbing onto a metal bar that jutted out over head, Blythe moved up and forward, pushing herself over fallen bits of concrete and metal, all the while pretending that it wasn't as bad as it was. For all she knew, the monster might have moved on when she finally got outside again. Reaching the top of her first mound, Blythe let out a heavy breath and stared at the task in front of her. There had to be at least... nine, no, ten other mounds she had to climb before she could reach an unclimbable one. Letting out a tired sigh, she began her descent from the pile, jumping from piece to piece as nimbly as she could.
Each hill presented its own challenges. Some were more unsteady than others, one was almost completely vertical, and the last one had a drop off which she narrowly avoided breaking her legs when she jumped. At the bottom of the final one, and completely exhausted, she leaned against a large piece of rubble and ignored her physical discomfort. This was just one building. She couldn't afford to be exhausted now. Unable to move forward, she moved towards what she assumed was the side of the building and grabbed a piece of rock, pulling it with some difficulty towards her and watching it as it tumbled backward and exposed a thin sliver of light.
Shifting her body to a better angle, she pulled more gravel and concrete free from their positions, pushing them out of the way to create a small opening. Then, lying down on her stomach, she studied the outside, listening for a faint beating of wings or a shape to dart across her vision. She waited for what she would have thought was an eternity when a hallowing screech pierced the air accompanied by the sound of shifting rock. Clapping her hands over her ears, Blythe felt her head spin back towards the sound, completely and totally unwillingly.
"Wanchangi..." Her lip quivered momentarily until she bit it.
A large black shape moved over the edge of a concrete pillar, sliding through the gaps with its nimble arms like a snake and was now looking down at her with a set of four red eyes while bearing a devious grin, one full with needle-like teeth.
I should have just run!
She didn't wait for a second chance. Making use of precious time she climbed forward, slipping through the opening and rolling down a small hill of concrete and rock. Then, staggering from the ground, she ran into the open area of the streets, only to feel the sharp claws of the Anma on her back, slicing stripes through her shirt and into her skin. She hit the ground forcefully and felt shards of glass cut into her palms, causing her to gasp quietly from the stinging sensation both on her palms and her back. Overhead, the dark shadows swooped, spinning around before landing on the ground in front of her.
It had been waiting for me...
Panicking, she scrambled backward and winced as the cuts on her hands multiplied in number.. She didn't want to look. She didn't want to see. But her eyes couldn't help but rest on the monstrous face of the creature in front of her, burning it into her skull as the last image she would ever see.
And then it fell over.
More precisely, it was tackled with a screech as the Wanchangi lept from the building, crashing into the beast and dragging it to the ground in a fury of teeth and arms. Startled, Blythe jumped to her feet, blinking as she did so to remind herself that this was truly happening, and then booked it in the opposite direction. Forgetting potholes, glass, and pieces of metal, she was moving so fast that she barely had time to register that she was heading in the wrong direction. Stopping at the corner, she glanced back to see that the Anma was now fighting two Wanchangis--and winning-- before turning the corner. She couldn't go back. That way might have been the fastest way, but she couldn't go back.
It's dangerous. Too dangerous. I'll just take the next road down as far as I can go and then cut back across.
Maintaining a steady pace, she ran around the block and abruptly stopped to find it blocked off by a wall of cars. Of course. Forger walls. They set them up all around the campsite in different places to help with defense. The very walls Allin had warned her about. Cursing herself under her breath, Blythe ran to the other end of the street only to find a similar wall, just further down the road. She paused, running both hands through her hair and letting out a deep breath. Back or forward. Back or forward.
She shook her head. Back. She had to go back. If she was where she knew she was, then the walls would keep on going for the next few blocks. She’d be killed before she could reach an unobstructed road.
Above her, the sound of heavy but frantic wings drew closer and Blythe watched as the shape in the sky turned into an Anma with a Wanchangi biting into whatever it could sink its teeth into. And then it fell from the sky. Landing behind her like a meteor striking the earth, the dark shapes shifted a little before one stopped, sinking to the ground for the final time. And then the Anma stood up.
FORWARD! DEFINITELY FORWARD!
Her legs moved for her, dragging her body down the street and towards the wall of stacked cars. If she could just climb this and get to the other side then she'd be in the range of patrol! And then after a couple gunshots--BANG! Dead Anma and very happy, very alive Blythe!
Close! So close!
Dancing around jutting pieces of concrete and cement, she found herself almost at the wall when the sound of something falling sang in her ear. Throwing herself to the ground, her palms and knee cried out as she split open new wounds, and even her back protested for mistreatment.
Why won't it just leave me alone! I'm not even delicious!
The shape circled back overhead and she stood up, ignoring the various pains and the slight limp in her step. And then she was at the wall. The sight of it made her doubt her own abilities and hesitate for a brief moment, but that moment was cut short as the Anma crashed to the ground behind her, its wings blowing tangled, bloody hair into her face.
Jumping, she placed her foot on the edge of a window and grabbed the rusted frame of the car above it, struggling to balance herself. And then she jumped again. Grabbing onto the door handle, she hung in midair, summoning the strength from her pain to pull herself up to the window's edge.
But with one swift crack of a breaking door handle and the grasp of the Anma's claws digging into her leg, she fell.
Getting the wind knocked out of her was, she had to imagine, similar to teleportation. One moment, she was a third the way up the wall, the next she laid on the ground breathless and dazed. Choking, she tried to sit up but was pushed back to the ground by the Anma, slamming into her and knocking the wind out of her a second time.
Taking shallow, short breaths, she pushed herself back against the pavement as the Anma drew closer, opening its mouth and revealing a row of brown, blood-stained teeth that looked like they crushed its victims instead of ripping them apart. The yellow eyes gleamed, as if unable to express its joy for its victory and without even thinking, Blythe did a very, very stupid thing: she tried to grab her machete.
She twisted her body, trying to slip away to the side while reaching for her only weapon transitioned into screaming as the sound of her own bones being crushed filled her ears as the teeth clamped onto her shoulder. There was pain and then there was agony. And then there was this. Burning through her body, her blood, the sensation of her own blood dripped down her skin, and flaring, white-hot pain exploded across her nerves as her bones cracked, blinding her in her ability to think or process. There was only pain, the undeniable pain, and blood.
Blythe gasped as the pressure was removed and she fell forward, her only salvation, her arm, which shot out to catch herself. She looked up through the bead of sweat that dripped down her face and saw a hazy figure standing in the street.
"SHOOT IT!" The guttural cry escaped her mouth.
She didn't care who it was. But they did. Lifting their gun, they blew off a couple rounds, each one burying itself into a rusted car away from the Anma and Blythe. The Anma let out a throaty cry and backed away, flapping its wings in a hurry to escape. Realizing her moment of opportunity, Blythe stumbled to her feet, forcing back blinding tears while she ran to safety.
And then came the familiar sound of swooping. Blythe stopped and turned her body at the last moment, watching a pair of claws flash by her face before continuing her run. As she approached the figure, familiarity filled her mind and she grabbed the gun from her brother.
And she let it out.
The pain was like a burning anger inside of her, exploding out into the sky. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine--and then it went down. The Anma tumbled from the sky once more, crashing into the ground with a final cry. Blythe let out a sigh, collapsing to her knees and dropping the gun. That was it. She couldn't do it anymore. There was nothing left to dull the pain; no anger, no fear, no happiness or gratitude.
"Blythe? Blythe!" Her brother knelt next to her.
"Go check and see if it's dead... Allin..." It was nice to say his name. It was nice to say anything. It was nice to not be dead. Period.
"I'm fine! Just go kill it already!" She snapped but instantly felt guilt after.
I'll have to apologize for that later, She thought through the pain.
Allin picked up the gun from her side and then slowly walked forward as if he were trying to be tactical about the whole process. The slowness was killing Blythe but he eventually reached the creature. And then, as if uncertain what to do, he kicked it. Blythe half expected it to come alive and bite him but instead, it lay still. Allin circled it and then kicked it one more time, but still didn't seem satisfied. Raising his gun, he shot it twice and then returned to Blythe's side with a worried look on his face. She hated that look. It was a look he wore far too often.
"You're hurt." He let out a deep breath.
"No bullets, filterhead. Just get me to the med-tent." Blythe gasped, trying to blink back the swirling black dots she saw in the corners of her vision.
"Do you want me to carry you?"
"I don't sludging care. Just get me there." She mumbled. Hanging onto consciousness was like hanging onto a rope while hanging over a cliff edge on a windy day.
Allin adjusted the strap on the gun and then swung it over his shoulder before bending down and slipping his arms around her. It was clear that he was trying to avoid any spot that he thought she might have been hurt, but that didn't matter because she still winced anyway. They walked in silence for a moment until Blythe couldn't take it anymore.
"Why do they even give you a gun?" She muttered.
"Because I believe I am older than you."
"Rhetorical question." She snorted, her eyelids growing heavier.
She wasn't sure when they arrived but soon enough Allin was yelling at someone to open the gate. Peeling open a tired eye, Blythe peered out through her eyelashes to find the Forger camp in front of her. The Forger camp was set up as strategically as possible; stables by the gate, med-tent off to the right, fire pit in the center, the market on the left, and resident-tents in the back next to the mash-pit. But all that Blythe could focus on was the med-tent.
They had constructed it when she was a kid, building it out of metal poles and wooden beams and then stringing old tarps across the top. But right now, it could be built out of straw and she wouldn't care as long as she got there.
"Blythe? Blythe!" A flicker of recognition passed through her mind at Royul’s voice but she didn’t have enough energy to respond.
Allin marched his way towards the med-tent, letting out a grunt as he walked straight through the tarps and dumped Blythe on the nearest empty cot he could find. Her body screamed in protest at the sudden change in shape, her shoulder and her back crying out the loudest, but slowly her body began to sink into the cot as if it were the softest bed she had ever laid on.
"Tylina! TYLINA!" Allin ran through the rest of the tent, pushing tarps and sheets out of the way.
Blythe watched her brother with a dull interest. There was nothing that could compare to the utter exhaustion that consumed her. She wasn't even sure if she was thinking straight, actually, she wasn't even sure if she was thinking at all. For all she knew, this could be one very long nightmare. Suddenly the flap opened behind her and a thin, small woman with brown hair and a brown jacket walked in.
"Allin?" She frowned, but her concerns quickly transitioned.
"Tylina! It's Blythe!"
Tylina dropped the items in her hand on the cot opposite from Blythe and knelt down, putting her hands against Blythe's neck to check for a pulse. Blythe almost moaned from the feeling of cold against her burning skin but found that she couldn't open her mouth to do so.
"She's breathing," Tylina established with a sigh of relief, "Allin go get bandages and some alcohol. Doesn't matter what kind, just tell Kurt we need it."
Had they assumed she was dead? Did she look dead? She might have. She was probably covered in blood and cuts and dirt. The idea of Allin worrying about his little sister being dead made her want to wave a flag and scream, "I'M HERE. I'M ALIVE.", but she couldn't. She couldn't even move a finger.
Tylina moved around, doing pointless tasks that Blythe couldn't keep track of. At this point, she was sure Tylina could have sounded some sort of alarm and she wouldn't even hear it. Ready to give into the swelling darkness, Blythe sent out a little prayer for her brother not to worry. She couldn't feel the pain anymore, so please don't let him worry.
Allin burst through the tent door, bottle and rags in hand.
"What... so long?!" Tylina demanded, grabbing them from him.
"I... Kurt... Sorry..."
"She... Cressa... Anma..."
She had to be getting really bad if she couldn't even hear the full sentences.
Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad. I tried really really hard but I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't Cressa… I just couldn’t…
The sensation of cool fingertips pressed at her neck again, and she felt herself smile a little inside. That was a nice thing.
"She stopped breathing! Allin! Hold! I'm going to try to do CPR!"
I just couldn't...
And then the blackness she imagined Cressa had faced in her final moments swallowed her.