"The city," I mumble through parched and bleeding lips. "All I wanted was to get to the city."
Of course, the men I speak to have no way of hearing my regretful words. They are, after all, unconscious, and covered in the electrical burns one might expect from attacking a Pyron. From attacking me.
I stare down at the bandits, gazing blankly at their almost lifeless forms. Considering they just tried to kill me, I have no qualms about bending down and grabbing their bags. Palms still sweating and heart still pounding, I rifle through them, picking out anything resembling food, drink, weapon, or currency, and cramming it into my own bag. I can still feel tiny electric shocks between my skin and any metal I happen to brush against in this process of appropriating their gear. 'Calm yourself.'
When finished, I stand quickly, hugging my bag to my chest and tripping backward, wide-eyed. These men, who had no problems with murdering me for the meager contents of my bag, may wake up at any given moment. The sharp pain in my chest tells me that one of their well-placed kicks might have broken a rib, but otherwise, I'm surprisingly still alive. Exhausted, terrified, but alive.
'I knew I should have hired a bodyguard.' I shudder, the cold dirt grinding as I spin on my heel -- I am more than ready to leave. Preferably before any of the bandits wake up. If they wake up.
Making it into Draiix territory at all has been a miracle -- and an expensive one at that -- but I should have known that I wouldn't get off that easily. The space between cities is filled with bandits and the monstrous affected, roaming about and searching for their next unwary victim. I was stupid to think my streak of luck would last long enough to get me to safety.
I clutch the bag tighter to my chest and break into a limping sprint. The fear of what's behind me tugs at the hems of my clothes, at the skin on my back, as if the personification of all my fears is breathing down my neck. I am propelled forward by nothing but adrenaline and a fear of what pain might await me if I allow myself to slow.
When I finally have the clarity of mind to let myself stop, I struggle to breathe, my arms tingling from the tensity they had been held in for so long. I let the bag slip from my grasp and collapse to my knees, gasping for breath and trying to get the world to stop spinning.
'I'm going to be sick.' I think, playing Miss Obvious. I don't throw up, but it still takes a while for everything to stop moving. I fall onto my hands, trying to catch something more than an erratic breath. As a result of my dizziness, the dark brown hair falling around my face has a blurred effect to it that I don't like. I want nothing more than to curl up on the ground with my bag as a pillow, but I know I can't. If I do, another bandit group might find me, or worse, an affected. Gods know what might happen to me if I were caught by one of those.
Ignoring my feverish state, I force myself back to my feet, slinging the bag over my shoulder and wincing at the sting in my chest and side. The autumn chill draws my attention to the setting sun, sending a spike of anxiety up my spine that sets off another bout of dizziness.
'The city. Get there, now, or you're dead, and everything is a waste.'
Ignoring the pain, my limping shuffle turns to a pained power-walk. My mind is fixed on the single focal point of moving forward.
'You could just turn back, you know.' The thought pops in uninvited, startling me slightly. My grip on my bag tightens til my knuckles are white. 'And what good would that do? I spent five years trying to escape that hellhole, and giving up now is somehow a good idea? When I'm so close?'
I shake my head to pull myself out of my thoughts. This is no time for an internal squabble. How can I expect myself to ward off external threats if I can't even agree with myself?
Trekking onward at a steady pace, a sense of unease settles over me as the sun begins to set. The wind that moments before seemed calm and cool is now frigid and menacing; full of foreboding. It whips my hair around my face, hacking mercilessly at the cuts and scratches covering my body. I might as well jump in a campfire, with how great that feels.
'Breathe in, breathe out. Separate yourself from the pain.' Jaw clenched, hands balled into tight fists, one foot in front of the other. Same routine I've slogged through a thousand times before.
To help relieve some of the discomfort, I reach into my bag and pull out a bottle. I examine it more closely: I got it out of the bandits' things, so I'm not going to take for granted that I should just gulp it down without checking it first.
I untwist the cap, holding the bottle up to my nose. Immediately, I move it away, using the wrist of the same hand to cover my mouth and nose as I cough. 'What the hell is that?' I can only assume it was some very strong alcohol of some sort. I've never had the stuff myself, but I suppose that would explain the ease with which I managed to overcome the bandits.
Disappointed, I tip the bottle upside down, draining the liquid contents onto the ground as I walk. If I don't get rid of it, I might be tempted to drink it: however disgusting, I hear the stuff is a handy pain reliever.
I soon exit the woods, exposing myself to the biting autumn wind. Now is a perfect example of a time I long for nothing more than a thick jacket and warm bowl of soup. I can't specifically recall the last time I had either.
The sun, highlighted against the miles of forest to my distant left, has little time left in today's limelight. I worry that when it sets in mere moments, I'll be left isolated among unknown nocturnal dangers. 'Less a worry, more a reality.' Really, anything could be lurking out here. Affected. Metas. Skinwalkers. All terrifying, all deadly.
I might be more worried about my right side, though. The mountains are off in that direction, and it is far more likely something might come from there than from anywhere else.
A bit of the strength I'd lost using nahir to fend off the bandits begins to return, and I let a bit more spring into my step. If I can just block out my rather intrusive and hypervigilant paranoia, maybe I'll have the strength to make it to the city. To make it home.
'I wonder how much it's changed.' I muse silently. 'It's been five years, now. For all I know, it could be completely different or exactly the same.' Despite my literal home being too far away to reach anytime soon, at least I'll be back in Draiix territory again, and that's closer to home than I can remember being since Aria...
I shake my head to interrupt that thought. 'Don't go there, Krys.' My gait returns to its previously pained dragging, for more reasons than one. I huff at myself, irritated by my sensitivity.
The next half hour or so brings faster and colder winds. The underbrush crackles and ripples, and despite all of my half-hearted rationalizations, my pulse bumps up a few notches as my imagination takes off in all directions. Being out alone at night isn't the worst I've been through, but that doesn't mean it doesn't cast out its own kind of fright.
I stop in my tracks, thinking I hear something. It was less the sound than the feeling. My stomach feels as if it will implode at any given moment. I can't well recall the last time I had a good meal. I suppose I'm used to it by now, but the biting cold, stinging scrapes, and fearfully dark landscape do me no favors when it comes to comfort.
I move to continue on, hoping to find shelter as soon as possible, but some immense pressure rams me from behind, knocking me flat onto the ground. My face hits the dirt, and I cry out in pain. Something large is moving around on my back, parts of it wriggling around and digging into the flesh of my back. I manage to twist myself onto my side, forcing the thing clinging to me to topple over sideways with me. I flail and panic, scrambling to get away, but it simply digs itself in deeper, grabbing at the farther side of me to pull me to face it.
It succeeds, and I am far from prepared for what meets my eyes.
An eyeless creature at least as large as I am meets my terrified gaze. A disproportionately large mouth filled with disproportionately large teeth is mere inches from my face. Extending from the corners of that mouth are wide bands of discolored flesh, wrapping around the thing's head and body at random and unnatural angles.
I grab a sharp breath, just long enough to let out a panicked scream. It doesn't seem to like that, as it shrieks back at me, its semblance of a face twisting and contorting as it roars. It digs its clawed hands in deeper, and as it lowers its head toward my face -- probably to bite it off -- I jab my hands into its stomach and let loose a massive, fear-fueled burst of electricity.
It stops, shaking and convulsing as its insides are burned into nothing. Then it collapses, right on top of me. Its open maw exhales its last breath, sounding almost like a strangled screech. Completely ignoring the consequent wave of stink, I hurriedly push the corpse off of me, rolling to the side and scrambling to my knees. My breath hitches in my chest as my throat constricts, and I barely keep from having some kind of panic attack.
It's an affected. Or at least, it was. I can't take my eyes off of the thing. I've only seen so many in my lifetime, but each one seems more grotesque than the last. This one looks as if it might once have been some sort of large canine.
Now, its skeleton shows through its mangy fur, intensively malnourished. Even its bone structure seems to have changed: it's shrunken and dilapidated, having lost all torso structure and thickness. It's claws are unnaturally elongated, to a point that I would suspect was painful for the thing to walk on. Its face is shrunken back into its head, and its eyes are grown over with the excess flesh that has sporadically grown in thick, colored bands over the thing. "Affected" is a well-deserved name. But affected by what, no one seems to know.
I reach around to touch my back, brushing gentle fingertips over the claw wounds. I wince, knowing they will need to be treated or they may get infected. I can't help but also brush my hands over the many other scars crisscrossing my back. If it weren't for my adrenalized state, I might have drifted down a rather unpleasant train of thought in relation to said scars.
I drop my arms, staring at the creature a moment longer. I feel as if I've been sitting here forever, but I know it's been maybe twenty seconds, at most. I might have stayed for far longer if it weren't for the sound that erupts from the trees a short distance away.
An unearthly scream.
My heart rate instantly doubles, and I leap to my feet, ignoring the sharp pain in my back and side.
It only takes me a second to process what is happening, and what I must do.
I reach down and scoop for my bag, missing the straps a few times before finally catching it with my flailing attempts. Yanking it over my shoulder, I whirl around and sprint off as fast as my legs will carry me.
'No. Go. Faster.' I struggle to lengthen my strides, pumping my arms vigorously for the couple inches further it gets me. Terror is an apt drug when one wants nothing more than to survive.
The world shakes and blurs as I run, throbbing in time with my heartbeat. I hear something that may or may not be the beast gaining on me from behind, but the mere thought of it nearly makes me trip. If it doesn't catch up to me, I know I'll not be able to run for long. The hit to my head has left me with a splitting headache, and my side feels no better for all the sprinting.
'You're going to have to fight.'
I try to twist my arm around to reach for my bag, but I can feel myself losing speed, so I stop. Instead, I pull the bag on its strap and twist it over my shoulder. Another shriek from behind me doesn't help the shakiness of my hands as I fumble around for something to defend myself with, even as my speed involuntarily decreases. My hand grasps around a blade, not a handle, and I can feel it cut into my skin. Ignoring the pain, I yank the knife out of my bag, grabbing it with my other hand by the handle.
It is here that the affected leaps in front of me, whirling around and baring its teeth, forcing me to skid to a halt.
My training takes over, flooding my mind with images and ideas so numerous and so fast that I have little time to even acknowledge them. The panic subsides, and I seem to know instinctively what to do. I've got the knife now, so it won't be that hard. Even as the muscles of its legs bunch up and it springs, my body turns to the side, my arm curling upward with the knife held aloft. As it moves through the air toward me, or rather, where I was mere nanoseconds ago, I thrust the arm forward and down. The blade connects, slicing at the side of the creature's neck.
When it lands, it screeches in pain, blood bursting out from its wound and soaking its coat and the ground around it. The thing gives me an eyeless glare before limping off quickly for the cover of the trees. The knife cut deeply through the sick flesh, and I know that it will soon bleed out and die.
I stare off wide-eyed in the direction it went before dashing off again.
'I guess I've failed that resolution. Kill count for the day: seven.' The day I escaped the hellhole where I've spent the past five years, I made a pact with myself. I resolved not to resort to violence any more than absolutely necessary. I shouldn't need it as much outside of Cylan territory, and would like to believe I am not dependent on it.
'Today has just been a bad day. Can I really say I've blown it when it's been bandits and monsters?'
Not taking the time to wonder why I am having an internal moral crisis when I'm nearly ready to pass out from pain and fatigue, my dash begins to slow back into a trudge. My breathing labored, I place a hand on my chest as if to forcibly slow my heartbeat. The pain is rising, sapping my energy to the point of exhaustion.
'I can't be far from the city.' I think tiredly. "I can make it." I only say this -- or really anything -- aloud because I feel like if I don't hear a human voice, the scream of the affected will not stop playing on an endless loop in my mind.
It takes an amount of effort well worth mentioning to lift my eyes off the ground below me and onto the road in front of me. I stop in my tracks at the sight that greets me.
Not many. But lights. Lights mean people. And people means civilization. And civilization means...
'I'm almost home. I am. Gods, Aria, I made it. Just like you wanted. I made it.' Pain and elation and adrenaline mix to force a sting into the back of my eyes, and speed into my limping stride. I want to savor this rare moment of hope, but I want even more to just get there and get it over with.
The lights appear to be about a half a kilometer away. As I near them, I realize that really, it's only a few lights, all crammed close together as if to say it all originates from a single building. 'It's the outskirts. Still so close.'
I hardly even take my eyes off of the structure as I near it, green light spots staining my eyes if they stray even a little. My mind is filled with images of potential and hope for the next few days, a beautiful and dreadful feeling I rarely let myself experience. I am merely a hundred feet away, within reach of the border.
Then I feel something. Something strange and subtle and frightening. As if someone -- or something -- is watching me. Something with piercing eyes and primal intent.
'Another one?' I wonder. But I know it's something else. Something worse. I can't say how, exactly. Must have something to do with my little "sixth sense affinity." 'That's putting it lightly.'
I tighten my grip on the knife I'd forgotten I was holding. Turning slowly, I feel ready to pass out from the sheer anticipation of what might be waiting for me.
At first, there is nothing. To the naked eye, the bushes and trees are nothing special in comparison to their neighbors. But they might notice something strange. It might be hard to pin down; the coloring might be slightly off, the pattern a little mismatched at certain edges. All of it just subtle enough that one might never have noticed it at all, if they weren't looking.
But I am looking. And I see more than I'd hoped to. In the space of a single heartbeat, a whole section of a tree trunk disconnects and flies straight toward me, almost quicker than I can even register that it's moving at all.
Even as I raise my knife to defend myself, the creature rams right into my shoulder, tossing me back to my old friend: the ground.
Funnily enough, in the midst of this, a strangely calm thought passes through my mind. 'This is slightly ridiculous. How is my luck so bad that I get attacked four times in a single day?'
I don't get the chance to answer the question, as before I can scramble back up to my feet, I'm forced to hold my place on the ground by someone's knees pressing into my shoulder's. It's dark enough that I have trouble identifying the face of my attacker, but I can tell that it is a girl.
She bares her teeth at me and hisses, and only then do I notice any prominent feature of hers; her skin is shifting and crawling, as though she is some kind of abstract color palette. Her eyes glow yellow, and my own eyes widen in realization.
Chameleons are Metas who can change the appearance of their skin, absorbing any substance they touch and converting their entire surface area into that substance. But even the mild Metas are deadly, and often barbaric or animalistic.
Which is why I'm surprised when she speaks.
"You killed him!" She hisses, almost screeching. "You killed my brother! I will make you suffer."
Not knowing what she's talking about, nor wanting to stick around to find out, I pull the same move I did on the affected. I yank my arms down and jab my hands into her stomach, opening the floodgates to my nahir.
But nothing happens.
The force of the jab surprises her enough that she loses balance, allowing me to scramble out from under her, but there are no blasts of electricity. Panic wells up in me again, as my main weapon has abandoned me in my time of need. And even more, despite how nothing but a few measly sparks make it off my fingertips, I still get the immense physical drain that would have come with quite a large electric blast. I can't even move now, my limbs feeling like blocks of lead. The girl stands tall over me now, looking plenty furious.
'Well, here you go again, Krys. What happened to not dying for a while, huh? Get too boring for you?' I really am just terrified of being mauled. Not like this. Not after everything. It would be stupid and pathetic to go like this.
I'm seriously considering breaking into my emergency reserves as she bends down, picking up my knife and moving it toward my throat, seeming to savor the anticipation of gutting me.
But I can't even seem to access my emergency reserves. I can't move, I have no power, I'm alone, and my knife is seconds from slicing through my carotid like butter. 'I mean, I've been in tougher spots, but--'
I luckily don't have to find a way to finish that thought, because as my vision is starting to gray out, a long, thin object comes falling down on the chameleon's head. She drops the knife and falls off of me, screeching in pain. A blurry figure carries this object, and continues to wave it at the chameleon and shout what sounds like warped gibberish. I want to get up, to see who this savior of mine is, but I still can't move. I can feel myself shutting down.
I've overdone it, again. And the consequence? A few hours of more uneventful sleep than I've had in years. I welcome it with open arms as for the first time in longer than I can remember, my mind is silent.
v. 2.0 (6/3/16)
#JustWriteIt: This means it's still a first draft, despite being a rewrite. I know there's tons of stuff to fix.
Q: What do you guys think of the affected? Any preliminary theories on what they are or what causes them? And who do you think jumped in at the last minute and saved Krys?
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