"From the Journal of Inari Aleida Ren"
Living out in the world as it is now, with the blight the strongest it has ever been, is all but hopeless for humans.
Living out in the world as it is now, with the blight the strongest it has ever been, is all but hopeless for humans. But my kinsmen were doing it and had been since Blightfall. The stories I heard as a child told of entire clans of humans, warrior-folk, wiped out in a matter of days because even one with a warrior's spirit couldn't hold off the inevitable spread of the blight. Mother told me we were the remnants, the unlucky handfuls that survived and found one another after the world ended. We came together… or some of us did. Some of our kin ran, took shelter anywhere they could find acceptance and did what they had to do to survive. Others... When our way of life was too brutal, our kinsmen's love of war and strength a liability, they tried still to establish peaceful cities and safe havens. Thus our numbers began to dwindle even further.
Those of us who refused to shed tradition and the old ways in order to assimilate to a more feasible way of life were either killed off within the cities or chose to try and survive within the blight. From those few who chose to face the blight, they struggled and often met with gruesome deaths of their own. Our number grew ever smaller from those deaths. If our people were lucky, if they managed to find one another in the wastes, old clan rivalries were discarded. The things that used to matter to them fell to the wayside in the face of their will to survive, and a desire to protect what they could of the old ways.
They became raiders, taking down cities or towns that had managed to survive in the wastes, honoring their war-talents as best they could and keeping ahead of the blight by never settling in one place for too long. Scout them out, test the waters, and plan. Kill every man, woman, and child within unless you can find a use for them. Use up what resources we can and take the rest with us. Then move on. Our way of life changed, as quickly as others had to struggle and form new ways to survive of their own. And so this is what became of the clans. Battered and broken, to be made anew by the few warriors able to build up a meager existence.
But Mother said that it made us stronger, more clever. She said that nothing makes you stronger than battling a losing battle against an undefeatable foe such as the blight. She was a brave woman, and I always thought it curious that she called us the ”unlucky ones” when she never acted down on her luck. I didn't understand what she meant at the time, but I do now. We're the unlucky ones not for surviving, not for being strong, but for carrying the burden of remembering those who didn't and weren’t. The older you become the unluckier you are, because the blight is always knocking at our door and no one can escape death forever. Not even heroes. And the burden of memory only grows heavier with time.
Hero... such a funny choice of word for whatever is different in us that brings us back once we've died. The word hero implies some kind of inherent goodness, but there's nothing good about being able to resurrect, nothing that makes you a hero. It just means you get more chances to succeed or fail than those with only one life to live. For some it just means more chances to cause pain, or become a villain to those you thought you were fighting for.
Villains... That's what you become, when you resurrect. To resurrect somehow makes you responsible for all of the world's ills in the eyes of the people around you who can live only once. To them you are supposed to know more, do more, BE more...but you're just like everyone else, struggling against that undefeatable foe and waiting for the next time it knocks you on your ass and takes another part of you with it.
Everyone finds out differently. Finds out if we are mortal or if we are what others have mistakenly labeled as "heroes". Some of us through accidents, some through violence. For me, it was both.
We were celebrating the night it happened. We had taken a new town with new rewards for us to reap the benefits of. Everyone had fallen asleep, save for the guards patrolling the streets. We slept deep enough in the town to avoid predators, but close enough to the outskirts that we could hopefully avoid an ambush by other wandering groups. But proximities to either didn't help us when the blight began to crawl into the streets, a thick miasma curling and twisting its dark tendrils and stretching ahead as it crept in on us. Or at least that was what I imagine it looked like. And I imagine that at the age of seven, had I been awake to see it coming I would have screamed, or shaken Mother awake. I would have begged her to come away. But we slept, and the guards were nowhere to be found as the blight crept it’s way inside.
My mother woke first, gasping for breath, muscles spasming as she snatched me up and tried shaking the others awake. She began crying out hoarse warnings to the people in the buildings around us. Shouts quickly filled the air as we evacuated the buildings and made our way out of town. My mother didn't carry me. She made me run like everyone else until blood began to drip from my nose and I saw only darkness. When I opened my eyes again, we were on a hilltop. There was a mother wailing at the loss of her child, while others were stone-faced. Their foreheads pressed against the cooling and unnatural looking flesh of their own dead babes. And they weren't alone. Everyone had lost someone they knew, and those who had been exposed to the blight had no idea how long they'd been exposed or what it would mean.
We watched from the hilltop as the blight slowly encompassed the town we had conquered. The town that only a day ago had meant temporary safety and loot for our proud, strong kin. Now we were forced back into our home, the roadless wandering my people had become adept at navigating. Only this time we had no supplies and a throng of sick people to care for. Our march towards a direction we hoped would bear easy spoils and let us recoup was a long one. One by one my kin began to drop like flies, the sick traveling in the front so that they could set the pace.
Some of the men started fights as they grew weaker or began coughing too much blood. They wanted a warrior’s death rather than to fall to disease. Those that were healthy honored them with the fight they desired, but there was no time to stop and grieve. No time for burials or honoring the dead. We had to press on. The weak die, but the strong press on. My own breathing was a constant rasp, headaches and vomiting wracking my small frame as I struggled for days to breathe. I could see that I was not the only one.
My mother wasn't standing quite as tall, her face and skin were searing hot and yet somehow she was pale like the dead we had left behind. But she carried me, marching at the front of the others and carrying me on her back. She might have been alright, might have recovered quickly, if she weren't so brave. So proud a Mother, to carry me such a long way even as the weight of me sped her own deterioration. By the time we found a village easy enough to clear out, there were only four of the sickly left. Our kinsmen watched over us as best they could.
Open sores had appeared on my skin early on, and they wouldn't seem to heal. My mother's gorgeous hair was starting to come out, though she brushed and combed it to hide it. She was beautiful and strong, my mother. Even when looking down death's corridor. A warrior to the last. The other mothers didn't offer to kill me; they respected my mother too much to suggest that she either couldn't or wouldn't do it herself, though I didn't understand that either until later. But I did understand her tears. They were warm and soothing on my warped and aching skin as my chest rattled wetly with every breath. As I neared my own death.
I cried too, because every breath felt like I were shoving cacti into my chest to see how many I could fit. I cried because I was afraid. And when there was no doubt in my mother's mind that I couldn't outlive the sickness in me, when I could see her grief-stricken look turn to a hollow acceptance, she lifted me into a tight embrace and whispered something soothing into my ear. I wish I could remember what it was she whispered... have spent years struggling to remember. But all I remember was tasting steel for the first time as she pushed a blade into my chest. I remember the feeling of warmth that spread through me, and it didn't seem to fit the pain that came with it as my heart struggled to beat around the cold metal for a breath longer until I fell into death's arms for the first time. I must have clung to life longer than it felt like, for me to remember it at all. The things that happened between my death and my return from the between place were told to me later when I was a bit older. My mother had held onto me, crying quietly, until my body became ash in her arms and shocked those who had come to help her prepare me for burial. They knew what it meant. She knew what it meant. And she sent someone to scout the area for me to help me find them when I resurrected. While she... she rose and went into the center of town, standing as tall as she was able and drawing her sword. A man answered her challenge, someone I saw her share furs with before.
He was a friend to us, someone who shared in my mother's lust for adventure and her traditions. He drew his sword, putting one leg forward and holding it high. My mother’s bones had become brittle from the sickness in her, and she had constant fever. The waves of dizziness had become overwhelming once she had started to carry me, and constant nosebleeds left her weak. She was close behind me on the journey to the grave, and she wanted what most of our kin had on the trek here. To die fighting rather than feebly in bed, and to die before her daughter could witness it.
That's what they told me later. The only reason she could have decided to rush the matter. But if that is true, then she failed. Because my mother, so strong even then, was still fighting when I resurrected. I came through the circle inside the village we had cleared and were camped in. My body was whole, and new. My pain was all gone, my eye keen again and my muscles strong and young again. The blight hadn't followed me through death, and after the shock left me I realized in my child's mind that I was indeed alive, and I took off running.
I wanted to see her, to tell her I was okay, to tell her everything was okay. If I came back she could as well. I was certain of it. She didn't have to be sick any longer. I skidded to a stop, kicking up dust at the edge of my circled kin. When they saw me they tried to grab me and keep me away. But I was just as willful as the woman they were watching. I kicked. I bit. I threw myself past them, and the breath rushed out of me all at once.
My mother’s remaining hair and the fur around her shoulders were soaked in blood from the fight she had lost, a mixture of her blood and his. She was on her knees and I stood frozen as he raised his blade and drove it down into her skull. I was gripped by horror, as any child is when watching their mother die. But then a sense of joy filled me. Her suffering was over, she could come back like me now. New, and alive again. I ran to her and wrapped myself around her, blood soaking onto me as I waited. And waited. But she didn't become ash like heroes are supposed to. The only ash was the taste of ash in my mouth as she grew cold in my grip. My elders began to try and reason with me, to get me away from her so that she could be taken care of. I didn’t let go. I wouldn’t let go.
My mother's friend finally grabbed me, and forced me away from her, dragging me as I screamed things at him that I regret to this day. Because it was him, the man who cleaved her skull open, that took me under his wing in her absence. And it was me that killed her. If I'd just been a little older, a little stronger. A little more like her. If I hadn't been a child, she wouldn’t have carried me. She wouldn't have advanced her sickness for a child who, as it turned out, was better off dying from the start because resurrection was my only cure. I didn't feel like a hero. Because resurrection doesn't make heroes.
I think that how we die that first time can shape who we are, who we become. I think that, if we are honest, only the first time matters and is real. Every death after that makes us hollow. It makes us emptier every time we come back, as if a little piece of us gets left behind each time until finally we stop returning. It drives us mad. You have to be hollow, or mad, to throw away your life... right? And that's what heroes do. They die over small things, petty squabbles, offering their lives up like bartering tools instead of what they are: LIFE.
They should rail against each death, claw their way out of each circle and say, "I WILL NOT DIE AGAIN", and fight for that to be the case. I will. I have to.
Too many times have I seen the sadness in Izrael's eyes when he knows my life is ending. I've seen it in all their faces, when I die. The same look she gave me in the last days of my sickness. I will not die again. They will not die again. Let the other fools barter away all of their lives for mediocrity. They're like children, weak and undeserving. We will not carry them. For us, every step away from the circle is another day that we will not die again... no matter the cost.