Stranded in a hell-ish world where violence is key to survival, should I fight to keep my sanity, or my humanity?
Blood stained my clothes and permeated my skin. I could see my opponent’s chest shake with every strained breath, the poison in the air corroding her frail lungs. In shock, I stared as the girl’s eyes dimmed. Her ribcage shook one last time as the poison burned its way through. A roaring thunder erupted from all around me, but I couldn’t hear them. My guilt surged up, threatening to choke whatever life was left out of me.
I had no idea why I was still alive. The knife in my hand said otherwise. Like my clothes, it bore the proof of my sin: blood. My captor advanced, I could see his clawed feet moving rapidly towards me, but I could not move. I was transfixed, horrified at myself. I had promised not to take part in this needless, bloody struggle! Then how could I still be breathing!?
Someone grabbed my air tank and stood me on my feet. More than once, I thought I would collapse on myself, like a battered structure. Irritated, my captor grabbed my arm and yanked me forward, out of the arena littered with bodies. An endless battlefield. My surroundings went from yellow to nearly pitch black in a few seconds.
Dazed, I acknowledged the change, but let myself be locked up again. The cell had already clanged shut and my captor’s footsteps had long receded before I had the sense to attempt to sit. Granted, dropped to my knees would be a far better description, but it was this physical shock and jolt of pain that snapped my mind out of its trance.
With a gasp, I dropped the hunting knife, which clattered on the stone ground. Looking around, I took in the empty cells. Slowly, I realized I was the only one left. I was alone. Biting back tears, I hugged my knees tightly and tried to find comfort in my own embrace.
~ ~ ~ ~
I felt the tremors before I heard the ground crack. There’s no sound more terrifying to my ears than solid ground tearing open, heaving up streets, splitting buildings, and engulfing cars and screaming neighbors. Jolting up from my bed, I scrambled throughout the house, looking out for falling furniture. “Mom! Dad!”
Bursting through their bedroom, I saw Mom, attempting to carry my unconscious dad outside. “Mom!” I ran to her side, grabbing Dad’s other arm and placing it quickly over my shoulder. “Let’s go!” Our ceiling was already exposing the sky when we made it outside. Mom stopped on the sidewalk, trying to wake Dad, and I was left to witness the devastation this earthquake caused.
Even though it had only began less than two minutes ago, it felt like this earthquake started hours ago. The damage around the area was devastating. Alarms were going off in four directions, I could see smoke and some radiating light from distant fires, and all I hoped was to somehow survive. Still, the earth’s crust moved beneath my feet, oblivious to my desperate and selfish wish.
I turned, ready to help Mom take Dad to the emergency meeting spot when I heard the loudest crack yet. The street behind me collapsed onto itself, dragging parked cars along, breaking underground pipes and power lines, causing a power outage. Sparks from the open crevasse lit the new destruction, and the nearby scream drew me forward.
“Help! Please–!” Carefully, I made my way forward, towards the gaping wound in the street, squinting for the source of the heartfelt plea. I recognized her instantly. She was the street’s single mom with deft baking skills. I’d seen her hands in action when she taught other neighbors how to bake. Those same skilled hands now clung desperately to the road.
“Hang on!” Quickly, I grabbed her hand, attempting to pull her up. Halfway there, the earth shook one more time, without restraint.
The road crumbled beneath my feet.
~ ~ ~ ~
I awoke with a start, my body covered in a cold sweat. The grim reality of this place sank in. In trying to save my neighbor, I had quite possibly caused her death. But before I could contemplate the extent of yesterday’s events, I realized I couldn’t breathe properly. Attempting to stand up, my body felt sluggish and unresponsive. Gasping for more air, I felt tingles throughout my limbs as my blood struggled to circulate without proper oxygen.
Fighting to stand up, I grabbed the mask covering my nose and mouth. My oxygen tank must be empty… Would I die like this, asphyxiated? A fitting punishment for killing a child I’d sworn to protect. My strength left me, and with it, my body slumped on the floor. I felt my mind wander away from the pain, elevating itself past this hell I had somehow landed in and soaring towards my home. Mom… Dad… I hoped they’d survived the earthquake.
Through the haze, I thought I heard a faraway voice calling me. Before I realized it, the black dots and the pain disappeared. Realization hit me and I gulped in fresh air, letting needed oxygen spread from one end of my body to the other. “–t have you die here, you’re my new paycheck.” said a voice. Once I could think and move properly, I had the sense to look up.
My captor stood above me, one hand on his hip, the other holding what I assumed to be my empty oxygen tank. “Good. Don’t let me down tonight.” His yellow eyes gleaming dangerously. Before I could even ask what he meant, he’d locked my cell and disappeared in the dark corridor. I was left alone again, with nothing but weird insects for company.
Slowly, I sat up and realized that my clothes bore a vivid reminder of yesterday’s nightmare. The rest of the day passed slowly. I had nothing to do, thinking and reflecting aside. The stained knife remained on the floor, in the exact spot I had dropped it the night before. Another violent reminder that the carnage would most likely continue. I felt sick just recalling the blood bath.
Before I could sulk any longer, voices drew my attention. As they neared, I could hear crying, whimpers and the guards’ yells. Soon enough, all the cells surrounding mine were full, five people in each, except mine. Women and girls of all ages filled the once empty space, huddling together in scared bundles. I couldn’t blame them, I had been a part of that group yesterday, desperately wanting to know where I had landed and who the demon-like guards were.
But today I knew better. I knew everyone trembling here would be dead in a few hours. Everyone, save the winner: the ultimate murderer. I held that title at the moment, although my deepest core strongly tried to repulse that fact. After a while, the sobs quieted and all eyes scanned the new surroundings, only to land on mine. I avoided their gaze by staring at my bloody hands.
Quietly, I started picking the crusted blood off my hands. This required more attention than usual, as with every blood flake I removed, I tried to cleanse myself. Time passed slowly. The silence grew to a deafening roar, my methodical scratching the only sound disturbing the stillness. A teenager from the adjacent cell approached slowly, timidly. “Excu-se– me…” Her trembling voice reflected her inner turmoil.
“Just– where… are we?” An innocent question in and of itself, but the reality twisted it in a death sentence. I did not have the heart to reveal the truth to her, to any of them. I still don’t know if I had the right to deny them the truth, if in so doing I attributed their deaths to my supposed humanity. My captor calls it survival. I call it selfishness.
The second night was the same as the first. Just as ruthless, desperate, and bloody. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I managed to survive. One more day to live anticipating the next day’s horrors. One more day to dwell on the unnecessary gruesome deaths. Another day to dread both life and death. I grabbed the knife hesitantly, and stared at the soiled blade. I could end it all so easily. I had more than one option, yet my body refused to act on my thoughts.
Alas, the third day began much in the same way as the first two. My captor switched my tank before I had to gasp for breath. As he walked out into the dim light, I gathered my senses to look at his appearance before he vanished from my sight. Letting it sink in, however, was another matter. Why I hadn’t noticed his obvious clawed hands, sharp fangs and scarred stubs before, I still can’t explain. I only knew that my worst hypothesis was just confirmed: I was in a living hell.
Night came, and when we were taken into the arena, my first instinct was to look up at the crowd for the first time. Horns, fangs, three heads, claws, a dozen eyes, monsters, chimeras, beasts, tentacles, spikes… The crowd stood on edge, ready to gut one another to better see the evening’s entertainment.
The excited roars and yells washed over me, stunning my mind. A blinking light in my peripheral vision diverted my attention, and as I stared at the flashing screen, the words of my captor echoed distantly. Paycheck. These– things were betting on a winner. And currently, the one with the most bets was… me.
While the truth about this place dawned on me, the other participants were given random weapons, from knives to guns or other useless objects like a piece of a mirror or a steering wheel. No doubt leftovers from whatever followed us to this world. Before I had time to turn around, I heard my captor’s voice resonating throughout the arena, announcing that the event just began.
I felt despair grip my body, filling me with adrenaline: I didn’t want to die. My right hand clenched tightly around the knife. Unmoving, I stared at the women standing mere feet away from me. Hesitation still pervaded their mindset, no one dared to move. I witnessed a child, no older than ten years old, start crying as her mother fell in front of her, a pool of blood forming around her punctured face. The woman holding the wooden spike was panting, staring madly at the ‘foe’ she’d just slain.
Panic set in, I could tell with one look. The audience screamed avidly, shrieking for more blood, more guts. One woman, probably in her mid-30s, screamed as she ran full speed away from the arena. A tiny hope bubbled in me. Escape! Why hadn’t I formulated a plan!? The other women stared at the retreating figure, until a guard materialized in front of her and sliced her head off without blinking.
Reality extinguished my hope, as it did all of ours. I watched a group of women take down the ones with guns. No doubt they had been in the same cell, they felt like a pack, a group against the bloodthirsty adversity. It’s too bad their efforts were wasted. Standing still, I took in all the violence, flashbacks of my first night in this deathly pit surfacing.
Like now, I had been standing on the side, crying silently, horrified at the crude desperation the fighters displayed. I’d seen my neighbor lose a hand before being stabbed in the gut, dying painfully, slowly. The nearest person had been a lone child, weaponless. I’d grabbed her before she became a target and found the knife on the ground, its owner already dead. I had to protect her, that was the only reason I was still alive.
The current battle was drawing to an end. The different factions had turned on each other, and when only one remained, paranoia permeated their gestures. They had fought together, but they couldn’t all survive, that much was clear. The most desperate acted first, disposing of her former allies until she remained standing. Her eyes filled with unimaginable madness and desperation. Her body shook with each strained breath, her clothes displaying her ruthlessness.
Slowly, she looked around, to make sure she’d won the right to live. I could see the surprise in her eyes when she noticed me, untouched. Like a starving wolf, she flew forward, her weapon at her side, ready to strike. I had seen her fight, I knew how she handled the spike, and I absolutely refused to die. Just as she arrived in front, stabbing the blade forward to stop me, I sprang to the side, adrenaline rushing through my blood.
Before I knew it, she was dead. My hand felt warm, and I saw it covered in fresh blood, still clutching my survival tool. The crowd exploded in a deafening roar. The adrenaline surge faded, and I blankly took in the brown lifeless eyes that stared right through me. I felt myself go cold. I’d done it again. I could feel myself shying away from the crowd, my captor, and myself. I wanted to shrink to the size of a mouse and hide in a corner for the rest of my life, however long that might be.
With each passing day, I withdrew myself to the furthest corner of my mind, blatantly ignoring the new daily recruits, victims in the making. Every night, adrenaline intoxicated me, obscuring my conscience and creating a self I was unfamiliar with, a monster. Not only was I remembering fewer and fewer fights, but I felt unsafe even in my empty cell, like I was being watched. Sometimes, snaps of cut arteries, severed limbs or cracked air tubes would assail every inch of my mind, pushing me further towards the edge of a precipice. One day I realized the wall behind me bore marks, but I couldn’t remember making them. They were, however, undoubtedly made by me. This was exclusively my cell, the winner’s cell. The next day, I looked at the wall again, and as I feared, there was a new mark.
My days consisted of waking up in bloody clothes, having my oxygen tank replaced and seeing new sobbing figures being locked in nearby cells. I hadn’t said a word to anyone after my first night, now I even turned a deaf ear to the desperate pleas. Weeks passed. New victims had stopped talking to me, perhaps because my tattered clothes had the clear stench of blood. The moments I could recall continuously grew shorter and dimmer. Once, I thought I could see my own body, propped against the wall lifelessly. Another time, I swore I saw my own mouth twisted into a sick grin while my own hands nimbly played with the rusted knife. That couldn’t be me, I barely knew how to hold it!
The marks in the wall increased, and I supposed they traced my days in this hell hole. Slowly, I fingered over every single one, counting. Forty three. I had been here longer than a month? I could hardly tell, dull days blended into one another, resembling the previous day and surely the coming one. I had lost track of myself at some point, and never got it back. When I tried thinking of where I came from, I felt a great longing to return, but I had no memories of the place I should return to. A crushing sadness would take a hold of my core and shake it until I didn’t know what to do with myself.
The knife’s blade glinted at me maliciously. The easy way out was there for the taking… Trembling, I held the blade a hair’s width from my wrist. Just one long cut, and I could find peace from this poisonous hell. No. I couldn’t. With my heart pounding, I discarded the knife on the floor. That’s when I noticed a scar above my elbow. Curious for the first time in weeks, I pulled the skin on my arm, staring at this alien scar. I didn’t remember getting cut, and I doubt I could ever forget that.
Time flew. Before I knew it, my captor, accompanied by guards, was walking me and the other prisoners towards the place I feared and abhorred. Even through the mask, I could smell death, and it made me sick. As usual, the audience erupted into bloodthirsty cries, their anticipation weighing down on us, even if the others didn’t know what the heavy atmosphere meant. And as usual, the most desperate to live lashed out, injuring an old woman. She could easily have been my grandmother, yet I felt nothing as I watched her get slaughtered. Either someone else would do it, or I would, but I was walking out of here alive.
Adrenaline surged within me, invading every cell in my body. I could feel my mind get pushed further and further yet I saw my body move on its own. Far from staying safely near the walls like I usually did, I somehow jumped in the middle of the frantic women, stabbing and cutting my way through. I saw the same twisted grin on my lips and felt sick to my core. Just who was that!? It couldn’t be me. I would never slash the throat of a child!
A vivid memory surfaced, and I saw my body laced with fear as guards surrounded me and the girl I had valiantly protected. “There can’t be two of you!” The guards circled us dangerously.
“I can’t kill a child!” I’d hoped to make them see how adamant I was about keeping a promise. I realized soon enough that ‘ethics’ was a human word. I backed up against the wall, the child at my side, looking up at me then back at the scary looking monsters.
“W-what’s g-going on?” Her features were drowned in fear. No doubt she could see the pained look on my face, even from where I stood I could make out the forming tears.
Biting my lips, I took a ragged breath before kneeling in front of the child, her big eyes staring at me curiously. “I’m sorry…” I saw myself utter the last words, surrounded by menacing guards. Before the girl could do anything else, I grabbed the mask protecting her face from the poison of this world and ripped it off. Swallowing the guilt in my throat, I stood up slowly, my eyes fixed on the girl’s twitching body. The poison’s speed was amazing in a frightening way. One breath sufficed to paralyze the body, then it worked like fire from the inside out, burning its way through living flesh.
Horrified, I blinked out of my nightmare, only to realize I was stuck in a real one. My body was still in the midst of a killing spree, my blood-splattered face unrecognizable. I don’t know how I could see myself while being conscious, but what I witnessed gripped my very soul. I’d turned into the very atrocity I tried so hard to avoid. I knew that survival could lead to desperate measures, but this was past survival. I no longer looked human, I’d become a demon, and the crowd loved it. In this forsaken world, I couldn’t trust anyone. Children, sisters and mothers murdered each other.
I lowered my head, powerless. I wasn’t in control of my body, it seemed I was possessed by a demon assembled by the crowd. The bodies piled up, the ground bled and at last, the massacre ended. Another victory, another nightmare to live through. Two overexcited demons jumped the fence and ran to me, but all I could do was stare at myself. My lips split into a mad grin and the knife in my hand cut through their throats before they could utter a sound. The crowd roared in delight, even though two of their kind had just been slain. There was no hope for this vile place, and no hope for whatever I had become.
I fought very hard to remain conscious until I was back in my cell, even though I still couldn’t control my body. There was another presence in my head, and it easily overpowered me. “About time you noticed,” snickered a disdainful voice. I was about to retort when I realized the voice was distinctly male.
You’re slow, woman. W-what? You didn’t really think you could have killed all those weaklings, did you? Why do you think you’re still alive? I– I can’t remember… Of course you can’t, I took over and saved your sorry ass. I don’t want you here! You’re killing all those innocent peopl–! Cut the crap, you wanted them dead. You didn’t want to die. How you survived a week without me I still can’t fathom. A foreign laugh echoed in my chest.
I couldn’t deny that. I wanted to live, even if it meant murdering a child. Survival defined this place. Pure, undeniable survival. See? What’d I tell you? I could feel him grinning, even as I regained control of myself. That’s right, I’m a part of you. Now he taunted me, trying to drive me out of my own mind! I had to get stronger and steel my mind. Only then would I be in control. I heard his mocking laugh but his voice faded.
Just then, my captor appeared with my reward, which he slid under the bars. I looked up, timidly staring at his terrifying face. His mouth was twisted in a familiar grin. “You did well today.” He was obviously content. “You’ve got potential. Don’t let me down.” I felt the intensity in his sustained gaze and dropped my eyes to the food in front of me.
He walked away, mumbling about a good price. That night I couldn’t sleep, for every time I closed my eyes horrifying images invaded my mind. Morning came. I only noticed because my captor came to replace my oxygen tank. I drifted in and out of consciousness, finally relaxing when the familiar sound of sobbing soothed my erratic mind.
Evening set in. Guards walked us out into the arena, the thundering roar drowning my unease. The night sky was the usual dirt yellow, except for a long red crack breaking the horizon. It was frightening how accustomed I was to this environment now that I paid attention. However, no matter how much I struggled to keep control over my body, I felt myself being shoved aside like a frail animal. “Just enjoy the show,” snickered the male voice.
At this point I had no choice, except to slip back into ‘sleep,’ but I refused to live in ignorance any longer. Suit yourself. I will. As customary, my captor announced the beginning of the show, but this time, ‘I’ didn’t wait for someone to make the first move. I jumped on the closest girl and slashed her throat. I recoiled in my mind as the blood splattered over me, but the worst part was being aware of the exhilaration boiling up from inside.
The carnage ended quickly, much sooner than usual and I slowly regained control of myself, although my mind felt strangely at ease. A teenager twitched and I looked at blood dripping from her mouth. She was drowning in her own blood, and soon the faint gurgling ceased. My eyes scanned her still body and, without realizing, I started stripping the clothes from the corpse. The crowd jeered and laughed, as if my defiling the dead was something to mock.
Once in my cell, I was myself again. I slipped out of my tainted rags and slipped on the teenager’s clothes without remorse. She was dead, she had no use for clothes. Days came and went. The smell of blood overwhelmed everything and tainted my food. Then one night, after a purposely drawn out massacre, my captor trailed to get me. I searched for him and saw him talking with someone hidden in shadows.
I knew something would change even before I saw the sack of money in his hand. My breath caught in my throat and fear seized every fiber of my being. My captor turned around, waving me over before he froze, clear shock on his face. The man he’d been dealing with ran forward, his bewildered yet angry eyes boring into my own. At last, I felt peace burn its way through me, melting my innards slowly and painfully. My supposed savior was at my side faster than I could take another breath, forcing the mask back onto my face, but he was too late, and he knew it.
Through a blurred vision, I could make out my captor’s silhouette though I could no longer see him. I took a painful breath, acid and blood filled my lungs. The man grit his teeth, staring as I slowly melted into oblivion. “Damnit, why–!?” I could feel his frustration. Twitching, I forced my lips into a smile, but I had no strength to answer.
As I felt myself slip through my bodily pain, I knew deep inside that I could never return. A second stab at life on Earth would do me no good. The scratches in my cell proved my existence in this demonic world, indicators of my once horrified mind turned satanic. Maybe I just needed an excuse to gather courage to absorb this world’s treacherous air. My savior was my salvation from a cycle of pain and deception. Now that I looked at my smiling self from above, I felt at peace.
I always knew there was no going back. I saw my body stiffen, blood coagulating at my lips. For once, the roaring arena hushed to a standstill. Grateful for this involuntary reverence, I closed my eyes and bid both worlds goodbye.