In one moment there was bloodshed. There was chaos and madness across the ruins of a six-lane highway where monsters slaughtered monsters. It had begun innocently enough, as far as their standards go, with opposing forces on each side of the median, stuck in a standoff until one would make the opening move.
There were no good guys and bad guys. There were the Dogs and the Moths, humans damned by whatever god had hated them enough to do this. The world had been theirs for decades.
What were they fighting about? Boiling tensions and broken promises were the stories everyone stuck with, but the truth was much simpler. In a world so expansive, one that never seemed to end, there was only room for one.
In one moment, it was over. A young female Dog awoke among the corpses of the fallen, gasping for breath. Her struggle was the only sound for miles; the battlefield was silent now. The cracked asphalt was still slick with blood, and the dead were all around her, Dog and Moth alike. In her weakened state she had fallen back into her human form, as naked as the day she'd come into the world. It would take time before she was strong enough to shift to her canine form again, but as she inspected the deep scratch on her side, knew it would take a while.
She barely remembered how it had ended. It had started with an eruption of darkness, the Moths taking flight. She'd thought at first that they'd be too scared to make the first move. Though they were adept in the air, they were easier to pin close to the ground. She had leapt at one flying over her head, grabbing its ankle and slamming it into the ground. The poor creature screeched and tried to take flight again, but she'd torn out its throat before it could make another sound.
Her hands were still stained with its blood; she was covered with it.
She'd been doing just fine in battle. Their glorious ailing leader warned her before they left town to meet the Moths at the highway intersection. "I want to hear all about your kills, my dear. I expect only the best from you." That meant he'd throw her out of the colony if she didn't perform up to par. She was on thin ice as it was for trying to send her mother to south to avoid any bloodshed reaching their home.
If I go back, she wondered, will he commend me for surviving or remind me that they left me behind for a reason? I killed twenty, but should I have killed twenty-one?
She struggled to her feet, leaning on remains of another Dog next to her. It had died in its canine form, but its face had been so destroyed that she couldn't tell who it was. The others around her were eviscerated and shredded to pieces. She remembered the sounds of tearing flesh and organs splattering on the pavement.
Most of the Dogs she'd been fighting next to were her friends nonetheless. They had all grown up together in the same town surrounded by the same walls.
She remembered the Moth who scratched her, and the way its red eyes had sized her up when it found her covered in its brothers' blood. It had been trying to do the same thing that had been done to her people, spill her steaming entrails for everyone to see. The Moth had been a big one too; she wondered what it had looked like as a man.
Whichever god had damned them all had damned the Moths the most, forbidding the poor souls from shifting back to their human bodies. The glorious leader of the Dogs claimed being unable to change stripped the Moths of their humanity, but they all bled the same in the end.
It had been a close call. The creature had nearly beaten her senseless before it went for the kill. Some of the Moths liked to push a Dog from canine to human before finishing the job. It was one thing to die a Dog, but another to leave the world the way you'd come into it.
Maybe someone came to help me, she thought, or maybe I just got lucky.
She was in no shape to stay out there, to lay down again and die. The wound in her side would be healed within the day if she reserved her strength, but no monster could survive on their own in a world of death and destruction. She walked down the rest of the highway on her way home. There was no other way.
They were all dead, Dogs and Moths alike. A lot of the Moth bodies she came across were missing wings or missing heads. The instructions had been clear before the Dogs had left home for the fight: destroy them. A Moth without a head was as dead as dead could be, but one who couldn't fly had no place left to go.
Much like the one she found on the other side of the carnage, far from where she'd been left for dead. She saw it before it could see her, and kept hidden behind a pile of Dog corpses to better observe it.
The male Moth (judging by the bulge between its legs) had probably risen from the dead just as she had, a lonely figure towering over them all. Fur slick with blood, he was large for his kind, but it was clear that one of his wings had been severely damaged. The membrane had been shredded. He could hover for a few moments, but would continue to crash back to the ground before getting any higher in the air. He still kept trying, thinking it was going to get better.
He was between her and the way home, but neither were in any shape to fight. Worst case, she could probably muster up enough strength to shift only her arm and claw at its throat, but something like that would leave her sprawled across the highway again, vulnerable if she didn't kill him.
Was there any other way?
She rose from the dead once more, and took slow steps down the highway, trying her best not to move directly towards the struggling Moth. He didn't notice her until she was too close to go back.
A day after the standoff between a thousand Moths and a thousand Dogs, one of each faced each other again. The Moth tried to fly towards her, but stumbled on the road.
Clutching her side, she said, "We're both hurt."
He walked to her with a limp, more injured than she'd originally thought. "I have more than enough strength to rip you apart," he bellowed. His was missing a few of his sharp black teeth.
"And even if it kills me, I can do the same to you. I just want to go home."
He lunged at her, reaching with his thick claws. She raised her hand from her side and grabbed his wrist before the points could pierce her eyes. The Moth stood dumfounded, and before he could plunge his free hand into her exposed stomach, she mustered all of her strength into pushing him to the ground.
There was a moment where he lay on the ground, on top of the remains of two other Moths, and looked to her for the end. She probably could have done it too, either by shifting only her foot and crushing his throat, or simply plunging her own sharp claws into his face.
Instead, she walked on without looking back, and he remained with the dead.
It had only taken a day to intercept the Moth army, but the Dogs had been running in their canine forms then. The Dog woman could only walk until she was strong enough to shift her entire body again, and holding back the Moth had taken more out of her than she'd expected. The blood still bubbled up from her open wound. Whenever she thought it was starting to heal, it would only open again. Most Dogs could repair themselves fairly quickly, but it could only do so much.
It could be worse, she supposed. I still have my head.
Deep in the woods, night began to fall. The moon was up, but it was mostly blocked by the trees.
Even if she wanted to travel at night, she was too cold to do it, and found some shelter under a set of bushes. She was surprised to sleep well for a while, even if her pain returned when she moved the wrong way. The battle had tired her beyond belief, and thinking of home took her mind off of screeching Moths and viscera.
She dreamed of her mother's house and how life had been before the change had come upon her. Dogs could be created with a scratch, but she'd been born with the damned gift. She'd known what she would become before the first time it happened. Were Moths the same way? She didn't know.
Something rustled in the trees.
A strange scent hung in the air. Dogs smelled familiar, and Moths smelled like rotting flesh. This was oddly metallic, but organic at the same time, like the tang of blood.
A dry whisper breathed in her ear. "Hello."
With everything she had left, she ran.
It still caught her by the ankle and dragged her across the ground. In the dim moonlight that came through the canopy, she could see its curling horns and a glint of light on its fangs. All of the stories said that their eyes glowed in the dark like those of Moths, but that implied there was life behind those black pupils.
Moths were one thing, but Bats were another.
Most had been driven north years before by Moths and Dogs alike, during a few years of a tenuous alliance, but it wasn't uncommon to find one wandering back south in search of food or revenge. Most would only shift to their animal form to escape, and were much stronger in their human form, if you could call them still human. The gods had made them indestructible demons with only one desire: blood.
Zapped by the tries of war, she would be helpless. The only saving grace was that Bats liked to play with their food.
It was dark, but he was big. She couldn't see his wings, which meant that he wasn't going to carry her off to a nest just yet.
A sharp fingernail traced down her neck. "I saw your kind and their kind killing each other yesterday. I guess without us around to unite you, there was no reason to get along. I don't blame you, really."
"Don't touch me."
"I could smell your wound a mile away, my dear. It's not as clean as I would like it." The Bat placed a hand on her hip, on her gash. "But you will do. Good food is so few and far between down here, but it's not as bad as the north. You left us with nothing up there."
He pressed his nails into her hip, and her scream shook the forest around her. A flock of bird squawked before they flew.
"I wonder how you survived that mess," he continued, leaning over her. His cold breath was on her face, but she could still feel his nails in her side. The pain was making her sweat. "How many Moths did you kill before it was over? Ten? Fifteen? You made it this far only to go out like this."
She tried to focus and think of tearing out his throat. If she could shift, she could probably do it, but she'd never fought a Bat before. The stories she'd heard didn't leave her with a high chance of success. All she had to do was dig deep enough to take off his head and yank out those damned horns.
Before she could, there was another rustle in the bushes, and the Bat rose to his feet.
"I can smell you! Where are you?"
She could smell it too.
She turned over to crawl away while he was distracted, but stopped at the sound of something dropping from the trees and flesh tearing with a gurgle in the back of a throat.
She looked over her shoulder, not seeing the moonlight on a set or horns or fangs, but a set of glowing red eyes. If there had been any light, there would have been a pool of black blood on the forest floor.
"Thank you," she said.
"I thought I could fly if I got high enough," the Moth told her. "Then I heard you scream."
"You couldn't let something like that end me? It had to be your kill?"
"On the highway you had me where you wanted me, and I was ready to be destroyed. You were stupid not to have torn me to pieces."
"I don't think I could have, and even if I did, it would have destroyed me too. I won't be able to shift until I heal, and I can't heal if I can't rest. I thought I could go back home, but I'm never going to make it."
He walked to her. His wings were extended, one still shredded in the moonlight. "You may be stupid, but most Dogs would have killed a Moth who couldn't fly if he was lying on the ground before them. Now here you are, lying on the ground before me."
"Then do it. Finish me off."
She thought he would do it, but he laid down on the ground next to her, and covered her cold body with his good wing.
"The Dog who got me was big, one of the biggest you had. I saw him take a dozen of my people before he tried to grab a hold of me. He couldn't hold on well enough to drag me to the ground, but the damage was done. The only way I could survive was the cowardly way. I hid beneath the bodies of my friends and played dead for you. I didn't get up again until the world fell silent. Is that what happened to you?"
"I was knocked unconscious. The Moth who got me probably thought I was dead, but the gash in my side never would have killed me. He might have gotten distracted by something else and figured I would die."
"I will not let you die, Dog."
"Why? I don't believe that life-for-a-life crap."
"When we meet again one day, someone on each side will need mercy. Someone will have to stop this from happening again."