Eli knelt at a shallow brook, dragging a stone over his hands beneath the water. Tendrils of red ran from his hands with the flow of the current. He worked slowly, making sure he scrubbed away every ounce of blood. When he was sure he was clean, he let go of the rock and watched it sink to the bottom of the rivulet. Absentmindedly, he traced the pattern of the thick black lines he’d inked onto his arms years ago. The water was warm from the height of summer and felt comforting on his skin. With a sigh, he splashed his face and dried his hands on his tunic, grabbing the satchel at his feet.
He stood, slung the pack over one shoulder and turned away from the brook to face the treeline behind him. The sun was setting and it painted the clearing gold and reassuring. The forest looked inviting, but Eli knew better. He took a step towards it and faltered. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to continue walking.
As he moved among the corpses scattered between the trees, he felt as if the entire forest floor was covered in blood, soaking through his boots. He shuddered. He took care to avoid the swords and daggers strewn among the roots and detritus. Here and there a hand would be found still gripping tightly to a weapon--even if the arm itself wasn’t attached to anything. Most of the corpses were lightly armored, but occasionally a full set of shining plate could be seen glinting among the shadows. The forest was unusually silent. Any wildlife would have fled from the site of the battle hours ago, and they would not return for some time yet.
A groan began to emanate from among the bodies. Eli froze.
The groaning escalated into pained moans, then pure frenzied cries. Eli rushed towards the sound. A soldier, an ally marked by the red band tied around his upper arm, was bent double and clutching at his side, one arm against a tree for support. He swayed, lost his grip and fell over right as Eli reached him. Eli dropped to his knees beside the man, setting him on his back and searching for signs of a wound. There was no blood visible and his clothes hadn’t been punctured. Eli let his satchel fall to the ground and withdrew a pair of scissors, which he used to cut away the man’s tunic. The man’s chest and ribcage were deeply bruised, pointing to internal bleeding, but there was no way to tell how bad it was from the outside.
The man’s cries intensified. His breathing started to come more forced, gasping erratically for air.
Eli put one hand on the man’s chest, the other on his stomach. Taking a deep breath to focus his magic, the lines tattooed on Eli’s skin began to glow a deep and vibrant blue. He let his energy rush into the injured soldier, forcing it to spread throughout the man’s body as he searched for the cause of his pains.
He masked a sigh of despair. It was definitely a hemorrhage, likely a large one, although the magic was too imprecise to be certain. Blood was flowing rapidly from an unknown point of origin and was already pressing against the man’s organs. With a wound this severe, Eli could do nothing to save him.
Eli put both of his hands to the man’s chest, trying to mask their trembling. The runes began to glow more intensely on his skin as he increased the energy flow from his body into the soldier’s. It wouldn’t save him, it wouldn’t even come close, but he could try to take the edge off his pain.
“What is your name?” Eli asked the man. Tears were pouring down the soldier’s face. “Mine is Eli.”
“Daen,” the man managed to cough out.
“It’s nice to meet you, Daen,” Eli said. “Is it hurting less now?”
Daen whimpered. “No, sir,” he said quietly, although the fact he was whimpering instead of screeching said otherwise. “Am I dying?”
Eli couldn’t help but pour out even more of his energy, despite knowing it was useless. “Don’t even think that, Daen. I’m here. Talk to me. How are you feeling now?”
“I just feel… numb. It doesn’t hurt so bad now. But… don’t lie to me, sir. Just tell me if I’m dying. I need to make my peace with the gods.”
Eli paused. “I am so sorry, Daen.”
Daen half-chuckled, half-sobbed, trying with little success to wipe the tears from his face. “It’s alright. I never expected to last this long anyways.”
Eli reached out and grabbed the soldier’s hand. “I’m here, Daen, and I will be here until you don’t need to cry anymore.” Without anything else to say, he focused on the task of numbing Daen’s pain receptors, trying not to listen as the soldier muttered prayers to whichever gods he believed in.
Eli noticed that his own hands were still trembling, and it unsettled him. He should have been far beyond trembling by now. He should have been used to it by now.
Daen closed his eyes.
Eli exhaled sharply and rocked back on his heels, quieting the quiver of his hands. He remained there as the sun vanished entirely, reaching into his pack to withdraw the makings of a torch. Once lit, he planted it into the soft soil and watched the flames dance. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t leave. Perhaps it was because Daen, however shallowly, was still somehow breathing.
Eli’s light was burning low when Jax found them, carrying his own torch. “We should go,” he said. “It’s late and the officers are looking for you. New orders.”
“They can track me down later. I’m with a patient.”
Jax sat beside them without protest. “Should we move him to the camp?”
Eli shook his head. “No. Moving him would just make things worse.”
They sat in silence, keeping vigil with the dying man. Eli let his mind drift, but soon he became aware of the singing of birds. Enough time had passed that the animals were returning to their homes. Eli tried not to think about what would they would do to the corpses before the company could return to bury them all tomorrow.
Finally, Daen stirred. He began to moan lowly, and as his consciousness returned, his cries intensified again. Eli’s runes immediately sprung to life and he willed more magic into Daen, but no matter how much energy he poured out, the wailing didn’t stop. Jax looked pointedly at Eli, and Eli shook his head.
Jax stood, drew his sword from its sheath, and decapitated Daen with one swift motion.
Eli’s hands were shaking again. The blood would never wash away.
They returned to the brook together and Eli scrubbed and scrubbed until the river stopped running red. No matter what, his hands still felt stained. “What was his name?” Jax asked.
“We’ll check with the chroniclers and I’ll write his family.”
Eli shook his head. “You know I like to do it myself, Jax.” They made their way back through the forest, stumbling now and again over roots and occasionally over more unspeakable things.
There were no more cries to be heard from the bodies around them.
“I wish we could take the time to bury them,” Jax muttered. “It’s wrong, leaving them here like this, even for a little while.”
It’s wrong that I can’t save them, Eli thought. “We’ll be back tomorrow,” he said instead.
Their sergeant was waiting for them at the edge of the camp. “Squad leader Aevlin,” he said, holding out a scroll to Eli. It was marked by the lieutenant’s seal. “Your squad is being reassigned. You will be combined with Gamma and retain your position as squad leader.” The sergeant opened his mouth as if to say more, looked Eli over, and thought better of it.
Eli nodded in acknowledgement and tucked the parchment into his satchel as the officer walked away. He turned to Jax. “Let’s go win the war,” he said tiredly.