This is Issue #51 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
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When he woke again, the pain in his head more blinding, he cursed aloud around a thick tongue, and through a throat so raw he began to cough.
“Ego vivere,” he finally choked. “Ego vivere?” He wept again, but this time, not in relief, instead, in fear. This was not living. This was not death. This was not glory. This was torture.
Hunger came, a strange feeling of gnawing, of aching emptiness that he knew was only in his mind — he could not feel his own belly, or how empty it was. Hunger came so sharply, he caught the scents of burning flesh on the wind, aetheric fires and regular flame, scorching human and beast alike, and it only stoked his desire, made him salivate, and then gag at the thought.
Eventually, the world darkened, and there was actual nightfall.
Over the field, he heard others cry out in pain and fear, more than once heard the faraway report of a pistol as a soldier managed to end his or her — or someone else’s — suffering.
He envied them, and then knew fury at himself for thinking such a thing.
Daylight came, but still there was no release.
How long would this continue?
There were less groans, less downed horses whinnying in pain and fear. The smells of blood and earth were just as thick, and even worse. He closed his eyes and quietly began to pray to the Guardian, begging that his life might be over, that his death might come quickly now, now that he had served, now that he had given of himself, now that he had fallen.
He did not die.
A part of him imagined that perhaps he would be found, and be lifted from the battlefield into a medship, that he would be attended by chiurgeons of great reknown, for having delivered so many Kriegs unto their death. Perhaps the Guardian and Queen themselves would bless him, and he would be healed enough to have pride. Scarred, but healed. He would make an excellent strategic general. He would be able to give good counsel. His body would not be able to keep up with combat, but there was nothing wrong with his mind.
Nothing wrong with his mind, save for how it was currently held within a prison of ruined flesh and blood and bone.
Time ticked onward, and the idea that he could be saved slipped further and further away.
The desolation of the battlefield was such that if there were other survivors beyond fellow soldiers or enemies in the same state he was, he couldn’t hear them. There were still fires burning, still horses occasionally groaning and kicking, still the occasional last gasp, and then a growing silence.
Night fell again.
He did not know he’d fallen asleep until he woke in the harsh glare of day; when a flutter of movement made him flinch into consciousness.
The first thing he noticed was the smell assaulting him. The stench of death was heavy, now, and flies had already come.
The clouds had parted for a time, and the sun illuminated his predicament even more clearly. He could see how his legs had become trapped beneath the bloating body of his mount; he remembered, then, with clarity, how it had fallen, screaming, when a Kriegsman drove an axe into its leg, and then simply kept swinging, and lodged the blade into the beast’s chest.
The horse had managed its own revenge; in its dying throes, it not only flung him against the ground and then rolled to crush him, it flailed with its good legs and one lucky hoof caved in the skull of the very Krieg who’d delivered the killing blow. That Krieg dropped like a sack of stones down on him, as he already lay half beneath the mount, and in doing so, crushed his arm, breaking his wrist. It throbbed and shrieked beneath the dead man, ruined.
His other arm, his sword arm, already lay useless; he could not even feel it.
But what was the fluttering? What woke him?
A harsh cawing would have made him quite still, had he been able to move to begin with. He turned his head the little he could, and found himself face to beak with a massive corvid. The thing hopped about on his sword arm.
He hadn’t felt it.
It stared down at his flesh, and he stared at it, in fascination and horror. It cawed, rustling its wings, and cocked its head this way and that, strutting and examining. He watched the talons pinch his flesh. He watched them pierce it, clutch it.
He could not feel it. It was like watching it happen to someone else.
When it finally began to peck, to tear into him, he tried to shout at it, but taking any sort of deep breath simply made him gag — he could do nothing but watch.
Dimly, he imagined it could get no worse. A strange sort of laughter began to choke him; he chuffed at the bird, coughed. It flew away.
He watched it disappear beyond the horizon of dead bodies surrounding his field of vision — and then that was filled with the panting, slavering muzzle of a wild dog, come to see what the birds had found.
Its coat was a mass of scabs and scars — it too had been in a battle. The only difference between the two was that the dog had managed to be a survivor. It must have thought itself so very lucky to have happened upon such a feast.
He stared at it, wondering blankly how long it would take the thing to get close enough for the freshest meat it could taste, blood still running, body still hot.
The wild thing edged closer, a growl low in its canine throat, and its scarred lips pulled back tight over its muzzle, revealing scores of sharp white teeth.
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