One

Night was giving way to dawn, and all the fury and the biting steel died out with the soldiers. Those still alive retreated, or else stumbled, haggard and bleeding, lurching and heaving, limping with wounds, walking nowhere in particular–walking in a daze, walking among the intoxicating decay.

The purple sky was made sepulchral as it draped itself over the field, a funeral shroud gently gauzing the dead. The dirt was in clots and the blood was in clots and now a strange calm crept itself between the bodies and unfurled over the knoll. It was the kind of profound silence that can only come after tragedy, one leaden and hazy, making everything distant and weightless and remote, making of everything a mirage. But it wasn’t a mirage. The horror of it, the blood of it, the burnt flesh of it, the mangled bones of it–it was all real.

Akura’a took stock of the ghosts. Not even ten feet from where she stood was her brother, Karkori’i, his heavy frame slumped over, the fang of a rapier thrusting through his body at an angle, its hilt pushing into the mud. His brown blood crusted on the blade, which had pierced cleanly through his pebbled skin. Less clean was the cut through his pelts, which were caught halfway up the blade, clinging to the stick of his blood, their fringed edges whipping in the wind like flags of surrender. Decades she and her brother had been by each other’s side, decades they had held one another up–decades erased in a moment.

On another slope to the east was Othoku’u, whom she had been drinking around the fire with but two nights ago, telling crude jokes and laughing until she had tears in her eyes. Now he was mute, a husk whose life had drained out the gash a claymore cut in his head.

Near the crest of a small hill, she could see the body of Bolgera’a, pinned down in a hail of arrows. She and Bolgera’a had been playmates as orclings. They would stage mock battles just like this–Bolgera’a the orc, and Akura’a the marauding human. Akura’a would always let Bolgera’a win. They had grown apart, but now, staring at her lifeless body on the hill, Bolgera’a felt like a sister to her, and Akura’a wished it had ended like their childhood games instead.

She looked over her shoulder and saw Sauro’o splayed across the grass. They had been lovers once. His torso–which she had once wrapped her arms about in ecstatic embrace–was ripped open, his viscera oozing out. His face–which had been wide-eyed and wild in bed, ravenous with an appetite for her flesh, for her touch–was now empty, his eyes distant and dim and ashen, the fire gone out.

And there were nearly as many human bodies as orc. Their pale, wispy remains lay scattered across the scum like delicate piles of frayed silk. She should have hated them. She should have thrilled at every glob of their tenderized flesh that dotted the hill. But she didn’t. There was no revenge, no justice. Her body had lost the ability to produce any sensation whatsoever. There was only aching numbness.

As she continued to survey the quiet desolation, she noticed a movement on the ground near a small outcropping of rocks. One of the strewn bodies twitched. It was a human. Without thinking, she lumbered over to investigate. The soft-bodied thing reached up at her, not knowing whether she was friend or foe. It couldn’t know, because its face was half smashed. One eye had burst, the other swollen shut. It reached, sensing a presence. Its other arm was arranged at an odd angle, the bone obviously shattered under the flesh. And one side of its chest was seeping fresh crimson rivulets onto the ruddy earth. It was a pathetic sight, a quivering, broken bit of pulp. Its hand reached, trembling, and it opened its mouth to speak, but only phlegm and bile escaped, bubbling like a witch’s cauldron full of foul, acrid poison. Only death burbled to the surface. It trembled and coughed and was drowning in its own fluids and Akura’a looked on it with pity.

And she wondered, as she raised her club aloft, whom this human might have once loved, and which of these other bloody smears it might have laughed around a fire with but last night, and which it had told secrets to and played games with as a child. She wondered if this human had killed one of her friends or family. She wondered if she had killed one of its. She wondered what else it might have done had it not been here, on this cursed day.

She wondered all of this as she smashed its brains into the ground.

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