Blood welled up over his hands, slipping easily between fingers that were no longer entirely capable of creating a seal over a wound. Snarling a curse under his breath, he jerked a hand away from the wound and tore his cloak off of his shoulders. Or at least that was what the motion was intended to do. Instead his hand clasped over empty air and there was a thunderous moment of revelation as to what that meant.
No way to staunch the blood flow.
No way to keep him from bleeding out.
No way to stop the achingly slow descent of death.
He looked back down at his wounded fool of a traveling companion in growing horror even as his brain whirred to process what was going on.
There was a cloak. I saved him. He survived.
Yet here, now, Kwaaku lay dead on the ground. Caren had trusted him to protect him, to keep him safe and bring him back home to their clan. She had trusted him.
And, once again, he hadn’t been worth the trust.
No. This isn’t how it happened.
He staggered to his feet as suddenly the body on the ground wasn’t that of a young centaur but that of a girl, no more than perhaps thirteen years old, her tattered gray dress stained red with blood. As her dark hair pooled around her on the ground, she opened blue eyes and stretched out a hand towards him with a sad smile.
“You didn’t save me, big brother.”
Necronim woke screaming his sister’s name, flinging himself up and out of his bedroll as if distance from the location it had been had at would make the dream dissipate. No matter how much he tried, however, it never did any good. She and his failure had haunted him for more than fifty years now.
Chest heaving for breath he didn’t need, he pushed his way out of his little hut into the early morning air. The sky was still dark as he tilted his head back and closed his eyes with a ragged sigh. He then rubbed his hands together, hearing the scraping of his bare finger bones more acutely than usual, before running a hand through his hair.
“I should be used to this,” he muttered.
There was a soft sound from behind him and Necronim sighed, knowing exactly who it was. After all, she was one of the few of the clan who would have anything to do with him.
The gentle trod of her hooves on the ground as she came to stand next to him was usually as reassuring as her presence itself. Now it only made his shoulders hunch as guilt streaked through him even though he knew without a doubt that he hadn’t failed her as the dream had tried to convince him. Looking up at the centauress, he said, “Go on. Say it.”
Caren merely cocked her head to the side – a movement that took the place of arching an eyebrow given that one usually couldn’t see her eyebrows through her black fur – and asked, “Say what?”
“You know what.”
“I’m afraid I’ve suddenly become burdened with a case of memory loss, dear friend.”
Snorting, Necronim spat, “That this keeps happening because I won’t forgive myself for the things I’ve done. That I think I’m going to fail everyone I care about.” When she didn’t say anything, he clenched his hands into fists. “Damnit, Caren!”
She sighed, flicking her tail, then asked, “What is it you wish me to say, Nec? That is the advice I’ve given you consistently over these long years. It is what I will continue to tell you until you do forgive yourself.”
“And how can I do that?” Necronim whirled to face her, sure that the blue-white glow at the back of his empty eye sockets was brighter than usual. “How can I forgive myself when I keep failing the ones I care about?”
“Only you can answer that.”
He clipped his teeth together over the words I don’t know how. Caren would inevitably give him one of her many usual responses to that statement and he wasn’t in the mood to hear them right now. He’d been seeking atonement for going on thirty-six years now with none in sight and no end to the dreams. It was starting to seriously wear him down.
Seeking a change of subject, he shook himself and asked, “How is Kwaaku?”
“Good. Mehca says that whoever helped you was a truly deft hand at the healing arts.” Caren paused before asking, “What happened to her? Kwaaku said it was a human girl.”
Necronim closed his eyes. Unfortunately he remembered auburn hair, blue eyes, and a far too open heart too well and her generosity just made what he’d done in the end all the worse. Turning away, he whispered, “I left her. She helped us, risked her life, and I left her right where one of the Orders could find her.”
“Necronim, you aren’t responsible for every person you come across.”
“I owe her!” he shouted, certain he woke his closest neighbors up but he didn’t care. “Without her I would have never been able to bring Kwaaku back. He would have died, Caren, and I would have been the cause.”
She stomped a hoof at that and leaned forward to angrily point a finger into his face, her fingertip nearly touching his nose. “You,” she growled, “know better than to think I would blame you for the actions of another. If Kwaaku had died out there, then it would have been the will of the spirits and not any fault of your own.”
Hissing at her stubbornness, he spat, “He got wounded protecting me, Caren. If he’d died…”
“Then he would have saved your life,” Caren insisted as she reached out to grasp his shoulders, shaking him the slightest bit. Angry at her words and seeming inability (or want) to see his point, Necronim jerked away from her touch.
“At the cost of his own! My life isn’t worth that of your nephew’s!”
She sighed and shook her head as she turned away from him, saying, “I think you’ll find he and I disagree with that, Nec. As for the girl…”
Scowling, he waited for her to finish.
“Perhaps one day you will be able to return her kindness.”
As Caren disappeared into the morning darkness, Necronim felt suddenly drained and slumped back against the wall of his hut. Lifting both hands, he rubbed at his face for a moment before letting them fall back to his sides as he heaved a weary sigh.
If he felt the gods would listen, he would pray that he never saw her again no matter how much he might owe her. Only bad things came from associating with him; he’d learned that lesson well over the years and the only reason he stayed with the clan was because otherwise Caren would continuously hunt him down.
The girl would have been better off never finding them, even if that would have meant Kwaaku’s death.
He could only hope that he hadn’t already killed her.