It was a hot day. Sweat was gluing my hair to the back of my neck, plastering my shirt to my shoulder, and creeping down my back. It itched, but I ignored it. I had my hands full, after all. The soldier in front of me had a gut wound, a bad one. Any 'real' healer would have given up by now, if not given him the mercy stroke long ago. But the people of Dichepolis were hard, practical folk, and weren't about to let their city's healers tend the fallen mercenaries who'd been hired to try and take their city, especially when good Dichepolian men were wounded. And these mercenaries were free-lancers, not members of any organized force. If they were hurt in battle and couldn't drag themself to a healer, they died where they fell.

I'll admit my motives weren't entirely altruistic. By this point I was so desperate for something else to think about that this had seemed like a good idea.

But then,  *she*  had always said I had a thing for lost causes.

I didn't want to be thinking about Delera. She sang about battles, sometimes. She sang about honor and glory and impassioned speeches. Sometimes rippling muscles, flashing blades, and a spurt of crimson blood got a mention. People hear songs like that, they get inspired. But her songs never talked about the stench of shit from a belly-wound, or the way a dead man starts to bloat up real quick in hot weather.

"You're wasting your time. It'd take Aesculapius himself to save that guy."

I didn't turn around. At first, I wasn't even positive the mocking voice wasn't inside my head.

"Aesculapius isn't here. I am." But he was right, of course. Whoever he was. The kid with the gut wound started convulsing. His breathing had a kind of a wet, sticky sound. And then it was over. And that was it. I mean, he'd been the only one left I thought I might have had a chance at saving. I was tired. I wanted to wipe away the hairs sticking to my forehead, but my hands were covered in blood. And now some joker was heckling me. I hauled myself to my feet, turning to face... whoever-it-was.

He looked like he might have been a mercenary. If he was, he was a good deal more skilled than the poor bastards I'd been treating. The snug black leathers he was wearing looked to have been designed for looks rather than function, but they weren't even scuffed. He was a handsome asshole, too. And he moved like he knew it.

"Awww, don't pout." He was smiling, actually smiling. "There wasn't anything you could have done. After all, some things are just beyond the power of mortal men." Not smiling. *Smirking*. The prick.


The attempt to take Dichepolis had been foolish. Some distant relative of current king had been poring over the family tree and managed to convince himself that he should be the one on the throne. He hadn't been able to persuade anyone else, though. He'd had to hire mercenaries, and no-one with any experience would work for the pittance he'd been able to scrape together. The Dichepolian forces had butchered them. But still, however pathetic, it had been a battle, and where there is battle, is Ares.

Ares had watched the slaughter without much interest. After all, it wasn't as if there were any question as to the outcome. It wasn't until after the fighting was done that something caught his attention.

Normally, he wouldn't have spared a second glance on the young man making his way among the fallen. He was slender, almost frail looking. Not tall, although thin enough to give an impression of it. A weakling.

A determined weakling, though. Ares watched him examine one after another of the mercs who'd been hurt too bad to run, and work on those still breathing long after anyone else would have stopped. He hadn't meant to show himself to the man, but as the last fallen warrior began to die under his hands, he just had to say something.

"You're wasting your time. It'd take Aesculapius himself to save that guy." He'd wanted to sound gentle, but it came out like a challenge.

"Aesculapius isn't here. I am." Weakling or not, he had some fire in him. But it wasn't enough to save the wounded merc.

Ares waited to see what the healer would do next. He wasn't really expecting the man to turn and face him. He was struck by how weary the man looked.

 "Awww, don't pout." He had to say something to lighten this guy's mood. "There wasn't anything you could have done. After all, some things are just beyond the power of mortal men." Dammit, he was gonna start blaming himself. They always did. Ares just didn't get it. Mortals were always getting themselves killed, and other mortals were always feeling *guilty* about it. Even ones like this guy.

"Beyond the power of mortal men. Beyond the *fucking* power of mortal men." He sounded so bitter! "It doesn't matter. Someone should at least try."

"You're young, that's all. Full of pretty idealism." Ares laid his hand on the young man's shoulder. He flinched, but didn't pull away. "What's your name, anyway?"

Shander, his mind responded automatically. But he didn't speak. Ares took a step closer, forcing Shander to look up at him.

"I asked you a question."