This is Issue #85 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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The landscape outside of Ilona was hardly barren, hardly a desert, as so many in the West believed. Richly terraformed hillsides were bountiful with lumber and flax, as well as herds of sheep used for milk, meat, and wool. When areas were unable to be turned into forests or fields, they were left to be converted into aetheris mines, and the resulting energy was transferred back to the airfields, to industrial plants, to villas and palaces.
Ilonan architecture was vast and astounding, the buildings created of glass and sandstone, marble and granite, and ancient hardwoods tooled and polished to a beauty that those in the West could barely begin to imagine. Ilona’s beauty and advances beyond the West were staggering. Jet looked out into what he had once imagined to be terrifying wilderness, and saw beauty instead, beyond even his wildest imagination. He smiled behind his mask, for even the sizeable army camped outside the gates did nothing to bring him fear.
“Salutatem!” he called. “Venisti, introitum Ilona!” You have come to Ilona, and sought entrance. His speech of greeting had been rattling around in his head after Gemma’s explanation of Tenebrian pride. “Custos iubet susceperint vos, Plaga,” he promised, opening his arms. The guardian bids you welcome. “Invenies populus bene te, dilectissime, et dedit naulum eius amplitudo!” You will find yourself well-hosted, much-beloved, and given grand fare. It was as much as he could stomach to promise; he watched Acer’s irritated face grow shocked at being addressed, and then pleased, and then quite smug.
The man walked right up to Jet, and drew a knife, speaking plainly, “I hear you even know the vulgar tongue.”
Jet nodded, smiling behind his mask. He changed his tongue easily, though speaking in his native language had grown less and less common. “I do. But why have our conversation out here in the lands, when I welcome you into Ilona herself. Let us receive you and have feasting in your honor, cousin.”
“I have come here with an army,” Acer said, almost baring his teeth.
Jet nodded, loving the fact that he could smirk behind the mask, and Acer would never notice. “Why so you have,” he replied, almost with amusement. “Might I inquire as to its purpose?”
“To climb the walls of your precious Ilona, Guardian. And take it for our own.” Acer’s expression was irritated for only a moment, because it was mostly hungry, full of avarice and pride. “You know full well I come to avenge Mactabilis’s murder. By rights, I shall kill Ilona’s prince in return, and then all of Ilona will belong to house Plaga of Tenebrae. We will vault over the Luminora. We will take back the westlands and purge it of milkskins — of which you look perilously like. To force my way in to your city, as an unwilling bride must be tamed by her rightful husband.”
Jet nearly rolled his eyes, but remembered it was too easy for that much of his expression to be seen; he did not want to come across as ungrateful or proud. Even if what Acer was saying was offensive and disgusting beyond measure. “Even if we offer you entrance, willingly? You would prefer to take it by force?” Jet wondered. His guard stood impassively behind him, making no expression, gazing off into the distance.
“I take everything by force, wormskin,” Plaga hissed, smirking, looking too proud for his own good, leaning in all puffed up and arrogant. “That way I am certain it is mine. The same way I will possess your pr–”
I will kill you where you stand if you finish that sentence, Jet thought blackly. Within the mask, his gaze burned — hot and bright enough that Acer noticed.
Acer changed the subject, clearing his throat, trying not to appear rattled. “It is rumored you cannot die. Tell me, Guardian — are you prepared to reveal the truth of it?” he asked, flipping the knife in his hand, end over end.
Jet nodded again, pulling aside his sash and pulling open the wrapped fabric of his shirt, baring his chest. “Tell me, Tenebrian — are you prepared to receive it?” he asked in return, and then he reached his hand forward, and grabbed Acer’s wrist. The man gripped the knife as it fell against his palm, and then Jet was pulling him; Acer was made to thrust forward as Jet fell against him — they met in the middle, and the knife sank into Jet’s chest, scraping bone until it sheathed itself in the meat of his heart.
All the world tightened down into a tiny pinprick, swallowed whole by cold shadow.
Blood came in a red fountain, gushing over Acer’s hand, disappearing into the black folds of Jet’s shroud. Jet shuddered, and blood ran from the mouth of his mask. He sagged against Acer’s shoulder as his knees buckled, and Acer held him up, gasping at the feeling of wet heat. He began to pull the knife away, saying, “Perhaps the knife you use is a trick, cousin, but this one was real.” He looked around at the guard and made a mock apologetic face. “I am sorry, men, but this dog has barked its last, I think.”
Jet’s eyes snapped open behind the mask. He could feel his insides screaming.
And then came the fire. The cold that penetrated with the knife was obliterated, replaced with an all-consuming heat.
Acer, too, could feel the sudden rush of it, the heat that radiated from the Guardian’s frame.
Jet tipped his head back and howled in rage and satisfaction; he stood tall, pulling back from Acer, and the Tenebrian stumbled back and fell to the road, lifting one hand to shield himself in awe. He saw the bloody wound burn itself shut from the inside out, skin searing at the end, ash and dust falling away. The knife clattered to the road, and the Tenebrian moved to get back, shocked and terrified all at once, and trying not to show it.
Jet ran his fingers over the spot the knife had gone in, and revealed the unbroken skin. He leaned down and offered out a bloody hand to Acer, baring his teeth behind the mask in a smile. Though it was hidden, and Acer could not see it, the rictus grin was easy enough to hear as he growled, “You see the truth of it now, cousin? Do you still wish to bring your army over the walls, or will you come in politely through the gates?”
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