This is Issue #146 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘DeathWatch’ then go to ‘#0 – A Beginning’ and read from there, or go find the issue # you remember, and catch up from there!
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Flying over the world, Garrett watched the green give way to grey — once they hit the blasted borderlands, he felt an odd calm settle over him. This was really happening. He was really doing this. He would slip into Ilona and find the boys, dead or alive, and bring them home. He felt he owed it to them, and in a strange way, owed it to Danival, though he couldn’t have explained why, if pressed.
As simple as the plan seemed, he felt his heart in his throat even now that there was little point to turning back. Danival had agreed to help him, and that meant they would be traveling to the Ruins — one of the only places the Ridge was passable.
While further north, Centralis had sent scouting ships through the Notch, they had once sent waves of men through the low passes of the borderlands, the ruined cities in the foothills served as a reminder of the weapons used during wars of ages past — but no one who’d stayed long in the borderlands lived a good life, afterwards.
Even the Ilonans could not man outposts within the horrors of these foothills; the abandoned airfields onto which Garrett had planned to parachute wasn’t even theirs — it had been built and destroyed by some divine touch long ago, the scorched handprint marring an otherwise luscious sea of green and gold hills.
He remembered crossing through the very edges of the borderlands when he was younger, droves and droves of foot soldiers picked up and dropped off to make their incursions into enemy territory. While there was a pass that seemed perfectly workable, soldiers had long ago learned never to linger in the greyed and wasted lands — after days of trudging through the spoiled earth, they would bleed from the gums, lose teeth. Hair would fall out in clumps, and skin would begin to fester. He’d heard awful tales of men squatting out their own insides while in the latrines.
As if war wasn’t torment enough.
The Ilonans felt safe enough that no soldiers would get through — on foot, they died before ever making it out of the borderlands, and the ships that attempted getting through the pass all suffered catastrophic failures, either of their navigational instruments, or their aetheric fuel tanks. The pass itself was littered with hundreds of airship carcasses and thousands of soldiers.
It would be a veritable goldmine for any crew who could get in and out to scavenge, but the risks were a horrorshow at best.
Danival soared on without hesitation; and his hands held the piloting controls with no sign of tension or fear, while Alec watched the mountains loom ever closer. “I could chute here–” Alec began.
“Don’t be a fool,” Danival said, but not harshly. “If we don’t cross, Alec, you’ll die in the blighted lands. You promised me this wasn’t actually a suicide mission, or I wouldn’t have brought you here.”
“It will be suicide to try to fly all the way through the pass, Dani,” Garrett sighed.
“I’m a lot better at this than you give me credit for,” Danival said quietly. “Just give me continuous readings until the instruments don’t work anymore.”
Garrett fell silent except for reading out the numbers, and when the dials began to simply spin, he murmured, “That’s it. You’re on your own.” He gripped the armrests of his seat and breathed slowly, deeply.
In the pilot’s seat, Danival set his jaw and watched out the front, relying only on his senses to get them through the mist-soaked pass, pulling up and leveling off, banking left or right as he needed to.
The dizzying swoops left Garrett breathless; he watched as Danival maneuvered the plane skillfully, but felt a low whisper of dread begin to clutch at his belly, struggling to take hold. His eyes focused on every nuance of Danival’s expression, from the way he narrowed his eyes to the way his brow furrowed, trying to understand if the man still believed he had control over the situation. High winds buffeted the plane about; and as the whole thing groaned and shuddered, it dropped a few dozen feet, and Garrett felt his stomach pull up into his throat. The rising, choking feel of it gave him a sudden moment of panic.
“Dani, I l–,” Alec blurted aloud.
“No!” Danival shouted, audibly incredulous. “Did I not mention this is difficult? I said I could do it. I didn’t say it would be easy. Now please, Alec. Please, when you come back from Ilona, when I’m done invading the damned place, if you still want to talk… then we can talk. Tighten your buckle–“
Garrett opened his mouth, but the ship rolled hard to port, and he found himself half dangling above Danival as the man carefully flew them through the blighted pass of Damnation Ridge. Turbulence left him dizzied, and he passed out, surrendering to the whorling mists of the mountain.
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When he woke, Danival was patting his face, his expression urgent. “We can’t stay here, Alec. You either have to come with me, or you have to get moving.”
“Fuck,” Garrett whispered to himself, getting up, groaning as he rubbed his eyes, trying to dispel the pounding headache lodged behind them. “You landed?”
“Of course I landed.” Danival didn’t bother to sound offended, but did roll his eyes. “And then I carried you out here. Now get up. I got you as far as I knew I could go before the plane would be noticed, but you’ll still need to hurry. More than a day here and–“
“I know,” Garrett sighed. “I know — you can’t stay either. Is this my duffel? Good. Right then. Go,” he said, gesturing for Danival to get back to his plane.
“Do you have everything you need?” Danival looked reluctant to leave.
Garrett felt a tug at his heart as he watched the man lingering in the hatch of his prop plane. He had a distinct memory of trying to blurt something inappropriately timed (and perhaps only panic-induced) at his erstwhile lover, and his cheeks began to burn. “Silly time to be asking now, isn’t it?” he wondered, walking back to him. “Go, Dani,” he urged. “You’ve already brought me further than is safe. Your country wants you home, and any chaos you cause coming down from the north will only help me get those boys. Are you really going to lead a charge?”
“Allt mun falla aur moshchyu av Krieg,” Danival said, lifting his chin.
“All will fall before the might of the Krieg.” His smile, while fond, was still somewhat sad.
Danival nodded, insisting, “All, Alec. Because we are a mighty people.”
“That’s true. And I’ve only just realized that sometimes, the last option is worth taking, instead of withering to ash, my mighty Krieg,” Garrett said, looking pained. “But even so, I don’t want you dying.”
“Ah, Alec, I am without fear,” Danival laughed, offering out a hand. “I have survived this long; my heart’s blood will not run on the blade of any mad Prince or any of his followers. It’s you who should be careful. Your days as a professor may have made you soft.”
Garrett rolled his eyes, shaking his head, thinking of Olivier. Remembering Holden’s expression when Garrett had grown angry to react was both shaming and hilarious at once. He reached out and clasped Danival’s hand, and was not surprised to be pulled into an embrace that was as achingly warm as it was bone-jostling. He rested his cheek on the Krieg’s chest, briefly, marveling at how much larger than he Danival was. “By the skies but I’d forgotten you’re massive. Even for a Krieg,” Garrett chuckled.
“Always was. My mother said I’d never stop growing,” Danival laughed. “Goodbye, Alec.” One massive hand held Garrett’s; the other reached up and so briefly cupped the man’s cheek.
For the barest shard of a moment, Alec held his breath, something in his heart pounding fiercely, demanding, awake and alive and singing.
The moment ended, and Danival released him, seeming to have almost startled himself. He let go, stepping back, nodding as if to say ‘that’s enough’.
Alec Garrett watched the plane take back off, and bank to go northwest, leaving him behind most definitely on the wrong side of Damnation Ridge. As it finally disappeared from sight into the mists he gave a long, low sigh, hoisted his pack up over his shoulders, and got to moving.
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