This is Issue #147 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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Danival wasn’t wrong when he mentioned Garrett had been softened by being a professor — but he didn’t know the strength and resourcefulnessGarrett had cultivated over so many years alone.
In less than twenty-four hours, Garrett had not only cleared the wasted lands, but had managed to get himself more food, different clothing, and a motorbike that was all but rusted out, and yet ran with a low purr.
He didn’t even have to kill anyone to get it, either.
He covered his body in layers of dyed fabric, wore gloves, and ringed his eyes in heavy kohl. With his thick black hair and his face covered in travel grime, it would take more than a moment to discern he did not belong, and he hoped it would be enough to get past whatever checkpoints might lay between him and Ilona proper.
His contacts within the armed forces, besides Danival, had forged his papers, and given him a general idea of where he would need to look; though Ilona itself was massive, when it sent along the list of the confirmed dead, it was because those soldiers were actively catalogued by the government and sent back. What would likely follow in six months would be a list of those who died in captivity, though they would be listed as presumed dead, and only pieces of their bodies would be returned, if that. What might never come back was a list of those who’d been salvaged. Kept. Used for other purposes.
What Garrett knew was that many in Ilona kept slaves, however, indentured servants, chained warriors, pack mules they’d blinded and muted if necessary. He was certain from the intelligence he’d been given, and from his own gut feeling, unable to be ignored, that the boys were alive, and in Ilona. They were likely in chains. They might even be mutilated. Maimed. The palace would have had first pick, and would’ve chosen anyone with a strong body or particular talents. Anyone that could be easily broken. Young men with little experience of the world, if they weren’t injured beyond use, would’ve been exactly what they picked.
What he didn’t know was that though the official policy was monstrous, the enforced policy was significantly more humane… unless someone needed an example to be made.
Immanis Venator was precisely what his people desired him to be, when they needed him to be it. Occasionally, he was nearly that in a fit of pique. With Jet, however, he’d grown significantly more complacent, happy to let things lie, less likely to be horrific.
The coming hunt that Garrett saw advertised on bar telescreens and window displays was the one passion truly belonging to Immanis. He hadn’t hunted in so long, the thought of it thrilled his blood. That his Guardian would join him in it was as though two suns had taken to the heavens, to shine upon him.
He poured that grace out onto his peoples, and lavished them with gifts; while he lay tangled in the palace with Jet, while his world assumed the Guardian lay in wedded bliss with the Princess, palace guards and servants took carts out into the streets and distributed coin, cakes, spices, jewels, and other favors.
It was to this offered delight that Garrett entered Ilona — he rode his motorbike in on streets full of flower petals and paint dust, through crowds of joyous, singing people. The scents of cinnamon, of turmeric, of street dust and frying foods, incenses, drying laundries, the sounds of vendors calling their deals, children playing, running to schools, dogs barking, everything full of color and life and musical sound; a world apart from the gas and horseshit choked streets of Centralis with their blaring horns and silent march of workers headed to factories, the sterile, grey misery of the Academy.
Garrett pulled down the fabric that had been covering his mouth and nose, and breathed in memories, letting them flood him, stopping only when he heard the familiar strain of temple bells. He covered his face again and blinked back a sudden, hot rush of tears, forced down the memory of stone floors covered in blood and children. For a moment, his breath threatened to seize; he turned into a narrow alley and parked the motorbike, leaning against a stone wall, panting harshly.
“We are all monsters,” he told himself quietly. “All of us. I’m not here to atone. I’m not here to exact vengeance. I’m here to find those boys, and bring them home.”
He pulled a few abandoned tarps over the bike and left it; it might come in handy later, if it wasn’t stolen, but for now, it’d served its purpose. He had to find out if any slaves from the downed ships had been distributed from the Palace — there were plenty of men and women and children in collars, some well-kept, some a little more ragged than others, but they were quiet and busy. They seemed used to the work of it, and none of them bore any of the likely tattoos airmen often had, or carried themselves as soldiers would.
He spent days searching the markets, nights in bars and hostels, sought out Ilonans who would not be likely to be believed if they accused him of being some kind of spy, and paid for information in both coin and pain. He learned of the strange creature known as the Guardian, and its ghostly presence on the streets. Garrett studied pictures of the creature, newsclippings, advertisement reels. He watched children play in the streets, dressed in black, their faces painted garishly, swinging play swords painted black and shining. He learned of the city’s love for its Guardian, and the gift that had been given to the Prince when the Guardian married the Princess. He finally learned the horror of the wedding day massacre, heard the stories of the way the palace’s floors had run red with blood.
He learned that over a hundred Alliance soldiers had died that day, and the rest had been sent to the dungeons, the block, or selected to be in the hunt.
Marketplace theatre re-enacted the gory scene daily; people cheered when the actors who played their Prince, with his flashing eyes and his magnificent tattoos, ordered the deaths of the Centralites — what gave Garrett such pause was that he’d assumed the soldiers had been killed by Palace guards in some kind of hard-fought battle. Instead, he watched the play acted out again and again; men and women he knew would have been taught to survive above all else took the knives that had been given them… and slit their own throats. “It must be propaganda,” he first told himself quietly, but the longer he stayed, searching for more information, the more he began to believe the wild tales told about the Prince, and the Guardian, and their powers. The more he believed them, the harder it was to keep himself on task — he knew the Kriegs would invade within the near future. Could the entire invasion be stopped merely by the Prince giving an order? Could an invasion be fought back by a single man who could not die?
Would whole squadrons of soldiers kill themselves at a word?
Would Danival slit his own throat?
“I cannot stop a war on my own,” Garrett chided himself, even as he imagined crushing the throat of the beloved Prince of Ilona. “I’m here to find the boys. And bring them home.”
And yet, his memories whispered. And yet. You were a monster before, Alec Garrett. Your country may need you to be, again.
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