This is The Final Issue of DeathWatch, Book One. If you haven’t read any of DeathWatch before now, don’t start here! Go to the beginning, and start there, instead — it’ll make a hell of a lot more sense.
* * *
“My lady,” Secta knelt before Lucida, looking up at her with tears in his eyes. “I pledged my life in service of the Guardian, I–” He paused, reaching up to take her hand. “My lady, I–” Swallowing roughly, Secta dashed tears from his eyes and leaned to kiss her fingertips.
She did not move. She stared at him with glassy eyes, quiet and without reaction.
Secta pled. “Placere, Lucida, regis puella mei–” Please. Please, my princess.
He looked up when a hand rested on his shoulder; it was not Lucida’s. He turned to look behind him, and his eyes fell upon Gemma’s face.
“Tace, famulo,” Gemma said exhaustedly. “She cannot hear you. She has smoked enough aetheris to dream for days. My visions tell me the war has begun. You do not know what will become of your Guardian. I do not know what will become of my Princess. You and I will have to figure out what happens, next.”
* * *
Slipping into the crowds of the maddened city wasn’t hard; Jules pulled the scarves around her face more tightly, to keep herself hidden, to keep the dust from her eyes. She listened to the hordes crying out for justice, listened to the wailing misery of those who had watched, had seen all the things she had seen.
They wept for their Prince, their Guardian.
She wanted to weep for her crew, her friends — her family.
She could not cry, however — the tears simply wouldn’t come.
She felt too exhausted, too wounded, too broken to do anything at all… but she knew she had to keep moving.
She could have just laid down to die.
She wanted to.
Instead, she put one foot in front of the other, and headed northeast into the crowds. She still had something to finish before she attempted to escape Ilona — she imagined perhaps she could buy a horse or perhaps a bike or a broken cycle she could bang back together and make her way toward the mountains. Sha and Kieron had escaped — it would be beyond stupid for them to come back for her; it was time to run like hell — that’s it. There were outposts past the Ilonan borderlands where she could hail the Kriegs and beg to be returned to Allied land — likely that’s what Sha and Kieron would end up doing, right?
“Right?” she said aloud, and when she heard the tremor in her broken voice, she felt the tears finally come. Everyone else was wailing; she fit right in — she let them fall as she melted into the fray, and let the wild, rioting city close itself around her.
* * *
The walk back was maddening; a thousand stings and itches and grinding agonies shifted from his skin to his muscles; Coryphaeus reached the base of the wall and stared up at the vine-covered expanse with tears in his eyes. “It will be easier,” he said to himself, “without carrying the Westlander. I can do this. I must do this.”
He began the laborious ascent, pulling himself up in the rain, feet scrabbling against the stone, hands gripping the vines, the chinks in the mortar.
Halfway up, he felt his gorge rise, felt the world grey over. Everything disappeared, and he barely had time to tangle himself in the vines before he went slack.
The wall held him, even as the sun crept closer to the horizon, and the stormclouds began to give up their hold over the night.
Coryphaeus woke as the last of the stars exhaled their light and became one with the dawn. He cursed his weakness, and with renewed drive, he pulled himself up the wall, until he could see over it, to see the writhing, burning form of his Guardian. He stared in horror, in awe, to see the creature’s face lit from within, his wounds searing themselves closed, smoke and ash falling to the mud, the ravenfeathers of his hair cascading forth, his body working to draw in breath.
Coryphaeus was certain he could hear the man’s heartbeat, from atop the wall, roaring in defiance of death.
He scrambled over the lip of the wall and let himself down as quickly as he could manage; when he hit the ground, he turned and carefully stepped past Djara, looking down at her vacant eyes, pained. He shook his head and went to the Guardian, to kneel beside him, to put a hand to his skin. He pulled it back immediately; the Guardian’s flesh was feverish, steaming.
“Surgite, custos mei.” Coryphaeus’s voice was all but lost. His wounds had dried and broken open more than once — dawn was breaking, and with it came the last of his strength. Get up, my Guardian. Rise. Wake. Please.
Golden eyes fluttered open. Coryphaeus stayed quite still as Jet sat up, as the last of his shattered mask fell away. He reached up a hand to touch his face, his temple where his head had been dashed in. He looked to Coryphaeus, and for a moment, the Legatus could see a frightened little boy looking back at him.
He wondered what the Guardian saw in the dark, in the land of the dead, before he returned again and again.
He could not ask; Jet’s hand reached out and curled around his neck, squeezing tightly. “You will die,” he growled.
“Yes,” Coryphaeus choked, “Majesty.”
Jet watched his own hand choke the life from Coryphaeus. He watched the man’s eyes roll back into his head. He felt the desire to feel the light drain from him — but then… he remembered someone else’s face. Someone else’s eyes.
He let go suddenly and let Cory slump down. While the Legatus was struggling to catch his breath, Jet looked around, panting, “Where… where is the boy?”
“Escaped,” Coryphaeus rasped. “With a man, and a woman.”
“Then… Where is my Prince?” Jet asked, moving to get up, to stand, to look around and take in the destruction that could better be seen in the dawn.
“…He and a Westlander…” Coryphaeus looked to the ledge where the ground was torn up, where there was blood on the rocks and then the earth simply fell away to the yawning abyss that looked out over the inland sea. “…fell,” he finished lamely, swallowing back bile and fear and wonder. He would have died, were it not for that Westlander. He may still die. He closed his eyes, tears of exhaustion running over his face.
Jet’s eyes widened; panic seized him in cruel teeth. He went to the edge and knelt, looking over it, looked down at the rocks, the foaming waters, and could not see if there were bodies below, dashed to bloody nothingness. All he saw was dark and light, the inland sea whorling, the foam on its tides washed against the cliff again and again. “They fell,” he whispered, putting his hand into the fingertracks, digging into the blood there, feeling his throat tighten. He looked back over his shoulder at Coryphaeus, saying, “Why… Why are you here?”
“Where else would you have me go, Guardian?” Coryphaeus asked softly. “I serve Ilona. I serve the Prince. I serve you. Unto death.”
“My brother named you traitor,” Jet said, standing again, approaching the Legatus.
“He did,” Coryphaeus answered. “I did not know at the time he would be displeased. I told him about the boy, and I kept the woman for myself.” The woman. Jules.
“The boy,” Jet said softly, looking heartsick. He remembered his hand sliding against Kieron’s cheek. He remembered Kieron’s face, all fury and disgust. He remembered reaching up to take off the mask, and then — nothing. Blackness. “The boy …escaped? He’s safe?” He was here. He was. Jet pictured Kieron’s face, bloody, wounded, fierce, and his heart sang like struck crystal, and then shattered like it had so long ago, the morning he woke alone.
United, but for an instant.
Gone, the next.
Coryphaeus blurted, “I made sure of it,” and then flinched.
Jet looked up at Coryphaeus, his eyes fierce. He stood. “You helped them escape.” It wasn’t a question.
“I made a promise, Guardian. And now I have returned. I will pay for all crimes with my life, if it pleases,” he said softly, moving to kneel before Jet.
Jet towered over Coryphaeus, gold-eyed, trembling, and pulled a knife of black glass free from its sheath.
Coryphaeus closed his eyes, thought of wild red curls, and smiled.
* * *
FIN, Book One