This is Issue #21 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
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The truth of it is that sometimes it happened too quickly to realize it was happening. She felt a giddy head rush, and then she realized she was staring down a Kriegsman, his blonde beard red with blood, his hair coming loose from the knot holding it up off his neck.
She had a blade in her hands, and it was driven through the man’s ribs — he was dead, but not yet, not quite, not enough, at least, and his hands were around her throat. He was squeezing the life out of her, determination in his eyes.
She let go of the knife, and his grip loosened, briefly. In that instant, she drew breath, and kicked at him, shouting in fury, in fear, in love.
Her heart broke as the memories of the dying body crashed in around her to fill the space of wondering inside her head. Only a short time ago, she was breakfasting with her husband and daughter. They were going to take care of chores for the day as early as possible, and then picnic to the river, to teach her daughter to swim. It had been going well — she could keep her head above the water nearly all the time — and it would be good to practice more.
Food was still on the table.
The bodies of her family lay on the floor, blank-eyed and still.
“Please,” Jules begged the Krieg, soundless, but her lips moving as she reached up to lay a hand on her killer’s hands. “Please no.”
She felt her neck break, and the vision fell away, darkening into a whorl of cold loss and terrible silence.
* * *
Coryphaeus stared at Jules, his eyes as hard as he could make them, waiting for the answer. She stared at him, her eyes glassy, and then unfocused entirely, and then he caught her as her knees buckled, but she was already pulling away, moving to stand up, insisting on moving under her own power.
“What did you see?” he wondered.
“A Krieg was killing a farmer and her family,” Jules said. “An Ilonan. They… They came out of nowhere, they–“
* * *
Thundering across the plains, riding the lead in a wedge of highly-skilled cavalry, Jules watched as she and her compatriots crested a hill, expecting to meet foot soldiers and instead came upon a sky full of Kriegic warships raining bullets, bombs, and ballistae.
Men were impaled to their mounts, to the ground, some looking like a horrifying carousel gone wrong, others merely becoming a red mass of meat. Great sections of earth were scorched, blown up — others were riddled with bullets.
The formation did not break, shockingly, but rode on through, what was left it of it, at any rate, looking for the enemy it could reach. As they crested the next hill, there was the infantry, running up the other side.
Screaming for her men to charge, Jules led the wedge down the hill, feeling determined to take out as many of the infantry as possible.
It wasn’t until the last moment she saw the Kriegs had repurposed some ballistae to be used as pikes; the cavalry hit the line and shattered; instead of riding over and trampling her foe, she was thrown free and clear from her horse, into the infantry.
Jules felt the body she was in hit the ground with such force, the metal of her chest plate stove in her ribs. One of them went through her lung, and then her heart, and the last thing she knew as she died was not defeat, but simply fury.
* * *
Jules gasped awake and stared at Coryphaeus, as he watched her with concern. “An Ilonan cavalry. Legatus,” she panted, struggling to relay what she had learned. “The Kriegs–“
* * *
“ILONANS, TO ME!”
Jules heard Nixus’s voice, and raised hers in a war cry, turning her horse, spurring it on. She and a small knit group of soldiers put themselves back to back, and attempted to carve through as many foot soldiers as they could reach, stabbing, slashing, trampling, crushing.
The Kriegic soldiers went for the horses, killing them to bring the Ilonan’s down, and then the Ilonan’s were butchered quickly — the Kriegs were savage but efficient, looking for the quickest way to dispatch the enemy.
She fought beside Summus Nixus, but fell when a Krieg put a long knife through her boot and into the belly of his horse. When the animal rolled, Jules felt her whole body crushed; it took forever to suffocate, to drown in her own blood.
* * *
“Commander!” Coryphaeus’s voice was not yet panicked, but it was not far from it. He was holding her, carrying her to a bed to lay her out, to turn her to her side. He wiped her face with a damp rag and tried to give her drops of aetheris — he recognized the seizures that held her, but did not know how else to help her.
* * *
Again and again, Jules watched wave after wave of Kriegic invaders, ships and floods of infantry sweeping over the Ilonan countryside. Farmers, families, soldiers — anyone and everyone were killed. In the end, she fought hand to hand, back to back with Nixus, until she and her weapon and the ground were black with mud and blood. They stood alive, facing down an onslaught that was unwinnable.
Exhausted, Jules drove herself past the point of agony, knowing every Krieg she killed gave Nixus that much more of a chance, as well — and the man she was loved Nixus, loved her, fought for her, would die for her.
Was going to die for her.
He took the head of a Kriegsman and turned to regroup, to get back to his Summus’s side — but it was too late. He ran for her, but he was too late. He saw the blade punch through her armor, saw her go down, the light in her eyes go out.
He never saw the blade that came for his own throat.
* * *
“SUMMUS!” Jules shouted, thrashing free of Coryphaeus’s arms, reaching out for a dead lover that was all at once gone and not yet even in danger. She fell back against the pillows, her cheeks wet with tears, and she looked at Coryhphaeus, saying, “The Kriegs. They’re here. They’ll kill everyone, Cory. Everyone.”
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