This is Issue #25 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!
* * *
Pain. Nausea. Even with the aetheris, the feel of going and returning — the slipping — was leaving Jules more exhausted than anything else had, ever.
“Tell me again,” Coryphaeus whispered quietly, rubbing Jules’s back.
“No,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “I’ve told you a thousand times. I don’t know where they were. Outside the city somewhere. There was too much blood, too much motion.”
“Commander,” Coryphaeus urged. “I can’t let her fail. Tell me.”
“Legatus,” Jules pled, looking up at him from where she lay, sweat soaked and exhausted. “Please,” she panted. “She was one of thousands. I can still feel every one of their hearts stopping.” Her pale eyes tried to hold to his, but even as he cupped her face in his hands, her gaze faltered.
She slipped again.
* * *
Frantic hands held up her head, stroked her cheek. “Placere, placere, non, non, no no –”
She recognized the voice; the rough heat of it could be felt against her lips, her eyes. She forced the lids open and looked upon a bestial face through a haze of blood.
Something heavy was on her chest — something keeping her from breathing right.
She reached up a wounded hand to touch the masked face that looked down on her with love and horror. Her master’s face. Her Lord’s face. The face of the man she loved more than life. Fingers trembled, curled against the edge of the mask.
“Me permitte videam te,” she said, and Jet let the mask fall away. Let me look at you. She could taste blood on her lips, and she knew she didn’t have long, knew her last breath was soon, could be counted on her fingers. “Cum te amo animae meae,” she choked, and the blood in her mouth ran from her lips.
“Non sum dignus amore tuo,” Jet whispered to her. I am not worthy of your love, he wept, tears on his bloodied, painted face.
“Honoris erat servire te, custos mei,” she said, smiling.
“No,” the Guardian begged, looking down at her. “No, I forbid it,” he said, pulling the body she wore up against him, crushing her to his chest. She could smell the char of his sweat, the aetheric tang of his blood. She could smell the fire of him, feel his heat.
He laid her down and cupped her cheeks, moved his hands over her skin, her wounds, searched for a way to undo the damage, to give back the life that ran from her. “Non es passus ut moriatur, famulo. Do you hear me?” Jet cried, leaning back up to look down at her.
“Hac vice una, Domine, non me observas,” she said, and the laugh in her throat caught. She could not breathe, and she felt the world darken, tighten, squeeze its fist around her.
Jet, holding her, sobbed. “No. NO! Secta!” He begged, turning her face to his, looking frantic. “I would save you,” he said, pulling a knife from where they lay against his skin. He cut his hand open, cut Secta’s, and Jules felt the fire of it, and the way it burned as the wounds were clutched together. She felt the flat of the blade against her mouth, and watched Jet paint his lips with her blood, and then he was kissing her, and he could taste the very edge of his life as he tumbled away from it, as it came in a great rush from his mouth, a font of blinding red heat…
…and then nothing
* * *
Jules gagged as she came to, twisting from Cory’s arms, rolling to her side, spitting blood. She moaned, sobbing, and began to curl up in a ball. It was too much, to feel all of it, too much to live and die through all of these men and women, these Ilonans who loved just as she loved, who pled just as she would plead. She wept, for poor Secta, who had set her free, begging that she might see the good, the common humanity.
“Jules,” Coryphaeus breathed. He no longer tried to make her explain her visions; he simply stroked her hair back from her face, wiped her mouth, and offered her sips of aetheris when she was coherent enough to take them. “You’re safe,” he promised. “You’re safe, I’ve got y–“
And she was gone again.
* * *
“I’ll never be safe,” she said aloud, in someone else’s voice. It startled her, and she froze to hear her own thought echoed in another’s mind.
“That’s true,” came the answer, which was just as startling.
The voice was more familiar than she could understand, but before she could turn to face the speaker, before she could see his face, before it could be true, a great cold mechanical grip curled around her throat, and began to squeeze.
“You’ll never be safe, so long as you stand against our navarchus,” her attacker whispered. She felt his breath on her ear, warm, the scent of guns and leather, whisky and tobacco on his skin, and she wanted, more than anything, to lean back against him and just keep breathing him in, for the way he felt so familiar, so real, so right.
Instead, the body she wore tried to fight, kicking back, struggling, scrabbling at the metal arm, fingers catching in the piston slides, the gear teeth. She could not scream for the pain of her hands slowly being ruined as she was lifted off the ground, and hauled over the rail. Panic deafened the body to all real sense; she thrashed and clawed, nothing more than a frantic animal caught in a trap.
The hand around her throat tightened, and she felt something behind her eyes give — poppies flooded her vision, and then the world went dark.
* * *
She woke with the name of her killer on her tongue — the man had known it, had known him as a wild dog the navarchus only thought he had on a leash — but the taste of it fled like all dream things do, and as consciousness broke over her, the only thing left on her lips was a cry of rage and despair.
* * *