This is Issue #60 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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“Have you decided where you’re dropping us?” Alec wondered. “I’m still thinking North, along the edge of the inland sea. Come in high and close as you dare. If we can do it at night, they won’t see the drop. They’ll barely see the ship until it’s too late, and if you need to, you could turn and retreat–” He pored over the maps and the intel, frowning as he scanned documents, narrowing his eyes as he made notes.
For Kieron’s part, he had a hard time reconciling the capable tactician that Alec was, the cold way he spoke of what it was they were about to do, with the man he’d known in the Academy. The man who had tried so very hard to keep him and Jet together. The man who’d gone against his wishes to literally bring Jet to him, only it was too late. Kieron felt his heart lurch as he thought of Jet, time and time again. Something about that pain was soothing, satisfying. It quieted the frothing madman that lingered behind his eyes and on the back of his tongue. It was the pain Exosus wanted, not the love; the same reaction happened when Kieron pulled a stitch or was otherwise injured. He didn’t know why he didn’t tell Sha about Exosus, and how he wasn’t gone, only biding his time. He only knew it was a terrible idea.
He sat quietly, absorbing what he could from the conversations going on around him, and drifted off into a faintly dozing state; a part of him marveled that he could be so calm, so quiet, so near to sleeping while all around him, people were preparing for war. He nodded off entirely the dull pounding emptiness in his chest echoing the throb at his temples, the headache that would not be soothed.
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He woke with Sha’s hand on his shoulder. “Nnnh?”
He smirked, yawned and stretched, rubbing his face, wincing as he dragged his fingertips over his stitches. That split was going to be a wretched scar forever, he imagined. He wondered if it made him look distinguished, or simply ridiculous.
It makes you look like the monster you are.
“Where are we at?” he wondered.
“Less than 24,” Sha said. “It’s been decided we’re taking Garrett’s plan. You’ll drop with him.”
Degenerate, like the rest of them.
“Who’ll you drop with?”
“I’ve done hundreds of jumps. I’ll go alone. We’re all going in the same zone, at any rate. We’ll be dropped with some equipment — we’ll have limited time and cover. We’ll get to the wall, get in to the city. By the time we’re going in, the Hellebarde will be attacking areas to the west — distracting them from us going over the wall. No one will give a shit that we’re climbing back into that death trap while other things are getting blown up.” Sha looked grim, determined as she explained the basics of the plan.
Ilona will crush and discard you like the wretched pests you are.
“Are we the only ones going down?”
“They’re sparing a handful of troops to provide backup, but they’ll be sticking with us, handling cover fire, brute force if we need it.”
No force will save you. No one will save you.
Kieron nodded, intent on listening.
“Intelligence has given us a layout of the city and based on that and recent reports, we believe she’s no longer in the palace. She’s in the noble sector, likely in the home of the Legatus who had been put in the Hunt with us.”
Kieron paused — there was no rude response on the back of his tongue, no bile-laden thing ready to spill over his lips. Only a deep sense of hatred and disgust, so sudden, so fierce, he could feel his teeth grinding together as though he might shatter his own jaw. The thing inside him stayed quiet, and he was grateful for it.
Sha gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Eat, sleep, pack your shit, make your peace.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Kieron forced his expression into a faint smile. We’re really going to do this. We’re going to save Jules. He stood, then to go follow orders, to eat and sleep and pack his shit and make his peace. His mismatched-pupil eyes looked about glassily; he glanced down at his hands and saw the tremble there, and he tucked them under his arms as though he were cold, forcing his smile wider, warmer, as he nodded to Sha, and left the room.
He hurried down the hall, fingers trailing on the wall as he led himself back to his bunk, swallowing back the taste of pennies, of salt.
He got to his room and let himself in, staggering for the bed, and falling down atop it.
I just have to get through one more day. One more day and–
Again. It was happening again. The stones were hot against his cheek, his chest, his manhood. He lay in shame, burning on the hot stones of the back garden.
He lay spread, arms and legs reaching for opposite cardinals, vulnerable beneath the sun.
His father — a broader, darker, more forbidding man, seemed enormous and made solely of hate — brought the whip down against his skin with an uncommon frenzy, worked into a lather with his latest transgression. The man drew fire down from the sky and tore open his flesh with each crack. The flames he felt against his skin were misery made truth.
He had already confessed all his wrongs hours ago, but he would have confessed to putting out the sun if he’d known it would’ve stopped the pain.
He bit his lips and tongue to keep from crying out, but only made himself bleed more. He steeled himself against tears, but he had never made it through a beating without dissolving into hopeless weeping, and this one was no different.
The skin on his back was shredded, while the front of him was red enough to blister in places.
He screamed until his throat bled, and the rasp of his voice fell silent.
Kieron woke, naked and feverish on the floor of his bunkroom, with blood on his lips, terror in his heart.
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