This is Issue #89 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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Nearly done. By the heavens, it was nearly done.
He stood a little taller, panting, staring at his opponent, who was, in equal measure, staring back at him.
It had been a long fight, and he was exhausted. He was buying time, he knew. He’d done that before. He’d done nothing but buy time, before, willing to kill, willing to bleed, willing to die.
His sword arm was leaden, and his pistols were empty of ammunition, dropped somewhere once they were worth no more than a club. His breath came in copper-tasting gasps, and his men lay all around him, dead for having followed him, dead for their faith in him.
Dead for a cause, for their country, for their Guardian and Queen.
He would not live to honor them to their families — that thought broke his heart. The whole world should know what they’d done, what they’d sacrificed.
Still, he fought with a smile on his face; everything he’d experienced, good or ill, after the Hunt, was purely a gift. He should’ve died then, but he didn’t.
He stared at the Ilonan before him, no, not Ilonan — Tenebrian — and bared his teeth in a grin. “Tu cedere?” Do you yield?
His opponent snarled with laughter, shaking his head. “Erit ego? Cede?” Do I? Yield? He lunged, and they met once more, blades clashing, bodies wrestling amidst the blood and fire of war. “Ego non te cede,” he growled. “Tenebria nunquam cedere!” I do not yield! Tenebrae will never yield!
“We shall see.” He fought with the calm determination he’d worn for years, the teeth-grinding insistence of pushing forward, ever forward. He fought, pressing his advantage until he saw the opening, sudden and plain, and went for it.
He did not see the second blade until it was too late.
It punched through his armor with sick ease and bit deep into his belly; the blow bent him double with the force of it. He coughed, and the world was fire. When he looked up, blood running from his mouth, his face was nothing but shock. His eyes stared wildly at the soldier who had killed him.
“Vivat Tenebrae,” whispered the soldier, caressing his cheek with a chuckle. Long live Tenebrae. “Tu luce facit nos umbra.” It is your light that makes our shadow.
He stared down at the blade in his flesh, looked at the dead surrounding him. So many bodies. So many friends. So many compatriots. So much regret. And yet he would not have changed a thing, knowing what he knew. “Non,” he insisted. “Impedimentae facit umbra.” No — it’s what gets in the way that casts the shadow.
“Nec refert,” the solder said, baring his teeth as he twisted the knife. “Aut via — tu morietur.” It doesn’t matter. Either way, you die.
Just then, he heard the bells. The palace bells rang, loud and clear and sudden. The jubilant cacophony made him smile, regardless of the knife lodged in his belly. “Ille…” His voice caught, broke with laughter.
His opponent jerked the blade higher, catching it on his ribs, and twisted it again.
It should have been agony. It should have been unbearable.
Instead, the bells made it a triumph, and because of that, there was neither fear, nor real pain.
He gasped, his eyes going wide, and he embraced his killer, using the last of his strength to hold him still. “Ille est sonus a clade tuae,” he rasped, laughing. That is the sound of your defeat. Shaking, weak hands held to the soldier’s arms for only a moment longer; he sagged against the Tenebrian soldier, his full weight leaned into the other man.
The soldier staggered, and pulled the knife free, cursing as he tripped over another body, and turned to run.
He fell with a sigh, slumping to the ground, his cheek hitting the floor, slicking through an ever-widening puddle of his own crimson heat. He smiled a victor’s smile, and sank down into the dark.
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Her eyes shot wide in the dim room.
Her body was her own.
“Coryphaeus,” Gemma gasped, letting the pain and dizziness rush over her. She’d discovered long ago to let it come, to let it batter her — there was no use in fighting it, and it made it so much worse. “How many times will I watch you fail, little Legatus?” Since leaving Ilona with Acer, she had witnessed his death no less than a dozen times, most often by a soldier wearing the armor of Legio 999, and once by his own hand.
That one had left her shaken; she had not known a despair so wretched since her Lucida had let her be sent away. She had felt his anger and his fear and his hopeless resignation. Locked away in a room where he had endured brutality after brutality.
Locked away where he had been alone for far too long.
He was in his youth, then, but she knew it was him — regardless of his circumstances, there was a conviction to him, a surety that few others carried so tightly.
She had almost liked watching him die, again and again — he had thwarted the Prince, had raised a blade to him, had stolen the seer-girl from him, had lied, had been complicit in his death. He had brought Lucida much grief.
Even so, to feel the wrenching of his heart was not satisfying; it left her aching, empty.
She submitted to it again and again, however, sought out each vision, now, and thought she might even taste malagranata once more, so she could discern the threads of what made a true vision, and what was only possibility.
Before the Guardian had come, her visions had never been wrong — and each time she’d attempted to thwart them out of fear or jealousy, something far, far worse had occurred. With the arrival of the Westlander boy who’d been reborn in blood, the sight had changed.
Visions were now not certain, but instead were more like dream-prophecies of old, requiring much interpretation and study.
She was meant to find something in Coryphaeus’s death, but she could not understand what. He died fighting, each time in a long and vicious battle, but each death saw his heart salved by triumph, even though it was plain the Legio had won against him.
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