This is Issue #64 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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Pain like nothing else. It woke him out of the darkness, seized him in its lions’ paw and swept him into a furnacemouth, chewing and burning, rending and rendering. Kieron hit the deck, and when his cheek and temple collided with the boards, the whitehot snap of it was almost like a relief. That pain, that brief smack, was such a lesser pain, the stars it made him see almost blotted out the bone-splintering, muscle-tearing seizures that rippled beneath his skin.
He screamed aloud, a guttural cry, a guh-guh-guh-guh that was strange to his own ears, a language too bestial, communicating only in fear and pain. Wordless gasps of air and grunted pleas.
He bashed his head against the deck again, hoping for relief.
Again. And again.
Boots were suddenly in his field of vision. Running boots.
He reached for them. I need you, he thought. I need you. Help me.
He rolled over to look up; he rolled over to try to see who had come to him. Something drove an unquenched, freshly-forged spire up through the back of his head, a throbbing cruelty, a hundred thousand teeth biting their way from the base of his skull, wrapping around his cheek toward his eyes.
The wearer of the boots knelt down and cupped his face in her hands. The redbrownblack of her ringlets and braids spilled forward, haloing her face.
Kieron stared at his hands as they grasped and fumbled, and then brought them close and stared at them. Something was wrong with his eyes. Something wasn’t right.
Sha ran a thumb over his cheek, tears in her eyes. She looked young — not weak, not lost, but young. Frightened. Determined.
Kieron felt his heart seize and stutter; he thrashed on the ground and bit his tongue — blood frothed at the corners of his mouth.
The glottal friction of his voice sounded like tearing wet leather. “It’s okay,” she promised. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.” She turned his head to the side and ran a hand over his brow.
It’s not okay, he thought. It isn’t okay. Something happened to me. The slipping was easy. It had been easy. But now, suddenly… For a moment, Kieron stared hard at the brown skin of his hands, the dark of it shimmering in strange fractals of silverblue. The patterns twisted against his skin and he felt dizzied staring at them.
His gorge rose, but he didn’t want to look away — he had to explain.
“I’m here,” Sha promised, bending down to kiss the top of his head.
When her lips touched his bare scalp, Kieron shuddered, and grew still. He felt his heart slow, his breath grow quiet.
“I’m here, Jacob.”
Kieron stared at his hands, panting, tongue lolling like an overheated animal, his whole body struggling.
Brown hands. Dark brown hands. The shimmer of blue on his skin. Aetheris dust. Kieron’s mind churned furiously; he reached for answers, strained to make sense of it. That’s it! he thought. It must have something to do with the–
The tidal wall of them returned in a sudden rush, a flood, a crushing wave, and he gagged under the strain of it, retching as though he could bring something up and rid himself of the weight of it within him. He gasped, reaching to clutch his chest, struggling to breathe, feeling something rattling loose deep within him, in a space from which he couldn’t cough anything clear. The pain was getting worse. The visions were worse. Within the last two days or so, they had come crashing down on him like felled trees, like a full pulley’s load, battering him down, driving him to his knees. They’d always been good on board The Ivory Goddess. He’d always been safe aboard the ship. He’d always been good when near their low, throbbing hum.
Until that last supply run. Everything had been harder, sharper, more aching after that run. The whole thing had left a bad taste in his mouth, from the bill of lading that made no sense–why would they take on that much alcohol on a government scouting ship? What would be the use?–to the lightning storm wherein several casks were damaged, and the Ivory Goddess had nearly been awash with aetheris. How he had barely managed to open a draft door in time, and how their contrail had lit up across the night sky, sending cascade lightning down into the mountains just before the Ridge of Damnation–
Kieron remembered Jacob had begun coughing up blood after the lightning storm. He could recall the coppery taste of it, the ozone reek of everything, the smell of burnt hair, the taste of–of– Something itched behind his eyes, something he couldn’t reach. Then it was a familiar feeling, the most familiar feeling, the stomach-churning twist that signified it was about to happen..
Somehow, while still within the mind and memory of his Captain’s brother…
…he felt himself slip again.
In that moment, he was not Jacob, but was looking at Jacob through someone else’s eyes. Someone else who could see Jacob. Jacob in a fury. Jacob in a rage. Jacob lost entirely, his eyes half-clawed out, cheeks and forehead gouged from fingernails scraping, his tongue bitten-through, his hands wrapped around the throat of–
Kieron struggled, flailed; he began to black out as Jacob murdered whoever it was, and for a brief moment, he was wholly three people at once: himself, Jacob, and the victim. He felt stars blossom behind his eyes as he sagged in Jacob’s arms, and his life flashed before his eyes. As a new set of memories rushed over him, he flinched when he realized the person Jacob was killing was Sha.
Jacob was having a vision of killing his own little sister.
No, he was having that vision, for Jacob, as Jacob lay in the throes of his own agony…
He came back with a start, not to himself, but to Jacob, staring up at Sha.
He asked me to kill him, Sha had said. Begged me. By the time I worked up the nerve, he’d bitten off his tongue and was choking.
Kieron shuddered, staring up at Sha, feeling love and horror rise within him in equal measure. Was this how it happened? How could this be? He struggled within Jacob’s body, desperate for control. I can explain. Let me explain. But Jacob’s desire for the pain to end overwhelmed him. His voice was a low, awful rasp. “Sha, I need you,” he whispered.
“Anything,” she promised, her lower lip trembling. “Anything, Jacob.”
He nodded, and Kieron felt the tears stinging his eyes as he whispered, “Kill me.”
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