This is Issue #110 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Bright, dusty streets full of motion, full of life.
Jules felt the heat of the sun on her face, and she turned, lifting her hand to shield her eyes.
She had no idea where she was, or why. For a moment, she thought perhaps she’d died. One moment, she was listening to that insufferable Ilonan talk about how Abramov was a monster, and the next…
“What’s going on?” her voice didn’t sound like her own. She coughed, and heard a snort of derisive laughter.
Her heart was pounding; she turned back, panting, and looked full into the face of Summus Nixus, whose expression was merciless. “I told you,” the woman crooned in her musical Ilonan. “I told you to leave it alone, brother–”
Brother. She thinks I’m the Ilonan? Jules’s heart and mind raced. Oh. Oh fuck, no. Not again. Not this again. She tried hard not to panic, but slipping was disorienting at best, and dying again and again was painful and terrifying. She knew what was coming. She didn’t want to have to go through it without Kieron — at least he could tell her it would be all right; he’d been doing this for years.
“–But you just had to put your nose in where it didn’t belong. You had to push push push, and now look what’s happened?” Nixus was still talking, baring her teeth.
“I’m not who you think I am,” Jules said, taking a step back.
“You believed that wormskin over me, your own sister! You’re everything that’s wrong with this regime. Of course you’re not who I think you are,” she hissed, stepping forward. “You’re a sympathizer. You’re a traitor. You’re not my blood!”
“Please–” Jules said, looking around wildly, feeling a sick panic well up in her belly. His belly. She lifted her hands up, and one was still holding a sword; Nixus batted it away with the one she was holding.
“Coryfrater,” she said, shaking her head. “You reveal yourself to be so much weaker than everyone believes. Such a simpleton. I could’ve forgiven you, if you hadn’t spared that canicula’s life.” Nixus held a sword at her, leveled it to her chest.
Him. His chest. Jules dropped the sword in his hands, and held them out. “I’m not your enemy,” she said, closing his eyes and shaking his head. She felt like she would be sick at any moment. “I’m not — you have to believe me.”
She looked down at the one she was holding, and shook her head. She lowered the point, and Jules began to breathe a sigh of relief.
Nixus moved quickly, and Jules felt a sharp, hot agony as a blade was driven in through her belly — his belly — and lifted up. She’s fucking strong–Jules managed to think, but then blood filled her mouth. She sagged against Nixus, who jerked the blade up, and up, pulling Jules onto her toes as the blade dug into ribs. She couldn’t scream. She couldn’t breathe.
“Goodbye, Brother. Say hello to that redheaded Westlander, when I send her to Death, after you,” Nixus purred. “Long. Live. Tenebrae.”
When the black came to swallow her, Jules had hoped for relief from the pain, but somehow, it simply seemed to become worse, rising to consume her, overwhelming her, filling her eyes and ears with white-hot agony and terror, drowning her.
* * *
The scream that cut through the camp woke nearly everyone. The inhuman howl that rose from Legatus Aecus’s tent ripped through the night, pulling even the soundest sleepers from their dreams.
Three that woke knew, without a doubt, who’d made the cry…
…one of them knew exactly why.
* * *
Kieron snapped awake, feeling a chill grip him, the sweat at the nape of his neck gone clammy. He sat up and looked around, panting, and found himself staring down the pistol of an Ilonan.
The soldier said, quietly but firmly, “You get down. Now.” He didn’t seem bothered by the scream.
“I can’t,” Kieron said, determined. “That woman. That scream. She’s sick. I need to get to her. You need to let me see her.”
“Down, Centralite. Down now, or I put you down,” the soldier growled.
“Please,” Kieron begged. “She has visions. You have to let me go to her.”
The shriek continued, as though independent of breathing or sanity, and as the wail carried on, the Ilonan looked more and more uncertain.
“Please.” Kieron’s expression was worried; he kept wringing his hands, looking lost. “You don’t understand how much it hurts. How terrifying it is. Please. Please let me go.”
* * *
Stunned, Aecus clapped a hand over Jules’s mouth, laying her to the ground. He straddled her and covered her lips, his eyes wide, panicked. He struggled with her, trying to quiet her screams and calm her flailing, but nothing would make it stop.
Outside his guards shouted, asking for reassurance.
“Call for a medic!” he shouted back. He stared at Jules helplessly — the pain she seemed to suffer was more than he could imagine. He thought of Westlanders as an unseen enemy — as a people who did not truly exist save beyond the Luminora. Monsters from children’s stories. But here was one, and it suffered. It suffered more than he could comprehend.
“Legatus!” one shouted back. “One of the prisoners claims to know what is wrong with her!”
Aecus watched Jules’s face begin to darken; he pulled back, to let her breathe, and quickly turned her to the side as he felt her body spasm and retch.
“Bring him to me!” Aecus tried not to let his voice show his desperation as blood ran from Jules’s mouth.
* * *
The cry carried down the line; Kieron was summoned, and found himself dragged into the tent. “No, I don’t need to– you just need to get her to the– stop pushing m–” He fell on his knees and scrambled to keep himself from landing face first in front of Aecus. He spat dirt and blood from his own teeth, sitting back on his heels, glancing at Jules. “Get her on a ship,” he wheezed. “Do you understand me? Get her on a ship. Immediately. An aether engine ship. Put her in the hold. Anything. The engines — it helps the visions. She–”
Aecus watched Kieron’s eyes begin to roll back, and he grabbed hold of the boy and gave him a rough shake, sharp enough that Kieron’s teeth clacked together, and his eyes refocused. “Is this a sickness, boy? Have you poisoned us?”
Soldiers leveled their guns and sabers toward Kieron, ready to end him in that instant.
“No–M’sorry,” Kieron slurred, lifting his empty hands up as if to show his harmlessness. “Can’t help it. Need a ship.” He gritted his teeth and took long, slow deep breaths, panting. A wave of nausea passed, and he looked to Aecus, blinking back stinging tears. “I don’t have time to explain well. We see things. Prophecy. She’s new at it, and it hurts, and the only thing I’ve ever seen make it calm down is being in a ship. We’re not in our ship, so this is what happens when you haven’t been seeing the visions for long. Her body isn’t used to it.”
“Prophecy.” Aecus repeated the word in Kieron’s own tongue, nodding. He stepped back and began shouting orders in Ilonan; he picked up Jules and marched out past his soldiers. She lay in his arms like a ragdoll, bloodied. “Come with me,” he said to Kieron as he passed. “There are ships. We will go.” To another soldier, he shouted, “If that boy falls, pick him up and carry him. Follow me. If this is a trick, we will kill them.”
Through the easing rain, the soldiers took Kieron and Jules, and when Kieron stumbled, he was simply lifted up, hauled away like a tired child. He relaxed when he saw Jules lift her head, looking around glassily.
As they approached the ship, a rider stopped them, calling out. Kieron tried to keep himself calm and still, willed the soldier holding him to walk closer to the ship. He didn’t know how close he had to be before the aether engine could soothe his aching head, but he hoped perhaps even being this much closer made a difference. Everyone shouting at one another sounded more and more like gibberish; he passed out, in the arms of the Ilonan soldier carrying him, hoping for unconsciousness, rather than slipping.
* * *
Jules closed her eyes again, dizzy, feeling her stomach roll. She tried to hold still, laid her head against the soldier carrying her, and waited. She wasn’t sure where they were going — or where she was, but she knew the vision itself was over. She was alive.
She wasn’t sure that was too wonderful, but she decided to wait, before doing anything rash.
“Summus Nixus,” Aecus said. “I need to get aboard the Tropaeum, we–”
“I have already spoken with the navarchus, Legatus. Your redheaded wormskin was the Quartermaster for the Maxima. The ship that burned the valley,” Nixus hissed. “She doesn’t deserve to go before the Prince. She should receive justice here. On the field.”
“We are not the monsters they think us,” Aecus said tiredly. “You may have the field, Summus, but I still have command of my own men. I do not wish to provoke further bloodshed by killing a soldier out of hand.”
“Do as you are ordered, Legatus,” Nixus hissed.
“You are not my commanding officer, Soror,” Aecus snapped, and promptly went around her. “I am within my rights to follow my own orders.”
“Summus!” Nixus snarled, infuriated with his naming of her. “Your impudence will be the death of your career.”
Aecus and his men walked away, without looking back, heading for the airships that had touched down southeast of the wreckage and carnage of the battlezone. His expression was grim as he held Jules in his arms, his jaw tight.
Jules lifted her head, saying, “She killed you. I saw it.”
“Prophecy or no, Commander,” Aecus said, laying the gentlest touch to her cheek, only once meeting her eyes, and even then, looking shaken, “Seruate.”
* * *