by Alicia McKenzie
"Are you ready?"
The question came from Apocalypse, standing outside the circle. Cable glanced at him and nodded, swiftly turning his attention back to the Dark Riders in the circle with him. His 'opponents' for the afternoon.
He stared fixedly at the one in front of him, reaching out with his still-shaky telepathy to touch the minds of the two behind him. All three of them were poised, ready to attack as soon as Apocalypse gave the word.
His mind raced feverishly, measuring distances, anticipating possible approaches. Apocalypse wanted to test the modifications to the T-O virus, and he hadn't seen any reason to resist the idea. But he felt uneasy, jittery--off-balance. Being here in this circle was--was--
"Then begin," Apocalypse said. Cable was already moving by the time the Dark Rider in front of him was taking his first step. He sidestepped the attack--easily, so easily, it was like the Dark Rider was moving in slow motion--and knocked the Rider's legs out from under him with a low, sweeping kick. The Rider fell, his head hitting the floor with a sharp crack, and Cable whirled to face the other two, dodging a flurry of blows without difficulty. They were so slow that he could see the tiny shifts in position that signaled the very beginning of each attack, and react accordingly.
Two against one. It could have been eight against one and he'd have managed, if they were all as slow as these two. Defensive moves, offensive moves--he wove them together, trying to find some coherence, to force his out-of-condition body back into the effortless patterns of the fighting style he'd spent so many years trying to perfect.
Still, he could have dropped them both in moments, but it was more important to test his limits, to see how far this new speed and strength could go. Even now, he could see the disadvantages. He was used to compensating for the lack of sensation in the T-O-affected areas of his body, but with the modifications to the virus, the pendulum had swung so far the other way, it wasn't funny. He found himself instinctively guarding that side, and forced himself to stop. Advertising a vulnerability was an invitation to someone to take advantage of it.
The fight continued, and he continued to draw the two Dark Riders out, using their moderate abilities to test his own. A thought flickered through his mind, a reflection on how easy it would be to hammer them both to the floor with a moment's telekinetic concentration, but he squashed the impulse mercilessly. No powers to be used in the fight itself, Apocalypse had said. Fair enough. He didn't mind. Faced with the opportunity, he was only beginning to realize how badly he wanted to hit someone. All the anger and hurt still seething beneath the mask he'd been trying to perfect during these last couple days of his 'recovery' was raging at the walls of its prison, screaming for an outlet.
Sensing the first Dark Rider struggle to his feet and approach from behind, Cable sent the two Riders in front of him staggering backwards and then half-turned, folding his left arm at the elbow and lashing outwards. The row of spikes running along the outside of his arm--part of the 'modifications'--ripped into flesh. Blood splattered outwards, and the Dark Rider fell, clutching a slashed throat.
The room seemed to spin around him for a moment as he froze, staring down at the dying Dark Rider. So easy--he hadn't even thought, he'd just reacted--
"Continue," Apocalypse rumbled, and instinct took over as he sensed/heard the other two rushing him from behind, freed from their momentary paralysis. Cable whipped around to face them. One of them, too eager, moved in too quickly, overreaching. Cable broke his arm, just as easily, just as--casually, and then dropped him with a solid kick to the midsection that left him crumpled on the ground, retching.
The last Rider hung back, more cautious now. Given a moment to think, rather than react, Cable realized how exhausted he already was, cold sweat standing out on his forehead, his legs trembling, threatening to buckle. The fight had lasted only minutes, and already he felt ready to drop.
The last Rider eyed his two fallen comrades for a moment, and then looked back at Cable. "Guess you're not such a disappointment after all," he sneered. "I wasn't expecting this to be much of a challenge--"
Too much of a talker. That was a weakness.
The Dark Rider feinted, grinning wildly as Cable overreacted, backing away sharply. "Getting tired? Don't tell me you're going to give up that easily--seems like an awful waste--"
Disappointment--waste-- The words echoed mockingly in Cable's mind, and he shook his head doggedly, trying to ignore the images that stirred, triggered by the Dark Rider's words. The room started spinning slowly, again, his field of view narrowing to the Dark Rider's face, a face twisted in mocking spite, spitting words he couldn't hear over the roaring in his ears.
Something struck him in the side, and pain stabbed through his chest.
Hot. So hot.
Sweat running into his eyes, pain every time he drew a breath--
Couldn't win--couldn't fight, couldn't even get up--
No, not like this, not like this--NO!
Desperately, blind panic flooding through him and washing away every trace of rational thought, he lashed out telekinetically, beating and pounding and striking at the one who had attacked him, the one who was standing over him, a black shadow against the sunlight--
Not a shadow.
Ruby-quartz visor opening to blast him, a furious firebird screaming curses down at him--faces full of hatred, contempt, indifference, turning away--
Panic and anguish mingled, then sparked into maddened, unthinking rage as the memories surged through his mind, overwhelming, inescapable--
Each memory was like a knife driven right into his brain, and he threw everything he had into the attack, frantically, almost hysterically.
His thoughts, incoherent, tumbled over each other. Don't want to remember--don't make me remember--STOP IT!
Something slammed into him, and he found himself sprawled on the floor. "Stay DOWN!" Apocalypse snapped, looming over him as he struggled to get up. Cable flinched, part of him wanting to shrink away, another part screaming at him to attack with everything he had.
Fortunately, the net result of the conflict was to paralyse him totally. Apocalypse studied him for a moment longer, and then gestured to his left. Cable, blinking, struggling to focus his eyes, looked in the direction Apocalypse indicated.
Something shivered deep inside him in instinctive self-revulsion. The entire circle was liberally splattered with blood and--pieces--
It was the third Dark Rider. There was just enough left of his skull to be recognizable. Cable shuddered as he realized that he was covered in blood and gore. Horror reverberated within him like a sustained chord.
Lost control--forgot where I was, thought it was THEM--
If it had only been them! he thought savagely, tears pouring invountarily down his face as he gasped for air.
"Anger is a valuable tool," Apocalypse said in a tight voice. "But only when you rule it, boy! If you let it control you, you are nothing but its slave. You did not even sense me approaching--you, a telepath! Were this a battlefield, you would be dead now!"
Cable sat up, still breathing hard, trying to ignore the pain in his side and the sick, feverish circles his thoughts were running in. Back to Scott and Jean and Blaquesmith and--and--
~Violet eyes, cold and hard, boring into him. "I don't know you. I wish I never had." Nine precise, icy words, and nothing more, not even a backwards glance as she turned and walked away from him forever~
Apocalypse growled, reaching down and hauling him to his feet. "What is it you want?" the External almost snarled. "You want them to fall on their knees and beg your forgiveness? You want to kill them?" He gestured contemptuously at the remains of the Dark Rider. "Which, Cable?"
Cable sagged back to his knees as soon as Apocalypse let go of him. He nearly toppled forward onto his face, only barely managing to catch himself. The stone of the floor beneath his hands, cold and smooth--he wanted to melt into it, for the earth to open and swallow him up.
The dark--he wanted the dark.
Somewhere where there wasn't any light, weren't any memories--
"You grieve for something that never existed," Apocalypse said in a quieter voice that was somehow no less intense. "You were ALWAYS a tool to them, a weapon. Something less than human--not worthy of being a part of them." For all their softness, the words were biting. "I should not need to tell you this. Your own memories reveal the truth. Would they have tossed you aside so callously, had you meant anything to them?"
Biting words, stabbing into still-open wounds.
"But you are more than them," Apocalypse continued inexorably. "You have ALWAYS been more than them--and yet you would destroy yourself mourning the death of an illusion? This is childhood's end, Cable. Let the truth drive you forward, but leave the rest behind!"
The External seemed about to say something else, but instead remained silent, for a long moment. "Think on what I have said," he finally said, and, turning, left.
Cable didn't move for a long time, fighting with the cascade of conflicting emotions.
Don't feel, he repeated to himself feverishly, over and over again. Don't feel, don't feel, don't feel--
His hands tightened slowly into fists, and he straightened, feeling that protective numbness lingering just out of reach. So close, so very close--
He started to laugh, and couldn't stop. Outside, the Dark Riders standing guard at the door, on Apocalypse's orders, both shuddered at the ghastly laughter coming from within the chamber.
After a while, the laughter changed to sobs, tearing, anguished sobs that were no less chilling. By then, the two Dark Riders were trying very hard to stop listening.
Scott stared dully out the kitchen window, not seeing, let alone acknowledging the beauty of the sunrise. It seemed hard to feel anything, lately. Probably a combination of the lack of sleep and--everything else.
"Poor baby," a soft, mocking voice came from the corner of the kitchen.
"Don't you ever sleep, Madelyne?" he asked numbly, not turning to look in her direction. He knew who it was. Jean's voice, but not Jean.
"Why would I need to sleep, Scott? I'm not corporeal, remember?" Madelyne said with a sigh, coming forward and sitting down elegantly in the chair opposite his. Blocking his view of the window. She seemed paler than usual--maybe it was the light. Her green eyes seemed to burn with a light of their own as she studied his face. "I should be enjoying this," she said softly. "Seeing you like this, I mean. By all rights I should be enjoying myself hugely."
There was no venom in her voice, no mockery. Just a weary amusement that was very unlike the acidic tone she'd taken to using when she spoke to him during the last two weeks.
"Should that make me feel good?" Scott asked, a dry note creeping into his voice despite himself. "That you aren't getting your kicks from all of this?"
Madelyne smiled faintly, a hint of the usual bitterness in the expression. "Let's get something straight, Scott. Normally, I'd rather kill you than sit here having a conversation with you--"
"Well, the new you is certainly more direct," Scott murmured, picking up his coffee and taking a sip. "The last time, you wanted to make me suffer."
"--but," Madelyne continued quietly, "I'm not going to indulge myself, while Nathan's still--" She trailed off, blinking suddenly and turning away, her fall of fiery hair obscuring her face. "I owe him," she murmured softly. "More than I like to admit."
"You--regret what happened," Scott said. Both of them knew very well that he wasn't referring to her late arrival at Akkaba, or anything about the current situation. Even though this wasn't the woman he'd married, the woman who had given birth to their son and then gone mad, trying to sacrifice Nathan to destroy the barrier between Earth and Limbo, the memories were still there, lying between them like a dark cloud, a vast gulf neither of them would ever be able to cross.
Madelyne raised her head, those glowing green eyes fixing on him for a long, long moment. "Atop the Empire State Building?" she asked, her mouth twisting bitterly. "That would be--the ONLY thing I regret from my last life, Scott. He was the only one who didn't deserve what I tried to give him." She rose, gracefully, still staring at him. "Once this is over," she said, almost in a whisper, "you might want to keep that in mind."
"Very interesting," Apocalypse murmured, staring down at the screens. Displayed was one portion of his latest global scan. He'd ordered them as soon as they'd arrived in Tibet, intending to use the X-Men's very familiar power signatures to keep track of them during this most critical period of Dayspring's 'reorientation', but this scan had turned up something very interesting.
There, in Westchester, was an enormously powerful bio-signature, identical to Cable's. "The boy," Apocalypse almost whispered, a strange smile growing on his face.
Depending on the circumstances, this could be very useful.
Glancing around, he saw Specter, Longrifle's second, hovering at the door, presumably waiting for orders. He gestured sharply, and the intangible mutant came over, saluting in the manner of the Dark Riders. Apocalypse studied him for a moment, possibilities running through his mind, and finally nodded.
"Take a small team," he ordered. "Select your members for stealth, from among the psi-resistant Riders. I wish you to get a record of the boy, Nate Grey, there with the X-Men." Specter half-bowed, but Apocalypse raised a hand. "I am not finished," he growled. "You are not to engage the enemy. The record only, Specter."
"Yes, sir," Specter said respectfully. "The boy, with the X-Men."
Apocalypse smiled coldly. "With the X-Men," he said, growing more attracted by the potential in the situation. This could be exactly what he needed; that last, telling blow he had been seeking. "If at all possible, Specter, ensure the record shows him--making himself at home."
Easier, perhaps, to make a false record. But the truth, shaped properly, always had so much more impact.
The air was bitterly cold and thin. Perfect for running, Cable thought as he struggled up the steep, treacherous mountain path, doggedly continuing despite the spots that danced in front of his eyes and the increasingly rubbery feel of his legs. He'd only been out here for two hours. One more, and he'd return to the base.
Things were clearer, out here. The cold was just numbing enough, and it was too hard to concentrate on anything except putting one foot in front of the other.
Running. Running away--
He tripped and fell, sliding ten feet or so before he caught himself. Out of breath, he laid there in the snow, getting colder and colder by the minute, the chill seeping into him steadily.
He wouldn't have had it any other way.
Turning over onto his back, Cable stared up at the pristine sky. Set against the snow-covered mountains, it was blue enough to hurt the eyes. Striking, he supposed. But he couldn't call it beautiful, not anymore. The part of him that would have marveled at this vista before him was dead, leaving only an echo behind to remind him what he'd lost.
So maudlin. A bitter smile twisted his lips. Mourning for more things that had never existed. Every flashback he had, every nightmare that jarred him from sleep--and there were far too many of those, lately--only seemed to illustrate that.
Happiness, friendship, loyalty--love. All of it, illusion. Worse than illusion--every bit of it, in his pathetic excuse for a life, had been arranged to deceive him. To make him feel wanted, needed.
It had been a week since the sparring session. Apocalypse had left him pretty much alone, to think. Given him the run not only of the base but of the area outside. Not pushing him. Not demanding anything.
Just letting him think. He was beginning to appreciate that. The 'space' didn't make it hurt any less, but he was finding his own kind of distance, he thought. Slowly, very slowly, but he could think of his--of the X-Men now, without flashing back to that confrontation with Scott and Jean.
Domino--he flinched at the thought of her--was more problematic. He closed his eyes, concentrating on breathing slowly and evenly. It wasn't Askani meditation--he'd never do that again, NEVER--but it would do.
He felt--empty. Hollow inside. As if, with the hurt and anger locked away deep down inside, he was only now realizing how much he'd lost.
Always, he'd had a purpose, SOMETHING to drive him. Now--
His mind tried to resolve the problem, but kept running into that emptiness, that--void. No matter which way he turned, it was staring him right in the face.
He was adrift.
He'd never done well, adrift.
Voids. Great gaps in his memory that Apocalypse said were due to Jean--to Phoenix's telepathic attack.
There is only so much I can repair, Cable.
Why did that sound so wrong, to hear Apocalypse call him Cable? Why was he so sure that he had called him something else--before?
Before. That word again. There was his life, 'before', and then there was now.
He felt like he'd walked off a cliff.
He COULD walk off a cliff, a distant part of his mind pointed out helpfully. Apocalypse, as far as he knew, didn't have anyone out here watching him.
It could all be over.
It would probably hurt like hell, but it would be over.
The thought sparked a flash of anger. Why the flonq should he even be considering that? Oath, THEY'D probably be perfectly content to find out that I'd thrown myself off the side of a mountain. 'Be a good boy, Nate, and tie up all the loose ends for us.'
To hell with it. He sat up, brushing snow from his clothes with growing fury. He was through being accomodating, letting his 'family' turn him into their personal crusader.
It wasn't a life. He'd just been deluding himself into thinking it was.
So where did he go from here?
He got up, slowly, staring across at the base almost blindly. Your eyes have been opened, now SEE! Apocalypse's words echoed in his mind.
Cable swallowed hard, bitter resentment churning inside him. Someone else's vision--oh, that was exactly what he needed, right? he asked himself sardonically.
Apocalypse spoke so disgustedly of 'idealists'. So what was his 'way'? What did he believe in, really? Cable could hardly trust what the Askani had taught him, after all this.
It would be--something. Something to focus on, rather than slowly sinking into the morass of his own pain.
It wasn't hope that he felt, as he started back down the path, heading back towards the base. Not hope, when the thing wished-for was the dark and vengeful product of the long, lost days since he'd regained consciousness in a new and bleaker world.
Not hope. But something.
"So ye have nae gotten your telepathy back, either?" Theresa asked as Nate Grey lowered himself telekinetically to the ground in front of her, landing neatly.
"Nothing," he said. "Xavier tells me that he's surprised mine didn't fire back up when Cable--" He bit back what he'd been about to say, seeing the sorrow in her eyes. "I--I'm sorry, Theresa," he said awkwardly. He had found himself relating to her much as he had to her counterpart on his world, too often forgetting the differences, the subtle alterations in her and her relationships here.
"Nae," she said softly, half-turning away. "It's all right." He fell in beside her as they started back over the lawn towards where the rest of X-Force was 'getting some air'--the polite euphemism Storm had used when she'd ordered them outside and out from underfoot. Domino and the other telepaths were trying something new, today, and apparently they needed plenty of space and relative quiet in the immediate psychic atmosphere. Maddie had promised to let him know if they made any progress at all, as soon as it happened.
He still wasn't sure how she'd managed to talk him into staying for this long at the mansion. He didn't like the place--after all, he'd spent most of his time in this world staying AWAY from the X-Men. Especially Xavier. The man still gave him the creeps--
He was a lot more comfortable with X-Force, but his comfort wasn't the issue here. He might not be any good in the search, not with his telepathy gone, but when they found out where Cable was, he damned well wanted to be in on it.
It shouldn't have been him. Nate's jaw clenched involuntarily, and Siryn shot him a quick look, reading him as accurately as if SHE had been a telepath herself.
"Ye have got to stop blaming yourself," she said quietly, reaching out and taking his arm. "Though I doubt ye'll believe me any more than Domino or Cyclops or Jean do--"
"It shouldn't have been him, Theresa," Nate muttered miserably. "I'M the one with all the power. If one of us was going to fight Apocalypse--" He stopped as James Proudstar got out of his chair and wandered, seemingly casual, over to them.
"There's someone in the woods," he said, very quietly, as he slung an arm around Terry's shoulder. "Watching us. No, damn it, Grey, don't look--"
"Ye saw them?" Terry asked very softly.
"Been watching them out of the corner of my eye for the last fifteen minutes. The sun's glinting off something--that's what caught my attention."
Nate caught some movement in his peripheral vision. They were trying to be unobstrusive, whoever they were. That didn't imply good things.
"And yet the perimeter alarms are nae going off?" Theresa asked quietly.
"They can be gotten around," Proudstar pointed out. "And with the telepaths all focusing their attention elsewhere--"
This was all a little too subtle for Nate. What were they doing, waiting for the intruders to make the first move? This was ridiculous! "I'll see who it is," he growled, pulling his arm free of Terry's and levitating himself into the air, rocketing telekinetically towards the spot in the woods where he'd seen movement He heard a startled yell from behind him, and then the sound of Siryn's sonic scream.
Before he was even reached the treeline, though, an energy blast of some sort hit him head on. His shields deflected most of the impact, but what remained was enough to throw him to the ground. Pushing himself up, his head spinning, he caught a glimpse of dark-clad figures running back into the woods. Some kind of glowing circle--a teleportational portal?
"Oh, no, ya DON'T!" a Southern-accented voice snarled, and Sam Guthrie hurtled past him, snatching one of the intruders right off the ground, seconds before he could step through the portal after his comrades. Nate pulled himself to his feet, seeing Guthrie flying back with his struggling prisoner.
"Nice catch!" he shouted.
Guthrie nodded and then dropped the man right in front of Proudstar, who reached down, hauled the dazed intruder to his feet and then punched him in the jaw. The man sagged in his grasp, and Proudstar regarded him curiously.
Guthrie landed beside them. "--some kind of weird-lookin' VIDEO camera," Cannonball was saying incredulously as Nate made his careful way over to join them. He glanced at Nate, as if to make sure he was all right, and then turned back to Proudstar. "That's what it looked like t'me, at least. None of them looked armed, but one of them did fire off some kind o'energy blast at me, too--"
"Mutants, then?" Proudstar muttered, shaking the unconscious man almost experimentally. "But why the hell would they just be watching us--filming us?"
Siryn landed beside them, and immediately took a close look at the man hanging from Proudstar's grasp. "Let's get him inside," she said, sounding a little out of breath. "I think that Jean and the others will probably be interested in talking to him, nae?"
Nate reached out, grabbing the man's chin and lifting his head. The tattoos on his face--they were identical to the ones he'd seen on Exodus. Feeling sick, he let the man's head drop again.
"He's Apocalypse's," he growled
"Let's put it this way," Jean said sweetly, staring into their prisoner's face. "Either you talk, or I burn out every synapse in your brain to get the information we need."
"And I help," Madelyne said, just as sweetly.
Logan closed his eyes for a moment. "Haven't the two of you ever heard of 'bad cop, good cop'?" he sighed, checking the prisoner's inhibitor collar. They weren't sure he was a mutant--they didn't know WHO the hell he was, even if Grey and Blaquesmith were fairly sure he was a servant of Apocalypse--but it didn't pay to take unneccessary chances.
"What were you doing?" Scott asked coldly, standing a little further back than the two women. Xavier was sitting over in his hoverchair, near the door, and Domino was standing in the corner, her violet eyes sharp and wary.
"According to one of the children," Blaquesmith said in his reedy voice, standing behind the prisoner's chair, "one of your compatriots had a recording device. What was so fascinating about X-Force and the boy Grey that you needed to get a record of it?"
The man shrugged. He was slight, harmless-looking, but Logan knew better than to take that at face-value. "Why, I don't know what you mean," the man said innocently.
Madelyne hit him. The man coughed, spitting blood. "Not to worry, my dear," he said generously to her. "I like it rough--"
"Shut your filthy mouth," Madelyne growled.
"Child," Blaquesmith said repressively, and then focused on the prisoner once more. Madelyne glared at him, but he ignored her. "You have Apocalypse's mark on you," he said to the prisoner. "Who are you?"
The prisoner seemed to consider for a moment longer, a tiny smile playing on his lips as if he found something terribly amusing. Then, he shrugged, as if all of this was of no consequence. "I suppose I might as well tell you," he said, still mockingly. "Since the ladies intend to use their feminine wiles to drag it out of me if I don't--"
"Less bluster, more talk," Jean said in a quiet, deadly voice, leaning over until she was almost nose to nose with him. He blinked, and then smiled broadly.
"You ladies really do have this down to an art form, don't you--URGH!" He stiffened, unable to double over in the restraints but looking like he'd like to do so.
Jean, who hadn't laid a finger on him physically, straightened, tossing a challenging look back over her shoulder at Charles. "What?" she snapped. "You have some sort of problem?" She was positively bristling.
"This isn't particularly productive," Charles said quietly, his hoverchair drifting forward. He met the prisoner's eyes, and the man seemed suddenly trapped, as if he couldn't look away. "Who are you?" he asked, echoing Blaquesmith's question.
"Silas," the man said easily, although there was sweat standing out on his forehead. "And the kid was right above who I serve." He waggled his eyebrows. "Damned tattoos. Give it away every time."
Scott lunged forward. "Where's my son?" he snarled, grabbing Silas by the throat. Logan stepped forward, intending to intervene, but hesitated. Scott was still under control--marginally. "What have you done with him?"
"Scott," Xavier said, almost gently. "Put him down." Scott didn't obey, and a hint of iron entered Xavier's voice. "Now, Scott."
Scott's head whipped around and he regarded Xavier for a moment, as if trying to figure out whether or not he was serious. Then, with a curse that made even Logan raise an eyebrow, he let Silas go and took a step back.
The man--or Dark Rider, whoever he was, coughed and grinned at Scott. "Well," he said hoarsely, "I can give you a real detailed answer to your second question, if you like. Sorry that I won't be able to do as much for your first--"
"You son of a--"
"I see where he gets that temper," Silas said with that same wide, reckless grin. "He turned one of my fellow Dark Riders into chunky salsa, the last time he lost it. I gather Lord Apocalypse had sort of mixed feelings on the subject. The High Lord doesn't like to see his servants lose control like that, but it was SUCH a kill, he couldn't HELP but be impressed--"
Scott turned white, while Madelyne and Jean both flushed. Xavier was watching Silas almost curiously, and Blaquesmith was blinking rapidly, as if trying to process the information and not quite managing it. Logan, personally, couldn't figure out why the bastard was being so chatty.
"Having a hard time adjusting, the poor guy," Silas said with mock sympathy. "Of course, if I had MY memories rewritten to think that everyone I ever cared about turned on me--"
"You--" Scott's hands clenched into fists at his sides, and Logan suddenly had an image of an optic blast smashing the Dark Rider's skull into pulp. He stepped forward, grabbing Scott's arm.
"Settle down, Slim, he's just trying to score points--"
"Is that what you think?" Silas asked, sounding surprised. "Oh, dear. I appear to have no credibility here. Maybe I need to use some examples--I was, after all, privileged enough to see Lord Apocalypse creating the new memories he uploaded. There was this really--memorable one of--would it have been you, Summers?--smacking Cable around when he was a kid. Really wrenching stuff. This poor little kid, begging his father to stop and telling him he's sorry--enough to break your heart, I tell you--"
This time, Logan stepped between them, pushing Scott back physically. "Would you settle down before I have to deck you or something?" he snarled, but a little more gently than he might have. He could smell the anguish, it was coming off Scott in waves.
"Of course," Silas continued placidly, "all those long-term ones had to be RELATIVELY subtle. I mean, for sheer shock value, you have to look at how my Lord set up the whole suicide mission thing."
"The what?" Madelyne blazed.
Silas smiled at her almost cheerfully. "The suicide misson. From what I saw, it sort of goes like this. Cable made the wrong choice, saving New York, and you all decided he was worth less than scum. Bug-Eyes over there used him as a punching bag, screaming at him about a failure he was. You blew him into a wall, Summers, and Redhead #1 over there ripped his mind to shreds. 'Course, the poor man was understandably distraught, and went running off to die in a blaze of glory--"
"By the Bright Lady," Blaquesmith whispered, his insectoid face gone a strange yellowish-gray. "The prophecy--the very choice Nathan has questioned since he made it."
"You've got to love it, don't you?" Silas chuckled. "And so, according to the scenario, your boy came looking to die honorably--and my Lord spared his life. Let's just say he's on a sort of--vision quest, now. And where he ends up--" Silas leaned forward in his restraints, grinning still. "Where he ends up, folks, you are NOT gonna like--" The Dark Rider stiffened, and then went limp, blood pouring abruptly from his nose.
All four telepaths gasped. Blaquesmith was the first to move, laying a hand on Silas's forehead. "Oath!" he spat. "His mind has self-destructed--some sort of defensive mechanism."
"Could Apocalypse have anticipated his capture?" Xavier asked, frowning. "I do not understand why he would have given us so much information--"
"Because it does not matter," Blaquesmith almost whispered, bug-eyes narrowing to slits. "Because the damage has already been done."
"Just like the recording," Madelyne whispered, ashen. "Throwing it in our faces--"
Scott swore again, and turned away, his whole body trembling with suppressed emotion. Jean, the anger gone from her face, went over and laid a hand on his shoulder.
When Scott spoke, his voice was hollow. "I keep--I keep trying to tell myself that we haven't lost him yet. But every day that goes by, and then this--"
"We must believe that there is a part of him Apocalypse has been unable to reach," Blaquesmith said in a soft, pained voice. "The part of him that survived Stryfe's atrocities and the death of the rebellion--he has suffered and lost before, more than any of you realize. Apocalypse may have broken his mind, and his body--but there is a strength there that is deep enough to sustain him, even now."
"You hope," Domino whispered. It was the first thing she'd said since they'd brought Silas in. Looking at her, really looking at her for the first time, Logan saw the tracks of tears on her face.
Blaquesmith gave her a faint, terribly sad smile. "Were you not always getting annoyed with him for telling you to have faith?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, a tremor crossing her features. "Faith," she whispered hoarsely. "I suppose if anything should ever be classed as a foxhole, this is it." She opened her eyes, staring at Blaquesmith with a painful, direct intensity. "I'm no atheist to begin with, and I'm not going to give up on him," she said in a stronger voice. "But I'm afraid--" More tears trickled down her cheeks. "I'm afraid that he'll give up on himself."
"You wanted to see me?" Cable asked quietly as he walked into the massive control room where Apocalypse seemed to spend most of his time. The summons had come of something of a surprise, and he found himself curious, almost despite himself.
The External barely spared him a glance. "Yes," he said casually. "I have come across something you should see."
He called up the holographic display. "I have made something of a practice of watching the X-Men," Apocalypse said. "Especially considering recent events. I was not, admittedly, expecting to see anything like this."
The holographic field was showing a view of the mansion's backyard, Cable realized with a shock. "What--is this?" he asked uneasily. There were figures in the hologram, several--
X-Force. He swayed, voices echoing in his mind.
--no, I think we're done with
you, old man.
Yeah. Not like we need him anymore.
C'mon, guys. I for one am sick of this--hell, he's always enjoyed his own company more than ours. Right, Cable?
See you, big guy. Have a nice life.
They'd walked away from him. After Zero Tolerance, when all he'd wanted to do was try and protect them, they'd laughed in his face and left.
Don't feel bad. You were an okay teacher. But you didn't really expect us to get attached to you, did you? I mean, what is there to get attached to?
Nothing. Nothing. Just a mission, and a past covered in blood, and nothing of his own, not even a soul that was his own--
Stricken, he continued to watch the hologram. He was reeling so badly internally that he didn't notice, at first, that the figure in the sky with Roberto, the one that landed beside Siryn, wasn't a member of X-Force.
Not one of the kids. But familiar--the hologram zoomed in, focused on the face of the stranger, and something inside Cable froze, paralysed at the sight of a younger, scarless version of his own face staring back at him.
"It would seem," Apocalypse said quietly, "that they have replaced you already."
The words hung there for a moment. Then, something within Cable finally and irrevocably snapped.
The scream that erupted from him was telepathic and vocal both, deafening in its volume and overwhelming in its sheer psychic force.
The holographic unit exploded.
"My Lord!" Longrifle shouted, panicking, but Apocalypse raised a hand to prevent the Dark Rider leader from interfering.
"Stay where you are," he said very quietly, and watched Cable stagger around, as if he was having trouble keeping to his feet, The telepath was clutching his skull, weeping openly, ragged sobs shaking his broad shoulders. "Cable," he said, almost gently. "Listen to me--"
An incoherent stream of profanity burst from Cable, and he lurched, almost falling. Another piece of equipment, this one the long-range communications transmitter, exploded with the same sudden violence, torn apart from within telekinetically.
"Destroying the equipment will not change what you saw," Apocalypse murmured. "It will not change the truth."
"The TRUTH?" It was a raw scream, as if the words had ripped themselves from Cable's throat.
The windows blew out.
Apocalypse closed his eyes for a moment, silently searching for patience. Intervening physically would not only be counterproductive, but very likely undo all of his delicate work so far.
He opened his eyes, and saw Cable on his knees in the middle of the floor, still crying, the air around him crackling with energy.
"Stab their eyes--" he gasped out. "Damn them all to hell--they're doing it AGAIN--"
"Did you expect any less?" Apocalypse pressed gently. "You were a 'mistake', to them, but you are now out of sight and out of mind." He leaned down and murmured an order to Longrifle, who dashed from the room at top speed.
"He's a boy--a BOY--first they wanted to kill him, and now they're using him--JUST LIKE THEY USED ME!"
The satellite uplink blew up. Apocalypse took a deep breath, wondering where this impulse to punctuate every statement with an explosion had come from.
"Exactly as they used you," he said instead, levelly. "There is no difference here, Cable, none at all. They have had no one to show them the error of their ways."
Cable's head shot up, tear-filled eyes blazing with wrath and agony fixing on him. "I want--" The words wrenched themselves out from behind gritted teeth, and his head sank back down, his whole body shaking. "How could they do this, how--"
Apocalypse took a careful step forward. Just one. "Part of you has not been willing to believe me," he said carefully. "Part of you has clung to your illusions, even though your own experience has shown you the truth behind them. Now there is nothing to hide behind. No shred of comfort left in the lie."
There was the sound of running footsteps in the hall outside. Longrifle, out of breath, charged in, carrying what Apocalypse had sent him for.
Apocalypse took it from him, offering it to Cable. "Take it," he urged. "Take it and do to this last symbol what they have done to you. You no longer need it. It, like everything you have been taught to believe, is a crutch. Discard it. Throw it away, and be free!"
Breathing as if he had just run a footrace, Cable looked up at him, searching his face as if he expected there to be answers written there.
Then, he took the psimitar, his hands clenching around it. He was still shuddering violently, tears pouring down his face. "I can't--I can't not FEEL this," he forced out, his voice breaking.
"As it should be," Apocalypse said insistently. "For it is NOT behind you. Lessons should not be forgotten. Sins should not be forgiven." He leaned closer. "Break it," he hissed. "Break free of all it symbolizes!"
Cable's breathing was coming in short, labored gasps now. Never looking away from Apocalypse's gaze, he tightened his grip on the psimitar.
Cable's whole body spasmed--
--and the psimitar snapped in two.
The pieces clattered on the floor, dropping from suddenly strengthless hands, and Cable crumpled into a shivering, semi-conscious heap, muttering anguishedly in that strange lilting language.
Apocalypse knelt down beside him, ignoring the stream of unintelligible words. "Leaving childhood behind is always painful," he said levelly. "But one rarely regrets their first steps into a new world."
Cable stared up at him, face flushed and feverish, eyes blank and too bright. He murmured something in that odd language, and then closed his eyes. "I want to believe you," he whispered in English, in a voice that combined exhaustion and vulnerability in equal measure. "But--"
"You will," Apocalypse murmured. "There are other dreams, Cable. Other visions." He stood, standing over Cable for a moment. "When you are ready," he continued quietly, "join me in the central chamber. There is much to show you."
He withdrew, gesturing Longrifle to precede him. At the door, he stopped, glancing back over his shoulder at the huddled figure in the center of the devastated room.
The trial was over. Cable had been broken and forged again. The tempering was complete.
The Askani'son had rejected his mantle, and been reborn. Like any child, his newborn paladin's first steps would be uncertain, full of doubt.
But it was a beginning.
Welcome to the new world, Nathan.
It would be glorious indeed.
He turned and left Cable alone in
the end...for now
To be continued in 'Crusade'...coming soon!
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