Crusade: Part 4
by Alicia McKenzie
"His injuries are minor, but his neural activity is wildly erratic, my lord," the healer reported in a monotone. "I'm still reading spikes of psionic energy as well. . .putting him through another neural repatterning might destroy his mind entirely."
"Immaterial," Apocalypse rumbled angrily, walking over and looking down at Cable, lying restrained on the slab. He was heavily sedated, breathing shallowly, but Apocalypse could almost sense that same insistent tugging at his mind that had so disturbed him on the battlefield.
It was not possible. No telepath could access his mind. . .
. . .then again, if any could, it would be the one lying unconscious before him. Had he miscalculated, stabilizing the T-O virus to such an extent? Ridiculous. Apocalypse scowled. Even had he misjudged the situation, he had allowed for ample safeguards to ensure Cable would never escape his control.
He glared at the healer, who was so intent on his patient that he hadn't so much as glanced up during his brief report. "I intend to carry out the procedure. You will compensate for whatever neural damage results."
The healer stopped his ministrations cold, staring fixedly at the floor. "I can't be certain that's possible, my lord. Considering the level of psychic damage he's suffered. . . if you attempt to run the neural repatterning program again, his mind may fragment entirely. You'd be better off mindwiping him and starting from scratch."
"It is odd, healer. You sound very much like you are questioning my orders."
"No, my lord, I. . ."
"A mindwipe is not an acceptable option. It is not the shell I want," Apocalypse said bluntly. Although the sort of instability Cable's mad rush into battle had demonstrated was beginning to balance out the value of the personality traits he wanted to preserve, to his thinking. . .still, a curious choice. Repeat the procedure, refrain. . .either way, Cable would be either his, or dead for all intents and purposes. "I will not let his foolishness or any incompetence on your part jeopardize my plans," Apocalypse continued harshly. "I will carry out the procedure. YOU will devise some way to minimize the risks, since you seem so very concerned."
"My lord. . ."
"You have objections?" Apocalypse asked, almost ironically, toying with the idea of punishment but discarding it almost immediately. As vexing as the situation was, it was almost refreshing to see evidence of original thought in a servant he'd begun to mentally equate with a piece of medical equipment.
"No, my lord," the healer murmured, moving woodenly about his duties and not meeting Apocalypse's eyes.
"Good," Apocalypse growled, glancing down at Cable again, thinking. Even if the procedure was successful, the same problems would still apply. Perhaps Cable's mental state had been inevitable, given the nature of the altered memories, but he had permitted the boy to wallow in emotionalism for too long already. This sort of recklessness could not be tolerated. It had been nearly disastrous today, and the final cost had not yet been reckoned. . .
Perhaps it was time for a change of tactics.
It would be so easy to let go. Everything that was her, all she felt and thought and remembered, was spread across the astral plane, as if she were a smear of color, gradually being washed away by the rough waves. The sensations weren't new; she'd been discorporated before, just as violently, but she'd never get used to how this felt. No matter how many times it happened, it was almost enough to make her give up and slide into oblivion. . .
But she fought it, pulling herself back together bit by painful bit. It wasn't time to let go, not yet. Maybe not ever, but certainly not until this was over, and Nathan was back where he belonged.
Madelyne bit back a scream as she fell to her knees in the snow. The pain was certainly real enough, even if her body wasn't. Her hands tried to clench into fists, gloved fingers digging into the earth like claws. Concentrate. . .have to concentrate! Her astral form wasn't stable yet. She could feel it flickering, wavering. . .
Smooth golden power reached out and stabilized her effortlessly. Madelyne forced herself to take several deep, if rather unneccessary breaths. Still trembling, she looked up at the offered hand, and, after a moment, took it.
Stryfe pulled her to her feet without visible effort. "Well," he said caustically, looking around. "It appears we missed all the fun."
Blinking to clear her vision, Madelyne sized up their surroundings. There was an enormous amount of residual psionic energy here, lingering over the broken ground like fog. "We can't have missed it by much," she said, trying to ignore the hollow ache of despair that gnawed away at her. "All of this would have faded, if too much time had gone by. . ." Something had happened here, clearly - something serious - and she hadn't been here! The energy was golden, easily recognizable simply by that alone, but there was a distinct difference in hue, a paler, almost white-gold mixing with the more vivid, sunlight-like energy. Nathan and Nate both? But why the difference, what could have caused THAT. . .
She looked up at Stryfe, half-suspiciously, half-defensively, after he'd been silent for a little longer than she liked. "What?" she demanded, surprised to see the strangeness of the expression on those so-familiar features. He looked almost. . .#What IS it?#
Stryfe's eyes flickered away from her and upwards, as if he was searching for something. "He's gone," he finally said, his voice flat as his gaze returned to her. Shock turned her immobile for a moment, but he shook his head swiftly. "Not Cable. The boy. I can feel the. . .absence where he should be. We are. . .were linked together, all three of us."
Madelyne stared at him for a long, long moment. His eyes shifted away from hers again, almost uneasily.
He didn't just say that. He couldn't have. Nate couldn't. . .no. She reached out instinctively, along the connection that had linked her and Nate since this new life of hers had started. . .
And found nothing. The anguished wail broke free and was echoing in the thin air before Madelyne had even registered the fact that it had come from her. Stryfe reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her ungently.
#Stop it!# his voice snapped in her mind, and she took a deep, shuddering breath, fighting for composure. #This won't help. He's dead, so deal with it! Knowing what Nathan knew about the little brat, I wouldn't be surprised if he did something stupid and got himself killed. . .#
Nate. . .oh, Nate. . . He was gone. Gone, and she hadn't felt him go, hadn't been here to help him. She should have been more careful, anticipated Nathan's first attack! "What HAPPENED?" she choked, forcing the words out as she looked back up at Stryfe.
"What do I look like, a psychometric?" Stryfe snarled. "I was in the same shape you were, remember? That was quite the little trick Nathan pulled with the astral plane. . .I wouldn't have guessed he had it in him."
Trick. That was one way to put it. Madelyne closed her eyes, telling herself she was not going to cry. She didn't have a physical body. Tears would be an affectation. She'd grieve later, in her own way, but now wasn't the time, and she wasn't going to let herself indulge. Especially not in front of HIM.
Swallowing again, she looked around once more. "The X-Men?"
"Running away with their tails between their legs," Stryfe said harshly. For a moment, she almost envied his bitter assurance. "I should have known better and done this myself. They're at least an hour's flight away by now, and Nathan ISN'T with them." He glanced over her shoulder, his mouth twisting. "In the citadel. I can feel him."
"He's alive?" He had to be. She couldn't bear it if both of them. . .there wouldn't be anything left. . .
"Oh, stop being so maudlin. Of course he's alive," Stryfe said irritably. "Didn't I just say so?" She looked up at him mutely, and his grimace turned into an ugly snarl. "I'm sorry, I seem to be out of comforting platitudes, Madelyne. You don't seriously expect me to pat you on the back and tell you everything's going to be all right, do you? Firstly, it isn't. Secondly, I'd rather tattoo a phoenix on my forehead and run around spouting nonsensical pseudo-philosophy than pander to your repulsively inappropriate maternal feelings, you stupid cow!"
Madelyne's hands clenched into fists at her sides, and it took an act of sheer will not to lash out at him. "I would watch what you say," she hissed finally. "If the two of us were in our original bodies, the arrogant superiority MIGHT be warranted. As it is, you're not used to living in this form yet, while I have had a great deal of experience with its limitations and weaknesses. I'd be VERY careful about how you push me, Stryfe." She didn't so much as raise her voice, and all he did for a moment was stare at her. Then, without warning, he burst into laughter, and it was her turn to stare. Incredulously, in this case. "What the hell is so funny, you lunatic?"
"You. . .you terrible fierce woman, you," he almost snickered, getting himself under control. "Has anyone ever told you how attractive you are when you're angry? Or maybe I just prefer my women that way. Defiant, I mean."
If she'd had blood, it would have run cold at that point. "Are you completely insane?" she asked in a soft snarl. The smirk was bad enough. When that was coupled with the fact she'd never been able to read him. . .
"More or less." Stryfe's tone was brusque again, and he stepped around her, peering in the direction of the citadel. "We might still have a chance. The psychic atmosphere's in turmoil, and most of it feels like my so-beloved template's doing. The X-Men might have called a retreat, but that doesn't mean we're obliged to do the same." His expression was almost thoughtful. "I did find him in there, the last time. Perhaps if we went in together. . ."
"Into his mind?" Madelyne asked a little shrilly.
"What, you have a better idea?"
"There has to be a better way!" she snapped, trembling at the idea of willingly entering Nathan's mind. His ground, his rules. . .and after what he'd done to the astral plane, that would be the next thing to suicide for beings such as her and Stryfe.
Maybe he didn't understand that, but she did. And as much as she wanted to help Nathan, as badly as she yearned to get him away from Apocalypse, she wouldn't be of any use to him if she was dead.
"You want to wait?" Stryfe snarled sarcastically. "Until Apocalypse crushes out whatever's left of him and turns him into something worse than me?"
He was walking through the rooms in his head. Room after room after room, nothing but white walls and white floors and white ceilings, doors that slammed shut behind him and vanished into the whiteness.
The white had been snow, at some point. He vaguely remembered that. The snow. The cold. It was still cold. So cold. . .not just cold, but the absence of anything that had ever resembled warmth.
The white was cold, and empty, and even as he started to run from it, through the door in front of him, and the one after that, and the one after that, door after door in an endless series, part of him wanted to stop. To turn around, and fling himself into its embrace.
Only fair. . .only right.
Maybe it would burn, then. At the very least, it might burn. He'd welcome the fire, sell whatever was left of his soul for the tiniest spark. . .
But he kept running. Why? The question kept repeating in his mind, an endless loop with no answer, finding no vestige of hope lurking in the void. He could never run far enough, or fast enough, to escape.
Couldn't. . .shouldn't. . .didn't deserve. . .wanted SO badly to escape. . .
The walls shimmered and moved like water, flowing towards him. All that was left, all that was solid, were the doors, and no matter how fast he ran through them, he could hear the blank, empty whiteness chasing him. Its cold breath on the back of his neck, its soft whisper in his mind.
Yes, it said, and again, and again and again until it was a long, sibilant hiss, like a snake's voice.
Yes. . .yes. . .
Mocking him. How did he know that? He could still hear his own voice, screaming in denial, but it was getting more distant, fainter, fading to an echo. . .
And then nothing.
There were no more doors. He was alone, in the cold, in the emptiness.
In the white.
He fell to his knees and screamed soundlessly, trying to close his eyes, to block out the sight of the nothingness around him.
But all he saw, all he felt, was white.
Longrifle wasn't generally a squeamish man. The job description sort of made that impossible, more or less, and he certainly didn't want to fail to meet his master's expectations in even the slightest specification. Apocalypse's. . .disappointment could be a terrible thing. He'd seen it before, more times than he could count, working up the ranks of the Dark Riders, and he didn't intend to fall victim to it. Far less painful ways to go, if one had to go.
So he stood there and watched the healer making the final preparations for yet another repatterning procedure, trying vainly to ignore the little quaver of nausea as he glanced at the techno-organic pod sitting there, open and waiting. It wasn't that he was feeling particularly sorry for Dayspring. Frankly, if he hadn't known what the punishment would have been for a preemptive strike, he would have tried to kill the lunatic in his sleep weeks ago. He wasn't all that fond of the rest of the Dark Riders, but they were his to lead, dammit, and he wasn't stupid, he could see what Apocalypse was trying to do. . .
But the idea of having your mind rewritten like that, any semblance of choice taken away. . .and it was, no denying that. Dayspring might have been under the impression that he was choosing to stay, choosing to listen to Apocalypse, but that was bullshit, and the rest of them knew that. It left him with a bad taste in his mouth, for some reason. He would have killed Dayspring at the beginning, if the choice had been his to make, but he would have done it cleanly, ended it quick. You owed even an enemy that much.
Longrifle just hoped it never occurred to Apocalypse to use this procedure on the Riders. That would be the day he found an excuse to slip away and stay lost. . .
He watched the healer turn away from his screen and back to Dayspring, who was still completely out of it, not even twitching in his restraints. Glancing over at Apocalypse, who was bent over the console beside the pod, muttering to himself, Longrifle grimaced faintly and strode over to the healer.
"He going to live through this?" he asked quietly, not sure why he was asking.
The healer looked up at him, a little quizzically, and then leaned over and injected Dayspring with something. "Hopefully. At least from my standpoint. . .I'll be the one paying for it if he doesn't, you know."
Hopefully? Not the word he would have chosen, looking at it from ANY standpoint. Longrifle scowled. "What are you giving him?" he asked restlessly, more to make conversation than get a straight answer. He wondered suddenly how the healer felt about all of this.
"A hallucinogen to go with the sedative. Just something I thought I'd try. The less he fights this, the more chance he has of coming out with a little of his mind left at the end," the healer muttered, eyes narrowing slightly as he looked back up at Longrifle. "Why would you care?" the thin, pallid man asked a little suspiciously. "He's been killing your Riders left and right, lately. . ."
"I don't," Longrifle said sharply. "Just curious."
"Whatever. Back off, would you? I'm nervous enough without you breathing down my neck."
Wonderful, now the healer was getting sharp with him? Next thing he knew, the furniture would be talking back. Maybe thundering at him about 'planned obsolence', or something. Longrifle retreated to his position by the door, fuming more than a little. He was being written off, and he knew it. Apocalypse was just WAITING for Dayspring to make an object lesson out of him.
He couldn't hold a grudge. One didn't expect loyalty from one's employer when one's employer was En Sabah Nur. And to blame Dayspring for any of this was pointless. The man didn't even know who he was anymore. . .
Longrifle set his face in a blank expression as Apocalypse straightened, scanning the room impassively. No point in letting on that he knew, although he wouldn't rule out the possibility that Apocalypse knew he knew, of course. If there was a way out of this, it wasn't an obvious one. He knew damned well he couldn't take Cable one on one. He never could have, and it'd be suicide to try, these days.
Maybe the poor son of a bitch would die on the table and save them all the trouble. He could hope, couldn't he?
Whispers. Children whispering in his mind, again, why was this so familiar? Ghosts. . .why were ghosts always talking to him? He could almost remember the words, remember watching children dance as they chanted it, someplace where there had been color, and warmth, not just this endless white emptiness. Children dancing in the sunlight. . .it was too pleasant an image to last, and he reached out for it vainly as it fluttered away into the void.
The whispering began again.
Draw your sword and kill a dream. . . Almost warmth, as something fluttered in the blankness, drawing a piece of nothingness around him like a blanket, almost tenderly. He stared at the disturbance, trying to make out a face. Only an outline, a hint of a smile.
Truth is never what it seems. . . Again, from the other side, drawing gauzy whiteness around him. A barely-felt caress, like a hand gliding down the side of his face.
Trust your heart and hold love dear. . .
It spun around him, wrapping him more tightly, and the vague disturbance pulled him closer. Two shining points of amethyst light were there, at the level of his eyes, points of light that became eyes, and she was floating there in front of him, hair black and rich against the whiteness of her robes. Like an angel, if he believed in such things. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of red hair, a familiar soft laugh, and on the other side, a whisper of his name in a soft alto he'd last heard choked with pain as she died in his arms drifted to his ears.
His own personal trinity. For a moment he felt safe, balanced between them. They wouldn't let him fall. He trusted that, trusted them. . .
But they were still silent. Waiting, watching, almost predatory in their very stillness. . .
Suddenly uneasy, he tried to speak, to call out to them. . .
Or drown at night inside your fear.
Then they were circling him, faster and faster, blurring into each other, drawing the whiteness around him more and more tightly.
Wrapping him in a shroud.
#I think this probably means he doesn't want visitors!# Madelyne snarled.
#No, really? Would you please just shut up?#
Of all the things Madelyne had expected to find when she'd followed Stryfe into Nathan's mind - protesting all the way - a raging blizzard hadn't been anywhere near the top of the list. Or on the list, to be perfectly honest. Since the beginning of this second life of hers, she'd invaded enough minds to know the many variations subconscious defenses could take, but she'd still been caught off guard. This was. . .a little more energetic than she was used to seeing.
She could feel the cold, the wind battering at her, even though she was in purely astral form, and not making any attempt to sustain the semblance of physicality. *His ground, his rules. . .* she reminded herself, another surge of fear almost swamping her at the thought. Why had she let herself get drawn into this? It was stupid, worse than stupid. . .
But she hadn't been about to let Stryfe wander around on his own in Nathan's mind, either. Not that she particularly cared what happened to him, but she couldn't have trusted him to be here alone. There just hadn't been any way she'd have let him do that, not even if preventing it involved insane risks on her part.
The blizzard hadn't been the first thing they'd encountered. Once they'd pierced the citadel's shields - not as hard in astral form as she'd expected it to be, after her experience in Akkaba; Stryfe had muttered something about 'flonqing remnant links' and 'holding the door for you', when she'd asked - they'd found Nathan's mind easily enough. Too easily. His mind shouldn't have been blazing with enough power to make it the equivalent of a small nova on the astral plane. Too much power for any mind to hold for long before it began to disintegrate under the stress. . .
But in a sense, the blizzard was better than the blank white nothingness into which they'd first emerged. It showed he was aware of their presence in some way, aware enough and intact enough to fight them. A good sign, but if he kept this up, when his mind was this badly damaged, he'd be using up the very strength he needed to keep himself intact.
There was only one answer, really, as much as she hated the thought of it now that she was here, inside his mind, feeling his pain. . .
#Stryfe!# She could still sense him, but couldn't see him. Couldn't see ANYTHING, to be perfectly honest. #Stryfe, we have to back off!# This couldn't end any way but badly if they kept pushing.
#Leave if you want,# his voice came back to her, harsh and uncompromising. #I don't care.#
#And leave you alone in here?# she demanded. Damn it, she'd drag him out by his figurative hair if he didn't listen to her. . .
The answering sarcasm was half-hearted, at best. #Why, Madelyne, I'm touched.#
Her precarious hold on her temper slipped. #Shut the hell up! I don't trust you!#
She cried out as something reached out and grabbed her, seizing her entire mind in a crushing grip. #Let me put this politely,# Stryfe snarled venomously. #I don't flonqing well care whether you trust me or not, you dead hag!#
Madelyne concentrated, frantically, and managed to slip his grasp. She sensed his amazement, and couldn't help a flash of bleak amusement. #I told you that you didn't understand all the potential of this form yet,# she hissed back at him. Even considering where they were, and what was at stake, she wasn't inclined to let him get away with anything. Give a man an inch and he took a mile. #Friendly warning. Don't try that again, BOY.#
His presence was pulsing, sullenly, at the edges of her perception. #I won't leave,# he shot back, finally. #Not until I do what I've come here to do, Madelyne, and I WON'T let you stop me.#
#What is it with you? You can't be so determined to help him that you'll sacrifice yourself!# He couldn't. It didn't make any sense. Stryfe and Nathan HATED each other.
#You don't know WHAT I want!# he blazed. #You don't know anything about what's really going on, why I'm doing any of this, mother dearest, so don't even try!#
#Stryfe, wait. . .# She could feel him pushing onwards fiercely, plowing through the storm. #Stryfe!#
#Either help me or leave, Madelyne!#
#There's got to be a better way to do this!#
#Well, if you have any suggestions, just. . .# Curses in some strange, gutteral language erupted in her mind, and Madelyne threw up all her shields, following him.
#What is it?#
The cursing stopped. #I seem to have just hit a wall,# Stryfe responded acidly.
Apocalypse stared at the console before him, watching the readouts that displayed Dayspring's vital signs. So far, they were within an acceptable range, but the procedure was barely twenty-five percent complete.
There was still a very long way to go. . .for more than simply the procedure.
Apocalypse suppressed a surge of annoyance, with some difficulty. Far too much time wasted, he thought, almost angrily. For the past hour, he had been reflecting on the events of the day, and was finding himself growingly unable to deny the fact that he had been failing in a very fundamental way with Cable over the past three months.
It had seemed so simple at first. Alter his memories, shatter any loyalty to the X-Men or the Askani, and lure him into his service. The highly ambiguous nature of Cable's feelings towards his 'family' should have smoothed the process, if anything. . .
But it hadn't. Instead, he'd found himself dealing with a highly unstable paladin driven almost entirely by rage and pain, tottering on the edge of madness. Today's foolishness had been merely the latest manifestation of that truth.
So much emotion. . .he hadn't expected it, hadn't truly known how to cope with it. It had been a very long time since he had encountered such raw emotion. Such dark passion for destruction.
As dangerous as it was, it was also oddly alluring. To be able to channel that, to bend that raging will to his own ends, without breaking it. . .
Had that not been the aim all along? Apocalypse allowed himself a humorless smile. It had, but he had not. . .what was the phrase, followed through? He had taken purpose away from a man to whom purpose had been more than life itself, and done very little to replace it. Their 'philosophical discussions' may have engaged Cable's mind, but they had not reached him on an elemental level.
That would change.
He glanced over at the pod, and the still form barely visible within. The healer stood over the pod, some instrument pressed down against the slick techno-organic surface. Scowling, Apocalypse noticed impassively.
"Neural activity is erratic, but still at the same levels it was before we began the procedure." So far, was the unspoken corollary.
"Alert me to any changes," Apocalypse said impassively.
"Yes, my lord."
He drifted, weightless, floating in the emptiness. The shroud wrapped him so tightly that he couldn't move, could barely breathe. But he didn't struggle. No point in that. . .
He was dead. All that was left to do was bury him.
"Nothing else?" The voice was soft, strangely resonant. Sound where there shouldn't be sound, he thought, vaguely regretful. He'd liked the quiet.
Something nudged him, gently, and he drifted slowly upright, staring silently into the green eyes meeting his. "Only that?" she asked softly. Her red hair seemed to blaze. Her smile was thin, almost ghostly.
Maybe he would have answered her, if he'd had a voice to do it with. If he hadn't known, known beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if he tried to speak all he'd hear would be silence.
You didn't scream in a tomb, anyway. It would drive you mad, and even the dead could be mad, he knew that now. Because madness wasn't pain, it was emptiness.
"Bury you?" she asked, whimsically. "Cover you up, hide your shame. . ." She leaned in closer. Something pressed against his chest, something that grew sharper with every bit of additional pressure.
He looked down. Saw the knife, shining silver against white.
"Wouldn't you rather go out in a blaze of glory? Wasn't that the point?"
The knife broke the skin. No pain. He watched the drops of blood float outwards. Just a few, perfect spheres of blood, crimson like her hair as she faded away. . .
Color draining out of them as they drifted away. Crimson to white, reflecting. . .reflecting. . .
A face. Not his face, but like his face.
A boy's face, eyes wide with shock. Light draining away. . .
He screamed. He didn't mean to, he knew he wouldn't hear it, but he screamed, and the silence echoed back to him, battering at him as he ripped free of the shroud. . .
And fell, weightless no more.
#There's no way through. There's no way THROUGH, stab his eyes!#
Madelyne's whole astral form shuddered at the tortured scream. #Stryfe, stop it!# she projected sharply, appalled by the raging torrent of emotions she sensed from him. #Stryfe!#
#NATHAN!# She could SEE him finally, a blazing golden presence in the snow, pulsing frantically as he hammered at the barrier they'd so suddenly encountered. #You coward! You pitiful flonqing COWARD!#
If anything, the blizzard's howl grew fiercer. Madelyne, half-fearful, half-furious, reached out to him, not quite sure what she intended to do. #Stryfe, calm down. . .#
#Is this how it ends, Nathan? Weak, you were always so WEAK! Why don't you just kneel at his feet and offer him your throat like a good, submissive dog!#
#STOP IT!# Madelyne lashed out instinctively, and then recoiled in shock as the attack actually connected. Hadn't he been shielding? #Stryfe. . .I didn't mean. . .#
#Let go of me!# he snarled shakily, pulling away from her, pain reverberating out at her as she tried to link with him, to see how much damage she'd done. #You don't UNDERSTAND! I'll kill him first, Madelyne, I swear it. . .#
There was a rumble in the distance, a sound like distant thunder, and Madelyne pushed away from Stryfe, seeking the source of the noise frantically.
It was all symbols, after all, and storms within a mind tended to have nasty implications. . .
There was a wall of darkness rolling right at them, a seething mass of shadow too huge for her mind to truly register its size, utterly destroying any sense of perspective she had, here. . .
Tendrils snaked out ahead of the leading edge, sinuous, beckoning.
#NATHAN! Let me in, you piece of Askani trash, or I swear, I'll. . .#
#Huff and puff and blow his house down?# Madelyne snarled, reaching out and forcing Stryfe to look around, to see death rolling towards them like some immense storm. #If that hits us, we're GONE, do you understand that? Whatever Apocalypse is doing, it's tearing his mind apart!#
#Don't you think I KNOW that? NATHAN!# Stryfe threw himself against the barrier again, tearing at it vainly. #Stop cowering in a corner and FACE me, Dayspring!#
#Stryfe, there's no more time!#
He was right, she didn't understand. But it didn't matter.
Lashing out again, this time with grim purpose, she caught him off-guard, the single blow driving his mind down into unconsciousness. Snatching him up in a frantic grip, she threw herself upwards, out of Nathan's mind, like a diver running out of air and frantically swimming towards the surface, towards the light. . .
He fell. . .
. . .and fell. . .
. . .and fell. . .
. . .until he landed, almost gently, on his feet.
It wasn't ground, beneath his feet, but a smooth, white surface. Like glass, and just as fragile. The sky was still blank white, and he couldn't seem to see a horizon, no matter how hard he looked.
"It all comes down to point of view, doesn't it?"
The boy. Smiling, peaceful, all in white. He folded his hands in front of him, like a child getting ready to pray. The white streak in his hair was almost glowing, and the eyes that were mirrors of his own were filled with a calm, serene. . .something that was only there on the surface. Beneath. . .Bright Lady, beneath. . .
"It does." The words came out before he could stop himself, and he heard them this time, heard the harshness of his voice, scraping across the peaceful silence like a rough blade. He almost expected the air to bleed.
The boy smiled. There was something very different about him. Something that hadn't been there, before. "But sometimes it doesn't," he said, his voice perfectly level. "Sometimes it looks the same no matter what direction you're coming from."
"I know." Distance didn't work. Not now, not anymore. He felt his throat tighten, his eyes fill with humiliating tears. "I can't. . .I can't make it go away. I tried to run. . ."
"You can only run for so long. Aren't you tired?" The boy smiled. So kindly.
No fear, no anger. . .
. . .no blame.
The tears escaped, floating into the air instead of down his face, glowing silver spheres, surfaces like mirrors. Everything was reflected in those mirrors, pain and blood and betrayal and failure, everything he'd been running from. . .
And the other side of it, too. The side he knew was there, when he let himself see it. The pain and the love and the loss. The other truth. The one he couldn't reach, no matter how hard he tried.
The life he'd lost. The one that had been. . .taken from him. The one he might have had back, if he'd just trusted, made that last leap of faith, reached beyond the pain. . .
Instead, there had been blood, and death, all his fault, and now there was no going back. Not for him.
The boy reached out, took his arm. "Come on," he said encouragingly. "I want to show you something."
They walked. For a moment, or forever. No way to tell distance, not here, not until they were standing at the edge of a precipice he hadn't even known was there. White glass gave way to a vast stretch of open air, and as he looked down, his mind recoiled from the contrast.
Down, down, at the very bottom of the chasm, was a river. Black water, against the white, so black it hurt his eyes. . .but not darkness, not really.
There were stars flowing through the river. A river of stars, he thought, something hard and knotted within him unclenching at the sight.
It was beautiful.
"Isn't it?" the boy asked with another smile. "And it's always been here, you know. Waiting. You never HAD to go back, Nathan."
Dizziness swept over him for a moment. Hadn't he been here before? Been here, standing at the edge, and fought to stay on this side, on solid ground. . .
"Yes, you were. And look at what happened," the boy said, sorrowfully.
What had happened. . .
"You don't want that to happen again, do you?"
Never. . .never again. . .no more blood on his hands, please. . .
"You can be clean. You can wash it all away."
He turned, meeting the boy's eyes.
"Clean. . ."
Clean. . .
"Don't you want to be clean?"
More tears, dancing in the air between them. "Yes," he breathed, his voice breaking. "More than anything."
"Then you know what you have to do."
He turned back to the chasm, slowly, almost entranced by the boy's soft voice.
"So easy. All you have to do is let go. No more blood, no more pain."
He spread his arms wide.
No more tears.
"I know what I have to do," he murmured.
And stepped forward.
There was no fear, no panic. Not even the sensation of falling.
No impact, but an embrace, as the river of stars folded around him almost tenderly, and carried him away.
"The procedure is complete, my lord."
Apocalypse nodded, and gestured the pod open. Dayspring laid there in the neuro-conductive gel, pale and unmoving, but breathing. "His condition?" he asked the healer sharply, not liking this uncanny stillness, considering Dayspring's reaction to the first procedure.
"Apparently stable," the healer said, and Apocalypse grimaced slightly at the unguarded relief in the healer's voice. The healer made a pass over Dayspring with one of his instruments, and blinked. "His neural activity. . .is actually less erratic than it was. I didn't expect that."
"No further neural damage?" Apocalypse asked, studying his paladin's face almost uneasily. There was something different here, he was sure of it. Something in his expression, perhaps. . .?
"Not that I can tell. We won't be certain until he regains consciousness, of course."
"Of course," Apocalypse murmured, realizing what it was. Cable looked almost at peace.
The thought was curiously disturbing.
Outside the citadel, on what had been a battlefield so short a time before, Madelyne Pryor fell to her knees beside Stryfe, sprawled unmoving in the snow, and screamed in anguish, her cry rocking the astral plane.
"Nathan. . ."
Sam Guthrie brushed the back of his hand across his eyes quickly, almost brutally, to wipe the tears away as he watched Hank work frantically over Domino's battered form.
"Nathan. . ." she moaned again. She wasn't conscious. . .couldn't be conscious, with her injuries. "No. . .Nathan. . ."
He looked up, and met Jean's tear-filled green eyes. Her mouth moved silently for a moment, and then she looked back down at Domino, reaching out and laying her hands on Dom's temples.
"Stay with us," she whispered, tears spilling down her face. "Please. . ."
Stay with us. . .
"Nathan. . .no. . ." Domino's feverish voice was louder, and Sam wasn't the only one in the plane who looked away, trying vainly to hide from the anguish that darkened the air. "Please. . ."
Try as he might, Sam couldn't stop himself from silently echoing that plea.
Please. . .please. . . He didn't know who he was pleading with, what he wanted. . .
He only knew that someone had to be listening. Didn't they? It couldn't end like this, not like this.
Please. . .
So much simpler, now. Everything was clear-cut, black and white. No shades of. . .gray. . .
Laughter echoed across the dark, barren mindscape, cold, careless laughter like an arctic wind. Puns will be the death of me yet. . .
He reached out, measuringly, feeling the border between consciousness and unconsciousness, sleep and wakefulness. It was delicate, easily enough broken if he chose to break it.
Did he want to wake up? Maybe not quite yet.
Maybe he'd revel in the quiet, for a few minutes or a few eternities. Everything was calm, orderly shadows. No voices where there shouldn't be voices, no flashes of memories or emotions that didn't agree with what he knew was true, the cold, vivid, undeniable evidence of how he had been used, and manipulated, and almost broken by those he had called friends. Those he had loved.
A shiver of rage shook the ground, like an earthquake barely held in check. No. He would not lose control. He would not forget, or forgive, but he would not lose control.
They would never hurt him again. They had no claim on him, no hold on his soul anymore. . .
They had nothing. He had nothing. There was a delightful symmetry about it, really. . .
The laughter escaped again, wild, bitter mirth that seized him despite his resolve and dragged him out of the shadows.
He opened his eyes, blinking a little dazedly. The surface beneath him was hard and cold. . .a floor?
There were enormous, blue-armored legs beside him. Cable blinked at them, and then smiled, almost lazily.
"Those boots are indeed made for walking," he quipped, and started to laugh again, laughter that was immediately cut off as Apocalypse reached down, hauling him up off the floor and then flinging him backwards.
He was airborne for a few seconds before the stunning impact with the floor. Coughing, he pushed himself back up, managing a wheezing laugh as Apocalypse strode towards him, expression thunderous, steps shaking the floor like thunder.
"S-Someone's in a bad mood. . ."
He'd actually said 'silence'. Talk about your cliched dialogue. Cable opened his mouth to point that out, but choked on the words as Apocalypse seized him by the throat, lifting him off his feet.
"Have I wasted all this time, with you?" the High Lord demanded furiously.
"E-Eyeblink for you," Cable managed to rasp, mockingly.
Apocalypse hurled him to the floor, and Cable grunted with pain at the impact. It was real pain, at least. He almost welcomed it. Better than that phantom agony he'd felt before, every minute of every day since he'd woken in the citadel in Akkaba.
He wasn't sure what had killed his demons, but they were gone, and it felt so. . .flonqing. . .GOOD to be empty. He looked up at Apocalypse, unable to help the smile, the challenge in his voice as he forced the words out past the pain in his chest.
"I. . .never asked, you k-know. Whether. . .I was your personal reclamation project or n-not. Doesn't make much. . .sense, if I am."
"Reclamation project?" Apocalypse asked, almost coldly.
"Why. . not k-kill me?" What an inviting thought. If Apocalypse had just DONE that, to begin with, he wouldn't have. . .wouldn't have. . .Cable swallowed past an acid taste. "Manipulative. . .bastard," he snarled, dragging himself to his feet and glaring at Apocalypse. "You w-want to use. . .me too, don't you?"
A massive fist lashed out at him, catching him head-on, ribs breaking under the impact as he was throw backwards again. Harder to get up, this time, but he forced himself to do it anyway.
"We are all used," Apocalypse said, his voice curiously distant as Cable forced himself to straighten, his head swimming and the taste of blood thick at the back of his throat. "By purposes greater than ourselves. . .fate, if you prefer the illusion. Freedom is an inherent falsehood. A lie one tells to oneself for comfort."
"Save the flonqing. . .philosophy!"
"Oh, I intend to save it," Apocalypse said softly. "For a time when you are more prepared to listen."
"Flonq you!" Cable snarled feverishly, backing away as Apocalypse advanced on him. "You think I'm going to listen to you? My m-mind is clear for the first time in months, you m-motherless. . .flonq! I'm not going. . .to be SEDUCED into s-signing over my soul to you, just because you're handy!"
"I do not want your soul," Apocalypse said, even more quietly, if that thunderous voice could ever be said to be quiet. "Assuming you are even in possession of such a thing, any longer. . ."
Cable laughed hoarsely, clutching at his side as pain stabbed across his chest. Oath, this hurt. His vision kept going in and out, darkening at the edges. "I wouldn't talk, Nur, I really wouldn't. . ."
He was on the floor again, before he registered the blow. Coughing weakly, he spat blood onto the smooth stone, gasping for air between coughs.
"I do not ask for gratitude," Apocalypse said implacably, standing over him. "Or affection, for that matter. But I will have respect from you, Nathan Dayspring."
"R-Respect?" he wheezed. "Or f-fear?"
"Is there a difference?" He was dragged up off the ground again, Apocalypse holding him negligently by the front of the black skinsuit. Cable opened his mouth to answer, and Apocalypse shook him. Not as hard as he could have, but enough to rattle his teeth in his head. "I am tired of the flippancy, Nathan, and I am not accustomed to wasting my time and energy. It angers me." Cable spat a few Askani profanities at him, and Apocalypse shook his head slowly. "What do you want?" he asked, those indescribable eyes boring into Cable's, almost mesmerizing.
Want. . .even with Apocalypse's grip half-choking him, Cable managed to laugh. What did he want, what was his heart's desire. . .what a question. What a beautiful flonqing question. Where was he supposed to start?
He wanted to be able to decide what he wanted, without his bitch of a sister or any of her flunkies looking over his shoulder. . .
He wanted to rip the lies away, and show the world what his precious 'family' really stood for. He wanted to rub their noses in it, drown them in their own filth, their own self-delusion. . .
He still hated enough to want them dead, every single one of them. But he wasn't going to sacrifice anything to see that happen. Not the tiniest fragment of himself, not even to see them bleed and suffer and die screaming for his forgiveness. . .
He wanted to be able to watch, and laugh.
Blinking rapidly as blood dripped into his eyes from somewhere, Cable looked up at Apocalypse, and smiled as broadly as he could.
"A. . .burger," he whispered, as if he was confiding the meaning of life to the glowering High Lord. "W-With an. . order of fries."
Apocalypse's expression didn't change. "You are trying my patience."
"Indeed," Apocalypse murmured, a flash of something. . .amusement?. . .crossing his features. "Tell me, Cable. Why are you not fighting back?"
Good question. Why wasn't he fighting back? "Not w-worth. . .the effort," Cable jeered weakly.
Apocalypse smiled faintly. "An admirable display of bravado. A serious answer, if you would?"
"Won't. . .d-do their dirty work. . .won't even TRY!" Cable spat as vehemently as he could. "Put me. . .d-down!"
"I do not believe that is what you truly want," Apocalypse almost whispered, leaning closer, too close, until that monstrous face was right there in front of his. "I believe you want something else. I see a yearning in your eyes, Askani'son. . ."
Something struck him in the chest, something heavy and cold. Numbness, at first, and then pain, indescribable, white-hot pain. . .
All he could see was Apocalypse's face.
"Perhaps I should have ended it from the beginning," the External said, his voice quiet. Distant, so distant. . .
Cable felt himself falling, the pain surging into towering agony as Apocalypse let go of him and he slid to the floor, a distinct, horrible sound filling his ears.
Metal grating on bone.
He stared up through a rapidly narrowing tunnel, watching Apocalypse casually reshaped the blood-covered blade back into his left hand.
Couldn't breathe. . .
"This is what you wished, is it not? Was it not the desire for death I saw in your eyes, Nathan Summers?"
He could hear his own heart. Wasn't that odd, that it was still beating? Not very well, though. Still, terribly sloppy of Apocalypse to have missed his mark like that. . .
. . .no. . .
. . .NO!
Choking on blood, reaching down to a reserve of strength he didn't know he had possessed, Cable clawed his way to his hands and knees, his hand going in an involuntary gesture to put pressure on the wound.
Not. . .good, what he could feel there. . .
"N-No. . ." He could barely manage the word.
"No?" Apocalypse inquired. So very casually. "You do not wish to die?"
He tried to repeat the word, but didn't have any voice left. Somehow, he found the ability to shake his head.
"How very interesting."
How very surreal, more like it. The bastard had just stabbed him through the chest, and they were having a one-side conversation about his heart's desire while he was bleeding all over the floor. Cute. Very cute.
Cable swallowed painfully. Even that took effort, far too much effort. Raising his head slowly, laboriously, he stared up into Apocalypse's questioning gaze.
"You wish to live?" Apocalypse asked, almost indifferently. "Even after what you have lost. . .or done?"
Nate. Just the thought of the boy sparked rage, incredibly enough, that chased away the darkness, just for a moment, as he remembered the kid tearing into his mind, looking for. . .for what? Just looking, maybe. Invading his mind, causing him pain. . .enough to warrant killing him?
Maybe. . .maybe pain was its own justification. That made as much sense as anything else. . .
Flonq Nate Grey, anyway.
"Y-Yes," Cable gritted out.
He wanted to live. He wasn't done yet, he wasn't beaten.
He wouldn't give them the satisfaction.
With that thought, the darkness reached up and tugged him downwards, too strong to hold off any longer. Distantly, he felt himself slumping forward, towards the ground. . .
. . .felt himself caught, lifted in unyielding cold arms. "Then you shall," Apocalypse's voice came to him from somewhere very far away. "Long past time you made that decision, Dayspring."
Long past time. . .more than enough paid. . .
to be continued. . .
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